Running fast for a bit got me thinking about speed training and raw speed capability and how or if they apply much at all to ultra running success. I was thinking of the upcoming 50 mile showdown this coming weekend in Marin and was wondering if the eventual winner of the race would finish in the top 10 if the race were a 10k instead of 50 miles? Or even a marathon compared to 50 miles? In each of these cases I am fairly certain there would be a huge shake up in where various front of the pack runners would finish.
The interesting question to me is why is this the case? Is it primarily that each runner has a certain distance or style of running (flat, hilly, technical, etc) that they naturally excel at or do certain runners do a better job of figuring out how to adapt to a certain distance or style of running? I guess in reality it's probably a little bit of both. I've known more than a few runners who would say it's almost entirely the former reason and that the later has almost no relevance. I disagree strongly with this. I think the reason there are dozens of sub 2:30 marathoners out there who have had a hard time finding their groove in 50 and 100 mile trail races isn't simply because they aren't suited for longer distances, but more so because they have too much of an idea of how to train for running marathons. That is to say that they get caught up thinking that training for a 50 or 100 miler is quite similar to training for a marathon. A handful of fast marathoners have been able to fake it up to 50 miles, but for every one of these there are several who get to mile 30 or 35 in their first 50 and are completely fried. At that point all the leg speed in the world aint gonna do much of anything for you.
How then does one prepare their body (and mind) to race well for a full 50 or 100 miles? There are a lot of potential answers to this question, but in my mind the most important answer is to let go of the idea that we need to focus in our training on improving our leg speed. Racing 50 or 100 miles is about strength and endurance. It's about nutrition and hydration. It's about patience, stubbornness, and determination. It's about a lot of things, but it's really not much about leg speed. Sure there are great ultra runners with great shorter distance speed, but there are also great ultra runners with mediocre (at best) shorter distance speed. The fact that Tony K's 5k PR is about 16:30 should be all the proof one needs on this point. In nearly every ultra he runs he beats dozens of runners who would beat him if the race were a 5k. Why? Take a look at his training. He runs a ton and he runs uphill on rugged trails. He does more in training to build his strength and endurance than anyone I've ever known of. And more importantly he does more or less nothing in his training to build his leg speed. Or take me as another example. I'm blessed with a bit more leg speed than Tony, but it was when I stopped thinking that I needed to try to sharpen and hone this leg speed that I began to have the high level of success in ultras that I've had over the past 20 months.
This isn't to say that you can't be successful at ultras if you do speed work in your training, but I do believe that doing speed work in training for 50 and 100 mile races (especially hilly, technical ones) does nothing to make us "faster" on race day, and in most cases probably makes us slower because it uses up time and energy in training that could be better spent increasing our strength and endurance.
This entire conversation reminds me of a run I was on about 5 weeks ago with some folks here in Colorado. We ran from my house and we run up. As we climbed the snow got pretty deep. Eventually we were just trudging through knee deep snow, higher and higher into the mountains. It was a fun group of runners and no one was complaining about the conditions, but I do remember Dakota saying at one point that although he was enjoying the hike up through the snow, he didn't really imagine that any of this was going to be very beneficial come December 4th in Marin. Well Dakota was 19 (a very wise 19) then, and I'm sure he'll figure out soon enough the value in the strength and endurance one builds from moving uphill, at a steady pace, through knee deep snow. Luckily for me most strong runners who come from a road marathon background never take the time or have the patience to figure this out.