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Training for a Hundred Mile Ultra: My Experiences + Some Advice

Posted by on May 30, 2012 | 10 Comments

This post was inspired by my own quest to master hundred mile ultras, coupled with a question recently posted on Barefoot Ted’s Google Group. In a few weeks, I’ll be toeing the line for the Bighorn 100 through the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. This is a synopsis of my training for this race and the three other 100s I’ll be running later this year (Grand Mesa, Grindstone, and Chimera).

Past Experience

Since 2008, I’ve attempted five 100 milers. I finished three and DNFed two. My best performance came at Western States in 2011 where I finished a few minutes under 24 hours. My other experiences in ultras consist of a variety of 50k’s, 50 milers, 12 hours races, and a 72 hour race. My finish times have ranged from back-of-the-pack to mid-pack. I’ve also run a variety of short road races ranging from 5ks to marathons.

Past Training

All of my training since 2008 has focused on 100 miler training. I’ve done typical long, slow distance-based training (resembling Maffetone’s methodology), Crossfit Endurance, and my own hybrid of both. My crosstraining has consisted of mostly functional fitness-type stuff, like you can find on Pete Kemme’s site.

Current Training

My current training has consisted of approximately three runs per week in rugged mountain terrain over distances from six to about 20 miles. Almost all of the runs are Fartlek runs. I usually crosstrain about twice per week using sandbags, a kettlebell, and a slosh tube. Speedwork is incorporated in both the mountain runs and crosstraining. I’ve run four races in preparation for Bighorn- two trail 50k’s (both on moderately technical terrain with good elevation), a 50 miler (on non-techinical trail with mild elevation gain), and a road 25k (flat).

My Preparation for Bighorn/ Advice I would Give Others

  • Start with good form. Efficiency is the name of the game in ultras; even more so in hundos. Learn to run as efficiently as possible over a variety of terrain. This requires excellent running form on flat ground, uphill, and downhill. THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR THAT HAS ALLOWED ME TO RUN ULTRAS. Sadly, this is probably the most overlooked aspect of ultrarunning for novices. Need help? Read about my barefoot running stuff here at BRU, pick up my book, or check out Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky’s new book “Tread Lightly.”
  • Know the course, then train on similar terrain. If your course has lots of long hills, train on hills. If the terrain is technical, train on technical terrain. Lots of mud and water? Get dirty in training. You get the picture. Different terrain requires different skills. The best way to develop those skills is to practice. Road running probably won’t get you to the finish line of a mountain 100. I’ve spent the last five months or so running up and down rugged mountains specifically to prepare for the four 100s I’m running this year.
  • Get used to forcing yourself to run when really tired or in pain. This was a difficult lesson to learn for me personally. I used to have a tendency to walk far too much. If I felt I needed a break, I walked. I normally walk the vast majority of the uphills, and this additional walking dramatically slowed my times. In my earlier ultras, I routinely flirted with the cutoff times throughout the course. Learning that I didn’t need those walk breaks dramatically improved my performance. My current 100 mile strategy is to expect to run the entire race except for uphills.
  • Eat early and often. Caloric intake will ward off crashes… and the crashes in 100 milers are pretty damn bad. Marathoners often talk about the “wall”, which is nothing more than the first of a series of highs and lows they’d experience if they went farther. That first “wall” is peanuts compared to the crazy shit you experience around mile 60-65. It sort of feels like you just went over Niagra Falls in a barrel, have been sleep-deprived for four days, and instantly developed clinical depression. The effects of this can be negated by keeping your caloric deficit as minimal as possible, which means eating from the start of the race. You’ll come to a point where you don’t feel like eating. In fact, any food may make you nauseous. Power through it. Choke something down. This is the reason I DNFed the two hundos.
  • Be conservative… but not too conservative. Most new ultrarunners start off way too fast and burn out. Some take a cautious approach but go out too slow and run into cutoffs. The trick is finding the middle ground. Start fast enough to stay ahead of the cutoffs but slow enough to maintain a fairly steady pace throughout. For me, I found I can run the first half of a hundred at around a 9:00 pace (when actually running; I walk hills and stop at aid stations). The pace slows to about 11:00 miles later in the race. This puts me well ahead of cutoffs and still conservative enough to maintain for long distances. Be a “let’s be smart about limiting government” conservative, not a “let’s ban porn and gay marriage” conservative.
  • Change your shoes. Different shoes affect your gait in different ways. Different gaits use slightly different muscles. Using different muscles varies the workload. Varying the workload decreases fatigue over distance. I used this technique at the Pineland Farms 50 miler by changing from a 4mm heel drop Merrell Mix Master to barefoot, and PRed by well over an hour. For Bighorn, I’ll rotate between Merrell Trail Gloves, Bare Access, and Mix Masters.
  • Manage chafing. Nipples, groin, arm pits, feet… pretty much any body part that comes in contact with another body part or piece of clothing can chafe over the time you’ll be running. I manage this by learning which areas, gear, and clothing are susceptible during long training runs. I either tape (nipples) or lube anything and everything that may chafe. If you feel chafing beginning to develop, stop and care for it. I’ve known people that have worn off layers of skin over the course of a 100… and it can cause a DNF.
  • Don’t waste time at aid stations. Most ultras have between 12 and 20 aid stations over the entire course. It’s easy to burn an hour or more by spending a few minutes at each. I follow a simple rule- keep aid station stops to less than one minute. If I have to fix something (gear, blisters, etc.), I may stay a little longer… but don’t linger. Time not spent moving forward is wasted time.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of elements to running a hundred miles. Rather it’s a quick and dirty guide to my own training and primary concerns, which may generalize well to anyone interested in running this distance.

I know some of my readers have a ton of experience (Rob). What additional advice would you give?

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10 Comments

  1. Oliver
    June 13, 2012

    Hi Jason,
    After a good 18 months of wearing VFFs or Trail Gloves for everything, I’ve also started using Mix Masters for technical trails. I like them a lot and agree with you that some terrain simply demands more protection (at least in order to move quickly over it). Will you be writing a review for the MMs at some stage?

    • Jason
      June 13, 2012

      Oliver- yes, expect a review within the month. 😉

  2. Matt M
    June 1, 2012

    Although I’m still building up my distance, and the longest I’ve run is a 25k trail race (on very technical trail, however), two thoughts stuck with me during that race that I learned while crewing for my friend Joe at Western States. One is the mantra of the Eugene, OR Crew, which states; “Solve your problems and I’ll see you down the trail,” meaning that you should attend to any issue immediately rather than wait for it to get worse, be it chafing, hydration/nutrition, footwear, etc. It will benefit you in the long run.

    The other attends to Kevin’s diet question, and the key to absorbing water and improving hydration is SALT! Try S-Caps for concentrated salt, or stick to salty snacks at aid stations. The salt, similar to – but often better than – potassium, helps your body use the water you’re taking in. Part of the reason why Coke is such a great race beverage is because of it’s sodium content along with the sugar and caffeine. Any concerted athletic effort longer than about 2 hours should include salt, especially in warm conditions. It will certainly help to alleviate “slosh gut.” As many people have said, though, experiment with various sources of salt and see what works best.

    • Kevin
      June 5, 2012

      Good point, Matt, and thanks. I definitely don’t take in enough salt. Some, but not enough. Comes from being raised to avoid it like the plague.

  3. Rob Y
    May 31, 2012

    That’s a nice, concise summary of general advice Jason. You have indeed learned quite a bit!

    I’d add a few things to the mix:

    1. Walking in training. This is something that is so often overlooked by ultraRUNNERS. They tend to want to run everything, every hill in training etc… The end result is they try and run as much of the course as they can until they have to walk and when they do finally walk it’s a crawl! My best advice is to learn how to not only run efficiently but to WALK efficiently. If you can develop a good, fast walk, especially on the uphills you won’t lose near as much time overall. I became such a better racer once I learned to walk fast; was born out of my Hardrock experiences (often called “HardWalk” for a reason!).

    2. Time on the feet is king. When you’re developing your training schedule/approach to your 100 mile event think in terms of hours spent on your feet more than any single run distance goals. To me it’s much more important to get out and do a 6-7 hour run than say go run 25-30 miles. This time on the feet can be running, walking etc… This is how you fatigue yourself in similar ways that a 100 will. You also don’t have to worry as much about pace either. In training I like to go for hours Out There rather than specific mileage.

    3. Learn when to run uphill. On the long races I do try to run as much as possible. An old rule of thumb I use is if I can see the top of the hill I’ll try and run up it. If not I’ll alternate running and walking (say every other switchback if the hill has them) until I can see the top then I run. You’d be surprised at how much more of the ups you can partially run when you break it up like this. Don’t commit to walking every hill, don’t be defeatist! Quite often it’s a little spark like this that can get you really going again if you’re stuck in a rut!

    4. Shoe changes optional. I have to disagree about swapping out shoes frequently. I personally think it’s a waste of time and unnecessary. I can understand changing socks, especially if you’ve gotten your feet wet and now have a long section w/o possibility of wet feet. More often than not, I don’t touch my feet at all during a 100. I’m of the mind that I’ll do all the preventative measures BEFORE the race; toughening up my feet, applying BlisterShield inside my socks and then lace them up and go, etc… Come race time I seal my feet in there and go; don’t mess with the operating machinery! If you’ve made good decisions about socks, shoes and foot anti-blister powders in training then you’ll not need to do anything race day. Trust me. This goes back to the time of the feet and walk training I mentioned (everything is connected). I ran the ’05 Hardrock where my feet were soaked for over 43 hours, my feet were macerated but I never changed socks or shoes because the course was so wet it wouldn’t have mattered and I’d have risked tearing up my feet if I had. I ran ’11 Badwater on a single pair of shoes/socks w/o any blister issues. And I’m far from alone in this. If it ain’t broke don’t mess with it!

    5. Calorie intake via liquids. Sometimes I can get a very sour stomach in the long races. I think it’s often from trying to eat too complex of solid foods. Again this is highly personal, I know people who have ironclad stomachs and can eat whatever they like; I’m not one of those! So I tend to get most of my calories through mixing various sugary or electrolyte drinks in my bottle with water. I’m talking about mixing defizzed Coke/Pepsi, Sweet Tea, First Endurance EFS, Ensure, Boost in water. It’s an old school way of getting a steady stream of calories and hydration in a very simple though effective way. At ’11 Badwater I’d say over 95% of my total caloric intank was Coke mixed with ice water! Keep it simple!

    6. Course specificity training is best, but being in killer shape is better. I’ll echo Jason’s advice of learning as much about the race course as possible and trying as much as possible to train on similar terrain. However, if this isn’t possible, i.e. there are no 14,000 foot peaks around me ( 😉 ), the best alternative is to simply get in the best shape you can. I’ve finished Hardrock twice unacclimatized (showing up the day before the start) coming from the lowlands of Alabama. As I had to train in the summer heat around here and since the trails all get spiderwebby and overgrown I mostly trained on the roads. I did as much hill climbing as I could but in general I just got in a lot of miles and got in really good shape; even coming close to setting a bunch of PRs in short distance road races! Fitness is the main thing. Just because it’s a mountain race you may be training for doesn’t mean that you should only do a bunch of walking in training. No. You need to be in great shape period! It’s tough work but this advice is universal; the better shape you’re in the better your race performance will be AND the shorter your recovery time after. Yes you can train for mountain 100 on the roads! 😉

    Last thought for now. Experiment, experiment, experiment! Find out what combination of fueling, hydration, gear choices, training etc… work best for you. We are all experiments of one and what may work for me or Jason may not be the best approach for you. Most of all, have fun!

    That’s probably enough for now, I have A LOT more I could add but this is getting pretty long for a comment! 🙂

  4. Kevin
    May 30, 2012

    Great post. As much as I’ve read about ultra running and having completed two 50s, I still feel like I don’t know nearly enough, especially as I prep for a 24hr race in July and hopefully my first 100 this year.

    And I was actually going to ask if you could do a post on diet, or just on chafing…because DAMN I had the worst of it yet this weekend. I know to anticipate the chafe and thought I had lubed well enough, but on a sweltering unsupported 30mile training run, which was otherwise grand and should have been easy, I was broken by that sharp sting of groin chafe. I think few things are as debilitating. It shredded my form and soured my mood and it’s just embarrassing to say “I’m walking because my scrote stings.” *poopface*

    I was wondering though, could you say a bit more about diet? I always wonder how much other people eat on a daily basis but also during a race, because I feel like a pig. And I can never get enough water…feels like the body doesn’t absorb it after running far enough.

  5. Trisha Reeves
    May 30, 2012

    I could have used some of this advice last weekend! Pft. Good thing I had you there to tell me some of it in person. :p

    Yet another great post. You should put these in a book or something.

    • Kevin
      May 30, 2012

      Trisha, how do you have a photo? I don’t like being a silhouette.

    • OreMan
      May 31, 2012

      We are, of course, all waiting for this book.. 😉

  6. Paul
    May 30, 2012

    Thanks for you advice. I think I have everything ready for my hundred, but it’s good to get more advice or reinforce the advice and planning I have already put forward.