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Lessons learned (Bootlegger 50k race report)

...or "Why ultrarunners need adequate rest," or "Confessions of an over trainer," or "When serial racing and training goes bad," or "Why it's important to listen to your body," or...

Result: DNF

the sun rising before the 7am start in boulder city, nv
scenic views along the bootlegger 50k course
To begin, many thanks to Ian Torrence and Josh Brimhall for doing an outstanding job putting on a first-class race. Ian and Josh are both perennial ultrarunning badasses and incredibly nice guys as well. It'd be worth running in any events that they put on in the future. Hats off, fellas. 

My race was over after the first climb of the course, just 5km into the race. Justin Ricks forged ahead to chase down the group of eight about a minute ahead of us. I couldn’t move any faster, my legs felt heavy, my body felt depleted. I had no race in me. I mostly jogged the remainder of the first loop (~15.5 miles) and called it a day after two hours of running.

The outcome at the Bootlegger 50k was a tough pill to swallow and tough pills are difficult to digest; in my case, it's taken nearly three weeks. The longer period of reflection allowed me to come away with some valuable lessons that I will try to properly articulate here. Of course, every ultrarunner is different, and so has differing physiological builds, psychological makeups, etc. As a result, it is hard to draw any universal lessons about how to approach training and racing. Still, I think I've drawn some lessons following Bootlegger that many people could benefit from, if they haven't figured these things out themselves already. 

Before reading here, it would be worth reading the three part series written by Joe Uhan for iRunFar on overtraining syndrome. The first part distinguishes between different types of overtraining syndromes and gives an overview of overtraining symptoms; the second part gives tips on treatment and prevention; and in part three overtraining is discussed with respect to trail ultrarunning in particular.

Here are five lessons learned:

1. Ultrarunners require adequate recovery time
I learned this lesson about six months too late. I had the pleasure of running with ever-talented Flagstaff local Rob Krar in the days leading up to Bootlegger when he asked me (something like), “you've been racing a lot, have you had much recovery this year?” It dawned on me then that I had had very little, save for a little over a week in the spring when I was injured, and that got me reflecting on my lackluster performances this fall: I was run down. I had been racing and training extensively this year without any proper recovery. This proved an ominous premonition: my race day performance should have been unsurprising, given my long, continuous season.

The point here is that several periods of rest should be incorporated into most ultrarunners seasons, provided that an ultrarunner wants to race at a high level numerous times in a year (on the other hand, if the goal is simply to finish races, regardless of finishing time, then significant recovery periods are less important). A full year of racing and training is generally too much on the body when recovery time is absent. Time off from running is extremely beneficial following long, hard efforts (like an ultra) as well as at the end of a season (as an anecdote: Krar said that he took about a month off following Western States in June; he then went on to win the UROC 100km in September. That rest sure seems like it was beneficial!) Full weeks and even months off of running help to restore the body by giving it time to replenish depleted muscles, over used joints, and strained tendons and ligaments. My last two seasons have lacked these weeks off and my body seems to be paying the price now.

2. Serial racing is not for everyone
I was toeing the start line of a race at the marathon distance or longer for the 11th time of the year at Bootlegger. While one race a month is not exactly serial racing, it’s a hell of a lot of long races. Again, given that I try to race hard and achieve a particular time at each race, this takes a rather serious toll on the body. I began to see some decline in race performance at TNF-DC in June (though I think my shortcomings in this race were due to other factors like extreme heat), though the decline was much more noticeable and prevalent come September at TNF-Wisconsin.

This means that, for me, something like 5 – 8 races a year at the marathon distance or longer is best for now. This number could very well increase as my aerobic base continues to grow over the years and as I grow more accustom to racing ultras.

3. Serial training is not for everyone
You might think that if you aren’t racing much, you don’t need to take time off, since training is not as strenuous as a race and so the body can hold up throughout training periods.

Such a thought seems generally mistaken. While singular hard efforts, like races, will have a greater immediate impact on a runner than a single training effort, challenging training efforts agglomerate and so too do their effects. As such, long training periods, if done without proper recovery, can leave an ultrarunner over extended and fatigued. This means that, even in the midst of a training block, time off from running can be beneficial. During a training block, a few days off can be very beneficial; after a serious training cycle, longer breaks may also be needed. This is all dependent on how long the training block is and how strenuous it proves.

4. A possible answer when a race goes bad
If your performances begin to flatten out or plateau, you might be either over trained or over raced. This possibility should be considered if you fail to see improvements in your race performance, especially if this failure occurs after a strong training cycle.

In my case, after an excellent second half of the summer that included lots of miles, altitude, and elevation change, I raced poorly. I initially theorized that my poor performance was due to other factors such as a lack of specificity in training, being away from racing for several months, etc. Looking back, it seems clear that I was over trained and under rested. Unfortunately we are not invincible and, unlike duralast batteries, we are not built to last (or built to withstand anything). The result is that we can be over trained or over raced. This should be kept in mind when analyzing a race performance.

5. Don’t travel too much
That is, if you want to race to your full potential, don’t travel too much. What did I do for seven consecutive weekends leading up to the Bootlegger 50k? I traveled, by car or by plane, to races or for leisure. From the last weekend in September until the second weekend in November, at which time I ran Bootlegger, I was on the go. The continuous travel was tiresome and it sucked some energy out of me. (Subsequently, it left me very, very sick. I’m presently overcoming an eight-day cold.)

There are few things I enjoy more than traveling to see wonderful people and beautiful places, but when high level racing is on the horizon, it’s probably best to keep the travel to a minimum. 

enjoying las vegas with cousin drew after the race (thanks to him and his girlfriend, laura, for helping me out during the week and weekend.)
Here's to implementing these lessons in 2014!