Mixed bag: UTMB performance assessment || Perils of racing conservatively

Just twelve hours after finishing UTMB in Chamonix, Amanda and I split for the second half of our vacation, in Provence, hence the delay in post-UTMB coverage. For my sake, I hope to post it all this week before my guided trips start on Sunday and my recollection fades.

I placed 34th at UTMB, with a finishing time of 24:44:07. That’s respectable, given that it was the most talented field in the history of ultrarunning, and that the 104-mile course had 31,000 vertical feet of climbing.

But relative to my potential, my performance feels so-so. And it certainly fell short of my expectations. On an exceptional day, I thought top-10 was possible, and top-20 seemed likely if I ran strong. (In hindsight, top-15 and top-25 would have been more appropriate, since there were ahistorically few DNF’s.)

For 1.5 years I’d invested an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and expense into preparing for UTMB, so I’m a bit disappointed that my performance wasn’t magical. On my flight back across the Atlantic I’d hoped to feel as I did after Leadville in 2008, Run Rabbit in 2015, or Boston in April.

Being too hard on myself

There are some reasons to be pleased:

1. It felt near max

At the finish there was unused gas in the tank, but not much, and it could have been depleted if there’d been more runners within striking distance at the end. (Instead, when I left the final aid station, Vallorcine with 11 miles to go, the next vulnerable runner was 28 minutes up.)

2. Seed vs finish

Based on ITRA rankings, I was seeded 93rd, but finished 34th, meaning that I outperformed my seed by a net 59 spots. A few DNS’s helped my cause, but relative to the field I raced better than past performances suggested I would.

3. Patience, patience, patience

At the first timing checkpoint, Le Delevret (Mi 8.5), I was in 128th place. Over the next 96 miles I steadily gained 94 net spots. One-hundred mile races reward patience.

A steady improvement in my placement throughout the race

4. Not chicked

Versus the world’s best female ultra runners, I’m usually a little bit faster, though not always, and I usually spend some portion of the race behind the top women. The first two females, Nuria Picas and Andrea Huser, finished about an hour back.

Note: There’s been some pushback against the phrase, “getting chicked” (see the comments), and since I don’t plan to change it I’ll at least explain my take on it. In my running circles, this phrase has been used as a simple measure of performance, because for sub-elite men like me the comparison to elite women is more telling than the comparison to elite men. Shame on men who make this comment out of embarrassment by being beat or passed by a female who is more talented, fitter, harder working, or having a better day.

5. Better than it looks

The low number of DNF’s among the elite men made cracking the top 10 or top 20 unusually difficult. And while was the course was shortened slightly, times were slowed by mud, limited visibility, and frequent layering transitions due to intermittent precip.

But, it wasn’t magical

Why am I not thrilled with my performance?

1. Spanked by the elites.

The winner, Francois D’Haene, finished in 19:01, an embarrassing difference of 5:43, or 3.5 minutes per mile. That gap is insurmountable even if I was a full-time professional runner, knew the course intimately, and was on a world-class PED program. It’s humbling to witness the inferiority of my God-given talent.

2. Never mixed it up with the elites.

Besides Sage Canady and Jason Schlarb, who had off days, I didn’t beat or even temporarily match strides with any of the US elites. You can’t become one if you don’t run with them.

3. Low average HR.

My average HR was 121 bpm, which is significantly lower than my last best 100-mile effort, Run Rabbit (127 bpm), and surprisingly lower than Bighorn 100 (123 bpm), which was sub-max. Quantifiably, this indicates that I ran below my physical capacity.

4. Poor ITRA score.

The Performance Index establishes apples-to-apples comparisons across races and between runners. My 24:44 was given a score of 727, which is one of my lowest scores ever, even lower than decidedly disappointing performances like Bighorn, Silverheels, or Golden Gate.

What happened?

If UTMB hadn’t been my apex race or if my calendar had an obvious next endeavor, I’d more quickly and more easily get over it and move on. But that wasn’t the case, so let me dwell.

1. Training

My fitness does not explain a so-so performance. I was in the best ultra fitness of my life, as evidenced by my workouts: this summer I set a new FKT on Pawnee-Buchanan and new PR’s at will on oft-run segments. Under David Roach’s guidance, I was peaking at just the right time.

2. Minor strains

Part of my struggle was physical handicapping. I strained my left calf on the ascent of Col du Bonhumme (Mi 25), which left me with restricted range of motion and fearful of it blowing up completely. My psoas muscles (i.e. hip flexors) were also tight for about half the race, further hindering my stride.

Four full days after the race, my right leg was back to normal, but my left calf was still noticeably swollen.

3. Race strategy

But I think the real flaw was my conservative race strategy. My race was textbook cute: I started slow, caught many runners who went out too fast, and looked strong at the finish.

But it lacked the deep suffering that’s necessary for a career performance. If I’d gone out faster, I most certainly would have been worse for wear in the final half or quarter, and maybe even DNF’d. But if I could hold on I would have been carried to a better time: I’d have utilized the faster momentum of the elite field, and would have been more psyched that I was in the mix. Instead, I mostly floated in No Man’s Land, passed quickly those who had fallen off the back, and wondered what was happening at the front.

I wrote and posted this assessment before speaking with David, and his independent assessment of my race was consistent with mine, especially in the faulting of my race strategy. In an email, he offered some additional insight:

I agree with most of your assessment. However, I honestly think a big part of it was poor advice from me that messed up the race early. The problem was that UTMB 2017 will go down in history as the first time a mountain 100 was a true race. And in true races, you can’t get disconnected from the field and have big goals at the same time. I am proud of you for how you fought, and 34th is still amazing there. But that ceiling was right, and I just treated this like the pre-UTMB 2017 world.

You had a top-10 in you on the perfect day, but it would have required GOING FOR IT in a way that would mean a 50/50 shot of finishing. It’s like throwing a bunch of eggs at the wall — a few might not break. Those unbroken eggs survived at that top effort from gun to tape. The problem is that the gaps were big given the terrain. At Western States, which is a much faster 100-miler, a runner who falls back early can come back because the gap isn’t huge. At UTMB, that same conservative start resulted in you being hours back early in the race, which is almost impossible to make up. Jeff Browning had a similar experience to you, but about 2 hours faster. Normally he finishes very close to the leaders by closing hard, but that same race strategy didn’t yield the same result at UTMB.

UTMB 2018?

Do I have unfinished business at UTMB? Yes. But I need to ponder my broader one- and two-year goals before committing to that. About two years ago I decided to utilize the remaining years of my physical prime by investing myself fully in endurance running. I’ve done that, and now must decide whether I should double-down or whether I should find another place to play.

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