Pikes Peak Double: initial thoughts on race strategy

My final race strategy won’t be set until the days before the Pikes Peak, but I couldn’t help thinking a little about the strategy now.  It’s important to at least get a sense of the strategy early on, so I can make sure my training is appropriate.  It’s hard to have success racing in a way that I haven’t trained.

This will be my first ever race that covers more than a day.  The Ascent is on Saturday, and the full marathon is on Sunday.

One key “strategic” decision is how aggressive I am on the Ascent.  The tradeoffs are pretty simple:

  • If I go too hard on the Ascent, I leave myself comprimised at the starting line of the marathon.  Except for an injury, this is probably the worst thing that could happen to me.
  • If I go too easy on the Ascent, I may not achieve the time goals I’ve (tentatively) set for myself.

If I show up on the marathon starting line with more energy and strength in the tank than I expected, that would not be a big problem–I could easily use that extra energy on day two by pushing a bit harder.  As of now, I’m thinking I will err on the side of being conservative on the Ascent.  The race doesn’t start until somewhere between Barr Camp and the A-Frame anyway (about 7-10 miles in), so I will probably take it easy until then and decide how hard to go at that point.

In order to be successful in the double, I need to develop these areas of fitness:

  • Aerobic fitness.  This race is an exercise in patience.  I need to be as fast as possible at relatively low intensity.  This is why I continue to focus on MAF training.
  • Strength.  Strength is especially important here considering the terrain and course profile.  Strength will help me run with good form and will help me run faster at lower intensities.  This year I’m putting more of an emphasis on strength than ever.  Hopefully it will help.
  • Lactate threshold (for lack of a better term).  This is the ability to maintain a higher intensity over time.  I haven’t focused much on this, but it’s huge once you get into higher intensity racing.
  • Recovery.  If I improve my ability to recover, I gain the ability to push harder on the Ascent with the expectation that I’ll be able to recover after it’s over.

Based on these, my schedule is starting to look like a lot of back-to-back hard days.  It turns into a weekly schedule that’s something like 2 hard days, 1 easy day, 3 hard days, one easy day, etc.  If I can stack my hard days, I’ll develop that ability to recover.  For now, though, I’m continuing to focus on aerobic fitness and strength.  I’ll begin to add the hard workouts in about 4 weeks.

I don’t see myself doing too much speedwork.  At this point, I don’t think I have the time.  It’s one of many regrets that I have about my (lack of) preparation during the past 6 months.

One other note on something that was successful for me at last Pikes Peak.  I must have read the course description about 75 times.  It resulted in a simple mantra that captured everything I needed to remember.  It went like this:

smart – strong – tough

Smart represents the start to Barr Camp.  I have to be smart about how I use my energy.  Run patiently.  I expect the race to be crowded, and I don’t want to waste a lot of energy passing people down in the lower parts.

Strong represents Barr Camp to A Frame.  The race gets harder during that stretch and being strong means maintaining my form and pace despite the increase in difficulty.  During this stretch I expect people to start coming back to me.  I won’t necessarily increase my pace, but maintaining during a harder stretch is almost like increasing.

Tough represents A Frame to the top.  In 2010, I had no idea what to expect during this stretch, except for huge challenges.  During this stretch, I might have a chance if I match the toughness of the mountain.

At the end of the day, I just want to perform honorably on the mountain.  I want to perform in a way that I can feel like I deserved to be up there.  That I prepared and performed in a way that didn’t let the beauty and challenge of Pikes Peak down.   That doesn’t just happen on race day; it happens every single day leading up to it.



Overview of 2012 training plan (at least, what I know today)

It’s always a bit daunting to think about the training plan for a full year.  What follows is my best attempt at it, as of now.

This is probably a bit of a ramble; I hope to get it more clear over time as I learn more.

The first question to answer is the goal.  Right now I’m pretty settled on attempting the Pikes Peak double on August 18-19.  So that goal will drive the training for the next 6 months.  Beyond that, I’m thinking about a 50 miler in the fall.  I haven’t picked that yet, but I think training for the double will be a good start towards training for the 50 miler.

From here on out, I actually wrote this post backwards.  That is, I started at my race date and worked my way back through the months.  I’m going to use terminology that is based on Renato Canova, mostly because it makes a little sense to me.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this.  In fact, my previous attempts at periodization have been pretty lame.  Now that I understand it better, I’m going to really give it a shot.  I know it can help.

February-April (~8 weeks):  Fundamental phase.  In this phase I plan to do a lot of aerobic intensity runs, ride my bike, and do short but intense workouts that focus on running form and strength.  I need to be careful, however, that I don’t over cook it as I return from this bad foot.  The idea here is to build aerobic fitness and start to build strength.

April-May (~8 weeks):  Special phase.  In this phase I plan to raise the intensity of my long runs, start running longer tempo.  One big thing I’ll be watching during this phase is how much my speed drops off as I start to extend hard efforts for longer and longer distances.

June-July (~8 weeks):  Specific phase.  In this phase I plan to dial up some very intense workouts that simulate race experience.  My running will focus on long runs and tempo runs.  I plan to sprinkle lots of hills in, and run tempo days before long days, to get a feel for what it will be like to go out and run with intensity on two straight days.  One workout that I’ve been cooking up for this phase:  13 HR-governed miles on a treadmill at 12-15% grade, then go right outside and run another 9 on flats as a progression run.  This is a great example of a workout that simulates a lot of what I’ll experience at Pikes Peak.  Perhaps it’s too hard.  I will need to be careful.

Late July – August:  Taper and race.

My 2012 training will be different from prior years in some very specific ways:

  • More workouts.  In prior years I’ve basically worked out 5 days a week and taken 2 off.  This time around I plan to work out on more than 5 days per week.  Hopefully 7 days per week.
  • More targeted workouts.  This includes lower intensity as well as more specific tempo runs and hill work.
  • More strength work.  This includes outdoor stuff at my house (splitting wood, moving rocks) and work at the gym.
  • More cross training, especially bike riding, jump rope, rowing and swimming
  • Experimenting with two-a-days, which I haven’t done since I was training for triathlons in the late ’90s

My new job will entail some travel.  I find that to be both bad and good.  The bad is that it can disrupt the schedule.  This is especially true for the long cross country flights I will need to take from time to time.  The good is that it offers opportunities to vary the training and alone time to focus on it.  As an example, next week I’ll be traveling a bit.  I’ve already been thinking about a double on one or two days, since I won’t be home and since I’ll probably miss a day or two with flying.  I’ve already purchased my jump rope which I view as a hugely important piece of my travel gear.

I’m looking forward to the year.

One thing I learned about periodization is that it’s almost like you’re using each phase to get ready for the next phase.  You’re building up so you can handle the rigors of the next phase.  This year’s plan is very different from previous years for me.  Hopefully it will work or I can adjust as I go.

Friday Hill Running

Covered 12 miles today, basically a long hill repeat workout.  Total time 1 hr, 48 minutes.

The workout was 3 x down then up a 1.5 mile hill.  Each down/up repeat was 3 miles total.  The hill itself gains (or loses) 630 feet in elevation over the 1.5 miles.  The average grade is 7.7%.

In 2010, one of my key workouts in preparation for Pikes Peak was 8 x down then up this hill.  It was boring, but it was the best way I could simulate the effects of running that much uphill and downhill.  Today was only 3 repeats; I expect to increase the number of repeats over time.

Today’s focus was on keeping my HR in the 142-145 range.  It was an interesting experience.  I found myself working to keep my HR in range on the downhills.  It felt awkward and I felt uncoordinated.  On the uphills, it was more difficult to control my HR, and I had to hold back a bit to keep my HR in range.  I’m hoping that my downhill running will become more smooth and coordinated over time and that the uphill will become easier.

The workout was pretty consistent.

Downhill                      Uphill

10.11 (avg 144)            17.48  (avg 146)

10.22 (avg 143)           17.50  (avg 145)

10.28 (avg 145)           17.40  (avg 147)

I was feeling fatigue at the end of the third repeat so I decided to call it a day.  Following a couple days of hard workouts, I didn’t want to end up feeling so bad that I miss tomorrow’s workout.  Right now consistency is more important than high mileage.

I’m definitely planning to do this workout over the next 3-6 months, increasing the number of repeats.

I found my mind wandering a lot during this run.  I kept coming back to periodization.  I’m extremely interested in periodization for Pikes Peak, and I’m realizing that I know almost nothing about it.  I think it can really help me.  I’ve been listening to the Endurance Planet “Ask the Ultrarunner” podcast, and I’m keen to learn more about periodization.  I think I’m going to use the Feynman Technique to attempt to learn periodization.  Look for more on that in future posts.

Right now my sense of the periodization is that it’s almost like dialing in your pace from two sides.  One side is the high intensity/short distance side, where you work at high intensity for short distances in an effort to improve strength and speed.  As your race approaches, you try to maintain that speed over longer distances.  The other side is the low intensity / long distance side.  From here you attempt to maintain your intensity but increase your speed.  Eventually these two sides converge and you get to a pace and distance that is very specific to your race.  This is probably a really bad way to explain this.  I need to keep working it.

I’m also on the hunt for a GPS watch.  I’ll probably wait until spring to get this, maybe consider it something that I need to earn.  If I do well in training over the next 3 months, I may splurge on something as a reward.  Interested in anyone’s thoughts on a good GPS.

On a completely unrelated note, I’m watching a lot of NBA since the season started.  I have to say that the packed schedule has been really good.  It’s nice to see so many games and having all these games is going to be a very different challenge for most teams.  The ability of NBA players to recover could be a major factor in who wins and loses this year.  And Blake Griffin is an animal.  I just saw him dunk over someone and his chest was at the level of the rim.  It was amazing.

The worst ways to improve your running, and how to avoid them

“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.”   — Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

Trial and error sucks as a training strategy.  You have about a 50% chance of improving, and you’re just as likely to get injured as to see dramatic success.  Chasing the latest fad or training idea is not the path to improvement.

The other end of the spectrum – stagnation – doesn’t work as a training strategy either.  Improving or succeeding requires getting out of your comfort zone, taking some risk.

Breakthrough running improvements require the right blend of new training with what’s worked for you in the past.

But how do you find the right blend?  How do you determine what elements of your training to keep?  How do you find the right new training ideas to try?

Runner – know thyself.

Success requires insight.  Developing insight enables you to walk the line between the scattershot of a trial and error strategy and the stagnation of a stay-the-course (change nothing) strategy.  Insight guides your decisions on what to keep, what to change, and what to try.

It’s easy to get overloaded with statistics, data, and information.  You can check your GPS, heart rate monitor, and watch for performance data.  You can track eating habits, nutrition labels, weight, and body fat percentage.  I even found an iPad app to track the time I spend sleeping.

Insight is more than all of this – it’s cutting through the data and information clutter to identify what really matters.  Developing insight requires analyzing the data to identify relevant trends, root causes, and levers that affect your performance.  The quality of your insights influences your probability of success more than any single element of training.

Getting to know yourself

Are you a left brain person or a right brain person?  Conventional wisdom suggests that left-brainers are more logical and analytical, whereas right-brainers are more creative and expressive.  Tap both sides of your brain to develop a great set of insights – it requires critical analysis and creative thinking.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Check your aim.  Re-orient yourself to your goal.  Your goal may be simple, such as maintaining your fitness.  Or it could be a far-reaching BHAG.  Regardless, reminding yourself of the original goal sets the frame for your insights.
  • Crunch the numbers.  A training log has mostly facts and statistics.  But the facts are a good place to start – review the past 12-18 months of data that you capture.  Do you see any trends?  Any recurring patterns?  If you don’t track any data, start a training log.
  • Consider the context.  Review your life and work situation to identify considerations or constraints.  How have life events affected the quantity and quality of your training?  Is work more or less busy?  Have you been traveling?  Are you under more stress?  Less stress?  Sometimes the most useful insights come from unexpected areas.
  • Chunk it up.  It’s hard to develop insights by looking at the big picture.  So break out and review each individual aspect of your training.  Review your workouts, your nutrition, rest and recovery separately.  What do you notice?  Are you satisfied with each individual aspect?  Or are one or more aspects lagging?
  • Look for cause and effect.  Try to uncover root causes for what you see in the numbers.  Do the trends make sense?  If your numbers are improving, what’s driving the improvement?  If they’re the same or worse, is there a reason?
  • Analyze your target.  If your goal involves a specific target race, review the course description, elevation map, and general race information.  Does the course present a challenge that you need to factor into your training?  Will it be extremely hilly or flat?  Are you running at altitude?  Will you be used to the expected temperature?
  • Take a test.  Running a test race is a great way to gather valuable information about your fitness.  If your goal involves a specific target race, look for a course that closely resembles your target race.  Test races (or test training runs) provide a virtual lab environment that you can use to develop insights.
  • Follow your instinct.  Your gut instinct and feelings are good sources for insight, especially if you are an experienced runner.  What have you been feeling lately?  After each workout, consider writing a quick thought on how your workout went.  These individual data points will become valuable as you analyze them in combination over longer periods of time.
  • Ask “what if…?”.  Sprinkle in at least one new idea that could improve your running performance.  New ideas expand your thinking and keep your training fresh.  What if you were to add a new type of workout?  What if you were to stretch after each long run?  Could you envision a different set of outcomes?

The process of developing insights is not sequential.  The intent is to learn something new and meaningful.  You may need to triangulate multiple data points and iterate several times before you discover the compelling insights.  Spend the time; it’s worthwhile.  You know you’re finished when you say “wow, I never realized…”.

A final note of caution

The process of developing insight is difficult.  If you dig deep enough, you may uncover information that you’d rather not see, or you may be tempted to beat yourself up over what you find.  Try to remain honest, objective, and free of judgement.  The goal is to inform and guide your future training, not to flog yourself over events of the past.

While insight is an essential input to a training strategy, it’s not a “once and done” proposition.  Regularly refreshing your insights is the best way to make sure that your training is on track and your running is improving.  So get started today!

And let me know what you think.  Did this post help you discover something that surprised you?  What worked for you in developing insights?  You can post a comment or send me an email.