Ultrarunning: Experiences From 100-mile Trail RacesEn Español (Spanish Version)
Ultrarunning is loosely defined as anything longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). But ultraruns are commonly 50- or 100-mile races, and are often run on trails and in mountainous terrain. Ultrarunner Bill Johnson shares his experiences:
I haven't forgotten the seemingly endless downhills of the Western States Endurance Run—100 miles through California's scorching Sierra Nevada canyons. The relentless descents left my quadriceps begging for the dubious respite of the arduous climb out. Nor have I forgotten Hope Pass, sitting amid clouds at 12,600 feet, at 47 miles into the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Runners encounter the brutal climb and torturous descent twice within 10 miles in the out-and-back course.
One hundred-milers don't require running anywhere near that distance in training. It's key to get to the starting line fresh and injury free. Logging 50 or 60 miles a week in the six months before the race has proven adequate. I include six or seven runs in excess of six hours and at least one 50-miler about two months before the race. Getting used to being on your feet for extended periods is crucial. I train with the fanny pack I'll wear in the race. The packs, which hold water bottles and items such as nutrition bars
and blister remedies, can take getting used to.
Only the most elite runner will run the entire course. A strong walker can rest muscle groups while losing very little time. Many a walker has passed a struggling runner late in a race. It wasn't until I learned to
with purpose, not just shuffle along, that I began to have success.
While I never had a problem staying hydrated, I have found it difficult to eat late in the race. The nutrition shortfall naturally depleted my energy and eroded my performance. During one Western States 100 (WS100), I had supplied my support crew with 30 Power Bars, one for each hour of the race. But by eight hours, I couldn't stand the sight of one. It was at Leadville 100 where I finally found
power food: brown rice pudding. I actually welcomed it throughout the race. Runners should determine what food and drink works in training and then make sure it'll be at the medical/supply checkpoints along the course.
My training regimen will now include
cross-training, specifically weights and
. The weight training can help maintain technique even during the late stages of a race when the miles and hours have eroded pace, form, and resolve. The biking also helps with upper body strength and gives the legs a respite, especially after long training runs.
You can't take anything for granted in this sport. Even the most talented and well-conditioned runner can fall victim to the trail, the weather, and the distance. I ran my slowest time for 100 miles on one of the easiest courses, the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run. Though not in great shape, I thought I could easily finish within 24 hours. Poor conditioning, daytime temperatures in the low 90s and humid air as thick as the state's storied maple syrup, made it a personal death march. On feet shredded by blisters, I hobbled in just 17 minutes under the 30-hour cutoff.
I dropped out of Western States and Leadville on the first attempts, each at about 80 miles. I was unprepared for the extended downhills of WS 100 ( my quadriceps throbbed and the instep of my left foot endured searing pain with each step) or the altitude at Leadville, which is run at or above 9,200 feet (the cumulative effect of the altitude humbled me to the extent that I couldn't walk 20 yards without having to rest from sheer exhaustion).
Most races allow pacer runners from about 50 miles on. The pacer provides company, encouragement, and protection from the often treacherous terrain through the long night. I didn't use a pacer during my third WS 100. I wanted to witness the serenity of the Sierras at night alone. About 2:00 a.m., while running along a ridge in the American River Canyon, I stumbled, dropping my flashlight. I watched in disbelief as it tumbled down a ravine, landing about 50 feet below the trail. I had no choice but to go get it. With quadriceps and hamstrings cramping, it seemed to take forever to reach the flashlight and return to the trail. I realized then that running without a pacer is a bad idea.
Most average runners can meet the hundred mile challenge, given a determined commitment to develop an adequate ultrarunning base, a willingness to maintain a positive attitude during training and competition, and the tenacity to endure the inevitable bad patches that always arise during a race.
I've found that even the most difficult 100-mile race can, over time, metamorphose into a cherished memory. And after 10 years, it is such memory that has me again scouring the race calendar in
Magazine to find the perfect 50-mile qualifier for next year's Western States 100.
David Horton's Ultrarunning Page
Ultrarunning - introduction. International Association of Athletics Federation website. Available at: http://www.iaaf.org/community/athletics/ultrarunning/index.html. Accessed October 11, 2011.
Last Reviewed October 2011