100 Mile Intrigue: Embracing the Unknown

There’s something mythical and mysterious about the 100-mile distance. It is the most intimidating, intriguing, and respected distance commonly raced in trail running. I’ve felt this way about 100 miles since long before I ran my first one – The Susitna 100 in 2006. Before I even knew that an entire sport of ultrarunning existed, I knew about a few of the well-known 100 mile races: Western States, Leadville, Hardrock, and Wasatch. I was both horrified and strangely drawn to the idea that 100-mile running races existed. I never thought I would actually run 100 miles, but I always had an inexplicable curiosity about running that far. It was as though I was curious to run a 100-mile race because I wouldn’t quite believe they existed until I did.

Several years and eight 100-mile finishes later, I no longer doubt whether these races really exist and if people really do run them. There is, however, still something magical and intensely appealing to me about the distance. I think this appeal comes from several places, but mostly from how challenging, unpredictable, and unknown the experience of running 100 miles on trails in the mountains is.

Despite the rapid growth in the sport of trail running, the 100-mile distance is still only attempted by a small minority of trail runners. If you take it a step further and compare it to the marathon or other popular road racing distances, the amount of people running 100-mile races is essentially non-existent. Someone with a lot more patience than I could probably look this up, but my guess would be that more people complete a marathon worldwide in a month than have ever completed a 100-mile race.

It is this lack of precedent combined with the immense challenge that makes 100-mile races so mythical and appealing. So few people have actually attempted to run 100 miles that there really is no proven right way to do it. (I’d like to use the statement that the book hasn’t yet been written on this subject, but one only needs to look as far as the editor of this website to find an actual book on this subject, so this kind of shoots the metaphor dead.)

There are many theories on how to best prepare for and race 100 miles, but you find very little consistency within these theories. Every successful 100-mile runner has found an approach that works for them, but no one’s approach seems to work for everyone. In a recent column on this website, Ian Torrence talks about the necessity of a structured training program which includes a balance of endurance runs, stamina workouts, and speed training. I have only met Ian briefly in passing, but with a resume of over 150 ultramarathon finishes in a nearly 20-year career, he is someone I take very seriously when he writes about how to prepare for an ultramarathon. The problem, though, is that when I take into account my experiences of racing 100 miles, I have found no personal benefit of a structured training program. I am not alone in this area.

The three fastest runners ever to run The Western States 100 – Tony, Kilian, and myself – have something in common in our approach to training that is hard to ignore: we each simply go out and run in the mountains with essentially no structure. The runner who has won more 100-mile races than anyone in the world, Karl Meltzer: the same thing. Unless of course you count shoveling snow and sledding as stamina workouts or speed training. Ian, however, also isn’t alone in his belief in a structured training program being an “essential element of successful ultramarathon training.” As evidenced in the responses to Ian’s column, many 100-mile runners seem to benefit from a more traditional, structured training program that includes regular stamina and speed work. What works for one often seems to have no benefit for another, but it is the success of these diverse approaches that makes the 100-mile distance so elusive and intriguing.

The question then that begs to be asked is who is right? How can so many people disagree on something so intrinsic to the sport as to whether structured training is necessary to be fully prepared to race 100 miles? The answer, of course, is that no one is entirely right, and no one is entirely wrong. And herein lies the appeal of the 100-mile distance: none of us really know what we’re doing when it comes to 100 miles, and the aspiring 100 mile runner who has yet to race her first step, has a better chance of figuring out what works best for her than anyone else does. I have people ask me all the time what advice I would give them for preparing for their first 100 miler. I usually give them a few basic logistical tips, and then tell them that all they can really do is go out and run until they find out what works for them. And, lastly, I tell them to be skeptical of anyone who tells them that they know definitively what type of preparation is going to work best for them.

Eventually, the practice of running 100 miles may become so commonly attempted that a definitive best method will evolve and come to the surface, but I think this will be a sad day for the sport. So much of the intimidation, intrigue, and appeal of running 100 miles comes from the reality that none of us really know what we’re doing.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What intrigues you about the 100-mile distance?
  • Do you think there’s a best approach to training for a 100-mile race? If so, what is it?

There are 81 comments

  1. Phil Jeremy

    Excellent piece that fills me with confidence. I have never run 100 miles (60k is my best so far)but I've only been doing it a year and I'm 57. However, if the brilliant Geoff Roes doesn't know what he's doing then there's hope for us all.

  2. Mark

    100 miles ain't that far! That's all you need to succeed!

    There's a 100 miler who lives by this creed…:) Must work..

    Nice article..

  3. Patrick Cawley

    Geoff, if you have not found the definitive training plan for 100 miles, I guess the rest of us have a long way to go. In the meantime, your writing about the quest is excellent. I hope that you will not let Bryon have the last word on the subject. You could be the Edward Abbey of the ultrarunning world (yes, I noticed in "Unbreakable" that you were reading "Beyond the Wall" before the 2010 Western States). Your piece on the Iditarod run revealed your level of insight into the human experience of enduring the internal and external elements over distance. In any event, keep up the good work with this column.

  4. Kali

    Like Geoff said, it's the mythical appeal of the 100 mile distance and the fact that it is so uncommon that lures me to it. I have yet to run it, but have plans to do so in the near future.
    And with racing any distance, there's no miracle training plan that's right for everyone. That's the fun of it all, just figuring out what works for you and having fun with it.

  5. solarweasel

    I agree that nobody has cracked the 100-miler. If there were a single "tried-and-true" approach (like with the marathon), there would be books, clinics, websites devoted to it (again, like with the marathon).

    The 100-miler simply presents too many variables, many of which cannot be foreseen (and, therefore, planned for) but must instead be adapted to as each case arises. Some ultrarunners, through sheer experience and wisdom, have gotten rather good at this (Karl, Geoff, etc) and their consistent high level of performance proves it.

    Sure, a structured approach may work for some (my guess is Ian comes from a background of structured training), but not all. Perhaps ultrarunning will wone day be reduced to a science like marathon and triathlon training — but I don't think that will happen soon.

    I have found the sport to be less enjoyable the more structured I try to be… and I would wager many would agree with that sentiment. Thanks for the thoughts, Geoff.

  6. Chris Cawley

    I think lacking a regimented training program is fine for people for whom logging insane amounts of time on mountain trails is the primary focus of life, and for whom that has been the case for so long that base fitness is always high. I mean no disrespect to people living this lifestyle.

    However for the huge majority of people who run ultras, being more judicious with possible training time is a great way to make noticeable improvements.

    1. olga

      I agree and also would like to add there are naturally gifted runners who only need to keep that "base" with a couple 2-3 hrs runs a day, and then there are more normal folks for whom running in general is not that easy, running few times or few hours a day is not possible, and living in the mountains is far but a dream. And, I believe that those naturally gifted who run a bunch on a great terrain for many hours also do lots of surges, friendly competitions with each other, uphill fast runs which could easily sub for LT and intervals…I believe Tony does traditional track once in a while (or used to, anyway). And so did Scot Jurek, who still has 7 WS100 wins to his credit and lots of other stuff.

      No disrespect to an idea to simply go out and run. As you say, there is no magic formula. If someone has plenty of time to try each approach, then so they should, to find which one works best. I did, and I found:)

    2. Nate K

      Having just ran my first 100 here's my $0.02. I've never been much of a runner but loved the idea of trail running such a long distance. I'm a medical student and didn't have much free time to train so I just went one long run every other weekend. I did no running during the week. I finished my first 100 in under 23 hours last month. So just running can be effective even when short on time. Like the author says, your millage may vary.

      On a side note the more I considered my runs as "training" the less enjoyable it was. The less structured my runs the more enjoyable running is for me. If I was always training for something I don't think I would run, it feels too much like work.

  7. Randy

    Hmmmm,think running strong up Green day after day,mostly twice a day,might be similar to a track runner showing up at the track for his training,or a swimmer hitting the pool,course the 2 examples don't quite compare to Tony's playground,just saying……

  8. Joe

    I'm curious why more people aren't exploring the training/ideas/science of the people who have long/hard endurance events figured out pretty good. Ironman Triathletes.

    There is no denying that 'just running', unstructured, has worked for quite a few people (as mentioned) so far, however the sport is young, and the competitiveness is growing…

  9. Mark Ryan

    Running 100 miles is intriguing. Some day I will jump on that crazt train and go for what expect to be a wild ride. Something like HR100 or LT100 won't be my first attempt at the distance, something flat in the middle of the prairies may be a better choice (but not as beautiful). Structured training may help some of us who have never run to understand the biomechanics of it all to limit injury. From that point I think it is trial and error. We all know that there is a lot more to running for 23 hours than just the one foot in front of the other, there's nutrition, hydration, foot care, being mentally prepared, sleep deprivation, on and on. I don't think you can ever truly "be ready" for 100 miles, at some point it becomes mind over matter and you just have to shed off the fear and common sense that holds you back and just go and run.

  10. Andrew

    Great article…This is one of the things I love about Ultrarunning in general…I have been (gratefully) receiveing advice from fellow runners for the 10 years I have been doing this, and almost to a person they have started every comment with "This is what has worked for me"…When asked, I have always said, take what works, leave what doesn't, and realize that something that works this year may not work the next…In what other sport would you find your "competition" willing to tell you everything they know??? Thanks for the great read…

  11. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    Geoff, your Susitna 100 record was in 2007. Just thought I'd point that out.

    Also, I think one of the main reasons there can never be a single structured program for the 100-mile distance is that fact that over that distance, there can be so many variables to contend with that what works for one person within one particular race wouldn't work for that same person in another race. Most marathons are fairly similar in effort. Hundreds are not. The Susitna 100 is nothing like the Hardrock 100; the only thing the share in common is a vague mileage distance, but both are tough challenges and their finishing times reflect that.

    I agree that figuring out what works for you is half the fun. For most of us, the main goal is just finishing, but even that is never a given in a 100-mile event.

  12. Van Horn

    Three weks after running my first 100, I know there are things I will change for my next 100. Only through experience will I find what works best for me; but I have benefitted from reading how others train for and run thier ultras. I take what seems good advice and run with it.

  13. Bob Enders

    Excellent write up.

    Without any disrespect, I disagree with the comment about unstructured training for the three fastest western states times. By the very nature that these are statistical outlier's in 100 mile finishes, they need to be discounted from the sample. The sample of how to finish a 100 mile should come from the mid pack runners – the big curve in the middle that regularly successfully finishes.

    Base lining off the training, nutrition or 'anything' of the top finishers of something like western states is like saying 'my uncle lived to 99 and he smoked and drank everyday so I am going to smoke and drink'.

    Geoff – in reality you are SO GOOD that it is unwise for others to follow your training because you are a statistical anomaly!

    1. Geoff

      Hey Bob,

      I think you are dead on with this point. I do believe though that even when looking at the big curve in the middle you will find training theories all across the board. i used the example of tony, kilian, and I as one tiny little sample that would likely resonate a lot more in people's minds, and get people thinking a bit more seriously about the points i was making. thanks for reading.

    2. Beat Jegerlehner

      Totally correct IMO. As a midpacker who knows a lot of other midpackers who can finish their 100s I can attest though that structured training seems to be relatively unimportant for finishing (except of course for races with very tight cut-offs like Barkley or the Spartathlon). To achieve your best time … that's a wholly different story of course. I think training is more a matter of personality – do whatever you need to do to be on your feet, if structure helps, do that, otherwise do whatever is fun. I even found that you don't necessarily need to match the terrain very closely.

  14. Beat Jegerlehner

    Another thing that is often overlooked is – what IS your goal? I personally am not fast nor want to be – I want to be able to race as much as I can during a year, and finish my races. For that, speedwork is a killer for me personally. Strength training … I need it, but I am way too lazy for that. I am very light on training in general and race instead, which works perfectly for me. No matter the amount of training I would always be second-rate speed wise, but there are few racers who run more 100s than me a year, which is sort of cool, but more importantly I get to have a whole lot of fun. Admittedly my work situation has more to do with than than any skill I might have …

    For "regular" runners to emulate fast people isn't always the best approach. I rather look to my personal elites – Hans-Dieter Weisshaar and Monica Scholz for example.

    But Geoff is spot on in that not everything works for everyone. There just aren't enough people doing this to get any sort of proper classification of runners and goals and training programs done. That's part of the fun!

  15. Dean G

    Another outstanding piece, Geoff.

    Is it fair to say that the one thing most successful 100-mile runners have in common is a much higher percentage of vertical (per mile run) than your average road racer?

  16. Vanessa

    Love. I finished my first 100 this year, and I'm registered to (hopefully) collect 2 more buckles by the end of the year. In my entire running career, I have never been more obsessed with a certain distance. I think it's because this is the only one that scares the shit out of me. I can't get enough.

  17. KENT

    I'm 57 and have only been running a year and a half. Heck, 26.2 miles still intrigues me! A 100 MILES: well that just blows me away. My hats off to anyone who has done it or is aspiring to do it. You inspire me and keep me plugging away towards that paultry 26.2.

  18. Geoff

    i think there are many people (and have been for years) exploring the theory of ironman training to running 100 milers, but i'm not sure if huge numbers of people are having any kind of consistent success that can/should be applied to large groups of aspiring 100 milers as a definitive "best" scientific approach. ironman races are each quite similar to each other, and thus the training can be very systematic and scientific. 100 mile races are all so different to each other that what works for one may not work at all for another. beyond this you have the reality that the average 100 mile race takes about twice as long as the avearage ironman. personally i think this is too substantial of a difference for the best training for one to also be the best training for the other. but yeah, i do think that some parts of ironman training can (and have) been applied to running 100 miles, but I don't believe that if 100 mile racing/training ever does become definitively "figured out" it's not going to be through the models of ironman training. that would have happened already if it was ever going to.

    1. springbok

      Geoff is right on. I would estimate that a 100 miler is about three times harder than an ironman. Firstly, the average swim is about 70 minutes with drafting assistance, the bike is about 6h 30 min with drafting assistance and the run is about 4 hours with aid every 1 mile. Also the fact that overuse does not occur because of the relief provided by moving on to a different activity. The 100 miler is continual attrition in the same activity and hence much harder. This is just my opinion especially since I have not done a 100 miler (yet?).

      1. Jason

        I agree with this. The way I felt after finishing Ironman was very similar to how I feel after a hard 50 miler. But, I did IM several years before I started running ultras. It'd be interesting to know what an IM feels like now – although I have no desire to find out.

  19. Megan

    Just getting out there and running was my "training plan" for my first 50 miler. Felt wildly unprepared physically but mentally I was raring to go, and it was the best day ever! I never thought I'd want to try 100 but now the seed has been planted. I'm so sure I have the mental toughness to get through it that I kind of want to call myself out on it…

  20. David T.

    I would also add that it makes no sense to compare individual runners and their training plans (or lack thereof) to each other. The real question is: would runner A perform better training under plan X or plan Z or no plan at all? Using specific examples of runners who do well training in a certain fashion is meaningless because we don't know if they would do better or worse under a different plan.

  21. Randy

    Agree that people need to find what works best for them in approaching 100's,but just curious Geoff what you think of the many coaches that are out there,they have to completely rely on structure,many times not even seeing their clients,but giving them advice and programs by email or phone.That approach seems to take away the finding out what works for the individual,and assuming the coach has the "best"way for any athlete to perform well in 100's.

    1. Geoff


      great question. I don't think anyone needs a coach to reach their potential for running 100 miles, and in many cases i think aspiring 100 mile runners are held back by having a coach. That said, i do think there are several basic things one needs to learn before they have the tools to be able to find what works best for them. in most cases having a coach will be extremely helpful in getting you more quickly to the point of being able to figure your own thing out, but once you're to that point I think you'll just be holding yourself back if you continue to rely too strictly on the guidance of someone else. it is worth noting though that i don't think these same thoughts apply to shorter distances, and there are very few runners out there who are focused solely on the 100 mile+ distances. For most ultrarunners I think it makes perfect sense to have a coach, but to be very aware that what your coach is having you do probably applies a lot more to shorter ultras than it does to 100's.

      1. KenZ

        Having had a coach (whom I've never met in person!) for the last few years, I want to weigh in on this. I agree with much that Geoff says, but am still very "pro-coach," for me at least. I was 41, had never run a marathon, and just been running seriously for about 6 months with my longest run 20 miles. In the following year, he coached me through my first 50 very well, followed by two more 50s (including a very hilly road 50 in 7:08), and then my first 100 (Javalina in 18:36).

        Could I have done these without a coach? Probably. But I enjoyed having a coach so much that now that I'm (slightly) more 'experienced' I still use him. It's not that he just sends out rigid schedules that you slog through; he's available for unlimited phone and email conversation, adjusts each week's schedule based on your prior week's comments and performance. I look forward to each week's schedule to see what he's got in there to mix up my training. And if I want to blow off his stuff for the week and do random long runs in the mountains because I feel like it? Sure! Then he adjusts the following week to account for it.

        I guess my point is that having a coach does not lock you in to some rigid training schedule that doesn't let you figure it out for yourself. YOU are still doing the runs, and YOU are still experimenting in the races. The coach doesn't run them for you, he/she provides some structure and guidance and becomes the person that knows your running second only to you. And for those on a tight schedule, the accountability each week helps to get you out the door sometimes…

  22. AJW


    Great article, I enjoyed thinking of the contrast between your style and Ian's. As an experienced 100 mile runner myself and and erstwhile coach I think that part of the mystery and mystique comes from the fact that things don't always work the same way twice. I've told countless people over the years that the key to 100 mile success is removing all variables. This, of course, has to do with course knowledge, equipment, nutrition, and training. In a way, the training is the easy part compared to some of the other intangibles and even a runner as talented as you knows that sometimes a bad day just happens. Therefore, regardless of whether you go with a systematic approach like Ian or Scott or Ann or a less systematic approach like you, Kilian, and Anton, if the training succeeds in limiting race day variables it will likely minimize the mystery and mystique. Furthermore, I think it should be said, that experience trumps just about every other factor in 100-mile racing. For confirmation one need look no further than the Matt Carpenter Leadville "experiment".


  23. Andy

    Between your post, Geoff, and Joe Uhan's post, it must be 100m season! Like others I have been ramping up to the distance, with a few 50ks, one 50m, and one 100k (UROC) under my belt. Agree about the intrigue and allure of the distance and its inherent challenge and mystery. Have been vacillating between running 100m this fall vs taking another year to get a few more 50-milers in. Either way, I am totally in your camp as far as training. I do run some hill repeats here and there and certainly do the gradually longer weekend run, but otherwise just run for the joy of it. I may not be as fast as i oughta be, but hey, I'm having fun and that's what counts. If you're enjoying yourself and feeling fulfilled it never feels like work.

  24. Anonymous

    Hi Geoff,

    I excellent thoughts. By the way, I wish you would write a book about Ultrarunning, 100 Mile runing etc, not for getting a plan to do this, no, just describe your way how to come to ultra, ect. some nice stories when your running with killian and other, some infos about some races and so on.

    I guess you have talent in ultra running like only some other guys in the wordl, but you also have a talent in writing. Please write a book, may be also about your live as runner. it is going to get a bestseller fpr sure. better as fpr example"born to run " or 50 Marathons in 50 days. This books are great, but if you would write a book it is getting awesome, insane without words.

    You and guys like Killian, and Tony make me loving this sport. Every day

    Take care Thomas from Germany

  25. Speedgoatkarl

    I think what Geoff has put together here is simple, yet complex at the same time.

    "Run on Feel" Schedules and plans work for alot of folks, but a schedule is simply a "guide" to go by. Jobs, children, regular life gets in the way all the time, so we must learn how to adapt and how to become most efficient in training.

    100 miles is the ultimate distance, only a few of us nuts focus on em'. :-) For me, it's all about the variables. 50k's and even now 50 milers, anyone can be a decent runner and win, or at least be competitive. 50 miles is the warmup for 100's, but until we do it, we never know. I've now done 54 100 milers, each one I felt a little different. I learn something every time, even in my ripe old age of 44. I've learned one thing for sure though…."it's really not that far". That's what we're talking about when we say it's all in the head. My two cents…

  26. Jason

    I do want to correct one thing – Killian actually follows a very structured program. He has had a coach, gets tested in the lab and knows his "levels." He basically follows the same plan that a world cup nordic skier or professional cyclist would. I've seen videos of him doing 10 X 1 minute intervals. However in talking to him, you would get the feeling that he is just going out and running (though less than half of his annual training is running) in the mountains. 80%+ of a structured training plan is unstructured easy work.

    Completely agree that training for events longer than a fews hours long is completely understood. However, much is understood scientifically – world cup nordic skiers race 90+K and professional cyclist are basically ultra athletes (riding 4-7 hours for 20 days straight.) Any athlete would improve considerably by incorporating these principles into a plan.

    1. Geoff

      jason, from anything kilian has told me i'd be surprised if his training is as structured as you indicate here, but i haven't talked to him that much about it so you may be correct.

      in terms of comparing nordic skiers racing 90k races and cyclists riding 4-7 hours a day for 20 days to running 100 miles, i think these are all very different endeavors. an entirely different physical (and mental) skill set is needed to push yourself for 15+ hours than is needed to push yourself for 4-6 hours or to push yourself for 4-7 hours 20 days in a row. applying training techniques of one of these disciplines is like applying training techniques for running a mile to running a marathon…. they just aren't the same. not even close.

  27. Indi

    As someone who hopes to attempt a 100miler next spring this is very good to hear! So far the only thing I have learned while training for an upcoming 40mile race is that one: long runs are critical; two: learn to constantly adapt and change as your body needs and three: just keep moving and most times what hurts will pass eventually!!

  28. Alex from New Haven

    The advantage of the "unstructured mountain training" is that they're getting more time getting race specific data and stimulus than anyone else. And, they're having to make choices about when to run and how much based on how they FEEL rather than based on a schedule, meaning they're putting a lot of thought into understanding their bodies of how it responds to stress.

    No one has ever DNFed a 100 because they didn't do speedwork or a tempo run, but many have suffered because they didn't build a set of quads. This is why people obsess over running the canyons on the Western States Course. They may not be squeezing every second out of their performance, but they're maximizing their chances of finishing. The mountain guys have built those tools and understand how to take care of themselves.

  29. Jason Koop

    As a professional coach, and a manager of dozens of professional endurance coaches, I obviously have a bit of bias here. That preface said, I would make the argument that the athletes that would benefit the MOST from a coach or a structured training program are actually ultramarathon runners simply because of the inherent variability of the sport that many have alluded to earlier. Coaches (and to a lesser extent a structured training program) allow an athlete to weed through the maze of decision making and athletic development in a more efficient and precise way. The more there is to weed through, the more beneficial the coach is. That’s why you generally see the most complicated sports (not just running) have the biggest structure of coaches. The coaching structure/staff allows the athletes to compete at the highest level possible as they have taken out (or coached to) all of the different variables that can happen. Specifically for ultra marathoners, what a coach (especially a very good coach) can enable an athlete to do is to harness all of the experiences of not only one athlete, but all of their athletes and all of their own personal experiences to better enable their athlete to become better by prescribing the training that will work for that particular athlete.

    1. Geoff


      I think you raise some great points, and essentially present the most convincing thing i've yet heard about the need for a coach in ultrarunning. thanks for the great insights.

  30. Mark 'Doc'

    I tried both ways, A) letting it all hang out with no set training schedule and B) following a 3 month 'plan'. The two times I relaxed and just trained with long training runs of 40+ mile days I ran sub 17. The times I focused and trained for a specific race I blew up and ran slow (>20). For me, it is the muscle memory. Long hard slogs in training make a world of difference. On race day, it is just toeing the line and remembering to eat and drink enough. The hard work was done long before race day.

    Everyone has a different training system for Hundos (100 mile races), just like we all have different race fuel needs. I, for one, figured out I can only stomach fruit during ultras. Others drink maple syrup (ick!) We are all very different which is why I think there will never be a 'book' on how to train for Hundos. If there is, it will work for very few people.

  31. Darka

    Another great article Geoff, thanks!

    I'm training for a 56 mile race in September (my first Ultra) and you've inspired me to at least think about a 100 mile one day.

  32. Russell

    Nate, I think that is amazing, insane and highly noteworthy that you ran only once a week in preparation for a 100. It defeats so many theories out there of mileage mileage mileage. The one crucial benefit of your 'regimen' would be complete recovery between runs. Congratulations on your first 100.

    On Talk Ultra it was really interesting to listen to the views of Gory Ansleigh and David Horton. Both highly experienced ultra lords. Gordy advocates running a couple of times a week but making every run count. While David Horton advises running about 6 days a week. David has achieved a lot more on his feet I would think, but at the same time, he is at a point where at 60, he can't run anymore because his knees are shot. While Gordy is preparing for yet another WS100. So….

    Geoff, I fully abide by your (and Kilian's, Tony's and Karl's…) training method. And fully agree with the line, a definitive best method will evolve and come to the surface, but I think this will be a sad day for the sport. That is exactly what has happened with the Marathon. There are so many 'definitive' books. And I find training according to them, while they may yield results, takes away all the joy from training. The exact numbers that you have to hit every session, if your keen on a Boston type result, are pretty stressful. I think it's something like the difference between reading a book for fun versus having to memorise the same content for an end of term exam.

    After all you train 4 months for a 1 day race. You might as well enjoy the 4 months more than that 1 day.

    1. Daine Roy

      loved this blog!….I think keepng yourself fit is the most important thing and that can be done by cross training such a spinning,circuit training and not all about running!…I just love doing exercise especially with friends and when you are having fun you dont know you are actually working out!…have just done an amazing 63 miler across Ireland with the Lost Worlds guys…had a blast and got 2nd lady!…finished 5th overall…not bad for a newbie!:-)

    1. Nate K

      I did two 50 mile training runs and a bunch of 20-30 milers, averaging around 4-5 mph (depending on elevation gain/loss). I have always been able to hike/ski tour all day, so there was somewhat of an endurance base already there. One of my biggest concerns was an over-training injury, that and time. While I didn't get injured training I'm paying the price for it now. I've got this Achilles tendinitis still 3 weeks out. So don't get me wrong, if I had had more time to train I would have.

  33. matt

    I think there is a degree of factoring to all this. To someone who can run 1k, a 10km race seems as daunting as 100miler to a marathon runner. The factor of physical/mental fitness gain one must obtain to get from 1k to 10k, or from 26 miles to 100 miles remains constant, only the starting 'point' is different. The one variable is the time needed to invest to get there which is simply defined by the distance.

    Do you need structured training for 10k and will it work every time? Maybe.

    Do you need structured training for a marathon and will it work every time? Maybe.

    100 miles? No idea, haven't tried that yet :)

    I am three days away from my very first marathon and as much as I tried to follow the structured plan (courtesy of google), work and injuries got in the way. So I focused on doing what I could by grinding through long runs and I just hope to finish in one piece. Would I try to follow more structure for longer distance? Will see :)

    Geoff, as usual, fantastic piece of writing.


  34. Daine Roy

    I so agree with your comment as I am doing my first 100 mile run in June along a stretch of the Cornish coastline…very challenging but beautiful terrain and have no structure whatsoever but to just get out there and blinkin run!…I am never going to follow a training plan…this is up there with that word TEDIOUS!……happy running everyone!

  35. Marilyn

    Geoff – thanks for a great article and sharing your perspective. Am going to try my first 100 in July and it is definitely a mix of mystique and intimidation from the "before" vantage point. Mentally, I have to go with the "it ain't that far" approach, particularly after having done a 100k where I started in the dark, finished in the dark, was back of the pack instead of mid-pack, and my crew (my brother) said to me after congratulating me on finishing that this felt like a 100 miler so we might as well start thinking about that!

  36. Jason

    I've not yet run a hundred-miler (next year!), so my opinion may be irrelevant. During a "break" from just running, I did Ironman and lots of other triathlons, following a very structured training program (no coach, however). What pulled me back into running (besides moving back to the mtns and just being sick of tri culture) was the freedom to just go out and run – as far and as fast (or slow) as I wanted. It's what has kept me going the last few years as I've been climbing the proverbial ultra-ladder.

    With 7 or 8 ultras under my belt (50ks and 50 milers), I've found that a "flexibly structured" training schedule works really well, for me. I have a good sense of how much weekly volume I can handle, as well as how gradually I can increase that volume w/o injury. I know that I'll have to increase the volume as I get closer to the 100 mile distance. Knowing that I need to get in roughly x amount of miles, elevation, etc, as well as those ever-important long-runs, I construct a rough schedule of what I *should* do rather than what I *must* do. If I miss, that's ok, and I shouldn't try to "make-up" for it. If I'm feeling especially strong on a run and stretch it out by a few miles, great!

    I don't know if the same strategy (albeit w/ more volume) will work as I prepare for my first try at 100 miles, but I appreciate Geoff's affirmation that it'll probably be alright! Thanks for a great piece. If nothing else, it's a reminder that at the end of the day, going for long runs through the mountains shouldn't follow a time of anxiety about a micromanaged schedule that compromises the freedom we enjoy by being out there in the first-place.

    But then again, I haven't done 100 miles, so don't listen to me!

  37. Max

    Here's a few QUOTES by Geoff that prove his point:

    I don't plan any kind of workouts.

    I'll be running, but not with any kind of focus on training until next month.

    Training with a specific focus and purpose of trying to be as fast as possible on a given day at some point in the future feels so shallow and silly to me when compared to simply going out and doing the run that feels the most logical, enjoyable, and appealing on each given day.

  38. Jeff

    I would echo some of the comments made by others. The content is good, of course, but the writing is excellent. It's refreshing to read well-written and thoughtful articles about an activity I love. I enjoy reading Tony's articles in RT for the same reason.

  39. Jason Thompson

    Hi Geoff:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article. It strikes me that, beyond structure, perhaps a more fundamental (albeit less quantifiable) factor in terms of the optimal approach to hundred milers is sheer passion. I’ve noticed how a common characteristic of the most successful ultra marathoners — yourself included — really does seem to be a genuinely joyful relationship to the act of long running adventures in the mountains (and by “successful” I don’t just mean the front-of-the-pack.) I’m reminded of Matt Fitzgerald’s argument (in his book “Run: the Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel”) that running performance is highly contingent on the extent to which the activity still feels fun, and especially of his analysis of the relatively early decline of one elite marathoner, Brian Sell, when despite massive weekly mileage and serious grit he let the fun factor fizzle out and stopped seeing gains. I’ve heard Killian describe his motivation as really based on seeing the mountains as a type of playground, and I believe both you and Anton have expressed a similar attitude. By any pragmatic measure, a hard mountain hundred miler is such an absurd proposition, perhaps there’s some sort of competitive edge in not so much transcending that sense of absurdity but actually embracing it; on some level relishing even the exhaustion and discomfort as integral to the self-affirming freedom of the trail. As one runner commented in a TV newscast I recently watched about Hardrock: “it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.”

    –Jason Thompson

    San Francisco, CA

    1. Geoff


      i couldn't agree with you more. i think sheer passion for running is probably the one thing that virtually everyone who does hundred milers successfully has in common.

  40. Sebastian

    I started running in 2006 (at the age of 37) and attempted my first 100 miler in 2009 and DNF'd due to severe ITBS. I gave it another chance in 2010 and got a personal coach four months before the race who made a training plan for me, but ITBS made me DNF once again. I then had a year to prepare for the race in 2011 and with structured training I managed to do the full 100 mile. The dream finally came true.

    For me structured training is the key to enjoy running and to get the best out of the time a spend training. I don't want to "waste" an hour or two on "just" running, I want to know the purpose of every run as I treat them as a part of a puzzle. I love running and don't find that the training plan takes the joy out of it.

    Thanks for a great post, it really made me think.

  41. James Adams

    Great article Geoff and I totally agree that there is no "correct" way to run such distances. Running long distance is so fundamental to human nature like eating or sex that millions of different bodies have millions of different ways of going about it and it is a case of everyone finding their own way. It is unlike a more mechanical sport such as cycling or golf where training and technique are more relevant.


    Take a look at this blog post from a British runner. The top 100 mile runners even pace differently and the world record times have been done with massive positive splits, something that is perhaps inevitable at this distance or maybe not.

    Anyway, if 100 mile running ever gets figured out like triathlon then we need to find another sport. How about mountain pogo?

  42. Ian Sharman

    There's undoubtedly a steep learning curve with ultras and with 100 milers in particular. That's where I think a coach can most help – by talking through all the variables and lessons that need to be considered to run 100 miles. A training plan is part of it, but the advice I received (admittedly not from a formal coach) in the build-up to my first 100 miler was invaluable.

    Plus, as with any training for any type of sport, having an objective third party to help you assess whether you're under or over-doing it, or how best to come back from an injury (we all want to come back too soon!) can make a world of difference to the consistency achieved over time. And I think that's the single most important factor affecting improvement.

  43. matt g

    Surely this applies to all distances and sporting disciplines. There are no definitive training schedules and all athletes vary their programmes widely from 100 metres to 6 day races. I'm sure it would not be difficult to put together a 'get you round' schedule for a 100 miler similar to those that the masses use to get them round their first 26.2.

  44. Noe Castanon

    Good point of view about 100M. In my perspective, every race requiere diferent kind of training. If someone from sea level is running Leadville TRT or Hardrock, necessary must to look for trails with high elevation. HURT the same thing, technical trails. There are very few talented ultrarunners whom can change their running schedule when they want it, the rest of the mortals, no! Thanks for the article.

  45. Ian Stewart

    For me the main reason was to see to see how far I could go without hurting myself too much and a friend called Andy who ran 66 ultras consecutively allowed me to run with him. But now running ultras and especially the magical 100 mile is to visit other places, and enjoy!

  46. Ultrawolf

    Hello from Austria,

    Great piece of writing Geoff, as always !

    In my opinion the more years one is already running, hence the better he knows his body, the less structure he will need in training. A runner with little experience will need a plan how to increase his long run, do hills, etc., otherwise he´ll likely be in top shape in February but burned out later in June when he got THE race.

    There´s no need for someone like you, Geoff to put that down on paper, you simply know when it´s time and what to do to get in shape for Western or Hardrock.

    What I would like to know, do you actually have a diary to keep track of your trainings ? Do you have any clue how many vertical meters/feet you´re doing in a heavy week or is this of no interest for you ? I´m always amazed to see how much Tony´s doing :-)

    How long´s usually your longest run prior to a 100 miler ?

    Best wishes


  47. Ben Nephew

    With small sample sizes you are going to have a great deal of variation, and that is what we have with 100 mile world record attempts. Steve Jones almost broke the marathon WR at Chicago in the 80's with 61 minute first half. That would be like going out in 59 today and running a 2:04. Good luck with that, and let me know the next time the marathon WR is set with massive positive splits. As ultras become more common and competitive, even splits will become more common. It is entirely possible that postive splits are somewhat inevitable for some due to inflammation or mental fatigue.

    Maybe you can't call the massive splits of Woodward wrong because he set a WR, the strategy was effective in obtaining the goal, but do people really enjoy running massive positive splits? The really interesting data would be to see a large group of runners try running both even and positive splits at several races.

  48. Anji Nussbaumer

    I don't think there is a right way to train for 100s other than the old addadge of "Time on Feet" I raced my first 100 two weeks ago and have only been running Ultras for a year and a half. My longest week prior to that race was 50 total miles. I threw in a lot of high intensity strength workouts and tempo runs during the week. I kept it pretty unstructured other than getting the mileage in. My body does not like high mileage and I raced well with a 20:58:19 finish. I have seen great racers get taken out by that distance regardless of training. It is truly and unknown element and that I find very challenging and exciting.

  49. Myles Smythe

    My training is low, similar to Nate. For the past six months my training has significantly declined. I started with a solid base and ended with one 100 mile finish. Life got in the way, but also my realization that my cardio and leg strength were stronger than my gut. So even if I was training at high levels, I'm not able to perform at my peak level over ultra distances. I have been training with 7-15 mile weeks. But still pace friends or run 50K plus races at least once a month, which I count as my long runs. I crosstrain by rock climbing twice a week (great for foot strength, IMO), run any set of stairs I encounter while a pedestrian and stand at my computer at home for 1-2 hours each day. It seems to be working, I'm maintaining my base and my legs/cardio feel fantastic while I race…..but not my gut. I'll maintain this training or lack there of, for WS100 this June. I feel confident that it will work for me.

  50. Adam St.Pierre

    First, I'll admit my bias, I'm a coach working with athletes competing in a variety of events, including ultra winners and first timers. I fully agree that each athlete must find their own way to success. A coach can be an objective 3rd party advisor for any athlete. A coach should not put you on a 1 size fits all training plan. A coach should not "force" you into a cookie cutter training plan, rather communicate frequently to help you determine what works for you and help you dial in your ultra running formula.

    Geoff brings up some examples of successful athletes who “simply go out and run in the mountains with essentially no structure.” No one will deny that the athletes you speak of are successful, but they have other commonalities. For instance, they all run/exercise a lot! I would argue that part of their success is not their training method, but their volume. If everyone had time to exercise 20-30 hours each week, we'd have a lot more "elite" ultra runners. For people who don't have 20-30 hours per week to exercise, they have to train! Training is exercising with a purpose. If you don't have 20+ hours per week to train and you want to compete in ultras, you need structure. Competing is different than finishing. It's possible to be successful with unstructured training, it all depends on your definition of success. For some, finishing is success, others hope to win or finish in a certain time. I would argue that the unstructured trainers Geoff brings up would be better if they did some structured training. Of course, it's hard to think about improving when you win, but if you don't win and set a course record every single time out, then you have room to improve.

    Sorry for the rambling… happy running!

  51. zeke

    Lots of wisdom in these comments. My opinion is that "just running" on Terrain as close to the Terrain you'll race at is the best program, not necessarily because its best practice, although it may be, but because its the best way to just enjoy your training. I come from a very structured running backgrround (running at the ncaa level at CU) and that type of training is just not as fun as getting lost on a trail for hours.

  52. Bill

    Thank you Geoff for the intriguing article.

    It makes sense to me that unstructured training works nicely for long endurance races with many uncontrolled variables but it would be great to have you elaborate on what you mean by "we each simply go out and run in the mountains with essentially no structure." What are some principles that you use to guide your decisions on when and how far to run? Do you decide every morning what you are going to do that day based on the current state of your mind and body? What guidelines do you use for recovery or for when to push your limits by running on tired legs?

    Looking forward to seeing more articles from you!

    Best Regards,


    1. Geoff

      bill, personally I rarely decide what type of run i'm going to do more than a day in advance. sometimes i know that i want to get in a long run and i'll plan it a few days out so that i know i have a day when i'll have enough time to do it. other than that though it's usually just more of a general pattern. i might have a time when i know i really need to get more strength built in so i'll do a lot of vertical most everyday. other times i know i need more endurance so i'll focus more on trying to get in several days of high mileage. that's about it though.

  53. Bill

    Is the point here that we should throw Geoff out of the data set because he is so genetically gifted that his training methods are irrelevant? Another equally valid hypothesis is that he is genetically close to the mean but is a racing results outlier due to his training methods. If that is the case then the rest of us may have some chance to improve our results by learning from him. Anyway, I vote we keep him in the data set and learn from his training methods :-).

  54. AJ

    I don't think there is any one right way to train for a 100. You have to make the most of the environment around you and you have to make the most of your abilities and your mental make up. For example, I don't live near trails with vertical that I can hit every day. So I have to find fitness gains using speed work instead of vertical work. And, quite frankly, I enjoy the competitive, watch-oriented nature of road running.

    I think the factors that ultimately determine success lie outside of training: natural ability (V02 max), experience, nutrition and hydration, a plan to "run within yourself", etc…

  55. James

    I think this is probably true. In addition, I wonder if Geoff and others aren't mindful on their runs and get the threshold and similar workouts by pushing hills (up or down). The beauty of trail running is you have the opportunity to run "easy and long", threshold (pushing pace), turnover (pushing downhill), etc.

    I use a trainer and as a MOP runner (multiple 100 milers), I am able to train 50-60 miles a week and continue to see improvement. Quality workouts can make up for miles/time.

  56. TrailClydesdale

    I think the mental part is so important, and everyone's mind works differently. The workings of the human mind are such a mystery – there will never be a definitive way to train – especially for this distance.

  57. Phillip Gary Smith

    I'm glad my idea of structure, which is basically not one, fits someone of your caliber: go out and enjoy the trails while penciling in days and nights where the timing gods come together to allow the time to be out a long or even longer time. That's more difficult in the world of earning a living with the years of recent unpleasantness, but what is, is. There is nothing better in trail running than training by one's self, at night, with a variety of hills, switchbacks, mountains and other amusements to entertain. Funny; when those things are happening all sorts of creative things go on in the mind, and things that matter in the career-world don't seem to matter too much, particularly after tripping over a hidden root, landing butt-down with a clear view of a big moon above. That'll clear one's head. So, structure really is the art of doing it on the trails. Structure is freedom on the trail; I'll take all of that rigidity I can.

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