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).
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.
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.
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?