Strategies for Success from the Buffalo Run 50k

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 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).

Call for Comments
Thoughts? Do tell.

There are 24 comments

  1. Jake

    Completely agree with your thoughts on even pacing. For anything longer than 800 meters, negative splits is usually the best way to achieve your maximum performance. Especially in an ultra… you have PLENTY of time to pick up the pace in the later stages of the race!

  2. Trail Clown

    Regarding point # 2, I've always admired (and sometimes second-guessed, I admit) ol' Davy Crockett's ultra strategy to go out with the leaders and enjoy it while it lasts. And I know his strategy has often seemed fool-hardy, especially early on in his first several ultra attempts, but I've been reading his blog and following his progress, and dag-nabbit the guy keeps getting faster. I still don't think it's for everyone (because I don't know anyone who has, or wants to, suffer as much as Davy has), but sometimes in this world if you keep acting like you're an elite, you eventually start achieving some pretty cool results. And I think he just PR'd at Buffalo, wasn't he around 20 hours and finished 3rd? It's scary to think what he is capable of if he learned your pacing strategies!

  3. Matt Smith

    Is this a preview from your upcoming book? ;)

    Great article, particularly the section on pacing. Worth the read just for this sentence:

    "…I hate to tell you but this has all the glory of a dude with bloody nipples, which is to say, none."


      1. MikeC

        Cracks me up, I went out for a short 6-7 miler last night, ended up 13 miles. Got home and the little woman says "what took you so long and why are you bleeding?"

        Poor planning = Bloody Nips (literally in this case, figuratively in others)

  4. Starks

    In distances especially longer than a marathon, I don't think even pacing is the best idea. And for negative splits, I think that means one ran the first half way slower than his/her capabilities.

    Let's say someone goes for even or negative splits and finishes say 10th. What if he starts fast and keeps up with the lead group for two thirds of the way and then slows substantially but still finishes 8th or 9th? Why is it worse?

    And I know a few people who use this kind of strategy and be successful. Of course there are other ones who do worse with this kind of strategy. But it's all about knowing yourself and your body. Everyone's different so I don't believe in the generalization of "even or negative splits" are needed for optimum performance in ultrarunning.

    1. Bryon Powell

      I might not go so far as to say that running negative splits is optimum in an ultra, but I DO think that running close to even splits – maybe +10% on the second half of most ultras or +15% in the second half of a 100 – will get nearly everyone pretty darn close to optimum.

      1. Speedgoat Karl

        Starks…..The rabbit rarely wins. Bryon's 10% number is pretty much on the money. Also being passed by runners late in a race is discouraging, if you are the guy making the passes, it's alot more fun.

  5. Fitz

    Great lessons Bryon, especially for a (someday) aspiring ultra runner. Interesting for you to note how HR affects carbohydrate stores; something I'll be sure to remember when competing next month. Glad to hear you felt good and raced well.

    1. Bryon Powell

      That's a VERY quick and dirty explanation, but it's something one would see in marathon running, as well. As you increase effort, you burn an increasingly greater percentage of carbs vs fats. Ramp up that effort above "even" for a mile and your burning more carbs for that same mile… which means fewer left over carbs to carry your through later stages of the race… which means a necessarily slower race.

  6. Alex from New Haven

    With regard to Negative splits; one complicating factor is heat. I've run several CA 50k/6hr/50m that start at ~40 degrees at the gun but get to 80-90+ by the end. Depending on how rough the heat gets your +10% rule (+15 min in a 5 hr 50k) might be a truly "even" effort.

    Another comment/question on pacing deals with cardiac drift; that at even pace, even temp etc etc a person's HR goes up slowly during the course of a race. I don't use a HR monitor; do you plan to let yourself go to higher HR (and I assume higher perceived effort) as you go along or stick to a hard HR ceiling (like 160 for example).

    Good post, good job on the race,


    1. Bryon Powell

      Agreed, Alex. Heat can be an exception with regard to slower pace later in the race. However, I think one could easily take the lessons they learn with regard to effort from an X-time first half, X=10% second half race and apply that to a hot race for optimal performance.

  7. Ben Nephew

    It's hard to argue with the physiological rationale for running even splits, and I've found that running even definitely works for me. I don't always run even, but when I don't it's not that I started off at a pace that I knew I couldn't handle. There is a big difference between sticking with the leaders even when you know they are going way too fast, and having your legs give out towards the end of a race. It's hard to predict how your legs are going to hold up, but committing to an unrealistic pace is not an enjoyable or efficient way to race an ultra. I'm not sure why going out hard and dying is so common in ultras compared to marathons, it has always seemed odd. As in shorter distances, the fast performances that have impressed me have been even paced, with possibly a few rough miles towards the end. Many of these performances involve someone going out very hard who then drops out, or is passed towards the end of the race by a runner who goes out more conservatively. The human body is not a financial institution, "Money in the bank" is not likely to pay off. I'd like to hear stories of people who have tried running even and going out hard who favor the hard start.

    The hot weather example is good exception, I've done that myself during hot weather races.

    I really should just say I'm all for running positive splits. It works for me, just not when I do it….

  8. Tina

    Bryon, thank you for sharing your experiences, and good job on the race. :)

    This is why I like reading iRunFar, you share practical information that can be applied to all levels and running experience. As a middle aged runner aspiring to do my first ultra next April, I can apply this info into my current marathon training. I'm already sold on the idea of keeping an even solid pace. The legendary Australian ultra runner, Cliff Young was a great example of a slow consistent pace paying off.

    One of the things that attracts me to ultra's is that it's about knowing how to pace yourself in order to go the full distance, as well as all the other fine tuning body listening skills that are involved. I'm sure I'll make a lot of mistakes as a newbie, but at least I'll be going my pace and doing my own race albeit slow and likely at the end of the pack.

  9. Bev

    I find this topic very helpful as a new long distance runner.

    Can you guys give me a short explanation on how you time your splits? Do you mark out the course and at specific miles do you meet that time and how do you account for elevation changes or very slow sections?

    Last, what kind of time per mile are you trying to average?


    1. Speedgoat Karl

      we use a watch to time ourselves, splits are irrelavent, run on effort only to succeed at 100s. If you can keep jogging after mile 70, you'll have a great race.

  10. Darthrunner

    I've rarely been passed in the back half of a 100 mile if I aim for consistency and usually end up passing plenty of zombies after 70ish miles. I have, however, suffered greatly by running the first 20 miles of any race too hard.

    Plan your gear/drop bags well and run the course before race day if you possibly can.

    Most importantly, stay positive and have fun!

  11. Andy

    I think many newbies and even somewhat more experienced runners (mea culpa) go out too hard due to a lack of base with really long runs. Unless you've run ultra distances repeatedly both in races and in training it's very hard to gauge the effort Karl refers to. It's too easy to go out "too hard" because your body is telling you "this is an easy pace" based on 20-mile training runs, which your body is probably much more used to than 30- or 40- (or 80-) mile runs. More base miles and lots of ultra distance runs are probably the key to letting your body figure out the right pacing for even splits. I could not agree more with the maxim that it is way better to pass a zombie than to be one!

    1. Andy

      PS – Probably best to follow the simple advice of ultra-running sages heard frequently on some of our playlists: "I set out runnin' but I take my time …"

  12. Anonymous

    Hi Bryon, glad everything is shaping up well.

    Good to see mention of spikes. This principle was drilled into me by one of our best ever lady ultra runners (who did finish States some years ago).

    Like many UK-based runners, we have some lunatic downs to run, even in ultras, and I always try to remember that I can blow everything part by running too fast downhill too.

    Get into the downhill groove, then back off by 10% and that seems to do it.

    Must remember to post you the latest Fellrunner.


  13. Alberto

    "…and usually end up passing plenty of zombies after 70ish miles."

    @Darthrunner, you cracked me up with this fantastic sentence! Thanks!

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