In the Really Long Run

Over the past week, I have looked on in awe at the hundreds of incredible athletes running the Tahoe 200 Mile and the Tor des Géants. While these events are by no means new, for some reason this year my interest has been piqued by the incredible undertaking they involve. In my running career, I have not ventured beyond 100 miles and the longest event I have ever participated in lasted just a tad under 42 hours. So, it is with the eyes of a newbie that I have watched these races.

It strikes me that there are several skills necessary in these XXXL races that are unique to them and require deliberate focus and management to get through.

First, there is the sleep challenge. In a typical 100-mile race, you can pretty much get through it on no sleep. Sometimes a brief nap here and there is necessary, but for the most part you can just hammer through. In these longer events, it seems to me that a well-thought-out sleep plan is part of the strategy and everybody manages that part a little bit differently. As such, what the body and mind are called upon to do in these circumstances is far different than what the body is typically called upon to do in a more standard ultramarathon.

Next, there is the issue of pain management. As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that the toll that these longer events takes on the feet and legs is exponentially more significant than a typical ultra. Blisters upon blisters, swollen knees, trashed ankles, and completely blown-out quads seem to be par for the course in these events. As such, there needs to be some preparation for this kind of hardship both in advance of the race and as the race is unfolding. As far as I can tell, the successful athlete in these races is able to adapt to physical deterioration and pain better than your average runner.

Finally, there is the emotional toll these events take on a person. In my observations, it seems that the accumulation of dozens of hours on the feet alone and in extreme conditions has an impact on the runner that cannot be overlooked. As such, a well-trained 200-mile runner must have a reservoir of emotional strength upon which to draw at anytime. I have to imagine that this may be the most important skill necessary for success over these multi-day events.

There is no doubt in my mind that these XXXL events represent a new frontier in long-distance running. And, while emotional strength, pain tolerance, and sleep deprivation are nothing new to ultrarunners, they are without question magnified over these longer races. Perhaps not surprisingly, for me, I find myself drawn to these events as much for the intrigue and mystery of it all than anything. It makes me curious about what my limits are in these areas not only as a runner but as a person, as well. Perhaps one of these years, I’ll even sign up to run one of these things. But, until then….

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from the Lake Tahoe region of Nevada where some of the Tahoe 200 Mile is held. 39 Degrees North is a delicious blonde ale from Great Basin Brewing Company in Reno, Nevada. Brewed in the classic blonde style, this eminently drinkable beer is a perfect summer beer for any occasion. In fact, of all the Nevada breweries, Great Basin provides some of the best bang for the buck I know.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do 200-ish-mile ultramarathons speak to you?
  • Have you run a 200-or-more-mile race? If so, which one and what was it like for you? Did the skills of sleep management, pain tolerance, and emotional strength help get you through? What other tools did you need to finish the event?

There are 9 comments

  1. Alexander

    Great post, really enjoyed reading!! I wonder is you have any plans to cover Pete Kostelnick’s currently ongoing Ke2Key 5,000+ mile run. He’s averaging ( I think ) around 200 miles every 3 or 4 days, somehow without (as far as I can tell from instagram posts) blisters on blisters, swollen knees, trashed ankles or blown-out quads. Maybe we can learn something here?

  2. Quigley

    Thanks, Andy. I agree that there is something seductive about the very long distance races. But, as you know these are not really a new frontier, considering the 6-day races of the 1870s, the 150+ mile spartathalon that I believe started back in 1983 when the legend Yiannis Kouros finished in under 20 hours, not to mention the really long runs that David Horton really helped popularize beginning with his running attempt on the Appalachian Trail back in 1991. Michael Wardian recently ran the 185 mile C&O Canal from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC in 36 hours and change setting a new KT, but he barely beat the previous best time that was set back in 1976. I think the really exciting XXXL events will continue to be individual pursuits and not actual races, especially in the United States where it is very difficult if not impossible to hold races on national park service land.

  3. Kevin Schmidt

    Thanks for the write-up AJW! Those are indeed some of the key challenges we’ve encountered so far with 200’s.

    The issue of sleep has been a particularly interesting and tricky one for us. What we experienced between Moab/Tahoe is that we couldn’t really plan or force it, given that we were focusing on being time-efficient wherever possible. Court found it difficult to force sleep because her brain was still in race mode, and at Moab ended up laying in our car for 20 minutes wondering if it was time to move again. We tried forcing it again at Tahoe, but this time cutting it short if it didn’t seem like it was going to happen after a minute or two.

    Short (1-3 minute) trail-side naps were much more effective, but generally required pushing to the brink of passing out. I would maybe not recommend that strategy without a pacer to recognize when you’re running like a stumbling drunk, and kindly tell you to pull over and rest a moment.

    We’re still figuring all of this out, so I really enjoy the discussion – thanks again!

  4. Greg Veltkamp

    I, too, am intrigued by the thought of engaging in such a long endeavor. However, the inflated price tag to enter one of these events in the states is staggering! As a RD myself, I understand the inherent costs/logistics in supporting runners through long efforts, but am also constantly trying to minimize expenses to the runner. Surely it doesn’t cost $1000 per runner to create such a network of support.

  5. MS

    200’s are similar but very different from 100’s. I wouldn’t recommend a 200 until you’ve done a few tough 100’s. The problem solving, mental fortitude and dealing with sleep deprivation are the biggest challenges. Fueling is actually easier since your effort is less intense so leave the gels behind and eat real food. I have always thrown up multiple times at each 100 but never got close at Tahoe. I personally believe if you are in good 100 mile mountain shape you can do a 200 if you slow down and keep the effort light from the beginning. I also think you have to force yourself to walk/run from the beginning. If you run or walk for more than 10 minutes you should probably engage different muscles by doing the opposite for a few minutes. I did Tahoe last year and it is all about preservation from the start. As for blisters you really need to have your foot care dialed in. What really seems to help is using a powder like blister shield. I’d recommend taking the time to change socks every 25 miles and bring different shoes (I switched back and forth between Hoka and Brooks). The more variance you can have for everything the better off you’ll be (pace, nutrition, gear, clothes) … bring lots of lube … chaffing sucks … train by walking a lot. I did back to back walks but no back to back runs (6-12 hour hikes).

    Also be prepared for an extended recovery. It took me a couple weeks to not feel sleep deprived and a couple months to not feel the urge to start running again. My quads, which I have never had problems with at Western States or Wasatch were completely blown out and felt tingly to the touch for about 3 months. I’m glad I did it, it was an awesome adventure but for me 100’s just have more appeal …

  6. Dan

    Lumping Tahoe 200 together with Tor des Geants is somewhat silly. After numerous revisions, TdG now stands at about 220 miles with about 90,000’ vertical gain, while Tahoe 200 (205.5 miles), gains 40,200’. In the Alps, everything is bigger; the climbs, the cheering crowds, and the pain. Finishing any 200 mile run is a grand accomplishment, but these two are not on the same scale. Think of a road 100 miler compared to a mountain100 miler.

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