Pushing the Limits of Endurance – Conquering Fear and Ultramarathons with Donald Buraglio

by Jason Fitzgerald

Most runners get the itch to try a marathon at some point in their running careers. How many get the itch to run a 100 miler?

Enter Donald Buraglio, a physical therapist from Monterey County, CA who has competed in track, road, and trail races, marathons, ironman-distance triathlons and 100-mile ultramarathons.

Donald Buraglio is the author of Running and Rambling, one of the most popular running blogs on the Internet. He is the author of The Running Life, a collection of inspirational and instructional articles for runners of all abilities. Donald is also a minimalist shoe expert and barefoot running aficionado, and has served as a consultant for several minimalist and natural footwear companies.

Impressed yet? I thought so. Let’s get to the interview!

Ultramarathoner Donald Buraglio

Ultramarathoner Donald Buraglio of Running & Rambling

You have experience in so many types of races: track and short road races, Ironman Triathlons, and ultra marathons. Which event has brought you the most satisfaction and why?

Wow … that’s difficult to say because they’ve all been very rewarding for unique reasons.  I’m tempted to say the 100-milers, mainly because that’s what I’m most passionate about right now, but as far as what’s had the biggest influence on my life and athletic career, it’s probably the one you left off the list: the good old-fashioned marathon.

That event was the first one to truly captivate me, and it was also the one that I struggled with the most – in the form of repeated failed attempts – to reach my PR goals.  I spent at least 5 or 6 years of my life with a single-minded focus to break three hours in the marathon.  Time after time after time, I came up short, and I had to absolutely push myself harder in training than I ever thought possible before finally making it.   In most of those other races (1-mile, Ironman, ultras) I found success fairly early, but it was mainly because the lessons learned in marathon training enabled me to do so.  The marathon flung me off its back quite a few times before I finally tamed it – so I guess that makes it a bit more rewarding than the others.

Do you have an internal mantra during racing? If so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing) and how does it help you?

Not really during ultras – and on the contrary, I enjoy just letting my mind go to wherever it may roam during a long race or training day.  Sometimes during a shorter race I remind myself to run light and smooth (especially important if I’m in minimalist footwear), but there isn’t anything that I repeat over and over again.

More importantly, I practice a lot of positive self-affirmation during any event.  It’s easy to let negative thoughts creep into your brain during an all-day or all-night event, so I like remind myself of my ability to accomplish the task and the reward I earn in doing these sorts of things.  Stay focused on the positive, and you’ll begin to see a lot more of it.

Weather conditions obviously play a large role in ultra marathon and Ironman races. How do you adjust racing strategies for extreme weather?

I may not be the best person to answer this, since I’ve wilted in the heat at more than one ultra over the years.  As far as mental strategy goes, I think you have to resign yourself to the fact that it probably won’t be a PR day, and resolve to still do the best you can anyway.  The sooner you accept that fact, the better.  Besides, if you’re tough enough to drag yourself through several months of Ironman training, you’re clearly tough enough to do the race in the rain, right? For the hot events, it’s also helpful to think of weather as simply a part of the course – at Western States, 100-degree days are as predictable as the steep canyons – rather than wishing it away.

So what can you actually do about it?  In cold weather, have the right gear to keep you as comfortable as possible.  In hot weather, be extra diligent with fluid and electrolyte intake, and the balance between them (i.e., not too much or too little sodium – both conditions can cause big trouble.).  This is tricky, because the ideal formula differs for everybody, so the only way to be confident is to get out there on a couple of blazing hot training days and do some experimentation.

What type of speed work (if any) do you run to prepare for an ultra marathon? Is it necessary if your goal pace is slower than your normal running pace?

The short answer is: no, you don’t have to, but it helps.  I’ve gone whole seasons without doing speed work and survived my ultras just fine.  However, I believe that speed work is an outstanding training tool to improve your baseline running speed, and for improved all-around leg strength, which definitely comes in handy during the final miles of an ultra.  Your fast-twitch fibers are along for the ride anyway; you may as well build them up a bit to get some use out of them.

Do you do anything in training to simulate what it will feel like in the later stages of an ultra marathon?

I’m a proponent of doing high-mileage training weeks, and scheduling your longest training days at the end of a weekly cycle where your legs are already pretty worn down.  That strategy is no different than what marathoners do, only the mileage numbers are different.  One good rule of thumb is that you should be able to train the same distance in a week as you’ll be racing – so when I’ve got a 100-miler on the calendar, I know I’ve got to build up to some 100-mile training weeks in the month before it – ideally with a 50M race at the end of a 50 or 60-mile training week.

Having said that, there’s almost NOTHING that can simulate the whole-body pain and fatigue you feel, or the mental anguish that can occur in the latter stages of an ultra.  The only way to get used to it is to keep walking through that fire in one race after another, until you start to figure out a way to battle the flames a little bit more effectively.  But nobody ever becomes completely fireproof – although for some of us, that’s actually part of the appeal of this sport.

What are the keys to successful training when you’re preparing for an Ironman or ultra marathon? How is it different than somebody training for a marathon or Olympic distance triathlon?

The key factor is to put in the time: you have to do those 1-hour swims, 100-mile bike rides, and multi-hour runs in order to succeed.  There’s no way to fake endurance fitness – either you’ve paid your dues or you haven’t.

For me, the main difference between ultra training and marathon or Olympic tri training is that I’m rarely concerned with my training pace anymore.  With marathon and triathlon training, countless workouts are built around marathon pace, 10K pace, tempo pace, etc.  For an ultra it’s more about time on your feet; just get in your 6 hours, whether it’s 33 miles or 18.  They both pay the same dividend on race day.

The other thing I’d say is paramount to successful training is to believe in yourself.  Plenty of people will tell you you’re crazy, or question why you feel the need to dedicate as much time and energy as an IM or ultra require.  You don’t have to convince your skeptics or answer to anyone but yourself.  Have faith in the training, visualize success every day, and enjoy the entire process.

As an ultra endurance athlete, is your diet different than a normal runner or triathlete? How do you stay hydrated and fueled during such lengthy competitions?

My eating habits have ALWAYS been my weakness – they’re simply terrible.  There’s really no way to sugar-coat it (good thing too – because if it were sugar-coated, I’d probably eat it).  So I’ll respectfully plead the Fifth on how my diet differs compared to normal athletes.

Donald Buraglio - Ultramarathon and Ironman Athlete

Donald Buraglio - Ultramarathon and Ironman Athlete

Nutrition during competition is an ongoing process for me. I started with gels and blocks when they first came along, but eventually moved towards eating “real” food (PB&J sandwiches, boiled potatoes, pretzels, CLIF bars, M&Ms – all of which are standard fare at ultra aid stations) up until this year.  Now I’m back to gels, and this season I’ve done 50M and 100K races on basically nothing but gels and sports drink.  For fluid intake, you just have to be a little bit OCD and train yourself to drink on a regular basis whether you’re thirsty or not.  And if it’s hot (see answer above), drink a lot more than usual.

How do you respond to those that claim that ultra marathons are only for those who lack the speed or talent for standard marathons?

That seems ignorant and overly simplistic to me – as well as little bit humorous, because about 10 years ago hardcore runners were similarly dismissive of triathletes.  There may be some truth to the statement if you’re strictly considering speed, as many of the top ultrarunners who actually have marathon experience (many of them don’t) have PRs in the 2:30s, which is decent but not outstanding by elite marathon standards.

However, there’s so much more to “talent” than raw speed.  Those 2:20 marathoners would get their tails handed to them trying to climb out of a 3000’ canyon in 100 degree weather against any top-level ultrarunner, or hitting a 6-minute pace at mile 80 as the leaders at Western States did last year.  Labeling a top ultrarunner “just a slow marathoner” is like labeling an elite marathoner just a slow steeplechaser, or saying Lance Armstrong is only in cycling because he lacks the talent for triathlon.

These distinctions also strike me as rather pointless, because unless you’re doing these sports for the prize money (and news flash: unless you’re Lance Armstrong, there isn’t much to be had), it really doesn’t matter.  Ultrarunners are out there because we have a passion for it, not because we’re avoiding a low age-group finish at our local marathon.  The new crop of elite ultrarunners grew up in the sport and never bothered with trying to race on pavement.   Do what you love, and don’t worry about whether you have enough talent for it.

What’s your advice for a runner looking to break into the ultra-running scene? Any trade secrets you can share?

Don’t let fear paralyze you; ultramarathons aren’t as impossible as many people think. Our bodies are capable of so much more than most people realize; the trouble is that we dwell more on the reasons something can’t be done than the possibilities that it can.  As Henry Ford said, the man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right.  You don’t have to be a naturally gifted or – that word again – talented athlete to find rich rewards.  A healthy dose of determination and perseverance can carry you a lot further than you think.

However, there’s a lot to be said for building up to events gradually.  Get comfortable with marathons before you try a 50K, and get comfortable with 50M or 100K before you try a 100-miler.  I was a runner and triathlete for 15 years before I did my first Ironman or ultra, so each new challenge wasn’t too much more extreme than the one I had done previously.  You can’t rush the training without a high risk of injury or burnout, so it’s better to take your time and build to your large goals in smaller pieces (coincidentally, an excellent strategy for making it through 100-milers as well).  The races will still be there when you’re ready.

The last thing I’d say is that the ultrarunning community is probably the coolest, most welcoming group of people I’ve ever known in endurance sports.   It’s also been the most rewarding and enlightening activity I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate in, so I’d encourage anyone who is thinking about it to give it a try.

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Thanks for the amazing interview Donald! I never thought I would say this, but I think a few ultramarathons are in my future. For a healthy dose of inspiration, advice, and to learn about Donald’s new book The Running Life, check out Running and Rambling.

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