5 years ago I started running in preparation to complete my first half marathon for my 27th birthday. At the time I sincerely didn’t know if I would be able to go the distance. Running 13.1 miles at once seemed nearly impossible and would require a deep belief in myself, a dedication to training and a calling upon my resilient self. These were the exact reasons I signed up; I wanted to see what I was made of. Since that first half I’ve run plenty more half marathons plus five official marathons, two official 50K races, and one 100K race. In training I’ve ran plenty of marathons and 50K distances as well. Through it all I’ve mostly followed a training plan and deferred to the knowledge and wisdom of others in the sport.
I began really thinking about my tried and true approach to training when all of the Jim Walmsley chatter started for Western States 100 this year. For those unaffiliated with Walmsley he is a young and fast runner who goes out at the start of all his races with gun’s a-blazing! He has blown up or lost steam seemingly at all of his 100 mile races. Notably, after falling apart at Western States he commented, “Sometimes when you’re not careful trying to set off fireworks you light yourself on fire.” Even at UTMB this past weekend he was in the top 3 lead for most of the race until he ran into issues. He rallied back after dropping to 7th or 8th place for a 5th place finish which is a huge accomplishment but not indicative of his lead throughout. (This is a great article about his performance at UTMB as well as frustrations some of had with his approach). Many ultra runners fault him for “not respecting the distance” or for being egotistical which are understandable grievances if looking at his track record. The thing that intrigues and, even, inspires me about Walmsley is he doesn’t deter from his approach even with all of the criticism. In interviews he acknowledges he has a lot to learn but he is learning them in his own manner and method. I don’t condone his methodology entirely but I’ve gleaned some lessons for myself from his alternative approach.
For my 100 miler in December I’m mostly following a training plan found in Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons by Bryon Powell. This book is easily digestible and a great resource for anyone interested in the ultra world. (Fun tidbit for other ultra “nerds”- Powell is the person behind i.run.far.) It is also a conservative and “safe” plan to follow in regards to total mileage and limited speed work. Due to life stressors and scheduling conflicts I recently started experimenting a little with my training. For instance, in week 10 of my plan I ended up running four double digit days back to back (see “Training Recap” below). Typically, I would have just reduced mileage or even cancelled one of my runs. I understood that the potential negative effect of doing all four runs back to back was poor quality runs or extreme fatigue in the following training week. In addition to this concentration of mileage I started incorporating more speed work into my plan; would it all prove to be too much? I really didn’t know the answer to that but went with “Let’s see what happens!”
Surprisingly, I had a fantastic week of training with another 60 miles in the books. The greatest benefit from this tiny experiment is recognizing I’m physically stronger than I previously realized. This is excellent feedback midway through a training program! Yesterday, in my excitement, I considered adding a few extra miles but decided to pull back and appreciate the success of these last two weeks as I roll into a down week.
I have no intention of lighting myself on fire the way Walmsley does to himself time and time again, though he improved his racing strategy at UTMB, but I think he can teach a lot of us average runners to test our limits and push a little harder instead of always playing it safe. This experimentation added a note of fun to what can sometimes feel like a grind. Speed work alone adds an interesting element to a long training week but testing my limits took it a step further. I’ll stick to the sage wisdom and advice of others in the ultra running community mostly. But sometimes you have to ask yourself, what’s the fun in playing it safe all of the time?