Sunday, August 23, 2015

How to train for an ultra relay

The 1st place bling plus Ultra Medal
This was a dilemma for me as when i first started training again with Ragnar in mind, i was limited to running every other day at best. The foot and #4%#$ plantar fascitis really limited what sort of running I could do. For a regular ragnar race, I've generally thought it's best to be trained to run a half marathon. For an ultra? Well, it makes sense to be trained to do a marathon.

I finally settled on trying the FIRST running plan which has just 3 run days per week and solid cross training. And? It worked to some extent but I quickly got annoyed by having to run 3 hard workouts and that was it. The three workouts were speed, tempo and a long run. The speed workout was much faster than I would ever run (based on a race pace), the tempo run was typically easier and the long run was much faster than i would run at that pace. I dunno. it just didn't quite work for me and I was getting slower and slower and more and more discouraged.

So, I bailed on that. Fortunately the foot was getting better and allowing more running so I cautiously was able to add in a fourth day of running. Don't get me wrong, I still got in solid long runs and usually an 8-9 mile medium long run mid-week. Pace work? Not so much. And then I was able to add in a fifth day of running. Instead of purely focusing on long runs, I did back to back longer runs. At peak week, i was able to hit 50 miles and ran 14 miles/13 miles on back to back days. Also key as i was worried about heat training, I ran home one day (7 miles) in temps in the high 80s and then ran a longer mid-week the next morning.

Just in time for the race, I felt like I was finally coming into the training groove and building fitness. And even better, the cortisone shot that I'd had 6 weeks prior had worked. No pain. At all. I've still been diligent about calf stretching/rolling out and some hip/glute exercises as well as wearing proper footwear at all times.  If I'd had another month, I feel like could've gotten a lot faster but going into
the relay, i was happy that I'd done what I needed to do.

As usual with captaining, I didn't really get a chance to look at what legs i'd assigned myself or think too much about what I needed to do as a runner! This always happens and I'm ok with it! It keeps me distracted and excited about the race without being too anxious about my running. Finally I got a chance to think about distances, the course, timing and fueling.  And I'd chosen my legs for a reason. 12.4 miles in the middle of the day with heat probable. 13.8 miles right at dusk with hopefully moderating temperatures. 7.6 miles right around dawn. Less than 8 miles for the last leg even though hilly would be key. I was most worried about a death march finish.

First leg: We stayed right even with Van 1 from the regular team as I'd expected. That was really fun but as I'd been worried about introduced an element of competition I didn't want. I really didn't care nor know who would come out first and it didn't matter. It was more important for runners to run what they needed to run to be smart. I'd also assigned myself (hey captain's prerogative) legs from the first van. I've been in Van 2 since captaining and was looking forward to some different scenery.  So I started running around noon. Do i ever run in the middle of the day? Never! So that's weird to begin with, it was bright and so sunny plus very warm in the sun.  I'd hoped to be overall around 9:30 pace and as I expected I set off running faster than that and really had to control my pace the first few miles. That is a good sign though! As a team, we were still a bit inexperienced supporting an ultra team and I'd only asked for water support around the half way mark. Big mistake! It was so warm that by mile 4, even though i was carrying a 10 ounce water bottle, i'd run out. This was where having the other van was really helpful. I was able to get water from them, twice!

Once through the exchange at 5.8, i started getting very warm and the course would make turns that would put me directly into what felt like a fierce hot wind. This was where my pace started to slow and I realized I needed to be smart to finish this well. I started getting shivery and my hamstrings started feeling oddly quivery. Now these are all very clear signs for me that I am too hot! I had planned ahead and taken electrolyte capsules as well as 2 gels plus the water meant I made it through in 9:47 pace. My conservative estimate for what I'd run was 9:45 so I was right where I'd hoped to be even with heat. As soon as I stopped running, i started guzzling water. It still took me a number of hours to hydrate enough to pee.

Interlude: And this was where we realized that as an ultra team, we really needed to be checking on runners more often. We also really didn't need to go into the exchanges when we weren't handing off runners so that gave us more flexibility in supporting. We'd managed to get a bigger rental van as well and could actually have someone stretch out in the very back row. I still didn't manage to actually sleep during the event but it was nice to lie down and not think a couple times. Others in our van really were able to sleep at least some so that was a bonus.

Second Leg: After running what I felt was a slow pace for my first leg, I was quite nervous going into my second leg. I figured I'd be as slow if not slower. However even though i was running my second half marathon (13.8 miles) i was starting at around 8:30 pm. Sunset is around 9 pm and it felt significantly cooler plus this leg was flat. Skagit Flats flat so I mean flat! And without even thinking about it I did a second mile in under 9 minutes (with a bit of downhill assist) and realized that teh heat had played a bit part in the first leg. I stayed very strong through most of the leg with a little bit of mind wandering towards the end. I still needed water, electrolyes and gels. By this time, we'd learned to support runners about every 4 miles so I had plenty of support. The last mile got very tough as it was through some busy traffic, annoying sidewalks with a lot of runners walking about. Still I was delighted and ran a strong 9:35 pace. Excellent!

Interlude: Generally after about an hour after running their legs, a runner would need to take a rest break in the back of the van. Don't forget that the van as a whole is continuing on supporting their runner. I knew that it was going to get tough in the middle of the night as more of the van would want to sleep. We needed to have a driver and someone awake who could navigate. Ragnar requires that at least one other person in the van besides the driver be awake. There had been a course change this year which meant the runner who runs across Deception Pass had a very long leg of 10 miles. but for the ultra team, the leg coupled with this one also got lengthened so that runner 5 in our van was running 18.6 miles in the middle of the night. it's also very hard for the van to stay focused if one runner is out for a long time running. So I knew this would be a tough leg for runner support too. Fortunately LMA was having a great and much faster run than expected and I was able to manage staying awake to support. It helped that it was just a beautiful night with just a hint of chill. perfect for running and not too bad for not running either.

Third leg:7.7 miles at 6:40 am? Perfect! This is the usual time I am running. Just having it get light (sunrise 5:30) means you automatically get a bit of a boost. Under 8 miles and I'd be done. I can do this! It didn't seem like the legs were too sure of this but the only thing to do would be start running and see what happened. I felt like the first half mile (slightly uphill) was some sort of comical cartoon like look of the legs frantically moving yet not actually moving forward. Eventually, it got better. I'd never been along these roads and it was just beautiful which helped make up for the horrible "goat hill" bumps in the road. Straight up. Unfortuately the van had parked there to give me water so i felt like i had to run it. Ha.  This is the leg that runs into Coupeville High School and last year there had been a major course change which added on distance by taking runner off on a long detour away from the exchange. Even though I knew this added mileage was coming it was still brutally hard. At this point the sun was up and it was getting hot. My feet were complaining  (two toenails lost on this leg) and I just wanted to be done. The only thing was to endure and keep moving. 9:34 pace and that was much better than I expected.

Interlude: It got very warm. So warm that we did hear about emergency services responding to runners down. We took supporting our runners very seriously at this point and had no problems.  it had been very hard to predict what time we would finish. I set very conservative times for everyone and mostly those times got beaten. I could not believe it when we ended up finishing in just under 28 hours (just under a 9 flat pace). There were 42 finishing ultra teams (501 regular teams) and because we were a men's masters team, we finished first in our division. Yes, we were the only team in our division!

Would I do this again? As we were in teh middle of the race, I am not sure. As I've had some time to think about it, definitely yes. With some caveats! I'd like to be better trained. I feel like I just had the bare minimum miles to be able to complete this race. I'd really love to have a dedicated driver. One other person who could drive and be awake would take a lot of pressure off all runners. I'd rethink how i packed for an ultra too. As we never had any downtime, the van immediately got trashed and it got very difficult to find items.  I think using multiple smaller bags would be easier. I'd also skip having a cooler for everyone and bring a soft sided cooler with just my items. I think that would be easier to access.