I think it's clear to anyone who has run a few ultras that however good your training the decisions you make once the race has started can have a big impact on the outcome of your day. Several accomplished runners have had a go at this topic recently and reached interesting although sometimes inconclusive or even conflicting conclusions. The most common is simply that "everyone is different". So what can I add from a position of relative inexperience and much further down the field, I hear you ask? Well I've never been too inhibited about expressing an opinion or two before, and I genuinely believe that there are a few factors which might be of interest - also that you might draw a wrong conclusion if you compare yourself with another runner, so here goes......
The debate seems to be about whether you start at a fast pace "go as fast as you can for as long as you can, because you're going to slow down later anyway", or a slower one "start conservatively and you'll go better in the later stages". I would like to look at this in a different way. Here are my position splits from a couple of recent (Spring 2010) ultras:
Hardmoors Highland Fling
No of Finishers 41 271
Position at 1/4 distance 38 176
at 1/2 distance 31 108
at 3/4 distance 27 70
at Finish 23 47
You could draw the conclusion that my strategy is to start slowly (at least compared with other runners in the same race), but actually what you see is a consequence of my strategy rather than its objective.
Since I started running ultras 3 years ago, I've enjoyed (nearly!) all the races I've entered but I felt frustrated on many occasions that in the later stages of the race I was frequently walking what was eminently runnable ground - easy underfoot, gently uphill, level, or even downhill. I had run much more difficult ground in the early stages of the race but simply "ran out of steam", when the going was easier. There seemed to be a general feeling among runners that this is what happens, but I did some simple sums. I run comfortably at around 9,30 minute miles on the "flat and easy" sections of an ultra near the start. To cut a minute or so from each mile at this speed would be quite an effort, as my marathon pace (on a flat road) is no better than 8 minutes a mile these days; but later in the race, for every mile I could keep jogging (say 12 minute miles) rather than walking (at 15 minute miles at best) I would gain 3 minutes. At these figures it's a no-brainer, I'm always going to get a better result by just making sure that I keep running as long as possible. So that became my aim, conserve energy on all the other types of ground to be able to run the easily-runnable stuff right through the race. I set about it by a number of tactics, such as
- don't worry about the steeper hills, everyone goes slowly here, more effort has no payback
- run the gentle uphills very slowly indeed, even if I know I could go faster, just jog rather than walk
- run the technical stuff at a speed to minimise effort. I used to go fast over bouldery ground because I can, but it takes energy that I can use better elsewhere. The exception is downhills, which I've practiced quite a lot because you can genuinely get speed for no effort here if you just go with the flow of the hill rather than wasting energy trying to hold back
- one area that I'm working on now is how to walk more quickly and efficiently in the places that are just a bit too steep to run (reading Marco's report of this year's Fling suggests that he's really got this cracked - I need to get much better)
- and finally, knock the speed down a bit to 10/10.30 minute miles on the first 20 miles or so because this makes it seem really easy for an almost insignificant time loss
I've found that an added psychological advantage of this approach is that I can look forward to the tougher sections because I know I'm going to take them easily.
This seems to be working for me this year, and if I'm ever going to get a 24 hour West Highland Way I think this will be the strategy that will get me there.
BUT.........and here's where it starts to get interesting......I'm trying to complete my races at relatively slow overall paces. My average pace in this year's Hardmoors was 13 minute miles, and in the Fling (easier course and better weather) 11,30 minute miles. For a 24 hour WHW race "all" you need to do is a 15 minute mile average (but of course everyone's average pace over a 95 mile race will be slower than over a 50). These times give plenty of scope for walking where it's most efficient to walk and running where it's most productive to run. Now look at the guys at the sharp end of the race. Runners like Jez, Richie and co, completing the WHW race at an average pace in the region of 10 minute miles, simply don't have the luxury of choosing where to run; unless the ground is clearly not runnable, running is pretty well mandatory - check out the maths and see what a couple of long 3mph ascents do to their averages. These guys are actually participating in a significantly different level of sport from me - running ultras as opposed to completing ultras - at a completely different level of fitness. So my strategy is completely inapplicable to them, and it helps me to understand that I can't really comment on the arguments made by Stuart M and Thomas (CG), because that's the sort of speed that these guys are going, and it's a different game.
BUT AGAIN.......what if you're not an "average" runner aiming for a 24 hour WHW, or an elite performer aiming for 16. What if you're "just" a very good ultra runner aiming somewhere in the 19-20 hours range? If that's you, I'll leave you to think about it - the only thing I would suggest is that what works for me isn't necessarily going to work for you!
One last thought on average pace. Again the maths are clear but I think sometimes we try to ignore them. If you stop for just 5 minutes, you need to cover the next 5 miles at one minute a mile faster just to break even - was the rest worth it? There have been times when I've felt I just had to have a rest to regroup mentally before I could carry on (and I'm sure there will be again!), and there are times when you have to stop to change clothes, refill water bottles and so on, but this year I've removed from my game plan any "unnecessary" stops, just pick up the food and drink and keep walking. Doesn't seem to have hurt me so far.
At the moment all this seems a bit academic - after a steady week after the Fling I picked up a cold and my total miles for this week are.........zero. But at least that means the kitchen extension's coming along a bit better.