The Mental Game: Beating Those Dreaded Paved Sections

AJW's TaproomWhile most of us run long trail ultramarathons to spend time on trails, inevitably there are a few sections in most 100-mile races that require us to transition to the roads for a few miles. These paved sections are often short but necessary evils that connect up different trails, but if we’re not careful they can have a detrimental mental impact on our performance. As such, most experienced ultrarunners with course knowledge plan ahead for these sections so that they are ready for them.

On a recent run, I was thinking about some of my favorite 100-mile races and their brief but significant paved sections. In the Angeles Crest 100 Mile, Wasatch Front 100 Mile, and Western States 100, there are short but impactful paved sections that can wear on the runner’s mind and turn a good day bad in a hurry. What follows are some thoughts on these three sections.

Sulfur Springs Road at Angeles Crest – This long, steady uphill takes the runner to the Mount Hillyer aid station. Beginning at mile 38.4 of the race and winding up a steady grade for a bit over two miles, the Sulfur Springs Road is almost always hot, dry, and nasty. The key to this section is, for me, to try to run every step, zigzag across the road catching shady sections, and keep cool by pouring water over my head throughout the climb. The runner who can run most or all of this road will certainly make time on the competition.

Millcreek Canyon Road at Wasatch – This three-mile section of road leads from Elbow Fork Trailhead, mile 51.1, to the aid station at Upper Big Water. Usually by this point in the race, the temperatures have cooled and the shady, winding road feels deceptively pleasant. However, the car and bike traffic combined with the relentlessly uphill nature of this section can wear on even the most experienced runner in ways that are tough to combat. Knowing that one of the most beautiful sections of the course awaits after this road motivates me to get this section done as quickly as possible. It’s easy to walk this but if you want to make time you need to run more than walk.

Bath Road at Western States – At mile 60.6 in Western States, the runner emerges out of the heat of Volcano Canyon and is greeted by the pavement and monotony of Bath Road. The 1.6-mile stretch from the bottom of the road to the Foresthill Aid Station runs uphill for just over a mile before gently descending to the aid station at mile 62. Bath Road, while shorter than Millcreek and Sulfur Springs, can sap a runner’s energy and dampen one’s will to push hard. The uphill grade is steady but runnable. Failure to run assertively on the climb up this road will certainly result in a loss of time. Knowing that a nice, long downhill awaits after Foresthill is often motivation enough for me to hammer this section and get it behind me.

There are, of course, other mentally draining sections (paved and otherwise) that can be ‘focusbusters’ in some of the big races out there. Some that immediately come to mind are at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, Vermont 100 Mile, and Grindstone 100 Mile. Wherever they are, they are worth preparing for as the misery that inevitably comes on in the latter stages of a long race can be exacerbated by anything that drains the mental focus and disrupts a runner’s attitude. Long, hot sections of pavement are places where that often happens, even to the best of them, so it’s best to be prepared.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Foam Brewers in Burlington, Vermont. This small brewery produces a wonderful New England Style IPA called Pavement. Packing a bit of a punch at 8.2% ABV, Pavement is a slightly sweet take on the haze variety that has swept across the country in the past few years. Very fruity with a mango and citrus aroma, Pavement is a great post-run brew–even after a road run.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What pavement sections in long trail ultramarathons ‘get’ you? Do you have a story from a time when a road section of a trail race beat you down more than it should have?
  • Do you ever go into trail races with a plan on how you’ll mentally and physically approach the road sections?

There are 18 comments

  1. Sebastian

    Wow. This rings so true.. Looking at races, I always think at the road bits I can make up some time, usually the opposite happens. The flow is broken and frustration sets in as I will actually be going slower (if that is possible) on the road sections vs. single/double track stuff..

    Admire how you are able to find new themes for your Friday posts after a bunch of years.. Appreciate your musings a lot!

  2. Harry Mattison

    the paved roads near the end of Massanutten were so hard!
    my feet were trashed and every step hurt so much
    even though it seems like they took forever, eventually they were done – one step at a time

  3. Trevor

    On the San Diego 100 course after leaving Pioneer Mail for the first time there is an 8 mile section to the Pine Creek aid station: this is miles 28 to 36 on the course so the heat of the day really begins during this section and it is almost entirely exposed from what I can recall.

    Anyway on this section is a good 2 miles of asphalt on Pine Creek Road — but rather than being a ‘drain’ I found it uplifting as it all mostly downhill and you can really fly. I had true giddy ‘ultra brain’ entering the Pine Creek aid station and left for the climb up through Noble Canyon in great spirits!

  4. SteelTownRunner

    I’m surprised that a nearly immaterial section of road could be so mentally draining during a 100 mile trail race. Perhaps it would be well-approached as a chance to mentally *disengage* and run on cruise control, having a chance to look around, enjoy the scenery without worrying about footing, etc, rather than view as something which which to cope. If really pushing at a race effort, it can be difficult to appreciate scenery while racing on trails. That dynamic is very different when on roads.

    In running, it pays not to be so unnecessarily diametrically opposed to a given surface. There are pros and cons in every direction. I don’t have a treadmill, don’t enjoy running on one, and am not a member of a gym. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any number of obvious benefits to running on one, and any number of ways to find enjoyment on one. The same is true for pavement and the same for trails.

      1. NYC Runner

        You should try tgny100.com, which is almost entirely on NYC roads amd is a glorious couse experience. Some people like roads and flat areas and dislike trails and hills.

        It takes all kinds :)

    1. SCOTT W. KUMMER

      I think there’s more than a fair amount f trail snobbery in the sport. :) Not saying its the case in this article. But if having a mile of road in your race causes mental and emotional trauma there may be bigger issues afoot.

  5. Amy McDowell

    Sounds like I’m in the minority on this, but I have actually looked forward to small road sections during trail ultras, only because I’m a back of the packer and road sections usually give me a chance to speed up a little bit compared to my typical trail pace. But I agree that it’s so so important to know your course. Hitting a sunny road when you expected shaded trail can definitely be mentally draining.

  6. John Vanderpot

    And here I thought this was like my own dirty little secret? There’s something about pavement, I don’t even care to walk on it! It’s like when the lights come back up at closing time — the buzz goes away, the magic’s gone!

    Having spoke with a bunch of people about this over the years, I suspect it has to do with the lack of full focus and engagement with the course that causes it?

    Somehow the heat bounces back up at you worse, there’s usually cars and some traffic, and then there’s always those delightful comments from passersby to spurn you on…

    I guess Badwater’s out of the question?

  7. Ryan G

    This hits close to home. My first 50 miler had a couple road sections one 3 miles and one 5 mile. I thought I would get to them cruise and bank some time. The opposite happened, I wasn’t instantly sapped of energy and reduced to a walk.

  8. Zandy

    I relish some road in a trail race. It’s a chance to rest the mind and check over gear and nutrition as I’m not as focused on roots, rocks etc..

  9. Ella

    The last road descent in White River…if you’re feeling good you can fly and make up some real time! If not…it’s a quad busting shuffle in mental purgatory.

  10. Paul

    I like the road sections as well. I started out as a road runner and still do road races so that probably has something to do with it. I’m doing Leona Divide this weekend which finishes on road. We’ll see how it goes.

    I also agree regarding trail snobbery. Some trail running books go on and on about how the trails are “so much better”, “reduce injuries” etc. I think it is a lot easier to injure yourself on a trail than on a road.

  11. Davide

    Well, to me the Bath Road (and following stretch to the entrance of the Cal Loop) section has been a great morale booster both times I’ve run the race, because I finally got to see my pacers after hours of solitude, first of all, and because I got an high five from AJW himself after the AS. Good pavement.

  12. Grant Martin

    I used to balk at touching the road during trail runs, but now a lot of my trail runs involve a bit of time on the road. I started running to trails from my house (3 miles at most) and my attitude changed. This was helpful because it opened my mind up to new routes that require time on the pavement, and its also made me a more well-rounded runner! Road is cool too, give it a try ;)

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