Surviving Your First 100 Miler – Part 2: Execution

Survival lessons that can be applied to finishing your first 100 miler.

By on June 12, 2012 | Comments

Stay the CourseHappy June! The true meat of the racing season is here – it’s hundred-mile time. Earlier this spring, with the sterling silver still barely cooled in my Western States buckle, I highlighted several lessons that helped me survive my first hundred-mile race. Taken from “Deep Survival” – a resource on survival situations, I discussed the elements of preparation necessary for successful survival of a hundred-mile event.

In this column, we’ll go over how to survive the event, itself. In the book’s conclusion, author Laurence Gonzales outlines the salient points of “how to act when in mortal danger.” And since everyone struggles in a hundred, these points apply to us all:

Perceive & Believe (Look, See, Believe)

“…[Survivors] immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation… and recognize that everything, good and bad, emanates from within.”

By nature, hundred-mile trail races are among the most dynamic sporting events out there. Not only do our surroundings change – terrain, weather, and daylight – but we, too, can dramatically change. Being aware of the reality at hand is of fundamental importance in surviving your first hundred.

  • Keep your eyes – and your mind – open. Hundred-mile survivors have a plan, but are constantly taking in information about self and environment to reinforce that plan and, if necessary, revise the plan. Sometimes that means completely throwing out the plan and starting anew.
  • Recognize what you can control, and what you can’t. You cannot control intense heat, but you can slow down (or douse with water, or scurry into the shade). You cannot control steep grades and poor terrain, but you can push the pace on the runnable sections. Take what the day – and your body – will give.
  • Solve your own problems! Stuff happens. Thankfully, a hundred miler nearly always affords the resources – aid stations, crew, even fellow runners – and the time to solve problems. Perceive when things aren’t going right – your body, energy level, gear – and believe it’s fixable.

Stay calm: use humor and fear to focus

“…Survivors are making use of fear, not being ruled by it. They understand at a deep level about being cool and are ever on guard against the mutiny of too much emotion. They keep their sense of humor and therefore keep calm.”

Smile. Laugh. Have fun. Hundred milers are scary. The distance itself is intimidating; yet most are run in equally terrifying conditions of harsh terrain, altitude, and weather.

Those who are able to enjoy the day run well; they run well because they enjoy themselves. Having joy and sharing it with others helps them to “stay cool,” keep calm, and keep fears at bay.

Spend time getting to know fellow runners. By sharing of yourself, you unburden some of that fear. Moreover, you’ll enrich your race experience by meeting some incredible people. And, if you’re like Terry and John Rhodes, you’ll maybe even meet your future spouse!

Think, Analyze, Plan; Take Correct, Decisive Action

“Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline… It begins with the paradox of seeing reality – how hopeless it would seem to an outside observer – but acting with the expectation of success.”

This is vitally important in the middle to later stages, when the strain of the day is bearing down, but there are still many miles to go. The rational brain recognizes the enormity of the challenge and feeds that to the emotional brain. In order to control the emotional brain, the rational brain must get busy!

Establish a disciplined routine. Take the knowledge you’ve honed in all your training – pacing, nutrition, hydration, and gear – and execute. A well put-together and executed plan – even if wrong – is better than haphazard or panicked action: at least you can adjust and fine-tune.

Establish general routines – when to run versus hike, what to take at aid stations – then develop specific routines for morning versus afternoon, hot versus cold. Stick to those routines until you have evidence they’re not working. Then fine tune.

What can you do, now? A hundred is a long distance, and a long day. As ultra statesman Craig Thornley says about the late stages of Western States: “I try not to project how the rest of the race will go by how I’m feeling at the moment. If it is bad it will hopefully get better. If it is awesome then it is very possible it will get not so awesome so don’t be surprised if it does. Just deal with it and keep pushing onward.”

Rather than project how you feel now on the rest of the day, focus on the present. What can you do, now? As Gordy Ainsleigh said about his effort in Unbreakable, “I knew I could take one more step.”

Take another step, or run all the flats, or run ten steps up each hill. Sometimes all you can do is take one more sip, or one more nibble, at the aid station. Make a plan, and execute it, no matter how small.

Use your pacer’s brain. Being organized and decisive with “hundred-mile brain” is a major challenge. Utilize your pacer to keep you focused on your routine and goals. Be sure your pacer is aware of your routines and goals – place, splits, nutrition – and how best he/she can help you stay on track.

As a first-time hundred racer, it can be difficult to determine what you need from a pacer. Your best bet is to find someone who either thinks like you do, or knows you very well. Or both. Put them to work to be your second brain, and to be willing to go places with you that others may not.

Celebrate Your Successes

“Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.”

Momentum is everything in a hundred. The distance is a fight against inertia; success is defined by the ability to keep moving, against all obstacles.

Celebrate and share your successes with others. In chronic pain research, it has been shown that those patients who share their successes with others get better faster. Why? Because in the depths of suffering, it is easy to let the negatives dominate. To share successes with others brings them to the surface for all to see; it gives you perspective on how far you’ve come.

Celebrate your successes. There is a reason a lot of aid stations have a party atmosphere. Because you made it! Take joy in your successes – the beep of your watch signifying another mile logged, or another aid station closer to the finish. And by sharing it with others, your own joy and momentum are magnified.

In the 2011 Western States, I couldn’t wait to see my crew and pacers, simply because I wanted to tell them about all the crazy stuff I’d been through! Celebrating and sharing will bolster your spirits and momentum.

Count Your Blessings; See the Beauty

A hundred-mile race is organized suffering. Our motivations for doing so are varied, but suffering is guaranteed. Part of the allure of racing is finding out how little – or how much – we can endure in the process. Our individual journey is invariably different from all others, even the man or woman running beside us. But however real, hundred-mile suffering is overtly contrived, relative to the real troubles in the world.

Keep perspective – running a hundred miles is a gift. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember – that our contrived pain on the trail is nothing compared to the real struggles of the world. When racing, I try to think about inspiring friends and family, or my patients, with real problems, who will never have the opportunity to spend all day on a trail. Their spirit inspires me to keep going, and gives my “suffering” real perspective.

It is also motivating to think about all of those actively supporting us on the trail that day – crew, pacers, and volunteers of all kinds. Hundred-mile races would have no meaning without them.

See the beauty in the day! Most hundred races are run in incredible places: snow-capped mountains, lush green canyons, or panoramic mesas. Acknowledging the beauty of your surroundings not only adds value, and relieves stress, it also can provide valuable survival information in the process:

“Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses. When you see something beautiful, your pupils actually dilate. This appreciation not only relieves stresses and creates strong motivation, but it allows you to take in new information more effectively.”

Help yourself by helping others! Gonzales writes about the concept of “survivors becoming rescuers” – whereby helping others during the survival event builds unifying empathy as well as gives your rational brain another important, selfless task. We’re programmed as help one another in order for the species to survive. As such, we’re frequently more motivated to help others than ourselves.

Lend a hand on the trail. Consider running with someone who’s struggling, even if you’re feeling well. A mere offering of food or water is empowering to you both. The strength you loan them returns with interest. It solidifies your resolve in the task, and you also gain an ally on the trail.

Play! (Sing, Play Mind Games, Recite Poetry, Count Anything, Do Math Problems)

“Just as survivors use patterns and rhythm to move forward in the survival voyage, they use the deeper activities of the intellect to stimulate, calm, and entertain the mind. Counting becomes important, too, and reciting poetry or even a mantra can calm the frantic mind. Movement becomes a dance. One survivor who had to walk a long way counted his steps, one hundred at a time, and dedicated each hundred to another person he cared about.”

The concept of play is enormously important in ultra racing. Despite the many demands of a hundred, there’s ultimately a ton of down time, and time to get down. Focus is important, but the brain also needs play to rejuvenate and rest from the strain of survival.

Develop patterns and use them. Patterns help our brain pass the time – taking enormous tasks and breaking them down into doable tasks. It is the reason why soldiers both count and sing while marching: to sustain the march. Running form cues, playing “I spy” or simply counting your own steps has a remarkable impact on your brain’s ability to sustain effort.

Sing! Many runners carry music players, but many others simply run with a tune in their head; some even sing aloud. All engage the forebrain in a patterned task; the result is keeping the rational brain busy with a task while your physical being continues its labor.

Notably, in the August 2011 issue of UltraRunning, editor John Medinger, in his “Notes in the Margin” post-Western States, noted that race winner Kilian Jornet was “running up the very steep hill while singing out loud to himself.”

Some would think that he succeeded in spite of such an act; I believe he succeeded because of it.

Surrender: Let Go of Your Fear of Dying; “Put Away the Pain”

“Survivors manage pain well…” / “Resignation without giving up – survival by surrender.”

The notion of surrender has a negative connotation in Western society; many believe it means to give up. Its literal meaning is to yield to the power of another.

Surrender without giving up. Hundred-mile survivors frequently and quickly surrender those things that they cannot control. Many things may happen, internal and external, over which you have no control. To cling to notions of control – of pace, energy, or placing – when you in fact, have none, wastes precious energy and time. Moreover, continuing to try to exert control over the uncontrollable may only put your survival in jeopardy.

As Andy Jones Wilkins said during his 2006 Western States 100, run in conditions over 100F, “by the time we got to the Canyons, we threw out our split cards…” Rather than defy the conditions and cling to obsolete plans, he surrendered to the day, but ultimately conquered it with yet another top-ten finish.

Believe That You Will Succeed. Do Whatever Is Necessary. Never Give Up.

It starts with belief. The purpose of training is two-fold: to prepare the body, but perhaps more importantly, to train the mind. Believe in your preparation, your toughness, and your will. Restate that belief frequently during the race. Keep the faith, in spite of your struggles.

Karl Meltzer’s quote, “A hundred miles isn’t that far,” is a statement of faith in his – and your – ability to complete the distance. Recognize that you’ve put in the preparation and that, by taking another step, and then another, you will ultimately succeed. Have faith; keep the faith!

Do whatever it takes: do it early, and do it late. This gets back to taking decisive action. Solve problems, address issues of pace, hydration, and temperature, early.

In the late stages, keep moving! In the late stages of Western States, meandering through the horizontal canyons of the lower American River valley, I was struggling to keep running 14-minute miles. But I did the math: “If I walk, I’ll be out here suffering much longer.”

In the first thirty miles, walk sooner than you think you should. In the last twenty, run before you think you can.

Never give up… on your own. There may come a time when you consider quitting. Never make that decision on your own; always talk to others – your pacer, your crew, aid station veterans, and most importantly, medical staff. Your “hundred-mile brain” can’t always be trusted to accurately evaluate your status – good or bad.

If you’re ready to quit, get to an aid station. Then spend some time there, trying to fix your problems. Rest as much as you need to, especially if you have time before cut-offs. Talk to people. What else can you do?

Says Gonzales, “Survivors…believe that anything is possible and act accordingly… There is always one more thing you can do… They pick themselves up and start the entire process over again, breaking it down into manageable bits. Survivors always have a clear reason for going on.”

The best part about suffering is having a great survivor story. Few great stories end in a DNF, unless that DNF is one made in the best interests of your health. Indeed, we should all live to run again.
But consider what hundred-mile survivors might have to gain with just a bit more suffering:

“They come to embrace the world in which they find themselves and see opportunity in adversity. In the aftermath, survivors learn from and are grateful for the experiences they’ve had.”

* * * * *

Because of the unique challenges of time, distance and terrain they offer, hundred milers are the standard-bearer for organized suffering and survival, affording a depth of physical and spiritual experience that trumps nearly everything else out there.

What they also offer is unsurpassed unity and kinship amongst all who take part. No one survives on his or her own; runners, crew and spectators, and volunteers, alike, share in the experience, adding incredible value to the day for everyone. As Gonzales argues, survivors are not simply born; they’re developed in part by nature, but largely by nurturing of others and experience. May your next hundred – be it your first or twenty fifth – be an opportunity to survive, succeed, and celebrate – not only your personal journey, but the collective survival experience we share amongst us all that take part in the event.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Folks often talk about “surviving” a 100 in terms of gutting it out through challenges. How does that balance with many of the above points, such as those that call for surrender and enjoyment?
  • Which “survival tips” found above have you applied in your own 100s? Which might you try for the first time in your next race?
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