How To Choose A Tune-Up Race

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?

There are 5 comments

  1. Matthew Curry

    Thanks for the article AJW!

    I value the emotional attachment, not just to the tune up races, but to the goal race as it’s an important facet to invest oneself fully into the process.

    My goal race is the Lakeland 100 at the end of July, which is a 105 mile loop course of the Lake District starting and finishing in Coniston, over 20,000ft of ascent and descent over valley passes. I grew up on the edge of the Lake District, and so for me it’s as much a home race as any other. Tune up races are the flat and fast John Muir 50k (the Scottish trail!) in March, so leading through a block of steady/tempo stuff, influenced by Jason Koop and the specificity of intensity. That would mark a shift in focus to more hilly and specific terrain training, going from least to most specific. East Lothian has some fantastic coastal scenery and trails so that’s a big factor for me.

    Then leading into the goal race a fun 6 hour charity challenge/race of ascents of Arthur’s Seat (a 600ft Marilyn/extinct volcano in Edinburgh) 7 weeks before, which will focus on hiking and getting in a lot of up and down and time on feet. All in with scouting out every mile of the Lakeland 100 route.

    All the best for Hardrock!

  2. Andy M

    Aptly timed article, Andy, as so many of us are deep in this “training race” planning process right now, with longer days and a hint of spring in the air. Except as I read the piece my brain was hijacked by your (in)famous bromance with Western States. I thought, “how could he be running the Highlands Sky 40 one week before his target race?!” It took me a minute to re-orient myself in 2018!

  3. Paul

    My goal race is Western States. My tune-up will be the Leona Divide 50 miler (4/14) and a R2R2R at the Grand Canyon on 5/5 (not a race).

    I chose the LD50 mainly for convenience. I can drive to the start the morning of the race. I also had a free entry from volunteering at another race of the RD. For me, convenience trumps a lot of the other factors. The cost and time of traveling across the country would not be worth it.

    The R2R2R has been a goal of mine for a long time and I convinced my wife I should do it for my 50th birthday. I had it planned before I knew I was running WS.

    My top factors:

    1. Timing – the last race should be 4-6 weeks out (and 2-4 weeks gap back for each additional race)
    2. The terrain and conditions should be as representative as possible of the goal race.
    3. Convenience – The race can’t be too disruptive to my training or life outside of running

    If multiple races meet the criteria above, then AJW’s criteria would be a good tie-breaker for me.

  4. Luke

    I think this is an area that would benefit from a bit more discussion. The path to building up to a goal race is tough, because you want to balance building up to the distance without over training and showing up dull. It seems to have a very different approach depending on whether your goal race is your first time at a longer distance vs going for a PR vs competing vs trying to have the best time possible in terms of flow and mindfulness. As an example to some extent we us back of packers want to avoid being overly influenced by what the pros are doing, which represents a lot of what is publicly available.

    How about a ‘so you got picked in your favorite lottery, here are some guidelines for how to spend the next 7 months’ article, with different emphasis for whether it will be your first time at the distance or whether you’ve done it a few times and just really want to ‘nail it’?

  5. Andrew

    Awesome article AJW..I am building up to my first 26.2 in Morgantown this fall and was jotting some notes down earlier this week with a similar approach in mind. I am running a 30k 5 weeks out from my A race, a road HM in May. I see it as a great strength run and 5 weeks gives me enough time to recover, and tune up the legs a bit. My thoughts are, if I can run a 30K in late March, I can mentally work up to a couple 20-22 milers in the summer just in time for a fall debut at the distance.

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