Strategies for Success from the Buffalo Run 50k

Strategies for ultramarathon success from the mind of Bryon Powell (and the Buffalo Run 50k).

By on April 1, 2011 | 24 comments

Antelope Island Buffalo RunGiven my relative lack of recent training, I was pretty psyched that I ran so well at the Buffalo Run 50k. What follows are some thoughts on what made my run a success. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on what general lessons have made your best ultras a success.

Less is MoreAt Red Hot Moab, I ended the race with something like 7 or 8 pounds of extra gear on my back. At the Buffalo Run, I started in shorts, a short sleeve shirt, a running cap, and calf sleeves, all of which I wore through out the race. For the near freezing start, I wore arm sleeves and light running gloves, which I ditched at the halfway mark. I also wore a Garmin Forerunner, a heart rate monitor, and Julbo Trail sunglasses. Other than that, I had a one ounce waist pack, a small Ultimate Direction bottle, and no more than three GUs on me. (That’s less than 7.5 ounces of race gear and food.) I filled the bottle only once, at mile 16, so I was certainly running light throughout. It was awesome.

Keep Moving – I stopped running 10 times during the race. That seems like quite a bit, but it’s actually quite low for the distance (and my conditioning). I walked 4 hills each lap (8 total) with three of averageing 30 seconds each and one likely in the 60 to 90 second range. If I was in top shape, I might have run them, but they were steep enough that I still might have used them as quick breaks in my otherwise routine running stride. Aside from the quick hill walks, I stopped to fill my bottle and pick up gels at the turn around and then for a quick leak at mile 19. According to Garmin Connect, I stopped moving for less than 90 seconds throughout the race. Didn’t Ben Franklin say, “A second saved is a second earned?”

Pace Evenly – I will forever fight the notion that you’ve got to slow down significantly the second half of an ultra. There are at least four reasons why one might slow a great deal the second half of an ultra:

  1. You’re going for the 100% best result you can run regardless of consequences or, similarly, you’re a legitimate top contender, hang for a long while, and then fall well off the pace. If you’ll be happy with a 95%+ of potential finish as I always am, there’s no need to go this route.
  2. You’re looking for easy glory in saying, “I went all out for as long as I could and then suffered.” Sorry, but if you’re running near the leaders for the first 10 or 20 percent of every race and then finishing hours behind them every time, I hate to tell you but this has all the glory of a dude with bloody nipples, which is to say, none.
  3. You miscalculated. Particularly early in one’s ultra career, it’s easy to miscalculate your abilities, fitness, the course, or the conditions. Heck, it happens to the most experienced of ultrarunners. To properly calculate your pace and effort, you need to be honest with yourself about your current abilities and how they match up with the run ahead.
  4. You encounter a low probability problem or the unforeseeable. Whether it’s tremendous blisters, a sprained ankle, or a bad reaction to food or drink, we’ll all have days during which something outside of our running pace and plan slow us significantly. Obviously, those days fall outside the scope of this issue.

Otherwise, you can run close to even splits … if you choose to do so. I certainly didn’t run even splits at the Buffalo Run due to some supernatural endurance base these days – quite the opposite. I took my poor conditioning into account, chilled for half the race, and then ran strong to the finish. I’m nearly certain that if I had gone out any harder, I would have run more slowly. The Buffalo Run was no fluke – I’ve run nearly even splits during an ultra on many occasions, including 100 milers. (Aside from getting lost for 20 minutes on the back half, I ran even splits at the 2005 Western States 100.)

Avoid Spikes, They’ll Kick Your Ass – This is less of a lesson relearned than one I’ve never forgotten. As much as you can, avoid spikes in your effort. While my heart rate climbed during the large ascents on the second lap, it was merely to a level that I have previously maintained for an entire 50k. Avoiding spikes in effort helps by preserving your body’s carbohydrate stores. Fully use up those stores and it’s a one-way trip to bonk city for you!

Picture This – Most of us enjoying seeing some race photos of ourselves. I’m no exception. Aside from admiring the composition of the photo (and posting them on Facebook), we should also take a good long look at ourselves. I’m usually in the “don’t mess with it if it works” school for running form, but I do like to know if I’m unnecessarily wasting energy while I run… and I photos from last weekend don’t lie! The only reason my arms should ever be so high is if I’m swatting biting flies away from my head. These images are easily worth 2,000 words.

Bryon Powell Buffalo Run

Photos by Greg Norrander (left – late in first lap) and Aric Manning (right – just before finish).

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Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.