Ultra-Experienced: 5 Questions With Hal Koerner

Hal Koerner says many novice ultrarunners "cover the time and mileage necessary but lack the footwork skills dictated by the terrain." Photo: The North Face

The two-time Western States champion recently released his first book, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide To Ultrarunning. 

Hal Koerner knows a thing or two about running long distances. The 38-year-old North Face-sponsored athlete, who owns the specialty running store Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, Ore., is a two-time winner of the iconic Western States Endurance Run with over 100 ultramarathon finishes under his belt, including more than 90 appearances on the podium. He recently released his first book, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide To Ultrarunning (VeloPress, 2014), a 224-page how-to manual chock full of valuable information for newbie and veteran ultramarathoners alike.

Koerner is currently in Chamonix, France, where on Friday afternoon he will tackle the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 104-mile trail race around Mont Blanc that passes through France, Italy and Switzerland. We caught up with him earlier this week to pick his brain about ultramarathon training, nutrition and injury prevention.

1. What are some of the most common mistakes (training, racing, nutrition, or gear) that many new or aspiring ultramarathoners seem to make when moving past the marathon distance for the first time?

Thinking that the pace of an ultra will be relative to one’s marathon time. I think it gives a false sense of perspective and sets too fast a tone in the early going, which makes it hard to adjust expectations on race day once things get out of line. Many runners also fail to train for the course. They cover the time and mileage necessary but lack the footwork skills dictated by the terrain. The climbing and descending that is required is not easily replicated or done with sufficient repetition either for optimal success. Gear inefficiencies become glaring problems at the ultra distance. Many times we fail to use race-day gear in training and small annoyances like chafing and satellite fatigue become big setbacks. I think a big factor is knowing the course. Trail races and ultras aren’t ushered and marked like road races. Due diligence is required to make sure you are on the right path; if not, you can lose lots of motivation and momentum in the wild.

2. If you’re about to head out for a long training run of three or more hours on the trails, what are you carrying with you in terms of gear, nutrition, medical supplies, cell phone, identification, etc.?

All of it. I usually have my phone for safety, directional and entertainment needs. I will pack a few gels and a water bottle that I tuck in my shorts, maybe a salt tab if it is really hot. My buff (that I wear around my head ) acts as a nice compress if I ever get into trouble, such as an injury, or as a simple sun guard when it’s soaked with water. It doubles in the winter to shelter more exposed body parts as well.

3. Nutrition is a very individual thing for runners, but what are some of your top tips for fueling during long runs and ultra-distance races?

I can’t stress enough that whatever works for you, do it often and throughout. Too often we feel good at the beginning of a race or training run or don’t begin early enough when we are running strong and churning through energy stores, and then we shy away from food at the first sign of a sour stomach. That is the last thing you want to do. You can’t run when you aren’t fueling and hydrating. We know that during long training runs and ultra races your stomach will turn on you. One of the key differentiating factors between marathon and ultra efforts is nutrition and trying to feed and fuel on the run. We’ve encountered “the wall” in the marathon, but in an ultra you will have to experience that over and over and over again. Sometimes I go for a run after a full meal just to get used to feeling, allowing for extra time to work things out. Running with artificial aid stations, if you will, with a car as a staging area or to a convenience store or grocery is a great way to work in fueling on long runs too. You’ll be stopping for a moment so it’s nice to get into the routine of getting going again.

4. How should/does the training emphasis change when training for a shorter ultra marathon, say 50K, versus a 100K or 100-mile race (or longer)?

It’s no secret that you have to put in a lot more time and mileage. How you go about it is the difference-maker. It isn’t realistic to run 100K or 100 miles in training or even get close to that distance like you would for a 50K, but you can gradually increase your daily averages as well as long runs to help harden the mind and body for the extreme distance. There will be countless four and five hour-plus runs approaching a 100K or 100-miler whereas the 50K distance is a little more forgiving. You have to work on running at night and navigating a course when you are ultra-fatigued. Training on tired legs will become the norm and you’ll want to experience the highs and lows your body has to offer in order to better be prepared for such encounters on race day.

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5. Injuries—or at the very least annoying aches and pains—are oftentimes inevitable when moving up in distance. What are some of your top tips or strategies for staying healthy when training for longer races?

Aches are inevitable when mileage is increased. I try to tell people to watch out for sharp pains that stop you in your tracks. It’s best to walk those out and then resume running once the concern has been addressed therapeutically or via some medical counsel. I have always been a proponent of running on soft surfaces. I feel that it has been the cornerstone of my longevity and has helped me to ease back into training from injuries when I take the appropriate [amount of] time off. I would make sure you take the time to ice after the long outings. Avoid the urge to hop right into that hot shower, flooding the legs with blood and exacerbating micro-tears and inflammation. I like to end hard efforts next to Ashland Creek because dipping in the cold water helps refresh my mind as well and gets me ready for the rest of my day. I might look to running twice a day, splitting the daily mileage as you begin to delve deeper into your training. It may also prove worthwhile after longer efforts getting back to full strength.

RELATED ARTICLES:

— Rob Krar’s Ultimate Advice For Ultrarunners

— The Return of the King: Exclusive Interview With Hal Koerner

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