Second Wind

Second Wind
"Run With Purpose!"

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ultras! part 2

This is the second part of the 2 part series on Ultras that follows ultra marathoner Zane Smith (of TN).
Please see "Ultras!  part 1"

The last race Zane ran was just a few weeks ago, the most iconic 100 mile race in the continental United States (made even more so by its prominent place in Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” book), the Leadville100.

The Leadville100 is a big race.  For ultras, it gets no bigger.  For a "normal" ultra (hard to call any ultra "normal") you might see anywhere from 50 - 200 participants.  In the Leadville100, typically over 700 register to run the event, and this year was no different.  
The tale of the tape of this monumental course begins with the simple fact that the 100 miles stretch across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  The "lowest" part of the course is a towering 9,200ft -- which, to provide some reference, the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains is Clingman's dome at a mere 6,643.
That's not all.
The highest peak of the course comes at the cruelly named "Hope's Pass" (which would be more accurately described as "Where Hope Comes to Die" Pass) at a staggering 12,600ft.  This is a land where outsiders struggle to breathe just while walking around and runners routinely suffer altitude sickness that requires hospitalization and This is the land that hosts these runners on a grueling 100 mile trail run.  It's no wonder that of the nearly 700 super athletes who participate (who must first qualify to even register for this event), nearly 1/2 do not make it to the finish line.

Zane Smith, however, did finish.  Zane, who ran (I intentionally did not use "competed" there - this is a group based so intently on comradery that truly the competition lies within oneself) in the 30-39M division, took 48th in his division and 112th overall, finishing the race in 26.27 (well under the 30 hour time limit).  If you do the math, that means that over the course of 100 miles, at 9,200-12,600 ft of elevation, up and down the Rocky Mountains, he averaged a pace of under 16 minutes a mile.  
Backpacking this course with a few overnight camp outs would be a fantastic feat - - for a down to earth, married father of 2, full time employed insurance salesman from a town with an elevation of 637 ft to run it straight through at a 15.52 min/mile pace is nothing short of astonishing.


Zane was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer a few questions for all of us here at SecondWind and I'd like to take this opportunity to share those bits of information:

Zane, tell me a little bit about your training?  What's your typical way to train?
First off, I want to say that I'm no expert - I just love to run!  All I can do is share what works for me, and for that, I'm happy to tell.
On the training, honestly, I think one of the best ways (and funnest ways) to train is to just train through races.  
What about gaps in race season, time preparing for said races, etc. - do you just take off and run?  What's your plan?
I find it works best for me to split it up and use varied training approaches to keep everything fresh while training your muscles for whatever the course may bring:  slow and easy run days, intervals, hills, speed work, and, of course, your long runs.
Speaking of "long runs", how many miles do you put in a week and how many days a week are you running?  Do you run 100 miles for a long run in training?
No, not at all.  I do usually run 6 days a week, always giving my body a day for rest and recovery.  But even at running 6 days a week, leading up a 100 mile race I'm (usually) logging 50-60 miles per Week.
Over the course of a 100 mile run, what do you think is most important?
Eating.  Many ultra runners joke, very truthfully, that the 100 mile races are more of an eating contest than a running contest.  Your body requires sustenance and the runners are really separated by who figures out what their body needs, when they need it, what, and how to consume it.
The most important thing is to practice it.
Yeah, practice eating (I like the sound of that...) - you need to know how your body is going to react.  Some foods wont sit well on the stomach, what will cause cramps, what can your body process quickly and efficiently, how much, how often, etc.  There's questions about (Zane repeatedly encourages people to listen to their body and learn what works for Them - not necessarily what works for so-and-so) salt tabs (or not), solid food vs. gels, "synthetic" vs. natural, etc.  No one can know what will (or wont) work for them until they try them out in race-like situations.
Anything else?  Other than eating, what other piece of advice would you give to someone as they register for a big run?
Know the course - make sure you understand what's going to be required of you.  What's the elevation, what's the elevation change, will you cross through water (as different ultras do), what are the different surfaces of the course (packed gravel, loose gravel, paved road, dirt, rock, mud, "gnarly", etc.) - learn your terrain, and then practice for it.
What do you think the best way to learn the ins-and-outs of a course are?  
Well, I mean, obviously if you can get on the course that's the best way (most runners who finish the Leadville100 go to Leadville, CO for at least a week prior to the race to get their bodies acclimated to the elevation).  But I find other runner's race reports to be extremely valuable.  Read what they thought about the course, from them you can find out terrain, rough spots, distances (both real and felt) between aid stations, etc.  One of the most valuable parts of a honestly written race report is to see 'when did this person want to quit?'  Find out the challenging (mentally and physically) parts of the course so you can prepare for them.  I once read a race report where I noted that every time they felt like quitting was on a long uphill, and every time they said the course "didn't feel so bad" was on a down hill stretch.  Seems silly, but that's an excellent point to remember.  So now, whenever I start thinking "is this hill Ever going to end!?", I remember that guy's race report, get a quick chuckle at myself, and push on.
The other thing you really want to practice that lots of new people leave out is walking/hiking.  There are going to be times, over the course of 100 miles, that you're going to have to walk up some of the hills (it's more efficient), so practice that.  Walking/hiking uses different muscles than running and you need to train them as well.
Ever do any weight training or cross training?  What does that look like?  Do you lift heavy with short reps, or go light weight and long rep sets?
I definitely work out a lot for these runs.  I try to get to the gym when I can, but I also have some weights at home so that I don't have to be away from the family anymore than I have to.  I generally do a very traditional (muscle building) workout with 3 sets of 10 reps with pretty heavy weight.  I focus on legs obviously, but it's important to learn your body's weakness and try to work it (Zane goes on to point out that most people have a muscular imbalance between their quads and their hamstrings - recognize which one is weaker for you and give it extra attention).  Goblet squats are a great exercise, he adds, and stretching.  Lots of stretching.
The other important thing to work on all of the time is your core.  Your core plays a big role in keeping you up and keeping you going over 100 miles!
Do you ever use any of the 'programs' out there?
I use cross-fit and enjoy it a lot.  The important thing to remember about cross-fit is that, as competitors we all want to do the biggest, best, fastest - scale cross-fit according to your abilities.  I'm a runner - I use working out and cross-fit (etc.) to supplement my running.
If someone was just starting out, what would be your 1 piece of advice to get them on the path of their first ultra?
Sign up!  Find a 30 miler and sign up for one, surround yourself with friends to support you, talk to others who have done it, and just go.  Don't wait until you're "sure you're ready", pick a date, sign up for one, and try it out.  If the bug bites you, then before the week is out after that 30 you'll be signing up for a 50, and so on.


Thanks to Zane Smith for the very candid interview, for the time, for the advice, and for a rare glimpse into this extraordinary group.  Thanks also to Ray Smith (Zane's father) for the photos used.

You heard the man - get out there and get running!

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