Getting Bulletproof | August 21, 2011
Running an ultra is always a challenge, especially when you’re tackling a new goal. It’s hard not to feel as jittery as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs the first time you try an ultra or during you’re first attempt at fifty or a hundred miles. Wouldn’t it be great if you could toe the starting line feeling confident that you’re totally ready? Wouldn’t it be beyond great if you could feel bulletproof?
Bulletproof is a state of mind backed up by a training regimen that has pushed you beyond your perceived limits and has targeted the event you’re attempting to run. The heart and soul of getting bulletproof comes in that last couple of months before your race, after all the easier base building is complete and before you’re ready to start your taper. Now you face the serious workouts where you need to dig deep, push way past the comfort zone, keep putting in the long runs despite the soreness and the fatigue, and fight off the desire to slack off. Gary Cantrell wrote about this part of the training cycle last year in this magazine. He called it “The Gauntlet,” a name that conjures up both the punishing trial involved and the sense that if you survive you have earned a new status. The captured pilgrim, having endured the blows of Iroquois war clubs, is freed or accepted as an equal. Your goal after passing through the training gauntlet is to emerge bulletproof.
Now you could just plan a series of long runs, plod your way through them, and hope for the best. Or you could get bullefproof. Here’s the series of runs my running partner and I dreamed up the last time I wanted to be bulletproof. We started with the very toughest long run workout in our repertoire, a monster in a local county park that takes us more than five hours to run on a good day. It has a flat quarter mile at the beginning and end but every other inch of the course is elevation change, much of it very long, steep uphills and downhills. One exposed climb is so punishing it brings you to your knees at the slightest warmth in the air. On a hot day, it’s a killer. We normally treat this workout as the pinnacle of our training effort, but for our bulletproofing series, this workout became just the starting point.
We also imbued the runs with a little more magic and majesty by naming them. The first run we called “The Fellowship of the Green Gate.” It was our standard monster course but at the top of the highest ridge we took an out and back all the way to a green gate on the valley floor where we ritually shook hands. It added about five miles and more than an hour to the usual run. The very next weekend, we did the second run of the series, which we called “The Two Towers.” This time we departed the course and followed a very rough trail through a poison oak infested forest and up a ridge that literally required grabbing on to shrubs to climb to a distant fire tower. We ritually touched the door of the tower, returned to the course, and then repeated the whole tower trip again. This added more than two hours to the workout. If you know Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy, you will probably not be surprised to hear that the final workout of our series was called “The Return of the King.” The concept behind this run was simple and to us overwhelming: run the regular monster workout, return to the car for some food, and then run it again! It’s hard to overstate how monumental it felt to us to take the very hardest workout we’d ever done and then just blithely double it. When we finished the second go around, we indeed felt like kings. At eleven hours, it was the longest self-imposed training run I had ever done.
After the first two legs of the “trilogy,” we took a weekend off for recovery and then the next weekend ran a difficult 50K that pushes most finishers into times they normally see running fifty miles. We finished the trilogy on the next weekend so the whole four workout series was done over just five consecutive weekends. Obviously the result was building tremendous stamina and endurance. And with all the hill work, our quads were now like steel. We’d also faced many of the challenges that we’d be revisiting on race day: rolling out of bed before dawn, running through heat, eating and drinking to keep fueled, facing long climbs on exhausted legs, painful feet, chaffing, and all the other issues which needed to be dialed in. But here was the deal. After that crucible, we began to feel bulletproof. The icing on the cake, though, would be the targeted training that came before during and after the trilogy runs.
The targeted training for bulletproofing has two goals: to prepare you for the specific challenges of your chosen race and to address your own particular weaknesses. If you know the race is hilly, or full of technical sections, or typically hot on race day, then your task is clear. Load up on hill training. Seek out rough trails for your long runs. Pick the hottest part of the day to do your workouts. Identify the biggest challenges you are likely to face and then confront them over and over in your training. They will lose their power to stop you on race day. Likewise, work on your perennial weaknesses. If you have a calf that gets pulled easily, strengthen it up with some extra calisthenics. If blisters are a problem, switch up your shoes, socks, lubricants, or taping until you solve the problem. If your stomach always gets upset, try new combinations of gels, sports drink and solid foods on your long runs. If climbing is a problem, finish each climb during your training runs with an all out sprint near the top of each climb. If you fade at the end of a race, throw some pick ups into your long runs right when you would normally slow down. If you get sleepy while running at night, schedule some night runs and see if cat naps help or switching up what you eat and drink. Even if you don’t entirely “fix” an issue, you’ll probably learn how to cope with it better if it turns out to be a problem on race day.
So how did my race turn out? I wanted to be bulletproof because it was the first time I was trying a hundred mile race that stretched over two nights and was going to make me run probably five or six hours longer than I had ever run before. I started out at nine o’clock Friday night and faced stormy weather and an extremely tough course right from the start. By three o’clock Sunday morning, thirty hours after the start, the race director had to shut the race down for safety concerns because the storm was blowing like a hurricane and runners were going hypothermic on the long ridge where much of the race was run. Me, I was drenched to the bone and freezing cold. Earlier in the night, I had been lost for about an hour and I’d also taken a monumental fall right on a newly healed clavicle. I had just about reached an aid station on top of the ridge when I got the news about the cancellation, so now I had to turn around and backtrack for three hours to get off the course after covering over ninety miles. I was disappointed about the race being called off and not getting to finish, but you know what? Other than that, I felt great. Heck, I was bulletproof!