Dreaming of Ultra (Part 1)

marathon shot

Reviewing the last twelve weeks of training – a mixture of Crossfit in all its forms, running intervals, yoga, and recovery – makes me realize just how much I did put into training for a 50k (31 miles). It wasn’t easy. But in the end, I did it: I ran 31 miles within the race-imposed cut-off time of seven hours, was able to walk (poorly) the next day, and probably would have been working out the week after if I hadn’t gotten sick. Whether my illness resulted from the race, the weather, or simply traveling all weekend (Louisville to Indy to Chicago and back all within 3.5 days) I can’t say.

I was a disappointed that I didn’t get to test the hypothesis that a strong body would recover quickly – the aches and pains I got from being sick (still not sure if I was a cold, flu, or some weird virus thing) overrode the hip and leg pain from the race so by Thursday after the race I was still sore – but there will always be more races, more recovery, and more testing. What makes me happy is that 1) I am an ultrarunner (or ultramarathoner) and 2) I completed my goal of training for the race on less than 10 miles a week, with a lot of strength training, and minimal injury. Read on…

This plan, known to Tim Ferriss readers as “5k to 50k” is laid out in his second book, The 4-Hour Body, as being put together by Brian MacKenzie, a Crossfit instructor and teacher from California. MacKenzie runs the site (and wrote a book called) Crossfit Endurance, where he merges the aesthetic of Crossfit – varied, functional movement that isn’t specialized – with classical endurance sports like running, biking, and swimming. The idea is to take the uncommon approach of training for long, endurance events like a marathon, bike race, or triathlon by using a large amount of Crossfit and high intensity interval training (HIIT) on the sport(s) of choice.

So, for example, instead of running 30-40 miles per week with a long run or two on the weekend, you’ll do a ton of Crossfit – squats, snatches, kettlebell swings, burpees, rope climbs – and then several high-intensity runs such as 4x400m or 8x100m throughout the week. The typical schedule as laid out in The 4-Hour Body might look like this:

Monday: Crossfit in the AM
Tuesday: Crossfit in the AM, Intervals in the PM
Wednesday: Crossfit in the PM
Thursday: Intervals in the PM
Friday: Crossfit in the AM
Saturday: Crossfit in the AM, Intervals or Trail Run in the PM
Sunday: Off

Does this seem like a lot? I ask honestly, because at times this seemed overwhelming, and other times I really enjoyed it. Towards the end of the 12-week program I was able to “get in the zone:” I did Open 13.1 twice in one day (and had pretty consistent scores!), would run without injury, and increased the weight on almost all of my lifts.

Crossfit, for those who are unfamiliar, will showcase your imbalances. After taking a year and a half off from road cycling, my high-end endurance was nearly gone, so the WODs (Workout of the Day) that required a “Zone 5” level for 20 minutes wore me down quick. On the other end of the spectrum, back squat days were a lot of fun. I learned how to front squat, clean, climb ropes, do the tortuous “Glute Ham Raise.” These highlighted by strengths. Overhead squats, snatches, and handstand push-ups displayed my weakness exquisitely. I’ve been doing Crossfit since September 2012, and it still kicks my ass every day.

The model behind MacKenzie’s Crossfit Endurance approach is that one can lower the volume of endurance training (running, in my case) while upping strength and conditioning, focusing on excellent form, and correcting imbalances. This, according to the model, will accelerate gains in the chosen sport in a similar manner as traditional “low and slow” training would, while keeping injuries minimal, and time spent at a premium. Ferriss has represented this idea in each of his books with the “80/20 principle,” the 80% of the results come from the 20% of the training or input. So, the theory goes, find that 20%, and make it count. Much of this theory can be detailed on the – you guessed it – Theory page of MacKenzie’s website.

So, how did it all work out? In short, I finished. I trained for a 50k in 12 weeks and was able to cross the finish line. But, it wasn’t easy. In Part 2 I’ll detail the work-outs and talk about my experiences over the course of the three months.