I Only Have One Pair of Legs

Chick's CornerThere 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?

There are 33 comments

  1. Jim

    Great post Ellie! Really resonates with me. So taking vacations to Alaska and the Grand Teton Mountains for ultra running camps, that counts as rest and time away right? :)

  2. Anonymous

    Interesting column, Ellie. I have this very conversation with a friend of mine all the time. She LOVES to race and would race as often as possible if she could. I, on the other hand, can't be bothered to spend all the money racing takes race more than 2 or 3 times a year and would rather just run on my own and enjoy the solitude of the trails. Different strokes for different folks? Must be. Oddly, my legs still hurt and ache and creak even though I race less frequently, must be my old age showing.

  3. Stevie S.

    So true. There is always one more race

    you want to experience, but don't want

    to hit your breaking point.

    Picking and choosing carefully is hard

    when sand is running through the hourglass.

    Thanks Ellie.

  4. Shelby

    It's interesting to hear you say that you accepted the trade off of having fun racing in a few add'l races in exchange for not having a "great race" each time. As I've been planning my race schedule, I have purposely have held myself back from entering as many races because I want to have as many great race experiences as I can. By that, I mean coming away from the race feeling satisfied that I did my best that day and enjoyed the course and the camaraderie. Maybe if I was faster and could travel farther to race, I'd change my tune. :-)

    Great article as always, Ellie!

  5. Bartman

    No simple answer for "how much is too much". If your health is holding, you are sleeping well, no more pressures in life than you can manage, you know how and what you have to do to recover properly, and you are standing at the starting line because you want to be there and not because you have to be there, then it will probably work out very well, as it obviously has for you. Great post; thanks for sharing. Good luck and best wishes for 2013!

  6. Jess Dagg

    I think because it takes so long to to truly get ready for an ultra, that it's hard to not take advantage of all that time you put in by racing back to back. Plus ultras are not just about speed. All that time accounts for other things that need to be practiced as well. Hope you'll get to check a few things off the bucketlist!

  7. Dean G

    If the differences in our bodies capacities for racing, recovering,etc… where as obvious as say the differences in our heights or weights or strength on the bench press… it would be SO much easier to answer the question of how much is too much.

    But the reality is we can't see those differences. And so it is so important for every runner to realistically assess what they can and can't do. Are you slow but you recover fast? Is your HR decreasing because you are in better shape or because you are gradually over-training?

    I know one of my weaknesses is understanding what my body can and can't do. I hope to improve that. Until then, I have to remember that there are some people like Dean Karnazes who seem to be able to run on and on and on… Others like Ellie who seem to be able to do everything well… And others who need months to recover from a 50-miler.

    The differences in our individual capabilities is far greater than 'meets the eye'. Accepting that, for me, is the only way to figure out and reach my potential. Super excited for your 2013, Ellie. You continue to amaze.

  8. Tim C

    Good read. I wish I was able to afford more races, but I enjoy my training almost as much as the races. It's amazing how many races you ran last year. Not to mention how many you won. Stay healthy and fast Ellie.

  9. Jason

    The other thing is, if you have family commitments it's often just easier to sign up for a 50k every month and that's your long training run. Add in a 50 miler, and you're ready for a 100. So often these are training races, as I did at White River this year. It was my last really long run prior to Cascade Crest 100 four weeks later. In that month my longest run was 15 miles as I was nursing a sore knee. CCC probably couldn't have gone much better for me.

    1. Ellie

      Couldn't agree more Jason that fitting together races whereby one race benefits an upcoming race is the best way to fit in quite a few races, and hopefully family can enjoy travelling to races with their runner rather than missing out on their mum/ dad/ partner being around if they were just out on a training run. BUT – that still takes discipline to not all out race the lead-up races to the big event (I'm not very good at that!)

  10. John Wallace III

    Perfect post that summed up my 2012 as well – 1 ultra a month is way too much for a lot of us as I found out around October. As an 'average' ultrarunner, I do find it amazing how you and the names at the top of the leaderboard can crank out fast performances every few weeks. It's refreshing to hear that your bodies get a little tired as well. I'm sure a lot of us have a hard time admitting that to ourselves.

    Oh, and one last thing – we want your focus race to be White River! Come on back and join us anytime – racer, volunteer, spectator. Like you said, we're not going anywhere.

  11. Caper

    I like the article, and agree, now how are you going to scale back? You're in high demand, and being at the top isn't usually a long term gig, although I'm sure I can easily be proven wrong.

    You're year/career is extraordinary, but I can't help but think if you repeated it you risk burn out or injury. That said peak earning and publicity will fade quickly.

    For those who slug their way through races, and only do 2-3 a year like me it doesn't matter as much, but I'd be very interested to hear how someone at your level and demand for your appearances, can cope.

    1. Ellie

      Right now I'm not planning to scale back much as I as happy racing the amount I do and accept that some races will not be my absolute best but are the best i can do on that day in the bigger picture of my racing year. I do not race for earnings or publicity – the earnings is a nice bonus but not the reason at all that i race the amount I do, and I deal with the publicity within the frame of ultra running but like many, would prefer to run without this! I certainly already turn down many kind offers and invites from race directors and will continue to do so and choose races based on what I personally want to compete in and be part of, and on occasion race certain events at the encouragement of sponsors because I have already accounted on that based on what i have chosen to commit to them.

      1. caper

        Thanks Elliie, the fact a slog like me can be responded to in 1hr by practically the Wayne Gretzky of ultra running is a testament to the down to earth attitude you have. I'm impressed to hear you say you run because you want to, but don't squander the opportunity to profit and benefit, you certainly work hard enough to earn it. People want to see and hear from Ellie Greenwood because they are in awe of your talent…don't think of it any less than the top lawyer being paid appropriately. I know money seems to be a no no discussion for ultra nuts, but let's face it, I'd pay more to line up against you vs a John Doe. Embrace the celebrity status, a keep impressing your fans.

  12. Charlie M.

    I find it interesting that in this period of rapid growth of ultrarunning, that so many elite runners feel the need to "justify" so many aspects of their commitment to, philosophy of, and emotional connection to the sport. I predict you will not see this level of angst in a few years when the complete professionalization of the sport is achieved. Once runners are compensated fairly for their time, travel, effort, exposure, ability to bring in dollars, etc., then they will accept more readily the rigorous schedule, potential to over-race, etc. I think unconsciously the elite runners are trying to justify the potential wearing down of their bodies and spirits for little renumeration. In other professional sports, it is just accepted that you will be hobbled as an older adult, etc. It is a transitional period for the sport, so I suggest scaling back and not racing so much. In a few years, when the pay is greater, then you can destroy yourself and feel that it was worth it. :)

    1. Ellie

      The intention of my article was not to talk as an 'elite' but was to open up a conversation that would be relevant to any ultra runner on factors to consider when deciding how many races to run, I intended to get people thinking if they are happy to concede to running some races slower than their true potential because that just want to take part or whether they prefer to choose fewer races and go away from those smaller number of races knowing they ran as fast as they could in each of them, even if that only resulted in a middle of the pack finishing time.

      I feel no need to justify my commitment and emotional connection to ultra running despite what you claim for 'little renumeration'. I am 100% happy with my time and emotions invested in running even if I won zero $ and came last – I participate in the sport for the pure love of it and the personal satisfaction and would do so in the manner I do even if I was middle or back of the pack. I also feel I am more than well enough renumerated for doing something I love!

      You say when more money comes into the sport that 'elites' will more readily accept a more rigorous schedule, I think this is far from the truth – firstly I think the sport is a long way off from more money, secondly I think when more money does come 'elite's will have to race less as level of competition will rise so they will only be able to win $$ if they are in the very best form and well rested which they will only be by racing less. Think of the true elite marathoners vs the marathoners that can win a low key local race – the true elite there race 1 or 2 marathons a year because they need to be 100%, the not-quite-elites can race more as they are racing more 'B' races where the level of competition is slightly lower so they can be not 100% on form and still win or podium.

      1. Charlie M.

        Thanks for the reply Ellie. Interesting points. I won't try to use any counter-points to your follow-ups. But I will think them to myself ;), because I still find the whole vibe interesting. Best of luck in 2013…however many races you choose to race :)

        1. Ben Nephew

          I think there are plenty of top marathoners that race more frequently, or do regular long runs so close to 100% that they are virtually racing. My impression is that a big reason they only race 1-2 big marathons is often to maximize earning potential for those races. Even a poor performance at a shorter race my negatively affect their appearance fee for the next marathon. If NY would not have been cancelled, Meb would have done 4 marathons in a year, in an Olympic year while struggling with some injuries.

      2. caper

        Lets just say Ellie I for one don't want justification on how many races you participate in, just like I won't justify to you why I choose to place R&D dollars into certain areas of my work and not others. I think we do want to let you know you have fans who want/believe you should be well paid for your efforts. Little or big remuneration, I don't particularly care what you get paid, it's none of my business…but as a fan, and a capitalist I hope for the best.

    2. Wyatt Hornsby

      Charlie: I honestly don't think we'll see "complete professionalization" of the sport any time soon. Whatever we may think, ultrarunning is still super obscure. We may see continued major growth in Europe and maybe Asia, but in the US ultrarunning will still largely operate in the shadows save a few best-selling books here and there. It doesn't help that many events are at capacity, limiting the growth of the sport. For "complete professionalization" to happen, corporations have to see a strong ROI. I'm not sure that's happening yet. Besides, Americans are far more interested in seeing juiced-up football players beat on each other and living life from their recliner with beer/sugary pop in hand.


  13. Kelly

    I think, in general, people race too much. Of course, if that's what you want to do, then that's what you want to do. But, too many people don't align what they say they want with what they actually do. (ie. race performance and racing all the time)

  14. Ben Nephew

    I think racing less can often be more dangerous for any ultrarunner who enjoys training hard. While the worse case scenario is someone who trains hard, never takes easy day, and races often, training hard for an extended period of time may equally as bad. With regular races, you should have a taper prior to the race and a recovery period after. These alone may be key to staying healthy. Other benefits to racing often would be adding variety to your training. If you have one big race 6 months out, training specifically for that race could lead to more overuse injuries compared to a schedule with a variety of different races that require somewhat different training plans. My personal experiences with this are road 50k's. I can only take so much quality road work, and my best road 50k's have come after just enough road workouts added to my trail running to endure 30 miles on pavement. With longer periods of road work, I don't race as well.

    I also think that racing less often is not a guarantee for better races. We all agree that there is a learning curve to ultras. If it takes you 4 races to get it right for a certain distance, and you only race twice a year, you have 1 chance in 2 years to have a great race. How many runners have great races every time out, even if they have a light schedule? Everything has to be perfect to have a truly great race, training, weather, not being sick, fueling, shoes, navigation, support, etc. How likely is everything going to come together on 2 specific days over a year? While the first priority should finding a healthy racing frequency, focusing on a small number of races may make it less likely you have a great race. Another negative of only having a few very important races each year is the increased stress this often entails. This stress may lead to overtraining or have a direct negative effect on your race. A poor performance at a major focus race may decrease motivation to get back to quality training.

  15. sascha

    Hi from Germany ! Yes its true we have only one legs andi think too many people did too many races in the year, its too hard for our legs, its better to do only 3-4 Big races for 1 Year

  16. Hiro

    I've never think I'm over reced. I think because I'm slow runner…I always wish we have 400 days a year…so I can go for one more(or two):P

  17. Ron

    I've heard this word *selfish* kicked around now for a long, long time as regards ultra running. Ultra running is what I do. I don't apologize for it. I don't feel guilty about it. If someone else in a person's life doesn't understand that, then they should move on. Or if it bothers *you* then quit.

  18. Tony Mollica

    Thanks Ellie for writing this article, and stimulating some discussion among ultra runners! I like to hear the different approaches that people have.

    I enjoy racing and being around other runners who "understand". I am a back of the pack runner usually, and am not generally racing other runners per se but am racing myself. I am not particularly worried about running my absolute fastest; rather I am interested in doing the bast with what I have on that day. If I could come in well rested and have a shot at winning or placing high then it would be different. But where I would place totally rested and tapered would not be that much higher than what I place racing frequently and training through races. So I believe that more races equals more fun!

    I also want to experience as much as I can while I can, and am afraid I'll miss something good. I'm 54 and who knows how much longer I'll be able to do this?

  19. Jacob @ Comrades Mar

    Great post Ellie. Running just becomes a part of our life. I meet new friends when I run marathons and when I train. At the same time I train and run marathons with my friends.

  20. Susan

    Dear Ellie, I'm glad I saw this as this relates to a message I have for you from Bruce Fordyce. I met you when you gave a talk at the Cambie RR I was the one freaking out about my upcoming Comrades UP run and you told me not to be afraid and gave me encouragement. Thank you!!! I did it!! Despite this year's brutal conditions I squeezed in a finish with 22s to spare and earned my back-to-back medal :D But enough about me. I was at the After Party with Bruce Fordyce we talked about you when he learned that I'm from Vancouver. We both had a little argument about who loves you more ;) He asked me to give you this little message when I go back to Vancouver – these are his words, not mine: "Stop racing so much! FOCUS on your important goals and she needs to stop doing races start January. I truly believe she could WIN Comrades but she needs to stop doing all these silly little races leading up to Comrades".

    Take care Ellie, I don't know much except I definitely agree with Bruce on the part you can WIN Comrades!!! hey I've totally caught the Comrades bug now I'll be there in Durban next yr to watch you WIN and kick those Russian twins' butts :) Happy running!!

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