Elite 50k Runners – So Easy

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.)


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to Elite 50k Runners – So Easy

  1. run4change says:

    You know, as I read the part where you said,

    “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!?”

    I remember a comment I got during the 50 miler. This lady said to me about me, “see they (meaning the fast people) DO walk up the hills!!!” Then she cussed in joy knowing that she was not the only one walking. It is a matter of perspective. To her it looked like it was easy for me whereas I was having a freakin tough time.

    One thing I know for sure though, and that is that I am sticking to your coaching plan because it works fantastic for me. Thanks!!

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Your comment is so welcomed… I’m so glad you heard that… it makes such a good point.

    By the way… I’m one of those people looking at people like you and just shake my head… you do things I never was able to do… I’ll stick to coaching ultras and living vicariously… thanks.

  3. Greg says:

    Well, the point is (and it has been partially made here), never mind what others do, in training or in races. Concentrate on yourself and perform to the best of your abilities. Who cares if “they” run up hills or don’t or you run up hills or don’t. At the end what counts is who crossed the finish line first (or if you met your individual, realistic goal for that particular event).

    I understand that one wants to compare him/herself with the top of the top and undoubtedly there are some lessons to be learned from. Yet, never forget that training and racing performance depends on many factors that are highly individual (amongst them usually overlooked mental factors).

    I think the way to go is, analyze yourself, try to find your strengths and weaknesses and build an approach around that. Realistic goals (milestones and ultimate) are also something to take into account.

    If you are weak on hills, emphasize hills and compliment it with strength training for the particular muscle groups used on hills.

    Advancement comes from the quality of training done, not the sheer quantity. The latter usually leads to unnecessarily heightened levers of fatigue, which in turn prolongs recovery and ultimately substantially elevates the risk of injury.

    Have fun.

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