I am starting this on Monday morning, 1/8, and just a warning, it may be evolving over time. I am at Steelhead right now, and to this point have been distracted by conversations with my neighbors.
The current program is to prepare myself for the Zion Ultramarathon 50K coming up in April. Ultramarathons are not really races but endurance events. Competitors need to get from point A to point B within a given time frame. The allotted times vary with the distances, which can range from 50K up to some pretty outrageous distances. In October I crewed for my friend Kerry Ward while he ran the Moab 240 event, and there are much longer events on the international scene.
I am starting small with a 50K (approximately 31 miles) and my time limit is 10 hours. In order to do this it is necessary to average at least a 3.1 mph average speed for 10 hours. That is actually a focused walking pace, so it is possible to actually complete an event like this without even running.
There are at least a couple of obstacles to accomplishing that task. The first is me. As I have aged, I have also slowed down. When I was younger I customarily walked a mile in about 18 minutes, but over the past year or so my walks have been more in the 21-22 minute per mile range. Not quite focused walking, and more of an amble, so my first objective is to speed myself up.
To that end, I have been practicing my speed walking by timing myself over short distances (1-1.5 miles), and that has gone well and I am now maintaining a 17:30/3.4 mph over those distances. I need to also build endurance so I am doing some intermediate distances where I really try to maintain focus, and my best so far was 4.46 miles at a 3.3 mph (18:12 min/mile) pace.
All of that was over flat terrain (city walking), and the ultra will not generally be flat nor will it be paved. Back in November, after I came back from the Moab 240 all (as we used to say back in the EST days) “all jacked up and glazed over” I tried to start my training by attacking the first half of the Mount Wilson Trail (the antithesis of flat and smooth) in running shoes. What I found out was that my feet were not nearly up to that task, and it took me the better part of a week to recover from the beating I gave them.
Elevation profile for the Zion 50K
I have since backed off and decided to work on the feet more, so my strength/endurance work comes on Sundays when I take a serious trudge. In the past weeks I have been to Chino Hills State Park, Black Star Canyon, and my benchmark route, the Mount Wilson Toll Road. The MWTR ascends almost continuously for 10 miles to the summit of Mount Wilson, with an elevation gain of 4240 feet. There was a period time around the turn of the century when I was living in the Hollywood Hills, had easy access to the trailhead in Altadena, and made a point of hiking the entire road once a month.
That kind of endurance is what I need now, and I am using the same strategy I used back then to get there. I go to the trail and try to get farther and faster each time. This past Saturday my goal was to go up six miles and maintain a pace approaching that 3.1 mph pace I need to finish the 50K. Started off very well and was able to maintain a 2.9 mph pace for over four miles while gaining over 2000 feet of altitude.
The view from the 5.5 mile mark
Somewhere between the 4 and 4.5 mile marks I hit the wall. My pace fell off a lot, and around 4.5 I was feeling a bit dizzy, so I stopped for a break. I had brought along some Tailwind, a solution of simple sugars and salts that seems to be de rigueur in the ultra community, and a few snacks. I drank some of the Tailwind, ate a few cashew nuts and chocolate covered espresso beans, and proceeded on my way. In the interest of prudence I also revised my target to be just one mile more.
I made it up to the 5.5 mile mark where I turned around and started back down. The trip down was very promising! The downhills in recent excursions had been, paradoxically, slower than the ups. By the time I head down my feet are already tired and my legs have not been up to cushioning the pounding. This time, however, all systems were go. My moving average had dropped to 2.6 by the time I got to my apex, but had increased to 2.8 for the full 11 miles (2647 feet of elevation gain), meaning that my average going down was greater than 3.0 mph. I was able to maintain a nice rolling gait, and on some moderately sloped stretches a bit of a jog!
I am also currently working on running on the treadmill. My strategy is to sneak up on a run. I start really slow on the flat surface to get my leg swing and foot action dialed in, and then I start increasing both the speed and the elevation. By the time I get to 10 degrees and 3 mph I can transition to a little running. Yesterday (Thursday now) I was able to get in five minutes at 15 degrees between 3 and 3.5 mph, and was able to increase my speed to 5 mph as I took the elevation down to flat. It’s coming along!