Strategic Planning Is Key in Racing and Your Business

28 Apr

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a planner…some might even say I’m an obsessive planner. I find a great deal of comfort in planning since I’m not a fan of surprises. And I also find that good planning leads to great success. My experience with the Labor of Love 50 mile ultra marathon was a perfect example of that.

About a year ago, I decided I would run a 50 mile ultra marathon to commemorate my 50th birthday this year. Prior to deciding to run a 50 miler, I’d run a 50k ultra marathon, a 30 mile ultra marathon, eight marathons, nine half marathons, a number of 15k, 10k and 5k races and a number of triathlons. So, I was very familiar with the importance of a good training and nutrition plans. But running 50 miles requires a much more detailed and sophisticated planning strategy. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

The first part of the planning process was to choose a race. As I started doing my research I found there are not a lot of options for 50 mile road races, compared to 50 mile trail races. I’m a road runner, not a trail runner. So, I didn’t have a lot of choices, but I felt confident that I could find a race I’d find challenging and enjoyable.

Some races automatically eliminated themselves from the running. For example, one race gave you a mug for running 50 miles. The standard finishing reward for 50 miles is either a medal or a belt buckle. I found it insulting to give someone a mug for running 50 miles and ruled that race out immediately, even though it was in driving distance, had a fairly flat course and a reasonable finishing time limit. As I continued to review the research, I determined one race was going to be way too hot, one was too tedious since you run a 2 mile loop 25 times, another could be in ice and snow, a fourth had a midnight starting time due to high temperatures and humidity and since I was a morning person, that might really send my body clock into shock in addition to the heat and humidity. Several other races had what I viewed as aggressive finishing times between 12 and 15 hours. Since I had never run a 50 miler before, I had no idea how long it would take me to finish. What I did know was I didn’t want to spend 50 miles worrying if I was going to finish in time and possibly not get a finishers medal and have my race results listed as a DNF (did not finish.)

Finally, I got to the information on the Labor of Love. Logic would say it was the worst possible choice for a number of reasons including the race site was in high elevation (which you cannot train for at sea level in Cincinnati), and it was a brutally hilly course which was by far the toughest of any of the races I researched. The good news was you had adequate time to finish this race, 32 hours. While this might sound crazy, I chose this race. I felt confident that I could finish it in well under the time limit as long as I planned strategically.

The first step of my plan, after doing my research, was to sign up for the race. I actually signed up for two…the 50 miler on Saturday and the 10k on Sunday because you got three medals if you completed back to back races. I thought that was a goal worth striving for, even if I was only able to walk the 10k the next morning.

The next step was to write my training plan. Ironically, I was in the process of getting my distance running conditioning specialist certification. The process for that is passing a written test and writing an essay which is a training plan. The test essay only requires you create a strength training plan for cross training days for endurance runners. But, since I’m the ultimate over achiever, I wrote a full plan which included the running workouts, strength workouts, yoga, swimming and other cross training workouts. The plan was color coded…red for races, blue for recovery weeks, yellow for taper weeks and black for everything else. The plan was 20 pages. It was very thorough. Did I mention I’m a planner?

My training plan included some “tune up” races. Tune up races are used to help you gauge your race pace for your “A” race, which was the 50 miler in my case. Tune up races are also used to help you nail down your race fueling strategy and your equipment needs. Yes, you test out nutrition and experiment with various food sources and equipment during training runs, but it’s not the same as testing during a race. Since my 50 miler was in April, I scheduled a 50k (31 miles) race for November and a back to back race in January, known as the Goofy Challenge. For the Goofy Challenge, you run a half marathon on Saturday and a full marathon on Sunday. The GC was the beginning of several months of back to back long runs. The purpose of back to back long runs is to get your body used to running on fatigued legs. Your legs get plenty fatigued running 40 miles each weekend for several months, which is what I’d scheduled in my training plan, along with two shorter runs during the week.

The 50k race was a water and Honey Stingers testing race. I needed to see if I could race that distance with just those two products and no sports drinks. Every race serves different fluids and race fuels on the course. It’s critical for racers to know what’s being served in advance and most races are very good about posting that information. This particular race was serving products I knew upset my stomach. So, this was a great opportunity for me to test products I’d be carrying for the 50 miler since I knew that race was also serving sports drinks on the course that didn’t agree with me. The race went great. My equipment worked well, fueling went well and I was able to try my run/walk pacing strategy. I walked up the really steep, long hills and walked up hills with strong head winds to conserve my energy. I ran up the easier uphill and downhill stretches. The weather was chilly, ideal running weather, so everything went well and I had a great finishing time.

The Goofy strategy was a bit different. I used the same equipment because it’s worked well for me for years. I carried water and Honey Stingers again too. And since the sports drink served on this course did agree with me, I mixed that in with my fueling strategy and drank both water and sports drink on the course. Even though the 50 miler wasn’t serving a sports drink I could tolerate, I knew I’d be carrying Gatorade with me in my fuel belt and drinking water on the course from the aid stations. The Goofy was the perfect opportunity to determine just how much sports drink vs. water I needed to stay well hydrated and fueled properly. For pacing, that was different too. I chose to run the half marathon at a relaxed pace. My goal was to finish in two and a half hours. I was a minute under that. So, I nailed my pace. By running the half marathon, I would have somewhat fatigued legs, but not fatigued enough to make the marathon a miserable experience. For the marathon, my fueling and equipment were the same as the half marathon. However my pacing was the run/walk strategy. I also wanted to take my time on this course because we went through some very cool parts of Disney World that are normally not open to the public or part of the marathon course. They were added this year because it was the 20th anniversary of the Goofy Challenge.

By the time I’d finished my tune up races, I felt good about my fueling strategy, but wanted to experiment with a few other food sources during the next few months of training. As a personal fitness trainer and sports nutrition specialist, I know every person’s body is different. With ultra marathons, you hear about flavor and texture fatigue. This is where you get sick of the same race fuel for hours on end and crave something different. So, I found a carbohydrate source I liked that was crunchy instead of chewy like the Honey Stingers, and it was something I could eat on the run that didn’t taste anything like my Honey Stingers. I knew that would be something I’d take with me to the race. I also know that many people need protein around mile 40. I tried adding it during my training runs in February and it was not pretty. I just couldn’t tolerate it. Because I’m a planner, I reached out to several of my seasoned ultra running friends and asked them about this. The best advice I got was from one of the best ultra runners in Cincinnati. His advice, “If your body says I’m craving a PBJ right now, eat it. But only eat a quarter of a sandwich and see how you feel. But if you’re not craving protein, your body doesn’t need it. Skip it. I never eat protein on ultra courses because it doesn’t agree with me either.” This was some of the best research/advice I got regarding fueling.

So, it’s the beginning of April. It’s time to taper. Taper is a three week period where you strategically reduce your mileage to let your body rest and repair itself after many months of hard training. It’s also a great time to deal with other race details, such as drop bags. Drop bags are personal bags that each runner fills with things they think they’ll want and need for the race. The bags are spaced strategically throughout the course.

While I felt good about my training strategy, fueling strategy and equipment strategy; I was not as confident about the drop bag strategy. Drop bags were something I’d never had to deal with and had no experience with. Again, because I’m a planner, I went to my ultra running friends for research and advice. One of the most common comments I heard was, “You will pack things you never end up using and there will be things you wished you’d packed and really needed, but didn’t have.” The second part of that comment puts fear in the heart of this obsessive planner. My goal was to be the exception to the rule and have everything I could ever want or need in all three of my drop bags.

After asking my ultra running friends what they thought would be critical for the drop bags, everyone said: a full change of clothes for day and night including shoes and several pairs of socks, fueling products you tested in training and a variety of foot/blister care and chafing products. If I had stuck with these three things, my drop bags would have been small. The problem was that everyone had other things they felt were “must haves” and those things were very different for each person. Since my goal was to have drop bags with everything I could possibly want or need, I decided to include everything on everyone’s lists. My drop bags were huge laundry bags. Two of them took up a huge suitcase. The third one took up half of a second huge suitcase.

When I went to the airport, I’m sure the agents thought I was going to Europe for six months. When I got to the race site to drop off my bags, I could see I over packed. Most of the bags were half the size of mine. But I didn’t care. The goal was to have everything I could ever want or need in each bag and I was hopeful that would be the case.

It was almost race time. The runners got to the starting area and the countdown clock began. There were three races going on at the same time: a marathon, 50 miler and 100 miler. Soon, we were all off and running. When it comes to endurance races, it’s all about pacing. If you go out too fast, you’re going to “blow up” and be miserable very early in the race. That makes the journey to the finish line painful and exhausting. My goal was to pace slowly, enjoy the desert and mountain scenery, adjust the best I could to the “thin air” and focus on running my own race. I had a race plan, but the key was to be flexible and listen to my body. If my body was up to going a little faster in places, so be it. If it wasn’t up to running in places, that was fine too. The race plan strategy was similar to the drop bag strategy. The goal was to feel good or as good as possible the entire time. I realized it was a lofty goal, but it was my goal and I hoped to achieve it.

The layout for this course is as follows: Drop bags at home base check point, midway and the far end checkpoint. The course is 11 miles out to the far end, 11 miles back to home base, 11 miles out again to the far end, 11 miles back to home base and three miles out from home base and three miles back to finish the 50 miles. From home base to the far point is mostly up hill, other than one very steep mile downhill. From the far point to home base is mostly downhill other than a very steep mile uphill climb. Nobody ran that hill. We all knew that using too much energy to run up it would come back to haunt us later. The last six miles were similar to the main course…miles 44-47 were uphill and the last three miles to the finish were downhill.

Race morning started out in the 40s but we knew it would get up to the 80s in the heat of the day. I wore a sweat shirt over my running halter and had a pair of thin gloves to keep my hands warm. I had long compression shorts and compression socks on, so only my knees were exposed, and they don’t get cold. At the first drop bag site I dumped my sweatshirt and gloves and headed on my way to the first check point. I was pacing slowly and my pace was on target with my race plan. It seemed that everyone else running the 50 and 100 milers were pacing slowly too. Prior to the race starting I had talked to several people who’d run this race before. When I asked them if they had any tips, they all said the same thing…pace yourself and go slow!

When I reached the first check point at mile 11, I felt great. That’s to be expected. It was very early in the race. I had used the run/walk pacing for the first 11 miles since they were mostly uphill. At the turn around, I took off and enjoyed the downhill for quite a few miles. When I got to “the beast” hill, I slowed to a jog and then walked up the hill. The next thing I knew I was at mile 22, the second check point and I still felt good. I was about 5 hours into the race which was right on track with my plan. I was also following my fueling plan strictly. I was taking Honey Stingers with water every hour. I was taking water at every aid station and I was supplementing once an hour with a few ounces of Gatorade that I was carrying in my fuel belt. I stopped at the half way drop station to refill my bottle with Gatorade that I had in my drop bag, grab some pretzels for a little extra salt and headed toward the third check point. Everything was going according to the plan.

At mile 33, check point 3, I knew I needed some foot care and sunscreen. I got into my drop bag to get some sunscreen and foot care supplies out of the beautiful first aid kit I’d compiled. I asked one of the volunteers to help me put sunscreen on my back and then sat down to check out my feet. I knew I had some hot spots (places on my feet that felt a little tender, but hopefully weren’t open blisters yet) and needed to attend to them before they became painful and more serious. When I took off my shoes and socks, I was pleasantly surprised. The hot spots were very minor blisters…nothing serious. I’d caught them soon enough that they would not impact the rest of my race. The volunteer at the checkpoint mentioned he had this great spray for blisters if I wanted to use it. This blister care product was a spray that dried like a coating of extra skin. I thought this would be much more effective than bandaids or mole skin (it’s like a little suede bandage with super sticky adhesive on it.) I had him coat every inch of both of my feet. The spray felt cool and protective. I let it dry, put my socks and shoes on and headed out again. At mile 38.5 I got into my drop bag for a long sleeve shirt, a reflective vest and a head lamp. I knew it could be dark before I reached mile 44 and the last check point prior to the finish. I wanted to make sure I was visible to cars since the course was open to traffic the entire day and night. I tied the shirt around my waist since it was still very hot, tucked the vest into my race belt and put my head lamp on. I reached mile 44 and the final check point at about 6:30pm. It would get dark between 7pm and 7:30pm. But I was set. When I checked in, the volunteers really wanted me to eat something, but I told them I’d eat in 6 miles, after I finished. I was feeling great still and didn’t want to stop. I know that sometimes when you stop too long you can’t get going again. I didn’t want to take any chances of that happening. I was on a role. While I felt great and still hadn’t “hit the wall,” my feet were tired, as you would expect. Plus, miles 44-47 were uphill, so I wanted to get going quickly and finish the race strong. I put on my shirt and began to walk the next three miles at a good pace, but not too brisk. When I got to the turnaround point for the last three miles it was dark. I turned on my head lamp and started to run as fast as I could at that point, which was pretty fast considering. I passed a number of people who cheered me on as I flew by. I’d paced well and still had some fuel in my tank to make a strong, fast finish. Nothing could be better. Also, the cars were making me nervous. The traffic during the day was no big deal. I could see the cars, and they could see me. But at night, I just didn’t feel as comfortable. I am not a night runner. I only train in the daylight, so this was a new experience that made me a bit uneasy.

As I got closer to the finish, I was feeling better and better. My mind, body and spirit were flooded with this huge sense of accomplishment and relief. I had planned and trained for this moment for a year. I had visualized this moment over and over again. But nothing could prepare me for the sense of euphoria that engulfed me as I crossed the finish line, and they put that big medal around my neck and congratulated me on a job well done. I had finished in 12:54:53.

Before I left for the race, many people asked me, “What’s your goal time?” I replied that my goal was to finish, however long it took. Now, I meant that sincerely. However, most runners have several goal times…best case scenario time, things went okay but not great time and it all fell apart time. My best case scenario time estimate was 13 hours, the it went okay but not great estimate was 14-15 hours and it all fell apart time estimate was 16-17 hours. My goal for not needing anything that I didn’t have in my drop bag was successfully met too.
One of the most common questions I was asked after I got home from the race was, “If you did this race over again, what would you do differently?” My answer was, “Not a thing. Everything went according to plan!” If there is such a thing as a perfect race experience, this was it.

As the owner of a fitness company, a certified personal fitness trainer, sports nutrition specialist and a distance running conditioning specialist, I know that well-designed training and nutrition plans are critical to racing and fitness success.

We’ve all heard that saying “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” It’s so true. When we plan our strategy and have a clear vision of our goal and how we plan to get there, our potential for success increases exponentially. So the next time you’re thinking “I can iron out the details of my training and nutrition plan later. It’s no big deal.” Think again. Details are a big deal. Details are everything…in training, racing and business. At least they’re everything to an obsessive planner.


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