Putting Together a Race Plan | April 20, 2012
It’s two in the morning. You stagger out of the woods into the glaring lights of an aid station that took forever to reach. You collapse into a folding canvas chair and your drop bag appears at your feet along with a cup of soup and half a turkey sandwich. But the pain from the blisters on your feet and just sheer exhaustion have dulled your mind. The stuff in your drop bag is a confused jumble. You sip the soup and gnaw on the sandwich. It’s hard to even think about what to do next. The end of the race seems ridiculously far off. The only appealing idea is dropping and getting to bed. What you really need right now is a plan, so please don’t tell me that you don’t have one stuffed in the pocket of your hydration pack ready to whip out for just such a moment!
How is a plan going to help? Let’s see. It says you just reached the seventy mile mark, a big milestone in the race. The next station is only four miles farther. Not bad. You just came eight miles to get here. And look! Amazingly you’re ahead of your target time by half an hour. You could have sworn that you lost all sorts of time on that last stretch but actually it just felt that way. Your pace was fine. Plus, you’re still comfortably ahead of the cutoff time for this aid station. You may feel like something the dog threw up but in fact the race is going about as planned. And here’s a list of what to do at this aid station. Change into a warmer jacket, put fresh batteries in your lights, find the package of energy gels and electrolyte tabs in the drop bag and load up your hydration pack. Put on fresh socks and take care of the blisters. Even with your reptilian thinking you can follow these instructions and slowly pull yourself back together.
Now of course the plan might not be all good news. Maybe the next leg is the longest stretch of the race, you’re falling way behind your expected pace, or you’re starting to flirt with the cutoff times. At least you know what you’re up against. If you still have some fight left in you, you can hurry things up and get out there for some more brutal punishment. If it was easy to run a hundred miles, everyone would be doing it. But either way, the time you spent coming up with a race plan can really pay off when the chips are down.
The heart of a race plan is a list of the aid stations, their mileages and the distance to the next aid station (see example). For each aid station, you can note if there it is a drop bag location or a place where you can meet your crew or pick up a pacer. (I strike through entries where I’m not going to use those services so that, for example, I don’t see a lot of drop bags and think I should look for mine. The strikethrough tells me this is not one of my spots.) The trick is coming up with your expected arrival time for each aid station, which is crucial information, as this is how you plan for what goes in your drop bags. Working out your target aid station times is something of an art. You need to make a good guess at your pace and then apply it to the distances between aid stations. You want to adjust for a slowdown in the second half of the race, and you should factor in the elevation changes between aid stations and time you will be spending sitting there in a camp chair wishing you were home in bed or dead or doing anything except trying to run a hundred miles.
Study the list of finishing times from the previous year’s running of your target race to get an idea of how hard the course is. For example, are most people finishing in the 28 hour range or are three-fourths of the field taking over 32 hours? If you’ve run a race with a very similar finishing pattern, you can look at your own splits for that race to project your times. Or if you find a runner who you know is of a similar ability to you in the list of finishers for your target race, you can use that runner’s performance as a guide. The race plan example shown includes just one column of projected times that result in a 30 hour finish, but you can add additional columns that project splits for a best case scenario finish time, or for a slower time that just stays ahead of the cutoffs. Of course the cutoff times for the aid stations is critical information if you’re a slower runner.
With your projected times, you can work out what needs to happen at each aid station, especially the ones where you’ll have a drop bag, meet your crew, or pick up a pacer. For example, if it’s supposed to get dark at eight o’clock, you would not put your lights at an aid station you’re planning to reach at eight-fifteen. If you’re late, you could be in real trouble. Pick up your lights at the six-thirty aid station. You need to plan for warm clothes for the night, for refreshing your sunblock and skin lubricant during the day, keeping a supply of energy gels and electrolyte tabs, changing shoes and socks, and eating properly. All the critical elements for the run should appear on the race plan. What seems obvious to you sitting at home planning is easy to miss when you’re sitting there at mile seventy-five, you’re all beat up, it’s dark and cold, and your crew is hopping around trying to help. That is not the time for a lot of sharp thinking on your part. It’s the time to have everything clearly listed out on your race plan. Incidentally, if you put your race plan in a common sheet protector, you can fold it up, take it along, and it will be protected from the elements.
There’s a famous palindrome (a phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards) that relates to great feats and having a plan: “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” Running an ultra isn’t exactly in the same league as building the Panama Canal, but it is similar in that a good plan can help you get the job done.