Discovery And The Casual 100-Mile Run

I ran my first 100 miler back in 2004 and have now finished ten with a handful of DNFs along the way. Without exception, I focused on performance during my first decade of attempting 100 milers. While I always aimed to finish and attempted to enjoy my experiences, I was still aiming for a fast time. Hundred milers were my focus races (with some ill-advised ‘add on’ 100s thrown in). Then, in 2014, I took a completely different approach in running The Bear 100, where my only goals were to finish (to gain a Western States and Hardrock qualifier) and enjoy myself. This past weekend, I ran the Thames Path 100 as a training effort and a good way to explore the southern English countryside and running culture, while in Britain as part of a longer visit. Both experiences were largely positive in many regards. Below, I discuss some of the positives as well as a few points of concern.

Thames Path 100 - Church

I took the time to enjoy the sights during the Thames Path 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

The Positives
In shifting one’s eyes away from performance, there’s more room for experimentation. While the long training run is a great spot to do the same, you’ll rarely answer the question of does X or Y help at mile 60 in training. For example, back at The Bear, I pre-determined that I’d get a good sleep at mile 75. When I arrived there, I felt strong and wasn’t sleepy, but ate a full meal and then slept for five hours. Not only did I feel great for the final 25 miles, I learned that I wasn’t stiff or sore or otherwise worse off for taking a break. I consider this a valuable lesson in case anything goes sideways in another one of my long ultras. This weekend, I had a much briefer lay down of half an hour in the rear of a car at mile 66. After 15 minutes of laying on my back, I rolled onto my side in a fetal position. Just 15 minutes like this relieved my tired hip flexors, such that they were good to go the rest of the race. Had I been rushing along, I never would have learned this as I would have pressed on. At both races, I ate hardy real food that I’d not have eaten at more focused 100 milers… but which I’d be wise to incorporate at least at Hardrock, if not faster races.

Perhaps even more important, taking a more casual approach in some 100 milers can inject joy back into one’s running. Running both The Bear and the Thames Path, having fun was a primary goal. Was every step of the way fun? Heck no! Was a vast majority? Sure was. I’m usually up for chatting in a long ultra, but I’m even more so in these events. I’ll stop and take photos. I’ll take a pull of whiskey at an aid station in the wild American West or stop at a pub for a pint or two (and chips) in England. What’s more, I’ve been able to carry over this more joyful approach to other races such as the Hardrock 100 and Ultra-Trail Gobi Race.

2017 Thames Path 100 - Henley Beer

Enjoying a pint in Henley just after midway through the Thames Path 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

While my recovery time—-acute physical, broader physical, and psychological—-from 100 milers has generally decreased over time, a small sample size suggests it’s much less when I approach 100s more casually. After finishing the Thames Path 100 on Sunday morning, I thoroughly enjoyed a six-mile hike followed by a one-mile jog on Monday afternoon. I had to search for muscle groups that weren’t near 100% and my energy was great. My feet were sore at race’s end and my legs were heavy, but there weren’t any real issues. I’ll be cautious this week in terms of volume, but I am already considering ambling through an 11-mile race in the Lake District of England this Saturday before enjoying some fell races in the coming weeks.

In my first decade of 100 milers, all but two of my DNFs correlate directly with a lack of commitment to the event. In one instance, I simply wanted a 100 miler on my calendar. In another, I quickly added a ‘make-up’ race after dropping out of Western States. In both cases, I hadn’t made the mental investment in that race to continue when the 100 miler inevitably got hard. In my two recent more casual attempts, I carefully nurtured a desire, a commitment to enjoying the race for long period ahead of time. Aside from the ethereal psychological prepping for this, I made concrete preparations such as creating music playlists, packing my camera, and finding fun treats for along the way. Then, come race day, I’d focus on having fun. In addition to addressing any physical deficits, I was more apt to actively focus on turning my attitude around… and it helped.

The Bear 100 2014 - Morning

Focusing on the beauty during a long race can improve one’s outlook, such as this morning during The Bear 100 in 2014. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

No matter what some folks say, 100 miles is still a long way. There’s plenty of time for problems, both acute and degradational to occur no matter how easy one’s effort is. Sometimes those issues can resolve quickly, but they might not, such that one’s running could be negatively affected for weeks or months. In addition, a negative outcome at a casual race can still be a blow to one’s confidence. Both these points suggest a bit of caution in jumping in a casual 100 if you’re 100% focused on a particular race later in your season, as there is some risk involved.

Call for Comments

  • Have you taken widely different approaches to 100 milers?
  • What have you learned from ultramarathons that you’ve approached more casually?

There are 19 comments

    1. Bryon Powell

      This take on a long ultra certainly isn’t treating “the race” as a competitive event. The nice thing is we’re free to put our own frameworks and labels with the constructs of an existing event. This shift goes hand in hand with the vast variety of values each of us brings into our own running and event participation.

  1. Brandon

    I agree with and appreciate this approach. With everything we all have going on in our lives, what does “race” mean anyway? I recall when finishing my first couple events years ago my kids asking “daddy, did you win”? I’m sure they were initially let down by my answer. But they quickly learned that daddy does this crazy stuff not to “win” but to experience the event, the trails, the people, the scenery, and to feel the challenge of endurance in a “safe” environment. While I haven’t cracked the 100mi distance, when I do it will be with the more easy-going approach. After all, for me at least this is a leisure activity and if there’s a beer out there somewhere along the way I might as well drink it.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Certainly not all have as much time to play with, but plenty have it to varying degrees. I suppose there are also some folks rather close to the cut offs that could still shift there perspective, if they don’t take a more casual approach to begin with.

  2. Francis

    If you have the time it would be great to see you at Fairfield horseshoe on the 13th if you want to experience a classic fell race!

    1. Bryon Powell

      Francis, I’m staying in Ambleside for two weeks and very much hope to jump in the Fairfield Horseshoe, although I’ll probably apply the casual approach. ;-) I’ll be at the Stavely race this weekend and hope to jump into a weekday fell race if I find one in the Lakes over the next three weeks.

      Say hi if you see me around!

      1. Luke

        Just spend a couple days in April hiking around Ambleside. Been a favorite since I stayed there on a train/backpack/hostel tour back in 2001. Now it’s a go to place for my wife and me. Have fun!

  3. John Vanderpot

    So good to hear you say this! I’ve pretty much used this approach for every event (not race) I’ve done, and while there’s still some pain and suffering along the way, the fun and enjoyment factor makes all the difference!

    Last fall an RD told me at the finish that she’d been alerted to a “lost runner,” but when she found out who it was (me, of course) she sent word not to worry, he wasn’t lost, he was just out there goofing around someplace and would be in before the final cut…I was!


  4. I Han

    TP100 was my 5th 100-miler in 3 years. Having fairly comfortably gone sub-24hours in all of them, I decided to “race” this one for sub-21 hours. When it became apparent halfway that this wasn’t going to happen, I had to choose to either drop or change perspective and treat it as a casual 100. I chose the latter and finished sub-24 with my confidence and running mojo intact. Saved the beer for after finish though! Enjoy England and the Lakes!

  5. Quigley

    I believe that the vast majority – maybe 95%? – of 100 mile runners could do much better and have more fun if they took a more casual and more easy pace in the first 75 miles. I was just reading Jonathan Gault’s great post on marathon wold record pacing on let’s run about Kipchoge’s upcoming attempt to break 2 hours in the marathon, and I think it is largely applicable to longer distances. From his post:”in the last 5 World Records, if you look at the two halves, and ask what the breakdown is first vs second half, you get:
    Geb 2:04:26 = 50.21% and 49.79%
    Geb 2:03:59 = 50.06% and 49,94%
    Makau 2:03:38 = 49.95% and 50.05%
    Kipsang 2:03:26 = 49.87% and 50.13%
    Kimetto 2:02:57 = 50.22% and 49.78%
    OVERALL AVERAGE = 50.06% and 49.94%”.

    So say you goal is 24 hours in a 100 mile race, I think It really does not make sense to even consider keeping faster than a 12 minute per mile average for the first 50 miles – likely around twice your 5k pace. We will see how the casual strategy in the first half works for me this weekend. I just need to make sure to start slow and enjoy the early casual miles.

  6. Nathan McBride

    After DNF’ing again this past weekend at C&O 100, it was clear it was a race I should not have started but I only did it because it fit “nicely” into the calendar. In reflecting upon the ones I have finished…it is clear the difference is in enjoying the day. When I have taken time to relax and enjoy the world, I still come in under 24 and still like running. When I get all OCD about eating times and paces and everything, it usually means failure is coming.

  7. Will

    I have not yet gotten my mind around the casual strategy for 100s but really like the idea here. But I have learned my lesson to only sign up for 100s if I am really committed and have a burning desire. While I race fairly often at shorter distances, this means that 100s are much less frequent. I didn’t run any last year, and this year the focus and excitement is all on UTMB!

  8. Andrew

    There is no way I could contemplate acohol during a race. I love a pint or two but mid race would finish me off.

    I am envious of this talent!

  9. Matt Smith

    Thanks for this article. I’m about to embark on my first ultra after some major surgeries and I’m adopting this strategy for my ‘come back’ race.

    Is alcohol a PED? With all the hand wringing about cannibis lately, I’m not sure sure a pint is any different from a toke. Not that I’m worried about either for a recreation race. Cheers!

    1. Bryon Powell

      WADA prohibits cannabis use in-competition. WADA also prohibits alcohol use in-competition in a handful of events (think shooting and mechanized sports), but not running. A few races specifically prohibit alcohol use, but the RD confirmed pre-race that a pint or two along the way was totally fine.

  10. Jon A

    I took the “just for fun” approach at Western a few years ago (don’t tell AJW) and had a blast. If I race again, I plan to repeat this approach.

  11. Dave

    Great article, great approach. Hope you enjoyed Blighty? It looks like you had good weather (not a common phrase over there ha ha). Hopefully there is more to tempt you, maybe the Bob Graham Round (ouch). I’m never going to win any races but I do love to take part for my own personal pleasure. Enjoyment is 95% of it.

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