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A Guide to Backyard Ultras Part 2: Pacing

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Now that you know more about the BYU race format and what to expect at base camp, it’s time to dive into the nitty gritty of the race itself. The first thing we’re going to look at is pacing, as this is something that you’ll want to be working on consistently in the months leading up to the race.

The Basics

In theory, pacing a BYU may seem like a dream. There’s no prize for the fastest runner, only for the one that keeps going the longest. Even if you sprint round the loop in 25 minutes, you’ll still be waiting to start the next loop with everyone else. So all you have to do is cover 4.2 miles to cover in an hour – easy, right?….Well, as the oft-quoted saying goes, ‘it’s easy until it isn’t’.

Breaking it down into its simplest terms, achieving the goal of completing each lap in the required time means you need to run at a minimum pace of 14:16 mins per mile/ 8:52 mins km. However, if you run at that pace then you will be turning round and going straight back out again. Whilst this may be the reality at some point later in the race, your race won’t last very long if this is your pacing strategy from the start.

If we take a strategy involving a 10 minute rest period at the end of each loop then we’d be looking at a pace of 11:54 mins per mile/ 7:23 mins per km. This pace is comfortably achieveable by most runners, and may seem uncomfortably slow to some. But remember that what seems comfortable or slow for the first few hours may seem increasingly hard as the race progresses.

If you study the data around BYUs, you will find vastly differing strategies from runners across the board. Whilst the most common loop times seem to fall within the 47-52 minute window, times will vary enormously from those returning in under 30 minutes to those actively planning to step into the corral with only a minute or 2 to spare until the next loop. And whilst there are certainly lots of variables that everyone should consider, your chosen strategy may well look very different to the next person’s.

So if you have the time and inclination to prepare thoroughly for a BYU, how do you come up with a pacing strategy that works for you? Here’s a step by step guide to figuring it out.

Step 1: Plan Your Support Strategy

Consider what you will need to do at the end of each loop. These may include:

  • Toilet trip
  • Eating a snack or more substantial meal
  • Drinking a hot or cold drink
  • Rest
  • Changing clothes/ shoes
  • Airing your feet and dealing with footcare issues
  • Dealing with other medical/ first aid issues
  • Stretching/ using a foam roller/ massage gun
  • Recharging devices inc/ watch, phone, headtorch
  • Getting kit ready to take onto the next lap
  • Brushing teeth/ washing

Some of these may need doing at the end of every loop. Others will be periodically required. If you haven’t got a crew, you will need to factor in quite a bit of time to get this stuff done and stay on top of admin if you want to stay in the race over the long-term. A useful tool is to make a list/ spreadsheet covering perhaps 24 hours worth of loops, depending on your goals. Plan out what you need to do at the end of each loop and how long these things will take. You will need to make sure that as a minimum, you have time to do these things. The amount of time you need may vary from loop to loop, giving you the potential to run some loops faster than others to account for this. The take away from this is that if for instance you decide that you need at least 6 minutes between loops then you will need to plan a minimum loop pace of around 8min/km to bring you in at 54 minutes.

Step 2: Study the Course

If you can recce the course then great: This will give you the best possible information about terrain,, ground conditions, elevation profile, potential bottlenecks etc. If you can’t recce the course then you’ll probably find that some nice folk have uploaded race footage to YouTube, so it’s well worth a look to give you a feel for the route. There may also be race data available which will show the amount of time runners have spent on each loop.

Even if you can’t recce the course, you can still try to recreate it. This won’t be perfect, but try to find yourself a local route that replicates the course as much as possible. Consider in particular the type of ground that you’ll be running on, the total elevation, and how that elevation is distributed (undulating/1 big climb/ technical descent etc). Remember to check if the route stays the same throughout the race. Some events have a different night and day loop, usually if the day loop is technical or has parts which could be dangerous at night. So you may need to have a separate practice loop and strategy to account for this.

Step 3: Get the Effort Right, aka Heart Rate Rules

There are BYU runners who run each loop in seemingly staggering times of around 30 minutes. It’s easy to tut condescendingly and mutter about how they’re going to burn out before night falls. Some of them do . But many don’t, and carry on at that pace into day 2 or 3 of the race. But one thing that is pretty much guaranteed is that however fast they are moving, the successful ones will always be running at an ‘easy’ effort. They will keep their heart rate within the lower heart rate zones – which you may know as easy/ endurance/ Z2/ aerobic. They aren’t ‘racing’, they are simply very well-trained athletes who can run very fast whilst still not burning their metabolic candle.

So this should be the starting point for you when you decide on pacing. Your goal is to stay below your aerobic threshold at all time (if you use RPE rather than HR then you are looking at a maximum RPE of 5/10). In reality you may ocassionally drift higher if you get chatting, or there is a particularly steep climb, or you put in a faster final couple of minutes as you realise you need a bit more time at camp before the next loop. But your pacing target should be based on you staying in the easy zone at ALL times. Use the knowledge you have of your own running to estimate a pace that will achieve this and then be ready to adapt this estimate once you move on to Step 4.

Step 4: Try it Out

So with all this in mind, get yourself out on your practice loop and start experimenting. Your starting point will normally be to assume that you will walk all the uphills, jog the downhills and jog most of the flats with some walking if you need or time permits:

  • How quickly can you go without breaching the HR target?
  • How comfortable does it feel to take the maximum amount of time you can whilst still leaving your target support stop time?
  • How does your pacing vary over the course of the loop? Is there a natural rhythm between walking the hills and jogging the rest?
  • Are you able to run slowly with good running form?
  • Are you able to walk fast or do you naturally find yourself slowing down to a stroll?
  • How much of the loop can you walk and still get back on time? You will need this information later in the race as running becomes more difficult
  • Do a loop at the end of a long run – how is your pacing affected by fatigue?
  • Do a loop at night – does this affect your pace? This is particularly relevant for technical trails

These factors will go a long way to dictating your overall pacing strategy, particularly if you are a slower runner. By the time you’ve accounted for walking the hills and keeping things steady at other times, you may find that you are naturally taking 53/54 minutes to get round the loop, in which case you may well opt to simply stick here, knowing that later in the race you may need longer to get round and you will need to be very organised to manage on shorter turn-around times.

Heading 5: Fine-Tune Your Strategy

Armed with all this information, decide on how you are going to pace yourself. If you have the luxury of being able to comfortably complete the loop well within the time limit then consider how much time you want to spend at camp. Key points are:

  • Consider having a fast loop and slow loop time, which allows you to ear-mark certain loops to run faster to give yourself more admin/ rest time at the end of the loop. You might choose these to coincide with meal times, likely toilet breaks, or crossovers from day to night loops
  • Balance the potential for more rest between loops with the additional exertion that this will require, and how this may impact you as the race progresses
  • Consider how your body will respond to longer periods where you are sitting down and cooling down
  • Consider adjusting your strategy for different stages of the race. For instance taking things very slowly for the first few hours so it almost feels like the race hasn’t started, and then picking things up during the night to try to give yourself the chance for a bit of rest
  • Remember that as you get deeper into the race, you are likely to have more problems to deal with between loops, with less time to do so as your pace slows. Plan to have an emergency bag to take once you’re struggling to get back in time for the next loop – include the essentials for a couple of loops

Step 6: Practice, Practice, Practice

Once you’ve got the theory nailed, it’s time to practice to get your body and mind used to what will be expected from them. Here’s some ideas for how to get the most from these sessions:

  • Practice speed walking – walking fast and efficiently is a skill which is developed just like running
  • Practice nutrition timing and nutrition on the move
  • Practice multiple loops to see how pacing changes over time – and to build up mental endurance for doing the same thing over and over again. Make sure you stop between each loop and wait for the next hour as you would on the race and try to do support point admin/ fuelling as you would on race day
  • Do a loop at the end of a long run an interval session when you are already fatigued
  • Do some night loops
  • Learn how to run your own race. Practice running with others without getting pulled along by them or allowing you to knock you from your planned strategy. This is really important on a BYU which is by its nature a very sociable event. A common woe after the event is that runners ran the first few loops too hard because they were enjoying the company and ended up at someone else’s pace
  • If you’re able to use the race route then start to learn a few waypoints on the route. what distance are they and when do you reach them? Or where would you expect to be after 30 mins?

Hope that helps – enjoy the prep and get in touch if you want to know more. Finally, you’ll learn lots from each race you do, giving you additional strategies to take into your next race. So don’t worry if you feel under prepared going into the race, just try to be organised and focus on enjoying the experience and seeing how far your legs will take you – you may well surprise yourself.

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