In this long post I explain five keys to running, swimming, and cycling long distances successfully.
First, everything is relative. I’m an endurance athlete in the context of a relatively sedentary populace. Ultra runners, swimmers, and cyclists would laugh at my training log and chuckle at my definition of going long—a marathon, a 4k swim, 100+ miles on the bike, a half ironman.
Ultra athletes are a different breed. I don’t aspire to run 50 or 100 kilometers or miles, swim 10k, ride my mountain bike for 24 hours, or complete an ironperson. I won’t rule anything out, but at present, all my synapses are firing just fine.
Second, I’m no spring chicken, more a fall fowl, and not physically gifted, so I don’t think of success like an elite athlete who asks, “Did I win, was as I top three, did I set a personal record?” I’ve plateaued as a runner and swimmer and almost as a cyclist so I don’t expect to set many more personal records.
I define success as: 1) finishing the long distance event feeling as if my training paid off and I couldn’t have gone any faster. 2) Finishing feeling like I raced intelligently and spread my effort out evenly. 3) Finishing having left darn near everything on the course, but not being so depleted I feel weighted down with negative associations about the event. And 4) finishing with an even deeper appreciation for my health, my friends, and nature.
For me, the keys to that type of success are five-fold: 1) train consistently, and for a length of time, and with a degree of seriousness, that parallels the length and difficulty of the event; 2) shortly before the event, assess my fitness in as objective a manner as possible; 3) based upon that self-assessment, devise a plan that will enable me to race evenly and maximize the fitness I’ve achieved through training; 4) right before the event, adjust that plan based upon atmospheric conditions; and 5) be disciplined in executing the plan.
To make this less abstract, let me illustrate each of these keys using last week’s RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day, 146 miles, skipped the Crystal Mountain climb, 6,720’ of climbing, 18.1 mph) as a frame of reference.
A quick tangent first though. There’s a breed of long distance athlete that I marvel at every year during RAMROD. These are people of widely differing body types that don’t think the ride is hard enough as designed so they ride it in wools socks up to their knees, with mountain bike shorts flapping in the wind, while simultaneously loading their bikes down with every accessory known to humankind—racks, lights, bags, flowers, kitchen sinks. Most amazingly, these hardcore athletes choose to ride it alone, foregoing the considerable savings drafting provides. Wonder if they bother inflating their tires to maximum pressure? Where does this line of thinking lead, “I know, maybe this ride will be even more difficult if my break pads are rubbing.”
I appreciate different body types and personal idiosyncrasies, but my assumption is the event is damn difficult enough and even if I go in lean and mean, ride as light and aerodynamic a bike as possible, and shamelessly draft on the flats, I’m still going to be completely shelled at the end.
Back to regular programming. Key to success number one: train consistently for a length of time and with a degree of seriousness that parallels the length and degree of difficulty of the event. While this seems obvious, lots of people, maybe inspired by the 44th president of the U.S., approach long distance events with the audacity of hope. There is some truth to the notion of good and bad days, but you can’t finesse a ride around Mount Rainier. All the hope (and change) won’t help you a lick if you hit the base of Cayuse without a sufficient training base.
What’s a sufficient training base? At minimum, strive to exceed the event’s total distance in as many of the 10-12 weeks leading up to the event as possible. Also pay closer than normal attention to eating healthily, getting adequate sleep, and incorporating rest days after especially hard efforts.
Key two: pre-event objectively assess your fitness level. Granted, the term “objective self assessment” may be an oxymoron. How exactly does one objectively assess their level of fitness? By keeping a training log and studying workout data in a historical context. The keys are monthly/seasonal volume (total miles) combined with times for selected workouts whether mile repeats on the track, a standard run or bike course, a 10 mile or 40k bike time trial.
Going into RAMROD, I had to decide whether my fitness level was worse, the same as previous years, or better. Obviously, if the same, I could adopt the same type of plan, if worse, I’d have to craft a more conservative game plan, if better, I could plan to ride a tad more aggressively.
Given my off and on summer teaching schedule, I didn’t have the consistency between weeks I would have liked. I also only had one hard effort of climbing way back in late-May on Mount St. Helens and only one 100-mile effort in mid-June. On the other hand, my May/June totals were solid, I had been going very hard on race team training rides twice a week, and Monday night my Garmin confirmed that I was strong in a short, solo, very hot tune-up. In the end, I decided I was in average mid-summer RAMROD fitness, which means probably as fit as I’ll be all year. As a result, I planned on approaching the ride the same way as the last few years.
Key three: based upon the fitness self-assessment, devise a plan that will enable me to race evenly and maximize the fitness I’ve achieved through training. Related to this, knowing the course is probably deserving of “key” status itself.
For example, there are three distinct segments within RAMROD. The first is miles 0-60 from Enumclaw High School to the Nisqually Gate of Mount Rainier. The air is cool, the terrain is forgiving, and everything is right in the world. You have to get to the gate looking and feeling like you could ride a hella hilly century with absolutely no problem. The second is miles 60 and somewhere between 105 and 110. This segment mostly involves about 7,000 feet of very beautiful, unrelenting climbing. This one-third of the course requires about two-thirds of the total effort expended. The final 45 miles are all downhill, the first 10 wonderfully severe. The gently downhill final 35 are almost always into a headwind.
So my default RAMROD plan is to stay completely within myself for the first three hours to the gate. This is the non-negotiable foundation on which the rest of the day hinges. The secret to implementing this part of the plan is knowing my “all day” pace that I can maintain solo and in a group for long periods of time. My RAMROD numbers were 18 and 20-21. I spend the first three hours mostly riding past slower cyclists, but importantly, letting faster ones go. Other elements of the segment one plan include drinking early and often, skipping the 33-mile food break, and being careful to stay within my “steady” zone up the gentle climb to Ashford and the real start at the Nisqually gate.
What’s most essential in segment two is settling into a sustainable rhythm. This is where I take what my body gives me based upon my “perceived rate of exertion.” Other riders’ pacing is totally irrelevant. Related to this concept, Gordo Byrn (if a triathlete, see his co-authored book, Going Long) employs a wonderfully simple and effective four-part “easy, steady, mod-hard, hard” framework. I do long climbs in what might be referred to as upper-mod-hard zone. The toughest RAMROD climb last Thursday, Cayuse, was especially tough because of above average heat. Often I flirted with tipping into “hard” and backed off by sitting on the wheel of slower climbers for a minute or so when I’d come up on them.
The essence of RAMROD is climbing. I really enjoy the challenge of sustaining a mod-hard effort for an hour. Totally in the present, and when all is going well, slowly bridging from rider to rider, exploring what exactly is sustainable on this day on this mountain at this hour and this minute and this second.
The litmus test of whether I’ve settled into a mod-hard, but sustainable rhythm is whether I can finish the climb without stopping (or falling over). My guess is I was one of the few people who rode from Packwood at mile 78 to the top of Cayuse at 102 (where I was shaking, nauseous, and in pretty bad shape). That was one advantage of being a bandit, I didn’t want to stop in part because I didn’t want to tap the event’s resources.
The segment three plan is to once again work together with other cyclists of similar ability to negate the headwind. Notice the symmetry. This year, Lance and I left the Crystal Mountain deli stop as the same time as a group of four. I said to Lance, “Let’s see if they’re a decent match.” Turned out, they were perfect. We were averaging 22-23 and they were taking 2-3 mile turns at the front. After my first two-mile turn at the front, I waited for Lance to pull through, waited, waited, he had fallen off the back and I hadn’t realized it.
Why did Lance fall off when he’s as strong or stronger than me? Because somewhere around mile 35, our third friend, Alberto, whose “all day” numbers are probably 20 and 22-23mph, went off the front of a solid group of about 20-25 riders that were humming along at 20-21mph. Because Lance is a young thoroughbred who can’t help himself, he decided to bridge up to him. If we were early in a race team training ride, I would have applauded the bold move, but since we were riding around Mount Rainier in above average heat, I had a sinking feeling, thinking it would make for a much more difficult afternoon. Unfortunately, I was right.
It’s understandable to think that 2mph is relatively inconsequential but it represents a world of difference when on the course all day. It’s like 30 seconds per mile in a marathon. Doesn’t seem like much, but multiplied by 26, it adds up to a sizeable difference. In a marathon, going even 10 seconds a mile too fast over the first half or three-quarters, inevitably leads to a slower finishing time. In a day-long cycling event, going a few mph too fast over the first half inevitably leads to a slower finishing time.
Key four: right before the event, adjust that plan based upon atmospheric conditions. Enough said. I failed to do this in the Boston Massacre Marathon in 2005 and ran my slowest marathon ever. We knew Thursday afternoon was going to be hotter than normal. The adjustments I had wanted to make included starting earlier, minimize time spent off the bike, get over Cayuse in the a.m., ride even more conservatively over the first three hours. My mental cues included: Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly. Meanwhile, Lance’s mental cues appeared to be Bill Ayers, Al Franken, and Keith Olberman. The adjustments didn’t go exactly as planned and I crested the top of Cayuse at 12:11p.m.
Key five: be disciplined in executing the plan. This takes practice. Experience is the best teacher.
My hope is something in this description of my mental approach supplements what you’re learning from experience and contributes in some small way to even more success in long distance events.
Not tan, but rested and ready