I have never run a hundred miles. I have never even run 100 kilometres. Once, I ran the West Coast Trail in a day and we got really lost in the dark, so that was 80 kilometres instead of 75 kilometres. Otherwise, my only real experience with actually running ultras is 50-kilometre races. I’ve done lots of those, mostly in the mountains, and I can tell you that nothing about a 50-kilometre race will prepare you for a 100-mile distance.
What I have that most ultra runners don’t have is raw objective data, lots of it. As an experienced crew, I’ve supported racers from 100-kilometres to 100-miles multiple times, multiple types – from first runner in to last runner done. As a race director, I’ve been a close observer of each hundred miler’s journey at River Valley Revenge. And when I’ve been hanging out for 24-plus hours, I’ve paid attention. I’ve watched what others do. Falling easily into my academic comfort zone, I’ve observed and taken notes and hypothesized. And in all that, I’ve discovered that there are certain things that work and other things that definitely don’t work. I can tell you how the top finishers at major mountain ultras hydrate and fuel. I can speak to what the average racer generally does, and I can regale you with fascinating tales of epic fails. So, if you still want to hear what a non-hundo has to say about finishing one, keep reading.
How to Run a 100-Miler
Know the difference between universal truths and individual truths. You should seek – and will get – lots of advice. Know the difference between what is a biological fact – you must consume a glucose-combination fuel at regular intervals in order to metabolize enough glycogen for energy – and what is a subjective preference – drink pickle juice at every transition. There is value in both but for different reasons: a universal truth – you better know that sh*t and have it built into your plan; an individual truth – interesting, maybe something to try on a training run, might work, might not.
Have a plan. Break your race down into segments, usually done by transitions, and figure out what you need for each segment: fuel plan, clothing plan, pacing plan. Some racers have charts and graphs, others have notes sharpie-scrawled on their arms. The details don’t matter and no plan should ever look the same – because y’all are unique! (remember that) – but if you haven’t planned to finish, you’ve planned to fail.
Be ready to throw away the plan. Wait what? Sometimes, the plan doesn’t work. The fuel you’ve trained with is now making you throw up, you caught a cold and your pace is way off, your go-to shoes are giving you blisters. I have seen many athletes with the perfect plan – tried and tested – DNF because the plan stopped working and they couldn’t deviate from it. Once the plan failed, they failed. I’ve also seen athletes dump their fuel and switch to water after retching for the umpteenth time, or throw their GD shoes over a cliff and run into transition in sock feet to borrow a pair – and finish! Essentially, they’re accepting that what they’re doing is not working and that they must do anything else but that. Can you change the plan if the plan stops working?
Spend your energy wisely. Everything you do from Point A to Point Z will take energy from you: physical energy, mental energy and emotional energy. Use all three wisely. If you’re running up a mountain and you can power hike it faster, conserve your physical energy for when it will give greater returns. If you’re heading into transition, rely on the qualified volunteers or your crew to take care of you. Save your mental energy for when you’re fatigued and alone, navigating difficult terrain while trying to stay awake. If the thoughts in your head turn ugly, get out of your head. Find a mantra to disengage from stinkin’ thinking. Stop running with someone who is depressing the hell out of you. Find someone to share a few kilometres with where you can laugh and smile and relax. If you’re alone, choose your focus. One racer said that when she got lost, she’d be grateful for a view she wouldn’t have otherwise seen, or when she’d run out of water, she’d be grateful that her pack was light. Your energy is a resource: don’t squander it on what doesn’t serve you.
It’s all about the pain cave. Running a hundred miler is about managing suffering. You can only physically train for so much mileage. At a certain point, you reach the end of your physical training and the race becomes 100% mental. A person’s willingness to accept the suffering, to acknowledge the pain without letting the pain define them or control them – it’s called mental toughness. The battle is with your mind, not with your body. One racer was sulk-hiking a tough section during the night, sore and miserable. Another racer came up and said – “Does it hurt to run?” – yes – “Does it hurt to walk?” – yes. “Might as well run.” You signed up to suffer. Shake hands with it and keep going.
Never give up. Never. Give. Up. nevergiveup. I have seen enough to tell you that there will always be a dozen reasons to stop, and sometimes no reason to go on. Keep going. A lot happens in 100 miles. I have seen athletes have the worst race ever, to have the entire day turn around at mile 65 and finish 4th overall. I’ve seen experienced racers blow up on a brutally hot day and the unknown waaay back there who just.wouldnt.quit win the race. I’ve seen numerous racers pull when I knew they could finish. I’ve observed the regret countless times. And I have witnessed unbelievable moments where people had legitimate reasons to stop… but didn’t. I don’t think I’ll make cut-off…made it by 9 seconds …I’ve thrown up 20 times in the last hour…crossed the finish line while they were still throwing up…my shoulder is dislocated…used their hydration pack to sling it for 70 miles to 1st Place.
I’m not saying be reckless and put your life in danger. But, really, every race has medics and volunteers and crew who are watching out for you. And isn’t the very definition of doing one hundred miles about testing your limits? In my observations, most people’s limits are found just beyond the finish line. Keep going.
…and finally, but most important…
Have perspective. It’s a race where every finisher gets a medal, not the Olympics. Yes, you trained hundreds of hours for it. That alone is a point of pride. The moment isn’t just the finish. Moments happen every day. Every opportunity to live and breathe and challenge and press on is a gift. The outcome is merely one tangible victory in a series of smaller, undefined, intangible victories. I timed out at my first attempt at a big distance. There are a list of things that could have changed that outcome. They didn’t happen that day. The victory was that I didn’t stop until they made me. Find pride in every effort. Learn from it. Find someone who did more than you and congratulate them. Help someone whose journey was harder than yours, make their load lighter. Look around. Give Back. See outside yourself. Because ultra running and ultra racing can be a self-preoccupied sport if we let it. Look at me! Don’t look at me. I finished! I failed. me. me. I. I. Live a life greater than yourself and you will find your potential. Perspective is everything.