It’s three weeks from your race, you’ve got your gear dialed in, shoes tested, the training has been done, and now, your crew asks “What time do you think you’ll finish in?” To which you draw a long “ummmm….”
Finding a pace at trail and ultramarathon races is a different beast compared to road races and marathons. Those who are experienced in road races can usually hold a pace throughout a race with reasonable consistency, as the terrain and surface doesn’t change much from mile to mile.
But, take out the pavement, double/triple/quadruple the distance, and things get a bit more crazy. Hills and altitude can be extreme, weather can change in a flash, mud, sand, dirt, rock, rain snow, slush, scree, talus, trail, no trail, tall grass, and even more can throw mystery into the day(s).
Don’t think solely about pace. Prioritize thinking about effort. Effort can be gauged by heart rate, muscular fatigue relative to distance, and rate of breathing. Think about where you are at in a race, and what it should feel like at that point.
If you are racing a 50k, you’ll probably feel pretty fresh for the first 13 miles, maybe more. Things might get a bit tougher, and muscles a bit sore around 24 miles, with elevated breathing. But if you find yourself dragging along at mile 10 and breathing like an olympic sprinter, you might want to revisit your strategy, and likely slow it down.
To practice learning different levels of effort, integrate pace calibration runs into your training. Using the above 50k example, a pace calibration run might look like this:
On terrain similar to race, with watch hidden from sight (in your pack or pocket works great!):
1 mile warmup
5 miles out at target race pace
5 miles back at slightly negative split
1 mile cool down
This workout makes you sense what your body is feeling without the pressure of a watch. You’ll be using your senses to track how you feel at different stages of the run, and be able to change your effort based on neuromuscular feedback. Being able to efficiently adapt your effort to changes in how your body is feeling will be a big plus on race day and prevent you from going too fast or too hard when you should be saving that effort for later in the day.
When you get confident with your pacing or have an idea in mind for your finish, you could use a site like OpenSplitTime or sometimes historic race results directly from the race’s website to figure out how long various segments should take you.
Run patiently and trust your training, and the pace will work with you!