Lessons from the Road

In the fall of 2010, I decided to try and qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon. I was afraid at the time that this meant I would have to give up my “ultrarunning card.” What I instead discovered, over the course of the last two years, is that pursuing a marathon PR has in fact made me a better, stronger, and faster ultrarunner.

2012 Olympic Trials Marathon - Devon Yanko

The 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon. Photo: Nathan Yanko

Like many ultrarunners, I didn’t have a healthy respect for the marathon. I would quip “marathons are my speedwork” with the best of them. I didn’t understand at the time how much I would learn about myself, my training, and my racing.

Ultrarunners routinely run marathons, sometimes four times over. But the lessons I’ve learned are not about marathon participation merely, but marathon PR-ing. I firmly believe that every ultrarunner, even the “I never touch road” variety, can benefit from the pursuit of a road marathon PR.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic race at the Olympic Trials. My work and dedication paid off with a big PR. After the Trials,  I leveraged that fitness into the two ultrarunning performances I am most proud of: Two Oceans Marathon (actually a 56k) and Comrades Marathon (actually an 87k). That made it clear to me that I had never sacrificed my “ultrarunning card” and that I hadn’t turned into a “roadie;” I had simply transformed myself into a better runner.

This year, my schedule is filled with a variety of races and adventures, from 10-mile road races to Comrades to the possibility of a multi-day backcountry adventure. I am as excited and inspired by running and racing as I have ever been. Whether it encourages you to think differently about your training, inspires you to try for a marathon PR, or simply makes you a better ultra-racer, I wanted to share what I have learned from road marathon-ing because I think every ultrarunner can benefit.

Comfortable is not a race speed

My mantra in ultras had always been “stay comfortable.” Fifty or 100 miles is a long way and I’ve always tried to find a zone that I feel I could maintain forever. In the past this has meant that I could run comfortably and still have enough to notch it up at the end. The JFK 50 in 2009 was a perfect example of that kind of effort. I felt smooth all day and had enough energy to finish faster than I’d been running all day. I never pressed myself and I definitely didn’t feel that I crossed the finish line having given it my all. I was, of course, ecstatic to have broken a strong course record, but I also knew I had not run out of my mind or spent everything I had. I didn’t understand at the time how to do that.

Focusing on the marathon, I quickly learned that comfortable is not a race speed. Instead, there is something beyond that something I can only think to describe as “maintainable discomfort.” My good friend Hollis Lenderking calls this running “eyeballs out.” Before I started racing more marathons, I equated discomfort with blowing up and slowing down in the end. Now, I see that racing – truly pushing yourself – means sometimes putting yourself in the pain cave and having faith (which is born out of training and practice) that you can hold it there.

I have more than one speed

Throughout my career, people have asked questions like “what’s your half marathon PR,” “how fast can you run a mile,” and “what’s your 10k PR?” For the longest time, I would joke “you mean as a split in a longer race?” Except I wasn’t really joking. My paces across different distance events were remarkably narrow. Until I started training for the Trials, I just thought this was because I was an endurance monster. The reality was that this was the case because I was not training at a range of speeds. I didn’t even know I had other gears. Once I started training with track workouts and tempo runs, I realized that my “maintainable discomfort” level did in fact vary with the distance I was going. Now, the speed I can maintain for a 10k is much faster than a marathon.

The value of having different speeds is essential for ultrarunning for many reasons. Having more than one gear in ultrarunning means you can better respond to the terrain, holding back and letting it out at different points of the race with a more varied pace range. Having pace range also means you can make bold tactical moves or respond to a course profile with a plan. If you know you can race a marathon at 6:00 min/mile pace, then the idea of maintaining a 7:00 min/mile pace over 50 miles seems much less daunting. I have enjoyed a boost in racing confidence knowing what my body is capable of speed-wise.

I have to run faster in training to race fast

In early 2010, while training for the Western States 100, I ran a lot of miles. Somewhere in the range of a 120 miles per week. I didn’t get any faster though because I ran the majority of my runs at pretty much the same pace. I can’t even qualify the runs I was doing as “workouts” because they were more simply an accumulation of miles.

Toward the end of the year as I began to train for my Trials qualifying time, I made a huge leap in my fitness when we (my coach and I) started incorporating serious track, tempo, hill, and other specific workouts. I got out of the rut of simply running a ton of comfortable miles and started focusing on target paces for my specific workouts (I used the McMillan Running Calculator.). Incorporating hard workouts into my training is the single most important addition to my training that I made and the only reason I was able to progress from being a 2:49 to a 2:38 marathoner.

Quality comes before quantity

As I mentioned, mileage quantity was never a problem for me. More was more and I followed the basic ultra model of long on Saturday, long on Sunday. I glutted myself on miles. I thought that I would be able to maintain my 120 miles per week volume (Which I do in six days, as I take Mondays off generally.) when doing marathon training. I figured it would benefit me aerobically and for strength. What I found instead was that once I began doing the hard workouts and more specifically focused long runs, my ability to maintain that volume decreased. It was simply unsustainable. The speed workouts took too much out of me and required more careful recovery. I never found it difficult to recover from 20 miles of easy running, but recovering from 15 miles with seven miles at half-marathon pace, for example, or 8 x 1,000 meters takes longer and more careful consideration. Because of the necessary recovery from hard workouts my volume has gone down slightly. Now, I tend to run between 100-110 miles per week with two to three specific hard workouts. The quality comes before the overall quantity.

Shorter distance suffering makes it easier to endure longer distance

I have never nearly barfed so many times after a run as I do after hard, short-distance speed workouts. Burning around the track at sub-five-minute pace is a special kind of suffering that isn’t common to ultrarunning. Running close to your max speed would be silly in an ultra, but knowing what it feels like is a powerful ultra-racing tool. For me, remembering the sensation of lungs and legs burning, heart racing, feeling on the edge of complete collapse in a short distance workout makes it easier to endure the feelings and suffering that come up in the longer distance. I know where my red line is, so I also know how close or far away from it I am.

You don’t have to go the distance, to go the distance

In 2011, I qualified for the Olympic Trials by running a 2:43 at the LA Marathon. I was ecstatic. I had little time to savor my personal victory because three weeks later I was turning around to run Mad City 100k in order to re-qualify for the 100k national team. It was my only opportunity to qualify for the team and since that was my second most important goal for the year behind the Trials qualifier, I was going to go for it even if it wasn’t ideal timing.

Recovery from the marathon was not the concern for me. My biggest concern heading into Mad City was that my longest training run had been a marathon. I hadn’t raced an ultra since the 50-mile national championship in fall of 2010. I was certainly fit, but I had conditioned myself to think that I needed to have a few 30 to 40-mile runs under my belt to do my best at Mad City. In this case, there just wasn’t time for any of those runs. But I still ran a huge PR and won the race. Moreover, I felt good doing it. I felt really strong throughout the race and was able to finish with three of my fastest laps in the entire race. I am not arguing for minimal training here; instead I’m illustrating that my steady diet of hard long runs, solid volume, and workouts was able to provide me with the endurance necessary to go the distance.

Road for speed, trail for recovery

Devon Yanko winning the San Francisco Marathon.

Devon Yanko winning the San Francisco Marathon. Photo: SF Marathon

I’ve made many road running friends along the road to the Trials. One fascinating thing I have learned about “roadies” is that so many of them hammer day in and day out on every single run. I marvel (or maybe recoil) at the thought of running seven-minute pace for every single run and six-minute pace for every single workout. They lament that a snail’s pace is a 7:30 and wouldn’t touch a trail that would slow them to a crawl. I am not surprised by the proliferation of serious injuries that occur at the top.

Instead of buying into that mentality, I found that the most effective way for me to maximize my training is to run my hard workouts on the road. Running the workouts on the road gives me the best opportunity to get the most out of workout and thus the training adaptation I am looking for. I then spend the majority of the rest of my mileage on the trails, slow or steady as I want, unconcerned about pace. I firmly believe that this combination has allowed me to stay healthy while pursuing more road races and simultaneously adapt.

Figure out what works for you

Looking back, 2010 was my worst year of running. I just never felt fit, fast, or like my training fit me. I realize looking back that I was trying to adopt other people’s training as my own, instead of doing what had worked or figuring out what could work for me. When I started to train for the Trials I discovered that I was a fast “adapter” and that shorter training cycles were necessary to prevent burnout. I already knew that I could handle high mileage, so the other components helped me and my coach develop a training and racing schedule that kept my progress moving rapidly toward my goals. I am in my running happy place now. I feel like I understand the kind of work I must undertake to get where I want to go. I firmly believe that everyone must figure out for themselves the combination of things that works for them. Fast adapter, slow adapter, long cycle, short cycle, high mileage, low mileage: there are an infinite number of combinations to explore. Above everything else I have discussed, discovering your running happy place is the most important.

Devon Yanko

loves to cook, eat, run, sleep, repeat. She is a runner (distances and surfaces of all sorts), certified personal chef, and cafe/bakery owner. Three times she's competed for Team USA at the IAU 100k World Championships, while also being a two-time national champion (100k and 50-mile). She competes in distances from the marathon to 100 miles, but the 50-mile distance is her favorite. She recently raced in the Olympic Marathon Trials setting a PR of 2:38:55. She documents her adventures on her blog.