Training tips from a legendary, nine-time winner.
A necessary evil of any training programme for an ultramarathon is the inclusion of several long slow runs in excess of 30km.
In fact, 30km is almost considered a short distance run by many ultra fanatics.
For those training for a race such as the Comrades Marathon I would suggest that in a three to four-month build-up runners would need to run a couple of 30km training runs, two or three 42km runs and at least three in the 50 to 65km range.
Some runners enjoy running for several hours at a slow pace while building endurance and stamina.
I never did.
I found those distances a grind, a very unpleasant grind.
Running slowly along a road chatting to a couple of training companions while dodging speeding cars, stopping at occasional roadside cafes for drinks, or drinking water from a garage tap with petrol fumes in your nostrils, while counting the boringly slow kilometres click past was never something I found much fun.
Until I discovered that I could get those runs done by using long distance races as training runs.
The racing calendar in South Africa is jam-packed with races of every distance, almost every weekend, in almost every province.
When it comes to long distance races, we runners are presented with an embarrassment of riches, particularly at this time of the year.
I realised that if I dealt firmly with my pride and disciplined myself strictly so that I had no problem with being soundly beaten, not only by a handful of runners but rather by thousands, I could actually get these boring long runs completed and have some fun at the same time.
After all, at a typical South African weekend marathon instead of a couple of running companions to chat to, there are thousands.
And instead of oily garage tap water to drink there are regularly spaced, beautifully organised seconding tables groaning under the weight of a variety of drinks and eats.
There are accurate kilometre markers, traffic policemen and race marshalls whose job it is to halt the cars.
And finally there is the offer of a shiny medal, a race T shirt and a club gazebo where one can have a couple of stronger drinks and exchange gossip and war stories with team- mates.
Yes there is an entry fee for all these races but all the “extras ” I have just mentioned make this fee worth every cent.
If I look at my own Two Oceans Marathon career, I can see how rewarding this “training in races” strategy has been over the years.
I have run 32 Two Oceans 56km races from 1983 to the current day. Only once did I ever “race” the Two Oceans. That was back in 1983 when I finished fourth in 3:14.
Every other year I used the race as a vital training run and stepping stone to the Comrades marathon.
I could perhaps have saved myself the costs of 32 trips to Cape Town, accommodation, transport and entry fees but I would never have earned 32 Two Oceans medals, a Two Oceans triple blue permanent number and most importantly a lifetime of treasured memories in beautiful Cape Town.
However, it takes discipline to treat a race as a training run and to ignore the rising adrenaline as the starter calls everyone to their marks.
It requires great restraint to let the stop watch tick by relentlessly and to watch others, including bitter rivals, charge into the distance while ignoring any chance of personal glory and a possible personal best time.
Some runners simply cannot get rid of the urge to race.
There is no problem with that.
But those runners must stay away from races.
I remember back in 1990 Frith van der Merwe and I were joint guest speakers at a conference on an April weekend at a Drakensberg resort.
By chance we discovered that the next morning the renowned 52km Bergville to Ladysmith Arthur Cresswell memorial race was being run.
Race organiser John Cohen quickly found us two late entries and we agreed to run the race together at training pace.
I remember thinking that this would be a fabulous training run for that year’s Comrades.
We could run along chatting, gossiping and enjoying views of the spectacular and breathtaking Drakensberg Mountains.
We agreed to meet at the back of the field the following morning.
But on race morning I searched in vain for my partner.
Several minutes after the start I learnt from an excited spectator that Frith was leading the ladies’ race by miles and was dueling with some of the fastest male runners.
She went on to win.
Clearly Frith is not one who can turn a race into a training run.
For those, like me, who enjoy using races as training runs these are some tips to ensure there is absolutely no temptation to race.
1. Train hard the day before the race. The day before every Two Oceans I would run a hard, hilly 16km.
2. Plan to train the day after the race. In fact, being able to run pain and stiffness free the next day is a sign that you didn’t over-exert yourself in the race.
3. Line up near the back of the field. There is no chance of racing if you are hemmed in by a wall of 5 000 runners.
4. Plan to run well below race pace. For a marathon distance that’s at least an hour slower than your PB.
5. Prepare to chat to other runners en route, so have a load of jokes and running stories to share.
6. Wear your heavy training shoes, not your red-hot racers.
7. And finally leave your ego at home.
Get all those enthusiasm blockers in place and like me you will find that one of the most rewarding ways to get those long training runs done is by running races but just not always by racing them.
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