The most common mistake that new endurance runners make is blowing themselves out early in the race. Without practice, it’s hard to know how hard is too hard. We’ve all gone through variations of this thinking: “It’s a race, right? So I should be in front, right? Okay!” Unless you’re superman, that thinking inevitably leads to that painful feeling near the end of the race that you’re dying and somehow can’t keep on going. For 100 milers, 24+hour events and other big endurance events, this thinking is what causes a good deal of Did Not Finish’es (DNF’s).

How to Avoid that Inevitable Demise.

First, if you’ve run well at the event type at the same location before or have a good handle on how hard the event will be, then you’re basically set and can stop reading. If you aren’t sure about how long the race will be, how the obstacles will slow you down, how the weather will affect you, or how the elevation and terrain will effect you, then forge on!

As a mathematician, I break down events is based on this formula: time multiplied by intensity equals toughness. Toughness is a quantity that you cannot change on race day. For every race, you can only expend your total toughness and no more, so whether you split that over 1 mile or 100 miles is your choice. Toughness can only be changed over time through training.

In preparing for a race like the Tahoe Spartan Ultrabeast, my first question is: “How long did the winner take to finish last year?” The answer: roughly 7 hours. If you’re not trying to win, then you scale that up to estimate how long it might take you to finish. If you’re worried about getting time capped, then you use the time cap to dictate.

Once you know how long the race will take, then you divide your total effort EQUALLY into that available time. To get the best time possible in an endurance event, you should run what we like to call “negative splits.” That means that each mile should be equal to or faster than the last. The theory behind this is that your body can only handle a certain amount of pain for a certain amount of time before you collapse. After you experience that pain, you must rest or relax.

This concept is pretty intuitive. Everyone can handle horrible, searing pain for one second. That’s how people self-amputate their own limbs in emergency circumstances. On the other hand, we know from the colloquial Chinese water torture that even small stressors will build up over time to become unbearable. For those who don’t know what Chinese water torture is, it’s dripping one drop of water on your forehead once a second, every second, until you go insane. The hardest part of it is that is that it’s hard to sleep.

So How Does That Translate to Running OCRs?

In a 30-mile race, you won’t be able to sustain your mile-time-trial pace for the whole thing. If you start at mile-time-trial pace, you’re blowing most of your toughness quota early in the race. Your remaining toughness must then be spread over the rest of the distance and obstacles. That means that the intensity over the remaining distance reduces, compared to if you hadn’t gotten excited and blew your load on the first mile.

Ideally, your starting pace should be based on your most conservative goal for the event. As you get further and further into the event, your pace can and should increase if you feel better than you expected in an attempt to reach your more lofty goals. Each time you increase intensity, think about the time remaining multiplied by intensity based on how much toughness you’ve got left inside.

Let me emphasize, your starting pace should be based on your most conservative goal. That is never a personal best. It’s what you could run in training, by yourself, when you ran a hard workout the day before.  You should be able to do it in your sleep. If you feel better, you will speed up. If you don’t, then you won’t.

As you get more used to this technique, you start learning how you should feel after X% of the event. For me, 25% feels like the start and I shouldn’t have any trouble. It should be as if I haven’t run those miles. At halfway through, I’ve done lots of work so I should feel the effort and the burn, but it shouldn’t be too bad. At 75%, I should be feeling the burn hard, but I shouldn’t be reaching my dark place. The dark place starts 90% into the event. The dark place is where crazy things happen, emotions come to the surface, and you may not want to talk to me.  When I hear that there’s just one mile left, I should speed up and make it start hurting. When there’s a half-mile left, my muscles should be complaining. When there’s a quarter-mile left, conscious thought shouldn’t be possible and we should just be going without regard for anything else. For those of you that can sprint, there should be a 100-200m mark where legs do things that you didn’t know were possible. Since I’m not a sprinter that happens at 400m for me.

If you’re curious, I encourage you to try this out. Remember to start slow and start realistic. Let me know how it goes for you. Maybe it’ll lead you to have the good habit that I’ve had for a couple of 30-ish mile events (RIP BFX): I pass people when we hit a marathon. They’re on the downswing while I’m trucking at my usual pace with the mental energy. Once that pass happens, it’s going to be hard for them to pass back.

Dr. Redtights Subtip:

For pure running races, you can make this technique very objective based on split times. For OCRs, we don’t have that luxury. Instead, I’ve learned to run based on feel. As I get more experienced, I know the feel of a 24-hour effort. I know the difference between that and 12-hour race feel. In training, try to learn how each pace feels so that you can translate that to race pace.