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Vulcano Ultra Trail

When I first heard about the Vulcano Ultra Trail, I was certainly interested in traveling to Chile to participate, but unfortunately at the time I was working through a nagging injury and didn't foresee being ready to run 80K a few short months away.  After not running for two months, I resumed running about six weeks ago.  Fortunately, my aerobic base was solid because I had been cross training. When I began running again my fitness came back quickly.

By November I was running four days a week and I was able to do a couple of long runs with some friends in Flagstaff who were training for TNF Endurance Challenge in San Francisco. After a couple of technical long runs and a few more quicker long runs with my friend Chris Vargo, I felt surprisingly well so Vulcano Ultra Trail became a viable option again.

Flying out of an international airport enabled me to get to Santiago, Chile via two fairly long flights. When I arrived in Santiago I had a bit of trouble getting through customs because they wanted my tubes of Trail Butter, flasks of First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot, and the 40 pairs of Altra Running shoes I was bringing along to demo at the VUT expo.  A shipment of 300 pairs of Altra Running shoes was en route for the launching of Altra Running Chile, but the barge was slow to leave U.S. ports due to strikes and wouldn't make it in time for the expo.  Finally, after refusing homemade cookies my mother-in-law made me, customs finally let me through.  Then I took one more flight south from Santiago to Puerto Montt.

The route to southern Chile.   Screenshot of Google Map.
Despite living and traveling in Spanish speaking countries for years, I had never been further south than Panama.  I was looking forward to exploring a new place, meeting new people, trying new foods, and hoping my Central American Spanish would allow me to communicate with fellow runners and race volunteers in Chile.

Santiago to Puerto Montt, Chile.  Screenshot of Google Map.
After about 36 hours of travel, I arrived in Puerto Montt.  One of the seven race directors, Jose Luis, greeted me with un abrazo.  Puerto Montt is a port town known for its aquaculture - primarily salmon farming.  In fact, much of the salmon sold in the U.S. comes from the Lakes Region of Chile.  From Puerto Montt, Jose Luis and I drove to Puerto Varas - the site of the race expo.

A view of the Lakes Region
Puerto Varas is a small town on the shores of el Lago Llanquihue.  The town itself kinda reminded me of a smaller Bellingham, Washington.  After arriving and enjoying a bowl of Ajiaco Chilean Soup, Jose Luis brought me to the hotel to rest before paddle boarding on the lake with one of the other race directors, Horacio.  After paddle boarding and cooling off in the lake, we ate a variety of fresh, local seafood, but I was particularly fond of the salmon ceviche.

View from the lakeside around 9:00 pm.
On a clear day, one can see three snow-capped volcanoes towering over the lakeside hamlets. From my hotel, I could see the cone of Vulcan Osorno - the volcano we'd be running up and around during the race.

Las Cascadas as we approached the Volcan Osorno

I spent the next day checking out the start of the course at Lago Todos los Santos and hiking to a nearby waterfall with Ride the Andes filmmakers Antonio and Sebastian.

View of the Volcan Osorno near the start of the race at Lago Todos los Santos
The following day, as part of launching Altra Running Chile, I gave a Run Better Clinic at the Vulcano Ultra Trail expo with over 50 attendees.

Kinda awkward checking in next to a life size photo of yourself.  
Though I've been teaching the importance of correct running form to hundreds of people for more than a decade, this was the first time I'd ever taught an entire running clinic in Spanish.  While I feel comfortable speaking Spanish in most settings, this was the first time I tried to use such a high frequency of technical running vocabulary for such a long period of time - about an hour.  To be honest, I was more nervous about communicating with clinic participants than I was about running 80K in the mountains.

In addition to the  four points listed in the diagram below, I shared cues that my collegiate coach Doug Stutz taught his National Champion cross country teams.  Then I discussed race-day nutrition and answered any other questions participants had about the race the next day.

I felt relieved and quite fulfilled when race participants approached me after their races to tell me how they applied the principles discussed in the clinic to help them through their races.  Helping others succeed brings me at least as much satisfaction as any success in my own running.

In addition to the Run Better Clinic, I participated in the pre-race press conference with some of the other international athletes.

Some of the top international athletes after the VUT press conference.
The 80K of Vulcano Ultra Trail started at 3:00 AM on Saturday morning which would be the equivalent of 11:00 PM Friday night at home.  To arrive at the race start in time we loaded buses in Puerto Varas at 1:00 AM which would be the equivalent of 9:00 PM at home.  Asking for a 12:45 AM (8:45 PM) wake-up call didn't quite seem normal, but I tried to sleep as much as I could before loading the bus.

Course profile of Vulcano Ultra Trail 80K

Despite doing some run & bike commuting with a headlamp in the buildup for Vulcano, the last time I ran through the night was when I paced my friend Paul Nelson at Western States. That was a great experience, so I looked forward to what I would see and learn under the full moon at Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Start of 2014 Vulcano Ultra Trail 80K.  Photo by TrailChile
I followed the advice of my friend and fellow McMillan Running coach, Ian Torrence, and wore a headlamp on my head and one around my waste.  The leaders took the race out pretty hard, but the early miles were relatively level so I went out with them.

The first 5K was runable, but then we reached a steep incline up lava flows that required us to use our hands.  At the time there were only about four of us.  I soon realized that this was not like the previous 50 mile races I had done.  Trail and ultra running in South America are an entirely different sport than anything I've experienced in the U.S.

Line of 80K athletes ascending the first climb in the dark.
Over the next five miles we climbed over 3,000ft.  At times the full moon illuminated our way up the volcano, but during much of the first three hours the moon moved back and forth behind the fog and clouds.  Those first three hours climbing toward the snow-capped summit through the clouds and under the full moon made the long trip to Chile well worth it.  For much of the first three hours all we could see was the next reflective course marking in the distance and the shadow of the summit ahead.

Common view during the first ascent.
We spent much of the time ascending ridge lines with abrupt faces on each side.  Upon reaching the first summit - still in the moonlight - race officials punched our race passports and then we began the abrupt decent back down the mountain.  The initial descent had us cascading down hundreds of feet of fine, volcanic sand into an unlit crevice.

By the first major aid station (Puesto de Asistencia, Seguridad, Control, Abastecimiento e HidrataciĆ³n or PAS) at 30K I was hungry.  Up to that point I had been drinking First Endurance EFS Drink mixed with mineral water and eating EFS Liquid Shot, but I wanted some real food.  I had some broth, refilled my bladder and began eating Trail Butter.

The second ascent was even more challenging than the first with no particular trail other than the natural flows from lava with regular markings leading straight up the side of the mountain.  At this point in the race, given the grade and the fact that the terrain below moved underfoot, I hiked the majority of the ascent and understood why some of my fellow competitors were using trekking poles.

Climbing into the fog. Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
On the way up the second ascent, two of the early front runners dropped out.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider dropping at that point as well due to fatigue and the culture shock I was experiencing with the extreme differences in course layout and my lack of preparation for such technical terrain, but I had only seen a third of the course and despite fatigue my body was still holding up.  I wanted to take in the whole experience especially if my body was allowing me to do it.

Layering up for the colder, windier summit. Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Stumbling up the mountain.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
After being up all night, by the time I reached the top of the second summit, I was physically depleted. It took me as long to cover the first 25 miles/40 kilometers of the race as it took me to cover twice the distance at the Mt. Hood 50 in 2013. The major difference - I was able to run the whole 50 miles/80 kilometers on the Pacific Crest Trail whereas this time I only made it 5K before I had to start hiking and using my hands to climb and descend technical sections.
About five hours in and already spent.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
Trying to pick my up to the top.  Official photo of Vulcano Ultra Trail.
The descent of the second summit was the most challenging part of the whole race for me.  It was not only steep, but there was a lot of loose scree.  Even with reliable trail shoes, sure-footing was at a premium.  The only reprieve from the pounding and sliding came from the occasional sponge-like ground cover.  Given that there was only a marked line to follow, I tried to run on the ground cover as much as possible to decrease the impact on my feet and joints and increase the stability underfoot.

Getting ready to descend in my Altra Olympus.
When I reached the bottom of the second summit I was able to open up a bit as we ran on the service road leading to the lake.  After a bit we dropped down to a trail along the most breathtaking water I've ever seen.  Getting out from under the clouds on the volcano warmed me up.  The sun and turquoise falls inspired me to get back into a racers mind-set.  I was finally feeling good and rolling, picking people off.  Getting to runable sections and having my energy levels back reminded me how much I love to run unimpeded.

By the time I reached the second major aid station I needed to refill my hydration pack.  The Powerade on course wasn't doing it for me so I asked for 2 liters of Coke.  The Coke helped settle my stomach and gave me a boost as I made the final ascent up Vulcan Osorno.  When I reached the top I was hurting after being on my feet for so long, but I looked forward to the descent and flat, runnable sections leading to the finish.

Unfortunately, my hydration bladder burst at the top of the last climb while I was adjusting my clothing and preparing for the descent back into the sun.  This meant I had to run the next 10-12K without any fluid and it also meant I had about a liter of Coke running down my back, making the post-race dip in the lake all the more appealing.

When I reached the final aid station I asked if I could have a used water bottle from the recycling can and filled it with water.  I only had about 10K to go from that point and enjoyed running the last segment hard again alongside the falls and back to the lake.

I was pleased to join some tough, talented runners from Argentina and Brazil on the podium.  While I am typically a bit more competitive, my main goal after such a long break from running was to simply enjoy the experience and get in some quality time on my feet to prepare me for early races in 2015.

Fellow competitors and coaches, Manuel Lago (Brazil), Gustavo Reyes (Argentina), and Jacob Puzey (USA)
Photo by Jose Luis Troncoso of Trail Chile
After the race, I jumped in the lake to cool off and rinse all of the Coke and sweat off of my body. The post-race meal consisted of beef shish kabobs and Salmon ceviche.  Needless to say, I was happy I made it to the finish.

Finally finished and ready to eat.  Proud to represent Altra Running at the launch of Altra Running Chile.
When the awards assembly concluded, I got a ride back to Puerto Varas with some of the top Argentinian guys.  We met up for dinner later that night.  I was humbled when the overall winner of the 64K, 18 year old Franco Paredes (the nephew of the winner of the 80K Gustavo Reyes), revealed that the Garmin watch he won was the first watch he had ever owned.  That really put things into perspective for me, reminding me that hard work and smart, specific training trump technology.

Our conversation really made me think about the state of the sport of trail and ultra running on a global scale.  While the sport is growing exponentially around the world (and is huge in Argentina and Chile), true international championships still do not exist. Each continent hosts its own iconic races, but it is rare to find the world's best at the starting line of any particular race.  Although I don't think it is necessary for every race to host an uber-competitive field, I simply don't feel right assuming that any international ranking system is accurate when the international field are not representative of the best in the sport across the globe.  I feel fortunate, grateful, and a little guilty that I have the opportunities I have to travel and race while there are others in other parts of the world who are at least as capable.  At this point the majority of sponsorship dollars to travel tend to go to European and North American athletes.  My point is not to point to the plight of any of my comrades, but rather to highlight the fact that when the money gets to South America as it inevitably will, many North Americans, like myself, will get a taste of humble pie if they assume that they can just fly in for an easy win.

The next few days were spent eating more grass-fed beef and recovering from the race.

One of seven race directors, Horacio, hosting a post-run BBQ with family & friends.
Some of my return flights were delayed and canceled making the return trip over 48 hours of travel before finally arriving at home.  When I returned I saw the trailer for the documentary about the race produced by Ride the Andes.  I had a really good time working with them and I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product when it when it comes out in January.  Even more, I hope to return soon with my family to Chile for the next edition of Vulcano Ultra Trail.

If you are looking for adventure and the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful places on earth I encourage you to visit Chile and participate in one of the various distances offered at Vulcano Ultra Trail.

Many thanks to my family, sponsors, and the race directors of Vulcano Ultra Trail for making it possible for me to participate in such a well organized, well marked, well managed, challenging event! ¡Hasta la proxima!

Race Day Nutrition - Keep it Simple

When it comes to race day nutrition just keep it simple.

If your race is less than 90 minutes, you probably don’t need to eat on the run.  If it is hot or humid you can drink some water or electrolyte drink along the course, but proper training, a balanced breakfast a few hours before the start, and regular hydration leading up to the event should get you through a 15 to 90 minute run or race without the need for additional aid.

After 90 minutes of continuous aerobic activity, your body runs out of glycogen stores (carbohydrates – sugars & starches) and starts relying on available fat and protein to fuel itself.  The reason people hit the wall or bonk between 90 and 120 minutes into an aerobic effort is because they have run out of glycogen (sugars & starches) and/or electrolytes (salt, potassium, etc.).  The body is trying, but not as efficient at using fats and proteins as its primary fuel source.  Essentially, the body is feeding off itself which is why it doesn’t feel good and why your ability to perform diminishes.


Carbohydrates consist of simple sugars and complex starches which basically means that one digests faster than the other.  Common sources of sugar while on the run are non-diet electrolyte drinks (sugar-free options defeat the purpose and will inevitably lead to an epic bonk), fruit (bananas, oranges, watermelon), gels, honey, chews, blocks, chomps, gummy bears, hard candy, etc.  Sugar sources vary from fructose, to sucrose, glucose/dextrose, and maltodextrin, but many pre-packaged products and mixes include a combination of a variety of sugars.


Common sources of starches while on the run are potatoes, potato chips, breads, bananas (both starches and sugars), and granola bars, etc.  Some people pre-make rice balls and other light, starchy items like oatmeal cookies or homemade energy bars to fuel their runs, but such items are not always found at aid stations.


In addition to carbohydrates, electrolytes play an essential role in your body’s performance.  The combination and concentration of electrolytes vary from product to product, but one essential electrolyte that works as the spark plug to keep your muscles firing is sodium (i.e. salt).  Some people claim that we already have enough salt in our diets and that we don’t need to add extra salt while exercising, but if you’ve ever found yourself cramping up in your calf or hamstring and seen how almost instantaneously the consumption of salt eliminated the cramp, it’s hard to argue with its efficacy.   Common electrolyte sources while on the run can be found in electrolyte drinks, gels, salt caps, and broth.  Some races may have potatoes with salt and salty potato chips on course as well.

I have found that the longer the race, the more I need to focus on nutrition early on.  When the race is less than 2:00 I typically stick to water and possibly the electrolyte drink on course.  If the race is between 2:00 and 3:00 I might add a salt cap or a gel or two.  When the race is longer than 3:00, it typically means I will be carrying at least some of my fuel with me, so I focus on sipping an electrolyte drink every 15 minutes, and consuming 200 calories every 30 minutes, and taking a salt cap every hour.

The races in which I have been meticulous about nutrition are the ones in which I have raced the best, particularly in the second half.  On the other hand, when I have allowed myself to get caught up in a race too early and neglected regular nutrition, I haven’t had anything left toward the end of the race.

Pre-Race Nutrition

When I run a marathon or shorter, I like to eat something light like oatmeal, toast or granola bars with nut butter, a banana and orange juice three to four hours before I race.  When the race is early enough that I won’t naturally be up hours before the race, I usually bypass a fibrous breakfast, opt for more sleep, and eat a banana and some nut butter on my way to the start.

On-the-run Nutrition

In races beyond 3:00, I aim to sip an electrolyte drink at least every 15 minutes.  If it’s hot outside I will do it naturally, but sometimes when it’s cool I need a reminder so I set a timer on my watch that sounds every 10-15 minutes.  I use the timer to remind me when to drink, eat, and take in additional electrolyte caps. I try to take in as many liquid calories as I can through electrolyte drinks and gels.  I also usually take at least one salt cap per hour to ensure I’m getting what I need.  If I feel my muscles cramping up or buckling, I increase my salt intake.  If I enter an aid station and something looks good I eat it or stuff it in my pack or pocket to eat along the way.

Post-Race Nutrition

Post-Race nutrition is equally important to long-term success.  Post-race refreshments vary, but soup is rather common and it helps me warm up while settling my stomach.  Many longer races serve some sort of post-race protein in the form of burritos, quesadillas, burgers, or sandwiches.  Regardless of your dietary leanings, get some protein in within 30 minutes after your race.  This will aid in muscle repair and will decrease the amount of time off post-race.  You can do prime your body for recovery by consuming a handful or nuts or jerky, a protein shake or bar.  Just be sure to get something in sooner rather than later.

In addition to protein, be sure to hydrate.  Water is always best, but if your stomach is struggling to keep the water down, I suggest carbonated water or ginger ale until your stomach settles.

Practice fueling before the race

Like most things in life, race day nutrition is a very individual thing.  It requires practice in training and racing and the willingness to experiment to find what works best for you.  My advice – keep it simple. Find the combination of sugars, starches, and salts that works best for you.

Daily Nutrition

While I wouldn’t recommend most common race-day foods as part of a regular diet (simple sugars, potato chips, soda), the reason they work so well during long races is that the nutrients are so refined that they get right into your blood stream, notifying your liver, brain, and muscles that you can sustain your effort because you have enough fuel to get you to the next aid station.

For sound advice on what to eat on a regular basis to keep you lean and energized from day to day, read this article on Daily Nutrition.

bust of jake

Jacob Puzey is a professional runner and internationally certified running coach at Peak Run Performance.  To learn more about training and racing, check out the other articles Jacob has written on his personal blog  To begin working with Jacob as a coach visit Peak Run Performance and sign up for one-on-one coaching. 

Ten Time-Tested Training Tips

As an athlete and coach my goals are always long-term: What can we do now so that we are still enjoying running decades from now?

With athletes from all over the world, of all ages, abilities, and aspirations, I am often asked for general guidelines to lead them toward their long term goals.  

I generally say that each athlete is different and it is important for us to find what works best for them.

That being said, there are a few general training principles that are applied universally from the most consistent athletes and coaches in the sport.

The following ten tips are good for all athletes to keep in mind, particularly people just getting into the sport and/or coming back from time away.

  • Gradually increase your volume.
  • Avoid increasing total weekly volume by more than 10% per week.
  • Avoid increasing your longest run by more than 10% from week to week. 
  • The long run should equal 20% to 25% of total weekly volume.
Volume/Intensity Equilibrium over the course of a training cycle
  • Gradually increase intensity.
  • When increasing volume, maintain or decrease intensity.  
  • When increasing intensity, maintain or decrease volume.
  • Run on soft surfaces as often as possible to enable your body to run more without as much stress on your bones and joints.   
  • Replace shoes regularly (every 300-500 miles) to avoid overuse injuries. 
  • Stress + rest = progress (Greg McMillan is notorious for saying this).  Take regular down (low volume or low intensity) weeks, or off days.

These are general principles that can be applied generally.  There are bound to be exceptions to each of these rules.  As I said before, these should provide a good starting point for beginning runners, runners coming back from time off, or runners struggling with regular injuries.  

Regardless of the age, experience level, or ability of the athlete it is important for athletes and coaches to work together to find what works best for them.  Finding the right balance of stress, rest, and stimulus will be the key to your long term success.  

Managing the Tempo Run with Cruise Intervals: Georgetown 400s

Managing the tempo run: One of the most essential, yet most challenging workouts for runners to do correctly is the tempo run.  Whether it be lack of long stretches of flat terrain without stoplights, high heat, or the inability of the athlete to run at or near their lactate threshold without going over it, the tempo run is often a frustrating experience for athlete and coach alike.  

Athletes tend to either run too fast or too slow, essentially losing the benefits of the workout – to build endurance and increase lactate threshold by working in or just below that specific heart rate zone.  While heart rate monitors can be helpful in learning what tempo effort should feel like, not all athletes have access to such technology and most need to take a stepping stone approach to be able to handle a standard 20 minute tempo run. 

Cruise Intervals: One means of preparing athletes for continuous tempo efforts while producing similar stimulus is breaking the tempo efforts down into shorter, more manageable cruise intervals.  Cruise intervals allow the athlete to get in the desired volume of quality running, while providing regular feedback about pace.  In fact, cruise intervals often provide opportunities to cover more ground than the athlete otherwise could at the same pace if running continuously.

Georgetown 400s: One of my favorite cruise interval workouts is known as Georgetown 400s.  Georgetown 400s get their name from the former Georgetown University middle distance program notorious for transforming athletes with shorter distance speed into mid-distance superstars.  When they started, many of the athletes could not do a 4 mile tempo run so their coach, Francis Gagliano, had them start doing short cruise intervals to help build their stamina.  They already had the speed.  They just needed to learn to extend it.  Georgetown 400s helped them blend their speed with endurance and the results were astounding.

Georgetown 400s are run in the outside lane of the track.  You begin each interval at the outside lane stagger where you would start if you were starting the 400m dash in the outside lane.  Run the entire 400m interval in the outside lane until you cross the finish line. 

Track dimensions w/ 400m stagger.  Modified image from

Recovery: Your recovery is simply the time that it takes you to walk/jog from the finish line in the outside lane until you get to the start of the outside lane stagger (roughly 30-45 seconds).  Then start again.  

Because cruise intervals are shorter than a typical tempo run, to get the same stimulus they are usually a few seconds per mile faster than threshold pace, but not as fast as traditional VO2 max interval pace.  What makes them challenging is that the rest intervals are shorter than between VO2 max intervals - usually about half the time it takes you to run the cruise interval.

While this pace will seem slow compared to what most people typically do when they run intervals on the track, the goal is to gradually fatigue the body and still run a few more intervals at threshold pace while fatigued. 

You want to finish this workout feeling like you could do at least two more at the same pace.

Start with a 15-20 minute warm up of easy running and drills, then do 6-8x400m at cruise interval pace with the walk/jog recovery from the finish line to the lane 8 stagger.  Then cool down with an easy jog for 15-20 minutes.  

Pace: To determine your cruise interval pace, use the McMillan Running Calculator.  

For example, an 18:09 5K runner training to run 17:30 for 5K, would run Georgetown 400s at approximately 1:29 to 1:31 per lap.  

Please see the paces below from the McMillan Running Calculator for further reference:

Stamina and cruise interval paces for an 18:00 5K runner based on the McMillan Running Calculator

Do this work out once every two weeks.  Add 2x400m intervals each time that you do it.  Soon, you will be doing more than 5K (12.5x400m) worth of intervals at threshold pace.  This builds stamina and your ability to run close to race pace without breaking down.

I've known runners (800m runners to ultramarathoners) who have built up to 40x Georgetown 400s by simply adding one or two intervals per week.  This workout builds stamina and helps athletes stay on pace which isn't always possible if you are trying to do a tempo run on a busy road or trail.  I've personally used them in my own training for marathons and ultramarathons and I have found them to be beneficial for the athletes with whom I work.  

Injury prevention: One of the advantages of Georgetown 400s is that by running in the outside lane you can often avoid the congestion of the inside lane while putting less stress on the inside and outside of your legs by not turning so tightly. 

Practice fueling: An additional benefit to cruise intervals is that they provide a means of practicing fueling and hydrating while on the run without having to carry a bottle or drop one off hoping to find it when you get there.  By simply placing a water bottle with water or an electrolyte drink on the outside of the track near the finish line you can take a swig or two between intervals.  This will not only make the workout more manageable in the heat, it will also help you prepare to fuel during your upcoming race

Building up: Naturally, if you are getting tired of quarters or simply want to switch things up, you can do the same thing with 800s, 1000s, 1200s, etc. Just follow the paces prescribed in the calculator for cruise interval (see example above) and give yourself approximately half the total run time in recovery before starting the next interval.  

Make it a fartlek: If a track is not available, you can do cruise intervals as a fartlek by running 6-8 x 2 minutes at tempo interval pace/effort (comfortably hard) and then jog half the time that you ran as recovery between intervals. Increase the number of fartlek intervals by 2-4 each time that you do it.  

Variations: As your training progresses and your stamina increases, you can do variations of this workout by adding some speed intervals to the end of the workout.  For example, after running 16x400m at Cruise Interval Pace, run 4x200m at speed pace (roughly mile pace) with a 200m jog recovery.  

Jacob Puzey is an IAAF & USATF certified endurance running coach who helps athletes of all ages and abilities from all over the world to reach new heights in their running performance.  If you are interested in working with Coach Jacob Puzey, please visit

Enduring Well - The Value of Speed Work for Ultra Runners

Most of us look forward to racing as a means of testing our limits.  When we pin on a bib number we hope to do more than merely endure the experience – we want to endure it well.  So what can we do in preparation for an upcoming endurance event to improve our performance?

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the need to increase stamina and strength are paramount in ultra running.  But what role, if any, does speed work play?  The value of speed work for ultrarunners has long been disputed.  Even today when many of the more competitive ultras are won by those who implement speed work in one form or another into their training routine, some naysayers insist that there is absolutely no need for speed work in ultra training.  This age-old debate can be attributed, in part, to semantics and, in part, to culture. 

Speed work, when defined as ‘anything shorter and faster than goal race pace/distance’ is quite broad.  When we are talking about ultra pace and distances this could include most if not all running done in training.  If this definition of speed work is too broad, we can narrow it to ‘any effort in training designed to increase the athlete’s ability to cover ground at a faster rate.’

It is doubtful that anyone training for a 100 mile race never trains faster than his/her goal race pace.  It is rarer that anyone training for a 100 mile race does not do shorter races at a quicker clip than goal 100 mile pace to practice racing without going to the well.  According to the aforementioned definitions, these shorter, faster races qualify as speed work.  They are shorter and faster than goal race pace and distance and they are run as a means of preparing the mind and body to ultimately cover the goal race distance at a faster pace than what one could do without such race simulations.

Ironically, it is not uncommon that some of the same people who regularly run shorter, faster races insist that there is no benefit to including speed work in a training plan in preparation for an ultra distance race.  Yet, based on the definitions above that is exactly what they are practicing.

Perhaps, by speed work those who claim to oppose it mean ‘fast repeats on a track.’  But if the definition of speed work is contingent upon being run on a track it doesn’t take long to find very fast people who do plenty of quick training designed to increase speed off of a standard 400m track.

Cross country, and its close cousin, mountain running, consist of competitive, fast, relatively short competitions.  Many of the world’s best cross country and mountain runners train at high intensities entirely off road and off a synthetic 400m track.  However, you would be hard pressed to find one of them who does not implement ‘speed work’ in some form into their training.

Many of those who excel at the shorter cross country and mountain races have made the transition to ultra racing in recent years – Sage CanadayMario MendozaRyan Bak, Rob Krar, and Max King – to name a few.  While their speed isn’t always their most valuable asset, it doesn’t seem to hurt them when they get to the last quarter of a race and it is time to shift gears.

Fartlek workout with some of the high schoolers I coach.
Fartlek workout with some of the high schoolers I coach.  Photo by the Hermiston Herald.
Another argument against ‘speed work’ comes from cultural purists who believe that ‘structured training’ diminishes the organic nature of trail and ultra running by tarnishing it with the record setting mentality of track or road running.  Yet, that argument does not diminish the fact that with or without a structured training program, each of us feels better on some days than others and naturally do some runs faster and harder than others.  Whether we consciously or unconsciously surge up a hill or feel inspired as we run along a new stream of snow runoff or get spooked by critters along the trail we vary our pace and intensity – ultimately preparing our bodies to run faster.

If the definition of speed work is contingent upon being ‘structured’ it doesn’t take long to find very fast people who do plenty of training designed to increase speed off road without being tied to a monolithic training plan.  The Swedish term, fartlek, is not just an awkward word to utter in mixed company.  It is at the essence of what it means to run by feel – by integrating speed as play into your general aerobic work.

If one were to pole the most competitive 50K finishers one would likely find that they all employ at least some combination of speed work (whether formally or informally) into their training.  The argument still holds true for top 50 milers and 100 milers.  While the surfaces, paces, and distances may change and the structure of the workouts may differ, every competitive runner pushes their body to improve.

One of the most accomplished ultra runners over the past decade, Geoff Roes, discussed his philosophies about speed work in Bryon Powell’s, Relentless Forward Progress: A guide to Running Ultramarathons (2011, 40-46) in an article entitled “The Need for Speed?: Why Speed Training is Unnecessary for Ultramarathons.”

In his article, Roes contends that the ability to run a fast marathon does not translate to fast 50 and 100 mile performances due to the fact that the vast majority of road marathoners “get caught up thinking that training for a 50- or 100-miler is quite similar to training for a marathon . . . Running 50 or 100 miles is about strength and endurance.  It’s about nutrition and hydration.  It’s about patience, stubbornness, and determination.  It’s about a lot of things, but it’s really not much about leg speed” (Powell, 41-42).

I agree with most of what Roes said above.  However, I disagree with regard to the role of leg speed.  Competing in ultras requires far more stamina and strength than a marathon or other shorter distances.  However, in the same article, Roes admits to doing tempo runs as he lowers his mileage and increases the intensity toward a goal race.  He also states that while his own foot speed is greater than that of Anton Krupicka, Anton does so much stamina and strength work that foot speed never even comes into play.

History has a way of correcting our assumptions.  Unbreakable: The Western States 100 chronicles the historic showdown between 100 mile champions Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, and Kilian Jornet in 2010.  As a foreshadowing of things to come, the former NCAA DI harrier, ran down and defeated the two-time Leadville champion, Krupicka.  While Roes may believe that his foot speed did not contribute to his eventual win, any onlooker could see that Geoff was simply the most efficient over the final miles.  Certainly, nutrition, stamina, strength, patience, and fortitude played HUGE roles, but none of us should be surprised that the eventual champion was also a former NCAA Division 1 runner – Geoff Roes.

Let me be clear, Geoff is one of my heroes and a great ambassador of the sport.  I love reading his blogs and appreciate his unassuming, humble demeanor.  When I met him in only my second ultra ever, he was fresh off his historic win at WS 100 yet kind enough to let me try and hang with him despite not even knowing who he was.

Despite Geoff’s affable personality and ultra runner ethic, Geoff has a history of running fast at shorter distances.  In his ultra running prime, Geoff was usually the best prepared athlete to toe the line.  He spent time in the mountains, alone, under duress, for long periods of time on his feet learning how to survive and thrive.  But in addition to his ascetic preparations, Geoff often had the best foot speed out of anyone late in the race.  My only point here is that his leg speed didn’t seem to ever be a detriment once he learned that he couldn’t rely on leg speed alone or mere marathon training.

Although if pressed to do so I would likely define the tempo running which Geoff admits to doing in preparation for a hard effort as ‘stamina work,’ I fear that those who read statements like Geoff’s subtitle – “Why speed training is unnecessary for ultra runners” – will assume that all training should be long slow slogs through the mountains when in reality even Geoff would argue that is absolutely not the case.  It was not what led him to be so successful and it is why the sport is seeing such an influx of relatively fast post-collegiate runners who are willing to put in the time and requisite strength and stamina work in order to be there at the end when they will have to call on a kick.

It is why the likes of Dylan BowmanDakota Jones, and Chris Vargo who were not collegiate runners have begun working with coaches who prescribe threshold and fartlek runs.  It is how Sage CanadayMax King, and Rob Krar hang on to the super strong stamina guys and then drop sub six minute miles and leave them in their wake.  And, yes, it is how the enigmatic Zach Miller burst onto the scene with seemingly no credentials other than a passport, thousands of miles logged at sea, and NCAA DIII running experience.  They all incorporate hard running at shorter and faster intervals than goal race distance and pace – also known as speed work.

2014 finish on track
Finishing Strong after 40+ miles. Photo by Animal Athletics.
Speaking from my own experience as an ultra runner who grew into ultras by competing at shorter distances, I can simply attest to the HUGE mental and physical value that knowing your body is able to cover ground at a faster pace has in an ultra event.  A few weeks ago at the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40 Mile Trail Run I missed a clearly marked turn in the first ten miles of the race and got off course for about 10 minutes.  Besides the early leader, twelve to fifteen people who had been behind were now ahead.
A few years ago I would have had to resist the pace driven competitor in me who would have wanted to throw a fit that I had missed the turn and lost so much time, but I’ve grown to accept and embrace such instances in ultras.  Rather than freak out about lost time and shut down mentally, I determined to continue fueling well and work my way back into it.  I knew that there were another three to four hours left of running.  I figured if I had to I could probably run 30 to 60 seconds faster per mile than everyone who had pulled ahead of me when I missed the turn because that is probably how much further ahead of them I was before the turn.  I had more than 30 miles to make up the ground which would be plenty of time and distance to do it.  By simply returning to my casual early pace I’d gradually real in most of them.  By mile 25, when I finally began to see the tail end of the lead pack I felt fresh and ready to pounce.  When I got them in my sites I naturally started clipping off sub 6:00 miles for a couple of miles.
How was I able to run that pace so late in the race? Because 1) I hadn’t been killing myself to get to that point in the race – I had been fueling regularly and working my way into it – and 2) 6:00 pace was once considered easy for me when I was training for shorter, faster races.  3) I have the advantage of training with fast high school middle distance runners as their coach.   When I regularly do strides, fartleks, and tempo workouts with them my speed and confidence increase.  When the time comes to shift gears in ultras, if I have been fueling consistently I know that I can increase my speed to a quicker clip.

Now, I don’t share my own experience because I consider myself fast.  I simply share it to relate the value of speed work in ultra training for a guy who currently isn't able to log HUGE miles, but is still able to compete in ultras.  If we want to talk about someone who is really fast, imagine what it would be like to be Rob Krar.  (I know most of us suffer from beard envy, but if I knew how to help you with that I'd have a better beard myself).  What would it feel like to be a sub 4:00 miler cruising along at 7:00 pace in an ultra? When he has to drop a few sub 6:00 miles to run down an accomplished ultrarunner, that is still 2:00 per mile off of his maximal effort, so relatively speaking, it is still not that fast (for him).

Six minute mile pace was the pace Sage ran day after day after day on easy runs in Michigan when training with the Hansons.  It is the pace that most collegiate distance running guys do their easy runs at even when they aren’t supposed to.  When these guys come out of college with some running background and they decide to cut their teeth on an ultra it is rarely the pace that kills them.  It is usually the distance, or the altitude, or the terrain, or the nutrition.  It is all of the things that Roes mentioned in his article. But when these same people address these other issues and train their bodies for stamina, strength, and skill, it is their leg speed and efficiency - a by-product of speed work - that ultimately get them to the podium.

What do you think?  Are speed work and leg speed key factors in determining ultra running success?

2014 sigle track head onJacob Puzey is a competitive endurance runner and coach for McMillan RunningAltraFirst EnduranceTrail Butter, and Swiftwick.  Visit his personal blog, like his athlete page on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @coachjacobpuzey for additional ways to improve your running.