What it took to run 100 miles…
Now that I’ve done, both successfully and not so much, 100 mile races; I thought it might be useful to list out what has worked for me after a lot of trial and error. Mostly error let’s be honest. If you don’t have a solid experienced person who’s ‘done the run’ to help you through it then it’s mostly error. And honestly no one can really prepare you for pushing yourself to cover 100 miles, much less the 200’s. It’s something that has to be experienced to truly understand it.
Honestly I think the number one thing that’s been of benefit to me is getting fortunate enough to find someone to make this insane journey to ultramarathonville with you. Someone who runs the same pace, the same distances, the same everything, basically 2 people, 1 pair of feet.
I know most ultras, especially front and mid pack, seem to be lone wolves. They’ll hook up with someone for a mile or three or maybe 10 and some cases 20 but inevitably their mismatched pacing and goals pull them apart or just their solitary nature.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But having someone to lean on, and that leans on your during the race can get you both through situations that would otherwise take you out if you were solo. Most people I believe have the capability to be stronger for others than necessarily themselves. I like to think so anyway. So having someone who needs your help will help you to turn the knob to 11. And on the flip side it can be greatly beneficial to hit an aid station and collapse knowing your partner has your back and will get you back up when it’s time to move on.
I think ultimately it’s not very common for two or more runners to mesh their physical and mental abilities but if you can swing it then it’ll be a big boost for your chances to beat the odds.
I believe the average success rate across all races and combining men and women is around 60%? Some races are true monsters that eat runners up alive with success rates that are much lower than that and some are more benign and encouraging with higher success rates. But in general, the odds are not great for the average runner especially the first timer. So doing whatever you can stack the odds more in your favor may make the difference between the agony of defeat where you walk away with experience gained and the agony of success where you walk away with a buckle.
It’s important to cater your training to you. This seems like a simple thing but it’s easy to go online or in a book and take someone’s training regime, workouts and schedules and try to follow it. This though can lead to injury depending on your level of ability as most of the training programs I’ve found seem to be strongly catering to podium chasers.
If this is you then good on you friend. But as a solid “back pack” in Ultra distances I quickly found I had to design workouts more in line with my abilities, my life and free time and quite frankly how much time I’m willing to devote to the cause.
The variety of training methods is about as wide as the number of runners there are. There are podium placers who rarely run longer than 20 miles as a training run and others who regularly do much more.
So figure out what works for you and go with that. Which is no small task. If you have the disposable income there can be a lot of benefit from getting guidance from an training coach that has real experience at training for ultras. That last is key because training for a marathon is not the same as training for a 100 mile race.
Over the last 2 years, which is how long it really took, I’ve made enough mistakes to finally figure out what training works for me. What is at my borderline of injury and how hard I can push before I risk sidelining myself. And it took injury and sidelining myself for sometimes up to 2 weeks at a time to figure that out. (I know, 2 weeks, that’s just an extended recovery week, but to me it felt like 2 months).
If you’re going to be doing a 100 without a crew, 100% doable, then just plan on spending more time “not moving”. You’ll spend time getting gear out of your drop bags, filling bottles, changing shoes, etc. A good crew can cut your time spent in aid stations by half or more and insure you leave each aid station with the right gear and nothing extra to weigh you down.
A pace plan is a good idea but understand like with most plans it’ll break down as soon as you start running. It’s almost 100% guaranteed you’re going to go out too fast and that’s going to cost you later on and there’s a pretty fair chance it could cause you to DNF. Going out too fast IMO is the number cause of DNF’s based on the large number of race reports I’ve read.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “I started at X minutes per mile, by mile 50 I was at x+3 minutes per mile, by mile 75 it was x+8 minutes and the last 25 was a dead man shuffle of 25minutes per mile”.
Pacing, pacing, pacing, if you want to successfully finish a race, regardless of distance but it’s critical ultras, then pacing is how you do it. Too fast up front is NOT ‘banking time’. It’s adding extra stress, fatigue and toxins to your body that you will 100% pay for later.
Have a goal time and then break that down into thirds. Then steal time from the first and add it to the 2nd, 3rd. Then steal time from the 2nd and add it to the 3rd. Example: 100 miles, 24 hours to make the math easy. That’s 33 miles in 8 hours x 3. Let’s steal an hour from the first one and split it up in to the last two. So now we have 33 miles in 7 hours, 33 miles in 8.5 and 33 miles in 8.5. Let’s steal half an hour from the second and add it to the third and we end up with 33 miles in 7 hours, 33 miles in 8 hours and 33 miles in 9 hours. A 7/8/9 split is more realistic IMO than an 8/8/8.
But I can’t do 33 miles in 7 hours on trails. Then maybe a 24 hour 100 isn’t a good finish time for you. So add half an hour to all three and shoot for a 25:30 finish.
That is a very general possible option to compute your 1/3 pace targets and doesn’t take into account any changes in terrain. Once you add vertical or technical to your route then it can get ‘really’ complicated on doing your pacing.
Barring some weird terrain I’ve never seen anything remotely like equal splits much less negative splits in 100 mile runners times. Prairie Spirit 100 for example gives you 14 hours to make the mile 52 turn around and 16 hours to make the back 48 for that reason. They know if you can’t do 52 in 14, you’re not going to make the back side in 16. For the majority of runners.
Bottom line though is know your cut offs for every aid station. Give yourself a 15-30 cushion for each and then print them out in large font on a piece of paper so you can read them in dim light and when you’re barely able to stand up.
Ultimately there are two things will DNF you in a 100 mile race. You drop out due to any number of reasons or you fail to make the cutoff at an aid station. So knowing your cutoffs may keep you moving whatever little extra you need to hit them. I’ve seen runners who make cutoffs by literally a couple of minutes. Myself I hit the mile 85(ish) aid station with 4 minutes to spare and ultimately didn’t make the mile 92 cutoff by about 10 minutes.
Personal observation – You think dropping out at mile 50 sucks? Try missing mile 92 cut off by 10 minutes with 3 hours left to make that last 8 miles.
Regardless of a crew or not, have a checklist for every aid station you’re going to spend any time in, the turn around where you swap gear out, whatever. And for goodness sake use it. It adds almost no extra time and it can save your race if you for example leave the turn around and forgot your head light and it gets dark and leaves moving at a crawl.
At our first 50 mile race, Rocky Raccoon, near the end after it got dark we ran into 3 people who were barely moving because it was pitch black and none of them had expected to be out in the dark. They joined up with us for the final stretches to make it to the finish line. I’m not sure they’d of finished in time if they’d been out there in the dark by themselves those last miles.
So have your “Don’t leave the aid station without doing this and packing that.” and USE IT.
To the pain:
“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”-The Dread Pirate Roberts
Understand that pain in inevitable. Your feet will hurt, your muscles will hurt. Your joints will hurt. Your tendons will make themselves known in ways you can’t imagine until it’s happened. Your brain will hurt. You’ll have chafing that will make you scream when you get a chance to take a shower. You’ll be nauseated and possibly be puking or dropping your shorts frequently (hopefully in time) over the course of the race and usually in the back half when you can barely drop into squat without swearing like a sailor. You’ll have blisters big enough to hide a dog in. Well one of those tiny purse dogs anyway.
You’ll wonder why you’re doing this to yourself. And if it’s not your first then add the tag line: Again.
I’ve been in pain during ultraruns that honestly would knock a lot of people off their feet. Pain at levels that prescription strength (legally obtained) narcotics didn’t touch.
Note: I would strongly advise any runner to not use anything stronger than OTC pain relief. You can, maybe, dope yourself up to where you can keep going but also where you’re doing permanent damage to your body or least damage bad enough you’ll need significant care afterwards.
The bottom line is, expect discomfort. Expect pain. Expect to have an continual inner dialogue “Is taking this next step worth it?” for miles on end.
So what to do about it? Learn to live with it and learn what you can safely do to knock the edge off it.
“Make friends with pain and you’ll never be alone.”Ken Chlouber
The safest, note I didn’t say safe, but the safest pain reliever available OTC for ultra runners is Acetaminophen, aka Paracetamol aka Tylenol. The reason this is safer is because it’s processed by the liver. All the other NSAID’s are processed by the kidneys. During long distance running you’re stressing your kidneys pretty badly so throwing something else to be processed by the kidneys into the mix isn’t great. Additionally something like Ibuprofen can act like a binder or glue with the myglobin molecules that are generated from muscle damage to make it harder for them to fit through the kidneys.
If nothing else to take away from that just remember “Ibuprofen bad when running.”
This can all lead to a lot of bad things, the worst that I’m aware of being Rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo is when there’s so much myglobin in the blood that it chokes the tubes that make up the kidneys and its ability to filter your blood is greatly diminished. The effects can range from bad to BAD aka dead.
During ultrarunning it’s very important to pay attention to the color of your urine and the frequency of urination. If it starts to get dark yellow then start being concerned. If it turns the color of Coca-Cola then start being scared.
The solution is easy enough, hydration, hydration and hydration. Don’t forget to hydrate! And do not hydrate with just plain water unless you’re getting enough electrolytes through other sources as you can end up with something like Hyponatremia which can have impacts from bad to BAD aka dead and the loss of of enough electrolytes which are literally what help your electrical system operate to do things like make your heart beat which,yes same thing, bad to BAD.
It’s important to train fueling. You need to find out ahead off race day what works well for you in terms off caloric intake, flavor, bulk, texture, nutrition etc. And this can shift over time and effort. What you feel like you can intake for days at the start of a 100 mile race makes you want to puke by mile 75. So not only have a fueling plan but a back up plan.
Improper fueling and hydration are the second leading cause to a really bad race and likely a DNF as well. These two things are super critical. No matter your pace, you’re going to be burning more calories than you can process per hour. So you’re running at a deficit. You make up the difference by converting fat into energy.
So training fasted and at sufficient distance to force your body to go through whatever carbs it has stored up and then have to dip into the fat stores is another crucial part of fueling. The more used to turning fat back into energy your body is, the better off you’ll be in ultras.
Like everything about ultra marathons, you have train it it all. Your digestion, fat conversion, pain tolerance, mental willpower, physical body, it is all a wonderful machine if you will that will let you cross the finish line. Sometimes in good shape, sometimes in horrible shape, but in the end crossing that finish line before the cut off is the goal of a race.
And in the journey you learn more than a little bit about yourself, win lose or draw.
Important tip: Be wary of consuming a large quantity at one time and VERY wary of consuming strange things. My first 100 mile race at the mile 25 aid station I had some dessert bread offered to me by the sweetest lady you could imagine. And it was very good and I said so. She gave me a big piece ‘for the road’ which I ended up just eating it over the next mile since I didn’t want to waste it and didn’t have a great place to carry it. For the next 50 miles that bread sat like a lump in my belly and caused me to cut way down on my intake waiting for it to process. Ultimately it wasn’t what caused my DNF but it did add a bit of unpleasantness to the race.
In general for fuel I depend on these after trying a lot of things:
CBBJ or Cashew Butter, Banana, Jelly sandwiches. I blend cashew butter, banana along with some honey and or maple syrup into a paste then use that along with some good elderberry or blackberry jelly on potato bread. It’s a great source of carbs, fats, proteins and important electrolytes like sodium and potassium. I’ll usually take half a sandwich an hour as about half my calorie intake for the hour.
eGels by Crank Sports. I just prefer these over other gels, better electrolytes and carbs, I like the basic flavors except the mountain dew one and in general they work for me. I save these for when it feels like I’m starting to tank on energy.
I’ll also pack in my drop bags or carry with me one or more of the following –
Sour Patch Kids Extreme, Candied Ginger, Gin-Gin ginger chews, Twizzlers, Werther’s, Clif bars.
I think it’s important to mix it up on fuels. For one reason, nutritionally to get a diversity of sources for all the things you need to sustain your efforts. And for a larger reason so you will continue to fuel.
One thing to note is try to stay ahead of the bonk. It’s very hard to come back from a bad bonk from bad fueling or hydration. And it’s never fun.
I don’t depend on fluid intake for my fueling, at least not solely. There are runners, usually sponsored by Tailwind it feels like, that just fuel on fluids. I can’t do that myself. If you can swing it then great.
I use drink mixes more earlier on during a 100 and prefer more plain water later on. For drink mixes I use Pedialyte (orange and strawberry), Crank Sports eFuel (citrus punch) and EFS (fruit punch). I portion these up into a bottle’s worth into small ziplock bags.
For the first 50-60 miles I typically carry a 500ml bottle of a mix and a bottle of plain water at one time and usually go through 500ml total every hour(ish) depending on weather. When it gets hotter or sunbaked during the day I can easily up that to 1 liter per hour and even more during the summer.
After that first 100k or so I usually start leaning more on 1 bottle of mix to 2 waters. To make sure my electrolytes are kept stocked up I add an Hammer Endurolyte Extreme once an hour.
Let’s start the bottom and work up. Each of these items is not the first or maybe not the 10th item I tried, I was rarely lucky with gear choices to get something that just worked the first time –
- Shoes – For ultra’s I only use Altra Olympus or Hoka Clifton in Wide. I’ve not found for me any other shoe that works as well for going stupid long distances.
- Socks – Injini toe socks under and Balega blister resist socks over. Yes I double sock it for 100 miles.
- Shorts – Altra Trail shorts which are no longer made. Once the pairs I have wear out I’ll probably use Brooks Sherpas which I use now for long training runs.
- Shirts – Honestly whatever fits the temperature of the race. I do find that higher end shirts have a softer texture than cheap ones. Not critical for short distances but for 100 miles that roughness adds up to chafing.
- Hat – Halo skull cap or a buff in a cap configuration.
- Vest – Solomon Advanced Labs 12L 2019 version or Nathan VaporKrar. Solomon preferred due to better pockets and storage.
- Poles – Leki folding poles because I like the way the hand straps unhook which means I use them as other poles I tend to not use the straps because they’re a pain to get my hands in and out quickly if I need to have a free arm.