Umstead Trail Marathoners show that there’s more than one way to prepare for a 26.2-mile day

Runners Taking their Mark before the start of the 10th Annual Umstead Trail Marathon

About five miles into Saturday’s Umstead Trail Marathon three vanguard Baby Boomers were running in single file. “This will be more miles today than I’ve run all month,” the guy in the lead said. His colleagues grunted in agreement.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my own preparation for the race.

The author and marathon friends descending Corksrew Hill

During the running boom of the mid-1970s, you wouldn’t think of signing up for a marathon unless you’d been consistently logging a minimum of 45 miles a week. That, according to the website Training Science was considered the minimum mileage for not “hitting the wall” during a marathon’s final miles. That thinking demanded multiple “long” runs in a week, an approach that led to the notion of “junk miles,” or miles run simply for the sake of logging miles. In order to log the requisite miles, a marathoner typically had to follow a rigid schedule of daily workouts, which could take some of the joy out of running. As the three gentlemen on the Sycamore Trail illustrated, the thinking on marathon training has changed considerably since the days of Jim Fixx and Joan Benoit.

Ascending a single-track section of the Umstead Trail Marathon

One of the more popular marathon training approaches is the Hal Higdon method. Since Higdon introduced his graduated training approach in 1993, he estimates he’s helped more than a half million people prepare for half or full marathons.
David Mackie of Cary embraced Higdon’s novice approach, an 18-week program that calls for gradually building up to 40 miles a week, logging one training run of 20 miles, and running only four times a week.
“I did it for two or three months,” Mackie said at packet pickup the day before the race. “In the second month, I had one bad run” — the kind that makes one question the wisdom of running 26.2 miles in one sitting — “but that was it. I feel prepared.”
And apparently he was. This was Mackie’s first Umstead Trail Marathon and he estimated he would finish in about four and a half hours. “Probably somewhere between 4 and 4:30,” he offered.
The 42-year-old Cary resident finished in 4 hours, 28 minutes and 47 seconds.
Despite running no more than 40 miles in one week, Mackie did not hit the wall at mile 20, as was the general belief in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If his approach is anathema to traditional thinking, it’s hard to imagine what the waffle trainer crowd would make of the latest, even more minimalist approach to marathon training.

CrossFit Endurance was created by cyclist Doug Katona and Brian MacKenzie, a former power lifter turned endurance athlete. It aims to make up in intensity what it lacks in longevity. The longest run prescribed in its training program is 90 minutes; the weekly training regimen is peppered with uber-intense CrossFit workouts. Weight and interval training are stressed, and workouts typically last between 10 and 20 minutes. That’s an attractive alternative to someone interested in training for a marathon, but who doesn’t have unlimited hours to invest on the trail.
Of course, those hours on the trail are the allure for many trail runners.
At first, Mark Manz appears the antithesis of the dedicated marathoner.
“The less structure I follow, the better I do with things,” says the 27-year-old Cary resident.
But as he elaborates on his training approach, it’s apparent that structure doesn’t necessarily equate to commitment.
“I get done with work at 3 o’clock, so then I may run for an hour and a half or two hours,” says Manz, who won the 2012 Umstead Trail Marathon in a time of 3 hours, 36 seconds — a 6:54 per mile pace. “I do my long runs on the weekend.”
He averages 140 to 150 miles a week, and notes that “every time I try to do less but make my workouts more intense, I get injured.”

Of course, how you define marathon runner also enters into the equation. In 1980, 166,741 people participated in marathons worldwide, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. Last year, that number had swelled to more than 1.6 million. Similarly, the number of events during that time grew from 678 to 3,586.
At least part of that rise can be attributed to a psychological shift in how we approach 26.2 miles. In 1980, walking a portion of the race was considered a last resort, a concession to poor preparation. Today, it’s not unusual to see people walking from the start (although cutoffs in most races — it was 6 hours Saturday at Umstead — encourage at least fast walking). The topic of marathon walkers is hot fodder on online running forums. (Walking is also key to a training program pioneered by Jeff Galloway that gradually shifts participants from walkers to runners.)

Runners descend single-track section of Sycamore Trail

Umstead, however, is not a typical marathon course. It takes place entirely on natural surface trail, some of which is rocky, rooty singletrack, and whereas some marathons go out of their way to create a fast (flat) course to draw PR-minded runners, Umstead seems to go out of its way in the opposite direction. At Mile 22, a point where runners are typically begging for mercy, Umstead throws in an out-and-back that involves the hardest climb of the day. Advises the race Website: “This is a challenging race with many hills and some single-track sections consisting of narrow trails with rocks and roots… . Some people love this sort of thing, but it is not for everyone.” Thus, the race tends to attract fewer walkers — at least intentional ones.
Scott Salger may epitomize the typical Umstead marathoner. An avid member and organizer of the Triangle Trail Runners Meetup group, Salger ran his first marathon in 2010 and has a 3:23 PR. He started training for Umstead in November, averaged 30 to 40 miles a week, peaking in the 50 to 60 neighborhood. He had a couple training runs in the 22-24 range. His preparation, in the loose parlance of marathon training, was enough to enjoy the run, not simply survive it.
“I’m going out for fun,” he said before the race. “To finish.”

By Joe Miller. When not running, biking, camping, hiking, paddling Joe writes extensively about the active lifestyle at GetGoingNC.