It’s been a minute; let’s talk about a trail race I just did and the low volume I used to perform well. First: the bragging:
Finished 3rd in my age group, 8th overall for the men and 10th overall for the field. This means top third and quarter, respectively, on less than an hour a week of running on average. How did I do it?
I’ve had on again off again talks with Andrew Magness about this stuff for a while now and after a disappointing Turkey Trot last November, decided I needed a goal to weaponize my endurance efforts. I eventually settled on the J & J Trail Running Reunion, which offered an incredibly supported event in a supremely rugged setting. It was also the USATF 100k National Championship so I’d get to see some really fast individuals.
Having read Andrew’s book numerous times and combed over his guides, I settled on the following schedule:
- Monday: Strength Training
- Wednesday/Thursday: HIIT (no more than 15 minutes)
- Saturday: Long intervals/Time Trials/”Long” Runs
This was made in February before the birth of my 3rd son so I was flexible to changing the structure. Total time invested would average less than an hour every 4 weeks, though some weeks would be longer overall. This is in line with what Eric Orton suggested for 2 runs a week:
And then a follow on comment:
Understand this is not Eric *endorsing* what I was doing, not that I needed his permission, but rather than when you have a limited amount of time the most powerful use of your time is going to be Threshold work and interval/”VO2″ work.
Leading up to this effort, my running had largely been a 6 mile loop in my greater neighborhood once per week, with the occasional interval session. It was all done by feel and was focused on just running “easy.” There was no objective pacing, it was all RPE. As a result, my early fitness assessment as per VDOT was 40. This is not absolutely correct as my VO2max has been measured higher on numerous occasions but for the sake of progression I decided to use VDOT as a means of measuring performance improvement using a test I would not be practicing: the 2 mile time trial.
Why 2 miles? Well according to a podcast I had listened to from Rogue Running, the coaches like using the 2 mile because that’s about where the “inflection point” occurs and lactate really ramps up. Basically a good glimpse into aerobic function.
Objective Data & Progress
There is a YMCA right around the corner from my house, so I established a 2 mile time trial an extracted base paces from the VDOT calculator for my Baseline workouts. In addition to these workouts (which would repeat approximately every 4th week), I had time trial efforts that were outside and subject to environmental factors. I was attempting to run them as fast as comfortable, looking to get some of the skill training for the rugged race while also doing longer efforts. The challenge quickly became the environment as my time trials were flat owing to the increasing Texas heat. Going out at 6:30am for a 7 mile run around Town Lake Trail with the temperature already at 80*F is not a recipe for a PR. That said seeing my paces matching as fast as I’d remembered going around the trail in spite the increasing temperatures was promising. Plus I chalked up the experience as “heat acclimation training” and carried on.
The workouts at the YMCA were followed by time in a dry sauna to further the heat acclimation. I could not spend the sheer volume of time in the sauna as research suggests would help but I could spend time in there after every workout, thus accumulating adaptation over time. As I did not seem to suffer in the heat beyond lots of sweating, it seems to have worked.
About a third of the way through my extremely long training block, I retested my 2 mile time trial and now had a VDOT of 44. Progress!
Incremental Gains & Mental Fatigue
Of course the easier gains were over but they still came none the less. The challenge became actually getting my workouts in due to my better half going back to work and having to manage the schedules of my children. Some weeks my mid-week HIIT workouts was skipped and my weekend workouts had to shift from time trial toward more structured work i.e. 45 minutes at X pace. These workouts are actually a little harder to wrap my head around: shorter workouts at HARD but brief; the longer time trials allow you to settle into a fast pace which offers a lagging indicator of fitness improvements over time. The middle pace workouts are just chugging at threshold with no break or ability to undulate pace.
At this point I did my only really “long run”: a 10 mile trail run on super technical terrain the Barton Creek greenbelt here in Austin. I felt fit and fast; trails play to my natural fast twitch springiness where I’m always dancing along the terrain. I finished faster than my running partner by 5+ minutes. He’s finished 10k’s faster than I have, so that was super confidence boosting.
By the end of the training block I was just kind of hanging on to fitness. One particularly down day I jumped on the treadmill and rifled off a 5:36 mile which going by this sweat science article means that going that fast outside would have been easier. I followed that up with a 2 mile time trial a week later that had me scoring a 48+ on the VDOT scale. I was fitter and faster than I had been in my entire life but would it be enough to do well at this race?
Trail Race Weekend
The weekend of the race was HOT. It was over 80*F near the start of the race and just got hotter. Here are some random notes:
- The trails make you slow: Andrew Magness is right that the longer the race, the slower the pace. Add to that the trail itself and the nature of the terrain and I was not at any point near my lactate threshold pace.
- Trail runners are tons of fun: super chatty individuals who want to talk as they run to help pass the time but also because of the above. You’re moving fast for the terrain but you can still communicate.
- Get ready for isolation: once you’re in the middle of the race, you’re likely alone. I was running with folks the first 4.5 miles and then ran the next 11 without any human, save for those I passed who were running the 50 mile or 100k. I found myself singing John Mayer’s “Gravity” as I ran downhill, let our random primal screams, and had conversations with the idea of the ghost of my mother in my head while also disavowing the idea that I was talking to anyone other than myself.
- Meet the Central Governor: about 11 miles into the race, I found the strange sensation of fatigue in my legs outstripping my heart rate. Compound that with the fact that I had NO IDEA how much longer I had to go and you get the desire to slow down. The 50-something year old who finished ahead of me had run the race before, so he knew where he could push and where to back off. I was running blind and that lack of awareness demonstrated an intense desire to take it easy. At this point I was having to negotiate on the uphill portions, using tactics like “Run 2 markers, walk 1” and the like to move forward and then…
- The Mile 12 Hill: Fuck this guy; I could only laugh and remind myself that no one was going to deliver me but me:
- The example for your children: As I was coming into the home stretch, I picked up the pace as my 4 year old started running beside me to the finish. He had given me 1 piece of advice before the race: “Daddy, just run as fast as I do.” So of course he asked as I ran down the chute toward the finish: “Did you run as fast as I did?” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that, but I sure tried.
- The Letdown: I sat there holding my youngest son after the race and became quite emotional. I thanked my wife for generally dealing with me shortly before reality set in: the baby was upset, Sarah went *somewhere* and my two older boys were wearing helmets and throwing balls at their heads. My feet were bruised from hitting rocks and my legs wiped out from running for as long as I had ever run but in that moment, the is-ness washed over me in an awesome wave.
So what now?
Am I a trail runner who goes out every weekend now? Nope. Do I have confidence in knowing that I can tackle goal and perform reasonably well given my time investment? Yes. Do I have confidence that I could run even further? Absolutely. That was earned and cannot be taken.
Aside: I now understand why lots of addicts are runners. Never mind the actual physical endocannabinoid addiction mitigation function of running. The psychological value of running away from something is very real. This was something I could control in a sea of so many things in my life that I only have loose control of or zero control of but are a part of.
The past 4 years of my life saw much joy and hardship: a business partnership fell to pieces, more children means less control, we started a business my taking on 100,000+ dollars of debt on top of all of the debt from school and my attempt to switch careers…in short I felt tossed about in a storm on a daily basis. Anxiety all the way down.
This race came right at the end of the repayment of the business load, my children are a bit older and more predictable, my thought processes around parenting are better, I spend more energy working on my marriage and my relationship with my wife, it turns out I’m a very good trainer and a decent (to improving) business owner, to name a few. This race represented a controlled version of life: you’re undertrained to believe you can do the task well and yet somehow in the throws you deliver yourself through it all any way.