In the first eight miles of the Laurel Highlands 50K — for which I trained almost entirely on the track, with precisely zero runs longer than seven miles — there was a 700-foot climb followed by a 500-footer followed by a 1200-footer. And all of it on rocky, technical terrain like I’ve never run before.
I sure can pick ‘em.
Those eight miles took me an hour and 44 minutes, thanks in no small part to a 20-minute mile, a 17-minute mile, and several 15’s. By the end of that stretch, I was ready to call it a day. And a career.
And yet, I’m still not ready to give up on this low-mileage, no-long-run training plan. Here’s why.
The idea in a nutshell
In case you missed my post on low-mileage training, the approach I’ve been experimenting with is this: Optimize your workout time by focusing on building your anaerobic system, mainly through speedwork and tempo runs, with nothing that could be considered long, slow distance.
This depends on having an aerobic base already, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t dare attempt this. But I ran the Boston Marathon in April, so I figured that was sufficient. (And according to the folks at CrossFit Endurance, where I discovered this approach to endurance training, if you can run for 90 minutes then you’ve got the aerobic base you need.)
I really do want to stress this point – don’t try a plan like this if you haven’t run a lot of long races before. I’m not sure what the CrossFit stance on this is, but I would never recommend this low-mileage training for a first 50K or even a first marathon. If this had been my first race at this distance, I have no doubt that I’d have quit. Or died and been left for maggots on the trail.
How I Trained
The Boston Marathon was almost eight weeks before Laurel Highlands. I did very little training in the week immediately following Boston or in the week immediately prior to Laurel Highlands, so that leaves us with about six weeks of actual training.
During those six weeks, I focused on speed workouts at the track. I did eight or nine track workouts (I need to keep better records), mostly intervals of 800, 400, and 200 meters, with each workout totaling less than five miles inclusive of recovery jogs between sets.
Between track workouts, I did hard runs at a hilly trail, always between four and seven miles, at a pace that left me very tired by the end of each workout. (Since the terrain varied, I adjusted my speed to maintain a “comfortably difficult” tempo-run intensity.)
And that’s it. No long runs, no easy runs (okay, one easy run with dogs and the family), and probably only 12-15 miles per week. I had actually intended to do more frequent speed workouts, but I found pretty quickly that my recovery time wasn’t what it was when I was in Boston-qualifying shape. So I limited hard workouts to three per week, but as I continue this training through the summer, I’m planning to add a strength component and probably an additional speed or tempo workout as I gain fitness and recover faster.
How It Went Down
The 50K felt like a disaster. It was as hard as any 50-miler I’ve done, and after eight miles I really did feel like I was done. But I pulled it together and finished, even though several times I really felt like dropping out, having a beer, and never running again.
I finished in 7:16:08, and when you compare that to my previous 50K times of between 5:30 and 5:45, it seems terrible.
But though it wasn’t a great race for me, it’s not so horrible as it appears — my time was good enough for 39th place out of 93 finishers (114 starters). Even the winner, who blew away the rest of the field by almost half an hour, ran a 5:11. #2 was 5:39. That’s how hard this course was. (The crazy part is that Laurel Highlands also has a 77-miler that started on this same course. Unreal.)
No doubt, this race was brutal. The fact that it was so much harder than the previous 50K courses I’ve run sort of muddles up the experiment, but I did note several interesting things about how I felt that could be related to this unorthodox method of training for an endurance event.
- I felt surprisingly good during the first eight miles. Considering the size of these hills and the rockiness of the trail, neither of which I was used to, I felt really fresh through the hardest section of the course. I didn’t feel winded or like my legs were working extremely hard, even though they were — many of the hills were so steep that running up them was impossible.
- By the halfway point, my legs were in a lot of pain. Not the burning type of pain you get when your muscles are working hard, but the sore-and-stiff type of pain that you often feel after 20 monotonous, pounding miles on the road — pain in the feet and the knees, where there are lots of small stabilizer muscles. This was new for me: Up to this point, I’d always found that this kind of pain only happens on roads or in miles 40 to 50 of a 50-miler.
- I got a strong second wind during the final five miles. After hurting so much that I had to walk significant parts of several miles, I started cranking out 10- or 11-minute miles towards the end of the race. This may not seem like much, but on these technical trails where it was hard to even open up a stride, this was good. I noticed at this point that my legs weren’t hurting — maybe due to the aid station stop at Mile 26 — and this lack of pain was the reason I was able to run fast again. (That, and the realization that I only had five miles left of this hell was far less soul-crushing than having 23 miles left of this hell.)
- My lungs felt great and were not a limiting factor. Not that they usually are in a race of this distance or more, but still, with the hills on this course, that felt like a victory.
What I Took from This
Those thoughts might seem jumbled to you, but to me they add up to one thing — this method of primarily anaerobic training with no long runs improved my resistance to fatigue, but did not allow my legs to build up the tolerance to pain that comes with lots of miles.
But like I said, those first eight miles sort of wrecked the experiment. Who knows, the pain in my legs could have been the result of running those hills, a stretch like I’ve never run (or walked) in my life before. But a lot of that was walking, due to the steepness of the hills, so I really don’t think that would have created the pain I was feeling that I immediately recognized as the kind that comes from repeated pounding on the roads during long runs.
So the best I can say now is that the results are inconclusive. I’m still planning to run the Vermont 50-miler again in September, and this jaunt at Laurel Highlands taught me that no way in hell am I going to limit my long runs to only 7 or 10 or 13 miles, like the CrossFitters claim to do. I’ve got to develop some resistance to the pain.
But on the other hand, I’m encouraged to continue focusing on speedwork. I’ve made dramatic gains in what I can do in this workouts in only six weeks, and I’m excited to see what else is possible.
And what probably matters more than any of that is that I’m having more fun running than I have in a long time, since back when I was training to qualify for Boston. For the first time in what seems like ages, I look forward to getting out to the track, working my butt off for half an hour and feeling that burning in my lungs and being so out of breath I can’t speak.