The Elephant 100 Trail Race, Ironman Training & Breaking the Rules
As I put pen to paper this evening, I have a sore throat, a cough, a runny nose and 14 stitches in my back. I also have a huge grin on my face and feel the warm glow of accomplishment inside my belly.
Four weeks earlier I had mapped out a 14-week training plan to get me to the start line of the Elephant 100 Trail Run. I wanted a goal this year that I have not done before. My longest run to date has been the 46km Six Foot Track race back in the early 2000’s, which I loved. There was of course, the 55km walk in Kona in October 2015.
When I started to map out the gradual safe weekly running kilometers to get me ready for a 100k-er it just would not fit into the timeline.
Since Jarrah’s birth in July last year I have averaged 18km of running per week. There has been no structure to this running other than the SEAC Summer Training Camp in January (link is to the upcoming Winter Training Camp in July) and a short 8-week training plan for the NSW Tri Club Champs in March. Some weeks have been 3 runs for 30k, or one SEAC Long Run for 25k, while other weeks have been zero kilometers. It was clear that to go from 18km per week to complete a 100k-er I was going to have to break a few rules.
Breaking The Rules
As with all training plans, I start by counting back 5 weeks from race week. This is where the heavy lifting must get done. Depending on the race and how long the training plan is there will be several weeks of tough training in this zone. That meant that I had 8-9 weeks to get the legs ready.
My educated guess is that my body can handle 2-3 weeks at around 90km, but not back to back. Plus a few weeks of 80km. For the entire 14 weeks I think something around a 70km weekly average will harden the legs sufficiently to get me through 16 hours on my feet. Yes, the Elephant 100 is brutal, and 16 hours is a top 10 finish! But more on the event duration later. At 49 years young I also need to account for my bodies changing ability to consume training load and recover. The rules that worked 20, 10 and even 5 years ago are starting to not hold true.
In order to build to 90km inside nine weeks (14-week program less 5 weeks) I was clearly not going to have the time to build weekly mileage using the standard, safe 10% rule. However, this rule is by no means a golden rule. There are ways to increase your training load faster, but you need to be extremely careful. I also need to understand there will be consequences.
Rules for Building Volume
Firstly, volume is not the only contributor to training load. Intensity contributes to the load, so by reducing intensity you can have a little more lee-way with your volume. Other than the one speed session per week all other runs are easy or recovery runs. Non-training stress also bears heavy on the total training load your body can handle, but there is not much I can do about external stress.
Next, is to ensure that full effort is put into recovery. This starts with sleep, followed by hydration and nutrition and then stretching, mobility, rolling. Massage and Normatec Recovery sessions are also worthwhile. A very long way back comes compression gear (which is surprising how much it is marketed), cryo-anything, and all the other marketing hype products.
The issue with increasing volume rapidly is the impact that constant running will have on your body and in particular your joints. So, reducing the impact where possible will help. Treadmill running and trail running are both good options. Even if I am running down a suburban street I will run on the grass strip and not the concrete path. The uneven surface helps with ligament strength. Recovery from trail running is also faster because the repetition is less. I also like to rotate my shoes so that I am rarely running in the same shoes two days in a row.
Running often but not necessarily long is a great way to help build a base and remain injury free. This concept comes back to running with good form. Most of us start our runs with good form, or at least the best form we have. As we tire our form and technique start to decline. Injuries are more likely to occur when our form and technique have faded away under fatigue. So, four runs of 10k can be a better 40k week than a 10k and a 30k run with bad form. The lack of the super long run may not sound like a good idea when training for an ultra, but I will discuss this a little later.
With these 5 rules (for breaking the rule) firmly in mind I planned out a pretty tough 14 weeks. The first 4 weeks however had to tread a careful path. I felt I had to get to a 75km week in the first build phase. The best I could come up with was a 50k week, followed by a 65k week and then a 75k week before a rest week of around 40-50k. I figured a jump from 18 to 50k would be tough and then to 75 would be dangerous. I was probably going to get sick, but I really didn’t want to get injured. I can get over a cold in 5-7 days but an injury takes weeks that I don’t have.
Listen to your body ...no really
Fast forward to now. It is Monday night and I am sitting on the couch with a rug over me and honey and lemon drink at hand. Two days ago
(Saturday) I ticked off my second double run (rule 5) of the program with a morning 18k and an afternoon 8k for a tough Saturday. Then yesterday (Sunday) I went for a nice 6k recovery cruise on some north shore trails (rule 3) during my daughters one-hour basketball warm up. This run was meant to be 9k to take me to 75k for the week. However, although I was enjoying the run and could have easily continued for another 4k I felt a little cold coming on. I decided to drop it short and start focusing on the recovery week. I had ticked off a 72.5km week.
If you are going to push your body, injury and illness will happen. The key is to listen to your body and manage it carefully. I now have a week to get over this cold and start the next build block of my program. This recovery week is as much for my immune system as it is for my muscles and joints. Remembering that during the recovery phase is when the body grows and adapts.
Ironman to Ultra
To prepare for the Elephant 100 I have read several ultra trail running articles by some credible sources. The Ultramarathon Training: A Guide to Everything is a good jumping off point. What surprised me the most was how closely aligned to ironman the training regimes are. I was expecting a bunch of who-har about toughing out all day running sessions. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the educated literature focused on a few key elements very similar to ironman:
Very long runs were not essential. They have their place for some experienced runners.
The use of double and triple run days is the preferred way to get time on feet and prepare the body for the duration of the event. But this method keeps the body healthier during the process.
Speed sessions like our King George Track or the Brat Track
sessions are very useful, although not essential (you can complete and ultra without them). They are slightly higher risk sessions if done incorrectly. The purpose of these sessions is not to get faster as most people believe (so they run to fast and get injured). These sessions are about teaching the body to be a more efficient runner – aerobic, nervous and neuromuscular systems. This is also a great place to learn pacing.
Strength is key for the ultra. Strength is required to climb the mountains, strength is required to absorb the impact of the descents, strength is required to hold good form as you fatigue, strong muscles and tendons are required to hold the joints stable, strength is required to balance opposing muscle groups. Specific Strength & Mobility classes for endurance athletes at SEAC will be used every week.
Cross-training was important because you simply can’t just keep running. Swim and bike have a supplementary place in training for an ultra. Again, controlling the intensity is important so cycling indoors will be the go to option
Hill running is key. Hill running is the cross-over between strength and endurance. Strength-endurance sessions are crucial for swim, bike as well as running. Hill running can be used differently during your training week as needed. It can be your long run, your interval run or even your double run.
Treadmill running can help prepare for a trail run. Many trail runners focus on the trail running aspect and believe that a treadmill just cant prepare you for trails. However, especially in the early build phases the treadmill is a great option for a lower impact run. Remember I am trying to build volume fast so the treadmill is a great option as it reduces the impact. Treadmill and strength training in SEAC is a great time-efficient combo.
As the race gets closer, race specific training is more important. This means that not all your running suddenly needs to be on trails or in the mountains. I have started to add a few hundred meters of coastal rock-hoping to the ends of my runs but I do not need to go off into the mountains for every run. Later in the training program is the time to bring in more specificity. SEAC is hosting these upcoming trail runs - May, Cape Banks Explorers Run and June, Otford to Bundeena
Visualisation and mental preparation have an important role to play. A lot can go wrong in an ultra and safe to say that the day will not go to plan. You need to be prepared for when it all falls apart.
The above training techniques are identical to ironman training. This means I don’t have to go and learn new tricks. I simply need to apply the skills and knowledge I already know and understand but in a different landscape. What I Know about a Sub-10hr Ironman will come in handy.
The Elephant 100 scares and excites me which is what I was looking for in choosing a goal for the year. It also leads nicely into the my 50th birthday present from gorgeous partner Nat – the Coast to Coast race in NZ next February.
Whether I can get through the next two build phases and get to the start line remains to be seen. I am not at all certain I can finish the race which is a scary thought. But I am looking forward to (a) the process of getting to the start line; and (b) testing my limits on race day.
Finally you may have noticed that I did not use capital letters for ironman or ultra. This is my little demonstration against the corporatisation of our sports. Like marathon, ironman and ultra are distance/events not brand names.
Oh, and the 14 stitches in my back is from a nasty little BCC skin cancer (the non-aggressive little suckers) I had chopped out this morning. Apparently I am not allowed to sweat for two weeks ...good luck with that.