A marathoner's worst nightmare - hitting the wall - might be easily avoidable for runners who adhere to pace and mileage levels that conserve carbohydrates, the body's main source of quick-burn energy and follow a progressive training plan with a wide sweeping impact on V02 max and lactate threshold, key physiological variables that affect endurance running success. In order to separate and clarify the elements of breakthrough marathon performance, we need to acknowledge some of the most widespread problems.
The date: Saturday, June 23rd, 2018. The place: the Placer High track in Auburn, California, the finish line of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It was early evening, and the race course was buzzing with anticipation that the 100-mile record was about to be demolished. When Jim Walmsley rounded the top of the track, a loving crowd roared their appreciation for his marvelous achievement. He had run from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California in 14 hours, 30 minutes, and 4 seconds. His pace averaged 8:40 per mile over the course of that 96-degree day. He had beaten the previous record by 16 minutes and 40 seconds.
The third time was indeed the charm for the persevering Walmsey at Western, after trying twice before and failing dramatically. In his first attempt, he lost a comfortable lead for good by taking a wrong turn on the trail. The following year he unwisely tried to push the pace like a traditional, steady state, war-of-attrition marathoner, only to blow up from heat exhaustion, lack of hydration and under-fueling.
The Biopsychology of Heating & Cooling
What happens when summer sunlight, combined with high air temperatures and/or humidity, increase both skin and core temperatures in runners preparing for autumn marathons? It’s simple: we bake. Scientists have given us a pretty clear picture of what happens. Muscles in motion generate enormous amounts of energy, only about 25 percent of which is used in contractions. The other 75 percent or so becomes body heat.
It seems the lanky Walmsley learned to listen to his body more shrewdly this year, taking it a bit easier and relaxing. “It’s about running patiently, running more methodically, getting in creeks more and staying on top of nutrition,” he said after the race.
Jim must have also gained valuable—and vexing—knowledge and experience from watching as his competition prevailed in past years. Like Ryan Sandes, 35, of Cape Town, South Africa who claimed the Western States 100-Mile Endurance race last summer, in part by virtue of his desert race experience. On race day that year, temperatures in the depths of the vaunted WS100 canyons reportedly reached 100 degrees.
“I would hit these hot-air pockets. It’s like suddenly you feel like you’re being smacked in the face. My core temperature went through the roof.” Sandes utilized simple cooling methods like ice hats and ice baths to lower his temperature and continued to remind himself, “If I can keep it together, I can win this thing.”
A Great Fall Season is made in the Summer
Pre-cooling may actually be the best way to acclimate the body and encourage the mind with summertime exertion. A mid-run facial spray or dousing with giant sponges drenched in icy water can also be highly effective.
I struggled with heat stress in Western States at times too, especially in Volcano Canyon. But I had some unforgettable runs out there while living in Michigan Bluff, a tiny town founded by gold miners that straddles mile 56 of the trail. Back home in Colorado, I often found that the fitter I was, the stronger and quicker my adaptation to both hot weather and high altitude became. What was my secret? To routinely train in the cooler conditions of the high country around Leadville (another boom-town turned endurance mecca) during the dog-days of July and August!
There’s little glory in the summer training grind, but we can’t get where we want to go unless—until—we nail down the basics. In The Way of Running, this means lots of moderate miles and repetitive formwork. If we wait until the fall marathon season to concern ourselves with getting race-ready, it will be too late. Ten weeks before the race, the focus shifts to sharpening and refining, bringing our fitness to full fruition. If we lack a summer foundation, we end up trying to build and refine simultaneously, which rarely works. When we are training in the hot months of summer, our progress can be more abstract and the work can be quite tedious. So we might as well run in beautiful places, use proven cooling methods, and enjoy it!