Crewing the Leadville 100 Run

What’s crewing? Briefly, crews meet runners at points along the course with food, fresh water bottles, clothing changes, etc., supplementing the support and supplies available at aid stations.

While having a crew can be extremely helpful, it’s neither required nor necessary. A lot of runners from out of town can’t afford to bring crews with them and don’t know locals who can help. Some runners choose to go without crews, preferring to do the race as a solo effort.

Done right, crewing can be extremely valuable to the runner. However, done poorly, it can end up costing the runner time and energy.

Since 1996, I’ve paced and crewed 8 times, raced twice with top-20, sub-23hr finishes, and have coached several runners. I’ve worked with runners from all parts of the pack. I have also crewed at the LT100 mountain bike race twice. I know the race from the inside out and gladly share my knowledge, including some insider tips that you can’t find elsewhere.

While this is written primarily for Leadville, much of this information is applicable for other ultras.

Use the Outline headings to navigate. Please send me feedback,– comments, suggestions for improvement, critiques. You can also post your comments on here or on my Facebook page.

  1. Crewing explained.
  2. Making a plan.
  3. Gear – What to bring and and how to organize it.
  4. Efficient Aid Station Management.
  5. Dealing with a troubled runner.
  6. Communication/tracking.
  7. Stepping Through the Aid Stations. Specific information for each separate aid station, from start to finish.
  8. Taking Care of Yourself
  9. Final thoughts.

 1. Crewing

What’s crewing? Briefly, a crew follows a runner throughout the race, meeting them at designated points, providing them with food, gear, and moral support. Crews can be used in lieu of, or in addition to aid station (AS) supplies and volunteers.

Crewing at Leadville is fairly easy in that the crewing stations are all easily accessible, easy to find, and you have plenty of time to get there before your runner. The downside of that is that they can be extremely crowded and you may have to park and walk from a mile or more away, especially at the start of the race.

Crewing doesn’t require you to be an ultra runner, or even fit, though having that experience of racing can help you better understand and serve the runner.

Pacers can and often do crew. Alternating pacers may be the crew. Or, pacers can assist the crew before/after their pacing leg. Decide in advance whether the pacer(s) is going to ride with you or separately. Riding with you means they don’t have to worry about finding you for when they are supposed to start pacing. It also means fewer vehicles fighting for limited parking spots at AS. They don’t necessarily have to ride with you from the start. What I’ve done when pacing, is watch the start, go back to sleep, have a leisurely breakfast in town, then meet the crew later in the morning at Fish Hatchery, Treeline or Twin Lakes.

Crewing is surprisingly exhausting, even more so than pacing. Unlike pacing, which is a fairly constant output of energy, crewing is a repetition of highs and lows – a short burst of high energy as you get them taken care of and on their way quickly; pack up, drive to the next crew station, get a good spot and set up; wait, and wait, and wait; then repeat again. All that turning up and down can be wearing, especially through the late night and early morning hours before sunrise on Sunday.

In 1998, I was injured and not able to pace, so I was a full time crew instead. Around 3am, as I was driving from Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen, I started falling asleep at the wheel. I had to stop and have the pacer I was ferrying take over driving, and then wake me up when my runner was coming into the aid station.

That leads to some basic guidelines for crewing:

  • Take care of yourself. This includes food, clothing (to keep you warm and dry), and things to do while you’re waiting. You’re not much good to your runner if you’re tired, hungry, cold, cranky, or even asleep. There’s more on this below.
  • You are there to be of service to the runner. It’s their race. Put your own personal agendas aside and strive to accommodate whatever wishes they have. Remember that your runner will be tired and may be cranky and behave in ways you’re not used to later in the race. This can sometimes strain relationships. Don’t take it personally.
  • Know the rules. Don’t get your runner disqualified by doing something stupid. Read the runner’s handbook in advance. Ask questions of race personnel at check-in on Friday, or an official at an aid station on race day.
  • The more the merrier. As I said, crewing can be exhausting. Having help makes it easier. Help can mean a second (or third) person the whole way, having pacers help (if the runner has more than one, the off pacer can help), or having a second shift take over or provide added help through the night.
  • Stock up, organize and pack in advance. There’s one Safeway in Leadville. With the huge increase in volume for the bike and run, they’re likely to run out of some essentials. Don’t wait until Friday to shop. Don’t rely on finding supplies during the race. There’s limited availability and limited time during the race.
  • Have a plan, but be flexible. You need to be able to adapt to changes in the weather, how your runner feels, and other issues that come up. Things happen in ultras that are hard to predict, even for the most experienced ultra runners.

2. Planning

It’s a good idea to plan out race and aid station strategy, and have the runner go over this with you in advance. The plan should include what they expect to want at each station, and approximate time they’ll get there. Write the plan and time estimates in advance and carry it with you.

For time, make sure it’s clear whether you’re using time of day, or race time. For example, does 12:30 mean 12.5 hours into the race (4:30pm), or 12:30pm (8.5hours into the race)? This has confused more than one crew in the past.

Also include the time between stations. Perhaps simple to calculate, it can be hard to figure out for a tired crew, especially one who’s not experienced with ultras. When I last raced, in 2004, I was running a couple of hours behind schedule (due to stomach problems). I had “planned” to get into Mayqueen around 9:00pm, but I was having a bad day, and didn’t leave Fish Hatchery until a little before 9. Knowing that it would take me a little under 3rs, so knew to expect me at Mayqueen sometime between 11:30 to midnight.

Realize that plans aren’t written in stone. As I said above, things happen in ultras that are unexpected. Be prepared to deviate from the plan and improvise to meet your runner’s needs.

3. Orgainzing Food and Gear

I’m not going to suggest specific things to bring – each runner has their own particular wants and needs – rather, I’m going to suggest categories of items and how to organize it.

Put different types of items in different containers – e.g., plastic totes, small gym/duffle bags. This makes it easier to find things quickly when you need them. When your runner comes into an aid station, at night, asking for a specific green hat or peanut butter bar, you want to be able to find it quickly. Label the bags/boxes, and even use different colors, to help you find them quickly. After the runner leaves, put extra items back in their specific container and keep them fairly neat so you can get the stuff you need quickly the next time.

Types of gear:

  • Clothing. Possibly keep small items like hats, gloves and socks separate from larger jackets and pants so they don’t get pulled out accidentally and lost. Have a separate container for used and wet clothes. If the runner is using multiple pairs of shoes, uniquely identify each pair (e.g., number the midsoles), especially if you have multiple pairs of the same shoe.
  • Lights and batteries, radios, and extra iPods. Bring extra lights for yourself to help you find things at night, and to light up the area for when the runner is there.
  • Dry food; e.g., bars, gels, drink powders.
  • Cold and wet foods. Most crews will use an ice chest.
  • Water. While you can use the water at the aid stations to fill bottles and hydration packs, in most places you’ll be crewing away from the actual aid station itself. It’s often easier to fill bladders, bottles, and mix drinks from your own water containers. Make sure you keep the water away from dry clothes and food, and make sure it’s secured and closed so that it doesn’t spill or leak.
  • First aid; e.g., bandages, Vaseline, duct tape, mole skin, ibuprofen, Tums, Rolaids or ginger for the stomach. I usually keep these with the lights and batteries.
  • Crew gear. Keep it separate from the runner’s and pacer’s stuff. More on that below.
  • Pacer gear (if they’re riding with you). The pacer(s) should be responsible for organizing, maintaining, and getting their own gear. The runner may supply the pacer with food, batteries, etc., but that should be determined in advance. The pacer should have separate containers, but a limited number so that there’s plenty of room for the runner.

Some additional items to bring:

  • Small table – e.g., TV tray, camp table – to set up stuff for the runner. There are several places where you are not going to be able to crew from your car.
  • Additional bag or box to carry the supplies needed for that particular AS. There are several Ass where you’ll have to park a ways away, and carry stuff to the AS – namely May Queen at the start, Twin Lakes both ways (some can park along the route), and Winfield.
  • Folding, camp or beach type chairs.
  • Towel(s) to dry off a wet runner, and to clean their feet after crossing the creek and swamp on the way back to Twin Lakes.
  • Extra hydration packs. It’s easier and quicker to have a new pack ready to go than to pull out a bladder, fill it quickly without spilling, and stuffing it back in.
  • Camp stove and fuel. Allows you to make your own soups, hot chocolate, coffee, etc.

4. Efficient Aid Station Management

It’s important to get the runner out of the aid station and back on the trail as quickly as possible. AS time adds up; even just 5 min in each AS means almost an hour of lost time not moving closer to the finish. If the runner is flirting with the cut-off times, 30 hours, or the big buckle (25), those AS minutes can come back to haunt them.

Start with the plan the runner drafted in advance, but be ready to react quickly to changes. Unexpected things can change during the race. In 2002, I had prepared detailed plans for my crew. However, a bottle of bad Cytomax at the start left me with an upset stomach only an hour into the race. I had planned to take one bottle of Cytomax and one of R4 at Mayqueen, so that’s all my crew had available for me (the rest was in the car 10 min away). Since I knew the Cytomax was bad, I had only one bottle of R4 to get me over the hill to Fish Hatchery. If I had explained the need to have additional items available, I would have had more options.

Get set up well in advance. As soon as your runner leaves, pack up quickly, drive to the next AS, and get set up. Take time to relax, eat, take a short walk, chat with friends, etc., after you’re set up. Getting to the next AS quickly usually lets you find a closer parking spot and better place to crew. Getting set up means you don’t have to scramble when your runner gets there. I would wait until 15min or so before their earliest expected arrival before mixing drinks and taking out perishable foods.

Shortly before the earliest expected arrival time, go to the AS, or where they come into the crewing area (more on this below), find them, and escort them to where you’re set up to crew. Finding them can be harder than you’d expect in the early parts of the race, where the runners are still bunched together, and at night.

Escort them to where you’re set up so they don’t have to waste time and energy looking for you, or worrying about whether you’re there. If there are two or more of you crewing, one can find the runner, find out what they want, then radio ahead to the other; or tell the runner where you are set up, run ahead to alert the other, then back to escort the runner.

Figure out an efficient order of doing things. While there’s no one best way of doing it, the key is for the runner to spend as little time with the crew – i.e., not moving forward – as necessary, and for the runner to always be doing someing (e.g., eating, changing) rather than waiting. Here’s how I did it (as a racer):

  1. Take off my pack so it can be restocked while I’m doing other stuff, and drop stuff I don’t need any more (e.g., light at Mayqueen, on the way out).
  2. Eat foods that are hard to carry on the trail (e.g., soup)
  3. Take some extra gulps of water and sports drink or bites of food from sources I’m not going to take on the trail; I still leave with full bottles.
  4. Change clothes, socks and shoes.
  5. Put on my pack.
  6. Check to make sure I have what I need for the next leg. It can be a good idea for the cres to have a simple, generic check-list to quickly read through with the runner before he/she leaves to prevent missing critical items.
  7. Go.

If there are two or more crew, split the duties so that at least one caters to the runner, while the other(s) prep the packs and stuff for the next leg.

Be efficient, but not hurried. Your runner can pick up on nerves and frantic energy, which can drain his/her energy and cause them to worry. Present yourself calmly and confidently, which can translate to your runner being calm and confident.

Most of the time, the runner is better off continuing to move rather than stopping and sitting at AS. Try to get them out of the AS and moving as soon as possible. This is especially true late at night, when it’s cold. Once they stop, their body stops generating heat. They can get cold and start shivering. Shivering uses up a lot of energy. And, it can take a lot of extra time to warm up enough to be able to start moving again.

If the runner also has drop bags, the crew can often get them from the AS in advance (check with the AS staff to make sure they’ll). Remember to return the bags to the AS on the way out, and to keep them on the way back. One of the advantages of using a crew is that the runner doesn’t have to prepare drop bags.

If the runner is using pacers, have the pacer’s gear/food bag available for them. Generally, pacers should be responsible for getting themselves ready – gear, food, clothing. It may take the pacer a little longer to get ready for the next section, especially if they spend some of the AS time catering to the racer. The racer doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t wait for the pacer. The runner should start ahead, and the pacer can catch up.

If there’s a new pacer for the next leg, they should have their gear all ready before the runner arrives. Make sure that the racer’s supplies are transferred to the pacer’s pack/pockets. Simple, but easy to forget in a rush. One time, as a friend of mine was leaving Fish Hatchery on the way to Mayqueen, the outgoing pacer forgot to transfer gels and bars to the new pacer. They were part way up the Powerline before the new pacer realized it, too far along to go back.

5. Dealing with a Struggling Runner

Most runners will probably struggle physically and/or emotionally at some point during the race. In fact, it’s often said that success in ultras depends on how you deal with the problems.

There are not rules for how to handle this. It depends on the situation, the runner’s personality, the dynamics of the relationship between runner and crew/pacer, etc. It may help to be a comforting parent, psychologist, cheerleader, drill sergeant, or all of the above.

The decision to drop is a difficult one to make (unless time cut-offs make the decision for you). Typically it’s the runner’s decision to make, but a tired runner may not be in a proper state of mind to make the right decision, and you may need to intervene. Intervening may mean stopping a runner when they don’t want to quit, or getting a runner to continue when they don’t want to.

Just being tired and sore, or low on energy, usually isn’t a good reason to stop. These and many other problems can be helped with food and fluids. Just like giving a crying baby a bottle, getting some food into the runner often helps them to feel better, both physically and emotionally (though perhaps not quite as quickly as a baby). Once they’re refueled and rehydrated, often they’ll start feeling better after a few minutes of moving along the trail.

If they’re dehydrated and have lost significant weight (runners are weighed at check-in, and several times during the race), take enough time to pump fluids (and electrolytes) into them.

Some of the typical more serious issues that may necessitate quitting are:

  • Blood in the urine or stool, or coughing/vomiting blood; can be caused by dehydration or taking too many NSAIDs (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen). Vomiting in and of itself is not necessarily a reason to quit.
  • Sprains, twists, sharp pain or significant swelling in or other injury to joints, especially if the pain is getting progressively worse or significantly altering the stride.
  • Difficulty breathing, caused by fluid build-up in the lungs.
  • Severe headaches, caused by fluid build-up in the brain.

There’s medical personnel at each AS to check runners. They can check the runner and give you advice on whether they think the runner can/should continue.

Otherwise, few problems can be solved by sitting or laying down. Time spent in AS (or otherwise stopped) is time lost not getting you closer to the finish; as little as 5min in each AS adds up to an hour lost throughout the race. Sore muscles don’t recover while sitting in an AS (any relief is temporary). Everyone gets sore and tired, yet it’s amazing what the body can do when it’s tired. Get them fed and get them on their way.

In 2002, after 30 miles of struggling with an upset stomach and cramping legs, when I got off the back side of Hope Pass (you used to be able to crew from there), I told my crew I wanted to drop out. They wouldn’t let me, “There’s no f-ing way you’re dropping out of this race.” My pacer kicked and dragged my sorry butt back over Hope Pass where I rallied mentally, and improved from 41st to 20th over the final 40 miles.

There’s the story of a woman who’s husband wanted to drop out at Mayqueen. Citing all the time he took away from her for training, she got in the car, locked the door, and refused to let him in and drive him back to town. He finished.

6. Communication and Runner Tracking

Knowing when your runner is coming in and what they need can make the AS experience faster and better.

On the way out (first 50mi), you’ll mostly rely on estimated time splits. In the last couple of years, some runners have taking to texting and tweeting from the trail. I think that’s a waste of time and energy, both carrying and using a phone while racing. It’s also unreliable. There are many places that don’t have good, or any cell coverage. So, messages sent minutes out from an AS, might not actually be sent or received until hours later.

On the way back, especially at night, advance notice can be helpful. There are several ways a pacer can help.

Have the pacer carry a walkie-talkie. Radio channels get crowded with so many runners, but all you need is a quick message; e.g., “Runner 264 is 10 min out from Twin Lakes.” You can pick up a 2-pack of radios for $30-$50, and a 4-pack for not a lot more. It’s worth having fully charged extras to get you through the night.

Additionally, or instead, a pacer can jog ahead as they’re coming into an AS. They should find out what the runner wants (e.g., food, drink, clothing), run ahead to find the crew and inform them of the runner’s needs and where they are, then run back to the racer (or wait) and guide them to the crew.

I have seen way too many runners come into Fish Hatchery at night feeling fine, sit down to eat, start shivering within 30 seconds, then end up having to having to lay in a warm sleeping bag for up to an hour. A runner can save time by eating and changing tops while on the move, instead of sitting. Focus your efforts on the runner first. You can hang back to fill their bottles/bladder, grab clothing form crew or drop bags, get what you need, then catch up to them on the trail. The runner doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t wait for you.

7. Stepping through the AS

Start: You can have extra clothes to allow for last minute changes, lights/batteries in case one goes bad, extra food to top off the tank, and to give encouragement. You might also want to take pictures. Of course, if you and the runner don’t think you need to be there, then head out to Mayqueen in advance.

Head out to the AS immediately after the start. It’s going to be crowded and the later you get there, the further away you’re going to have to park and walk. Stage your car at a place you can get to quickly, and that can get you to the AS quickly without having to wait for the runners to get too far down the road.

Tabor Boat Ramp: I strongly recommend skipping it at the start and going directly to Mayqueen.

  • It’s very crowded.
  • The runners come through in large packs, with no advance warning, and it’ll be dark, so it’s hard to find your runner.
  • It’s early enough in the race that they shouldn’t need a crew until Mayqueen.
  • It delays getting to Mayqueen, meaning you’ll have to park even further away.

Mayqueen (MQ): Get there as early as possible. I suspect that if you’re not there by 4:20, you may have to walk a mile or more to the AS where you can crew (thus the need for a bag or box to carry things, mentioned above).

If you’re coming from Tabor, it may be easier and quicker to approach MQ from the north (go left out of the Tabor lot rather than right). They don’t let you drive through to MQ itself, but you can park along the road where they head back onto the trail. You might be able to crew there, although that’s not a good idea unless your runner is expecting you there. It’s ~1/3mi down the road to MQ itself.

At the AS, wait for them on the road, on the incoming (east) side of the tent. Don’t crew there, but make contact with them. They have to go through the tent to check in and out of the AS. Then, meet them on the other side of the tent to crew.

This is a quick transition. They’ll drop off lights and maybe some clothing, and quickly swap out bottles or hydration packs. You can walk with them up the road a bit to do the swaps rather than have them stand and wait.

It’s going to be cold – Mayqueen is at a low point and by water – so dress appropriately to keep yourself warm while waiting.

As soon as they are done, head back to the car and to Fish Hatchery.

Fish Hatchery (FH): They don’t allow you to drive the road between the Power Line and FH on the way out. Don’t take the right after the golf course, but continue straight to hwy 300, then right, W up to FH. Parking will be at a premium in the morning, and you’ll have to park where they tell you too.

The ideal place to set up is on the road, where the runners go up and back to the actual AS; it’s 50m or so up from the road. There, you can see them twice. They can drop off their pack and tell you what they want before heading up to the AS. You can get it ready for them when they return. Give them food/drink for them to take while they’re going up and back to the AS.

If you’re able to park along the race route (don’t make the runner go out of his/her way), then you can crew from your car. Still meet them at the spot above, take their pack so they don’t have to carry it, then either tell them where your car is, or wait and escort them there.

It’s a short leg to Treeline, so they don’t have to carry much. When I was racing, I would drop my pack and just carry a hand held bottle, perhaps half full, to Treeline.

Because of all the fish ponds, be prepared for lots of mosquitos.

It’s only 4mi to Treeline, but it’s a quick drive, and there’s plenty of parking. So, while you don’t need to rush, you don’t want to dawdle either at FH.

Treeline: This is a crew spot, not an AS. Park where you can, which should be along the race route. Find your runner so they don’t have to waste energy finding you. It’s 3mi from there to Halfmoon (HM), the next AS (there’s no crew access allowed at HM), and then another 9 to Twin Lakes (TL). If they’re going light from FH, they’ll need to reload packs and gear at Treeline.

You’ll want to be on your way quickly after they leave because of parking at TL.

Twin Lakes (TL): If you get there early enough, you can park in the lot on the left side of the road. The AS is a block up and in to the right, but the runners run through the lot on their way to/from Hope Pass. You’re not allowed to park on the dirt roads above hwy 82. Otherwise, you’ll be directed to park along hwy 82.

If you can’t park in the lot, then set up to crew either in or at the entrance to the lot, or along the dirt road heading up to the AS. It’s usually less crowded and easier to crew away from the AS itself.

Meet your runner up by the AS, then escort them to your crew spot. Carry their pack while you’re escorting them. Bring food/drink for them to take while you’re escorting them.

TL is often the first place runners will stop and take extra time to eat and change. Hope Pass is looming ahead so it’s a good place to do that. However, follow my advice above about getting them out on the trail and moving closer to the finish as quickly as possible.

Have them take a jacket, and perhaps hat and gloves with them over Hope Pass, no matter how warm and sunny it may be at the time. There’s almost always rain, sleet or hail over Hope at some point during the race, and far too many runners have lost valuable time or had to drop out because of not being prepared for the cold and wet.

Although you want to get to TL fairly quickly because of parking, you’ll have plenty of time until your runner comes in. There’s a small store along hwy 82 with a limited amount of food and supplies. You can get some snacks, but don’t count on it to restock your race supplies.

Beware of mosquitos in the lot and by hwy 82. They’re usually not a problem up by the AS.

Winfield: Although you have plenty of time, it’s a long drive from TL to Winfield – 45min for the first crews, 1hr our more for everyone else due to traffic. The last 12mi is on a dusty, and occasionally bumpy, 2wd dirt road. The last 2.5mi is shared with the runners. There will be 2-way traffic for both runners and cars here. You’ll have to go slow because of traffic. Go extra slow and be extra careful when passing runners to minimize kicking up dust. Please don’t make the runners suffer any more than they already are just because you’re late and rushing.

You’ll have to park as directed, and then carry the gear to the runner. The best place to crew is in the actual AS in the shade of the tent. You can walk with your runner along the trail from the road to/from the AS for additional crewing and to save time.

It can be hot and dusty at Winfield. There can also be mosquitos.

You’ll have plenty of time to get back to TL, but the sooner you leave Winfield, the sooner you’ll free up a parking spot for someone else. You’ll also want to take the opportunity to cheer your runner on as you pass them on the road.

Twin Lakes: Parking should be easier, and the atmosphere less rushed on the return trip. It’ll be that way the rest of the race.

Meet your runner by the bathrooms, where they come off the trail (you can go up the trail a bit), or in the lot. Crew for them before they go to the AS, then walk them to the AS. The exception is if they’re close to the cut-off time, make sure they check in and out of the aid station before that time. They’re still considered official if you then crew for them, and they then leave after the cut-off.

Many runners will change shoes/socks here after passing through the river and swamp on coming into TL.

Although the next section is relatively easy (no major climbs), this is often where runners run into trouble. Perhaps it’s something about 60+ miles in the legs, or where food and fluids management catches up with them. Regardless of how good they may be feeling at TL, make sure they eat and drink enough before heading out, and carry enough with them.

Treeline: If you need to go back to town to eat or restock supplies, this is the time to do it. Treeline is fairly close to Leadville, you’ll have plenty of time, and stores and restaurants will still be open.

Treeline can be a bit of a party scene for crew at night. Crews will be waiting there 1-2 hours. There will be camp stoves cooking food, music playing, Frisbee, football, etc. Be prepared to wait. Be prepared to start bundling up against the cold.

It can be hard to find each other at night. There’s usually a couple of race volunteers, one a bit down from the crewing area where the runners are coming from who will radio ahead with race numbers, and another by the crew calling out the numbers. Do your best to keep your runner from spending time finding or worrying about you. Wearing something reflective and distinctive can help. Keep your lights pointed down, away from others’ faces (blinding them).

Again Treeline to FH is short, so again they can go light.

Fish Hatchery: Feel free to slow, and cheer your runner (and others) as you pass them along the road to FH.

Parking should be easier than on the way out. If you can, park and crew by the place they go in-and-out to/from the AS. You can also carry the stuff into the AS building where it’s warm and crew for them there.

For most runners, it’ll be dark and cold. DO NOT LET THEM SIT DOWN (unless absolutely necessary). Shortly after they sit and stop generating energy, they may get cold and start shivering. Keep them up and moving so they can maintain body heat. FH can look like a M.A.S.H. tent at night, and you don’t want the runner to become another casualty.

Mosquitos shouldn’t be much of a problem at night.

Leaving FH, you may be able to drive the road to the Power Line trail. It’s almost exactly 1mi from FH. You can meet them there and cheer them on before they tackle the last major climb of the course.

Mayqueen: You’ll have time to head to town after FH if necessary.

From the AS, at night, you can look up to and see the string of lights from runners and pacers coming down from Sugarloaf; it’s a pretty sight. If you are using radios, they should be able to contact you from the top. However, it’ll take them another 1-2 hours from the top.

There will be someone where they come off the trail, 1/3mi above MQ, calling numbers ahead via radio. Someone at the AS will then relay those numbers to waiting crew so you know when they’re coming. Be patient. It always seems to take longer than you think.

Meet them as they’re coming in towards the AS, and go into the tent with them. It’s warmer and there’s light inside. Again, even though they’re tired and want to sit, the sooner you can get them on their way, the sooner they’ll finish.

Tabor: They don’t let you through the short way, because of runners coming down to MQ from the trail, so you have to drive counter-clockwise. The road diverges from the lake quite a bit, so it seems to be a lot longer than expected. The entrance to the boat ramp can be hard to find at night. Hopefully they will mark it better with lights.

If there’s room, you can back your car down the boat ramp; there’s space for 3-4 cars. However, after sunrise, you may have to leave space, or temporarily move your car to allow boaters access to the lake. Otherwise, park up in the lot and carry gear down.

Runners come in from the right (as you’re facing the lake). You have almost no warning. You won’t see lights or hear runners coming until perhaps 10-20 seconds before they get to the boat ramp.

Remember that it’s cold by the water, and there may be mosquitos after sunrise.

Turquoise Lake trail head: The end of the Turquoise Lake Trail can be another good place to crew. This is about half way between MQ and the finish. It’s easier to get to, and easier to find at night, and easier to crew than Tabor. Although it’s not an official crew station, race management has always been aware that people crew there and condoned it. Check with the new race management.

There’s room to park right near the trail head. There’s also a larger dirt turnout, with room for several cars, on the S side of the road, a bit E of the T road intersection, at the top of the short power line section. This is a lot easier to get to, and easier to find at night than the Tabor boat ramp.

To the Finish: You can meet them and cheer them on a couple of other places before the finish. At Sugar Loafin’ campground, which is at the end of the dirt road they’re running on, and the bottom of the hill on the paved road you’re driving down from the Turquoise trail head. Please don’t drive on the dirt road, although you can park at the end.

At the RR tracks, where they turn off the paved road. Note that the bridge/river crossing just before the RR tracks can be the coldest part of the whole race. Absolutely don’t drive the dirt road alongside the tracks, or the “boulevard” dirt road.

At the bottom of 6th, the top end of the boulevard dirt road. That’s just less than 1mi to the finish. They may choose to drop packs and bottles so the road up to the finish is easier. Extra pacers, crew and family are allowed and encouraged to accompany the runner on this last section.

Walk down from the finish and accompany them the last few blocks. There’s a volunteer at the crest of the hill ½ mile from the finish, who will ask for the runner’s number, and radio it ahead to the finish. The announcer will broadcast that number or the runner’s name to people waiting at the finish. Walk/run with them the last few blocks. Typically you’ll want to stop just before the finish line so they can cross it alone.

The last hour, especially the last 30 min before the 30hr cut-off, there will be huge crowds lined up cheering the last few runners. It’s very moving to witness and be a part of this. I remember one year when two runners finished in the last minute, the final official finisher crossing the line with just seconds to spare. You didn’t think they had a chance when you saw them cresting the hill, but they somehow summoned up the extra energy and fed off the screaming crowd to run across the line.

8. Taking Care of Yourself

When you’re crewing, you’re going to be out there as long as the runner. If you’re going to be helpful to your runner, you need to keep yourself warm, fed, and alert through the long hours.

Food: Bring food and drinks with you. You are not allowed to take food from the AS. There are very limited opportunities to get food during and along the race route. There’s a small market at Twin Lakes, but they don’t carry enough food and supplies to take care of the high volume during the race. You won’t have time to go back to Leadville, to restock at a market or to eat at a restaurant, until Saturday night, after your runner has left Twin Lakes on the way back.

Clothing: You’ll want clothing to stay warm at the start and through Saturday night. Warm weather clothes during the day (depending on weather). Rain gear, and changes of socks, shoes and clothes if they get wet. Hat for sun/rain protection.

Gear:

  • Lights for yourself with spare batteries.
  • Camp soap, wipes, etc., to clean your hands before/after handling food for you and your racer.
  • Towels to clean and dry yourself, plates, utensils, etc.
  • Beach chair, camp chair, folding chair, etc. to sit in while waiting for your runner. It’s nice to get out of your car, and sometimes you won’t be able to crew near your car.
  • Mosquito repellent.
  • Books, magazines, music to keep you entertained.
  • Alarm clock

Pets: If you’re brining dogs/cats, make sure you have stuff for them to get through the race. Clean up after them. Keep them away from the runners; even if you have the sweetest, gentlest dog in the world, the other runners don’t know that, may be allergic to or afraid of dogs.

Getting through the night: The wee hours of the morning, from around 2am – 6am (sunrise), are the hardest on the crew. Adrenaline has long since gone. Your body’s natural rhythms are telling you to sleep, just like a lot of runners struggle with energy during this time. Be aware of this going in, and have strategies to deal with it.

I don’t normally take caffeine, but when I’m involved in ultras, or when I used to do adventure racing, then, as John Lennon said, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”

Take quick naps, selectively. Go to the next AS first. Set an alarm and/or have your crewing partner wake you up. Plan to wake up well in advance of when you expect your runner to come in (every so often, crew has had to be woken up by a racer or pacer, or they just slept through the runner). You don’t need a lot of sleep during the race – as little as 10 or 15 minutes may be enough to refresh and re-waken the mind.

9. Final Thoughts

Crewing can be a lot of fun as well as a lot of work. It’s a great way to experience ultras without running in one. It’s one way to learn about ultras before doing one yourself. If someone asks you to crew, please consider helping them out.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. Visit my web site, http://www.runuphillracing.com/

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Leadville Pacers Guide

This is a guide to the Leadville Trail 100 Run, for Pacers, Crew, and Racers. Although focused mainly on pacing, I think the information us valuable to crew and runners too.

Since 1996, I’ve paced and crewed 8 times, raced twice with top-20, sub-23hr finishes, and have coached several runners. I’ve worked with runners from all parts of the pack including perennial top 5 finisher Joe Kulak, several 25-27 hour finishers, and runners who have dropped. I have also crewed at the LT100 mountain bike race twice. I know the race from the inside out and gladly share my knowledge, including some insider tips that you can’t find elsewhere.

This was originally posted to the LT100 Yahoo Group, in 2004, and has been revised over the years. Use the Outline headings to navigate the different sections. Please send me feedback – comments, suggestions for improvement, critiques, or comment here.

  1. Pacing Basics: What is pacing. Why pacers. Should/can you pace.
  2. How To and Pacing Strategies.
  3. Pacing Legs. Tip: Don’t change at Halfmoon. Change at Tree Line or Fish Hatchery instead.
  4. Pacing Gear.
  5. Crew and Aid Stations.
  6. Finding a pacer, or runner to pace. It’s possible even on race day.

1. Pacing Basics

  • Why pacing is important.
  • Muling.
  • Should you pace?
  • Can you pace?

What is pacing? Briefly, pacing is accompanying a runner during the race. A pacer is part friend, coach, psychologist, nutritionist, and mule (see below). A good pacer can play a big part in a runner’s success, sometimes even determining whether or not a runner even finishes. Ultra running is as much a psychological challenge, as it is a physical one. A pacer can do a lot to help a runner through the rough spots.

Muling refers to carrying gear for the racer. Unlike most other ultras, muling is not only allowed at Leadville, it is encouraged. This can mean carrying food, water, clothing, lights, and batteries. I’ll talk about what and how to carry stuff in the Gear section.

Should you pace? Yes. If you or a friend are still on the fence about pacing, jump in. Pacing is a fun and motivating. You’ll feel their joys and triumphs, their pain and struggles. It can be an extremely powerful experience to be out there with “ordinary” people doing amazing things.

Pacing is also a great way to learn about Leadville and ultras. If you’re thinking about getting into ultras, this is a great way to learn, from the inside, about the course, race tactics, managing crew and pacers, gear, nutrition, the mental challenge, etc.

Who can pace? Almost anyone. You don’t have to be an ultra runner. You don’t have to be that fast. Most racers will be doing a lot more walking than running over the last 50 miles. Even when they do run, it won’t be that fast. Only the top runners will be running sub 10 min/mile pace, even on the flats.

Pacing legs are as short as 4 miles, or as long as 50. So, you don’t have to be able to go that far. Even if you do end up going longer than you’re used to, you’ll probably be going a lot slower than you’re used to going on your long runs. So, as long as you are taking in fuel and fluids, you may be surprised at how easy it is to go far. My first ultras were done pacing at Leadville.

You don’t even have to be a “runner.” A good, strong, hiker can make a great pacer. As I said above, most of the racers will be walking most of the last 50 miles. So, if you can hike for several hours, at night, at 10,000′, you can pace many of the runners in the field, especially over the mountain passes where they’ll likely be walking anyway. I have a friend, who has paced several times, who can’t run a 60 minute 10k, but is a strong hiker.

2. How to Pace
There’s more to pacing than just tagging along. In this section, I will give you tips to help you get the most out of your runner, and get the most out of your pacing experience, and how to deal with a struggling runner.

  • Where/How to run – in front, behind, along side.
  • Hand-offs.
  • Talking vs. Silence.
  • Dealing with a Struggling Racer.
  • Injured Runner.
  • Getting Dropped

Rule #1: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST! You can’t help, and may even hurt your runner’s chances if you end up struggling. Make sure that you have enough food, fluids, the proper clothing, lights, extra batteries, etc. At Leadville, you need to be prepared for varied terrain, rapidly changing weather, and to be out there longer than expected. I’ll talk more about gear in part 3, later.

Rule #2: You are there to be of service to the runner. It’s their race. Put your own personal agendas aside for a few hours and strive to accommodate whatever wishes they have.

Everyone has different preferences about where they want you, what they want you to carry, how much they want you to talk, etc. Let the runner dictate the routine and the relationship. If you know your runner/pacer, talk about these things ahead of time. If you’re meeting each other on race day, use the start of your time together to figure out a routine. Regardless of what you may have worked out, be prepared to change. The runner will likely go through different emotional and physical states during the race. Each change may require a different routine.

Where to run? Some like you in front of them, some behind, some alongside. When I’m racing, on a single-track trail, I runner usually like to be in front – I like to see the terrain, and the unobstructed sight helps me go faster – with my pacer behind. This is especially true on the steep climbs and descents, like Hope Pass. Others like their pacer in front. Having the pacer set the pace helps pull them along.

When running behind, you’ll want to stay far enough back so that you have clear view of the trail (you don’t want to be staring at their heels or back the whole way), yet close enough that you can hear them talk, and quickly scoot up to hand them a water bottle, etc. When running in front, look back periodically and try to maintain a constant distance.

When the trail is wider, many runners want their pacer alongside. When I’m pacing, I’ll always try to give the runner the inside on curves, often crossing from side to side, behind the runner, as the trail bends.

This may change at night. While I generally want my pacer behind me during the day, at night, on rocky single-track, I like having them in front. They can pick the better line through the rocks so I don’t have to think about it, and the extra light in front helps illuminate the trail; from behind can cast a shadow. There are a few very short sections that are extremely rocky (especially along the Colo Trail, from Hagerman Rd down to Mayqueen). There, it may help for the pacer to go through first, then turn and shine their lights down on the rocks as the runner traverses them. See more on lights below.

When handing stuff, I use a baton relay style hand off. They’ll tell me what they want. When I have it ready, I’ll move closer and tell the runner to hold out his/her hand. This allows both of you to keep moving while you’re exchanging gear.

To talk or not to talk? That depends on the runner. I’ve seen runners and pacers chatting for hours. Others like to stay stoic and focused. Even then, it’s still a good idea to check in with them periodically and see how they’re feeling. Remind them to eat and drink if necessary, but don’t nag. They may ask you to remind them to take an electrolyte tablet at a specific time interval.

Everyone struggles at some point in an ultra. Success depends on how you deal with the low points. A pacer can help a runner get through those times. However, lifting the spirits of a struggling runner can be a difficult task. There are no simple tricks. Everyone deals with the struggles differently and responds to different tactics. As a pacer, be prepared to try different things and see how the runner responds. Have a few stories or jokes ready. Mental struggles are often caused by physical struggles, so make sure they eat and drink.

Try to keep them moving. Each step gets them that much closer to the finish. Look for and point out milestones and positives; e.g., “good effort on that last hill.” Touching their back or shoulder can help. You’re not allowed to push them, but often a light touch seems to help their energy. You can play games with them to keep them moving, such as running to the next tree. One time, I had to negotiate with my runner. We agreed on having him run for 30 seconds (on the flats), with a minute of walking. I had the watch, so I tricked him, and had him run for a minute at a time. Even someone feeling strong may need some reminders to run the flat and downhill sections. Remind them to keep their leg speed up. Short, quick strides are usually more efficient and faster than long, slow strides, especially when they’re tired.

No matter how much they are hurting, it’s often better to have them go a bit faster, or at least keep the same pace, rather than slowing down. If it doesn’t hurt any less when they slow down, they might as well go fast (relatively). The sooner they finish, the sooner the pain will stop.

There’s a rare incident that your runner will get hurt between Aid Station (AS). If that happens, you need to make sure your runner is safe, then get word to the nearest AS. In most cases, you should stay with your runner. Chances are, another runner/pacer will be along soon. Tell them your runner’s name and number, and ask them to get the word to the AS crew. Many pacers are EMTs and are willing to help the runner. In that case, it may be better to let them stay with the runner, and have you run to the nearest AS. Don’t administer medical assistance yourself if you are not qualified to do so. If you are a pacer and come across an injured runner, be prepared to leave your healthy runner to get to the nearest AS as quickly as possible, even if that means running back along the course.

In 1999, a friend of mine was pacing someone up the Powerline. His runner became hypothermic. They laid down along the trail, and the pacer spooned with the runner to help keep him warm. An EMT pacer came along with his runner. The EMT stopped, while his runner kept going to get word to the AS. They got the runner moving again. He regained his energy and finished strongly.

Occasionally, a runner will drop a pacer, meaning that the pacer can’t keep up. It’s not the responsibility of the runner to wait for the pacer. If, as a pacer, you find yourself struggling to keep up, it’s up to you to let the runner know, and to tell them to go ahead without you. If you’re the runner, and you find your pacer is repeatedly falling behind, you need to ask them if they’re OK. As long as they’re not injured, if they’re holding you up, it’s OK to go ahead on your own. Remember rule #1 of pacing – TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST! Even if the pacer is slightly injured, if they are well enough to be able to get to an aid station on their own, and they have enough clothing, food and fluids, it still may be OK to leave them.

3. Pacing Legs

There are four main pacing legs:

  • Winfiled to Twin Lakes (TL)
  • TL to Treeline or Fish Hatchery (FH) – NOT HALFMOON
  • FH to Mayqueen
  • Mayqueen to the Finish
  • There are also a couple of shorter ones.

The descriptions and mileage can help you find your way and gauge your time and distance, whether you are pacing or running. I’ve done this for 10 years, and I believe my intermediate mile estimates are more accurate than the course description on the LT100 web site.

Winfield, 50mi – Twin Lakes, 60.5mi
This is my favorite section to pace. There are great views, both from the summit towards town, and behind you, to the south, as you are climbing. Everyone goes over the top in daylight, so you can enjoy the views. It’s also the earliest pacing section, so your runner be relatively fresh and more likely in good spirits.

From Winfield, it’s ~2.5mi, slightly downhill, on a dirt road, to the trailhead. This stretch can be quite crowded in the middle of the pack, with runners and cars going in both directions. In past years you could crew and start pacing at the trailhead, rather than at the turnaround. This cut down on much of the vehicle traffic along the course. Unfortunately, that’s not allowed any more.

From the trailhead, you climb 2,900′ in ~2.5mi to Hope Pass. Everyone (except Matt Carpenter) hikes this section. The first half is forested. If it rains, it can be surprisingly (for Colorado) humid in the trees ans slippery. You’ll pass two rocky stretches a couple of minutes apart. The second one seems to be about half-way to the top, in terms of time. Once you clear the trees, you can almost see the pass. It’s still a long way, with some extra steep sections (as if it wasn’t already steep enough). You are exposed here. So, if you have wet weather, you’ll want to keep moving quickly.

From the top, you’ll see the Hopeless aid station (AS) in the meadow below, ~¾ mile down the trail.

Below Hopeless, you can really fly if you’re a good downhill runner. You enter the forest shortly after leaving the AS. The first part of the trail has pretty good footing. As you get lower, parts of the trail are rocky and rooted.

When you come out of the trees at the bottom, you have ~1.5mi to Twin Lakes. You’ll continue north and cross the river. If the water is high, there may be a rope to help you across. After crossing the river, the trail turns south. This last stretch can be marshy. As you’re heading south, look for a round hill on your left. Once around this hill, you’re only ~100 yards from the TL lot. Look for their crew in the parking lot, or continue through the lot, left across the road, up a block, then left to the AS.

Twin Lakes, 60.5, – Treeline, 72.5, or Fish Hatchery (FH), 76.5.
This is the prettiest section, in daylight, and the nicest running trail of the course.

There’s a short, steep hill leaving the aid station, a short, steel drop, then a right turn onto a steep, rocky, 4wd road. You then hit a single-track and enter the trees. This is a nice, rolling climb, ~2mi. The sub-25 runners will run large parts of the climb. At a small, dirt, parking area, you merge with the Colorado Trail, go left, and cross a bridge. This is nice, rolling terrain, through groves of aspen and pine. After another couple of miles, you’ll take a right off the Colorado Trail. This is a new section, added in 2009, and I haven’t been on it. It’s ~8.5mi from Twin Lakes to the Halfmoon AS.

DON’T SWITCH PACERS AT HALFMOON. During the race, crew vehicles are not allowed on the road above Treeline. In order to start/end pacing at Halfmoon, you’ll have to hike or bike in/out. If you start pacing at Twin Lakes, you should continue down the road to Treeline, or on to FH.

From Halfmoon, it’s ~2mi down the Pipeline road. Go left, and it’s ~1mi up to Treeline. You should be able to see lights and hear noise from the crews as you approach. You come into Treeline from the SE and turn right. Crews set up along the dirt road, just below the last line of trees – thus the name Treeline.

From Treeline, continue another 1 mi down the dirt road. On the return, cars share this stretch of road with the runners. Near the end of the dirt road, the runners veer left onto the old road. This is a little shorter, and rockier, than the dirt road sections where the cars go. Go left for ~1.5 miles on the paved road, then left for another 1.5mi up to FH. This is most people’s least favorite part to race or pace. However, if you’re looking for a short pacing section, this may be for you.

Fish Hatchery, 76.5, – Mayqueen, 86.5

This take you up the infamous power line, and over the last big hill of the course, Sugarloaf. Maintaining good energy is important on the climb. If you are cold and your energy lags, you may not be able to move fast enough on the climb to stay warm.

Exit down from the AS, then go left 1 mile along the paved road to the trail head. Sometimes the residents cheer you on from the houses along the road. The road rises from FH. It crests around a right curve. The road curves back to the left, drops a bit steeply just before the power line trail. Look for a small dirt road dropping off to the left. There are usually crew waiting by the trail head, but last year, there wasn’t when a first time LT100 racer and pacer came through. They missed the turn and were about another mile down the road before someone directed them back.

Go left onto the power line trail. Cross the creek (look for wood planks on the right). Take a left shortly after the creek under the powerlines. The wide path winds off to the left of the powerlines for a couple of hundred yards, then back under the powerlines before the real climbing starts.

The first pitch is the steepest, so don’t be too intimidated. There’s a short, steep downhill just after that. Then, it’s a series of seemingly endless stair steps. Many runners will walk the steep pitches, then jog the flats. Don’t let your runner get lazy. Don’t be fooled by the false summits. The top is where you cross the Colorado Trail and emerge from the forest cover.

From the top, the 4wd road starts flat, or even a little uphill, then descends and gradually gets steeper as you wind though a couple of turns. Parts of this road can be rocky. You take a sharp, right turn at the Hagerman road, the first one you hit. It’s almost exactly 1mi down that road to the trail. Look for flagging, in the daytime, or glow sticks, at night. Go left down onto trail. The first part is the steep and loose. After that the descent is fairly mild, but the trail is quite rocky and rooty. You cross 3 bridges on the way down. The last one is only ~150 yards from the road. As you hit the road, there’s usually someone taking your number and radioing it on to the aid station. Go right down the paved road, and it’s ~1/3 mi to Mayqueen. Go left into the campground, cross the bridge, then left up the dirt to the AS tent.

Mayqueen, 86.5 – Finish
Bringing someone home can be the most fun and inspiring part of pacing. The trail around the lake is fun to run, especially in daylight, but most runners will be coming through there at night, and most will be walking

Exit the tent and head down the dirt to the road, go left on the paved road for ½mi, then onto the trail around the lake. This first part is a true single track. It is rocky in spots, but not overly technical. It rolls up and down, but never gets too far from the lake. The Tabor boat ramp, the last crew stop, is ~5¼mi from Mayqueen. It comes up on you quick, so you may not even see it until you are there.

After Tabor, the trail becomes pretty flat, smooth and open. This is a good place to stretch out your stride, if you have the legs. If you’re coming through this stretch at night, pay attention to the glow sticks marking the trail. You run by several campgrounds, and it’s easy to get drawn off the trail to the left, away from the lake, by the campground lights. It’s ~1.5mi to the other boat ramp, then another ~1/2mi to the end of the trail.

The end of the Turquoise Lake Trail, where you cross the road, can be another good place to crew and change pacers. Although it’s not an official crew station, race management is aware that people crew there and condone it (at least before the sale in 2010). Check with the new race management. There’s about 6.5mi to go. This last stretch is all on dirt and paved roads, so it’s good for someone who doesn’t like trails. For crewing, there’s a dirt turnout, with room for several cars, on the S side of the road, a bit E of the T road intersection, at the top of the short power line section. This is a lot easier to get to, and easier to find at night than the Tabor boat ramp.

Jog left across the road, then down a short, steep, rocky section, under a power line. Turn left at the bottom of the short trail, onto the dirt road. Continue up the dirt road for ~1.25mi, then another ¼ mi on the paved road to the RR tracks. Note: just before the RR tracks, where the road crosses the river, can be the coldest part of the course. Both you and the runner should be prepared, but it warms up (relatively) quickly as you rise to the RR tracks. There’s about 4.5 mi to go from the RR tracks.

Go right and follow alongside the RR tracks for ~1mi. This is a flat, but undulating road. There can be pools of water in the dips. Go left up a short, steep hill. You are now on the “Boulevard.” The top of the steep hill is ~5km to go. The road is wide and smooth, and the grade fairly moderate. If it’s raining, it’ll be muddy and a bit slick. You’ll see a streetlight at the end of the dirt road. Don’t get too excited yet. The light is still almost 1 mi away. The road bends left ~80 yards before you reach the pavement. This is 1mi from the finish.

Once you hit the pavement, give it all you’ve got for the uphill finish. You can have all of your pacers and crew meet you at the bottom of 6th, and escort you up to the finish. At the crest of the hill, ~½ mi to go, look for a volunteer on the right side of the street. He/she will ask for your number, then radio ahead to the finish so that they can announce your impending arrival. It’s another 2 blocks down, then 3 blocks up to the finish.

If you’re looking for a shorter leg to pace, try the following: 1) Treeline to Fish Hatchery; 1mi dirt and 3mi paved road. 2) End of Turquoise Lake Trail to finish; ~6.5mi, dirt and paved roads. See above for descriptions.

4. Pacing Gear

Pacing is different than doing a training run. First, think in terms of time, not mileage. Think of Hope Pass as a 2.5-5 hour run, not a 10 mi run. Most runners will take 2-4 hours between most aid stations (AS). However, a struggling runner might take a lot longer. Be prepared for the worst.

Second, you will likely be going slower than on a training run. Going slower is not necessarily easier. If you haven’t done much hiking, slow running, or power hiking on steep trails, you may be using unfamiliar muscles for a stride that’s a lot slower than you are used to. You will also be generating less body heat than you may be used too. Thus, you may need more food and clothing than you expect.

Also, the weather in the mountains can change rapidly. Even if it’s sunny when you start, it could turn cold and wet before you get to the next AS. Almost every year, I see people leaving Twin Lakes or Winfield without a warm shirt or jacket, when it’s sunny. And, almost every year, it’s cold and wet over Hope Pass.

Carry more than enough food, fluids, clothing, etc. to get you to the next AS. Going back to my key rule, in my part 1 posting, make sure you take care of yourself first. If you struggle, you can’t help your runner. If you are going to “mule” for your runner, carry their food and gear, you’ll also need room for that. I race light, but pace heavy.

How do you carry all of that gear? When I’m pacing, I like to carry a medium size hiking/mountain biking type hydration pack, or a small adventure racing pack. I prefer something on my back for pacing, over a hip pack, because they usually have more space for gear, and leave the waist free for other stuff (e.g., an additional pack for water bottles, tying shirts). Look for something that holds a 70-100oz hydration bladder, with storage for clothing, food, batteries, etc.

I also like wearing a bike shirt when I’m pacing. I can use the pockets for smaller items that I’ll need to get more quickly and frequently (e.g., gels, gloves, batteries). It takes a little extra time to get to my stuff from my pack.

I try to carry as much of my runner’s stuff as possible. I may use a one or two bottle hip pack for his/her bottles, in addition. I’ve even carried a 3rd bottle in my hand. One year, I carried my runners hip based CamelBak, and handed her the tube whenever she wanted a drink. Don’t be afraid to load yourself to make it easier, and lighter, for your runner. Remember, you’re there to serve them.

Practice tying clothing around your waist. This can include shirts, jackets and pants. One year, my runner was very cold, and left Fish Hatchery wearing a lot of extra layers. He started shedding them by the time we started climbing Powerline. At one point, I had a long sleeve shirt, fleece pullover, rain jacket, and rain pants tied around my waist, in addition to the CamelBak and hip pack. By the top, he became cold and it was snowing, so we ended up using it all. There’s a helpful technique for tying jackets: 1)pull the zipper almost all the way down; 2)take your arms out and tie the sleeves around your waist; 3)pull the zipper up as much as you can; 4)tuck the sleeves inside and roll the jacket up under the zipper. This helps keep the jacket tight and from flapping around.

You might want to carry a small, first aid kit: band-aids, moleskin, Ibuprofen, space blanket, etc. Check with the runner. Carry a watch. It’ll help you judge the distance, and keep track of how often both of you are eating/drinking.

Lights – Carry a light, even if you expect to finish in daylight. Things can happen on the course, and you may be out longer than you think. Carry extra batteries, know where they are, and how to change them on the run. Light technology has improved greatly in the last couple of years, and the prices have come down greatly, so there’s no reason not to have a bright light or two. Get a light that’s designed more for running, or at least fast hiking, at least 25 lumens. Lights for use around camp may not be bright enough for moving briskly along the trail. Two lights are often better than one, with the brighter light in your hand. Two lights give better vision because different angles overcome shadows created by a single light. Having the brighter light down low keeps the glare away from your eyes, improving contrast. A second light also lets you shine the light on the trail in front of the runner on a particularly rocky section, while you can still use the headlamp for yourself. While a hand light is not as easy to carry, a simple handle, even one made out of duct tape, lets you keep the light in your hand while keeping your fingers free to grab things out of packs or pockets. Hand lights are usually cheaper than headlights. When approaching others, point your light down or too the side, away from their eyes.

If you’re continuing to pace through the next section, you’ll probably need to refuel. If your runner has a crew, arrange to have them carry your gear and food. Pack it neatly and compactly, and so that it’s easily accessible. Ask them to have it out for you at the next AS, if possible. However, it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself. Their priority should be on the racer.

As a pacer, you can also use the AS supplies. The AS will be stocked with the typical ultra fare: water, Powerade, Power Gels, hot soup (e.g., Ramen noodle, potato, chicken), fruit (e.g., bananas, oranges), PB&J sandwiches, chips, pretzels, fig bars, brownies, etc. I’ll discuss how to be quick and efficient in the AS below.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Help your racer first, then be prepared to take care of your own needs. You can always take some extra time for yourself, then catch up to them on the trail. I’ll talk about dealing with crew and aid stations in the next part.

5. Crew and Aid Stations (AS)

A pacer can help save the runner a lot of time at AS. A lot of middle and back-of-the-pack runners say that a few minutes here and there don’t matter. I’m not sure why AS time is any less important to them than it is to the leaders. All that AS time adds up. Even just 5 min in each AS means almost an hour of not moving forward. Most of the leaders won’t spend more than 10-15 minutes in all the AS for the entire race. If you’re flirting with the cut-off times, 30 hours or the big buckle (25), those AS minutes become even more important.

Crew and pacers should be ready to react quickly to change. Many runners make plans ahead of time, but things can change during the race. In 2002, I had prepared detailed plans for my crew. However, a bottle of bad Cytomax left me with an upset stomach only an hour into the race. Both me and my crew had to quickly and repeatedly adjust our plans.

Some crews and pacers have use walkie-talkies. In the last couple of years, texting and tweeting have become more popular. However, even with crowded channels, I still prefer radios. All you need is a quick message; e.g., “Runner 264 is 10 min out from Twin Lakes.” Texting at night, on a rocky trail, is not any easier, or safer, than while driving. And, the signal is weak or non-existent on large parts of the course. In 2010, I remember reading dozens of tweets from runners coming off Hope Pass, that were hours old by the time they got a signal and were posted. The pacer will carry the radio and call in when they are 5-10 minutes out. You can pick up a 2-pack of radios for $30-$50, and a 4-pack for not a lot more.

As you’re coming into an AS as a pacer, you should find out what the runner wants (e.g., food, drink, clothing). Then, just before the AS, you might want to run ahead and get the stuff ready. If you’re using a crew, find them, tell them what the runner wants, then go back and help guide the runner to the crew. If the runner is using drop bags, run ahead and get the bag from the AS crew, pull out the gear they want, get the food they want, and have it ready for them when they come into the AS. If you’re changing pacers, pass on any vital information (e.g., how the runner is feeling and what they want on the trail) to the new pacer.

Most of the time, the runner is better off continuing to move rather than stopping and sitting at AS. Try to get them out of the AS and moving as soon as possible. This is especially true late at night, when it’s cold. Your body generates heat when you’re moving. When you’re tired, your body will stop generating heat when you stop, and you start shivering. Shivering uses up a lot of energy. And, it can take a lot of extra time to warm up enough to be able to start moving again. I have seen way too many runners come into Fish Hatchery at night feeling fine, sit down to eat, start shivering within 30 seconds, then end up having to having to lay in a warm sleeping bag for up to an hour. A runner can save time by eating and changing tops while on the move, instead of sitting. Focus your efforts on the runner first. You can hang back to fill their bottles/bladder, grab clothing form crew or drop bags, get what you need, then catch up to them on the trail. The runner doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t wait for you.

How do you know when you’re getting close to an AS? Read the legs section above and the descriptions below.

Twin Lakes – After crossing the river, you’ll curve right and head East. You’ll see a round hill ahead on the left. The Twin Lakes lot is about 100 yards past the hill. When I’m pacing, I’ll often run ahead, as I approach the hill.

Halfmoon (AS, no crew) – I haven’t been on this section since they changed the course in 2009.

Treeline (crew, no AS) – As you’re coming up the dirt road, at Pipeline (AS for the 100mi bike), the road curves right, then you take an quck left, back to the WNW. It’s ~1/2mi more to Treeline. The road drops down, and then rises just before Treeline. At night, you’ll probably see the lights and hear the noise from the crews before you get there. Sometimes there’s a volunteer taking numbers just before you hit the crew area, and calling them out loudly

Fish Hatchery – 4 miles from Treeline. You’ll see it as you’re running up the road. You make a left and go ~50m up to the AS, and then back out the same way as you’re leaving.

Mayqueen – It’s about 1/3 mi from the end of the trail down the paved road. There’s usually someone there who radios ahead with your bib#, so they can alert waiting crew. I usually run ahead when I hit the road.

Tabor boat ramp – It’s about 5¼ mi from Mayqueen. There isn’t a good advance point. You probably won’t see it until you are there.

Often a better place to crew (check to make sure it’s OK), on the return, is at the end of the Turquoise Lake Trail, where it crosses the road, just E of the dam. About 1/2 mile after the second boat ramp, you go up a short, steep hill to the road. Crews should park in the turnout, across the road, a bit E of the Turquoise trail, where the runners head down under the power line. Please don’t block the road or trail. Although it’s not an official crew station, race management is aware that people crew there and condone it (at least before the sale in 2010). Check with the new race management.

6. Finding a runner/pacer
It’s not too late to find a runner/pacer, even on race day. There are several web sites that are good for finding pacers. You can also find both pacers, and runners to pace on race day. I have done this several times, after my runner has dropped out, or after I’ve finished pacing and wanted to do more.

Some of the good websites to find pacers:

On race day, if you’re looking to pace – this includes those of you who’s runners have dropped out – you can pick up someone to pace at the AS. Show up at an AS ready to go. Make a point to look like you’re ready to go – wear running clothes, carry a pack, have your lights with you. As you see runners coming in alone, ask them if they want/need a pacer. Be and look eager, but don’t pester. Let the AS crew know that you are looking to pace. Sometimes a runner will ask the AS crew if they know of any pacers. Announce your presence loudly and make yourself very visible. A crew might know if their runner wants a pacer. I’ve picked up runners to pace this way twice, at Fish Hatchery – once by being ready to go when a runner came in asking if anyone wanted to pace, and another when a runner’s parents talked their son into having me help him. Both times were great experiences for both of us.

If you’re a runner and want a pacer, announce it loudly as you enter an AS. Let the AS crew know. They may know of someone who wants to pace. Or, you may come across someone who just came to watch or cheer on a friend, and becomes so enthused about the experience, they make a spur of the moment decision to pace when asked. This happened with a friend of mine. We were up there watching friends and crewing. She hadn’t planned on pacing. As we were getting ready to leave Winfield, she suddenly decided it would be fun to pace. As we were driving out the road (slowly), she started asking runners she saw heading back toward the Hope Pass trail alone. After several tries, she found a taker. I drove her up ahead to give her time to get ready, then she met the runner and took her over the hill to Twin Lakes.

Your best bet is with runners in the middle to back of the pack. Most of the top runners already have pacers, although couple of them might still be looking for a pacer. Don’t bee too picky. Pacing runners of different abilities offers different experience, and a chance to see the race from different angles, but all can be very enjoyable and rewarding. I’ve paced runners from the top 5 to back of the pack.

The best places to find a runner/pacer are at Twin Lakes (TL) and Fish Hatchery (FH), also called Outward Bound, on the return.

At TL, 60.5mi, the leader typically comes through around 2:00pm. The best time to find a runner/pacer is from ~6:00-9:15pm. You can still find people until the cutoff, 9:45pm, but runners coming in much after 9:15 will have difficulty making the later cut-offs. I think it’s best to wait at the AS. Many of the crew will be in the parking lot across the street or along the dirt road. You might want to announce your availability to crews there too.

At FH, 76.5mi, the leader typically comes through around 5:00pm. The best time to find a runner/pacer is from ~9:30pm, until the cutoff, 3:00am. The AS is the best place to hang out. You can keep warm and get food while you are waiting.

Winfield, the turnaround, is also a good place to find a runner/pacer. The leader might come through around noon. The best time to find a runner/pacer is from 2:00-5:00pm. Although the cutoff is 6:00pm, most reaching Winfield after 5pm are unlikely to finish the race, and after 5:30 unlikely to reach Twin Lakes before that cut-off.

Mayqueen, 86.5mi, is also an option, but is very late in the race. Most runners have their pacers set by that time, or don’t want to change their routine. However, it can be a great experience to help a mid to back of the pack runner through the final leg. The leader might come through MQ by 7:00pm. The best time to find a runner/pacer is from ~1:00am until the cutoff, 6:30am. Runners at the cut-off still have a decent chance of finishing before the final 30hr cut-off, but it’s not easy.

It’s not too hard to get a ride to an AS, or back to your car after the race. Often, you can hitch a ride from town, near the start/finish, out to one of the AS. You may find crew/friends in town after the start. You can also make announcements at one of the restaurants in town, where friends and other pacers will eat before heading out. I used to list the likely restaurants here, but since so many go out of business or change names, about any of the ones along Harrison (Main St) are worth checking.

If you drive yourself out, it’s pretty easy to get a ride back after the race. Ask people at the finish line Sunday morning, or at the awards that noon. Getting to Winfield might be a bit of a problem. If that’s where you plan to start pacing, you might be better off leaving your car at Twin Lakes or Fish Hatchery, and hitching a rideout from there. If you are going to hitch a ride out, Get there early enough so that most of the crews are still there as their runners head out on Sat morning, 8:00-9:30am at FH, or 10:00am-1:00pm at Twin Lakes. Most crews are friendly and helpful. You just have to ask.


2-4-6-8 Intervals Done Right

What’s the difference between 200s and mile repeats? How fast should you run them? How many repeats? How much rest in between? What’s the reason for tempo runs?

Speed work is an important part of most training programs, whether you’re training for your first 5km or latest 100-miler. However, not all speed work is the same, and not all may be right for you. Different types of speed training – different effort levels and lengths – have different benefits for your training. Choosing the right kind depends on your fitness level, what kind of race you are training for, and your own strengths and weaknesses.

You hate running circles around a track? Don’t worry. You don’t have to. Intervals can be done anywhere – road, path, and trail. You don’t even need a watch.

There are different types of speed training, each with different purposes/benefits.

Sprints
From as short as 6 sec up to about 45 seconds. The main purposes of sprints are:

  • Improve form and increase leg turnover. Faster running is generally more efficient than slow running. Your feet spend less time on the ground absorbing energy and you carry forward more of your momentum. While you can’t maintain a sprint over longer distances, practicing good form with sprints will train you to be more efficient when you run slower, and be able to sustain an efficient stride over longer distances.
  • Engage more of you muscles and fast twitch fibers. Stride power is largely a factor of how much of your muscle fibers you engage. With sprinting, you use a larger percentage of your muscle fibers with each stride. Train them with sprints, and you will be able to use more when you run slower.
  • Prepare your legs for harder efforts. Before you start doing harder intervals – e.g., 400s, mile repeats, tempo runs – you should condition your legs to handle the harder workload.

Striders – The first type of speed work all runners should start their season with is Striders. Striders are done at a moderately fast pace, where the focus is on leg turnover, not pure speed. Keep your stride short and quick, uncomfortably so – improvement comes from pushing yourself a little beyond what’s easy or comfortable. Imagine you’re running on hot coals – the harder you hit the ground and longer you spend there the more it hurts – and pick your foot up as soon as it hits the ground.

DON’T REACH! This is important, so let me repeat – don’t reach with your legs! Keep your stride short and make sure your foot lands under your body, not in front of it. It might help to keep your stride short by doing striders on a slight grade, but it shouldn’t be a hard run. It should be easy on the muscles.

Traditionally striders are done on the track, where you sprint the straights and jog the curves. However, then can be done anywhere that’s fairly smooth. Go fast for about 15-30 seconds, or 25-50 strides. Gradually build your speed for the first half, and then maintain that speed to the end. Jog/walk in between for a full recovery, about the same distance, or twice the time.

Striders are good to do early in the season, after several weeks of easy running, and for a few weeks, before starting any hard running. This is also the first, and perhaps only type of faster running new runners should do for their first season. Add them to the middle or end of an easy-moderate short run (i.e., only after a very good warm-up). Start with just 4-6 repeats (a repeat is a round of hard then easy), gradually increasing up to 10-12 over several weeks or months.

Later, as you start hard intervals or tempo runs, striders are a great way to end your warm-up and prepare your body for the harder efforts.

Power Bursts – Very short, 6-10 seconds, hard sprints, preferably up a very steep but still run-able hill. These short sprints engage the fast twitch muscles and begin to introduce a light, quick, efficient stride. Drive your knees up and forward and the arms back forcefully (as if you’re hitting someone behind you in the gut). You can start by taking a few strides in place, to simulate the motion, before driving uphill. Walk back down the hill for a full recovery, ~30-40 seconds.

Hills are preferable because it prevents over striding (i.e., reaching), increases the workload on the muscles, while reducing the stress on joints, bones and connective tissues and the risk of injury. Find the steepest, run-able hill, perhaps around a 10% grade. The specific grade is less important than how it feels. By run-able, I mean not so steep that you have to walk, and not so rocky that you have to alter or think a lot about your stride. Your focus should be on form. Smoother is better. If you have to do this on flat ground, make sure you don’t reach, and plant your foot under your body.

This is a good early season, pre-cursor to longer intervals. New runners probably should avoid them. Do these towards the middle or end of an easy-moderate run. Start with 6-8 repeats, and gradually increase over time. Keep them under 10 seconds; longer is not better.

Hill Sprints – Hard sprints, 20-40 seconds, with a fast and powerful stride, up a steep but still run-able hill. After doing the Power Bursts for a few weeks, you can start adding these longer sprints. These will build more power into your stride, and allow you to carry a faster turnover longer. Go hard, but short of an all-out sprint. Drive your knees powerfully up the hill, and stride quickly. Count your stride rate on a regular moderate run, and strive for 5-10 strides/minute faster (left-right = 1 stride).

Sprint until your legs start to tighten, your form starts to break, and your stride starts to slow – typically around 20 seconds at first – then go just a couple of strides more while working to maintain your form and leg speed. Over time, you’ll be able to increase the amount of time you can hold your form during the sprint, so increase the time accordingly. You should have to work to maintain your form and stride rate at the end, but you shouldn’t feel dead at the end. If your stride breaks down, you’ve gone too far.

Do these towards the middle or end of an easy-moderate effort, short to medium length run. Start with 6 repeats, and increase both the repeats and length of the sprints. Over time, you should be able to maintain your form 40-45 seconds.

Use a slightly less steep grade, around 6%-8%. Again, the feel of the hill is more important than the specific grade.


Short Intervals

1-2 minute hard efforts. The main benefits of short intervals are:

  • Teach your body how to run fast
  • Build leg strength.
  • Maintain a fast stride rate over longer distances

Short intervals are in the 1-2 minute range, about 200m-400m (1 lap on a track is 400m, on the inside lane) for most runners. The hard effort should be at about a 1 mi race pace/effort. A Work:Rest ratio (W:R) of 1:1 (meaning 1 minute easy for 1 minute hard) should give you just enough rest to go hard again, while making the hard efforts increasingly hard but sustainable. If you aren’t able to maintain you speed throughout the workout, then you are running them too hard. Reduce the speed/effort of the hard interval rather than increasing the recovery time.

Short intervals are good for anyone training for shorter races, e.g., 5km-10km, and for those who need to work on maintaining a faster leg turnover at longer distances.


VO2Max Intervals

3-5 min hard, at 15-20 min race pace/effort (e.g., 2mi-5km), W:R 2-2.5:1 (e.g., 5 min hard, 2 min easy). Less fit runners might go a short as 2 min hard, more fit runners up to 6 min. This translates into about 800m (½-mile) to 1-mile repeats.

The main purpose is to stress on your heart, lungs and energy delivery systems. Stress leads to increases in stroke volume, or the volume of blood pumped with each heart stroke. VO2Max workouts can benefit all runners, even ultra-runners. By increasing your stroke volume, your heart can pump more blood, more easily and all effort levels.

The more time spent in the high HR/metabolic zones the better, so keep the rest short. Keeping the rest short allows you to get back to a high heart rate (HR) and metabolic zone quickly. It may take you 4 min to get your HR up on the first interval, but only 30 seconds on subsequent ones. If you allow too much rest, you aren’t getting the proper stimulus.

A variation on this is the Critical Velocity (CV) workout. CV is slightly longer and less hard than VO2Max; 6-9 min hard, 30 min race effort (5km-10km), with a 3:1 W:R ratio. This is a workout that coach Joe Vigil used for Deena Kastor. The theory is that you get much of the max heart stimulus of the VO2Max interval, with less stress on the legs, while also getting much of the lactate stimulus of the tempo workout (below).

Tempo and Cruise Intervals
30-40 min, @ 1hr race effort (10km-20km). A variation of this is Cruise Intervals, 12-18 min hard, 4:1 W:R, 2-4 repeats. The main purpose is to build lactic acid (LA) tolerance. At higher effort levels, your body produces LA. LA is both a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism, and a fuel source. Your ability to run hard, and to maintain a hard effort longer, depends on your ability to process LA back into energy for the muscles.

This is done at or slightly above your lactic threshold (LT). LT is the level at which you produce LA faster than your body can convert it back to energy. The effort level is sometimes called “comfortably hard.” In other words, it’s the hardest effort you can sustain. At LT, you can still talk, perhaps a sentence at a time, needing to stop talking to catch your breath in between, but are no longer able to sing. “Tempo” means a sustained effort.

LT training is best for short to medium distance races that will be run close to or above LT effort; up to ~1:30-2:00 for most runners, and perhaps to marathon distance for fitter runners. It will allow you to run faster before going above LT, and longer at above and slightly sub-LT efforts.

Making it fun
Speed training, like all training, is only good if you do it consistently. If your idea of fun isn’t doing 50 x 400 on the track (how I celebrated my 50th birthday), then you are less likely to do the workout consistently. While the types of workouts described above may be “ideal,” there are ways to make speed training fun, yet still valuable, especially if it gets you to do them.

Skip the track. Use a watch and run the hard/easy intervals by time rather than distance. This can be done anywhere, including your favorite trail. Using time, rather than distance on your rest interval, has the advantage of keeping your from resting too much and limiting your time at the right effort level.

Skip the watch and run fartleks. Fartlek is a Swedish term meaning “speed play.” It typically means using landmarks – e.g., run hard for 3 lamp posts, then easy for 1 – to guide your speed work. Try to pick landmarks that approximate the prescribed times, but it doesn’t have to be exact. Something less than ideal is better than nothing.

Add varietyto an interval session. 8 repeats of 800m may be better, but mixing distances in a workout helps to keep if fun and interesting.

  • Ladder is a workout where you increase then decrease the distance. For example, 1min – 2min – 3min – 4min – 3min – 2min – 1min, keeping either a steady rest interval in between (e.g., 1min), or slightly increasing it for the longer work intervals.
  • Pyramid is where you start with a longer interval, then go to shorter intervals, but increase the number of repeats. For example, 1 x 1mi, 2 x 800, 4 x 400.

Add games with friends. One of my favorites is partner 400s or 800s. Get with someone who’s about your speed – a little faster or slower is OK, but you don’t want one to have too much rest and the other too little. One runs while the other rests, then switch off like a relay. It’s fun to have competitions with similarly combined time teams. Have the faster runners in the pairs start together. For example, I did this with a partner who was running 68 sec 400s against someone doing 69s, and would hand off to me doing 75 sec against someone doing 74. I would start my lap in the lead, then fight to hang on before handing it back to my partner. The competition made us all run a little harder and more consistently than we otherwise would’ve.


Words of caution

While speed training has tremendous benefits, it’s not without risk. More explosive muscle contractions and longer strides can lead to injury if not done right or too soon. Therefore, follow these guidelines.

Before starting speed work, make sure you have a solid base of running in your legs. For new runners, this may mean several months, or even a whole year of easy running first; I would recommend doing striders after several weeks, but nothing harder until you can sustain an hour+ of running. Then, I might wait a year before doing anything harder than a tempo effort.

Similarly, if you’re coming off an injury or long layoff, ease into speed training first building your legs with easy runs, then striders and sprints before doing intervals.

Don’t overload on intervals. More is not necessarily better. Higher efforts mean greater stress on your muscles, joints, endocrine and immune systems. When you first start doing intervals (from hill sprints to VO2Max), start with only 15 minutes of “hard” efforts (e.g., 10 repeats of 1:30 hard, 1:30 easy, equals 15 minutes of hard effort), maybe only 10 for new runners. Increase it over time, gradually letting your body adapt to higher workloads. At peak, fitter runners might be doing 30-40 minutes of hard effort (e.g., 5-8 x 1mi repeats).

Don’t increase intensity and volume at the same time. Your body has to adapt to changes in training. Too many changes at the same time can lead to injury or illness. When you start adding speed work, slow down or stop the increase in total training volume, or even back off a little. Similarly, when you need to increase your training volume, ease back on the intensity.

Faster is not necessarily better. Run the prescribed effort levels and paces to get the desired stimulus effect. If you aren’t able to sustain your speed throughout an interval workout, then you are running them too hard (or doing too many). It’s better to slow down a little than to extend the rest between intervals.

Don’t leave it on the track. Workouts are not races. You want to finish a workout feeling tired, but that you could’ve gone a little faster, and a little longer. You need to be able to come back the next day.

This is important to remember when running with a group. Use the group to motivate you, but don’t run so hard trying to keep up that you do damage. Run your own pace and don’t get caught up in racing your friends.

Also with a group, don’t let the socializing interfere with the workout. Sometimes it’s easy to start chatting during rest periods and extend the rest too long. This reduces the desired stimulus effect and wastes time. Save the chatting to before or after the workout.

Keep your stride short and quick. Don’t reach with your legs. Speed comes from leg turnover, not from reaching. It may take thinking about shortening your stride – I think of running on hot coals – but as you stride and go faster, your stride length will actually increase.

If you feel any sudden pains or twinges in your muscles or joints, immediately slow down or stop. That may mean that you’re over-extending your stride, that you didn’t warm up enough for the conditions, that your muscles are tired and over-stressed from too much training and/or not enough rest, or that you’re muscles aren’t ready for intervals quite yet. Back off, and try again another day.

Warm up well. Speed puts greater stress on the muscles, so they need to be warmer and looser than when just jogging. The colder it is, the earlier in the day it is, and the longer you’ve been sitting still, the more warm up you need before running hard. On a summer afternoon, you may only need 5-10 minutes of warm-up before starting intervals. However, on a chilly winter morning, just after waking up, you may need 30 minutes or more before you can start sprinting.

Speed for Ultras

You’re training for an ultra, 50 or 100 miles. Are you doing speed training? You may wonder why you should. After all, you’ll be running pretty slow, even walking. How can speed training help?

Speed training can improve:

  • ·        Cardiovascular efficiency;
  • ·        Muscle strength;
  • ·        Stride efficiency.

Cardio: The bigger the size of your engine – volume of blood your heart pumps with each stroke – the more oxygen and fuel you can deliver to your body more easily. This is true at any effort level. A stronger heart will allow you to go faster and use less energy at a lower, ultra effort level.

Strength: Faster running engages muscle fibers you don’t normally use when running slower, and builds general muscle strength. That’s important for two reasons. First, when running an ultra, your muscles preferentially start by using the efficient slow twitch fibers. As they become fatigued, you will begin to use the less efficient oxidative, and then non-oxidative fast twitch muscles. When you run that long, you are going to need a lot more of your muscle fibers than in shorter races. Make them stronger now, and they will be strong for you when you need them in an ultra.

Second, a big factor in how fast you run is the percentage of muscle fibers you engage with each stride. At slow speeds, a small percentage of your fibers are working. Go faster, and more of your fibers have to engage. Train more to work, and you will have a stronger stride (i.e., faster pace) even at lower effort levels.

Efficiency: The less time your foot is on the ground, the more efficient your stride is. The longer your foot is on the ground, the more energy/inertia you lose, and the more energy it takes to generate forward momentum. You need just enough to let your muscles coil like a spring and then spring back, returning as much energy as possible to your motion. Far too many ultra runners, spend far too much time, using nothing but a slow, ultra-shuffle in training. At the 2004 Leadville 100 Run, I was able to witness Matt Carpenter running up the back side of Hope Pass (yes running) as I was heading down. His stride was short and very quick, almost like he was springing up the trail; very efficient. Train to have a faster turnover at faster speeds, and you will have a faster turnover at ultra paces.

Getting started

If you haven’t been doing any fast running, then first start with some drills.

Striders: Striders are short sprints where you step as quickly as you can. It’s about stride speed, not absolute speed; i.e., don’t try to run fast, try to step fast. Think of it like running on hot coals; pick your foot off the ground as quickly as you can after it lands. Make your stride rate quicker than is comfortable.

Build your speed for the first half, then carry it through to the end. Jog easy for about the same distance, or about twice the time in between; close to a full recovery. On the track, sprint the straights and jog the curves. Off track, do ~20-30 sec hard, 40-60 sec easy. You shouldn’t be struggling to maintain your speed or breathing during this.

DON’T REACH! Keep your stride short and make sure your foot lands under your body, not in front of it. It might help to keep your stride short by doing striders on a slight grade, but it shouldn’t be a hard run. It should be easy on the muscles.

Always do striders (and all speed training or racing) after a good warm-up, such as towards the middle or end of an easy, short-medium length run. Striders are also great to do before intervals (or a race), after your warm-up and drills, and just before you run hard.

Starting out, you may want to start with just 6 striders/workout, 2x/week. You can increase them to 10-12 or more over time. Striders should be continued throughout your training, including during tapering.

Hill Sprints: Hill sprints are short, hard sprints, up steep hills. They are designed to build strength, engage fast twitch muscles, and promote stride efficiency. Hills increase the workload on the muscles, while reducing the stress on joints, bones and connective tissues.

Use a powerful stride, driving your knees up and forward, parallel to the slope, keeping your stride quick and short. Drive your arms back hard, like you’re elbowing someone in the gut behind you, to help drive your knees.

Start with 6-10 sec sprints. You need them that short to really focus the work on the non-oxidative fast twitch muscle fibers. Keeping them short also allows you to stride at a very fast rate. Take a full recovery (~1 minute) between sprints. This is not about breathing hard.

These are generally done early in the season, after a few weeks of easy, base building. Start with 6 sprints/workout, 2x/week. If you’re well into your training already, and aren’t sore, you can move to the linger hill sprints after a couple of weeks. Otherwise, and especially if you’ve never done any speed training, continue doing these for 4-6 weeks, or longer if they make you sore.

Use the steepest, run-able hill, perhaps 10%+. By run-able, I mean not so steep that you aren’t able to run, and not rocky that you have to alter your strides; the smoother the better (how it feels is more important than the precise grade). The hill should be steeper with the shortest sprints, and slightly less so as you go longer. If you don’t live near hills, be creative by using things like parking garage ramps, overpasses, stairs, or a treadmill.

Then progress to 20-40 sec sprints. These slightly longer sprints add more strength, and promote a faster stride over longer distances.

Use a slightly less steep hill, perhaps 6%-8%. Run a little less hard than the 6-10 sec sprints. Focus as much on leg turnover and form as on power. Run hard until your legs start to tighten up and your stride starts to slow – this usually happens around 20-30 sec – then just a few more strides (3-5). Your last few strides should take a lot of focus to maintain your form and rate, but you shouldn’t feel dead at the end. If your stride breaks down, you’ve gone too far.

As you transition form the shorter sprints, first substitute one of these per week, then both. Over time, you should be able to maintain your stride longer and extend the sprints to 40+ sec.

For cardio strength, I prefer VO2Max intervals (zone 5 for those playing the hr game). VO2Max intervals are typically 3-5 min hard (more fit runners can extend this to 6 min, less fit can go as short as 2 min), at a 15-20min race effort, with ~50% recovery time. Stressing the heart and lungs, as well as the oxygen delivery system (down to the smallest blood vessels reaching the muscles) at higher effort levels gives the greatest returns to increasing stroke volume. 3-5 min gives you enough time at the level without over stressing; relatively short recovery allows you to repeat the stress, and get the effort level into the target zone quickly.

I’m not a big fan of tempo runs, or lactate threshold (zone 4, LT) training for ultras. While LT training does stress the heart/lungs, the main focus of LT training (as opposed to other speed training) is that it  works on lactate tolerance. Lactate is a fuel source as well as a byproduct, and your ability to process lactate is important at high effort levels. Since you shouldn’t be anywhere close to that level in an ultra, LT training isn’t necessary for ultras (except, perhaps, for elite runners at 50km distance). It’s not that it’s bad, but the higher, shorter VO2Max efforts promote greater capacity improvements.

Speed training is not without risks. Running fast puts greater strain on the muscles, and can lead to pulls and strains. So, follow these guidelines:

  • Start with striders and hill sprints to condition your legs to speed before doing VO2Max intervals. If you haven’t done any fast running, you may need a 1-2 months of conditioning.
  • Warm-up well. Muscles need to be warm literally, loose, and the blood vessels expanded before they can handle demands of high intensity running. Warming up means starting with a slow jog, and gradually increasing the pace, allowing the blood vessels to expand, blood to flow through the muscles, and the fibers to warm up. The colder it is, the earlier in the morning it is, or the longer you’ve been sitting, the more warm-up you will need. I usually warm-up for at least 10 minutes in the summer, and as much as 15-20 min when it’s cold. I start from as slow as I can go jogging, and gradually increase to my long run pace/effort. Then I do some striders, to get my legs moving fast and expand my lungs and blood vessels. Then, I hold back a little on the first interval.
  • Keep your stride short and quick. Don’t reach with your legs. Speed really comes from leg turnover, not from reaching. It may take thinking about shortening your stride – I think of running on hot coals – but as you stride and go faster, your stride length will actually increase, and your legs will still strike under your body.
  • If you feel any sudden pains or twinges in your muscles or joints, immediately slow down or stop. That may mean that you’re over-extending your stride, that you didn’t warm up enough for the conditions, that your muscles are tired and over-stressed from too much training and/or not enough rest, or that you’re muscles aren’t ready for intervals quite yet. Back off, and try again another day.

If all you do is long, slow, plodding, ultra miles, then all you learn to run is a long, slow, plodding pace & stride. Add some speed to your training and watch your power, efficiency, and speed increase.