Surviving Your First 100 Miler – Part 1: Preparation

Survival lessons that can be applied in training for your first 100 miler.

By on April 10, 2012 | Comments

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, running 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

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Auburn, California. 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