50 miles a day minimum or you are out of the race!
As it happens I was half way through writing a post on this subject when the news came through that Walter Zimmerman has been technically disqualified from the race for failing to meet the minimum requirement of 50 miles per day.
A perfect sportsman, Walter is going to stay on at the race helping other runners. Very genuine commiserations go to Walter from all at “Team Sichel” – no one likes to see an ultra-runner go out of an event this way.
Earlier today Lynn asked :
“The rules on the Web site for the 1000-mile race currently going on in Athens explicitly says this:
Restrictions for the 1000 miles world-cup
Limit: minimum 50 miles per day
Those who will not pass the limit, must give up the race. The athletes who will pass the limit will continue the race until they will reach the 1000-miles performance or any other performance below 1000 miles by day-16.
It’s not stated whether accumulations over the minimum cancel any shortfalls, e.g., if a runner runs 100 miles the first day, but can manage only 30 the second, is he DQed? My understanding is the answer is yes, but if so, that would impose a curious restraint on runners seeking to perform on the highest levels, in that they need to strategize in such a way as to be sure they don’t blow themselves out one day and not be able to do well on the next.”
Answer – The short answer to this (and there is a longer one coming up!) is that ANYONE not managing at least 50 miles per day, every day, is automatically disqualified.
When initially entering this event the rule may not have been entirely clear.
William and I discussed this when planning Williams own race strategy (for fall back options if anything went seriously wrong – William is planning on rather in excess of 50 miles per day throughout the event…).
At the time, although deciding that the “safe” interpretation of the rule was to assume 50 miles per day every day – period, we felt it likely that the organisers would interpret the rule to mean “50 miles per day as an average of the total distance run”. This is not the case – it is 50 miles per day or a runner is technically disqualified.
I gather from Tim in Athens that William asked for this point to be clarified during the pre-race briefings, and while I believe there may have been some slight confusion over translating from Greek into other languages (this is a very international event) as I understand it all runners were aware of the rule before the start of the race (but may not have been fully aware when filing their entries).
Now here is the rather longer answer, most of which is based on nothing more than my own opinion, so take it with a pinch of salt (or electrolyte powder if you prefer).
My initial feelings on this rule is that the organisers probably initially included it to discourage entries from runners who stood no serious chance of completing the distance but may have simply fancied being able to say that they ran in a 1000 mile race. At the minimum 50 miles per day for 16 days a runner would complete a minimum 800 miles by the day-16 cut-off point; not a world class performance but perfectly respectable by almost any standard. In a 1000 mile race “anything can happen and probably will”. In previous races for example, some runners have had to pull out due to health issues even after the 900 mile mark (and that probably hurts worse at a psychological level than anything felt physically – coming so close and then being a “did not finish” statistic is never easy). My own feeling was that the 50 mile per day minimum rule was put in to stop (at an extreme example) an hypothetical runner turning up for the start of the race and running for a bit while there is plenty of attention then taking it easy for the next week or two and finally coming back to run for the last couple of hours at marathon pace to impress the watching crowd (but otherwise only irritate the other runners and anyone else seriously involved in the sport). It seems I may have been wrong about this, as the Greek organisers are obviously very serious about 50 miles per day, every day (and not just on average) being the cut off point below which a runner will be disqualified.
This does raise some serious concern for some of the runners and crews involved, on the one hand at the strategic level, and on the other hand in terms of dealing with any minor or potential injuries.
As an aside I’ll also mention that I’m not entirely sure of the definition of a “day” as far as the rule goes i.e. whether “a day” means a calender day or a 24hr period, and if 24hrs, exactly when the 24hrs starts and finishes (the race starts and finishes at 2pm local time, so I assume that 50 miles per day must be covered between 2pm and 2pm…. but I could be wrong about that….). This may seem like a minor point, but it isn’t really as the timing of a rest or sleep break could make a vital difference to the 50 mile per day figure, even though not effecting total distance covered… This then effects when a runner can or cannot take a break if their 50 mile minimum might be in question.
As the race organisers are not petty minded bureaucrats -they are themselves ultra-runners (the main man behind the Athens Ultramarathon festival is Costas Baxevanis who as it happens is currently running in the 1000 mile race himself – in 8th place last I heard) one can assume that they are not looking to disqualify any runner just for the sake of it nevertheless the 50 mile a day rule is in some ways both a little odd and rather harsh.
As this blog is read by a mixed bag of people I will try and explain the issues a little (please bear in mind it is currently 6.15 am here and I haven’t slept yet so excuse me if I don”t explain things clearly enough, just ask for further details)
I can think of 2 main areas of concern with the 50-mile-per-day rule; one is strategy, the other is injury
In any race of about 24 hours upward, race strategy plays a huge part. Unlike shorter distances, it is not all about running as fast as possible for the entire race. There are a surprisingly large number of ways (at least on paper) of achieving a distance by a finishing time. Typically (and here I’ll use my own terms) one finds three main approaches;
- 1) The sprint-crawl strategy
- 2) The even pace strategy
- 3) The run-walk strategy
(all of these have a lot of variations and are not necessarily mutually exclusive – this is just to give you an idea).
1) With a sprint-crawl strategy, typically a runner sets off at a fairly fast pace, one which (not by intention but by physical limitation) cannot be maintained throughout the event. The runner will then typically clock up quite a fair distance in the earlier stages of the race (either hours or days depending upon the event), and then, as their speed drops and their endurance diminishes, they will simply do their best to keep going, adding distance a lot more slowly, often using what William and I call “negative walking” (i.e. walking not from choice but because they are too tired to run). A lot of runners spend the second half of a race this way, figuratively “crawling” or sometimes literally limping toward the finishing line.
For fairly obvious reasons a sprint-crawl strategy is going to be a real problem in this race as anyone setting off fast may find themselves falling below the 50 mile minimum in the later stages, in which case they will be out of the race – by the looks of things, even if they are over 900 miles at the time….
2) With an even-pace strategy, a runner starts more slowly, running at a lower speed than that which they are capable of, but one which they hope to maintain throughout the race. In reality almost everyone goes a little faster in the earlier stages and a little more slowly in the later stages but the basic idea is to have a fairly consistent, even tempo throughout the event. Sometimes this may not work – it requires a lot of self-awarenesses and very good pace control for extended periods. But when it does work it is highly effective.
If a runner can maintain anything like even pace throughout the event, the 50 mile rule shouldn’t effect them. But believe me when I say that keeping an even pace over 1000 miles is not “easy” (!), and one bad day out of 16 could mean a technical disqualification…
3) With a run-walk strategy a runner deliberately chooses to walk for periods in the race (William and I term this “positive walking” as it is a built in part of the race strategy and adopted from choice, not forced on a runner due to fatigue). Determining an optimal run-walk split is a bit of a fine art, and there are a lot of options available, but in a nutshell the aims are variously to control overall pace throughout the race by including walking phases, to use walking as partial-recovery time while remaining on track and adding distance, to use walking to make eating, drinking and digestion more effective – and so on. A lot of runners simply hate the idea of walking during a race, probably because they view it as “not running”, but for a serious competitor the goal should not simply be “to run the whole distance” but rather to “maintain the fastest average pace possible” . Often a run-walk strategy can produce a greater average pace than a purely running strategy (and if that seems hard to believe, look at William’s 6-day record…).
A run-walk strategy is likely to keep a person in the 1000 mile race, regardless (injury etc not withstanding). If a person were forced to abandon all running and only walk, and if their walking pace dropped to only 2.5 miles an hour (which is pretty slow) they could still cover 50 miles in 20hrs, leaving 4hrs for rest etc. No-one would be aiming to do this, but as a worst case scenario they would at least meet the minimum distance to stay in the race, also hopefully allowing some recovery while walking in order to be able to pick up speed later on.
While the above (or variations of these basic themes) are the strategies used my most runners in longer ultra-races (not generally in events shorter than 24hrs), there are other possibilities e.g. a run-rest strategy. Here a runner might, hypothetically, run fairly fast, take an extended rest (either off track, running at lower speed or walking) then run fairly fast again. While this sort of approach has a habit of working better on paper than on a track, it is at least theoretically viable and may well suit some individuals better than other methods. Mapping this on to a 1000 day race, a runner could (in theory) run say 100+ miles in a day, take anything up to the next 24s off for recovery, return to the track and run another quick 100+ miles – and so on. Anyone trying something of this kind could (on paper) cover as much distance as a runner spending all their time on track – but in this race they would simply be disqualified.
Although the day-off approach may seem odd, it has been used effectively in races before, with runners taking a recovery day before returning to the track and getting very good distances. We will not be seeing it in this race however….
On a different slant from race strategy, another concern with the 50 mile rule is the risk of injury. Being realistic, 1000 miles in up-to 16 days is seriously demanding for anyone, no matter how fit they may be at the start of the race. Even with the best training and preparation possible, no one can guarantee that after (say) a week of hard running that an athlete might not get a niggle or two (to put things mildly). Quite possibly the wisest thing to do in such an event may be to come off track for a while, take a break, elevate a limb, apply some ice or get a massage (etc). On paper an athlete could if necessary come off track, receive some treatment or therapy, return to the track say 12hrs later and still go on to actually win the race by covering the 1000 miles in the fastest time. However, I can’t see this happening if the runners are worried about falling below the 50 mile per day threshold. They would be faced with a choice of either playing it safe and pulling out of the race (probably pretty unlikely unless suffering a severe problem) or simply toughing it out and hoping a potential injury does not get worse. Frankly (and speaking entirely on my own behalf here) I think this is a poor idea both from the perspective of the health of the athletes, and from the point of view of getting the best performances – it can be better to loose half a day and then run for the next week than to leave a condition untreated…
Again, writing entirely on my own behalf, I think that the 50 mile a day rule for this race is basically a pretty bad idea. I can see an argument for a 50-mile per day average, but personally I feel the existing rule limits the range of strategies available to runners and raises some concerns over the risk of injury.
As far as I am concerned anyone who can complete a 1000 miles within 16 days should be free to use whatever race strategy works best for them – why risk making the race any harder than it already is?
Shaun Brassfield-Thorpe – William Sichel’s training advisor – ULTRAfitnessTraining.com