Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by David Kiefer
Now that 26.2 miles is mainstream, more people—including elite road racers—are considering ultra distances and what it takes to finish them.
Curious more than anything, Magdalena Boulet took a spot at the edge of the Placer High School track in the Sierra Nevada foothills to watch the end of the Western States Endurance Run, the prestigious 100–mile event that gave rise to the ultrarunning movement. In 2013, she was deep into a career that made her one of the top distance runners in the J U.S.—second at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, owner of a 2:26:22 personal best, and a two–time world cross country medalist. As she found new success at longer distances like 50K, she thought Western States might be in her future but wasn’t convinced until she watched runners melt in triumph and relief as they crossed the finish line. “It gave me goosebumps.” Boulet says, “You could sense this was a huge accomplishment. It was so much bigger than them. I thought, ‘I want to experience that joy.’”
Boulet’s opportunity is coming on June 27, when she’s scheduled to compete in her first Western States. In doing so, she sends another signal that there is a change in the running world, a shift in perception, goals, and even limits.
For a while—since, say, the fifth century B.C., when an exhausted Pheidippides met his fate—the marathon was viewed as the ultimate endurance test. But that was before extreme runners like Ann Trason, Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, and El Caballo Blanco redefined boundaries. Now that social media has reinforced the notion that everyday runners—friends, relatives, drinking buddies, soccer moms—can cover unimaginable distances, 26.2 miles no longer constitutes the edge of the endurance horizon.
One hundred miles. The distance no longer terrorizes. Dare we say it’s even a checkmark on bucket lists, somewhere alongside visiting the Great Wall of China and going on an African safari? Could 100 miles be the new marathon?
“So many have proven they can finish a marathon,” says Greg McMillan, of McMillan Running coaching services. “Now, they want the next challenge. It’s a natural evolution.”
Statistics indicate McMillan is right: 100–mile finishes in the United States have increased from 1,378 to 7,029 since 2003. In 2014, the number grew by 17 percent.
Sure, 100–milers won’t threaten the marathon anytime soon; last year, the New York City Marathon had 50,530 finishers. But it shows a comparable stage of the race’s development: During the early running–boom year of 1976, an estimated 25,000 people finished U.S. marathons. Last year, 34,180 Americans finished ultras. Worldwide, the number was 208,181.
“There are a number of us for whom a marathon is relatively ordinary,” says Ron Little, vice president of the Coastside Running Club in Half Moon Bay, California. “It’s a distance we cover in training runs.”
No Oprah Effect
While the popularity of the distance might be on the rise, Western States likely won’t be hosting celebrity entrants anytime soon, like so many marathons do.
“Ultras have grown immensely, but I don’t know if they’re comparable [to marathons],” says Hal Koerner, Western States and Hardrock champ and author of Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning. “I mean, 26.2 miles is something most people can comprehend. P. Diddy, Oprah, and Pam Anderson have done one. There still aren’t a lot of people you meet that have run 100 miles.
“The mileage holds a lot of respect with the everyday runner. But most still think you’re crazy for running that far,” he says.
Brett Gotcher, a 2:10:36 marathoner and aspiring 2016 Olympian, hears more chatter among runners about attempting distances longer than 26.2 miles, but he isn’t contemplating it himself. “It’s definitely crossed my mind. One or two times I’ve gotten that invincible feeling where I feel I can run forever,” he says. “You wonder how far you could go. Could I be good at that? But then I say, ‘No way’ It’s a totally different sport. It requires a different mentality.”
Preparing On All Terrains
Sage Canaday, who is attempting to qualify for his third Olympic trials marathon, has developed into one of America’s premier mountain/ultra/trail runners. Five months after running the Los Angeles Marathon, he plans to tackle 100 miles for the first time on Aug. 28 at the prestigious Ultra–Trail du Mont–Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France. The course traverses three countries, 400 summits, and has 35,000 feet of climbing.
Canaday, 29, is unafraid of breaking from the established road–running world to explore the possibility of greater opportunities beyond, in largely uncharted territory.
“It’s the same sport of distance running, whether you’re running a mile or 100 miles,” Canaday says. “It’s a similar struggle.”
Canaday’s transition to trails and ultra–running was more of a progression than a goal. Training professionally for the roads didn’t suit him as much as the mountains did, and Canaday went on to win national mountain and trail championships. He set an American record in the Mt. Washington Road Race and captured consecutive Tarawera 100K titles in New Zealand.
The UTMB course is daunting enough because of the climbs, the aggressive pacing of the Europeans, and the unpredictable weather. But, even to Canaday, 100 miles—more than 40 miles longer than he has ever attempted at once—is disconcerting.
“It would be hard enough on a straight track. Add all the other variables, and it can be a complete disaster. I worry that I will have a complete breakdown and won’t be able to finish,” Canaday says.
Canaday has prepared with 10,000–15,000 feet of climbing a week around his home in Boulder, Colorado. On a single run, he can gain 5,000–6,000 feet over 20 miles.
Anna Frost, a top ultrarunner who grew up on a hilltop in the New Zealand countryside, found motivation to move up to 100 miles because of her desire to compete at the Hardrock 100. Set at an average of 11,000 feet, Hardrock boasts 67,984 feet of elevation change in Colorado’s San Juan range.
“The distance never intrigued me as much until now,” says Frost, 33, who set a course record during her first 100–miler, the Bear 100 in Logan, Utah, and earned passage to the July 15 Hardrock race.
Frost finds her inspiration in the mountains and views the growth of the sport as positive, as long as it does not exploit the environment or stray from its origins as something of a spiritual quest.
“I feel the values of people doing 100–milers are true and heartfelt, and I believe this will continue, even when it grows,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see so many people enjoy the beauty of trail running. But there is a risk of the sport growing into something that doesn’t keep in line with the true trail–running values and the spirit of being in the mountains.”
Most ultra vets will say that the biggest difference between the marathon and 100 miles is the suffering. The tone grows darker as the distance grows longer.
“In a shorter race, there are high points and low points, but they’re pretty short–lived,” says Emily Harrison, the reigning U.S. and world 50K road champ who twice raced at Western States, though she wasn’t able to finish in 2014. “You learn how to push through it. But in a longer race, learning how to suffer is very different, especially for people used to being able to run fast and push hard the whole time.”
For a distance so difficult, why are more people able to complete it? Like any goal, it mostly comes down to desire.
“If you really want to do it, you can do it,” says Ian Torrence, a McMillan Running coach who has run 187 ultras. “Normal people who have children and 40–hour–a–week jobs, they do it. You see people running crazy 200–mile weeks lining up next to people running 30–mile weeks. Even if you know their entire training history, it’s really impossible to say who’s going to finish and who’s not.”
Some major races have qualifying standards, but most trust that entrants are properly prepared. Even so, safeguards are often in place, with smaller loops and frequent aid stations and checkpoints.
“I don’t know how well–trained any runner is who runs my races,” says Joe Prusaitis, director of the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, Texas. “I can’t tell from looking at anyone if they can do it or not. Mental strength cannot be underestimated, and physical strength can be overestimated. The miles will sort it all out.”
In late January, Andreana Haley and Tim Hackett stood on the starting lines of their first 100–mile races—Haley at the Rocky Raccoon and Hackett at the Coldwater Rumble in Goodyear, Arizona.
Haley, 42, is a clinical scientist from Austin, Texas, studying the relationships between exercise and the aging of the brain. She was drawn to running by her desire to become a guinea pig of sorts, and to trail ultras by “Running on the Sun,” a documentary on Death Valley’s 1999 Badwater 135.
Hackett, a self–described “desk jockey,” smoked for 20 years and was 40 pounds overweight when, he says, a backpacking trip with his son’s Scout troop “just about killed me.”
Humbled, Hackett stopped smoking, started running, and powered through a half marathon and marathon before discovering the trails ringing the Valley of the Sun.
“While all this was going on, I was laid off, got another job, and got divorced,” says Hackett, 48, of Mesa, Arizona. “The goal for me has never been to win races. It’s about feeling better and not dropping dead of a heart attack in five or 10 years.”
Hackett began the Coldwater conservatively. Thirty hours was his goal, but the five–loop course at Estrella Mountain Regional Park was more difficult than he anticipated, with miles of deep sand in canyon washes.
The third loop took him an excruciating 7.5 hours to finish, as blisters sliced into his feet and nausea overwhelmed him. Walking replaced running. Hackett’s savior: Cup Noodles. The sodium allowed his body to rebalance, and Hackett was able to gather his energy for the final push.
“There were times of feeling really good and feeling really bad,” he says. “I knew you just have to ride through it.”
For Haley, anxiety prevented her from sleeping the night before. And at 60 miles, she too felt nauseous and refused to eat.
Friends demanded she choke down food, and finally they gave her an ultimatum: “No food, no running.”
After 20 minutes, she felt well enough to eat and began to run. She sensed that if she could get through the night, everything would be fine. With 10 miles to go, the sun rose brightly, and Haley felt rejuvenated.
Hackett’s pace quickened over the final 5 miles and he felt a “sense of elation” as he crossed the line in 29:30:20. He was 17th in a race that only 34 of 72 entrants finished.
Haley was thankful to avoid visions of pink elephants and other hallucinations, and passed runners swaying, puking, limping, and passing out, on her way to a time of 28:21:21.
“I jumped into this stuff before I had a sense of what I was doing,” she says. “In some sense, you don’t know what you’re capable of.”
But isn’t that the point in this new age of running? You’re willing to find out.
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How to Prep for 100 Miles
Contrary to logical thought, 100–mile races are a realistic goal for even the average runner. Ian Torrence, veteran ultrarunner and McMillan Running coach, insists that it’s within reach for anybody who’s serious about preparation. “If you really have a love for the sport of running and you like being out there, that’s going to contribute highly to your success,” Torrence says. “If your goal is to stand by the water cooler at work and tell people you ran this crazy 100–mile race, you’re not going to succeed.”
Jessica Cranford, winner of Florida’s Skydive Ultra, put it in more specific terms: “You’re faced with both doubt and determination. But once you’ve crossed the start line, you’ve decided on determination.”
Here are 10 tips on how to make 100 miles as achievable as possible:
1. Find a Trail
Most 100–mile races are on trails. So, get used to them. “There are a lot of components with trail running that are different than road running—the terrain, moving up and down, and tempering your quads and your legs for that kind of abuse,” Torrence says. “It’s also seeing your normal 8–minute pace go to 14 minutes and being okay with that.”
2. Stay on Your Feet
It’s one thing to enjoy a leisurely run in the woods, but it’s another to do it for hours on end. However, those are the kinds of runs that establish the longevity you will need for a race that could take more than 24 hours. “You need to know what it’s like to be on your feet for four to five hours on the trails in training,” says Sage Canaday, a top mountain, ultra and trail runner. “Get used to the wilderness.”
3. Progress, Don’t Dive Headfirst
Start with a trail half marathon, or a 50K if you’ve already completed a road marathon, and add distance from there. “When you try a 50–miler, hang out there until you’re comfortable,” Torrence says. “There’s a lot to learn there—the whole nutritional and hydration component that you can’t quite get in a marathon.” Next, try 100K and, finally, 100 miles.
4. Don’t Overdo It
A misconception is the amount of mileage it takes to prepare. Magdalena Boulet, a U.S. Olympian in the marathon, covered more weekly mileage while training for 26.2 miles than the 80–100 she’s doing as she prepares for Western States. Emily Harrison, an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, U.S. and world 50K road champ, and coach, concurs. “The most important thing is being healthy and showing up at the start line refreshed and not fatigued and burnt out already,” Harrison says.
5. Get a Crew
It’s essential for runners to have a team of supporters to provide aid and encouragement during those long hours. Tim Schaum, overall winner of Florida’s Skydive Ultra 100–miler, says his crew kept his mind off the pain and discomfort. “It was a memorable experience to have my closest friends join me on the final lap,” he says. “I will never forget it as long as I live.”
6. Break It Up
The 100–mile figure is daunting and incomprehensible. In his first 100, Torrence was going to quit at 50 but was convinced to make it to the next aid station, and the next, until he finished. Find a way to chop the distance up in pieces.
7. Tough It Out
Hal Koerner, a Hardrock 100 and Western States champion, says that everybody crosses over into unknown territory in their first 100–miler. Don’t panic. Harrison says it’s good to think about how you will handle possible scenarios before you start. “Just stay calm,” she says. “Is it a serious situation, or something you keep going through?”
8. Don’t Stop At One
Most vets say that it takes several attempts to understand it. The distance is so huge that the learning curve is even bigger than other races. “The respect for the distance does not change, it matures,” Schaum says. After first completing a 100, it’s time to correct mistakes for the second.
9. Know When You’re Ready
Be patient. “Being humble about the distance is one of the best ways to leverage confidence when it comes to ultrarunning. You’ll know you’re ready when you can visualize success,” Koernersays. “The mileage doesn’t loom as large anymore, and you can come to terms with a day or more of running.”
10. Learn From Others
Find a group or a coach who can share wisdom. The Florida Ultra Runners group, for example, provides a few gems on its Facebook page: “No matter how bad things get, keep moving,” and “It’s not just a race, it’s a life–altering experience.”