When we saw that Luis Alberto Hernando, second place finisher of the 2015 Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc–the unarguable epicenter of trail running–scratched from this year’s UTMB race, my eyes turned to the Americans. This year, three strong runners in the men’s category were all representing USA. It was a race that took turn after dramatic turn, and really illustrated the benefits of different styles of pacing.
The States has never netted a higher rank than 3rd–the most recent coming from David Laney in 2015–and with hot-shot newcomer Zach Miller in the crowd this year along with Nike Trail Running teammate Tom Tollefson, the other red white and blue was primed to finally win it. Three guys from similar backgrounds, even the same running team, Nike Trail Running, but 3 very different styles of racing.
Left to right: David Laney – slow and steady, Zach Miller – all-out effort, Tom Tollefson -start slow, then push hard.
Zach Miller ran off the line and never looked back. At 104 km he was leading the race by 26 minutes. Unbeknownst to Miller, at the same time, Tom Tollefson was sitting pretty at 9th place. Tom had been out of the picture in 13th since 45k in. David Laney was also bobbing around comfortably in the back, fixing his mustache in 11th place at that same mark. The cameras focused on Zach, while the others were virtually ignored.
But 100k was the point where the men separated from the boys.
The mid-summer sun laid into the runners. Fatigue came and positions up front started shuffling, leaving the other two Americans, Tom and David, climbing the ranks. 9th turned to 7th, and before long, all three Americans were grouped and battling together for 3rd, 4th and 5th. With the playing field level and 40k to go, one thing was certain: some of these guys had it in them, and some clearly did not.
Tom Tollefson kicked hard at the end, separating himself from the other Americans. He fought on with Gediminas from Lithuania, who passed him near the finish and held on tight, but Tom still came in strong, nipping at his heels just 4 minutes behind to take 3rd place. David Laney slammed through Chamonix, collapsing over the finish 11 minutes later, and Zach wouldn’t come in for another 20 minutes, and in this time he was overtaken by yet another runner, rounding out at 6th place.
Nearly every runner on the top-10 podium spent a large chunk of the beginning of the race somewhere 20-50 people back in the pack, held a steady pace for the vast majority of the race, ignoring the battling runners around them. They conserved energy, kept calm and when the time came, kicked it hard, crossing the finish line with nothing left in the tank.
In fact, nearly all of the runners (except Zach who faded to 6th) who led at the beginning either withdrew or ended somewhere near 39th-50th, absorbing sometimes 2-5 hours to their time as they tried to recover at aid stations and slogged at the end. Julien Chorier from France fell for the trap, chasing Zach in second place from 30k to 100k before dropping out without ever overtaking him.
So what can we learn from these guys?
Yes, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not scouting to win UTMB next year, but these lessons work in every race, from 10k road races to Ultra Trail 100-milers. It’s practically a cheat code, and it’s what every top runner aims to do: Start steady. Stay calm. Known your body and apply a fast but conservative pace. When the time comes, start a hard kick that you can carry into the finish. So how do you put together a plan like this?
- Start by studying the course. This should always be the first step. You’re three-quarters of the way in, feeling winded and you’re pushing your glycogen levels. As you start your kick, there it is: Mount Screwyouover. This happened to me at the Sun Moon Lake Marathon. Right smack dab at the end was a massive climb that I had to undertake on completely depleted legs. Although I was coming in hot on the 10th place runner, I died out right at the end by not conserving energy and preparing myself. It would have taken just a few minutes to look up the course map. The race doesn’t offer course maps? Google image search last year, or even check Strava for other people’s runs the year before. Never go into the race blind.
- Estimate a realistic goal finishing time. You can do this by checking the finishing times of previous races. Almost every race offers them on the site, or you can email and ask for the results.
After you find it, look up who ran it. Check those runners’ ITRA or Athlinks account. There’s no shame in stalking. You’re not looking up their beach pictures on Facebook, you’re trying to create what runners call an “avatar” or person of similar athletic ability. You can even google Strava results from past races by searching names and a title similar to the name of the race. Get creepy. Write stuff down. But be sure to check if the course is the same route and check if anyone mentions extreme weather for those years. In the end, you should have a good idea of what time you think you will finish, and a goal to aim for. A lot of races use Livetrail, and you can even see what time each runner got into each aid station.
- Extrapolate. Make a plan for yourself that is unique to you and your abilities by determining what kind of pacing you should be doing and where. Start by looking for landmarks like aid stations and hills. Memorize where on the course they are and what they indicate. Even if you don’t execute it perfectly, psychologically it makes the race feel smoother to break up the course into digestible sections, and knowing in the back of your head what you should be doing and where. I like to set up red, yellow and green light areas. Places where it’s okay to run harder because easier sections are ahead, or places I should check myself back, knowing that I need to conserve energy for what’s coming.
- Don’t rely on it. Use your data for a vague reference, but ultimately follow your body. The lights, banners, rivalries, prizes, and crowds do crazy things to runner’s minds. Ignore them. Remember that you are running your own race. Listen to your body. The race isn’t you against others. It is you against the clock. If you can beat the clock, you’ll beat the other runners as well.
In life, as well as trail running, things rarely go as planned. Sometimes you’ll find yourself far into the race, feeling great and destroying your target pace and you want to go faster. Sometimes the weather turns and suddenly it’s snowing in central Taiwan. Sometimes what you have recently or not so recently ate decides to make a dramatic exit from your body. Don’t pretend you can predict the future, just prepare for what may happen. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from making a plan ahead of time.