100 Miles is the ultra-running distance. Long enough that it takes most people over 24 hours, but short enough that you can get it all done in one go. It is a daunting jump in distance from 100km, and, until you have finished one, it is hard to truly comprehend how to get through 100 miles by foot.
But! Lots of people, from all backgrounds, body types, and strengths, finish them each year, and with the right preparation and mind-set, so can you.
I recently completed my first big 100, the Orcas Island hosted by the wonderful group of humans that make up Rainshadow Running, and it was an incredible mental, physical, and emotional experience. I learned a lot throughout the training process and race itself. Before the race, I asked everyone I came across who already had a coveted belt buckle “What’s you’re advice for running my first 100?” I did Internet searches, including “Do people sleep when they run 100 miles?” (Which wasn’t particularly helpful; see my specific advice on the topic below). I’ve also personally built up my own experience by running longer and longer races.
So, based on this accumulation of information, here’s some practical tips, pointers, and time-tried, hand-me-down advice to get you from the start to the finish in one piece:
Before The Race
When Am I Ready To Sign Up For 100 Miles?
Like every great task, you cannot start at the end. 100 milers are no different. You need to put in the work, doing longer and longer ultras, and build up your race distance and experience. This will prepare you not only for the physical and mental demands of running 100 miles, but will allow you to learn from your mistakes and fine-tune your 100 mile race strategy. So, find the longest distance you are able to do, as close as possible to 100 miles before you sign up for 100. I did the 125km Canadian Death Race, which had plenty of elevation, and this was sufficient to prepare me for the jump to 100 miles.
What Kind Of Race Should I Pick?
“100 miles is 100 miles” you say. However, 100 miles on flat pavement is a very different race than 100 miles on single-track trail over mountains, both with their own set of benefits and challenges. I recommend that you sign up for a 100 mile-type race that you are able to realistically train for. If you live in the prairies and are only going to be able to train on flat trails, do yourself a favour and keep the elevation gain during the race to a minimum. (Don’t be that guy from Edmonton I passed on the first major climb about 1,000m out of 8,000m elevation gain into the race that had not done any elevation training and was hating his life)
Also consider climate, altitude, terrain, and distance between aid stations. Yes, it is possible to do a a race that is different that your training conditions, but you want to set your first 100 mile race up for success as much as possible, and minimize the unexpected challenges you will have to deal with. There will be plenty of time to sign up for all those crazy 100 milers in the future, after you have the confidence and experience from successfully completing your first.
Basically, you just need to run, hike, walk, and be on your feet as much as possible. There are lots of sample training regiments online, but you will likely need to adapt these to suit your personal training parameters and needs. I don’t know if you can ever feel adequately trained or fully prepared for your first 100 miler, but you just have to do as much as you can, and (equally important) take care of your body while you do it to avoid injuries. There is lots of information about training online if you take the time to do the research, so I won’t get that much more into the physical aspects of training for 100 miles.
Ultra racing really is 90% mental. Your body can do amazing things if only your brain can convince it to. Thus, in addition to the physical training involved for running 100 miles, you must also train mentally. There are lots of ways to do this, but basically you’ll want to put yourself in tough situations, and focus on keeping a positive, forward-thinking mindset as you work your way through the challenge. Whether it is a tough race, a backcountry camping trip in god-awful weather, or simply a physically demanding, repetitive task, actively work on keeping a strong mindset, ignoring the small pains and annoyances, and just focusing on getting through the task at hand. This mental training takes time, but ultimately it is very powerful, and will play a huge role in making your first 100 miler a success.
A Couple Nights Before The Race:
Get your race drop-bags together, as well as everything you will need for race day, and review the race course map, rules, and pre-race logistics. Make sure that your race crew is also in the loop for race day. Basically, do everything you can to prepare for the race so that you have nothing left to worry about the night before.
As for your drop bags, be generous! Now is the time to over pack and über-prepare! The aid stations say that they will be heated and fully stocked? Don’t trust them. For example, the Canadian Death Race had only sweet and salty snack type food at it’s aid stations and no real food or hot food. Runners basically had to rely on their crews to bring them real food. Lesson learned. Pack all of the food you will need and all of the possible changes of clothes you could use. If you don’t end up using them, fine, but if you need anything, you will be super grateful during the race that it is in your drop bag. I packed so many spare sets of clothes, but ended up using almost all of them in order to avoid hypothermia throughout the zero degrees, sweaty night. They probably weren’t necessary, but it was really comforting and reassuring to be able to change into a dry top at an aid station before setting off on the next leg.
The Night Before:
Relax! All of the training, planning, and meticoulous preparation that you have done leading up to now is enough. Enjoy the pre-race debriefing, socializing with other runners, and excitement that comes with it being the night before a big challenge. Then, go to bed early, sleep soundly (I usually take a sleeping pill to help me sleep the night before because I’m way too excited and nervous to sleep), and wake up well rested and ready to crush it!
During the Run
How Do I Pace Myself For 100 Miles?
Everyone says “start out slow”, but I feel like this is pretty intuitive, and the same advice can apply for a marathon and even a 10km trail run. So, I’d like to be a bit more specific for what starting slow means when you have 100 miles left to go. Basically, the best advice I got (from a very experienced ultra runner while running the Fat Ass 50km on New Year’s Day together in Albuquerque), in terms of pacing was to think of the race as 70 miles and 30 miles. For the first 70 miles of the “race” it is not a race. Don’t let your heart rate get above a level you cannot maintain. Walk often and run slow in order to make sure you are covering the miles as easily as possible. Then, if you are able, you can up the pace and ‘race’ for the last 30 miles. For myself, by the time I got to 70 miles into the race there was no “faster” gear or “race” pace left for me, but, by starting easy and having the mindset that the first 70 miles wasn’t a race, I had managed to physically and mentally pace myself so I had just enough energy to muster my way through the last 30 miles. Pacing yourself in a 100 mile run is key and will ultimately determine not only if you will finish, but also how much pain you will be in throughout the race. There is basically no such thing as too slow when you are starting 100 miles by foot.
What Can I Do To Make Sure I Finish?
The main thing when it comes to 100 milers (that is different than shorter races) is that you really need to be in-tune with- and take care of your body. Don’t ignore anything! (however small, because it will likely become a big problem after several more hours of running. As each little niggling thing arises throughout the race (and there will be lots of them), make sure to address is (preferably) immediately or at the next aid station (if it is not too far away). Got a teeny-tiny bit of chafing starting up? Lube it! Feeling a blister or hot spot forming? Tape it! Getting cramps? Salt it! You likely could get away with not dealing immediately with these issues in a shorter run, but that won’t work for 100 miles, and it’s often the little things that can ultimately result in a DNF. Listen and be kind to your body, and give it whatever it needs, and, hopefully, your body will return these good favors by holding itself together for you to finish.
To Sleep Or Not To Sleep?
That is the question I couldn’t figure out before my first 100 miler. I did google searches, asked 100 mile vets, but never really got a clear answer, and that is because it is really up to you. If you don’t feel like sleeping, don’t sleep (lots of people don’t). But, if you are feeling drowsy and your head isn’t quite there, consider a cat nap as a great race strategy for helping your brain reset. For some people this means sitting on the side of the trail for 5 minutes with your eyes closed. For me, this meant laying down at an aid station for 10 minutes (never sleeping), with a blanket over my face and body to just tune out for a bit. I felt much better afterwards, and got right back into the race.
After The Race
Congratulations! Whether you finished or not, you had the cajones to sign-up, train for, and start 100 miles. It was probably euphoric and weightless at times. It was also probably insanely painful and torturous at others. But, that is, after all, what you signed up for so I hope you got your money’s worth!
Thank The People That Made This All Possible
The race directors, the volunteers, the city – they have all done a lot of work (often unpaid) to make the race possible. Show your appreciation!
And, your crew: make sure you thank them in whatever way works for you, whether it is a gift, paying for their expenses, or crewing for them in return. I’m sure you are very grateful, but make sure you take the time to show it.
Listen to your body and give it what it needs, whether it is rest, junk food, walking, etc., your body will tell you what it needs, you just need to make sure to listen to it.
Sign Up For The Next One!
If you’re running 100 miles, you’ve probably got some kind of sick addiction to these things we call ultra races. So, if you haven’t already done so, go online and treat yourself to an afternoon of looking through raceing opting and picking the next one you will do.
A couple days after completing my first 100 miler, I signed up for a race that I’ve been eyeing for a while: the FAT DOG 120 in beautiful British Columbia, coming up in August 2018. I’m so excited, but also still wondering why do I keep on doing this to myself??? Oooh, ultra running!
Good luck! Happy Trails! And…… just keep running!