James Kuegler and Tom Igusa discuss how a creative and flexible approach to training can ultimately lead to success.
Tom Igusa learnt the hard way that even the best prepared athletes can have unforeseen obstacles or challenges pop up in training that threaten to derail a race. Having an alternative strategy is an important way to move through adversity. Is it possible to train to complete a trail race with minimal or no running?
Age: 40. Lives: Auckland.
2014 Great Kauri Run 72k
2015 Tarawera 100k, Shinetsu Five Mountains Trail Run 110k
2016 Tarawera 100k, Ultra Trail Mount Fuji 100mi (shortened to 45k)
2017 Ultra Trail Australia
2018 Tarawera 100 Mile Endurance Run
I had been working with Tom to prepare him for the 2016 Ultra Trail Mount Fuji in Japan. Tom had trained in a disciplined manner between May and September so was the fittest that he had ever been. Tom travelled to Japan with every intent of ably completing his first 100 mile distance race. He was disappointed to discover that hours before the race was to start that due to a monsoon and acute safety concerns that the race had been shortened from 100 miles to 45km. Tom completed the race in the dark and very inclement conditions however understandably was disappointed with the outcome and as he was essentially as fit leaving Japan as when he arrived, Tom set his sights on the 2017 Tarawera 102 km ultramarathon.
Completing an iconic race such as UTMF was a big draw for me, especially as it is on home soil. I remember being very fit going into the race and very excited to complete my first 100 mile race. I was waiting with my friend, Gene, at the start and Mr Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, the Race Director, got up to speak. He was very distressed and informed us all that unfortunately, due to safety concerns throughout the course and the monsoon that had hit the countryside, the race committee would be shortening the race from 160 km to 47km. I was very disappointed as I had worked very hard to have gotten where I did, but I was in Japan, I could not just leave and go home, so to speak, so I thought that I would do my best with what I had. It took a bit of time to adjust to running at a faster pace as it was a shorter course, but I had fun and crossed the line in seven hours three minutes, which does not seem that fast for 45km but most of it was at night and in incredibly difficult conditions as we started at three pm.
When I got home to New Zealand I felt fit and eager to move onto the next challenge. I had about a month of easy running when I came back then it was into another strong block of training for Tarawera 102km in February. It may sound funny taking all these ultra marathons back to back but my long term running goal is the Western States Endurance Run in the USA. To get into the ballot the following year I had to complete a qualifying race. So Tarawera was on!
The Damage Done
Again, Tom trained the house down. If you give Tom a plan, he will stick to it. He was looking super fit going into Tarawera, at least as fit as he was coming into UTMF. I was very excited to see how he would go. We were all set for Tom to head into his ten days of tapering, Tom just had one two hour simulation run to do where he would run at the pace he would be doing race day, with the gear that he would be wearing and on terrain similar terrain to the race itself.
It was January 29 and it was meant to be the last long run before Tarawera. I went out to the Waitakere Ranges with Thomas Watson who is faster than me, though as I was so fit I was pretty happy to be able to keep up with him and I relaxed too early as we were coming to the end of Cutty Grass track onto a gravel road, by Anawhata. I stepped on a fist sized stone with my right foot and rolled it very hard. I knew something was very wrong. I was 21 minutes 47 seconds into the run. That’s when I stopped my watch. Right away I knew something had gone very wrong.
Lots of thoughts go through your mind when you hurt yourself close to an event. I think it is even worse if everything has been going so well. Part of me thought that I would be able to run, to strap my ankle and just push through everything. An X Ray and ultrasound confirmed for me what I already knew... I had really hurt myself. The damage was a grade II high ankle sprain on the Anterior Talofibular Ligament, which is almost a complete rupture. I also had a grade II on my Anterior Inferior Tibiofibular Ligament. At that point it became very easy; Tarawera was not going to happen no matter how much I wanted it. I was told it will take around 30 days for ligaments to heal and another 30 days to strengthen the damaged ligaments. I am very stubborn, and really wanted to get into the Western States Lottery, so I immediately made a plan.The earliest I could start training for anything was at end of March. I quickly did research for WSER qualifying race around May/June and found Ultra Trail Australia in the Blue Mountains. I knew about this race but I hadn’t been interested in it previously because of the famous steps.
Tom made a brave choice not to race Tarawera. It sounds like a simple decision, although I have been surprised at the amount of athletes who push through serious injury and ignore professional advice to focus on short term goals at the expense of long term health. I was not surprised in the least that Tom had a plan B, and I was again excited to work with him, but first things first, his ankle needed to heal. My advice was for him to go ahead with getting the UTA entry, and to do very little save to keep the ankle moving within the realms of comfort. I knew we had 13 weeks between Tom hurting himself and UTA, and with Tom’s conditioning and a creative approach to training I was confident Tom could achieve his goal of a Western States Qualifier.
The Waiting Place
In February I did very little apart from swimming and some cycling, which my ankle seemed to handle fine. I was doing some strengthening exercises from my physiotherapist, and that left me feeling sore, but I was very hopeful that I was healing well. When I met back up with James in early March I found that I had no running at all on my programme. There was a mix of swimming, walking and cycling, as well as things I did not even imagine would be on the training menu. For instance, there was box jumping. I thought it will be too much stress on my ankle but it was a spot on activity and it helped the ankle gain strength and mobility. Also, it gave necessary strengthening exercise to other parts of my body. James had me skip as well, which was good for my ankle and overall fitness.
When we reconvened in March it was clear Tom was making steady progress in his recovery. He was sore from the strengthening exercises but that is to be expected. He was cycling and swimming without discomfort and was able to walk largely pain free. I constructed an 11 week plan based around a two to three week conservative build up. A six week building block which would slowly incorporate walking/running/walking however still focus heavily on swimming, cycling and hiking, in addition to strengthening exercises and specificity. In this case this means lots of climbing stairs.
I was worried as I had never run so little for such a big race but the programme had a perfect cycle of loading the ankle and body and letting them recover. James’ plan let me maintain the cardio fitness I build up for Tarawera and build up the strength to go up stairs as well as rehabilitating the injured ankle. When I started to test myself running, I could only go about 200 metres and that concerned me. However as the weeks progressed I gradually got stronger and by the last week of April I was moving comfortably.
Although I lost top speed of running, my hill climbing speed improved after the injury. This suggests James' programme focused on the specific requirements for UTA, that is, a strong core and the posterior chain that allowed me to climb all those stairs.
Throughout April Tom started to increase the amount of time that he was able to stand running on his ankle. Initially he was unable to run anything over 200m however with steady progress, heat and movement to manage discomfort (instead of ice) Tom was able to get three weeks of running approximately 50 km a week prior to the race start. We were both pleased with this.
Day of Days
Overall the training for UTA was very positive. Understandably it left me with anxiety from lack of running as I had only April to do shorter runs but it could not be helped due to the injury recovery stage. I trusted James, and his training left me fit for the race.
The actual race experience was well beyond my expectation. In the best case scenario, I expected to finish around 17 hours, but came home well under that. I expected my injured ankle to swell up by 40km and other parts of my lower leg to pack up by 60km and was ready to suffer for 40-60km of the 100km. I was so focused on the goal of the WSER qualifier I was not going to let anything stand in my way. Happily, the ankle held up pretty much for 100km and my body was tired but not much more than usual for those 100km.
I became very nervous about rolling the ankle again once it became totally dark, having had to run the last 10-15km of rocky trail in the dark. So I slowed down considerably at the last section but I do not think there was much anyone could to do to prepare me for that. If I could maintain the confidence level, I may have been able to finish it around 16 hrs mark. As it was, I finished in 16 hours 35 minutes and I’m very happy about that. I gained my Western States lottery qualifier, although I have to say, I’ve not yet been successful at getting an entry to Western States!
Although Tom was tired by the end of UTA, and he slowed to maintain the integrity of his ankle in the dark and rocks of the last section, I could not have been more pleased with his application of our race strategy, that is, to take it easy and move consistently. Tom’s decision to not race Tarawera, and his trust in the process of an alternative training program which incorporated specificity, gradual loading and whole body conditioning was key to his success in moving through his injury and achieving his goal on race day.