NAIL THE TRAILS #9: Plan every step. (Sometimes, literally.)

How to achieve your trail running goals in ten significant steps.

(Continued from Tip #8: Welcome the Weekend)

Ten days before the Escarpment Trail Run, I still couldn’t see exactly where and how I was going to shave five-plus minutes off my 2015 time and break four hours. So I sat down with my coach Dick Vincent, who fortuitously happens to be the Escarpment’s Race Director, and we studied my previous years’ split times, alongside a handful of 2016 runners who had finished in just under my four hour goal. We concluded that while I could definitely try and gain time going up Windham High Peak at the start of the race, it was on the last leg, the 4.5 mile descent from Stoppel Point, and especially the last, highly technical 2.5 miles from North Point, that I was losing time. I told Dick how my legs typically flagged at that stage, and Dick asked about my fueling habits. Typically, I pride myself on getting through two-three hours of a long race without needing anything but water; Dick insisted I take a gel or half a Clif Bar every 30-45 minutes (i.e., at every aid station), drink coke or Gatorade likewise, and make sure that I bring my S! caps (salt pills) with me. While I was concerned that this sounded like a recipe for diarrhea, Dick’s primary goal was to ensure I wasn’t running on empty those last few miles.

My coach then suggested that for my last weekend run, I go to the finish line at North-South lake, take an easy hike/jog up to Stoppel, and then a careful run back down, analyzing the technical descents, figuring out my fastest route on each of them – retracing my steps and descending a second or third time if necessary to imprint them on my mind. I went one better, and took the GoPro with me. I narrated my entire run (which brought me some strange looks from the weekend hikers), and I played it back twice over the following week, including the evening before the race. (See the last ten minutes of this video below.)

On race day, which for once was cool and dry – i.e. not humid – I made a last-minute decision to run without water bottles, knowing that the only point between aid stations where I might seriously need hydration would be that last section. It seemed worth the risk to travel lighter. I set out hard, and after getting up Windham High Peak three minutes faster than usual, I knew that there was a very real risk I would pay for this strong start later one. So I determined to follow Dick’s advice, loading up on a gel or half a Clif bar, plus water, coke or Gatorade at every aid station. My stomach stayed intact, my energy level stayed reasonably strong, and when I came to that highly technical last stretch, I found myself descending with barely a second thought: I knew where I was going before I went there. It wasn’t just the matter of seconds that I was saving in doing so, but the lack of mental work involved in the usual stop-look-descend. I felt like I was on autopilot.

I got so far ahead of the game that I got cocky, got distracted, and took a nasty fall barely half a mile from the end that left my knee banged up and bruised for weeks. But had I not had sufficient time in the bank already, that fall might still have happened from tiredness, and I’d have had failed in my goal. As it was, I finished in 3:55:04, a PR by almost ten massive minutes. I had achieved the last of my long-term, long-distance running goals, and inconsequential though it is in the bigger scheme of things, I felt that, in that regard at least, I could die happy.

The truth of the matter: I trained hard. But I genuinely don’t think it would have happened without that last consultation, and that final, analytical training run. Sometimes, it really is worth planning every single step.

Shortly after finishing the Escarpment. The micromanagement paid off.

Continue to Part 1o: Your Only Competition Is Yourself

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August 2021