The Mental Game: Beating Those Dreaded Paved Sections

AJW's TaproomWhile most of us run long trail ultramarathons to spend time on trails, inevitably there are a few sections in most 100-mile races that require us to transition to the roads for a few miles. These paved sections are often short but necessary evils that connect up different trails, but if we’re not careful they can have a detrimental mental impact on our performance. As such, most experienced ultrarunners with course knowledge plan ahead for these sections so that they are ready for them.

On a recent run, I was thinking about some of my favorite 100-mile races and their brief but significant paved sections. In the Angeles Crest 100 Mile, Wasatch Front 100 Mile, and Western States 100, there are short but impactful paved sections that can wear on the runner’s mind and turn a good day bad in a hurry. What follows are some thoughts on these three sections.

Sulfur Springs Road at Angeles Crest – This long, steady uphill takes the runner to the Mount Hillyer aid station. Beginning at mile 38.4 of the race and winding up a steady grade for a bit over two miles, the Sulfur Springs Road is almost always hot, dry, and nasty. The key to this section is, for me, to try to run every step, zigzag across the road catching shady sections, and keep cool by pouring water over my head throughout the climb. The runner who can run most or all of this road will certainly make time on the competition.

Millcreek Canyon Road at Wasatch – This three-mile section of road leads from Elbow Fork Trailhead, mile 51.1, to the aid station at Upper Big Water. Usually by this point in the race, the temperatures have cooled and the shady, winding road feels deceptively pleasant. However, the car and bike traffic combined with the relentlessly uphill nature of this section can wear on even the most experienced runner in ways that are tough to combat. Knowing that one of the most beautiful sections of the course awaits after this road motivates me to get this section done as quickly as possible. It’s easy to walk this but if you want to make time you need to run more than walk.

Bath Road at Western States – At mile 60.6 in Western States, the runner emerges out of the heat of Volcano Canyon and is greeted by the pavement and monotony of Bath Road. The 1.6-mile stretch from the bottom of the road to the Foresthill Aid Station runs uphill for just over a mile before gently descending to the aid station at mile 62. Bath Road, while shorter than Millcreek and Sulfur Springs, can sap a runner’s energy and dampen one’s will to push hard. The uphill grade is steady but runnable. Failure to run assertively on the climb up this road will certainly result in a loss of time. Knowing that a nice, long downhill awaits after Foresthill is often motivation enough for me to hammer this section and get it behind me.

There are, of course, other mentally draining sections (paved and otherwise) that can be ‘focusbusters’ in some of the big races out there. Some that immediately come to mind are at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, Vermont 100 Mile, and Grindstone 100 Mile. Wherever they are, they are worth preparing for as the misery that inevitably comes on in the latter stages of a long race can be exacerbated by anything that drains the mental focus and disrupts a runner’s attitude. Long, hot sections of pavement are places where that often happens, even to the best of them, so it’s best to be prepared.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Foam Brewers in Burlington, Vermont. This small brewery produces a wonderful New England Style IPA called Pavement. Packing a bit of a punch at 8.2% ABV, Pavement is a slightly sweet take on the haze variety that has swept across the country in the past few years. Very fruity with a mango and citrus aroma, Pavement is a great post-run brew–even after a road run.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What pavement sections in long trail ultramarathons ‘get’ you? Do you have a story from a time when a road section of a trail race beat you down more than it should have?
  • Do you ever go into trail races with a plan on how you’ll mentally and physically approach the road sections?