Surviving Your First Hundred – Part 1: Preparation

Stay the CourseSpring has sprung, and with it, the seeds of the racing season have begun to sprout. We toil each spring to cultivate the fitness and fortitude necessary to survive and thrive in our chosen event. That event, for many of us, is the Hundred Miler.

Be it a Grand Slammer or a grass-roots race, hundreds are a big deal. They demand a whole new level of preparation and respect. The preparation – let alone the execution – requires enormous time and effort. And beyond any lesser distance, the Hundred requires a level of mental preparation, to boot.

I ran my first hundred at the Western States in 2011. It was my fourth-ever ultra. In preparation for my first ultra – a 50-miler at Autumn Leaves in Oregon – I did no special preparation. Zip. I toed the line and ran. However, I was a cocky road runner with significant fitness. Scarcely a month later, I was picked in the Western States lottery.

 “Oh, shoot.”

While I was very green about ultrarunning, I recognized the challenge ahead, and I began to prepare in all areas.

About this time, I colleague of mine introduced me to a book called, “Deep Survival.” In it, author Laurence Gonzales analyzes the physiology and the psychology of survival situations – getting lost in the wilderness, shipwrecks, mountaineering accidents, among others. Through his research, he identifies characteristics of “expert survivors,” and through many compelling case studies, he outlines several “rules of survival” that help the reader to survive and avoid threatening situations.

It only took me one race to realize that every ultra – especially the long one – is a “survival situation.” For many of us, that is part of the allure of the sport. As I prepared for Western States, I found Gonzales’ insights to be incredibly helpful.

Below, I have taken his first list and adapted it for hundred mile preparation.

Perceive, Believe, then Act

Rule number one in survival is the recognition of the demands of your event, to accept the circumstances, and then act accordingly.

For me and my first hundred, that meant recognizing the demands of the race, both general (distance, time on feet, nutrition) and specific (terrain, altitude, climate, competition). To perceive those demands, believe in their importance, and then act accordingly, is step one.

But even more than that, it meant that I had to recognize and plan for various problems that could happen: extreme fatigue, malaise, heat stress, blisters, and joint pain. Per Gonzales:

“It’s important to have a plan, a back-up plan, and a bail-out plan.” / “Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change, but it is change based on a true reading of the environment.”

Things to consider:

  • Train not only to run, but to hike. All but the fastest runners at all but the flattest courses will walk at least parts of the race. Plan for it. Train for it. Also train for having to get started after a prolonged rest.
  • Train for the time on your feet. Some fast 50s might only require six or seven hours running. But a mountain hundred could take twenty five. Doing a 20-hour run might not be sustainable, but spending a long day on a run/hike, then working the “honey-do list” for several hours after could be nearly as valuable.
  • Expect the unexpected. Have a back-up plan for the unexpected. Definitely practice the “maybe expected.” For example, as preparation for WS 2011, a group of Oregonians did a long run in the snow, high in the Cascades. That preparation paid off in the form of an 11th place and a F8.
  • If conditions change (you, or the course), recognize it and be flexible in your plan. Staying rigid to a pace plan or competition in a changing environment is a recipe for danger.

Avoid Impulse Behavior; Don’t Hurry

Gonzales talks about impulse behavior – during panic, or simply getting behind schedule. Impulse behavior is more likely to result in mistakes and harm.

  • Adapt your training and expectations to your current preparation. Injured? Too busy? If behind in your training, don’t try to catch up – it never works out well. I was injured after running American River in 2011, missing all of April and all but the end of May. In a rush to prepare, I ran too much in the four weeks preceding Western States, resulting in dead legs going into the race. Do only what you can do now, and do it well. Then go into the event healthy and fresh.

Know Your “Stuff”

Gonzales writes, “A deep knowledge of the world around you may save your life,” and, “Know the system and keep in mind that the forces may be so large (and fast) that they’re difficult to imagine.”

  • Know the specific demands of your course, namely terrain and climate. But also know the outlying patterns: What’s happened in the past? Extreme heat or cold? Rain or snow? And know what happens in those extreme years.
  • Know your body. How does it respond to long exercise? What fluids and fuels can it handle? What breaks down – physically or mentally – in your long efforts, and how can you shore it up in training?
  • Know your “Stuff.” Become experienced and comfortable with all race-day gear: shoes, apparel, belts, and bottles. Avoid trying new things on race day!
  • Know your personal limits and how the course, weather, and competitive forces will affect them. Extremes in climate and terrain can magnify in orders of magnitude on a person in a hundred miler.

Get the Information

“It’s a simple thing to know, but so many people plunge in without inquiring.”

  • Do your homework. Study everything you can get your hands on: books, magazine articles, helpful iRunFar posts, and race reports. Talk to veterans – of hundreds, and of yours, in particular. Learn as much as you can.

Commune with the Dead

Says Gonzales,

“If you could collect the dead around you and sit by the campfire and listen to their tales, you might find yourself in the best survival school of all… numerous publications not only provide reading that is by turns gripping, hilarious, and heart-wrenching, but also tell you the mistake other people have made. Then you can be on the lookout for similar situations and perhaps avoid them.”

  • Read others’ race reports – especially the people who struggled! You learn a lot more from those who struggled than those who triumphed. The strugglers tend to analyze their mistakes and provide a thoughtful post-mortem, while those who triumphed – especially those more experienced – are more likely to omit the crucial decision-making that they now engage in automatically. I read scores of race reports in preparation for Western States – some elites, but many, many mid-packers, and their stories and struggles were invaluable.

Be Humble

“The Rambo types are the first to go…. Don’t think that just because you’re good at one thing, it makes you good at other things.”

I was a 2:31 marathoner with sixteen years of running experience, as well as an experienced coach. But I recognized that knew nothing about ultras. That was a hugely important step for me as a green ultra runner doing my first hundred. Adds Gonzales,

 “These sports are different in that you need a mentor: You need it more after you’ve learned the basics than at first… you find yourself a mentor and attach yourself to him. Someone who’s been there. Part of knowing yourself is through your mentor.”

I was – and still am – extremely lucky and privileged to have the mentors locally to help me in my first hundred. Not only did they get me through it alive (and with a Silver Buckle to hold up my saggy pants), but they made they added so much value to my experience.

  • Be humble. Respect the event, and recognize that past successes at shorter events mean very little to a hundred mile performance. In fact, one’s hubris could get you into serious trouble by going out too fast, or failing to take care of oneself.
  • Get a mentor. Or many. Respect the sport and all it has to offer. Ours is a rare one where fellow competitors are willing to give you all the knowledge in their head and the shirt off their back, just for the price of a run (or a beer or two).

When in Doubt, Bail Out

This is a tough one, but important. Says Gonzales,

“You’ve paid for the airline. You’ve waited all year for this trip. You’ve bought all your equipment. It’s hard to admit that things aren’t going your way. At times like that, it’s good to ask yourself if it’s worth dying for…. It’s a matter of looking at yourself and assessing your own abilities and where you are mentally, and then realizing that it’s better to turn back and get a chance to do it again than to go for it and not come back at all…. Be realistic about your goals and your time frame.”

  • Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. There will come a point in time pre-race when you will – or should – realize that you lack the preparation to effectively – if not safely – complete a hundred miler. No one can tell you where or when that is. That is where a mentor can help you. But your own training – and health status – can clue you in.

When I was injured in my Western States build-up, I didn’t run a step until Memorial Day weekend. A week beforehand, I painfully emailed my eager crew and family to say to them, “I probably will not be running this year.” But, after that fortuitous weekend, I was lucky to be able to rapidly ramp up my training. Moreover, I passed a number of critical “trials” in the weeks preceding the race, including a 50-mile training day on the WS course. It was only after that day did I believe I had what it took to survive my first hundred.

* * * * *

I truly believe that ultrarunning is the legitimate test of survival, with the hundred-miler being the standard-bearer for survival events. And, perhaps, that’s what makes ultras so rewarding: by surviving to the finish line, we’re all victors.

Stayed tuned for Part Two, where we take Gonzales’ work and apply it to surviving the race experience.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • How much of 100 mile success do you think is in preparing for the race versus execution and fortitude on race day?
  • Which of the above survival lessons do you find most applicable to preparing for an ultramarathon? Which fall short?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 33 comments

  1. Randy

    Very well done Joe,for me,it's the nutrition angle that i can never figure out.Ultra after Ultra,my stomach shuts down,i lose energy,suffer-fest,on i trudge.Tried so many different approaches,but my stomach is a wimp,been a wimp,and probably always will be a wimp,but it's made me very strong at suffering,(thanks stomach,i think!).

    1. OOJ

      Randy-

      Thanks for the post.

      With regards to your stomach: you might consider the words of a couple crafty veterans. Mr Craig Thornley posted about the late Dave Terry's advice when it comes to nutrition: "Volume, Electrolytes, Calories":

      http://conductthejuices.com/2009/09/21/dave-terry

      It's possible your intolerant stomach may be due to lack of fluid. The stomach is a muscle, but low on the priority list during exercise. When blood flow and fluid is at a premium, the body will shut down the stomach before the muscle or other vital organs.

      That is the case for my stomach — which, when hydrated, is rock-solid, but when I'm low on fluid, it gets grouchy. Consider Mr Terry's "rules" and see how that affects your stomach on race day.

      1. Randy

        Thanks Joe,i'll start working more on the volume aspect in training,always thought i did enough,about 1 waterbottle an hour,but with the x-tra calories from gels and liquid nutrition,maybe i need more,sure can't make it any worse!

      2. Matt P

        "It’s possible your intolerant stomach may be due to lack of fluid." So true. I discovered this at RR100 in February–but only after about 60 miles of gastric distress. Unable to down more than half a saltine at a time, I was ready to drop a little after 80. The Damnation aid station leader counseled me to drink a lot more than I had been & take in some electrolytes. 30 minutes or so of walking later, I could eat, then shuffle, then run all the way home. Since then, have been experimenting in training runs & finding I can handle much more food, as long as I take in adequate fluid (usually just before).

        I had always thought of drinking in terms of avoiding dehydration–and read that this was an overblown fear. Well, maybe, in the marathon or less. But in ultras, we need to drink to digest.

  2. Sniffer

    I jumped into "trail" running and thought that I was going to just go and train for 6 months and run a 100…ha ha ha I look back and see how foolish. After reading and "studying" I have come the realization that like Bryon's book suggests, take your time and enjoy it. There is no reason to try a 100 asap. So with that I have a 50K, and 50mi for this year for sure and we will just see…

  3. footfeathers

    Solid information and well organized! To answer the last two questions: for me personally, I believe execution and mental fortitude play a bigger role in 100 mile success than training. I've seen too many amazingly well trained runners either run dumb races or fold too easily when it gets tough. Well focused, gritty people with a never-give-up attitude will finish more than a 100 mile per week monster training runner without the correct mindset or toughness. The mental blocks you reach in 100s are typically more (much more) debilitating and race ending than any physical pain. The survival strategy that rings most true to me is the advice to avoid impulse behavior. Good decisions take a little time. I've rushed through aid stations, forgetting fundamental things. I've been in dangerous situations and, thankfully, been with people who made us pause and come up with the best solution instead of making a snap decision.

    The mental attitude before a 100 is also big for me. If I'm not completely absorbed in the knowledge that I'll finish, I won't run it. Any little doubt is like a virus that will spread when things get bad in the race.

    I'm far from an experienced 100 miler but those are the things I've learned so far.

  4. Trail Clown

    I really think the most important thing is to "like" running. You would think that every runner that signs up for a 100 miler fits that description, but I've seen many runners who just simply want to conquer the event/distance. Especially for my first 100 miler, I was like a kid in a candy shop…being allowed to run all day and all night, and that was my only responsibility….you don't get that chance often in life. And also it's never really "suffering" if your expectations include suffering. Including lots of suffering in training is always a good idea. Then it will never be a big deal, just part of the normal deal.

  5. Jim Schroeder

    Excellent advice. The psychological aspects and required execution flexibility are key to maintaining hydration, electrolyte and nutritional balances. I have finished 5 out of 6 attempts and each was a different run entirely. The one I DNF-ed, in retrospect, was an inability to adapt at 2:00 am when tired and disoriented suffering hallucinations.

    Many thanks, I learned from your article.

    Jim

  6. Jay

    Good article. I think I'll pick up a copy of Deep Survival to check out while training for Wasatch this year. I have to say to Trail Clown that I am one of those guys who doesn't like to run. Don't get me wrong, 10 milers are fine and being out on the trails enjoying what the Lord has created gets me excited but training for a 100 miler is a different animal. For me the pain is a big part of it. At some point it is going to hurt and I believe it is how you respond to the pain that will ultimately get you to finish line. I like what Jurek says about embracing it and getting it under control. And the satisfaction of crossing the finish line of a 100 miler, well it doesn't get much better than that!!

  7. Justin McMillan

    Thanks for the great article Joe! I've done a 50 miler and a 50k, and I am planning doing another few races before the 100 in Steamboat. I like everyone else's advice also, especially what people say about embracing the pain and discomfort…I'm looking forward to the struggle, and I am preparing myself mentally as much as I'm preparing myself physically. That sounds like it will be the key (obviously not speaking from experience).

  8. Alex from New Haven

    For me personally I think one should put in a few years at the shorter distances and get confident at the 50 mile distance. Of course someone CAN do a 100 right off the bat, but no one would "recommend" jumping from a 5k straight to the marathon either…

    Finishing your first 100.

    1) Be humble. If people ahead of you are walking a hill, walk it. If you recognize people around you from magazines or blogs, SLOW DOWN.

    2) Run aid station to aid station.

    3) Keep mistakes small and don't stack them. Mistakes are multiplicative in their penalties. If you're behind on something, slow down and fix it.

    4) Know your strengths and weaknesses; don't get yourself in trouble running someone else' race.

    5) You CAN walk-in the last 20-30 miles if you set your mind to it. It sucks, but as long as you don't have a serious injury, it's worth the grind.

  9. Randi

    I am the turtle.. laugh while you run by me now rabbit. I will wish you well with a gel when you are curled in the fetal position dry heaving.. and then I will finish.

    Race strategy.. by Randi :)

  10. Brett

    Hey Randy – just wanted to comment on your post. I bet you my stomach is more of a wimp than yours! You're not alone my friend. I ran my first 50-miler last year and it was a suffer-fest for the last 20 miles. But I think I've finally found a solution that a friend (who happens to be an ultra-runner and the Marketing Director of our local Fleet Feet running store) turned me on to: Real Food. I've been carrying a hydration pack with me in all my ultras – from 50k on up and I also carry PB&J sandwiches with me. Don't know if you've tried this or not, but alternating real food (a 1/4 PB&J sandwich is 100 calories) with gels has been the magic potion for me. A LOT of people cannot handle GUs every 30 minutes – and I'm definitely one of them. Give it a shot – I'd be surprised if it doesn't work. Good luck man!

  11. shine

    Great post! Right on time when I am about to venture into my 1st 100-miler in May.

    As for the answers for the questions:

    1) Definitely execution and fortitude are more critical than the preparation for the race. I wouldn't play down the importance of preparation, but majority of the runners who enter 100 miles events are either physically fit with a few 100k or shorter ultras under their belts and most of them are wise enough to recognize the importance of training. But to make or to break on race day, it all depends on the mental toughness.

    2) Be Humble. Respect the Distance! 'nuff said!

  12. REKrol

    I failed at my first attempt at the Bear 100, but came back the following year and was successful. I think Ken Chlouber the man behind Leadville made a wonderful point, "Explaining why you didn't finish a million times is much more painful than finishing"

  13. Mike W.

    Plan well, have a crew and pacer if possible, and set your priorities (mine are generally 1) no long-term injuries, 2) finish, 3) have fun, and 4) finish as fast as possible). Finishing a 100K before a 100 miler is also helpful.

  14. art

    I must be a quitter at heart because the DNF does not bother me if the day's just not right.

    Besides, all the non ultra people I know think I'm great for going 93 or 88 miles. They don't have a clue though.

    My training is adequate.

    My logistics are amazing.

    for me its all about the mental.

    for that reason I never uses pacers, face my weakness on my own.

  15. Brett

    Hey Matt P: – I think you're absolutely right on. It's so easy to forget to drink, too – especially when you're feeling really good. But man it comes back to haunt you later on – and then it's really, really hard to catch up. I do envy those guys who have iron stomachs, but for mere mortals like me, it's the failures that help me learn.

  16. Ellen

    Joe, thanks so much for the insight. Excellent way to voice what we should all already know. :-) I'm a very new ultrarunner having only done 50 km so far but shooting for a 100 km in November this year. I'll be thinking of your words each time I go for a long training run.

  17. James

    Get through 50 in good shape (food, water, salt) then have a bunch of smaller goals from there (next AS, next summit, next hill). Otherwise, when you are hating yourself and in the bad place(s), it can be hard…

  18. Jay

    Great quote from Born to Run. "Ultra's are eating and drinking contests with a little exercise and scenery thrown in". For me I believe that if I get my nutrition and fluids under control and respect the distance then everything else will fall into place.

  19. Linda

    An Ultra runner friend passed this article to me on FB. It is excellent advice for anyone in in ultra distance racing or into hiking adventures. I am a triathlete but plan to spend next year doing ultra trail runs & maybe one day a 100 miler. I just finished reading the book Deep Survival and I enjoyed it as well. Looking forward to reading your Part 2! I am passing both your article and the book on to a hard core ultra distance runner – I think the advice is good even for those who are experienced. Thanks so much!

  20. Myles Smythe

    Nice comment Randi! I'm usually the rabbit. I know how that feels (being fetal on the side of the trail, while you pass me and I become envious…."if only I…") and for some reason I still take that risk at most of my ultra events (I usually do get up and finish….slowly). My high 'highs' of running fast, still outweigh my very low 'lows' on the side of the trail. I have experienced very bad times and mentally have the attitude to persevere, as Footfeathers suggested earlier.

    I've seen many friends with too many successful, perfect races, fall short when they encounter their first problems mid-race, then DNF. My advice to first 100 mile attemptutees: Go practice having a bad day, as training for your next big ultra and learn how to conquer that experience, both physically and mentally. I finished my first 100 miler last year, because my only problem during that race, was the same problem I've normally dealt with in the past (nausea). Even though I DID start off as a turtle in the 100 miler, my problem still caught up to me at mile 62. I pushed on through the night, confident I would overcome my nausea and finished like a rabbit!

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