How To Race the Maroondah Dam 50k
The main purpose here is to provide myself a reference for future attempts at the Maroondah Dam 50km (MD50) race. My recommendations definitely won't suit everyone, and it is quite possible they won't turn out to be ideal for me either. However, it should provide some good ideas and maybe a different view for others attempting this race in the future.
By racing I mean covering the course as quickly as possible (this will vary depending on an individuals ability), and also racing to improve placings (may be important if looking for a podium or top 10). This post won't be about aiming to finish in good shape, comfortable and just for the sake of finishing. These are significant achievements in themselves, due to the course being ridiculously tough. That said, I hope that anyone planning on running MD50 can take something away from this read.
As far as my background goes, I am not an expert trail ultramarathoner. This is written after my first attempt at an ultra trail run. My first 50km. In my first attempt I clocked in at 5:48:52 in 33rd place overall. The details of that race can be read in my race report Maroondah Dam 50km 2012. What I do have to offer is 15+ years of running, triathlon, orienteering, coaching, and a degree in Human Movement. I've had various successes and failures over all those years. My marathon PR to date is 2:58. Let's get into it.
Starting with the obvious. 50km is a long way, the impressive terrain makes that 50km even longer. Therefore pacing will play the most important role. Extrapolating from almost every running source of information, including analysis of marathon world records, it would seem that even pacing is likely the optimal method. There are plenty of strong arguments to "even out the bumps." However with the terrain on offer there are a number of factors that make metering out an even effort not quite ideal for a fastest possible time. The elevation profile below shows the significant hills that are run over. It doesn't quite tell the full story.
I am reminded of Brad Bevan's snippet of advice from years ago stating it is important to be able to lift for key moments. While he was talking about triathlons those moments included transition, aid stations, hills and other tactical positions. The MD50 course provides for plenty of key moments.
This leads into my overview of pacing the race. I think it is important to even out the effort the over the 50km up to a point. This will get you some way to a reasonable performance. A mistake is taking the race too hard at the start and being forced to slow down, as is shown by my heart rate profile from the 2012 race below. Going too fast early will cost a lot of time later on.
To get the best time possible on the day will require a variety of skill sets and key fitness attributes to appropriately lift to take advantage of the terrain. For example some of the exceptionally steep uphills require an effort above average otherwise the degree of slow down required will be so great. Using heart rate, averaging 145bpm for race may be a fair target but to keep close to this on some hills means slowing to a walk that may be close to stationary. Instead lifting to 160bpm may be appropriate to keep the speed adequate as long as it isn't too fatiguing. In summary keep a relatively even effort throughout supported by some increased intensity at the right time.
That's all well and good in theory, but how can this be done, and what are the other elements of the race that change this?
Obviously you need to be more than comfortable with running trails. Foot placement on technical terrain needs to be natural and not overly taxing to the body. If all your training is on bitumen, expect to find a lot of the course, especially the first 10km particularly fatiguing to the smaller, postural and lower leg muscles.
No doubt about it, you have to get really good at traveling up hill. The ability to run up some steep and long climbs without reaching into or above your anaerobic threshold is essential. I believe the area of the biggest time losses or gains is between 20-37km. Which is nearly all ascending. Being in condition from both training and by not destroying the legs over the first 20km, to run instead of walk the majority of this section should be the goal.
Know when to walk. The key spots that come to mind are the climbs at roughly 4km, 8km, 22km and the last section up Mount St Leonard. Other areas may require small sections of walking. Learning exactly the point at which it is more efficient to walk versus run needs to be developed and practiced in training. Appropriate use of walking can allow some degree of respite and recovery for the legs from the battering this course gives. As a result there is more chance of avoiding being forced into lots of walking later in the race.
The extra steep climbs as listed in the above paragraph, they are some of the moments where you need to lift. Concentration as well as good awareness of how hard you are working is paramount. Sticking with the easier average intensity in these sections will result in much too slow a pace. Pace versus intensity here is not a linear relationship. However it is important to blunt that increase in effort. Work harder, efficiently keep moving, but not at the risk of taking too much out of the body so it causes a slow down later. This is hard to get right, but it must be a target.
Downhill running for the MD50 can be broken into three categories. The first category should be the mainstay for the race. This should be a relaxed downhill flow. A good way from being a controlled fall, but gravity should be doing all the work. This running should feel easy, should result in a reduced heart rate and not require any concerted effort or push. The speed produced will be a byproduct of the terrain and technique in keeping the legs lightly flicking over.
Category 2 is saved for the extra steep descents. The most obvious is the very technical, rocky and slippery trail once over the top of Mt St Leonard. The others are much shorter and exactly how many will depend on your overall descending ability. These sections are extreme. A fall can cost dearly, but a good deal of time can also be lost in taking the slow cautious stuttering walk down. The solution has to come from practicing running down this type of terrain. Develop a style that lets you run these parts. Have the ability to recover and stay upright when your feet and ground start slipping. This is technique, not fitness.
Finally the 3rd category in the downhill area should be applied once past the extreme section just described. The majority of the final 9km is descending and for the most part isn't very technical. Some stones, mud, branches, and standard fire trail. It is go fast time. Take as much as you can from gravity and add more speed to it. Good running here can make up some big chunks of time, especially if capable of running the handful of uphills scattered through this section.
Some thoughts on the difference between going for your fastest time on the course versus some shoulder to shoulder racing. If purely aiming for the best possible time then a mainly even dosing of effort, some blunted increases in intensity at certain points plus eeking out as much speed on the final 9km is likely the way to go. Fighting for placings may require some slight modifications.
These modifications are basically about identifying places where you can apply some extra pressure or surge to gain a gap. Of course you must have the fitness to pull these moves off.
The first location is the climb back into the 20km aid station. A reasonably steep and moderate length ascent. Keep the time through the aid station very short and keep the pace up over the highway crossing until the trail gets stupidly steep at about 22km. Then the walk up should provide some recovery.
The next option would be through the mostly climbing section between 25-37km. There are two approaches that can be taken. The first is to just lift the speed to a bit above what you can hold and make it a race of attrition. Second, get past about the 30km mark then as the climb gets steeper really turn up the dial. Any gap needs to be made before the short downhill into the aid station just before the last and very steep ascent to the top of Mt St Leonard.
If you are really, really good on the more extreme downhill the go nuts once over the crest of Mt St Leonard. The final option is just pick any of the last few kilometers to give whatever you have left like any other race.
Going well isn't just about the running. There are a few other aspects that if you attend to should make the running easier. Most importantly I say go light. Those training for longer events using the MD50 as a test for equipment aren't included here, but... I was amazed at the amount of gear so many carried with them. Large back packs, full changes of clothes, 2L or even more of fluid and items that didn't fit well. The extras slow you down. In line with this, aim to absolutely minimise time at aid stations. Time standing still is wasted time, plus may contribute to the legs seizing up. Keep moving through the aid stations. My suggestion:
Carry one 600ml bottle (race requirement) filled with your preferred hydration/fuel mix, plus 2 gels as emergency. Make use of the drop bags so you can just swap the bottles over. If needed, extra water can be drunk at the aid stations. Personally I found this more than adequate.
Wear good shoes. Seems to be a no brainer, but judging by some talk post race a few weren't happy with their shoe choice. I enjoyed my Asics DS-16 Trainers. They performed perfectly in dry weather. On a wet course there will be some very slippery steep descents. Proper grip will be a necessity.
Above all don't under estimate the difficulty of this course. It is brutal and if you attack it too hard it can knock you down very quickly. Race relaxed and be prepared to make adjustments.