Couch to 40 Miles: My one-month 40 miler training plan

When it comes to running, I've done some dumb stuff.  To paint a clear picture of exactly how dumb let's look at some of the questionable running choices I've made in the last few years (in no particular order):

1)  25 mile run in Red River Gorge with no build up

2015.  From June through August I had not run very much at all.  This was the time when Brandy and I were just getting Next Opportunity off the ground.  We had launched the company and were getting ready for our inaugural event:  the Hot Hot Hundred in late August.  The event came and went with me having very little time to even sleep let alone run.  So when my new buddies Will and Jesse came to me in September of 2015 to ask if I wanted to join them on a 25 mile run in Red River Gorge, obviously I said no.  Right?  Nope!  Regardless of the fact that I had averaged maybe 3 miles per week for the past three months, I joined in.  I ran 25 miles.  Then I was sore for the next 4 weeks!

2)  Choosing the Georgia Death Race as my second ultra race ever

I ran my first trail race in September of 2014.  It was a half marathon that I did reasonably well in.  I then stepped things up in November of that year at a tough 50K in Georgia that I suffered through but finished.  Despite that dismal ultra introduction, I thought it perfectly reasonable to select the gruesome 70-mile Georgia Death Race as my next race.  Sure, why not?  I've only done 30 miles ONCE and it was a suffer fest.  So, of course, it's a brilliant idea to take on one of the toughest races in the East as my second ultra ever.  Right?  Nope!  Let's just say I "opted out" of finishing the race after 40 miles.

3)  Trying some unknown Avocado Soup in the middle of a 70-mile ultra

I gave the Georgia Death Race another shot in 2016 and finished in 17 hours (ish).  Sounds like a great comeback story.  Right?  Nope!  All was fine until I got an aid station at about mile 45 and the lovely woman at the aid station offered me some Avocado Soup.  Had such a thing been offered to me in any other life setting where my brain was functioning on a higher level, I would have asked the same thing you just asked yourself:  "What in the hell is Avocado Soup?!?!?!?"  I'm not sure I found out the answer except to say that it was some kind of green mixture that turned my stomach inside out for the next 6 hours!  Lesson:  NEVER eat something new during an ultra.  Just don't

4)  Taking 3 months completely off from running then trying to train for a 40 miler in under a month

That's right!  This is what I am doing right now, so let me give you a little background.  In late February we hosted a training run along the Sheltowee Trace for the Big Turtle 50 Miler.  I put in 20 (ish) miles that day.  It was an amazing training run with some amazing people.  The next day I headed down to Natural Bridge State Park in Slade, KY for a solo 13 (ish) mile run to clear my mind after a stressful week of work and prepping for the training run.  The next day I could hardly walk.  I'm still not sure if it was some form of tendonitis, a stress fracture, or just a 34-year-old ankle tell me to go screw myself; but however you slice it my right lower leg HURT.  I rested it, tried to run, rested more, tried to run less, rested more, and eventually just decided not to run at all until the pain was gone.  Good choice, right?  RIGHT!

Except...

I got an email one day in mid-May, after practically not running at for two and a half months, that I had been pulled off the waiting list for the Highlands Sky 40 Mile Race.  I had totally forgotten that I had even added myself to the waiting list!  Highlands Sky is a 40-mile trail race that goes through the some of the most beautiful and rugged areas of West Virginia.  Being born and raised in the Mountain State I have wanted to run Highlands Sky for several years.  Unfortunately, I never got it.  The race is not only very competitive but it also fills up quickly.  I got the email on May 15 that I had been pulled from the waiting list.  I had 24 hours to respond and pay the fee.  The race was on June 17.  So I slept on it, and on the morning of May 16 I registered for the 2017 Highlands Sky 40 Miler.  Now....to train

Couch to 40 Miler

Most Couch to 5K programs are 6 to 8 weeks long.  That's 2 months to get prepared to run 3 miles, and the success of those programs is the slow, gradual progression.  It's all about patience and training smart.  I had 4 weeks to go from nothing to 40 miles, and I didn't have time for gradual.  I didn't have time for patience.  So how do I go about this?

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way:  Yes, I know and acknowledge that I already had a huge base to build from after running ultramarathons for a couple of years.  So it's not like I was totally starting from square one.  Nonetheless, how does one go from two and a half (almost three) months of no running to getting ready for a 40-mile race in one month?  So I took an inventory of my skills, my assets, my weaknesses, and what I needed to work on.  Highlands Sky is not a ball buster of a race, but it is no joke.  No ultra is easy, but this one would be a brutal challenge for the best of runners.  So, what should I do in the 4 months leading up to the race?  I began by laying out some basic facts:

  1. I didn't have time for any long runs.  I have a full-time job and two part-time jobs.  I also have a wife who has a full-time job.  I also have three kids who all have their own things to do that require my time.  In four weeks there would just not be time for any 20+ mile training runs at trails that were an hour or more from home.
  2. I am stubborn enough to suffer through anything.  See "Dumb Decisions" above!  I'm not the fastest runner.  Nor am I the strongest or the one with the best endurance, but over the years I've learned that humans can make the body do amazing things.  I might feel terrible for weeks and weeks afterward, but I can push myself through just about anything that isn't absolutely debilitating.
  3. I have run enough ultra trail races to have my gear and nutrition dialed in.  So I don't need to waste time worrying about making those decisions.  I've never been a gearhead like many ultra runners.  When it comes to choosing a "kit", I have one pair of shorts that I wear in races.  One.  They are amazing shorts that I've been wearing for years, and I can't imagine wearing any other pair.  So that's a decision I don't need to make.  In terms of shirts, my biggest decision is, "Is it going to be cool enough to require me to wear a shirt?"  If so, then I again have ONE shirt that I race in.  I found one that works and don't need anything else.  I know what I need to eat, when to eat, how much to drink, and what to drink.  I don't have a problem in those areas, so I won't waste valuable time worrying about it.
  4. I knew I hadn't lost my "base."  Sure I couldn't go as FAR as I used to or as FAST, but the basics don't just disappear after a couple months when you've spent years solidifying that foundation.  

Given those facts, I could then begin to structure my training plan for getting to the start line of a 40-mile trail race in one month.  Luckily, the email from the Highlands Sky just happened to coincide with a change in my diet that miraculously (or maybe not) made my leg pain go away completely.  We can get into that in a later post.  So now that my leg/ankle pain was gone, where to begin?  If I can sum up my training approach for this race it would be this:  Train hard.  Rest Hard.  And that came down to <99> basic tenets.

  1. No junk miles.  Since my base of fitness was still there I would not allow myself to log junk miles.  There simply isn't any time nor any reason to log miles just for the sake of logging miles.  I think this is true for any training plan regardless of the athlete, time frame, or race.  Junk miles are....junk.  Don't do it.  I decided that every single activity needed a purpose.  If I was going to go out for 10 miles there needed to be a reason.  Maybe it was to work on my stride, my turnover, climbing, working on technical terrain, working on downhill, adjusting to the heat, testing out water bottles to carry versus wearing a hydration pack.  There had to be a purpose!
  2. Focus on climbing.  I live in Lexington, Kentucky which is flat as a pancake.  This race is in a place called the Mountain State.  So obviously I needed to get creative with how I trained for the climbs I would face during the race.  Enter parking garages.  I don’t know how many miles I’ve since logged in garages around Lexington, but those brutally boring workouts have really jumpstarted my climbing legs.
  3. Train hard.  This goes along with #1 in that every run must be focused on quality over quantity.  If I only get in 7 miles they need to be good miles.  They need to count.  I’d rather do that than 20 miles that have questionable benefit.
  4. Rest hard.  Since I knew that for an entire month every run would be a top effort I had to find a way to avoid getting injured again.  I decided that I would avoid back-to-back running days as much as possible.  I needed to be able to go full force and come back later to do it again.  The only way to do that at my age is to ensure there is adequate rest.

And there you have it:  the basics of my 4 week Couch to 40 Mile program.  Will I trademark this and sell it as the next breakthrough in endurance training methodology?  Probably not.  Will I encourage my friends and family to take this approach?  Hell no.  This is very much a one-off training plan if you can even call it a plan.  I had a unique opportunity to run a race that I’ve been wanting to run for years, and this is the best way I could think of to make it happen.  It may prove wildly successful, or it may leave me collapsed on the side of the trail at mile 16.  We’ll know on Saturday.

As I write this it is Monday, June 12; and the race is 5 days away.  I am in “the hay is the barn” territory, so this week is just about resting and staying loose.  In next week’s post, I will let you know the good, the bad, and the brutal.

Mike