There are times that I feel like a senior citizen; my legs creak and groan, I unfold my limbs out of bed in the morning and assess the aches and pains, I hobble into the start of my runs until the joints get moving and my body gets flowing. Ah, we all know that feeling too well when we’re training hard and racing lots. But when does racing lots become racing too much?
I often joke to my shorter-distance running friends that ultrarunners are so named not just because we like to race ultra-distance events, but we also like to race ultra often. Look at any elite level marathoner and they will race likely two, maybe three, marathons a year. If an elite level ultrarunner were to race ‘so infrequently’ there would definitely be mumblings that they were taking the year easy, getting over an injury, focusing on something else. Yet, this is contradictory given ultras are so much longer in both duration and distance than marathons, surely we should be racing even less than most marathoners, I don’t know – maybe three races every two years? I mean, even a middle of the pack marathoner races less frequently than a middle of the pack 10 km runner, so it makes sense that a middle of the pack ultrarunner would race less frequently, too.
However, us ultrarunners love our miles and love our racing, so why not race lots? After all, racing is a great opportunity to travel and discover new trails, it’s a way we feel part of our community as we make new friends at races, and it somehow justifies all that selfish time spent training on weekends if that training is for a purpose, the purpose of course being a race. And it can be tempting, too; we peruse the race listings in Trail Runner, we read race reports on iRunFar, and we see beautiful photos posted on friends’ Facebook walls, and with one simple click of a mouse and the entry of credit card details, lotteries permitting, we’re suddenly entered into a race… or two… or three… or heck, we seem to have signed up for an ultra every month of the year, and the year has not yet begun. Suddenly we’re tired even thinking about our race schedules let alone training for them and completing the courses come race day.
In 2012 I, no doubt, raced a fair amount. About 600 miles in all. A nice average of a 50-miler a month – though a few rare months had no races, some had ‘only’ a 50 km and then there were other months when the race miles were pumped out hard and fast to bump up the average. In January I am sure I didn’t plan to race as much as I did in the year, but all too soon I had snuck in a few extra races ‘for fun’ and it was easy to start to feel just a little bit tired. Take White River 50-miler at Crystal Mountain, Washington in July; it was three weeks post-Western States, which was 3 weeks post Comrades and wow – it was a stunning race, and sure, I won – but man did my legs hurt that day! But then two weeks later I somehow found myself standing at the start line of Squamish 50-miler in BC, which I’d signed up for as a training race for CCC 100 km. But do you know what? ‘Training race’ or not – it’s still 50 miles and I still had a race bib pinned to me, and come hell or high water I was going to run the full distance and, of course, feel the need to put out a decent effort however tired my legs were. It was an awesome day, I don’t regret racing it one bit, though at about 60 km the thought of having a little lie-down and a nap on the side of the trail was mighty tempting.
Much of the middle of my summer was spent leap frogging in such a manner from one race to another and I had a lot of fun doing so but there were a few things I had to keep reminding myself. In racing so much, I was bound to go away from some races slightly unsatisfied with my performance. Take the UROC 100 km; I loved that course, I won, I had a lot of fun, but ultimately I don’t think I had a great race and I had to get my head around the fact that because I was racing so much, not every race could be a ‘great race’ that I’d go away feeling I’d really nailed. I, sort of, learned to accept that in exchange for the fun of getting to travel and participate in so many events. I also had to remind myself that in racing with the sort of frequency I was in mid-summer, that I could not train specifically and taper for each event. White River and Squamish 50 were definitely two such events, I had to keep my eye on the bigger focus of CCC and go into both of those races having run quite a lot in the week before and also having trained for the long climbs and descents of CCC, rather than the technical but rolling terrain of Squamish 50.
In racing a lot I also accepted that other activities might fall by the wayside and I accepted that. I turned down a great adventure run with friends that is on my bucket list, because it wouldn’t have been good CCC training. I didn’t spend lazy afternoons on the beach, I needed to train. It’s a standard joke between me and a friend that I turned down a dinner invite to spend the evening sitting in a sauna heat training for Western States! But I was okay with this because I had consciously decided that I wanted to focus on my running, but any ultrarunner should consider whether they feel they are missing out on other aspects of their life and come to resent that, because they have over-committed to racing ultras. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you want to spend time doing things other than training!
The mental aspect also comes into play in how much racing is too much racing. There comes a point when your body might be holding up miraculously well to all the training and racing you’re putting it through, but just because you are uninjured and physically prepared, if you’re mentally washed out from racing too much, it’s not going to be fun. Any ultra, at whatever position in the pack you are, involves tenacity, willpower, and mental strength, and these can get stretched to breaking point with frequent racing. I had to laugh at myself as I was running JFK, my final ultra of the year; once in a while I would glance down at my Garmin, ‘Okay, 35 km to go and the season is over.’ Yep, I was counting the miles to the end of the year, not because my body was broken but more because I needed the mental break from living and breathing racing and having to have the mental strength to push myself at race after race. At the finish line of Comrades I almost burst into tears as I was so mentally exhausted from such an intense race. It’s definitely not a situation you can put yourself through every weekend of the year.
And there was no better learning lesson than taking a mini-break from racing between UROC 100 km in late September and JFK 50-miler in mid-November. I had a luxurious seven weeks between those races. I had time to rest a little after UROC, to then pull out the JFK map and course description and tailor my training for JFK, I even had time for a decent 10-day taper. And I’ll honestly say that JFK was one of my most satisfying races of the year; I was ready, I was keen, I was rested and prepared both mentally and physically, I brought my ‘A’ game, and I felt that I nailed that performance. It’s a really satisfying performance to look back on, and when someone says ‘congrats’ I feel somewhat worthy of the compliment, as I myself am pleased with my result.
Of course most runners don’t compete to win, or even podium, but it’s still worth considering whether you are racing too much, and remembering that everyone’s ‘too much’ is different. Most races aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the more you ‘pace’ your running career, just like pacing a race, the more successful you will be in the long term in being mentally and physically able and keen to race year after year. And if you are ever tempted to sign up for ‘just one more’ race just remember, you only have one set of legs and if they could talk, what would they have to say about ‘just one more’ race?