Speed Can Matter In Ultras: Lake Sonoma Edition
The Lake Sonoma 50 Mile course has not changed since the inaugural event in 2008, but the course records sure have. To be precise, they’ve changed exactly 16 times—or every single year, on both the men and women’s side, that the race has been run. The newest course-record holders, Alex Varner and Stephanie Howe, raised the bar en route to victory, finishing in 6:09:39 and 7:08:23, respectively, and bettering the previous course records by less than two minutes on the men’s side and nearly 18 minutes on the women’s side. Meanwhile, Ryan Bak, the second-place male, debuted at the 50-mile distance with the seventh-fastest time in the race’s history at 6:23:25, and third-place finisher, Jared Hazen, ran to a podium finish in 6:31:54, the 10th-fastest time. The women’s race was more competitive still, as Cassie Scallon blazed through the course and its more than 10,000 feet of climbing in 7:22:09, the second-fastest time ever, while Ashley Erba, also a 50-mile debutante with a staunch racing background on the track, finished third in the fifth-fastest time ever, 7:36:24. That’s a lot of fast!
How did these speedsters prepare for Lake Sonoma? More specifically, how many miles did they run per week and how many and what types of workouts did they suffer through to prepare themselves for such stellar performances? Varner, Howe, Bak, Scallon, Hazen, and Erba disclose answers to these questions and more.
Interview with Alex Varner
iRunFar: Varner, congratulations on your big win. Let’s talk about your training in preparation for Lake Sonoma (LS50). To begin, how many miles per week were you running?
Alex Varner: In the 10 weeks leading up to LS50, I averaged around 80 miles per week.
iRunFar: How does that compare to other training blocks?
Varner: That’s a little less than what I did prior to working with [my current coach] Jason Koop (Carmichael Training Systems), but since I started working with him back in September, I’d say my mileage has decreased a little but the quality has increased overall. In those 10 weeks, the highest week was 99 miles and the lowest was 58.
iRunFar: And how many miles worth of workouts were you putting in?
Varner: I ran probably an average of around 20 to 25 miles of quality workouts per week between tempo (longer, slower) and VO2Max (shorter, faster) intervals.
iRunFar: Was there anything you did differently in this training cycle than in previous training cycles?
Varner: My training has changed dramatically since I started working with Koop in September. Before him, I was basically on the standard collegiate/post-collegiate plan: one day of track work/intervals, one day of tempo/fartlek, and a long run per week. This is great if you want to run a 5k, half marathon, and marathon in the same season, but not so ideal when you want to run 50 or 100 miles. With Koop, I focus on developing one system at a time. So I spent several weeks in January and February running only three-minute intervals basically all out (or VO2Max training). I mixed these up between the track, hills, and varied terrain, and got up to three workouts per week of between eight and 10 intervals per workout session. These seemed to be aimed at improving my running economy at higher speeds and really getting my heart rate up. Then, I moved into several weeks of tempo intervals, which are longer (eight to 15 minutes) and a bit slower. Again, they were on varied terrain, and I peaked at three workouts per week of between 40 and 45 minutes total (So, [for example], four by 10 minutes or three by 15 minutes or five by eight minutes). These were designed, or at least [were seemingly designed], to get me comfortable with being uncomfortable. On top of both periods, I was also steadily increasing my long run, which got up to around three-and-a-half to four hours.
iRunFar: Can you talk about the details of some of those harder workouts?
Varner: As I said, the speedwork I did was during the VO2Max phase, where I was running only three-minute intervals, but got up to as many as 10 per workout session. I ran a couple of sessions on the track, where, for me, three minutes is right around 1,000 meters of running, so that’s kind of what I aimed to hit. I did that maybe two to three times in late January/early February. However, I would only get on the track about once a week. The other two sessions usually were comprised of one uphill session and another session over varied terrain. I was just running three-minute intervals basically all out. Uphill, I would cover almost a half-mile depending on how steep the grade was—I would try to vary the grade between workouts and sometimes within a workout.
iRunFar: Were there any workouts that you felt were most important for your preparation ahead of LS50? Did you feel more prepared than last year’s race, where you placed fourth and ran 15 minutes slower?
Varner: I don’t think there were any particular workouts that were the most important. It was more just the body of work I’d done over the 10 to 14 weeks leading up to it that made the difference. Although, I would almost always have a workout on Saturday followed by a long run on Sunday and I think that being tired heading into the long run on Sunday played a big role in my race at LS50. Being fairly tired, or at the very least not fresh, for a three- to four-hour run really sets you up well to deal with the pain and fatigue you experience later on in a race. Last year, LS50 was my first 50 miler and I didn’t really know much about what my body needed in terms of training, so it was a very eye-opening experience. This year, I knew a bit more what to expect and was able to better address those aspects in training as a result.
iRunFar: How does your cross country/road training background influence your ultra training? Do you find that your fast running history is advantageous when you race on trails beyond the marathon distance?
Varner: Before I started working with Koop, that sort of training—the collegiate/post-collegiate system—was all I knew. I didn’t run a lot of workouts on the trails, opting instead to stick to the track or the roads where it’s easier to run distance-based workouts, like 800-meter repeats as opposed to three-minute intervals. Despite doing different workouts under Koop, my background definitely still rears its head fairly often. For the most part, I think it’s simply being quite comfortable with running a workout on the track or the roads once or twice a week because that’s what I did for so long. It feels weird to go an entire training block without stepping on the track, which is what happened in my most recent tempo block. It makes for great specificity training, but I still think there’s value to be had in getting on the track at least a couple times in a block.
As a segue, it’s been amusing to see the new training group at San Francisco Running Company step on to the track. It’s mostly guys who don’t have a collegiate background, so they’ve never run serious track workouts and the first time they got their workout from the coach, they were asking each other what “400 @ 80” meant—that’s 400 meters at 80 seconds, or 5:20/mile pace. For me, that stuff was second nature after so many years of road/track training and racing. But after a couple of weeks, they got the hang of it, and on top of that, they noticed something that I’ve long felt was an advantage to running some workouts on the track/roads—speed. More specifically, working out on the track/roads forces you to get more comfortable and accustomed to simply running faster than you can on the trails. Having that in my training background is definitely advantageous, in my opinion. I know what it feels like to run sub-five-minute-mile repeats on the track, or running an entire race in the red zone, like a 5k, so running an ultra seemed slow to me at first. It’s a totally different type of pain, but I carry with me the knowledge that if I’m with someone with a couple of miles to go in a race who doesn’t have the road/track background I have, then maybe I’ll be more comfortable ratcheting up the pace a notch and that could make a big difference in results. With ultra races just getting faster, you have to be comfortable at higher speeds, even if you have to sacrifice some specificity to get there.
iRunFar: Yeah, very well said. Congratulations again and thanks for chatting, Varner!
Interview with Stephanie Howe
iRunFar: Stephanie, what an outstanding performance you had at LS50! Tell me how you prepared yourself for the event—how did training go for you?
Stephanie Howe: This spring I’ve had several obstacles, both good and bad, that have influenced my training leading up to LS50. First of all, I wanted to take some time off after TNFEC[ 50 Mile Championships] in December. [Author’s note: Howe placed third (post-race interview) at the ever-competitive December classic.] I was ready for a break. So I took one! My plan was to ski as much as possible, but Mother Nature (or global warming) had other plans. The snow in Oregon totally sucked. I kind of half skied and half tried to do any other activity besides running for the month of January.
In late January, [my husband] Zach [Violett] and I went on our delayed honeymoon to Bali. We left mid-January and returned February second. We didn’t really run there at all, which was great! We did, however, pick up a nice GI bug early into the trip. Fast forward to the return home. I was ready to get back to routine and follow a training plan. I had the Way Too Cool 50k looming in the next four weeks—yikes! [Author’s note: Howe finished second behind Megan Roche and was under the previous course record.] So I started running and realized that I felt pretty bad. My stomach felt just sour. It was aggravated every time I ran or walked quickly. I went to the doctor later that week and found out I had a hiatal hernia, which happens when your stomach protrudes into your esophagus. This happened from throwing up so forcefully in Bali. Gross.
Anyway, this is all build up to my training leading into the spring was not ideal. Way Too Cool went really well [and after it] I returned to more or less normal training. For me, that looks like somewhere between 75 and 90 miles a week, with one to two quality sessions.
iRunFar: How does that mileage and training compare to previous training cycles?
Howe: That’s up from my training last year, which was around 70 to 80 miles per week. I’ve been training with a purpose for about three years now, and have slowly increased the amount of volume my body can handle. I keep close tabs on my body though. If I start to feel pretty achy or twingy, I will cross train for a day or two. I don’t take any chances with injury anymore. I learned my lesson a few years ago and I strive not to repeat the cycle. Before LS50 I also raced the Grand Traverse. [Author’s note: Howe teamed up with her husband to place third in the race’s co-ed division.] This is a 40-mile backcountry skimo race from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado. It takes several hours—it took us nine hours—and is mostly above 11,000 feet. Oh, and it starts at midnight. The race was two weekends before [LS50], so I did have some time to recover and train for a week before the race.
This year going into both Way Too Cool and LS50 I prepared a little different. Partly because I’ve had a couple years under my belt and I feel comfortable with more training. Usually, I take race week pretty easy, even if it’s not a focus race. I like to go into the races fresh and ready to run. This year, partly because I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare, I had workouts up to the Wednesday before. And decently long runs the weekend before. That’s something I would have skipped last year. But this year I decided to try it out and see how my body reacted to less of a taper. And it seemed to go alright! I didn’t really feel any different than I did in my races where I’m much more rested. I will however, taper well for my focus races this year. And when I say I didn’t taper as much, I still take the day before off and only run 30 to 40 minutes two days before—so we’re not talking crazy here.
iRunFar: What did an average training week look like ahead of LS50?
Howe: You can see some of my weeks on Strava but something like this:
Monday: Off or easy cross training.
Tuesday: 60 to 80 minutes easy, distance run (8 to 12 miles).
Wednesday: Workout, usually 12 to 16 miles total with 4 to 5 miles of intensity, 30 to 40 minutes easy shake-out run in the afternoon.
Thursday: 50 to 75 minutes easy (8 to 10 miles).
Friday: 60 minutes easy run or cross train—I usually opt to cross train.
Saturday: Long run with a fast finish. 20 to 25 miles with 4 to 6 at tempo pace (or up to 10 miles at steady state).
Sunday: Long run 90 minutes to 2 hours.
iRunFar: Was there anything to this training cycle that you found especially beneficial?
Howe: I noticed was that I was able to push my workouts more. For example, usually if given a range of six to eight miles for a tempo run, I’d always pick six and suffer through it. This training block I found myself picking the upper end of the range, at times. The workouts were still hard, but I found them within my ability. I also was able to maintain more volume, 80 to 90 miles per week, while still feeling good for the quality workouts. I owe this to patience building up and slowly increasing the stress on my body.
iRunFar: What kind of paces were you running for those faster workouts?
Howe: Hills at 5k effort and tempo runs at marathon pace—I aimed for around 6:30 [minute-miles] or under depending on the terrain, which was usually more buffed-out, jeep-road, type trails; longer-than-tempo efforts were somewhere in the upper 6-minute range, [but] I often did these on hilly trails, so pace was not as relevant. I got on the track three times this spring. I usually do about four to five miles of quality work with a mix of 800’s, 1200’s, and mile repeats. On the track I feel like I’m cheating! It’s so easy to run fast. I’d usually aim for 5:40 to 5:45 [per mile] pace depending on the workout. My times off the track are slower because I run on soft surfaces, but I prefer it!
[Then] long runs with a fast finish—these kill me. But I love them. Usually it’s only a few miles tacked onto the end of a long run, but it always gets me. Often the pace is not much different than my easy pace, but the effort feels tough. I usually try to do this on trails. Sometimes flatter trails though, or the last couple miles on a downhill to work on faster leg turnover.
iRunFar: Did you feel that any particular workouts were most important in preparing you for LS50?
Howe: I think it’s a combination. That sounds like a cop out, but I really don’t think there was one key workout that prepared me. It was a mix of good long runs, speedwork, specificity, strength, and rest. Staying injury free was a huge part of it—I don’t think adequate rest and recovery can be underestimated! I did have some track workouts that helped me build confidence. I never think of myself as that fast, like I feel I’m much slower at workouts than most runners I race against, but getting on the track helped show me I had some speed and helped my confidence.
iRunFar: Was your LS50 time maybe a bit of surprise?
Howe: Honestly I’m super surprised with my races at both Way Too Cool and LS50. I didn’t know I had the ability to run that fast in me! After LS50 last year, I thought Emily [Harrison]’s record was going to stand for a few years. We had ideal conditions and she ran super well! I went into LS50 hoping to go under 7:30. Honestly. I’m not sandbagging by saying that. I wanted to get as close to her record as possible. It blew my mind that I ran 7:08! I did wreck myself pretty good for it, but it was worth it! I think part of the reason I was able to go for it at LS50 was because I had more confidence. And the reason I had more confidence was because I’d been able to get through some pretty tough workouts that would have floored me last year.
iRunFar: You come from a Nordic skiing background. How does that influence your ultra training?
Howe: I learned from a young age, well as an 18 year old anyway, the importance of heart-rate training and adequate recovery. We did lactate/VO2Max tests every year in college and trained with heart-rate monitors. My coach had a Masters in Exercise Physiology, so not only did he know how to train us properly, but also how to teach us about physiology so we could train smarter. It was invaluable. He also emphasized the importance of recovery immediately after a workout. If we didn’t have a full change of dry clothes and a snack, we were scolded.
I also think the Nordic background was good for building strength. The biggest advantage from skiing that I see in my training now is that I’m much more well rounded. I have other activities I like to do. Skiing really is a seasonal sport, so for half the year you are forced to find some other means of staying fit. This means that cycling, mountain biking, paddling, yoga, etc., were all part of my repertoire as an athlete. Today I’m able to still enjoy these activities. I don’t think ski-specific training actually prepares one for running ultras all that well. The races tend to be shorter. In fact, I think Nordic skiing probably best prepares a runner to be a good shorter-distance mountain runner. Like a 4 to 6k uphill. That’s more like skier fitness.
iRunFar: It seems to have been a good start for you anyway! Thanks for chatting and congratulations.
Interview with Ryan Bak
iRunFar: Ryan, you took second in your 50-mile debut amongst a competitive field. How did you prepare for your longest competitive race to date?
Ryan Bak: In my buildup to Lake Sonoma, my mileage was relatively low at 75 to 95 miles per week for the 12 weeks leading in to the race. At this stage of my career, I take what I can get for training—I have a family and a job that I work seven days a week at as a real-estate broker, so running doesn’t get the priority it did at earlier times in my life. In years past, I was putting in 120-plus mile weeks preparing for 5,000-meter races on the track or 140-mile weeks in a marathon build up, but now, if I can get in 90 miles it is a huge week for me. I believe in lifetime miles and lifetime fitness. I have put in a lot of miles over the years and a lot of hard workouts and I can reap the benefits now of not having to do as much to get myself into racing shape. It’s always easier to get back to a certain level than it is to get to that new level in the first place. I run more miles at an easy pace now than in years past. I typically put in one harder workout per week and one long run—or two medium long runs back-to-back. This is enough to get me fit and keep me healthy. My weeks are made up of about 70 to 80% easy mileage and 20 to 30% strenuous mileage. I definitely do not recommend this for everyone, but I had years of two hard workouts and a solid long run every week—three or more hard sessions every seven days—for years and that has helped shape me as an athlete.
iRunFar: It sounds like your training ahead of Sonoma was relatively different than previous training cycles when you prepared for the marathon distance or shorter?
Bak: My training leading up to LS50 was different, but not substantially different than what I have done in recent years to prepare for shorter trail races. The main difference was in my long runs. In preparation for LS50, I alternated my weekend long-run session with a long, slow run of 3 to 5 hours followed by a shorter, faster long run with a specific workout built on the following weekend. The faster long runs contained workouts like a 2 x 6-mile tempo proceeded by 3 miles easy and followed by 3 miles easy with a mile or 2 between sets. My longer, slower runs would be focused on time on my feet and practicing the consumption of nutrition, like gels, bars, [and] fluids, on my run.
iRunFar: And some of your harder efforts in training—what did those look like ahead of Sonoma?
Bak: I should mention that I do not record a training log, so it is hard for me to give exact workouts or times. I find that it is too easy for me to become a slave to a training plan or training log and risk injury, so I run by feel based on an outline for the week and the goals of the training block. Some of the workouts leading into LS50 included hill workouts such as 2 x 3 minutes, 4 x 2 minutes, 4 x 1 minute, 4 x 30 seconds on jog-down recovery or 4 x 5 minutes on jog-down recovery. I also spent time doing tempo workouts such as 8 x 1 mile at 5:00 to 5:05 [minute-per-mile pace] on 45 seconds of recovery and the week before LS50, I ran a 10-mile trail race as a tempo in 53:23.
iRunFar: Those are some quick times! Did you find that any of those workouts was especially important in preparing you for your first 50-mile race at Sonoma?
Bak: The key workouts that made me feel prepared for LS50 were the long runs. I knew going in that long runs would be the key for me as the overall pace would be relatively slow and the key would be maintaining a strong effort for 6-plus hours. A typical trail 50-mile race is not run at a pace that I would consider fast, as most of my easy runs are run close to or faster than the pace I ran at LS50. However, terrain makes a big difference, but I do consider it an advantage to have good leg turnover, such that race pace feels ‘easy.’ I did a four-hour long run covering about 35 miles at about 6:45 [minute-per-mile pace] on a lightly rolling, dirt/gravel route with Mario Mendoza that felt very controlled and comfortable about 4 weeks before LS50 and I knew after that run that my fitness was strong and I could compete well. The following weekend I ran 19 miles with 2 x 6 miles on a hilly road in the middle. The first 6 miles was a steady climb, where I averaged 5:50 [per mile] and the second 6 miles [on the way] back was a gradual decent where I averaged 5:05 [per mile] feeling much easier than the way up. I followed that up with a 5-hour easier run the following weekend, [which was] 2 weekends out for LS50.
iRunFar: Given those times in training, it won’t surprise anyone reading this that your background is on the track and road at an elite level. How does that background influence your training for ultras and trail races?
Bak: I definitely look at my background in racing cross country at a high level (four-time USA Team Selection and NCAA III Champion), racing on the track (two Olympic Trials on the track at 5,000 meters) and racing on the roads up to marathon distance (with a 2:14:17 PR in [my] debut at [the] California International Marathon in 2011) as an advantage in ultrarunning. My history of faster running has built a large base of fitness that I can tap into now, when [I’m] training at less volume and lesser intensity. I also think that having a background in faster running enables me to feel more comfortable and relaxed at faster paces on the trails. My competitive background also helps me approach ultra/trail races with a different mindset and intensity where I am not afraid to push limits and boundaries.
iRunFar: Was your time at Sonoma surprising to you, then?
Bak: To be completely honest, I was surprised that it was not faster. It feels a bit unnatural and awkward to me to run very slowly and I know that I am more inefficient at slower paces. In mental preparations for how long I would be running, I underestimated the difficulty of the constantly rolling and relentless course. I had prepared myself to run fast, but at the same time I wanted to respect the distance and run conservatively. Other than a nutrition issue that made for a very difficult stretch from about miles 28 to 36, I executed the rest of the race the way I had hope to.
iRunFar: And that was good enough to land you a second-place finish! Congratulations, again, on your performance.
Interview with Cassie Scallon
iRunFar: Cassie, you ran extremely well at Lake Sonoma this year—over 20 minutes faster than your previous course record, in fact! I know you’re coming off of an ankle injury last year, too. How was training for Sonoma—how many miles were you running each week?
Cassie Scallon: I recently joined Strava and was shocked to see how little I was running. I love my Suuntos, but I really only use them while I’m running to tell distance, altitude, and time out there. I was doing at least a 20 miler every week, so I thought the miles were adding up. Nope. I was lucky to hit a weekly total of 50. I didn’t do any real workouts. If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll run instead of hike uphill, or dance a little faster on the downhill, but I didn’t do any hill repeats, track sessions, or any other purposeful workout. The only exception was doing six 30-second pick-ups with my best, most handsome, genius boyfriend [laughs], Greg, the Wednesday before Sonoma because it was part of his prescribed workout.
iRunFar: That sounds like the Cassie I know! But that’s amazing. You didn’t run any real workouts?
Scallon: I have nothing [laughs].
iRunFar: Did you do anything different than you have in past training cycles—for example, before Sonoma two years ago?
Scallon: I just tried to get back in shape! I was cleared to run again mid-January, and one of my first runs back was at H.U.R.T. [100 Mile] where I paced and cheered for 60 miles. I did some snowshoeing back in Colorado at altitude to get used to some burn in my lungs and toughen up. The most important difference for me was taking a variety of classes at RallySport, my health club. I wanted to use different muscles, work on my balance, coordination, and strength. I found a great instructor there, Jillian, and she challenges me every time. Also, I got a metal detector just before Sonoma, so I ran a little less and spent my time outside finding treasures!
iRunFar: Did you have any runs or races that you felt were important in preparing for LS50? Any runs where you finished and though, Okay, I’m ready to run well at Sonoma’?
Scallon: The Chuckanut [50k] was essential. [Author’s note: Scallon finished second at this year’s edition of the race.] I needed a race to force me to put out a hard effort and put my mind back in competition mode. I did the Chuckanut-Sonoma combo last time when I won Sonoma, so I wanted to do it again. The flat start and finish to Chuckanut is a serious challenge, and requires some strategy. I decided that I wanted to go out much slower than in 2013. I trudged to the finish with burnt-out legs in 2013. I was so much more comfortable throughout the race this year with my slower start. It was funny, both years I came down the final descent, Chinscraper, passing people and squeezing into second place. In 2013, I lost three places in the home stretch. This year I only lost one place! With that result, I thought I’d apply that strategy to Sonoma, too.
iRunFar: As I mentioned, smoked your previous best time at LS50. What do you think allowed you to run so much faster this year?
Scallon: The new strategy I applied was my secret. Last time [at LS50] I started too fast and felt like my race was over by 20 miles. I felt terrible! I walked so much. This year I started feeling stronger after halfway. I felt confident holding back early and just doing my own thing. In 2013 I realized I was running too fast, and then I felt scared that everyone in the race was going to pass me when I could barely mange to crawl. It is more fun to have that relaxed, confident feeling!
I only used my watch for mileage and not for splits or time, so I was surprised I was 20 minutes faster. According to a list John Medinger put out, I was eighth on the list of runners who slowed down the least, running 7.6% slower on the way back [in the second half of the race]. I think that also says that I felt a little better than most on the way back. [Author’s note: Of the top-three men and women interviewed here, Scallon slowed down less in the second half of the race than anyone else. By comparison, Alex Varner ran the second half of his race 12.4% slower than the first half.]
iRunFar: It sounds like you should stick to that strategy in the future, then! Cassie, thanks for chatting and best of luck the rest of this year!
Interview with Jared Hazen
iRunFar: Jared, you placed third at Lake Sonoma, which was good enough to get you back to Western States this year. Congratulations! How did training go ahead of Sonoma—how many miles did you put in each week?
Jared Hazen: I actually wasn’t tracking my miles in my build up for Sonoma. I was running around between 16 to 20 hours a week, which I would guess to be around 100 to 130 miles.
iRunFar: Is that a typical amount for you?
Hazen: That is a bit lower than what is typical for me. I’m usually between 150 and 200 miles a week. I was doing hard workouts 2 to 3 days a week, so the [other] 4 or 5 days a week were easy days. The workouts usually were only an hour long so in a 16-hour week I would say 3 to 4 hours of that was spent doing workouts. Not including long runs, which were few and far between.
iRunFar: Was your training for Sonoma this year different than previous training cycles in other ways, too?
Hazen: Yeah, my training for Sonoma was a bit different than in the past. Normally I would do 1 to 2 workouts a week with a long run every week, but for Sonoma I did 2 to 3 workouts a week and hardly any long runs—in the 8-week build up I only did 2 runs of 4 hours. Also I cut back the miles I was doing on a daily basis and focused on hitting the workouts really hard when I did them. I would take extra easy days if I felt like I wasn’t ready to nail a quality workout.
iRunFar: Tell me about some of those workouts—what were you doing?
Hazen: Most of the workouts I did before Sonoma were uphill workouts with some downhill workouts thrown in as well. A lot of the uphill workouts were shorter intervals, usually around 2 to 3 minutes, and I would usually try to get 30 to 40 minutes of work in.
An example would be 15 x 2-minute intervals with two minutes rest or 12 x 3-minute intervals with 2 minutes rest. I would usually do these on a long climb so that I was continuously going uphill, instead of running back downhill as the rest I would just jog uphill during the rest period. I did these workouts on a dirt road that climbs at around a 6% grade and on the Barr Trail, which varies, but it averages an 11% grade. I don’t know the pace, but I would just make it hurt and be pretty spent by the last one. Also I ran The Incline once or twice a week and would just give that a hard effort as well. The incline is an old cog railway that climbs 2,000 feet in just under a mile. Downhill workouts included 3- to 5-mile runs down 6% grade dirt roads at about 5 to 5:30 [minute-per-mile] pace. I also did some downhill repeats on a steeper road—10% grade. [For] example, 7 x 5 minutes at about 4:30 to 4:45 [minute-per-mile] pace.
iRunFar: Did you feel that any one workout, in particular, was most beneficial in preparing your for Sonoma?
Hazen: I think the workouts that paid off the most were the short uphill intervals with little rest. I think this prepared me for the hills at Sonoma and trained me to recover quickly after running the short, but many hills at Sonoma. One in particular was 12 x 3 minutes with 2 minutes rest up the Barr Trail at 11% average grade [and] running the intervals really hard. Also I think doing The Incline was a big help. I think it makes you really strong and teaches you how to suffer.
iRunFar: Were there any other general changes in your training ahead of Sonoma versus other recent races of yours?
Hazen: I think the biggest difference in my build up for Sonoma and other races was quality over quantity. I was doing 2 to 3 really high-quality workouts a week and taking my easy days as easy as I felt I needed to; sometimes this meant just jogging for 2 hours. Also I think having the mindset that I was going to run at the front of the race instead of doing my own thing made a big difference. It kind of opened my eyes to what I’m capable of running—that isn’t part of the preparation, but I think it was big factor for my success in the race.
iRunFar: Whatever was different, it was enough to land you back on Western States! Congratulations again and good luck with the rest of your season.
Interview with Ashley Erba
iRunFar: Ashley, you finished third in your first 50-mile race in a time that would have won previous editions of the race. Congratulations! What was your training like ahead of Sonoma?
Ashley Erba: Well [laughs], in the weeks after racing [the] Moab Red Hot 55k I asked a lot of my body. [Author’s note: Erba cruised to victory in the course’s third-fastest time ever.] I did a fat ass 50k in the snow the following weekend, a hard long run on the roads, also in deep snow, and then 40 miles exclusively on Green Mountain all before March 8, at which point my body said, Hold up! For the next month I struggled with SI joint, groin, and hip-flexor flare ups from previous injuries I’d had. All of this added up to my running mileage reaching a sum far closer to zero than was even remotely ideal. I believe I did 5 actual runs in the month preceding LS50, none over 7 miles, none of them fast. The last one—a 3-mile “shake it out” [run]—ending with me crashing spectacularly on my face only 4 days before the race!
iRunFar: Wow! So it sounds like this was a different training cycle than you were probably used to?
Erba: Yeah, my training before LS50 was not at all what I had intended it to be. I pictured much more running including tempos, faster runs, and maybe even some speedwork thrown in to complement the mountain-trail running that I love most. Instead, my training took place almost exclusively in the University of Colorado Boulder Rec Center during the week, with a mountain hike or snowshoe on the weekends. I did most of my aerobic work on different types of elliptical machines—shout out to CU for having a nice variety. My favorite elliptical—a climber that adapts to your stride—I ended up affectionately naming “Big Blue” because I was on it so much! To supplement my cardio work, I continued my routine of daily core/strength work as well. So, while I don’t have a plethora of ‘training cycles’ before ultras under my belt yet, I think it’s safe to say my regimen leading up to LS50 was atypical.
iRunFar: Were you able to do any of the speedwork you intended to before Sonoma?
Erba: To be completely honest, I haven’t done a speed workout since 2012. I did extensive speedwork in high school—short and long repeats, tempos, fartleks, negative-split runs, hill repeats—and for the most part really enjoyed them. However, heading into my senior year of high school I fractured my foot—twice. I didn’t want to stop racing though and believed I could push through it. And I did. But I certainly paid a price, part of which was that with 2 breaks in my foot I naturally altered my stride, was less efficient, and used way more energy for every step than I ever normally would have needed to. All of these factors made speedwork, and fast running in general, a terrible chore and something I feared rather than embraced. By the time I admitted to myself that something really was wrong, went to the doctor, and got put in a walking boot, I had really started to question my abilities as a runner in general and my speed in particular.
The time I spent in a walking boot, and then recovering, was far longer than it should have been and was extremely emotionally defeating. I spent the next year at Providence College struggling through physical, mental, and emotional obstacles, and never got to run a practice, do a workout, or jersey-up for a meet. Two years of watching others run and race on the track when I couldn’t killed me. Watching—or even talking about—track became far too painful for me. I vowed I would never let myself feel obligated to do a workout I didn’t feel passionate about again and, more importantly, I would never let someone else tell me how I should run or what workouts I should do. I do plan on adding speedwork into my running diet for the summer and am actually really excited about that prospect! As I do, however, it will have to remain on my terms, in the ways I feel most comfortable.
iRunFar: That seems like a great approach. You obviously were quite fit for Sonoma, evidenced by your fast time. As was mentioned, this was your 50-mile debut, too. What did you do to prepare yourself so well, if not speedwork?
Erba: For me, most of what helped me feel prepared to run fast came from mental reflection. While I didn’t get in the run training I had hoped, I knew I was in great cardiovascular shape, had good overall strength, and a base of speed in my back pocket that I could tap into even if it had laid dormant for a few months. It was a real challenge to have faith in what my body could do when all I was feeling were aches and pains in the weeks preceding the race, but I knew my body was capable of a lot more than I was giving it credit for at the time. I also knew that I had the mental drive and determination to draw out the physical strength and speed I did have.
iRunFar: As you’ve alluded to, your running, historically, has been mostly track and cross country. So, training for shorter, fast races on relatively fast surfaces and terrain. Does your faster running background influence your training now?
Erba: I think my cross country/road/track training has a different effect on me than it does on many other ultrarunners. Having been through intensive, calculated, scripted training for years on end, I find myself recoiling from the mention of speed workouts and the like. In many cases I’ve noticed my ultra/trail friends who didn’t run in high school or college embracing these workouts much more and having a lot of fun with them, but I’m not there yet. I feel like I am still emotionally recovering from the pressure, strain, and anxiety I inherently associate with many of those training bouts.
I do, however, think my fast running history is helpful in longer trail races. Knowing that I have several more ‘gears’ of speed than I usually need to tap into when on the trail is a huge boost for me. The fast leg turnover and smooth, powerful stride I developed on the road and track are tools I know I have available to me and give me confidence when I’m starting to hurt on the trails. I think having a background in speedier running is kind of like knowing you have a reserve gas tank or a turbo boost: it can’t be utilized in all situations but it sure is handy to have there!
iRunFar: Were you at all surprised by your performance at Lake Sonoma?
Erba: Surprised isn’t necessarily the word I would use to describe how I felt after LS50. Going into the race I had an idea of what I believed I was capable of and having a result that reflected that was incredibly reassuring. It was a great reminder for me that our bodies have amazing abilities to overcome adversity and achieve wonderful things. It’s experiences like that that make me incredibly thankful I’m able to live the life I do!
iRunFar: Here’s hoping you’ll keep it up! Well done at your first 50 miler. Good luck going forward!