Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I’ve always thought that going in with low expectations was the way to go. Usually when a movie or book has been built up by word of mouth or professional reviews, I go in expecting to be wowed, and am often at least slightly disappointed. However, if I go into a movie expecting it to be bad, I am inevitably at least slightly entertained. (I have tried to convince my wife to have lower expectations of me, but even with these lower expectations, I still manage to disappoint her.) I think that one’s expectations also in many ways determine the way in which one perceives one’s performance in an athletic competition.
Looking back on my high school and college running career, I realize now that as my expectations got higher and higher, my enjoyment lessened. My best race was the 800 meters, and I achieved my personal best of 1:52.23 in my junior year of high school. Before that race, my personal best was 1:55.08 (give or take a few hundredths), so I PRed by almost three full seconds. This race was a breakthrough performance, but sadly, it was also the apex of my running career (and I didn’t even win the race). Up until that point, I had been winning (or nearly winning) races and showing steady, gradual (and at times dramatic) improvement. I never thought that that improvement would cease so suddenly and dramatically. From that point on, unless I won a race, it was a disappointment because I ran slower than I knew I was capable of running. 1:52.23 became the measuring stick for success. My senior year in high school I managed to run 1:53.65 in the insanely competitive California High School meet to nab a spot on the podium in 6th place. Having overcome some injuries, I was satisfied with this result. Other than my 1:52.23, this was the only time I ran under 1:54. In college, I was not the most motivated athlete, and I regret not having been more committed. I thought at the time that I was lazy or scared of the pain involved, and although those things may both have been true, I think I also had such high expectations of myself based upon past performances that I got little to no enjoyment out it. A vicious cycle was formed—disappointing performance leads to lack of motivation leads to lack of work ethic leads to disappointing performance….
I realize now that I could be entering a similar phase in my post-retirement running career. I began running again with the goal of running a marathon and qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I was extremely disciplined and motivated in the training leading up to my first marathons, and I achieved my goal with relative ease. While embarking on this training, I discovered ultrarunning. I had always been vaguely aware of it, but through the magic of the internet I discovered GUTS, ran the Fat Ass 50K- and from there I was hooked. I had always preferred running on grass, dirt, and trails, so it was a natural progression. In my first ultras, I just had to finish to meet expectations. Sure, I had time goals, but short of not finishing, I was going to be happy. I guess I would call this the honeymoon phase.
The one and only 100 miler I did came about almost by accident. I was one of the last people to make it off the waiting list and onto the start list of the Umstead 100. This happened only 2 months before the race, so it wasn’t as if I had plenty of time to train. As it was, I was injured, nursing an inflamed IT-band, so I wasn’t training much at the time to begin with. I showed up at the starting line vastly undertrained, still injured, and virtually no expectations. I hoped to make it to 50 miles, if I could finish the 100 that would be awesome, and if I could do it in under 24 hours, I would be ecstatic. 19:19:27 later, I was more than ecstatic, I was shocked. People always say that running 100 miles strips you down to the core, and I assume that this happens due to the prolonged suffering and exhaustion that takes place. I wouldn’t know, because I never really suffered. I never had a bad patch in the race and felt that I could have kept going for another 25 miles if necessary.
That being said, what should my expectations be for this weekend’s Vermont 100? To finish is not enough, I’ve already done that. I’ve also already run under 24 hours. Should I be disappointed if I run slower than 19:19:27? I know in my head that Umstead had only 8,000 feet of climb and drop, whereas Vermont has 14-15,000, so it is an empirically more difficult course. I also know that Vermont is more technical, with stretches of trail, whereas Umstead was all dirt road. Umstead was also an 8 loop course, so I knew exactly what was in front of me, but every step of Vermont will be an unknown. Although I posted my goals in a previous post, here they are again. My dream race at Vermont would be to break 18 hours. I will be ecstatic if I break 20 hours (more ecstatic if under 19:19:27). I will be happy if under 22, pleased if under 24, and content with finishing.
I have analyzed the splits of the finishers the last few years, so I have a good idea of where I want to be. The main thing I need to do early is NOT RACE. I need to pay attention to my effort level and keep it slow and steady. I have decided to employ the Galloway run-walk method with a 4:25 run and 0:35 walk break. I will try to run keep this relatively consistent regardless of terrain, meaning I will be running some uphills and walking some downhills early. I hope to hit mile 21.1 at 3:30-3:40, which is right around 10-minute miles. I hope to reach mile 30.1 in 90 minutes, continuing with the 10-minute miles. I would love to see my parents (my crew) at 47.2 miles a mere three hours later, which would slow my pace to around 10:30 per mile. I will spend a few minutes at this aid station changing shoes, shirt, swapping my hydration vest for a waist pack. The next aid station is at mile 51, which is roughly half-way through the race. I hope to make it here in just under 9 hours. If so, I hope to make it to mile 70.1 in 12 to 12.5 hours. If I am still running strong, it will have taken me right around 4 hours to get from 47.2 to 70.1. I pick up my pacer at 70.1, and if I still have anything left, I will make it to the finish in under 6 hours. Here is a list of my ideal splits at key aid stations based upon previous finishers (the times in parentheses are Daniel Larson’s 2007 splits):
21.1: 3:35 (3:34)
30: 5:05 (5:05)
47.2: 8:05 (8:05)
51: 8:50 (8:52)
70.1: 12:05 (12:01)
88.6: 15:45 (15:38)
100: 17:59 (17:49)
Daniel Larson will be running Vermont for the third time this year. If I am smart, I will find him before the race and run with him but NOT RACE him early. Hopefully he will go out at a similar pace to 2007.
Getting back to expectations, I need to focus on monitoring my effort and holding back for the first 30 miles. I need to remember forcing myself to walk and go slowly on the second and third laps at Umstead and getting passed by people that I ended up being hours ahead of at the finish. Ultimately I need to remember to enjoy myself, thank all the volunteers, and never to give up.


  1. While I would never pretend to have any comprehension of ultra running, I do know you and this post is so impressive. I see it as a new perspective on life in general, not just running. You will be in our thoughts and prayers as you NEVER give up. Big hugs ;))

  2. Best of luck to you Matt. I know you can do it. You have always been one of the strongest mental ahtletes I've known.

    Take care of yourself, and go get 'em!

  3. Lots of wisdom there. Impressive analysis of your running career. Have a great run at Vermont! I look forward to a good report.