Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realise what I love most in ultra running, and that’s running. After spending most of the last two summers training in the mountains, I was bored with all the hiking and clambering over rocks and boulders I’d been doing, so I decided 2019 was going to be all about the running, with three races which definitely fall into the runnable category – Rocky Raccoon 100, Basel 24 hours and Spartathlon.
Rocky Raccoon has long been on my racing bucket-list as one of the big iconic American 100 milers, and consists of 4 x 25 mile laps on forest trails around Huntsville State Park in Texas, with a cumulative ascent of around 6,500 feet over the 100 miles. The combination of runnable trails and laps sounds like my dream race! The race is also the USATF 100 mile Trail Running Championships so always attracts a competitive field, and previous winners include some of the biggest names in ultra running with Sabrina Little, Nicole Kalogeropoulos and Liza Howard on the female side and Ian Sharman, Hal Koerner and Anton Krupicka on the male side. Closer to home, GB 24 hour runner James Stewart went and beat the Americans on their home turf, winning the race in 2017.
The last time I raced a runnable 100 miler was back in August 2016 where I ran Berlin 100 in 18:39. And then last year my 100 mile split at Crawley 24 hours was 17:36 and it felt almost too ‘easy’. Obviously a trail 100 miler is going to be slower than 100 miles on track, however at RR there’s the big bonus that I don’t have to run for another 6 and a 1/2 hours like I did at Crawley!
The first three weeks of September were mainly spent in running down-time after a big summer of training in the mountains, culminating in GRP. Then I had a well-thought out plan with Ian which would see me focus on some shorter road races during October and November, and then target a marathon PB in Valencia at the start of December. This would mean I’d have got some speed back into my legs, which would be crucial for RR, and then I’d have 7 weeks of focused training for RR.
Unfortunately the best laid plans don’t always work out….
Firstly, my iron levels got low again in October and November and my running massively suffered. Initially I continued to train through it, but it became apparent at the start of November that I was taking one step forward, one step backwards with my running and my iron levels weren’t improving. Therefore I decided to drop all my road races and concentrate on getting my iron levels back to normal and focus on the bigger picture of RR and 2019. For 3 weeks I barely ran and just did lots of low-impact cross-training (elliptical, bike and weighted hiking) so there was no risk of hemolysis. This turned out to be the best thing I could have done, as within a month my iron levels were almost back to normal (in comparison to last time when it took 3 months to get my iron levels back to normal when I carried on running).
However, the running gods obviously decided to test me a bit more, as firstly a bad shoulder and then a tight calf meant my running continued to be patchy and I was back spending more time cross-training in the gym than out running. By the time I got to the start of December I basically hadn’t had a good week of running training since the end of September. My original aim for RR was to be competitive and run a decent time, but it felt like that was slipping away from me and I started to think it was going to be a case of just getting to the start line and finishing in a time that didn’t disgrace myself.
However, by mid-December everything had started to click – I have a pretty strong endurance background and all the cross-training meant I hadn’t lost any fitness, so whilst all the setbacks meant I only had 6 weeks of really focused training before race day, I started to cautiously believe that I could go to RR and put in a decent performance.
Training for a runnable 100 miler is essentially not that different to training for a road marathon; the main difference is that some of my long runs have been a bit longer and I’ve been doing most of my long runs off-road to mimic the terrain and elevation I’ll be getting at RR.
I very rarely do training runs longer than 20-25 miles as there’s no physiological benefits to running longer; this time I did 1 x 26 mile run and 2 x 24 mile runs, all on separate weekends, and a couple of weekends of 20 mile back to back runs. Some of my long runs have been at my 100 mile pace and I’ve also been doing some longer runs incorporating some marathon pace miles to improve my speed endurance. My midweek training probably doesn’t look that different to a lot of marathon training plans with 2 hard speedwork sessions per week (a mix of various interval sessions, tempo runs and progression runs) and then 2 days of very easy recovery running.
As always Ian advocates quality over quantity, so I’ve only been running between 70-80 miles a week over six runs. It’s obviously handy having a coach who has run RR four times and still holds the course record (in a time of 12:44, which averages out at a rather swift 7:30 pace for the 100 miles), and it was interesting to learn that when he ran the course record he was only running around 70 miles a week, a good advertisement that you don’t need to be churning out high mileage to be successful at ultras.
It felt at times a bit of a rocky road to get to Rocky Raccoon, but it all came together in the end, and I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. Whilst it would have been nice to finish 2018 on a road running PB high, I’m so glad I stepped back and focused on the bigger picture of RR – at the end of the day I can run road races pretty much any weekend throughout the year, whereas I can’t pop over to America at the drop of a hat to race a 100 miler. And inadvertently I feel that the bit of enforced running downtime was the best thing that could have happened to me as it means I’m gone into 2019 feeling super fresh and ready for, hopefully, a year of good running.
This is an excerpt of Sarah's blog on her preparations for the Rocky Raccoon 100. You can read the full version here. A HUGE thank you to Sarah Sawyer for sharing her blog post with us. For more of Sarah's excellent posts visit her blog shetravelssheruns here.