Some people finish their first 100 mile race with relative ease; winning a first 100 is far more common than winning a first 10K. Others, due to accidents of weather or injury, need a second chance. And then there are those of us who fail repeatedly.
In this last group are those who simply run out of time. Road marathons have very generous cut-offs, but trail ultras generally have cut-offs about twice as long as the course record (only about half of marathoners run that fast). Runners who can't beat the cut-off times in trail 50K's and 50 Milers won't fare any better at the 100. This group also includes those who simply don't do the needed training, whether due to repeated injuries or time constraints - ultrarunning eats up a lot of one's free time. I seem to be the only member of my group: those who can win a 5K, place in a 10K, get an age-class award in a 1/2-marathon, but collapse in a full marathon, staggering to the finish line (still beating 90% of the finishers); those who struggle to finish marathons just don't run 100 miles. [True ultramarathoners just don't seem to understand this. It's like saying a penguin has wings, it can flap its wings, so of course it can fly. Any bird can.]
I had to learn all the nitty-gritty details about ultrarunning to finish my first 100 and I learned most of them the hard way. Interestingly, there's not much one can learn from the top runners; they'd do well no matter how they trained. Instead, I learned a lot from people who finished 100 milers who just didn't seem likely to finish and they'd be shocked to find out that they taught me anything. Here's two examples:
Diane Farmer: Stealth Hiker
I volunteered at the 62 mile mark of the Superior 100 in 2007. Runners came through about once every half-hour, but at one point, 6 came through in 5 minutes; one of these was Diane. She looked like she was doing well and knew what she was doing, so I attended to the others who looked like they needed assistance. I would not have guessed this was the first 100 she'd finish (her second attempt). I certainly would not have guessed how she trained!
Long after the race, I heard that Diane did all of her running on a treadmill and had not run more than 20 miles. This was incredible. Either there was more to the story, or some people really are just born to run these races. It took some time to piece together the details and, when I did, her finish seemed to make sense.
First of all, she ran 10 miles in 90 minutes every day. Add in 20-milers and this becomes 70-80 miles per week at 9 min./mile. That's pretty serious training. But it still doesn't explain how she did it.
The next thing I heard came from others she passed that day. They told me "She was hiking the hills. She can hike faster than I can run." This was a key piece of information. People often look at Superior's 38 hour cut-off and think "That's 22 minutes per mile. I can walk that fast." So far, Diane's the only person who actually did that. She admitted to running only a few miles of the course - sometimes jogging the downhills - and hiking the rest of it. But where did the hiking ability come from?
In talking with Diane, I found that she had had vacations where she spent entire days hiking in mountains. Doing this taught her how to handle the hills at Superior. It also meant that she learned how to manage her food and water for long periods in the wilderness and how to be prepared for any kind of weather. Those are important lessons for long races.
Dan Mattimiro: Slowness and strength is a strength
Dan took up trail running and ultrarunning only months before finishing the Superior 100 in 2009. He finished last or nearly last in every race he entered, making the cut-off at the Ice Age 50 Mile by 3 minutes, at the Voyageur 50 by 12 (and missing the cut-off by more than 40 minutes at the Superior 50K, but still getting an official finish). It was a complete shock when, volunteering at the 90 mile mark at the 100 Mile, after seeing runners faltering in the surprise heatwave that hit the race, I saw Dan coming in looking like he had only run 20 miles. I told him "You've got this. You're over the worst parts of the course, you look great and you have plenty of time." Later, he'd say he wasn't sure he'd finish until I told him that. [and that's why you volunteer, guys]
I asked him how he trained for the race and he said he just ran as far as his wife would let him on the weekends. Later, he sent me a spreadsheet of his workouts and I had to search to find any running on it; it was training more suited for boxing (his training partner was an ex-boxer). On Saturdays, he ran 30-40 miles. Occasionally, he'd get in 2-3 miles in the middle of the week. That was all he ran!
This was bewildering to me at first. Then I slowly came to see that, when I first attempted to run 100 miles (2007), 30-40 miles would've meant 4-6 hours. For him it meant 7-11 hours. There's a big difference between these two; to run 7-11 hours, he had to carry his food and water with him (learning how and what to eat is a valuable lesson in ultras) and he was carrying a lot of added weight and I ran without food and maybe carried a water bottle. While I was running until my body ran out of glycogen, he was running solely on fat stores; I might crash at 7 hours, but he was just getting started.
The rest of his training also has benefits I disregarded. I train for hills by running hills, but strength training is another way to get one's legs ready for an ultra. When one gets tired in a long run, the body starts using different muscles (or using muscles differently) to take up some of the slack of fatigued muscles. I end up bent like a pretzel in 100 milers because some small postural muscles just aren't ready for 100 miles; he had trained these muscles by carrying a heavy pack while he ran (the hydration pack and everything else he carried - including spare shoes! - at Superior was over 20 pounds).
From my own races, I learned how to deal with difficulties. Lots of difficulties. One can tolerate excruciating pain a lot longer than one would expect - and longer than anyone should, voluntarily. "Do as I say, not as I do."
Aid Station: Eugene Curnow
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