Run Your First 100K, Part 4 of Four: Ready to Race

100kmIn the last 18 years, I’ve done a good number of 50Ks, 50 milers, and 100 milers. Until this spring, I had never done a 100K. Now I’d like to help YOU do one yourself. Here’s my series, in four parts, on running a 100K, whether you are a seasoned ultra-veteran or just cracking into the beyond-50K distances.

Part Four: Ready To Race

In Part One of this training guide I upsold you on the idea of building a nice big base of mileage. In Part Two you learned to tackle the kinds of environments and terrain you will face in your event. And then, Part Three tried to give some guidance about health, along with caveats about what could go wrong in your body.

Now, in PART FOUR (4), we will tackle the actual event of you out there on the trails. Sometimes literally. Strategy, eating, pacing, all in a teeny-tiny nutshell of a package. This is going to be a whirlwind of info in a summarized form, so, in the words of my favorite Fizzler, let’s get into it.

Weeks Before Your Race: Sleep, Rest, Chill

The week or two leading into your race are pretty darn important when it comes to your success on the day of. You’ll be tapering off on both mileage and intensity, leading to some frustrating side effects: boredom, restlessness, fatigue, and crankiness. It’s Pre-ultraMarathon Syndrome, big time. For anyone in your life already frustrated with how much time you devote to your sport, they will get NO relief now with you moping around the house or whining about feeling fat or complaining that some muscle is feeling twinge-y. This might come as unfortunate or as a relief, but all of those things might happen and THEY ARE ALL NORMAL. I cannot tell you how often I feel like an injury is starting up in the middle of a taper, only to fade away by the time the race gun goes off.

Let’s say your taper takes you from 70 miles per week to 50 three weeks out, 40 two weeks out, and 20 the week before (not counting the race, of course, so you’ll actually be getting 70!). You will have more free time. USE IT TO SLEEP. Remember that sleep is your injury-prevention super supplement. Luxuriate in an extra hour or more each day. Next, eat well but don’t go crazy. Your appetite might be diminished, or it might not. Real food is key and should keep any perception of “fatness” to a minimum. Finally, chill the fuck out. Spend a little of that extra time reading a book, hanging out with family, or just going for a walk. Meditate if you do that. Mellow yo’self.

Race Week: Checklists and Gear

Gear is a pretty big topic in itself, and many many posts could be spent on gear alone. Here’s the gist for race week: don’t fall victim to the common yet very tempting practice of “panic gear acquisition”. This is the kind of purchasing that occurs in the final days before an event, when your brain is convinced that, YES, you DO need just one more pair of gloves, or a new headlamp, or a case of some new flavor of gel. You don’t need it, trust me. I have actually purchased new shoes and a set of crampons (yes, really) right before a mountain race and never used them.

Fine, go ahead and buy some gels if it will make you feel better. That’s OK. Just don’t buy new shoes and jackets and do-dads, thinking they are some kind of magical sauce for the race.

YOUR GEAR IS GOOD, and good is good enough.

Make a few checklists to keep your head in order: one for the “must take” on your trip, and one for “stuff in dropbags”. The “must take” list will have things that will comfort you during the trip. My lists look like this:

  • special pillow
  • earplugs/eyemask if helpful
  • favorite hot tea and coffee brewing supplies
  • slippers and/or really comfy lounging shoes
  • cozy, warm and schleppy clothes
  • larabars (snacks you prefer not to live without)

Then, do your laundry to make sure your favorite running clothes are ready. Get your drop bag(s) prepared with the things you will love and want throughout the course. Here’s an example of a drop bag checklist:

  • drop bag supplies: the bags themselves, duct tape, pins, ziploc bags, TP, sharpie marker
  • special foods you want: gels, powdered beverages, bars, treats – all non-perishable!
  • lights and batteries
  • clothes: hats, gloves, layers, warm stuff, rain stuff (use your discretion)
  • other gear: bottles, sunscreen, lube, breath mints? (don’t laugh)

Other than that, use “normal” drop bag strategy: put items earlier than you hope to need them (especially true with warm stuff and lights), give yourself treats, and always pack extra ziplocs with TP.

The Day Before

Try to stay on your mellow path. Eat lightly but well, hydrate as much as is normal/comfortable, and enjoy the day. It’s easy to burn a lot of energy running around socializing, buying last minute stuff (didn’t I warn you?), and getting a little stressed before the race. Try to just be aware of when you want to be asleep and work backwards from that. If you really truly want to be ZZZZZZ at 9pm, don’t go out for dinner at 7 with your drop bags “almost done”. Bad idea that will put you in bed at about 11 at the earliest.

Pack some chamomile tea, a good alarm clock, and ideally a buddy who will wake you up if you are beginning to oversleep. You probably won’t, because the night-before stress tends to wake us all up about 12 times throughout the night, including every 8 minutes for an hour before the alarm.

Race Day! Woot!

Ok, you’re up, you’re dressed, you’re fed/caffeinated, you’re at the start. Now what? How are you actually going to finish this thing without staggering in for the last handful of miles?

Note: I am here pontificating at you from the baseline assumption that you have run at least one 50 mile race. Let’s just get that out of the way. If you’ve not, this advice is still relevant but might not have the same mental traction.

First, take it a little bit easy at the beginning. This is always relative. Relative to the course, to your natural speed, to the weather, to whether or not you pooped successfully, to a lot of things. That said, remember that you are going to tack on a big chunk of time and distance to a standard 50-miler. If you have a great day, it might actually feel like you’re just tacking on a “mere” 12 miles to a 50 miler. If you have a spectacular blow-up it will feel like you are tacking on 50K to your 50 miler. Choose wisely.

The transition in distance and time (possibly from 10-12 hours to a total time of 13-16 hours) should be managed well with some foresight.

Tips To Make Your Day Awesome

Calories. Stay on top of your food intake. As a person who tends to undereat at nearly every running excursion, this is critical in a race if you are spending any time at all beyond a light jog. Why? Because a very easy jog or walk or hike will burn predominantly from your fat stores, making calorie intake unnecessary (and this is actually more true in women – it’s just how we’re built). BUT. Bring your speed up to a run for a while, get overheated in the sun while jogging, or do a strenuous uphill hike and you will be tapping into glycogen stores and those WILL run out.

Have a plan for how often you’ll take in your nourishment, whether through real food or gels or sports drink or a combination. Be familiar with how foods react in your body. For example, drinking a calorie loaded beverage to wash down your gel might slow down absorption of BOTH. Gels need water to be diluted enough to digest. Solid foods should be eaten as they appeal to you, and in deference to what’s just ahead. About to slog up a long climb? Feel free to chow down because you’ll have some time to digest. Middle of the day and you have a  hot hour of running ahead? Keep your stomach contents fairly simple and your electrolytes in balance. I do a combination of gels + electrolyte tabs + water OR a calorie/electrolyte drink in those situations.

Hopefully your feet survive this. Photo by Geoff Cordner.

Your Feet. This is simple. Keep your shoes free of rocks, address hot spots before they turn into blisters, wear socks that you LOVE, and consider putting alternate socks and shoes in one or more drop bags. Sometimes just having another pair of the exact same shoe that isn’t sweaty and dirty and grungy can be a nice swap at mile 40.

Your Skin. Protect from the sun as needed, and protect from chafing as you already know how. This is something that takes practice, unfortunately. I know folks who bathe in lube to go for a 5 mile run and I know some who have never used lube in their life.

Your Head. Here’s the nitty gritty, the whole enchilada, the gist of what’s going to happen out there. Remember that admonition to not buy lots of last minute gear, hoping for some kind of magical sauce.

Guess what?

Image courtesy of Rosally.

Image courtesy of Rosally.


Have fun out there, and tell me how your race went!

Run Your First 100K, Part Three of Four: Health

100kmIn the last 18 years, I’ve done a good number of 50Ks, 50 milers, and 100 milers. Until this spring, I had never done a 100K. Now I’d like to help YOU do one yourself. Here’s my series, in four parts, on running a 100K, whether you are a seasoned ultra-veteran or just cracking into the beyond-50K distances.

Part Three: Stay Healthy

In Part One of this training guide I upsold you on the idea of building a nice big base of mileage. In Part Two you learned to tackle the kinds of environments and terrain you will face in your event. But. There’s always a but, right? All of this new mileage and interesting workouts can leave you in a vulnerable position, and the last thing you want is a breakdown as soon as training gets good.

I’m going to separate out the two major things that can go wrong as “injury” and “breakdown”. They are very, very different and need some specific tactics to avoid each one in turn.

Injury: The Big Owies And How They Start

After a few weeks in a row of new training intensity an injury could come nipping at your heels (or thighs, or knees, et cetera). Why? Your muscles get strong super fast; your tendons and connective tissue, not so much.

You could be doing great things inside your calf muscle, bounding up hills in workouts, but the tendons behind your knee and down below—the achilles—are struggling to keep up with your calves new-found strength. It’s like the tortoise and the hare—that little rabbit is your muscles and they burst out of the gate, zipping along, while the rest of your tissues, from bones to ligaments and beyond, are plodding along at the pace they require, a bit slower than those muscles. Eventually the rabbit and the tortoise will meet at the same place, but not until the tortoise tissues catch up at their own safe pace. Until then, there’s risk of both becoming roadkill before the “race” is over.

You’ll feel it in some atypical soreness, first. Most runners ignore that. By ignoring soreness like a typical runner, you’re going to end up like other runners, too, who are typically fighting injury. Don’t do it.

[What’s atypical? That’s a bugger to answer, but hopefully you can tell when something just feels worked and when it feels WRONG. It takes a little experience to learn the difference, but it’s good to play it safe.]

Letting soreness turn to pain will leave you feeling like this poor doll under the car tire:


Roadkill. Don’t let it happen to your legs.

Now here’s where things are going to get grey, because I’M NOT A DOCTOR. I cannot and will not go into details of injuries, treatments, yadda yadda. Lots of people have good advice for that stuff, and I can send resources if you have a specific question about something I’ve battled before (runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendon issues….). Just ask.

Breakdown: It’s Like Injury But Without the Limping

Breakdown is the thing that happens way more often than runners like to admit, and more often than we even know. It’s invisible (mostly), and rather insidious. Sometimes it’s called overreaching. Sometimes it gets bigger and we call it overtraining. You might hear the words “adrenal burnout”. Much of it is related and it is very different from ‘regular’ injury. Instead of muscles and connective tissues getting all out of whack, in burnout it is the rest of the tissues in the body taking a beating, particularly organs that support all this stuff you’re doing. Your brain. Your pituitary gland. Your thyroid.

Your HEAD – yep, there’s even some psychology here. Everything is wrapped up all together and hard to tease apart. Because if you don’t feel like training, you are likely going to be a little pissy or depressed.

Many other people have written great stuff about burnout and recovery, like iRunFar and Geoff Roes and Pam Smith, but here are the basic symptoms to keep you on the lookout:

  • higher resting heart rate (+5-10 beats)
  • dreading regular runs, not just once in a while but a lot
  • slowly losing your base/easy pace (slipping from 9 minutes to 10 minutes, et cetera)
  • issues with food – not having much interest in food or eating too much randomly
  • weight loss
  • slow weight gain
  • getting sick more than usual (in one bout with burnout from life stress I got two whoppers in less than two months after years without sickness)

What To Do: Be Nice To That Sack of Chemicals You Call Your Body

Again, I’m not a doc, but I have tons of experience in whacking my body all around. What can I tell you even if I’m not certified? Lots.

Here are four things what can stave off a LOT of maladies from injury to breakdowns to burnout to overtraining, no matter how peripheral they sound to your actual running. They’ll fend off illness in lots of people who don’t work out, too. Bonus!


How much do you get? Get more. Got kids? Sorry about that. Still try to get more. Getting up early to train when you are sleeping 5-6 hour a night is going to catch up to you, likely when you can least afford it in your training cycle. I did the best training of my post collegiate life sleeping 9 hours per night. Currently getting 7? Get 8. Getting 6? Get 7. Then get 8. Sleep hygiene (google it) is really important, too. No glowing screens an hour before bed, or more. Wind down. Have tea. Figure something out that works for you.

#2 Sleep

The second rule of sleep club is, you definitely CAN talk about sleep club. Sleep has to be #1 and #2 because it is that important. I’ll write more about sleep, don’t worry. For now, just let that sink in over a cup of tea in a dark bedroom.

#3 Eat Real Food

Eat nutrient-laden food that can be identified as food. And that’s the easiest way to say it. Given the choice between a perfectly carb-protein balanced recovery shake and a banana? Eat the banana. Then have some nuts and some water. I can make a huge list of these kinds of ‘swaps’, like the famous book series. Here’s some more: eat fish, not fish oil. Eat the foods that vitamins come from: colorful veggies, eggs, and animals. Do that as often as possible and you’ll be building your strength and immunity inside-out, no “airborne” or “emergen-C” required. I used to not like canned fish, now I eat about a tin a day or more. Sardines in olive oil? One can costs the same as a fancy protein bar but the nutritional differences? HUGE. Need your carbs with your protein? Have some dates. (Larabars ain’t bad, all things considered.)

#4 Move Your Animal

Move around when you’re not working out. Get up from the chair a few times per hour – yes, per hour, not per day. There are 168 hours in a week. Just because we endurance types run around 15 hours each week does not excuse us from normal human motion the other 153 hours. Take time out for sleeping and there’s still about 100 hours that you are awake, NOT running. Further, running itself might mean we need even more mobility type stuff, just to work out the junk from partaking in such a single-motion activity for so long.

The two best resources on this kind of stuff on the planet, right now, in my opinion, are Kelly Starrett and Katy Bowman. Katy wins in my book because she addresses everything that we can do to become more functional and natural, while Kelly is interested in both mobility but also in sports mobility. Different focus, both of them are insanely useful.

That’s it for now…. ready for the next round, Part 4? The rubber hits the road in Part 4 with:

Race Day Planning

Run Your First 100K, Part Two of Four: Specificity

100kmIn the last 18 years, I’ve done a good number of 50Ks, 50 milers, and 100 milers. Until a few weeks ago, I had never done a 100K. Now I’d like to help YOU do one yourself. Here’s my series, in four parts, on running a 100K, whether you are a seasoned ultra-veteran or just cracking into the beyond-50K distances.

Part Two: Specificity

Let’s say you’ve absorbed the lessons of part one and your base is solid or is well on the way to getting there. Awesome. The other component of your running training is going to be tailoring some of those miles to fit the conditions you’ll experience during your race.

Now, this doesn’t mean you must run 100% of your training runs on terrain that is exactly like your race. Nor does it mean you must go train on the real race course. Nor does it mean you must accumulate just as much elevation gain per mile as the race course every single day.

What does it mean, then? It means that you should keep your head out of the sand regarding what you’ll find out on that course on race day.

Don't do this. Learn! (from Wikimedia)

Don’t do this. You can be prepared! (from Wikimedia)

If you can’t go see the course or train on it, here’s what you can do:

  • Look for photos, both on the race website as well as the googlz.
  • Talk to those that have done it – a little web searching will turn up race reports, especially if the race has been taking place for awhile. Facebook is excellent, too. The race might even have its own group for swapping tips and such.
  • Read the course description, check out the elevation profile—including the literal elevation.

Of these bits that you’ll learn about the course, ponder what will be new to you. Perhaps you live near sea level and the race is between 4000 and 6000 feet. Perhaps you train on a lot of gravel roads but the course is all single track. Perhaps you love the crisp fall air of the midwest but the race is in July . . . in Arizona.

Now that you know a few new bits of information, let’s take some action. In the above trio of scenarios (climbs, rocky singletrack, and summer in Arizona), there are several things that can be done. In the 4-6 months before the race, get in one or two runs per week—one short and one long—that specifically address those “new to you” elements. In the closer months before you start your taper, bring the specific runs up to 3 or so per week. OK, let’s do this.

Course Specific Training

  1. Start by throwing in some steep climbs into the mix. If the race has a 1000′ climb, go find the closest thing to it near where you live and power-hike that bugger until it feels less like absolute torture and more like just a grind. Hills like that are never going to feel easy—trust me—but they will vastly improve. You can also run DOWN the same route (see the following section for downhill tips).
  2. If the race has a legend for rooty rutted trail, find one, even if it’s short, like a couple of hundred yards short. Learn the little dance/tango of bad footing. All the better if it’s downhill to bring in some leg turnover.
  3. Hot race and you live where it’s cool? That’s gonna take more work. If it’s merely mild or warm near you, train with more clothes than you need, some of the time. If you really need a kick in the butt, go to hot yoga or a sauna. The Army has amassed a huge amount of knowledge about heat training (google for Army heat training), but the gist is you should spend about almost an hour around 100 degrees, several times per week for a few weeks before your event. You don’t have to workout while you’re baking. Just hang. Or do yoga. It worked wonders for me in the three weeks before Angeles Crest 100 in 2013.

Let’s say that race has some monster climbs and you’re doing your hills, great. What about downhills? If you see significant downhills on that course profile, you could fry your quads before the race is half over. There are two ways to beat up your quads in training in a controlled environment:

  1. Find a good long downhill you can run at the end of a long training week, and ideally on the day immediately AFTER your long run so that your legs are already on the verge of ouch.
  2. Squats. Oh yeah, squats. You don’t need weights for this – air squats are great, especially when done by the hundreds at a time.

Through all this, BE SMART and do the things that will avoid injury and burnout. Guess what part three is about? You got it – keeping that body moving.

Coming up in Part Three: Stay Healthy

Run Your First 100K: Part One of Four

100kmIn the last 18 years, I’ve done a good number of 50Ks, 50 milers, and 100 milers. Until a few weeks ago, I had never done a 100K. Now I’d like to help YOU do one yourself. Here’s my series, in four parts, on running a 100K, whether you are a seasoned ultra-veteran or just cracking into the beyond-50K distances.

Part One: Be An Ace of Base

No, not THAT Ace of Base

No, not THAT Ace of Base

Ooh, that was a bad throwback. Sorry about that, Gen-X’ers.

Ahem. Training.

100K races have cut-off times that range from 14 hours to 24 hours (yowch), but average finishing times are typically 15-17 hours. For 50 milers 11-13 hours is pretty common. Four hours for an extra 12 miles? Yup, it can happen. Those extra 12 miles really add up at the end of long day, moreso than you might think. Your first step in being ready to be on your feet all freaking day, give or take a few hours, is to have a solid base mileage from which your legs can draw strength*.

When I trained for marathons, I was pleasantly relieved to find that after about 6 months of higher mileage, everything just worked better. Runs were faster with less effort, I slept great, and things were just clicking. I wasn’t injured—avoiding that is key—and the miles just piled on until my races.

Here’s the advice that might be surprising: the number of miles in your base should be between 50 and 100. Sounds like a huge range, right? But here’s the kicker: what you do as your “high” base totally depends on YOU and on what you’ve been accustomed to so far. For someone used to years of “30’s” like I was, racking up solid and consistent weeks right around 50 was perfect.

Already doing 50 mile weeks and feeling great but still worried about 100K? Bump it up at least 30%, gradually. Get yourself around 70. Already at 70? Same thing… the key is to push your body’s comfort zone into a range that squeezes out some additional conditioning. Whatever your new base mileage becomes, the most important part is consistency. Perhaps some weeks drift a little higher, once in a while they will be lower, but if you are hitting in your ballpark for months and months on end, magical things will happen in your tissues.

What’s the hardest part about base training? First, “waiting” those 6+ months before doing lots of exciting things like speedwork or hills. You can test out those workouts VERY sporadically—like, once every few weeks—but it is very, very important to protect that base by NOT GETTING INJURED. Many of us bop back and forth between a few good months (or weeks) of training and then pulling or popping or screwing up something that makes us back way off for a chunk of time. I did it for years, having weekly totals that might look like this: 42, 48, 30, 12, 29, 0, 22, 40, 35, 50, 40, 60, 42, 12, 0, . . . you get the idea.

Next Up in Part Two: Specificity

*There is ONE way you can get away with lesser mileage but it will take just as much time in your life, and it is best used when you are dealing with a localized injury that affects running but not general fitness (I had a bone bruise on the bottom of one foot that was healing, slowly). That’s the strength training method. I’ve successfully completed a 100 miler with little damage or after-effects on a horrifyingly low base mileage but 3 hours weeks of heavy lifting. HOW TO DO IT: what you need are “the big two”—squats and deadlifts. Adding a third/fourth upper-body lift is a good idea, like bench press and/or pull-ups, but here the most important thing is the lower body resilience. I will not give you a program here, that’s not my gig, but I will start you out with Nerdfitness and Stumptuous for the low-down on each:’s Deadlift 101 & Stumptuous’s Mistressing the Squat

100K Is Awesome: Black Canyon Race Report

My First 100K: Black Canyon

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): I finished my first 100K, in amongst the cactus and sun, fueled by GU and potatoes and joy, singing the LEGO movie theme song to runners whether they wanted to hear it or not, in less time than it took for my first 50 miler over a decade ago. Also, I saw vertebrae.

Arizona. February. Take One.

Valentine’s Day, to be precise. I’m fitfully sleeping until the hour of 3:45 a.m. when the alarm will go off for the start of a long day, an all day race through the desert wherein I will find out just what this 100K thing is all about. What sets it apart from the almost-standardized 50 mile distance or the romanticized 100 mile journey? Is 100K, as some friends have said, “all the pain of 100 miles and none of the glory”? Or is it possibly a beast unto itself, a distance worthy of serious consideration along the ultra spectrum? It is during Black Canyon 100K that I had planned to find out.

Ok, here we are, in February. For the record, this is VERY early in the year to be lining up for such a distance; typically I’d be thinking about a March-ish 50K and then a 50 mile in early summer to square up for late summer’s big race plans (this year that’s Canada’s Fat Dog 120). But no, here I am, about to beat my legs up and it’s barely the end of winter.

Life has been interesting independent of my training, to say the least, and it’s all of my own doing. Three months ago I began to unravel my life in an almost comically predictable Gen-X midlife crisis kind of way, first by panicking about what I hope to do with this one precious life of mine and then – hopefully – starting in that new direction by leaping for shore and burning my ships, Cortés-style.

Burn ALL the ships.

Burn ALL the ships.

Regarding my general state of mind and future plans, the seemingly-TMI level of detail I’ve provided is critical as background information; in the middle of a race report it’s a bit boring, so I’ll stop there. Let’s get right to training and stuff, instead. Things like how and why I got into decent enough shape to race a 100K in February, why the distance appealed to me, and why this race chose me.

Training: Once More With Feeling

My training philosophy has shifted in the last few years, especially compared to where I’ve come from as an ultrarunner over the last 18 years.

When I started “running” ultras in 1997 at the age of 23 I was just curious and excited about the ultra “thing”. I wanted to finish. I wanted to meet interesting people. I wanted to be challenged and also have a little bit of pride in doing something that most people consider pretty weird and dumb. (I was the kid who actually liked being called weird in high school, so I guess it has always been that way.) But I only trained enough to accomplish those goals, barely. This meant around 30+ mile weeks and a long run that was often half or more my weekly mileage. Generally, it worked. I finished 50Ks and 50 milers, and I finished Hardrock that way twice (though after several attempts, so you could say I wasn’t at all ready at least the first go-round).

Then, after a handful of finishes at all distances and a rather embarassing number of DNFs, I had just turned 31 and I’d been doing ultras sporadically for 7 years. I was a bit curious about the marathon and what I could squeeze out of myself in terms of performance. I pivoted. After a long base building period, some weight loss (a whole ’nother story, believe me) and some difficult and specific training, I logged a few halfway decent times at the marathon and half-marathon. That fitness carried over when I ran Pikes Peak marathon during those years in a darn good time, and had an honest-to-gawd 2nd place finish at a trail race (a 25K).

By 2011 I was trail-happy again, ready for ultras, and thinking that maybe if I actually logged “big” miles for ultras, I could be solidly ahead of the middle of the pack for once. One interesting problem is that the middle of the pack had shifted just a little, to a higher standard. Here’s why: since I’d been “away”, the ultra crowd had gotten faster – faster mostly due to simple math. There are tons more people running ultras than ever before and some of them are fast. Six hours for a tough 50K? Maybe that was decent before, now it’s average. Course records have been lowered by hours in most 100 mile races. There are ten times as many 100 milers now as there were when I started in 1998. Ten times. This is a great thing, probably. Ultrarunners have options we have never had before in terms of races and events and people to talk to and online resources to squander our time on.

So I was re-entering ultras when ultras had a higher median bar. That’s all well and good and obviously not something I can change, regardless. Just something to note as I plod through my own training and assess what kind of strategies to use as I build mileage back up again. After 2011 and despite my intentions, the mileage didn’t grow like I’d planned. Life and stuff, I suppose. 2014 was better: Wasatch was the proving ground and I sliced 3 hours off my last time there (despite wanting 4 hours off for the magical sub-30 buckle). After that, the fall spread out before me.

Javelinas and Rims and Pacing, Oh My

September and October held some fun long runs, solo and with friends. I ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim by myself. I paced a new friend at their 100 mile event, automatically elevating that friendship into the weird pacer realm of intimacy, the kind where lube is involved. Several of us at Javelina – Katie and Geoff, mostly – conspired to run this awesome sounding 100K in the spring, right back in the same area of Arizona. It seemed so far away, back in October, that Black Canyon race in February . . . Ha. Ha. Ha.

By early December I got up to 50+ mile weeks, right around when I was burning my ships. Things seemed good, at least from the training angle. But the immune system gets what the immune system wants, especially when you put your life and your heart through the wringer while sleeping and eating little. Nine pounds vanished, never a good sign, but I have to admit it felt lovely on runs to be lesser of a corporeal body.

And then. The holidays brought on (in addition to family and cookies, in that order) a monster influenza bug, my first in years. I kept running the second it waned, no doubt causing it to hang on longer. At the end of January I flirted with a tendon injury, then ran a 50K, moderately fast, as a test run. A week after that I landed a serious head cold that hung around 9 days. Two sicks in 6 weeks – that’s a lot for me, essentially doubling the number of times it’s happened in the last decade. Yes, yes, immune system. I hear ya.

And then, I shrug it off and head into the 100K with a nose full of snot, pockets full of HALLS, and half a hope that I can finish under the cutoff of 18 hours, more ideally the previous cutoff of 16 hours.

Phoenix. February. Again. For Realz.

February 14th. 3:45 a.m. BING-UH-DING. BING-UH-DING. My phone chirps in a halfway perky, halfway annoying alarm tone. Despite the 7 a.m. start, a relatively late luxury amongst ultras, the early wake up call was needed because the start is more than an hour away. Bummer, but not nearly as bad as Wasatch where the wakeup call was at 2 a.m.

Feet hit the floor, hot water starts percolating in the tiny 4 cup hotel pot, to be added to the most expensive instant coffee on the planet, one tiny packet at a time. Because it’s race weekend and/or travel weekend, I allow myself the nastiest of habits: instant coffee creamer. Dang that stuff is toxically delicious.


toxically delicious!

Two cups down the hatch, race number pinned on, bodily functions primed, we head out the door to drive to the shuttle pickup location. It’s warm out, I say. It’s cold out, says the Angeleno. His excuse, so he says, is that he was born in the Sahara Desert. The temperature, for the record, is about 55 degrees. Your call.

After the shuttle, the wait in the school gym (nicely appointed with yet more coffee and powdered white stuff), and the gathering light outside, we head to the track for one ceremonious loop before the race is underway, rolling through paved neighborhoods of this teeny town of Mayer before we are deposited on to the real trail, the one we’ll be on all day long and into the night for many of us, myself included.

It’s rocky – moreso than I imagined because everyone has warned us that the second half is where things get ugly in terms of surface. Uh-oh. Now, rock-hopping I do fairly well, when the rocks are stable. Loose crap, not so much. The smaller the crap, the steeper the slope, the worse I hate it. So far on this course it’s flat so the rocky bits are tolerable but I really do hope that it will not get worse as predicted.

Just a wee bit rocky. Photo by Geoff Cordner.

Just a wee bit rocky. Photo by Geoff Cordner.

I talk very little today, a slight departure from my occasional chatty self in the early miles of an ultra, possibly because I’ve been talking more in my daily life the last few months so it’s easy to just settle in and let my mind roam. For a few minutes mid-morning, I do talk to Kate from Durango, a woman here on her very first ultra ever, having done road marathons previously. She’s trained exclusively all winter on city streets and her treadmill, so I’m very interested to see how that works for her today. With ultras, you just don’t know what’s going to happen – your previously awesome shoes could fill up with grit and rub the skin off your feet, your stomach could reject GU #19 in a violent way, any litany of things that might not have been experienced while running on a treadmill. Kate’s mileage and pace on her runs sounds more than adaquate, and she’s a mom (meaning, I figure she’s tough), so she’ll likely be just fine despite the newness of the distance.

Baked Sweet Potatoes Are My Thighs

You could call this event the Ice Capades, for many of us only ran from aid station to aid station in order to procure more ice. As Katie put it so eloquently in her report, “My sole purpose in life had become not exploding and getting to places where ice existed, and this is literally all I thought about for the better part of four hours. Three more miles to the aid station. They have ice there. Ice for me. I want the ice.

The morning got warm right quick, and not wearing sunscreen on my legs could have been a bad plan (I did slather it on ears, face, neck, et cetera). My SPF 30 shirt was covering my arms nicely and getting more salt-crusted as the hours went on. Because I eat a lot of salt, I sweat a lot of salt. Salt in, salt out. New to me this year was using a sun hat after mile 24 and stuffing it with ice, letting it melt and drip for a good hour. Now I get what the fuss is about (except for having to move the ice around frequently due to cold spots on my head).

Mid-afternoon, after mile 31 or so as the sun was thoroughly baking my brain and making my thighs feel like heating pads, I almost stepped on a reddish toad frantically trying to escape these plodding feet. “I wonder if I lick it if anything would happen”, I thought moments later. Was I that in need of distraction that I would pick up random things from the trail to see if I might conjure up some hallucinations? Hmm. It would be my luck that it would be poisonous and the next runner to come along would find me heaving and convulsing on the side of the trail, muttering something about sparkly pop-tarts just out of my reach.

Don't lick me, dude. [Photo by Steve Eckert]

Don’t lick me, dude. [Photo by Steve Eckert]

Mile 38 is “the biggie” in terms of mental waypoints. It’s the Black Canyon aid station, where most of us regular folk pick up our lights for nighttime, even though we won’t need them for a few hours yet. Best to have them now than run out of light before the next drop bag at mile 51. To get to the aid station there is an out and back of less than a mile each way. I figured I might see Geoff here, possibly. If he’s 30 minutes ahead, that’s 20 minutes on the out and back and maybe 15 minutes at the aid station, so the math worked, but alas, I never saw him to do a proper high-5 or something to that effect.

Black Canyon’s also the aid station to assess one’s situation and make sure you’re ready for the rest of the race – after leaving here there are 24 miles remaining, almost another marathon, twice as many miles as there would be left at mile 38 of a “normal” 50 mile race. That’s a big mental block for some racers, and it could continue until the end. A friend of mine was racing last year (his first 100K) and just completely came unhinged at mile 51, spending 90 minutes there just staring into space before finally continuing.

The Mistake That Almost Ruined The Race

I change my shoes, a welcome relief because my HOKAs were leaving some serious hotspots and were starting to just feel heavy. Off with the socks and shoes and on with freshies and my new Altra Superiors. I felt light and bouncy and happy. So much bouncy and joy! It almost makes me commit a massive error that could cost me the race. Five minutes up the trail from the aid station, I realize I’m missing something. My lights. Oh, shit. Back to my drop bag, grab the lights, off again. Rather than dwell too much on it, I’m just glad I didn’t get much farther before having that realization. Crisis averted and only 10 minutes lost. Huge sigh of relief.

Soon, I passed a truncated vertebral column and wondered what it belonged to. Something not too big, not too small. Maybe a deer. I looked around for more small bones because I like souvenirs of that nature. Alas, the spine was the only thing left of that creature. Luckily, Geoff snapped a photo so you know I’m not making this up.

All that remains of this creature...

All that remains of this creature…

Speaking of Geoff, where was he??? After not seeing him at the out & back, I figured he was sailing along, and I was right. Simply put, having a damn good race. He slowly peeled away after the first few miles and settled into a good pace. After spending the middle of the day approximately 35 minutes in front of me, his last 20 miles would only get better. As I slightly faded, he roared, ultimately finishing 90 minutes ahead of me, even after taking a wrong turn and losing 20 minutes.

Color, And Then, Darkness

Darkness does fall before I get to mile 51 (before 46, actually), but not before a most fabulous sunset that lights up the clouds like a pride parade. Everyone within earshot – which is about 2 people, tops – is making appreciative noises at the light show and plodding along the decidedly rocky trail. One of them is with his pacer and trying not to barf. Poor guy. His pacer and I exchange greetings and he asks how I’m doing, which means I hit him with the works, “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!” He chuckles and I mosey on ahead, muttering, “SPACESHIP!!!” under my breath like a lunatic.

Time for some light. Headlamp deployed, I hold it in my hand after deciding I didn’t want something strapped to my head, and this is what I saw for the next four hours or so:


The winding trail leaves me with a sense of lost, nearly all day long and certainly in the dark. I cannot see a runner ahead of me and know if they are ahead, behind, on course, off course, or what. There’s just very little reference points with such a contouring route. The approaching 47 mile aid station taunts me for miles, with false positives that turn out to be RV campers, lights on horizons that I’m sure must be IT but are not, other runners’ lights, and on, and on, and on. If I had a low point all day, this was it – the two miles before that 47 mile aid station. The trail was abusing my brain, big time. I mean, check it out:

The 8 miles between mile 38 and 46...

The 8 miles between mile 38 and 46…

I’m Not Scott Jurek; Not Today, Anyway

All day long I’d been continually assessing my pace, thinking about my typical slow-down factor and how I might end up finishing. I do this a lot during races; it’s rather enjoyable and passes the time. A few other runners I talked to seemed to be unable to subtract one aid station’s mileage from the next, but when I’m running, math is my friend. Around mile 20 I thought 15 hours was very, very feasible. I’d done 12 minute pace for the first 20, so that allowed 14’s for the middle and 16’s or even 17’s for the end and everything would be peachy. Around 24, still looked good. 31 miles – halfway – still OK. Mile 38, good, if I kept it up. But my pace was slowing with the “big” climbs, more than I’d planned. I kept reassessing, over and over, what I needed until the finish to crack 15, 15:30, and 16. It was slipping, a little.

Eventually, I did come upon that blasted 46 mile aid station, later than my projections by about 15 minutes, and I wondered if I could really go under 16 after all. This was a depressing thought – that using the original standards for this course I would be not good enough to even finish it. Blame sickness all you want, there’s honestly no reason I shouldn’t be better than 16 hours on a course like this, and that’s the kind of thought that was punishing me for a few hours. That back and forth, “you’ve been sick! You’ve been stressed! Let it fucking go!” versus, “even sick runners can buck up and do respectable times! That Kate chick trained on a treadmill for jeebus’ sake!”

Eventually I shook it off and just tried to keep going at whatever pace felt like I was stretching my limits a little bit. Today that pace just wasn’t super fast. Other races, other times, that pace has let me go under 11 hours in a 50, but not today, not this week. I had to be OK with that, because I’m not freaking Scott Jurek who wakes up from a collapse on the side of the road at Badwater and then runs the fastest 100K of his life to win the race. Nope, that’s not me, not yet.

I’m still warm – it’s like my body stored up heat like a rock and is still slowly dissipating it well into the night. NEVER before have I spent so long only wanting cold things, and very cold things at that. Soup never sounded good, even lukewarm gels were icky. I wanted ice in my bottles, cold defizzed coke, and not much else. I thought about not putting on my shirt and just running in the sports bra but who knows what kind of crazy chafing I’d get from the vest. No, better to just keep consuming cold things.

Better Mood And A Better Finish

Mile 51 comes and goes quickly, and I savor a change of shirt that awaits at this drop bag. Finally, no salt-crusted mess anymore. I can finish feeling slightly less gritty. I’m out, tromping with determination for the next and final aid station at mile 58-ish. I’m amused enough that I laugh out loud at what it tastes like to burp up coke mixed with ginger ale mixed with coffee. We ultrarunners are a strange lot.

My time projections are still wonky and I’d need to do 16 minute miles for the last 11 miles to safely come in under 16 hours. When the first couple of miles click off in 21 minutes, 19 minutes, et cetera, I’m feeling a little sad but still OK. The end is tangible, regardless. I will get there, and I won’t explode too much.

After mile 57.x aid, there’s some flat jeep road to run and I’m overjoyed at the idea that this is how it will be all the way in – I could still speed up. But then we rejoin trail and my pace is back down to 18 minutes. I pass a few more here, bringing that total up to about a dozen since mile 38 with just one passing me. I don’t think I have any special abilities to finish fast – it just seems that other people’s wheels fall off way more dramatically than mine do. My wheels are still on, but they’re wobbling from some missing lugnuts. I try to keep it together just one more hour. That’s it. One hour. Or less.

A reflective first 100K finish

A reflective first 100K finish

And then it’s visible, the tent, the lights, the FINISH. It’s 11 p.m. I’m still warm. Ahead of me awaits chairs and soup (after I finally stop being warm a good 30 minutes after stopping) and my clean(er) clothes and friends. It’s an hour later than I’d hoped but only a little over 16 hours when I cross, so I’m going to call that pretty OK.


I thought of some new closing lines for my friends who dismiss the 100K as a useless distance. “All the pain of a 100 mile race, . . . ”

. . . and you don’t have to stay up all night!

. . . and 2/3 the entry fee!

. . . and the ultra fairy will still bring you a buckle!


Read my post on post-ultra depression. Yeah, but it’s gonna be OK.

Oh, and Kate finished in just under 15 hours, like clockwork. Atta go, girl.