Speed Can Matter In Ultras, Part Three

An interview with Meghan Arbogast, Emily Harrison, and Caitlin Smith about speed and ultramarathons.

By on April 10, 2014 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on the presence of shorter-distance speed potential in ultramarathoning. In part one, we interviewed Emily Harrison after her impressive run at the 2014 USATF 50k Road Championship. Part two was a discussion with Rob Krar, Matt Flaherty, and Zach Bitter. In this part, we host a similar discussion with Meghan Arbogast, Caitlin Smith, and Emily Harrison.]

Recent, notable performances in ultras on the men’s side have made the presence and impact of shorter-distance speed potential known. Similar notable performances on the women’s side have done so as well: 2014 USATF 100k Trail Champion Meghan Arbogast, as a masters runner, ran an impressive 7:41 at the 2012 IAU 100k World Championships and won the 2012 Jed Smith 50 Mile with a PR time of 6:19; 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier Caitlin Smith has set seven 50k course records since 2009 at the 2009 Sequoia 50k, 2009 Way Too Cool 50k, 2009 Pirates Cove 50k, 2010 Skyline to Sea 50k, 2010 Pacifica 50k, 2011 Lake Chabot 50k, and the 2012 Golden Gate 50k; 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier Emily Harrison won the 2013 JFK 50 Mile, holds the second fastest women’s time at JFK (6:17:16), and set a course record at the 2013 Moab’s Red Hot 55k.

What accounts for these remarkable performances? In particular, how does the possession of speed improve race performance and change race strategy at ultra distances? When does shorter distance speed matter in ultras? In the following interviews, Arbogast, Smith, and Harrison, discuss training, race strategy, and the relative importance of speed at different ultra distances.

Interview with Meghan Arbogast

iRunFar: Meghan, you’ve posted some fast times over the last few years, including 50-mile times of 6:19 (2012 Jed Smith) and 6:35 (2011 JFK 50) as well as 100k times of 7:41 (2012 IAU World Championships) and 7:51 (2011 IAU World Championships). And as a masters runner, impressive! Is speedwork an important part of your training? What factors, perhaps speed included, have allowed you to perform so well, and so consistently, as a masters runner?

Meghan Arbogast - Speed article

Meghan (left) with teammate Amy Sproston at the 2012 IAU 100k World Championships in Italy. Photo: Christophe Rochotte

Meghan Arbogast: Speed is definitely a part of my routine. I like to go to the track once per week. At my age I think it is use it or lose it. Factors–number one–I worked with a great [physical trainer] for about six years on mechanics and core and movement in space to be an efficient and healthy runner. I haven’t been injured since 2008. And I’ve been able to run a lot of races and miles–experience just builds into success. With that kind of consistency and self-care, one can continue to build strength and endurance to make that speed go further.

iRunFar: Leading up to the 2011 JFK (second, 6:35) and then the Jed Smith 50 mile (first, 6:19) in early 2012, what was your training like? Did you focus on tempo work, intervals, or some other speedwork to prepare?

Arbogast: My training is fairly consistent at all times. One speed session per week, which is usually about six miles worth of hard stuff. And my speedwork is variable–sometimes short intervals, sometimes long intervals, and sometimes hard tempos. Rest is typically an easy 400 meters or easy 200 meters. I like to mix it up quite a bit: one week will be mile repeats anywhere from 6:20 down to 6:00 minutes; last week I ran 1 x 2 miles at 6:15 to 6:20, then 1 x 1 mile at 6:00, and then did it all once more; a few weeks ago I ran 20 x 200 with 30 seconds rest, and those were probably around 40 seconds (I’m not that fast…); this week I’ll run 800-meter repeats at 6:00 per mile pace. I like to get up to doing six miles worth of hard effort on the track consistently, and I’ll cut that down to four miles two weeks before a race, and then maybe one mile’s worth the week of a race just to get the wheels turning. If I run a tempo on the track I still shoot for 6:10 to 6:20 pace. If I’m on the road I’m lucky to run 6:30 to 6:45. I need to wear a race number to go faster, it seems [laughs]. One or two long runs on the weekends, sometimes with a long, strong finish.

iRunFar: Does your ability to run fast influence your race strategy? Can you think of any races in which you used your speed to break away and win a race?

Arbogast: [Laughs] Not really. I’m a time trialist by nature, and usually can run at an effort I can maintain for the distance. I am able to race someone at the end of a race if I’m within striking distance. I did out run Rory [Bosio] at the Way Too Cool 50k last year, but she basically died, so not sure it was really a race. Caren Spore and I once went back and forth the last four miles of [Way Too] Cool before she ran out of gas. So I guess what that says is I’m pretty good at predicting what I can manage over a particular distance and can push through some pain at the end if it means racing someone. Having said that–I still don’t estimate accurately all of the time–my splits at Bandera were pretty hideous…

iRunFar: Do you find that your shorter-distance speed is more useful, or advantageous, at shorter ultras (e.g. at 50 miles versus 100 miles)?

Arbogast: Yes I do, if I can manage to stay in control early. I’m still young enough to make mistakes of going too hard and ignoring food and water. But even when I get into trouble, my speed can keep me from being reduced to a walk.

Interview with Caitlin Smith

iRunFar: Caitlin Smith, your road-racing background includes a 2:41 marathon PR and qualification for the Olympic Trials. Since moving to the trail and ultra scene, you have had incredible success, especially at the 50k distance. How has your road marathon background impacted your training and racing at ultra distances? What sort of workouts do you run in training for trail ultras and are those workouts different from the workouts you run in training for road marathons?

Caitlin Smith: I’ve wavered back and forth with running on trails and roads. When I first began racing, it was in 2008, it was all on the trails. It wasn’t until the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 that I was curious about what I could do on the road. I am finally fine tuning what I need to do well at both. For me, the trails and hills are a must for both ultra and road training. The long runs on the trails keep me sane, healthy, and fit, and the hills dial in my strength and power. Without those, my running suffers. That being said, when focusing on the roads, tempos and interval training are ideal to get used to particular paces. On the roads, it’s all about consistent pacing and getting used to sustaining over a very consistent terrain. These type of workouts cross over onto the trails, but they’re not nearly as useful in my opinion. The trails are all about inconsistent pacing and getting used to pushing yourself over various terrain–the only way to develop that is pushing yourself on hilly terrain. On the trails, I go off of time versus distance, so some workouts I have done are fartlek style: 10 x 1 minute hard with 1 minute easy or 5 x 3 minutes hard with 2 minutes easy. Or hill repeats, so 10 x 1 minute hills with walk or jog back down the hill as recovery. Or hands down a favorite was medium to long runs where I pushed the last four to five climbs–basically a progressive run, start easier and finish hard. In the end, it’s all running, but it takes some playing around to figure out what works for particular people and events.

My training for the trails initially had no set pace. I didn’t run on anything flatter or faster necessarily, I just ran. It was all about effort and finding how to push. I suck at the GPS running watch stuff although I am trying to get better. But to be honest, I just use the thing for my long runs to know mileage. In the last few months, I started working with Magdalena Lewy-Boulet who has me doing treadmill climbs for both trail and road. She gives me these workouts at X grade and X miles per hour, sometimes 20 x 30 seconds on/off, other times 8 x 5 minutes w/1 minute off. But, the short and sweet climbs tend to be steep (15% grade) the longer usually start steep (10%) and get less steep and faster. To be honest, I do best when I don’t pay attention to my watch. Believe it or not, I actually run faster.

iRunFar: How does your road-racing background at shorter distances impact your race strategy in ultras and do you find that background advantageous? Are there any ultra races in particular where you’ve used your speed to break away and win?

Caitlin Smith

Smith: We will see. I haven’t been doing as many ultras as of late, but I’ll ran Way Too Cool 50k in March. I am curious how my current training will come to play in that event. I definitely have seen improvement in shorter trail races and even when I am just out running on the trails. There is no doubt that I have more gears to play with and that will be fun to try out in 2014. I would say when my endurance is strong and I am fit (have some good leg speed), I have a strong ability to finish 50ks on a strong note. Maybe it’s progression runs or really hitting those climbs harder in training. I wouldn’t say that I have ever made an aggressive move, but I tend to feel the strongest in the last 10 miles. I tend to run the late climbs well and I think that’s where I have usually had my successes.

iRunFar: You’ve raced a few mountainous ultras. Do you find that your road-racing background give you any advantages on mountain terrain? What do you do in training to maintain your shorter-distance speed potential while at the same time preparing for longer events?

Smith: In the end, it is all running. The advantage of running various kinds of races, events, etceteras is that you get to understand your body. You learn your strengths and weaknesses, both mental and physical. You push different boundaries and nothing gets boring. In that regard, I believe that being versatile has many advantages. In terms of maintaining speed, I have found that I don’t do well keeping my speed when I do really long races (50 miles or longer). It does eventually come back, but it takes some down time. Otherwise, it’s simple to keep it with 50ks and in fact, the endurance of those events actually seems to help it. It is no longer my PR, but I ran my fastest [half marathon] at one point six days after a 50k.

iRunFar: Do you find that your shorter-distance speed is more useful at shorter ultras (e.g. at 50k versus 50 miles or 100k)?

Smith: From my experience, the speed is more important in a 50k than a 50 mile or 100k. In the long ultras, you’re never going to be running your top speed.

Interview with Emily Harrison

iRunFar: Emily, your middle-distance background includes running collegiately at the University of Virginia and a PR of 33:32 in the 10k. In moving to ultras, you’ve posted some quick times, including two fantastic times at the JFK 50 Mile the last two years (6:17, 6:35). What did you do in training leading up to those races to prepare? What sort of speed workouts did you run?

Emily Harrison: Training differed slightly for each JFK. For 2012, my training was modeled after marathon training.  I was also able to train on the C&O Canal for 2012, so most of my long runs were flat and fast. Back-to-back long runs, fast-finish long runs and steady-state/tempo workouts worked out really well. On the C&O for easy runs, I was running around seven minutes per mile on average. I remember doing a marathon on the path as a training run and being just under three hours. For fast-finish long runs on the C&O, the last 10 miles or so of the run were to be at marathon effort, so I was averaging 5:50 to 6:00 per mile pace; sometimes a touch quicker the last mile or two. I also was doing six- to eight-mile steady-state runs, which also averaged around 6:00 to 6:15 per mile pace. For 2013, I was coming off of injury so while I did some workouts, everything was dialed back quite a bit. The focus was more on a healthy return. Ian Torrence built both of my training plans.

iRunFar: You’ve had great success on the road at the marathon distance (2:32 marathon PR). How is your training for ultra races similar to your marathon training? How is it different?

Harrison: It depends on the ultra I’m training for. I adapted really well to the JFK 50 [Mile] training because it was similar to marathon training. On the other hand, training for Western States was a very new experience for me. On average, my weekly mileage wasn’t much higher but I was spending a lot more time on my feet and on the trails more than I ever had before, and I was training mainly in Flagstaff at altitude. I did some workouts, but not as many and not as intense as marathon-specific work. On average, 85 to 90 miles per week is standard when I’m in the middle of training. During these ultra training cycles, I’ll break 100 miles per week but it’s not every week for 16 weeks straight. At [Western States] training camp, I had my highest mileage week ever… maybe around 120. I was coming off a marathon training cycle (and a hamstring issue), so I only had about two months to really dial in for WS. I was doing shorter steady states (four to six miles), but still in the 6:00 to 6:15 per mile pace range at altitude. I was doing 90-minute runs consistently (less doubles and more single runs). I did one Yasso 800 workout on the track at lower elevation (about 2:37 splits). The faster workouts really seem to help me feel better and not get stuck in a mileage rut.

Emily Harrison - Josh Biggs

Emily looking like a natural on the trails. Photo: Josh Biggs

iRunFar: Do you think your shorter-distance speed allows you to strategize for races differently than some of the women you compete against? Do you feel that you have an advantage?

Harrison: Again, this depends on the distance and terrain of the ultra. While having a background with shorter races can be beneficial, it can also be a detriment. Learning to gauge your effort early on in an ultra is very important and it can be easy to go out too hard then pay for it later. If anything, many years of training and competing for shorter distances has allowed me to be dialed in with my own pacing and efforts. I’ve always been patient in training and racing, and I think that can pay off in the end.

iRunFar: Do you find that your shorter-distance speed is more useful at shorter ultras (e.g. at 50k versus 50 miles)?

Harrison: For a road 50k, you need to be ready to run fast consistently. For example, I ran Caumsett 50k more like I would a marathon. I didn’t stop at aid stations and there were no severe climbs or technical sections to break up the monotony. For me personally, I have to touch on race pace and faster in training to be able to lock into a fast pace and rhythm.


Shorter-distance speed potential is a useful skill that can matter during an ultramarathon. This fact is undeniable in light of recent notable performances by top athletes such as the ones that were interviewed in this article series. However, shorter-distance speed potential is neither necessary nor sufficient for success at ultra distances: there are runners who lack the ability to run especially quickly at shorter distances, yet they thrive at longer distances, and there are runners who possess extremely fast shorter-distance speed, yet they do not perform well at ultra distances. Ian Sharman proves a wonderful counterexample to the claim that shorter-distance speed potential is necessary for success at ultra distances: his marathon PR of 2:32, which, while impressive, is by no means a top PR for elite men in ultramarathons, is 18 minutes slower than Max King’s PR of 2:14, yet Ian was just 16 minutes back of Max at the 2012 JFK 50 Mile, and has run remarkably well at the 100-mile distance, setting a personal best of 12:44 on the trails in 2011 and shattering the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning record this past summer. And there are good reasons against the claim that shorter-distance speed potential is sufficient for success at ultra distances. As was mentioned in the preceding interviews, the possession of shorter-distance speed potential does not mean that a runner will automatically succeed at the ultra distance–speed alone is not sufficient. Muscular endurance, sound nutrition plans, and informed training are also needed to succeed at ultras.

Two further conclusions should be drawn: first, speed seems to matter more as the terrain becomes less technical and less mountainous; second, speed is more relevant at shorter rather than longer ultras. This is not to conclude that shorter-distance speed potential is completely irrelevant on more technical or mountainous terrain or that it is irrelevant at longer ultra distances. Finally, note that the race experience of Rob Krar, Matt Flaherty, Zach Bitter, Meghan Arbogast, Caitlin Smith, and Emily Harrison, extends from the 50k distance to the 100-mile distance and from the track to the mountains. Each has found success at these various distances and on various terrains, and each incorporates some form of speedwork into their training. Hence, regardless of the distance or terrain that one plans to run in competition, it would still seem that speedwork–in the form of intervals, tempos, and repeats–is beneficial. Incorporating speedwork into training allows one to maintain or enhance shorter-distance speed potential, improves running economy, makes slower paces feel easier, and works various energy systems that will no doubt be taxed during an ultra race.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What’s the takeaway for you here? Is anyone eager for their speedwork this week?
  • Many ultrarunners cross over to run sub-ultra distance races. If you’re one of those people, have you found that you finish in a similar part of the race field for races of all distances/types? Or have you found race distances/types that seem to be your specialty? If you have specialty races, do you think that’s because those races are most like the way you train or because of your natural tendencies?
Eric Senseman
Eric Senseman runs far to explore what’s possible and in pursuit of the good life. It will likely keep him running forever. Find out more about him at Good Sense Running.