It goes against all conventional running wisdom. To achieve success in an Ultra Marathon you need to increase your weekly mileage generally, you need to do quite a few serious long runs and compete in a marathon or two just to get you ready for the distance. I was asking myself the question – will this new plan work? I was in my car waiting for the time to move a bit closer to the start before I wanted to leave to get to the start. I was parked about 500 meters from the start of the well known Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. I did not doubt that I would finish the race (I have allready done 14 of these journeys in the past), but I was wondering about the amount of strain that the body would take. Would this new plan work? Of course this new plan was not my wisdom alone, but rather the application of work of Brian Mackenzie of Crossfit and Tim Ferriss (The Four Hour Body).
I left the car for the start of the race and managed to push through the excited crowd of athletes still waiting to get to a portable toilet or making their way to their starting pens. There are seeding blocks and I was on my way to block C. I managed to drop my tog bag at the truck collecting that. I had a delicious recovery shake in there that I filled with extra ice so that it could remain quite cold. Shortly after the finish I would grab this food – I was not sure how hungry I would be after the 56 km.
There were many faces in the C block, but there was such a calm confidence amongst most of the runners there. Many of the participants here have finished ten runs or more of this in the past. Then there were a few pretty excited new faces around. They qualified to start here as a result of a speedy finish in a qualifiying race. They were ready to go, eager for the gun that would signal the start of the race. Well we knew that there was enough time as the day would unfold to run a good race at a good pace. We shared a few jokes, but it was more nervous laughing than anything else. The real jokes would come later, after ten kilometers or so, when the pressure of the start is of and the struggle of what lies ahead was not real yet.
The gun sounded and we started moving, much like a cat that was stretching herself in the morning before getting to move on. It was a crisp morning, but not too cold. A wave to the camera and then the long slog started. We did not leave as fast as the A block runners – they were out like the cheetah ready to pounce on the prey. The sheer amount of people lowered the pace considerably. After 18 minutes of so I settled in a comfortable pace only to realise about a kilometer or so later that it was too comfortable – about 30 seconds per lap slower than what I anticipated. I started to pick up the speed after 25 minutes or so and bumped into an old friend. We chatted for a few minutes until I started walking for my compulsory walk (1 minute every nine minutes). Ten minutes or so later I caught up with him again and we started talking about children and life. We chatted to such an extent that I missed a walk break or two. Then I slowed down again for a walk. At this time my average pace came to quite close where I wanted it to be and I was a bit more relaxed.
There were two aspects to my plan – the first was the preparation which I will come to in a minute or so and the second was the execution on the day. The plan was to push faster than the previous year in the first half and then to see if I could just hang in there for the second half which would be slower than the first half, but possibly still good enough for a fair time overall. So I went through the half marathon mark at about the time I wanted to do it and halfway mark in about 1 minute slower than I planned. I was amazed at the ease with which I tackled the early hills. I remember how I felt at that stage a year previously and my legs were much stronger running the hills.
So the first half was ten minutes faster than the previous year and the second half two minutes faster. Of course I did get tired. I reached the marathon mark 13 minutes later than I planned for and the full route 7 minutes slower than a fair time, but 27 minutes slower than what would have been an ideal time for me for the day. I was very tired at about 52 kilometers, but happy to have completed the full race. A bit better pacing (maybe 3-5 minutes slower at half way could have given a better end result, but his is of course pure guesswork now.
The big gamble I took was to run no signficant (long races or runs) in the time leading to the ultra marathon. I ran a marathon in the beginning of October and went through the marathon mark in this race about 20 minutes faster than that time. I ran a 15 km race and a 10 km race and 11 parkruns of 5 km each. Those were the extent of the long runs with one treadmill run of 26 kilometers as maximum long run distance.
What I did do, however, was to do strenghtening exercises. I did 100 squats, 100 lunges on each leg, 100 pushups and one plank per day ranging from one minute initially to three minutes later. I did this for 55 days in the training stopping with this about three weeks before race day. I also did four times Tabata protocol for speed on a treadmill (20 seconds on and ten seconds of at my maximum speed for four minutes) and three Tabata leg press (four minutes of 20 seconds push and 10 seconds rest) sessions.
The other aspect that I have changed is my diet before the race and during the race. I have stopped carbo loading about two years ago as it always always made me feel sick and sluggish. I had to wean my body off the carbs.
During the race I had a mixture of two herbal “teas” to give me go in the beginning and I used this for the first 80 minutes. Then I switched to a mixture of an isotonic drink and a shake mix. I was consuming this over a 45 minute period. Another isotonic drink followed about an hour later. I grabbed one mini potatoe with salt on it along the road and a mini bar one chocolate after I ate a socalled express bar which is a mixture of protein and good carbs and a bit of chocolate. I made use of the water supplied along the route. Total value of the nutrition throughout the race was 543 kcal with 117 gram of carbohydrates and 4,6 gram of protein. Breakfast before the race was 67 gram of protein, 33 gram of fat and 41,6 gram of carb totalling about 770 kcal. Breakfast was taken 2.5 hours before the start of the race.
At about 52 kilometers I took another herbal mix drink as I lost focus and almost felt a bit like hitting the wall, It never really happened, though. I picked up a Coke at the end of the race, but that can is still in my fridge as I am writing this blog.
So the big gamble was that I did not train the traditional way and in fact did only an average of 28,5 km per week for the almost 24 weeks from October 14 to the day before the race. The last twelve weeks the average was aroung 33 kilometers per week.
So what is the bottom line for endurance athletes? We do not know the formula yet, but it seems that you could probably half your mileage and still get excellent results provided that you do enough strength building and speed as well. This of course is bad news for those of you that would want to use running to spend more time away from home, but good news for those looking for good results, but less time on the road!
Let’s test this theory of Brian MacKenzie and Tim Ferris a bit more!
If you want to be part of an experiment, let me know …
Motlokoa Nkhabutlane of Lesotho – winner of 2015 Two Oceans. Could these techniques also make him faster? He needed to go 8 seconds per kilometer faster on average to claim the R1million for a person breaking the record.