You could also call this “Fat Guy looks for Silver Bullet.” I’ve got a database of every workout I’ve done all the way back to 1983. I climbed up to fifty thousand feet to take a look at the big reasons for a good year or a bad year. At the mediocre, MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra) level, that is.
I did my 12th Birkie this year and I’ve run 10 Grandma’s Marathons. My delicate self-esteem is tied to my performance in these annual events. I decided to see what factors lead to a good year for these events. This is essentially a pep talk for myself. Now, remember, these are the ramblings of a silverback who can’t even bust into the top of his age group. I’m not a statistician either. So, I’m sure some of you will be grinding your teeth because I can’t describe mathematical correlation. Tough.
I’ll give it to you up front so you can leave and click on something more interesting:
1) Get skinny.
2) Run/ski a lot.
3) Do long runs/skis.
4) Go fast (Race and do intervals)
5) Do strength and core training.
Wow. Profound. I bet you’re glad you’re reading this. Kind of like when Opus broke weight loss down to “Eat Less and Exercise” in the old Bloom County comic strip.
Let’s start with the biggest thing. Moving yourself across the ground is physics. Having less mass in your chassis will help your car go faster. In my case “Get Skinny” is better phrased as “At least get down to a BMI of Normal.” For me, that’s 174 pounds at 5’10” tall. My fastest Grandma’s happened when I weighed 171. That’s the lightest I’ve been for these 22 competitions. The heaviest I’ve been was 193. There’s a dramatic relationship between my weight and the quality of my semiannual races. It’s virtually linear with just a few exceptions. I’ll irritatingly refer to myself in the third person as Fat or Skinny Shmo. Skinny Shmo is 185 pounds or less. Fat Shmo is heavier than that. I was Fat Shmo eleven times. I was Skinny Shmo eleven times. Skinny Shmo ran the top six Grandma’s times. He also skied the four fastest Birkie’s. There you have it. Stop shoving food in your face, Shmo.
So let’s say you’re Skinny Shmo. What’s the next important thing? Let’s start with the marathon running. The second most important thing was to run a lot of miles in the six months prior to the race. My top three marathons had me logging around 500 miles beforehand. Everything else was four hundred miles or less. So, again: Duh.
Sticking with the running theme, what’s the next important thing? At Grandma’s Marathon, there’s a dramatic connection between the number of times I ran longer then 13 miles in training. Okay, long runs to prepare for a long race. Got it. So, for running marathons, the Podium of Preparation (I just made that up) includes Get Skinny, Run a Lot, and Do Long Runs.
Do those things help my Birkie? How about Ski a Lot? I thought sure that would be true. Not so much. My biggest ski years were numbers four through six. I even included roller skiing to see if it made it clearer. However, overall volume was consistent across my best Birkies in the 9 months prior to the race. So Ski a Lot isn’t necessarily true, but a lot of everything is still important. Actual on snow time is only a couple months.
What about long ski sessions? The days I skied over 15k were all over the map. Even when I included long roller ski sessions. So, skiing long doesn’t stand out. “Run a lot” and “Do long runs” stick out like dog balls for Grandma’s Marathon performance. I’m going to include them on the ski side. Too obvious not to for another aerobic sport.
Still, skiing is harder to predict than running. Snow conditions are more variable than pavement and one year isn’t easily comparable to the next. That’s why I measure ski races in Percent Back from the Leaders. Also, it’s like cycling. In running, you have to take very single step yourself. There’s no downhill where you can tuck and rest for a bit.
I kept poking around in my piles of data for what predicted success. The next dramatic number was how many times I raced. My fastest Birkie was on a year when I skied 12 races of any length. Fat Shmo at his maximum size even turned in his 5th fastest Birkie when he did 12 races that year. I looked at long races like 25k or longer, but they were across the board. Okay, so given a baseline of enough skiing and enough long ski sessions, the next biggest factor was ski racing at any distance.
Next, I looked at interval sessions. Again, my best running marathons were in years where I did the most interval days. So, I joyfully searched for interval sessions on skis. I was shocked to realize that I rarely (okay almost never) did intervals on skis. I felt like I had. Note to self: going fast in races was the only time that I made a point of going fast on skis during Birkie prep. I need to add intervals to my ski life. Stumbled on a major training gap there.
I have one more theory about skiing. It’s a whole body sport. Strength and power have more place in skiing than in running. So, in my final attempt to find something that clearly made a difference for ski marathons, I looked at how much weight training I did. I hate weight training. So, it sticks out in my training log when I do it. Lo and behold, the single year where I focused on rollerboard use, weight training, and circuit training was my fastest year. That was the first year I built that rollerboard and was all fired up to use it. Also, my four fastest Birkies were when I did at least 5000 sit-ups in the nine months prior. Hmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have given away my rollerboard this summer to a high school racer. So strength and core training seem to matter for skiing.
Interestingly, the more Skinny Shmo did weights the faster he did on the left of the chart. On the right of the chart, the same is true for Fat Shmo. The faster Fat Shmos did weights. But they’ll never catch Skinny Shmo. Even a Skinny Shmo that doesn’t lift.
When I look at preparation trends, there are some individual outliers that I can’t explain. On paper, my 2004 Birkie should’ve been one of my very best. It’s my fourth best. But we did just have our second kid just prior to that race. My 2003 Grandma’s should’ve been one of my best if you believe the prep numbers. It’s square in the middle. But I admit to myself in my notes that I got “greedy” and “screwed up the game plan.” I blew up big time by going out too fast. The Fattest Shmo skied a top five Birkie. But my skis were rockets that year. Absolute rockets. But even more likely is the fact that I raced the most I ever had that year.
Can I blame the weather, at least? Well, the top four Grandma’s I did were all cool (nice) enough to comment on, with tailwinds on most of them. But those races were easily the best I was prepared. So was it really the tailwind? And maybe the Birkies where it was super cold (below zero) hurt me. Well, one of my fastest was cold and one of my slowest was cold. Hard to blame Mother Nature’s snow conditions, or by extension, the ski wax.
Can we at least blame my increasing age? That’s kind of a cop out. I’ve never been in danger of overtraining. So, it’s hard to eliminate all of my laziness variables and determine when age is slowing me down. When I actually have several perfect training years in a row, I’ll send you a postcard that blames my age for slowing down. Don’t hold your breath. It’s actually encouraging to see that other factors than age seem to be the big drivers. It’s like Dick Cavett said, “I don’t feel like an old man. I feel like a young man that’s got something wrong with him.”
So, I’ve got two big lessons. First, there’s no way to fake your way through Grandma’s Marathon or the American Birkebeiner. You have to prepare. The second lesson is that the race day troubles you may have (weather, wax, tactics) will never be as big a factor as your preparation. Your awesome skis might take you up a grade level. But if your prep got you a C, then your skis will only improve you to a B on the test.
I was trying to determine my prescription for these two events, so here I go. For both races I’ll:
1) Get Skinny,
2) Run/ski a lot
3) Do long runs/skis.
4) Go fast (race and do intervals),
For the American Birkebeiner ski marathon, I’ll also do
5) Strength and Core Training.
It’s all quite simple.
Except for the fact that Sam and I just signed up to do the mountain bike race called the 39er at Lutsen in June. So, I won’t be running the marathon this year. Hopefully it won’t take me 22 editions of the 39er to learn how to improve.
Now, I have to finish this donut.