How To Choose A Tune-Up Race

AJW writes about choosing tune-up races ahead of your goal ultramarathon.

By on February 23, 2018 | Comments

AJW's TaproomI’ve been asked by runners several times over the past few months how to choose a training race, particularly as part of the build-up to a larger, longer, target race later in the season. Each time I answer, I tend to focus on asking the runner what they want to get out of the race, why they think a tune-up race is important, and what motivates them for the long term in the sport. From their undoubtedly disparate range of answers, then, I tend to come to some understanding of what might be a good recommendation.

When I synthesize the responses, three general themes emerge, which form the basis for my advice. In no particular order, I suggest:

  1. Pick a race that has emotional meaning to you.
  2. Pick a race that is as ‘big’ or ‘bigger’ than your target race.
  3. Pick a race that will stretch your limits and abilities without exhausting them.

So, out of these themes and in the interest of testing my philosophy, I have registered for three tune-up races in my preparation for the Hardrock 100 in July. In an effort to provide a real-life scenario in the context of race preparation for a mid-pack runner for a major summer 100 miler, this seems like a good experiment and could be illustrative of the dos and don’ts for tune-up race selection. Here are my three tune-up races this year:

Emotional-Connection Standard – Terrapin Mountain 50k – March 24th:

Terrapin is a local Virginia classic, which always seems to fall on the cusp of spring. As such, it resonates with me emotionally not only as a race that I have completed several times since moving here to the Commonwealth in 2011, but also as a race that bridges my own personal journey of acceptance, a journey that has allowed me to come to grips with my own limits and vulnerabilities. And each year, come the end of March, it stands as a test of where I am and a harbinger of where I dream to be.

‘Bigger’ Standard – Lake Sonoma 50 Mile – April 14th:

If there is a North American version of an ultra party with a race mixed in, Lake Sonoma is it. What Tropical John Medinger and his wife Lisa have created in Northern California is nothing short of ultrarunning debauchery. But, it’s also typically one of the most competitive ultramarathons in the United States and as such meets the ‘bigger’ standard. I want to run Lake Sonoma because it’s fun and beautiful, but also because it’s the big time, and running a big-time race, one even a little bigger than Hardrock, will help temper my nerves and my expectations in Silverton, Colorado come July.

Stretch-But-Don’t-Exhaust Standard – Highlands Sky 40 Mile – June 16th:

Out in the Canaan Valley of West Virginia, the highest valley east of the Mississippi, the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners put on a race every year that tests every inch of a runner’s mettle. Rugged, relentless, with a little bit of straight road blended in, “Highlands,” as it’s known locally, will callous even the most weather-worn feet and toughen up the body and the mind in ways that bely the relatively tame 40-mile distance. With the goal being to test the system just enough but not too much, they don’t come much better than Highlands Sky.

Every runner out there will likely have a slightly different take on their race selection and often one of the standards may be more or less relevant to their particular circumstances. That said, what experience suggests to me is that focusing on emotional engagement, environment, and testing the edge of one’s limits is, in general, a good recipe for success come game time and could just mean the difference between success and failure when it matters most.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Key Brewing CompanyThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Key Brewing Company in Dundalk, Maryland. I had the good fortune to visit the legendary Max’s Taphouse in Baltimore last week and savored a can of their Across the Tracks New England IPA. Smooth, bold, and creatively hopped, this beer is a keeper in the increasingly crowded field of NEIPAs.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What tune-up races have you penciled into the schedule ahead of your goal race? And what is your goal race?
  • How do you choose your tune-up races? What factors go into your decision-making?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.