Is negative splitting an ultra possible? From the articles I have seen, the hundreds of racing splits I have looked over from various races, and what people have posted all over the internet…..nope. No one who is really trying in an ultra from the beginning is going to negative split an ultra in the later miles. I ask this question because I am the type who like to run the last miles of my race faster than I did the first segments of the race. In fact, in my most recent marathon, I was able to run my last 13.1 miles a couple of minutes faster than my first 13.1 miles. It was great to run strong for the back half of my race, feel like I gave a great overall effort, and finish fast.
In all honestly, negative splitting is hard. In ultra’s they say it is good enough to minimize the amount you slow down as the day progresses. A 10 to 15 percent loss in time per mile is really good. Most people find it too easy to start fast because the adrenaline is pumping, our legs are fresh, and everyone at the start is going fast so it is easy to follow suit. A lot of starts to races are also flat to downhill in the first few miles which makes for a fast start as well. In ultra’s there are bathroom breaks, rest stops, fueling stops, and just over all fatigue from running all day to contend with by the time you get to the back half or third of your race. But my question still remains, can someone negative split the the back end of an ultra? I’m not talking about the last mile or half mile but at least the last 20 miles?
Well…I just did and I really can’t believe it. I ran faster in my last 21 miles of the race than I did in the first 21 miles of my race this past Saturday in an FKT attempt. I did get the FKT but I also got a negative split by over 22 minutes in my last 21 miles than in my first 21. In my first 21 miles I had “zero” stops and my legs were at their freshest all day. In my last 21 miles I somehow also had “zero” stops and my legs felt amazing for having already ran over 70 miles on them! How was this possible? Well, I offer a few possible insights.
First of all, my training leading up to this race and FKT attempt was insane! I ran some very high mileage weeks that were in the 130’s, 140’s, 150’s, and even as high as 160 miles. I ran many 50K plus type of long runs, some multiple run days, and I had a great mix of interval training, tempo runs, and strength training to round out my days. I had put in the work to run a good time and my body was really ready to take on a very demanding day. Yet, my mind wasn’t where my body was. I lacked confidence because an injury had halted my training for a month and I was convinced I had lost a lot of progress. Our minds can sometimes be the biggest culprit to our successes.
When I wasn’t running, I was still spending as much “time on my feet” as possible. I knew this was important because the ultra’s I run are all day affairs. When you run 100 milers or nearly 100 mile events you better be ready to take on a very long day. The average person will be out there over 24 hours on a 100 mile race. I was hoping to be done around 15 to 16 hours. The trail race I was attempting was 94.18 miles and I did it in 14:59:18. Yes, I snuck it under 15 hours and my pace was 9:33 a mile for the day which also included all of my stops and walking. So, if you really consider how fast I was running it was well under that pace.
My day began around 9:00 mile pace for the first 21 miles but my last 21 miles was about whole minute faster! My last two miles were well under 7 minute miles. In fact, I had more in the tank than I realized at the end. Again, my training is the main thing that had me set up for this great run and a negative split attempt.
The second thing that really helped me negative split was the race strategy. While I did start steady I didn’t go too fast. I purposely chose not to run too many miles in the 8:00 mile range and zero miles in the sub 8:00 mile range. The previous two record holders did have a lot of 8:00 miles and sub 8:00 miles. I wanted to stay steady for the first 60 miles knowing that I had plenty of time to speed things up in the back third of the race. Ultra racing is also about self-control and patience. The potential for your best race isn’t won in the first few hours. You don’t need to go out fast and try to “bank” as much time as possible to account for all those slow miles at the end.
Another part of my success for the day was to not sit down and stop to rest. I kept moving for the most part. I even walked and ate my lunch. The only times I literally stopped was bathroom breaks, clothing changes, stretching out, taking some pictures, and helping out my son who fell off his scooter at one point. The hardest part of my day was probably somewhere between miles 60 and 70. On the other hand, I credit my negative splitting to one particular strategy I did at around mile 70. I decided to walk 2 miles with a friend. That two mile walk energized me! It was all I needed to bring it home steady and fast the last 21 miles. It was enough time for my legs to recover a lot my energy to return, body rehydrate, and mind refocus for the final stage.
Lastly, the last parts of my day was spent on flat to gradually downhill portions of the course. I didn’t have to content with any major hills that could have zapped my strength and prevented me from negative splitting. Therefore, the course was set up just as long as my body and mind was willing. Even the weather cooperated and cooled down by becoming overcast, a little breezy, and some light rain came in for a few miles.
In the right conditions and with the right training and race strategy, a negative split in a really long ultra race is possible! I proved it by doing it and doing it changes everything for me mentally. I believe I can run many races from here on forward with a lot more confidence in myself. I’m not saying they will all result in negative splits but I know that anything is possible even in races where you think you don’t have much left in the tank. Our bodies might recover and rebound very well if we do the right things. This is why it is sometimes important to not always believe everything you hear or read. Trust your training and believe in your abilities! Can you negative your next long ultra event? Yes, I do think it is possible. Why not!