Two things are prompting me to reflect on what makes the training and execution of an ultra-distance trail race smart instead of foolish: one, today marks my one-year anniversary of finishing the Wasatch Front 100-mile race, a poorly executed suffer-fest that I learned a lot from; and two, I recently listened to an interview with Tim Tollefson about his textbook-worthy training and pacing of the August 26 105-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Tim’s first 100-miler.
As detailed in a race report titled “Stupid Me,” I entered Wasatch undertrained and ill prepared. By contrast, I trained and prepared meticulously for the Western States 100—learning from the Wasatch mistakes—and had a much better outcome.
As I listened to Tim’s recent interview on UltraRunnerPodcast.com, I took notes because so many of his soundbites articulate what I would advise for a successful 100-mile race, and they provide lessons worth following for ultrarunners of all levels.
I hope you’ll click here to listen to the whole episode, but meanwhile, the notes on training and racing tips follow. Consider it a followup to the post I wrote in 2014, “How to Plan and Run a Successful First-Time 100-Mile Ultra,” but you can apply the advice to any ultra distance.
For context, Tim is a 31-year-old Nike-sponsored runner from Mammoth Lakes who came on the ultra scene exactly two years ago, in the fall of 2014, with wins at two 50Ks and then a top-10 finish at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler. He continued to race and place exceptionally well at 50Ks and 50-milers in 2015 and early 2016, and placed second last year at the 101K (62 mile) CCC, the sister race to UTMB. But he had a miserable race at the 125K (77 mile) Transgrancanaria in March of this year, where he death-marched to 101st place but stubbornly finished instead of dropping.
With some 2300 runners and more than 32,000 feet of climbing, the UTMB 170K (105 mile) is the biggest, one of the toughest and arguably the most competitive race of its kind, a huge international stage on which to make a 100-mile debut and take a shot at a top finish.
In spite of never running close to 100 miles before, and in spite of having his longest prior race—the 125K in March—nearly break his desire to run ultras, Tim ran such a strong and positive 105 miles at UTMB that he came from behind to place third overall in 22:30, just four minutes behind second-place Gediminas Grinius and 30 minutes behind winner Ludovic Pommeret.
So, what can we learn from his performance?
1. Choose a race that deeply inspires you. Pick a route and destination that you truly feel excited about, especially if you’re debuting at a new, challenging distance. Don’t sign up simply because the event is convenient or your friends are doing it. Tim chose UTMB because he had done the shorter version of it, the 101K CCC, the year prior and loved those mountain vistas. He yearned to return to that destination. He explained his decision to make UTMB his first 100 this way: “If I’m going to spend that much time running or doing something, I might as well enjoy the environment I’m in. It had to be in the mountains. … That, to me, is more exciting than just running around scrub oak.”
2. Set tiered and process-oriented goals, with the base goal being “just finish.” Tim trained as best he could, as if he were a podium contender, but he did not expect or stress out about making the podium. Rather, he set his base goal as “just finish” and had a stretch goal of a top-10 place. His main goals, however, concerned the process—that is, the execution of the race—more than the outcome of what his time or place would be. He focused on the goals of starting conservatively, running his own race at his own pace, and saving his legs to finish strong—and no matter what, barring injury, finishing.
3. Research the course and get as much info as possible from those who’ve run it. Run parts of the route (as Tim did the prior year through the CCC race), research it in depth, pick the brains of those who’ve raced it, and study their splits if you want to emulate their pace and performance. If it’s a destination race, then arrive many days early to acclimate to the environment. Tim did that by spending time on the course with a UTMB founder and multi-year finisher, Topher Gaylord, and by talking to his teammate David Laney, who finished UTMB third last year (and fourth this year, behind Tim).
4. Study the final stretch of the race and train repeatedly on a segment that mimics it. The final stretch of UTMB sounds to me like the final stretch of the very tough Ohlone 50K: a sharp and seemingly endless downhill plunge, followed by a long flat stretch to the finish. Transitioning from a punishing downhill on tired legs to a flat stretch at the end of a race is super challenging but gets better with practice. Tim simulated the UTMB final stretch on a similar mountain next to a road in his hometown of Mammoth, so when he reached that point near the end of the race, he felt confident that he was prepared to run it hard. “I was like, ‘Man, this is just exactly what I prepared for,'” he said to himself in the final miles.
5. Like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time, approach the start with eagerness and wonder. For those of us who race ultras repeatedly, the process can start to feel routine. Or the miles ahead can spark anxiety and fear. Try to imagine you’re a beginner getting to do something fun, or getting to visit a special place, for the first time. You’d be thinking, “How cool is this?!” That’s the mindset you want to adopt at the start of an ultra, and what Tim was able to do at UTMB. “My stress level was zero” at the start, he said. “My final text to my coach [Mario Fraioli] was, ‘There’s not an ounce of fear; pure excitement, ready to go’ … pure excitement to see what the course would throw at us.”
6. Start smart and run your own race. Like many, Tim has started marathons and ultras too fast and sabotaged his race. UTMB has a crazy-fast start, and Tim could have run sub-6-minute miles for the first portion. He thought about how much he had put into training and traveling to this race, and he was determined not to blow it with a fast start. He wanted to find and maintain his “forever” pace—a conversational, sustainable pace—and “hike early and hike often” to keep his legs fresh for the final stretch of the course. This was easier said than done, because everyone around him ran so fast and charged up the short hills in the early miles. When Tim reached those hills, he said, “I decided I’m gonna start hiking and practice saving my energy, knowing I wanted to close hard. I know the later part of the course, and it’s such a tough 50K to finish this race. If I could get to that point in one piece, then hopefully I could attack.” But it was difficult to hike early, because he was running with another top runner, “and as I started hiking, he’s probably thinking, ‘This guy’s out of shape.’ But it was a conscious effort to instill, ‘Run your own race.’ Who cares about what others think of you or what others are doing around you? Do what you need to do.”
7. Break the distance into chunks or phases. After the first 50K, Tim thought, “I feel OK now, but I have 70 more miles. How the hell are we going to do this? Then I started breaking it into smaller chunks; let’s think about, ‘When are you going to see your crew next? In 20 more miles—so let’s focus on that.'” This tactic is essential for ultras. At the Hardrock 100, runners focus on getting up and down one summit at a time, rather than thinking about the route’s string of a dozen peaks that climb 12,000 to 14,000 feet. At Western States 100, many runners break the route into sections, each with its own distinct characteristics (e.g., the canyons portion). Focus on and get through each part separately, and once you’re through, mentally hit your imaginary reset button and try to start the next one fresh.
8. During low points, view your competitors as your friends or helpers. Running alone during an ultra, when the pack is spread out, it’s easy to lose focus and fall into a negative headspace. Then, if another runner approaches you from behind, you may feel frustrated that someone else is closing the gap and will pass you. At that moment, try to shift your mindset to gratitude that this person is coming into your space, and treat him or her like a friend who’s there to motivate you and pull you along. Tim did that midway through UTMB, during one of the few low points when he struggled with fatigue and doubt in the nighttime darkness. Suddenly another competitor caught up to him. “He was moving a lot better than I was at that point, and I latched onto him,” Tim said. “Running with him for a while was a huge help, because had I continued to be alone, then I easily could have faltered and kind of slipped down into self-demise. Following this competitor really was emotionally uplifting.”
9. Approaching the finish, don’t push too hard too soon. The only thing worse than blowing up mid-race—perhaps by seizing up with a debilitating cramp, or hitting the wall from a severe bonk brought on by low blood sugar—is blowing up near the finish, with only a short distance left to go. This can happen while approaching the finish line if you decide to close the gap on someone or speed up to make a certain finishing time. You push to run at your maximum effort level, as if you’re doing a 1200 meter VO2max interval—but the problem is, you still have a mile or more left to go. You’re hyperventilating and/or cramping while lactic acid likely floods your legs, and it’s not sustainable, so your dream finish turns into a nightmare. Tim almost fell into this trap toward the end when he started leapfrogging another competitor. “As we started that climb, I started battling it out with a guy I had just passed, and he passed me back, and I realized that if I battle with him now, I’m not going to make it to the finish line. I’m gonna blow a gasket,” he said. “So at that point, I consciously let him go”—and eventually reeled him back in to pass him.
10. Choose your races carefully, let yourself recover from them and don’t over-race. A lot of people expect Tim to show up and race The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler in early December, another marquee event with red-hot competition. He’s probably won’t, however, because he really wants to recover fully from UTMB and then enjoy the fall XC season with some short races. “My goal in my career is to be sustainable,” he said. “I love running too much to compromise my health or my ability to compete.” To avoid being a one-year wonder, he said he’ll work on saying “no” to some races and try not to get sucked into Fear Of Missing Out.
Toward the end of the interview, Tim was asked what he learned from the UTMB experience. His answer echoes what I learned at Western States 100, when I met my goal by closing out the race with a strong finish and passing others: “That it’s more enjoyable to do a race and try to finish strong, versus go out hard and try to hang on.”
Many thanks to Tim and Eric Schranz for an informative and inspiring UltraRunnerPodcast interview.
For some excellent photos of Tim racing UTMB, check out his Instagram account.
For more on what UTMB and CCC are all about, and the three top Americans who raced there last year and this year (Tim, David Laney, Zach Miller), watch this film, one of my favorite short films by Billy Yang.