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The Making of a Western States 100 Top Ten Finish

by Dr. Stephen Suydam, Director of Research, Milestone Sports

Jackie Merritt’s seventh place finish (21:07:23) at the “Olympics” of ultra running was incredible. Not only was she a Western States rookie, she was the only east coast runner to break into the coveted Top 10, male or female!

Jackie (4th from right) takes her well-earned place on Western State’s 2017 Top Ten award stage. Photo: iRunFar.com

 

Jackie’s Western States data story: When Pod training pays off.

For the first 60 miles, she contended with harsh snow fields and deep mud in the high country, followed by radiating heat and steep climbs in and out of the canyons.  Then, at the mile 55 aid station (Michigan Bluff), Jackie told her husband Jeff, “I will be ready to run after Forest Hill!” She knew the snow, mud and canyons would be behind her and the course would become more runnable.

As promised, she ran her heart out from mile 60 to 100.2, steadily moving up through the field, from 16th  to 7th place. In fact, she clocked the fastest time of the entire women’s field from Forest Hill (mile 62) to the River (mile 78)!

Jackie moving fast through Forest Hill aid station (mile 62). Photo: Nadia Guimont.

 

All this, in tougher-than-normal Western States conditions. It was a day when many top runners struggled and the overall drop out rate was an astounding 33%. There are many factors that go into any 100-mile race, but Jackie’s ability to excel on this day can be attributed in part to:

  • Tough training before the race – under the eye of Western States expert and coach, AJW.
  • Smart running early in the race – knowing when to throw away her pace card and run by feel.
  • Good running form late in the race – our favorite subject!

Of course, Jackie wore her trusty MilestonePod running tracker from start to finish, atop of her favorite Saucony Peregrine

Jackie’s shoes and Pod on the Auburn track, minutes after she finished.

 

What does her MilestonePod footpod data tell us during her stellar back 40?

First, Jackie’s pace data shows she took great advantage of the runnable parts of the course over the last 40 miles, such as “normal” up hills, down hills and flats. You can see in this pace vs. elevation chart:

Figure 1. Jackie’s Pace (top, miles 60-100) vs. race elevation (bottom). Note: fastest speed is represented by lowest dips in the blue pace line. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

 

Running the runnable parts is only half the battle!  If a person runs with bad form during these points, they are not going to make up time. Rather they will burn out more quickly. But we all know this is not how Jackie rolls!

Digging deeper, we see that Jackie’s running form was very strong during her surge. This meant she was running faster on less energy. As we all know, or can imagine, every last bit of energy counts across 100 miles.

Thinking about good running form late in any race is not easy, let alone being able to execute good form after fatigue sets in. Yet, the data from her running tracker clearly shows that good running form late in the day (and night!) at Western States was Jackie’s golden ticket. Thanks to her consistent training with Pod data, Jackie came into Western States so in-tune with her form at any pace or effort level.

Jackie enters Pointed Rocks aid station (mile 94.3), ready to switch out her race vest for fresh Tailwind, grab a new light, and bolt toward the finish.

 

Here is the key form metrics for all her running minutes (10:00 min/mile or faster) between miles 60 and 100.2:

  • Average cadence of 178 steps per minute
  • High leg swing for 84% of that time
  • Average Runficiency Score™ of 91 out of 100

We hope you are as impressed as we were! 

For those of you new to the MilestonePod, Runficiency Score™ incorporates cadence, ground contact time, leg swing, stride length and sustained pace into a proprietary measure. Data inputs are compared to ideal target values then combined into an algorithm to produce a Runficiency Score™.  The current global average Score is 73, making Jackie’s Score of 91 late in a 100 miler, all the more amazing. 

The next graph tells it all!

 

Figure 2. Blue line = pace. Black dots = cadence. Orange lines = leg swing. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

 

This graph represents the last 40 miles of Jackie’s Western States race. The blue line represents her pace (scale on the far left side of the graph), the black dots represent the cadence when the pace is 10 min/mile or faster (first scale on the near right side of the graph) and the orange lines represent the leg swing at those speeds (scale on the far right side of the graph).  You can see that Jackie achieved high leg swing and fast cadence when her pace increased.

Jackie practiced what she preached in her popular Metric Series posts (part of our Jackie’s Journey page), and it paid off! Said Jackie about her favorite metric, leg swing: Here is a hilly 12-mile Western States training run [left, MilestonePod App screen shot]. On my runs, I typically have 95-100% high leg swing. Maybe this is because I had the opportunity to work with a few very skilled physical therapists early on who drilled ‘use your butt’ into my brain. Still, I work on stretches and exercises almost every day for maintenance and improvement!

The hip, ankle and calf strengthening, as well as training her butt muscle and overall strength training, made Jackie’s first appearance at ultra running’s heralded Western States 100 a fantastic showing.

 

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Editor notes:

Check out Jackie’s ongoing Metric Series here: 
Metric Series #1 – Leg Swing
Metric Series #2 – Rate of Impact
Metric Series #3 – Ground Contact Time
Metric Series #4 – Coming soon!

Follow Jackie on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Author: Steve Suydam

Steve is a PhD and Director of Research at Milestone Sports. He can be reached at steve@milestonepod.com.