Can Running Ultra Trails Improve Your Marathon Times?
Gene Dykes, the world’s fastest 71-year-old marathoner (2:54!) says yes, and tells how he combines frequent ultras and fast marathons.
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For most of my adult life, I jogged just for the fun of it. But after I fell in with a bad crowd at age 56, I started training and racing (thanks, guys!). Today, at age 71, I run track, cross country, roads and trails—at distances from 5K to 240 miles and everything in between. I’m enjoying it all!
My first race, a 7 mile trail run, was a complete revelation! I had a blast and followed that up with two more trail races that year. My next race was a road half marathon at which I surprised myself by running a time that allowed me to bypass the New York City Marathon lottery.
At that point, my friends convinced me that I had to run NYC as my first marathon with them. There I qualified for the Boston Marathon, so of course I had to do that, too. Thus began my dual career of competitive road racing and trail running for fun and competition. Every year after that, I have tried to run longer on trails and faster on roads.
Farther and Faster
Since then, I’ve made a habit of pushing it a bit further each year. I’ve been amazed at how what seemed impossible became possible, and the possible has now become routine. When I reached age 69, in 2017, I found it necessary—to outdo my previous year’s stretch goals—to run the Triple Crown of 200’s (Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200, Moab 240). Last year, at age 70, I ran two 50’s, a 100, and a 200 in the span of seven weeks, seeking to outdo last year’s Triple Crown. I have no idea how I’m going to surpass this next year.
Meanwhile, I steadily improved my times on the road for eight years, lowering my marathon PR to 3:16 from 3:43 in my first marathon. Then, at the 2013 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, I was hoping for a new PR and instead ran 3:29. This disappointment turned out to be the turning point of my running career, since I then determined to hire a coach. That was a life changing decision: in just five months, my coach, John Goldthorp enabled me to run a new PR of 3:09, good enough for a third place finish in my age group at the 2014 Boston Marathon. I’ve improved every year since (many thanks for your guidance and inspiration, coach).
While I wasn’t sure exactly what my coach would think of my dual running career in the beginning, I’m pretty sure he banged his head against the wall every time I signed up for an ultra trail event. Nevertheless, he always was willing to tailor my marathon training to fit between those races. I’ll bet we both thought that running all those ultras was probably going to limit my success in marathons.
Nevertheless, I kept running more and longer ultras and my marathon times kept dropping: 3:07 at 2015 London, and 3:04 at 2015 Twin Cities. I didn’t attempt to improve on my marathon PR in 2016 and 2017, but I did step up my ultra game. I ran my longest stage race to that point, 240 miles at Cape Wrath, after which I did three trail races of 100+ miles, as well as numerous 50K and 50-milers. At A Race for the Ages in 2016, I finished first overall with 205 miles on a one-mile loop in 68 hours. And the following year I ran that Triple Crown of 200’s along with a host of other ultras. My wife could hardly keep track of where I was, even with a satellite tag!
During those two years my road PR’s continued to drop, so my coach and I both came around to the idea that ultra running was a positive, not a negative, for my road racing. Here’s what my coach says about my ultra habit:
Seeing Gene progress over the years, it’s become clear to me that his marathon success is due in large part to the value he’s derived from running ultra marathons.
Conventional thought process reasons that running long and slow will make someone slow, but we have not found that to be the case. Why? We never delete speed training from the training plan. Whether it’s tempo runs, fartlek sessions, hill reps, or simply 30-second surges, we make sure some type of speed training is always present. It’s use it or lose it!
Additionally, I believe a large part of why running ultras helps Gene is that his perception of “what is long” is totally different than the person who maxes out at 20 or 22 miles in their marathon preparation. Sure, he’s getting an incredible physical endurance stimulus by finishing an ultra, but I believe he benefits tremendously mentally, as well.
When you’ve run 50, 100, 200 miles at a stretch, and you stand on the starting line of a 26.2 mile race, it just doesn’t seem that long. His ability to focus, stay calm, maintain an even keel, and work through mid-race challenges is incredible. These are skills that one develops through ultra running.
We’ve found that after he does a block of ultra racing (which is essentially a somewhat extreme form of base training—and something he thoroughly enjoys), he shows up to the 6–10 week marathon-specific phase ready to roll. He’s ready for a new stimulus and excited to change focus. We haven’t deleted speed and he sure has plenty of endurance, so now we simply have to get used to running fast for a mere few hours!
As I improved, in the back of my mind, a thought keeping me inspired was the potential that I could beat the world single age 70 record set by Ed Whitlock with a 3:00:23. Like everybody else, I considered Ed’s age group world record of 2:54:48 that he ran at age 73 to be unbeatable—a record for the ages.
Even when I had that age-70 world record as my goal at the 2018 Rotterdam Marathon in April, did I exclude running ultras during marathon training? Of course not! I ran a 50-miler in January 2018 followed by a 100-miler in February to kick off the marathon-training season. At Rotterdam, in April of 2018, I ran a new PR of 2:57:43 for the single age record, beating Whitlock’s time by over two minutes.
All of a sudden, the age group record was in sight. I decided to make that record attempt in October at the 2018 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Summer training included a 50-miler and a couple of 100K races. Though I ran a new PR of 2:55:18 at Toronto, it was just shy of the world record.
To have another go at it, I scheduled the December 2018 Jacksonville Marathon. Throwing conventional wisdom out the window, I ran a 50K trail race and a marathon on back-to-back days two weekends beforehand. I ran a new PR of 2:54:23 at Jacksonville to beat the M70–74 age group marathon record. (Alas, although the course was “certified” and “record eligible,” the race was not “sanctioned,” so it won’t be ratified as an official world record.)
Now I’m going to try for the 70-74 age group world record again at the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Will I run a bunch of ultras to prepare for it? You bet I will!
Long May You Run
So does ultra running limit my performance at distances shorter than marathons? Apparently not. Last year, I set national age group records at half marathon, 15K, and 10K distances. In my only foray into the 1500 meter run, without any specific training for it whatsoever, I beat the world record holder of the indoor mile for a national championship in an exciting finish. Apparently, ultra running can be useful, no matter what distance you’re interested in.
I must admit, even if ultra trail running were detrimental to my road and track racing, I would still do it. It’s so exhilarating to run in the wilderness, seeing incredible scenery, watching the sun set and rise again, and sharing the experience with the fabulous set of runners in the ultra community. I’m firmly convinced that everyone should do it!
Gene Dykes, #UltraGeezer, can be followed on Facebook, Strava, and, occasionally, on Instagram and Twitter.