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?