by Kevin Setnes
It is generally assumed that most ultrarunners have some kind of pre-determined strategy when they run an ultra. The strategy can be as simple as going out at a planned pace, or stopping for two minutes at each aid station and holding that pace all the way to the finish line. Another strategy may involve tactical positioning relative to your opponents position in the race. Other strategies are closely tied to cutoff times, which will decide whether or not you continue the run or must, unfortunate as it may seem, withdraw from the event.
Whatever your strategy, a well planned one can make the difference between finishing the race or winning your age group, and having to drop out or finishing well back of your competitors.
A sound strategy, one that will best fit your abilities against the course and conditions, is as important as any other aspect of race preparation, whether it be physical conditioning, mental readiness or knowledge and experience. It is this final aspect (knowledge and experience) that will help in preparing a strategy to help you achieve your goal.
Any coach will tell you that before developing a race strategy, a goal must be established. That goal must be well thought out and realistically achievable. The goal of many ultrarunners is to simply finish the distance. To others it is achieving a certain time or place. Multiple goals are not uncommon and are actually what most people have in mind when entering an event. Prioritizing these goals is essential when developing a strategy.
If you are a relative newcomer to ultrarunning, the distances involved are probably still quite intimidating. Don't worry, for most experienced veterans are still wary of the distances involved. The difference is, they control the nervous tension with respect for the distance first, and control second. That control is in knowing what they are going to do once the starting gun fires. Later, it is in knowing what to expect when things get difficult. They will know how to react to the fatigue and pain. Should conditions change, they will be more apt to change the strategy if that is what is needed.
With all the pre-race preparations out of the way, the focus prior to the start should be on what you are going to do right out of the gate. Watching the first few miles of any ultra, on the surface, appears to have very little to do with what will transpire later on in the race, when the miles begin to challenge runners. What you are actually witnessing is a combination of well-planned race strategies that will work; and conversely, races being thrown away right from the start.
The first part of your strategy is to start out correctly so as not to upset your overall strategy. An aggressive start will take a runner clear of the field, or well ahead of his or her fellow competitors. It is a high risk strategy that will fail for most who try it.
Attacking an ultra or trying to steal an event is an aggressive strategy that rarely works. Most fast starts are simply reckless, and usually mean trouble for the runner attempting it. There are runners however, that will use it to get to the narrow trail ahead of the pack. That runner may then dictate the pace for some of the pack. The influence on other runners is one area where aggressive starting strategies may work.
Eric Clifton, Mike Morton and Courtney Campbell, a trio of well-known Eastern runners, deploy this aggressive strategy with a fairly high rate of success. It may be that these three simply start out fast because it is natural for them, but the result is often the same. They know the risk-reward aspect of beginning quickly; because they are highly trained and physically able, they can dictate what happens up front in an ultra.
Clifton has established many course records on trails that seem unimaginable to most of us. He did not set these records by holding back, but by being aggressive and attacking the course. Surely there were times when he would crash and burn from such tactics, but seemingly just as often he would end up winning by a wide margin, in course record time.
Employing an aggressive strategy early in an event has no physical benefits for an ultrarunner. There is no substitute for a well-planned paced strategy designed to get to the finish line on time or within the cut-off times. There are however, times when a runner might want to alter his or her strategy.
If weather conditions change during an ultra, runners should take into account the changes that can occur on the course. In 1995, at the Ice Age 50 Mile Trail Run in Wisconsin, a light rain accompanied the runners for most of the run. While the Ice Age trail normally holds up quite well, it does not hold up well when rain and 500 runners are added to the mix. The tail end runners had a miserable time following in the footsteps of the pack of runners ahead. Being a double out-and-back, the first return was difficult for everybody. The second out-and-back turned out to be easier running, but some unfortunate souls were slowed dramatically by the slick, muddy conditions, and would miss the mid race cut-off times, despite well-paced running early on.
Are you a racer or a pacer? In ultrarunning, you will find the vast majority of runners to be pacers, for whom achieving time takes priority over place. Any tactics played out are within an individual's own personal battle against the course or distance and then finally, the clock. "Racing" or tactical positioning is usually part of the front running crowd's strategy.
The racing strategy is a critical one that challenges the runner to overcome multiple foes. First, he or she must conquer the distance and its attendant conditions. If they are fit and at least reasonably experienced, they should not have too much difficulty completing the event. Some individuals are driven purely by time. They care more about their time than they do about a place. Winning to them in a slow time is less preferable than finishing second in a fast time. While running purely for time is clearly acceptable, it is often a strategy that is short-lived. These pacers, for whom the clock is the ultimate opponent, are battling a machine that does not quit. Time is very much a constant, unwavering in its delivery. It does not slow with conditions or difficulty in course. To challenge such an opponent requires great physical training and mental discipline, as well as, lets face it, a little luck.
Racers on the other hand play the field. The test for them is to compete with the individual standing next to them at the starting line. If everybody in the race is a "racer," competing for place, every runner's strategy is tested against the others. This can be fascinating as the event unfolds. Aggressive strategies may sway the rest of the runners from their own style or strategy, upsetting chances for a good race.
Before your next ultra, focus on a strategy that feels comfortable to you. If are unsure, ask a running friend or confident to assist you. Calculate your overall planned pace for the course you are running. For instance, a goal time of 9:20 goal for 50 miles equals 10:00 minutes per mile. Find out as much detail as you can regarding the course and play the run out in your mind several times before the event. This mental rehearsal allows you to be familiar with the task ahead. If you are competitor (racer), try to find out as much as you can about your competitor's race habits. This will help eliminate surprises to you and allow you to stay focused on your own running strategy. So if you are fit and mentally ready, adapt a strategy that fits you and good results will be sure to follow.