This question is from one my very special ultramarathoners:
In watching the leaders at my recent 50 miler, I always get amazed at their abilities to run up the hills. I can run up hills and so can everyone else, but nobody runs up those hills. Even most of the front runners walk some of them but not the top three probably. The winner, Anton Krupick, passed me at my 3:45 and his 2:45. He politely said thank you for letting him pass and moved on up the trail with “ease”. How is this? How can a person just truck along up these 8+ mile steep hills without flinching? He got the course record with a finish of 6:30 something. I read that he runs 200 miles a week or so and much of that is without shoes. I also read that he is plagued with injuries much of the time and has not raced for over a year. I suppose 50 miles isn’t so bad when you already run 30 a day but it is an interesting question anyway which I am sure you have a wonderful comment about. What stops an “average” athlete from attain to such a level of finishing a marathon in 2:25 or a 50 miler in 6:30. Genetics, training, desire, time, courage, beastlyness, etc.
Jason – you ask some really great questions here. I’ll do my best to answer them with one caveat: we have to realize that there is no single answer or secret.You actually make several points that need addressing.
If we all compared ourselves to an Olympic or elite level runner we are going to be left wondering a whole bunch of things. Let’s keep this all in perspective. How many billions of people in the world are there? How many millions of runners are there? How many of them prepare for an ultramarathon and never make it to the start or never finish the race? How many thousands of ultramarathoners are there? How many can run 50 (or more) miles at sub-8 minute miles on killer trails and mountains like Anton Krupick? How many others can run 50 miles at 5:49/mile on the roads like Don Ritchie has?
Lesson: There are always some runners who will be able to physically and or mentally endure more than someone else. Even in like-trained individuals. Genetics set our ceiling limits. The good news is that we’ll never know what they really are; though they are there. So, we can continue to push ourselves to get as close as possible to that unknown limit.
There is very little written with scientific backing for training for ultra-distance racing. What exists are many MANY anecdotal tales of how to train. There are some studies on endurance athletes of course. But, consider how generalizable a study is if it is only on a runner who does six minute miles for 50 miles. We know the science and the adaptations the body makes through training. But the specific effects of any workout or series of workouts is not the same in every individual on racing outcomes. That is where the art of coaching comes into play. A coach (or runner if they are self-coached) must blend what is known about science to optimize the individual. The wrong direction to take is jumping on the bandwagon of: if-he-does-200-miles-and-is-successful-then-it-must-be-because-he-does-200-mile-so-I-will-do-it kind of thinking. The science could easily argue that he could possibly be even faster if he did some other kind of training on less miles! We’ll never know of course. As for running hills; we do know good hill runners run hills in training.
Lesson: Know yourself and do not follow blindly what others do in training. Besides in the end you’ll just be asking why you do the same training as so-and-so and you’re not faster than them OR you’ll see the next guy or gal up in front of you wondering why you’re not as fast as them. (Guess what – the corollary is that there is someone behind YOU asking the same question about YOU… how can you run that fast that far!?)
Your comment on Krupick’s injuries (though just anecdotal) is not surprising at all. Barefoot or not, 200 miles a week is a physically punishing undertaking. By the way, where does he find the time?
Lesson: Mileage (next to previous injury history) is the number one correlated training element to incidents of injuries. More miles yield more injuries, and likelihood of injuries.
We very often have skewed perceptions of effort of running. Some people display their pain clearly on their faces and others stoically look impervious to discomfort of any kind. How is it that the winner of the Boston marathon or Olympic marathon looks “great” while the very next person can look like death warmed over?
Lesson: Winners feel pain like everyone else. It could be personality at play or mental toughness that they may or may not show it. It could be the adrenalin from the excitement of “winning” or “leading” or “having a great day” that overrides the pain and discomfort. And certainly the better shape you are in the less discomfort you will feel. However, if you push the limits of what your training prepared you to do… you will suffer. Just keep smiling so that everyone else thinks you’re doing it effortlessly! (…especially the guy or gal right behind you… it’ll psych them out.)