Nailing the Variables

This simple sport of ours has myriad variables than can lead you down the path of success, failure, or more often, the confusing land of in between where “this went really well, but I fell apart because of x, y, and z.”

For an activity that seems so easy, so inherent, the real talent comes in learning how to recognize all the controlled variables, then hoping that those out of your control fall in your favor.  The ability for the elites to nail all the important factors and adapt to the rest is really what separates the from the rest of us.

After twenty five years of running with some success and some epic fails, I’m attempting to quantify the importance all the variables because of a recent string of races, all with different results.  My Lake Sonoma 50M on Apr 13 was a disaster due to severe dehydration and a few other factors. One week later I had a fantastic race at the Mt Diablo 50k for no apparent reason, and a week after that I bonked hard at Folsom Lake 50k, despite hydrating well and playing whack-a-mole with the issues that got me in trouble at Lake Sonoma. Ugh.

Certainly we’re all individuals and what’s important to you may not be to me, but there are basic variables that, after 80 plus interviews and dozens of ultras, seem to be universal.  Feel free to comment and tell me that I’m nuts.

I’ve ranked these from 1-5, what I see as the most important (1s) to the least important (5s) variables we can control, followed by those situations that are out of our reach.

Cardio (1)

How in shape is your cardio system? You’ve got to have a strong cardiovascular system to even finish, so this is of paramount importance.

Specificity (1)

If this is a hill course and you’re trained for the flats or the roads, it’s going to be a tough day. Likewise if you’re a specific hillclimber and guys are going out at 6mpm pace, that’s a variable that is going to huuuuurt.

mental strengthMental Strength (1)

All the fitness and physical conditioning is good for naught if you’re mentally weak.  Everyone gets tired, but if you fall apart when you bonk and DNF, you just paid your entry fee for nothing. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of runners with decent training and conditioning who are mentally powerful and gut out a finish in any condition.  

Race conditions (2)

You may be in great shape, but are you conditioned for the race? If you live at sea level and race at altitude without having conditioned for it, you’re in for one hell of a day.  Have you run at night? Are you conditioned for that?  Are you used to running in heat? In cold? In wind? How do you handle severe exhaustion? That’s all conditioning that can sink your race boat very quickly.

Hydration (2)ak-front-300x199

Similar and often hand and hand with nutrition, hydrating your body and your muscles will help prevent bonking hard.  At Lake Sonoma I was trained, conditioned, and consuming calories, but by mile 32 I was painfully peeing dark brown syrup due to poor hydration on my part. With all the options for hydration nowadays (not to mention the good ol aid station spread), there’s no excuse not to stay hydrated. You (meaning I) shouldn’t screw this up.

aid stationNutrition (2)

Nutrition and caloric intake can and will sink your race if not properly respected.  Sure, all the elite guys and gals have their own training, their own kit, their own strengths, but all of them consume good calories during a race in order to fuel their bodies.

Injury (2)

Again, one of those variables that straddles the line. If all the other variables are nailed and you’ve put in months of training, but you screw up your Achilles the week before, that’s going to be a tough race.  If you choose to sit this one out for the next race in a couple of weeks, you may have salvaged your season.

Diet (2)

What you put in your body fuels you. Simple, right? Have you been eating normally? Has something changed recently? On a personal note, I had a steak the night before Mt. Diablo (my great performance), and I figured I’d have one before Lake Sonoma, too, as that surely must have been a factor. Not so.

GI Issues (2)gi

It’s tough to prioritize something that I’ve never encountered (I’ve got an iron gut), but from other runners I know, a bad GI issue can stop you in your tracks.  No more bouncing, no more moving, or there’s going be a big messy disaster.  However, depending on the severity and cause, many runners with enough experience are able to overcome a GI issue and not let it ruin the day.

P1070307Blisters and Asthma (2)

Again, not issues that I have to deal with (despite my f’ed up toes), but you could be trained and conditioned perfectly and a bad asthma attack or a tiny blister can wreck your day.  I think of speedster Jean Pommier and his issues with asthma that will swing his 50 mile splits by hours.

Terrain (3)

Terrain and course layout does play into the level of your success, but if all the other variables are  nailed down, the layout of the course really shouldn’t hold too much bearing on your success.  I run much better on groomed trail where I can see far in front of me as opposed to rocky technical trails with a zillion twists and turns.

Sickness (3)the_var_guy_sick_answer_2_xlarge

Sickness is one of those variables that straddles the line between controlled and out of your hands. Showing up to the start line healthy is hugely important, but plenty of races have been finished (and won) by runners fighting a cold, the flu, allergies, and god knows what else.

Soreness (3)

Are you still sore from the 6 hour run last weekend even though you tapered? How does your body rejuvenate itself, and are you providing it with the best conditions to do so? You’ve listened to the podcasts with nutrionists Sunny Blende and Meredith Terranova where they emphasize the importance of recovery recovery recovery?

Stress (3)

Where’s your head? How important is external stress when all you want to concentrate on is nothing and your race? Stephanie Howe provides some great insight in this post from iRunFar.

snowWeather (4)

Normal weather is important, but if you’ve conditioned yourself well, it shouldn’t play a huge role.

Taper (4)

Again, another variable that’s completely in your control. If you need to taper, taper. If you need to taper and you don’t, you’re going to have to make up that effort somewhere else.

Shoes/Kit (5)kit

Unless something goes drastically wrong (your shoe falls apart halfway, for example), this really is a variable that you should be able to control almost completely and it not very important. If you’re depending on your $150 shoes to help you run fast, then I’ve got some real estate to sell ya, and likewise, if you blame your kit on a bad race you may want to get involved in team sports where it’s at least a person you can point a finger at.

Non-controllable Variables

This is again where the real talent comes in…that’s the ability to adapt to a bad situation and either neutralize it or turn it in your favor.

Sudden Illness

After months of training your body, conditioning your mind, anxiety, testing your kit, and sacrificing time with your family and friends, you get food poisoning or another sickness the night before.  Do you stay up all night puking your guts out to get it out of your system, do you risk starting a race where you’ll likely barf and poop all over yourself, or do you take a DNS?

Wipe Out!

You take a header on a downhill and severely screw yourself up. Again, there are myriad stories of runners who’ve finished races with some severely disfigured limbs. Whether or not that’s important to you is your thing.

Crazy Weather

In Northern California it seems that the weather is temperate until that very last week of June, when the thermometer spikes and the avg temp jumps 20 degrees, right in time for Western States.  If you get a freak weather pattern, there’s really not much that could have been done, or be done during the race. Still, runners get through it and endure the craziness.


So what does all this mean? Nailing down all the variables and freak occurrences is a talent unto itself.  Aside from basic running talent, the ability to play whack-a-mole with diet, training, shoes, rain, wind, hills, etc is really what matters when we’re comparing our bad races to our great performances.  Even then, there’s still the X factor that we’ll never comprehend, and perhaps that’s where the real secrets lie.

Thoughts? Do my rankings look like yours? What variables did I miss?



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