Speed Can Matter In Ultras, Part Two

[Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series containing a discussion on the presence of shorter-distance speed potential in ultramarathons. Part one was a post-race interview with Emily Harrison following her blazing win, course record, and near-North American record at the Caumsett 50k. To host the discussion here in part two, we interview three ultrarunners with background in middle-distance running, Rob Krar, Matt Flaherty, and Zach Bitter. Stay tuned for the upcoming part three where we speak with Meghan Arbogast, Caitlin Smith, and Emily Harrison on middle-distance speed on the women’s side of ultrarunning.]

The fact is, the ultra landscape is changing with the emergence of the middle-distance speedster: ultrarunners who possess the ability to drop impressively fast times on the road and track at marathon and sub-marathon distances. Shorter distance speed potential is now playing a significant role in ultramarathons. On the one hand, if a runner can run faster times at shorter distances than his or her competitors, then, all other things being equal, that runner has the potential to sustain faster paces for longer distances, and so has the potential to run faster times at ultra distances than his or her competitors. Hence, course records are falling and the competition is becoming more and more formidable. On the other hand, race tactics are changing. With the muscular endurance to survive ultra-distance efforts, middle-distance speedsters are able to leverage their speed to break away both early and late in races.

Recent notable performances have made the presence and impact of shorter distance speed potential known: 2013 UltraRunning magazine Ultra Runner of the Year Rob Krar ousted Dakota Jones and won the UROC 100k in September after averaging 5:16 per mile during the last four miles before revving the engine again in December when he ran low five-minute miles late in the race at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships to blow away a competitive field; 2013 USATF 50 Mile Road Champion Matt Flaherty broke away from David Riddle and Zach Bitter in October at mile four on his way to a 5:28:11 course record and the second fastest 50-mile time in 2013 at the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile; 2013 UltraRunning magazine Ultra Performance of the Year recipient as well as American and world-record holder Bitter ran the fastest 50-mile time in the country in early November with a blazing 5:12:33 at the Lakefront 50 Mile and then set an American record for the 100-mile distance, 11:47:21, at Desert Solstice Invitational en route to setting a world record of 101.66 miles in 12 hours.

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? And why are shorter distance speed mongrels, such as Sage Canaday and Ellie Greenwood, having such success at ultra distances? In the following interviews, Krar, Flaherty, and Bitter discuss training, race strategy, and the palpable changes that are being seen in the sport.

Interview with Rob Krar

iRunFar: Rob Krar, I understand that you were a middle distance track runner back in college. Do you think that background gives you an advantage in ultras?

Rob Krar: I think it depends on the race…if you throw me into the Hardrock 100, the advantage is almost nil, I would think… you have very steep and technical descents. If I were a really strong technical descender, maybe [my speed would help], but I’m not a technical descender. But you take examples of races I’ve run this year, Leona Divide 50, UROC 100k, stretches of Western States 100 and TNF 50… yeah I think it’s huge, if you put two runners at the end of the race with equal fatigue and if there’s a five-mile descent like there is at UROC, speed is a huge advantage because I feel comfortable running at five-minute pace, and I think that’s one of the keys. I think a lot of runners can run five-minute pace but they are really going out of their comfort zone… so feeling comfortable running five—even under five-minute pace—goes a long way because you can keep your mental focus and have a mental edge over your fellow athlete who is struggling with the turnover, which is difficult if you aren’t used to it.

iRunFar: What kind of speedwork do you incorporate into your training? Do you think you do things different in training than other people that allows low five-minute pace to feel comfortable for you?

Krar: I’ll use UROC as an example of how I train. I hit two or three 100-mile weeks in the six weeks leading up to UROC. So I’ve got the miles. I did anywhere from one to four mile-repeats at Buffalo Park [in Flagstaff, Arizona] and probably hit five or six of those workouts. I started out the first workout hitting 5:30 pace and then got into low fives in the workouts leading up to the race. And you know I don’t know, I don’t read people’s blogs a whole lot or follow people… I don’t know. For me, the reason I started doing these one-, two-, four-mile repeats is because I looked at the course at UROC and thought, There are a lot of spots in here where I can really move, I can take advantage of that. The other common workout I do is 8 x 3 minutes on/90 seconds off, or 16 x 90 seconds on/60 seconds off, up Elden Lookout [Writer’s note: Elden Lookout Road is about a six-mile dirt road with around 2,200 feet of vertical gain]. I feel like I cover all the bases, like for UROC and TNF, I did the quick work at Buffalo Park, I got the miles in, I’m up high in the mountains in Flagstaff over some, not super technical, but Rocky Ridge Trail, Weatherford Trail-type stuff… I tailor my workouts to the upcoming race for sure.

iRunFar: During the last four miles at UROC, you averaged 5:16 per mile. Incredible! What allows you to make that kind of move at that point in the race?

Rob Krar - Speed article

Rob early on in UROC. Photo: Matt Trappe Photography

Krar: It’s hard to say, that speed is there and my body is capable of running very fast. Does it translate to ultras? Yeah, I think it does to a certain extent. 5:16 sounds fast but the Monday before UROC I ran five miles down Snowbowl Road [Writer’s note: Snowbowl Road is a seven-mile, paved road with 2,200 feet of vertical gain] at 4:48 pace, so you know if you can get it done in training, my stride, my breathing, my comfort level at 5:16 pace is very high. But how do you feel good with five miles to go? There’s a lot that goes into it. There’s the training that keeps my core and body strong during the race. But there’s a lot more, nutrition… you have to focus on your nutrition, stay on top of it. You have to run a smart race; you have to run a patient race. And you don’t want all that hard work and effort to go to waste during the race. You have to be ready to go to a dark place and embrace it. So there’s a whole bunch of stuff that needs to come together that allows me to finish strong like I have in a number of races this year.

iRunFar: How does your shorter-distance speed potential impact your strategy leading into a race?

Krar: A common theme of my strategy going into races is to run a smart, conservative race early on. Be very focused on my nutrition. Keep my energy levels up. Not getting into a deficit nutrition or hydration-wise… it’s really a matter of how long I can run conservatively. I am not a fan of looking at a course map and saying, ‘I am going to go at this mile marker.’ For me, I don’t think it’s a wise decision… I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I think it’s a bad idea to pre-plan when I’m going to take off… I make a lot of decisions on the fly, but I know that if I want to win the race I’ll have to make a move at some point.

iRunFar: You ran another outstanding race at TNF in December. Reportedly, you averaged low five-minute miles from miles 40 to 44 and in doing so put eight minutes on Mike Wolfe and Chris Vargo. Is that a move that you had staged?

Krar: Going into TNF Championships 50 I wasn’t planning on taking off with 10 to go. I got into mile 30, 35, and I knew I was feeling good, and I had to make a decision on when I was going to make a move and I didn’t want to leave it to the last hill. So yeah I just took off out of the aid station at mile 40, but I didn’t know how hard the hill was coming out of 40. I mean I took off hard; I made a strong move. And I got like halfway up and thought I was done with the hill and I take a left turn, and the top is way the hell in the distance… I remember looking and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I think I said it out loud [laughs]. But you know once you start you just have to keep going, I think that’s where the eight minutes come into play. I just made the move and kept the pressure on until the end.

iRunFar: How do you think this sport will evolve going forward? Will the middle-distance speedsters have an impact?

Krar: Runners may have speed but an ultra is still an ultra. I don’t think everybody has the capability to succeed at ultras. I don’t know who has the potential and who doesn’t, but it’s not so easy as saying, “I ran this well at the 150 meter in college, so I can run this good in an ultra.” But I do think that, you take a race like UROC, and if there’s a group of runners at the top of the final descent and if you don’t have that ability to run five-minute pace, you aren’t going to win the race. So it could be interesting, the strategies moving forward. Are other runners going to be more aggressive in the middle of the race and try to break the quicker runners earlier on? I think next year you are going to see more aggressive racing much earlier in the race.

Interview with Matt Flaherty

iRunFar: Matt Flaherty, you are clearly an ultrarunner with middle-distance speed (half-marathon PR: 1:08, marathon PR: 2:22). Do you think that middle-distance speed potential is necessary for success at ultra distances?

Matt Flaherty: No, I don’t think middle-distance speed is absolutely necessary for success at ultras. I think winning these competitive races without middle-distance speed potential is still possible, but I think it’s going to become more difficult. The days of being able to just run a solid pace for the full ultra distance and do well, or win, are gone – at least at the more competitive races. It’s taking a more complete skill set, and that’s only going to happen more and more as you get guys who do have straight up faster PRs at the marathon and below being able to throw down surges during the race or sustain faster paces generally. However, keep in mind that a PR is just a data point that shows you are capable of something. So if you never run fast marathon and sub-marathon races, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of it. Could Anton [Krupicka] or Dakota [Jones] go sub-2:30 in the marathon? Of course they could if they wanted to, but they aren’t interested in doing that. As long as they are continuing to run well below ultra race pace in training, I think they can improve just as much without ever actually throwing down a fast time at a marathon or sub-marathon distance.

iRunFar: What sort of workouts do you do in training to improve or maintain your middle-distance speed potential? How are those workouts different from the workouts you would run if you were preparing for a race at the marathon distance or shorter?

Flaherty: Whether I’m training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultra, I work all the various energy systems, including aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, VO2 max, etc. In the case of the marathon or half marathon, I would train on flat surfaces and keep the pace fast, because I want marathon or half marathon pace to feel easy. So, for VO2 max work, I might do 5 x 3 minutes on the track at 5k race pace with two minutes recovery. If I’m training for an ultra, and I want to improve my VO2 max, I’ll do 5 x 3 minute climbs with run down descents. I don’t need to be quite as fast for an ultra. I want to get good turnover but I also need strength. So, in training for an ultra, for example, I would do my VO2 max work on the trails and hilly terrain instead of the track.

Matt Flaherty - Speed article

Matt winning the 2013 USATF 50 Mile Road Championship at the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile. Photo courtesy of Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK

iRunFar: At Tussey, you broke away at mile four while running sub-six-minute miles (though your overall average pace was just over 6:30 per mile). That’s an aggressive move that early in a 50-mile race. What allowed you to make that move?

Flaherty: I thought I was fit enough to run around a 2:20 marathon at that time. It’s tough to use your speed late, it’s more of a gamble… Rob Krar does that, but it takes an immense amount of confidence, banking on the fact that you are strong enough to still use your speed late. I wasn’t confident I was the strongest guy there, so to make use of my relative advantage with speed, I had to use it when I knew I still could… I just set a pace that was a little faster than the other guys were comfortable sustaining. And so I raced to my advantages. I kept my breathing under control on the climbs (where the pace slowed to high six-minute to mid-seven-minute pace per mile) and kept a hot pace on the flats and descents (closer to six-minute flat pace per mile).

iRunFar: How important is your middle-distance speed when it comes to race strategy? Was your plan at Tussey to break away early like you did?

Flaherty: My middle-distance ability is definitely my focus in strategizing for a race, especially a race on fairly flat, runnable terrain. Thinking about strategy in the weeks leading up to the race, the only clear advantage I thought I had was my superior speed at the marathon. Thus, in theory, running six-pace or so feels easier to me than it does to David Riddle or Zach Bitter. But to make use of this slight advantage, the pace would need to be quick. Of course there are plenty of risks with choosing to race a 50-mile race hard from the gun, so I was by no means sure I would do so on race day. In the end, I just went into the race with the vague notion that if I felt good, I would start to push the pace at some point in the first half. And that’s how any good race plan is, you don’t stick to it blindly, you stick to it if it makes sense at the time.

iRunFar: How do you think this sport will evolve going forward? Will middle-distance speedsters play a role?

Flaherty: I think it affects the sport in two ways. First, more aerobic monsters, guys that can run close to 2:20 and sub-2:20 marathons, will make the talent pool deeper provided that they adapt to the ultra distance. Second, in terms of strategy, the depth is getting to the point where speed is another skill set that is good to have…in a lot of these races, speed has relevance, it’s a skill set that you need to have in order to be the best. The more and more guys that come in who have and maintain a faster road pedigree, they’re going to be able to inject speed into the race, especially on less-technical terrain. To be a good, well-rounded ultrarunner, you are going to have to be pretty fast.

Interview with Zach Bitter

iRunFar: Zach Bitter, your middle-distance background includes running collegiately at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a 2:31 marathon PR. How important do you think middle-distance speedwork is in training for ultras? In order to perform at a high level in ultras, do you think it is a necessary part of training?

Zach Bitter: I think as the race gets flatter and less technical it becomes more important. I think you can still get away with doing very little or no speed when training for really technical mountain ultras (assuming you have access to mountain ranges on a regular basis). When you’re on a course that each mile is very similar—if not identical like at Desert Solstice—I think it becomes important to increase your comfort level at faster paces. For me personally, when I implement speed in my training and begin to adapt, my ‘easy’ pace on casual runs drops a good 15 seconds per mile. Improved running economy is never a bad thing.

Zach Bitter - 2013 Desert Solstice - 4

Zach racing the 2013 Desert Solstice Invitational. Photo: Michael Miller Photography

iRunFar: What speed workouts did you run in preparation for the Lakefront 50?

Bitter: All the speedwork I did for the Lakefront 50 mile was actually done in preparation for Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 Mile. It carried over nicely though. I did a lot of short-burst interval sessions. Anything from 20-second sprints to 400-meter repeats. I also did a few tempo runs that ranged between 5:30 per mile and 5:45 per mile. I think the most beneficial workouts I did were progression runs. My roommate and college teammate, Brian Finnel (who ran 2:23 at the 2013 Chicago Marathon), and I would go out for 18-to 22-mile long runs and end them with five miles of progression. Usually we would progress down toward a 5:20 per mile.

iRunFar: You remained quite consistent throughout Lakefront, running steadily in the low six-minute mile range for most of the race (and averaging about 6:15 per mile overall). Was that your plan going in?

Bitter: I don’t really know if I had a real concrete plan going into to Lakefront. I only had 12 full days to recover between Lakefront and Tussey, so my mindset was that if I had recovered reasonably I’d be able to crack 5:20. The biggest thing that had me convinced I could go sub-5:20 at Lakefront was simply how fast my body was recovering. My legs got their ‘pop’ back almost immediately when I started running again. I remember a run I did on Friday morning following Tussey. I was holding myself back (almost like you feel after a longer taper). So I guess I recovered better than expected. I realized this early on in the race, and kind of just allowed my self to keep going at low six-minute pace as long as it continued to feel comfortable. By the time it began to be a challenge I was getting close to the end, so there was no sense in slowing down at that point.

iRunFar: Your Desert Solstice performance was breathtaking: you averaged low seven-minute miles for 12 hours! On your blog you posted about a 17-mile track workout you ran leading up to the race. Can you talk more about that workout and its benefits as they relate to your race performance?

Bitter: Well, to start, it was below-zero wind chill, so just knowing that in Phoenix I wouldn’t have to deal with that was a huge plus. I really just wanted to get a general feel of what various paces felt like on a track. I wanted to know what pace was comfortable and how the turns would affect me at various speeds. It was more or less an effort to gather track intel. After I had logged 14 miles on the track at under 6:30 per mile pace, I wanted to get some speed stimulus, so I progressed the next three miles down to a 5:16 mile. It was definitely a confidence booster, because I realized the turning wasn’t going to be a big issue, and the seven-minute per mile pace would feel pretty effortless in the early stages.

 iRunFar: How do you see the state of ultrarunning evolving in the future? Will middle-distance speedsters play a role?

Bitter: I still think in order to really hit your potential in mountain ultras you have to run the mountains regularly. I think middle-distance speedsters who focus their attention on trails and mountains will flourish once they develop the skill set and strength required to peak for a mountain race (i.e. Sage Canaday). I think as the sport continues to grow, the road and track ultras will grow more too, leaving a place in the sport for guys and gals who just want to go fast.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts on the viability of a middle-distance speedster in ultrarunning? Do you think a runner with this type of background has the potential to succeed in all kinds of ultramarathoning, or do you think there are certain types of ultras where they are more likely to have success?
  • For those of us without a middle-distance running background, what are some takeaway lessons from these guys that we can implement into our own training?
  • For those of us who have applied middle-distance-style training into some part of your ultra training, what has been your experience with the results of this?

There are 4 comments

  1. @SageCanaday

    The faster, marathon paced road/track running (under-distance speed training and racing) helps with Running Economy in general and that is key to being able to utilize fat as a fuel more efficiently at higher relative intensities (ie think of getting your lactate threshold up closer to velocity/intensity at Vo2max and having something like 80% of Max HR as your fat burning zone). Having a high Vo2max of course helps as well. Specific movement patterns yield specific results and the flatter races will for sure always be an easier transition than less runnable ultras for speedy runners. So there is a major mechanical component there as well with training the muscle fibres and preparing the legs for the pounding of larger chunks of vertical change as well as climbing ability. Every ultra runner can work on this to improve their speed and efficiency.
    Running up/down certain steep grades, running up steps, running on techy trail, running in snow, running in mud, and running in the mountains at altitude are all just a few of the many variables that can wreck havoc on a fast roadie/trackie over ultra distances! Always respect the distance and the course…I've learned this the hard way even in races as "short" as the marathon on the flat of roads!

  2. Ben_Nephew

    Nice variety of interviews, great article. Even though I had a general idea of the pace at the end of UROC and at San Fran, hearing about the details was still impressive. That is some serious closing speed in an ultra. I like the contrast between Rob and Matt on the race tactics. Although not even Matt is really promoting the old put time in the bank run hard from the gun motto, there is something to be said for not waiting until the last ten miles to run hard. It would be great for everyone to be able to run as even as Zach, but it can be tough thing to do consistently for some. However, if you never try to run conservative and evenly, it's hard to expect great things over the last ten miles.

    I think the questions people have about faster runners converting their success to mountainous ultras is confounded by training specificity. If all other variables are controlled for, faster runners with a higher fitness level are going to win. As with runners going from the half to the marathon, not all fast half marathoners will be great marathoners, but on average, the faster 10k/half runners will make faster marathoners. The success of Kilian is not a complete mystery, he has the short distance speed and fitness to compete with and beat the best mountain runners in the world at races like Serre Zinal, and combined that with strong mountain skills and a substantial base.

    If you just looked at some of the those training descriptions in the article, you might guess the guys were training for a half marathon, which is how Dave Mackey described his training years ago.

    I like the comment from Zach about bringing down the pace of easy runs. Many think that the key is to run easy days really easy and hard days really hard, but at the very least your easy pace should progress with your fitness. I think there is a big benefit from trying to get make sure your comfortable pace is increasing. If that is not happening, it may serve as a earlier indicator of overtraining than if you just ran extremely easy on non-workout days and didn't really monitor your pace. The less talented you are in terms of speed, the more important it is keep up with regular speed work.

    It will be interesting to see if the current crop of successful faster runners have longer competitive careers. Many of the top ultra runners of the past and recent past have had short careers in terms of their success at the highest level when compared to top marathoners. I'm guessing that a recipe of marathon type training, moderate volume, and racing mostly at the 100k distance and below will lead to longer careers.

  3. steeltownrunner

    Great article – though it should be noted – this is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps, while technical trail running was growing in popularity (where fast running is more difficult), and ultra running in general becoming more of a peoples' sport, less attention was paid to the front runners. There was a time, certainly 20-40 years ago, where the only folks who really ran ultras were serious runners to begin with. I recall a conversation with an "old timer" (in his mid 50's now) who said he finished in the back of the pack in his first 50K where he ran a 3:07!

    Folks like Frank Bozanich, Barney Klecker, etc – had plenty of company and competition for those runs.

    I am eager to see an event that will bring some of the fast guys together for an old school track meet of sorts, something like 40mi-100K. The Courys floated the possibility of a Desert Solstice Invitational style race like this if there was enough demand. The idea came up too late for it to come together this year, but I would love to see it unfold.

  4. evanreimondo

    I've included speed work over the last couple years, and the success of the "speedsters" of late certainly has reaffirmed my belief in its relevance and importance to ultra distances. You don't have to hit the track to get some quality speed work, in fact, fartleks on the trail are giving you a 2fer1 whammy working on speed and specificity/skills relevant to your race. The strength and economy you gain from hammering a hill workout or doing 200 repeats is a no-brainer, and you best be doing some work at your lactate threshold. Like Rob said, a lot of it is about comfort and familiarity at speed. You need to log the miles and the long runs first, but having an extra gear is never going to be detrimental to your performance. The workout that stands out to me the most is Krarbarian's Snowbowl Rd descent- you can't emphasize downhills, and moving quickly down them, enough in training for hilly/mountainous ultras. Most of us will never have the pure aerobic power to run a sub 2:20 marathon, but many of us can train our muscles to run downhill fast with relatively low aerobic "need"

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