Ultrarunning: Experiences From 100-mile Trail Races
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.
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.
It's been 10 years since I've run either race. Career demands and family illness had curtailed my ultrarunning. While I am now in my 50s and doing much shorter trail runs, the desire is strong to again test myself along the Indian and mining trails that run deep into California's and Colorado's historic gold fields. In these races, where altitude, terrain, and inhospitable weather routinely pull more than half the entrants from the 100-mile course, success can be just beating the cutoff time of 30 hours.
Winning the Lottery
Running the Western States 100 (WS 100) means first qualifying. For my age group that requires running a 50-mile trail race in under 11 hours. That alone doesn't ensure a spot in the sport's most popular 100-mile race. Qualifiers are picked in a November lottery. Failing to be selected has spoiled the holiday season for many who dreamed of doing battle amid the remote beauty of the High Sierras, at places with names such as Red Star Ridge, El Dorado Canyon, and Devil's Thumb.
Rocky Mountain High
Leadville 100 has no lottery, but its altitude alone has made a loser of many an entrant. To prepare for my successful finish in 1989, I flew with friends to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and we worked our way north to Leadville over 10 days. We climbed several 14,000-foot peaks and always camped at 10,000 feet or above. The acclimatization effort paid off. I finished in 27 hours and 69th in a field of 269. Not bad for an aging flatlander from New England.
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 ]]>walk]]> with purpose, not just shuffle along, that I began to have success.
Eating and Drinking
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 WS 100, 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 where I finally found my 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 ]]>mountain biking]]> . 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).
Using a Pacer
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 UltraRunning Magazine to find the perfect 50-mile qualifier for next year's Western States 100.
David Horton's Ultrarunning Page
Last reviewed November 2009 by ]]>Brian Randall, MD]]>
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