Sooner or later most ultrarunners hear the siren call of the 100-mile run. It seems to be the distance that defines ultrarunners. It sure is the distance that elevates us in most people’s minds from being merely obsessed with running to being certifiable nutcases. But nutty is the last thing you feel like when you cross your first 100-mile finish line. Instead you feel elation and pride and relief, and you feel an overwhelming confidence in your ability to rise to any challenge. The confidence is well-founded. After all, when you cross the finish line of a 100-mile run, you’ve just proven yourself capable of overcoming some awesome physical, mental, and logistical challenges.
The physical demands of running a 100-mile race are substantial. You’ll need amped up endurance and strength, and the physiological adaptations that come from running lots of long slow distance. Plan on continuing the ultrarunning training you are already doing but adding in more long runs in the five- to six-hour range. You don’t need to approach the full distance of 100 miles while training, but you do want to put plenty of miles on your legs. About 50 miles a week is typical for most runners whose goal is to reach the finish of their first “hundred” within the time limit. You can forego the “junk” miles (shorter runs just to get in more miles per week) if it helps you keep up a steady stream of long runs. Many runners like to enter a series of ultras in the six months leading up to their hundred attempt to gauge their fitness and stress test their eating, drinking, clothes and equipment. A 100-kilometer race or a difficult 50-miler will give you some sense of the strains you will feel during a full hundred.
You can also push yourself and build added endurance by running back-to-back long runs, working out twice a day or going out for a 20- mile run the day after a race. Running on fatigued legs when you really want to stay on the couch is an excellent test of your will power. Plan to do some of your long running at night to get used to your lights and experience that midnight to six a.m. stretch of sleepiness. Also run long in the heat, in the rain, in the cold, or in any other adverse conditions that you might experience during the race. Back off your long run schedule for a week or two if you feel any signs of overtraining or burnout, such as insomnia, prolonged fatigue or elevated resting heart rate. Pick up the training again after a good rest. And be sure to leave the final three weeks before the race for an extended taper. A draining effort done just a week or two before the big race will not significantly increase your fitness and may leave you at the starting line with less than full strength.
The saying goes that you run the first half of a hundred with your legs and the last half with your mind. This is so true. The mental component of the race can’t be overstated as you will almost invariably get to the point of physical exhaustion and want to quit. At that point, it is your will power and sheer determination that will carry you through. Use the latter stages of your long runs or your preparatory ultras to work on your mental techniques. Practice repeating a mantra to yourself that will replace negative thoughts with some personal motivating phrase. Work at accepting the painful feelings and seeing them as a positive, as proof that you are giving your maximum effort. Break the running down into manageable segments and congratulate yourself on each segment completed. Focus on what you need to do for yourself to keep going right at the moment rather than thinking about the whole piece that remains. Keep in mind that you’re not alone, that other runners are also finding it hard. Be patient and determined to finish but also be determined to do all the things that will ensure success.
There will be high points and low points in your run. Trust in the fact that the low points will not last forever. In fact, when the sun comes up, most runners experience renewed energy so you can always focus on that boost that will come with dawn as you push through the night.
The logistics for participating in a 100-mile race are a lot more complicated than for the shorter ultra distances and require fairly extensive preparation. First you’ll need to make your travel plans for yourself and possibly your crew. Most hundreds can be tackled solo, but a supportive crew and pacer can be very helpful and can make the difference between success and failure. If you get a chance to volunteer at a hundred, or serve as a pacer or crew member for a runner, do it. There’s no better way to learn what to expect for your own attempt. Race orientations are usually held on Friday of race weekend so you need to arrive Friday afternoon at the latest and you should consider staying through to Monday as you may be totally wiped out on Sunday after your finish.
Use the race information received prior to the run to educate yourself and your crew on all the driving directions, aid station locations and calendar of events. The aid station mileage chart and past race results can be used to work out a rough schedule for when you expect to arrive at different aid stations. See if split times are available from past races and look for a runner you know to be about your ability level and work out a schedule based on that runner’s splits. Once you have a guess at when and where you’ll be on the course, you can pre-pack your drop bags and crew bag with the food, supplements, night-running gear, extra clothes, and other items you’ll need during the run. Check the race information for weather predictions and learn what you can about the course layout. No plan will be perfect given all the unexpected issues that invariably crop up over 100 miles of trail, but good preparation will give you the best chance of having what you need when you need it out there in the cold and dark.
Before my first hundred, I asked a 100-mile veteran how in the world he got through the second half of the race. He looked at me and smiled knowingly, “The second 50? Oh, that’s all zen.” At the time, I couldn’t appreciate what he was saying, but after several hundreds, I’m beginning to understand how the zen concepts of meditation, simplicity, direct experience, and enlightenment apply to those soul-searching miles run during the last half of a hundred. Ironically, I think we sign up for the 100- mile because of the enormity of the challenge and the chance to try something so astonishing, but what we most take away from the experience is something that happens almost imperceptibly along the way: a glimmer of enlightenment.