16 tips to running a 100-miler
By Henry Howard
While Karl Meltzer has famously said, “A hundred miles is not that far,” trust me, it is.
But it is achievable. Maybe not for everyone. I believe that everyone can finish a marathon. But ultras, especially those that go deep into the night and into the following day, may not be in reach for everyone.
And that is totally fine.
For some, completing a 5K is an awesome accomplishment. For others, finishing a marathon is a lifetime achievement. But for those who have visions of completing a 100-mile race, there are some definite measures you can take to help make for a successful journey.
As I count down the final 16 weeks to the Hennepin Hundred, which will be my third 100-miler, here are 16 tips I have learned as I have trained for and finished the first two.
1. Determine your personal “why.” There will be times when you want to quit, or question why you are on this journey. Determining a “why” that is meaningful to you will allow you to refer back to it for motivation when needed. And, during the long training cycle, there will be challenging moments. When you encounter those challenges, dig deep, remember your “why” and press forward. (Here is why I am returning to Hennepin this fall.)
2. Get a trusted coach. When going on a 100-mile road trip to somewhere you have never been, you would use a GPS to get there (or handwritten directions or a map back in the day). For a 100-mile race, tap into the knowledge of someone else who can help you navigate all the turns and challenges to reach your destination in good shape.
3. Lock in nutrition. The length of the 100-miler will mean that you need to account for roughly a full day’s worth of meals, plus the calories that will need to be replenished. It’s impossible to balance out the number of calories you will be losing throughout the race. The key here is to focus on knowing as much as possible about what your gut will tolerate while you are running, sometimes literally. Use those long training runs to practice and get an understanding of what your body can digest.
4. On your feet. Your longest training run will likely only be around 30 to 40 miles, or perhaps a race of 50 miles to a 60K. That’s still a long way from 100 miles. The idea here is to spend as much time on your feet as possible. If you have a stand-up desk, that’s a great way to incorporate standing throughout the day. If you don’t have a stand-up desk, get up every hour or so even if it’s just for a short walk or brief break. Time on feet will pay off when you are spending an unusually long amount of time running, walking and climbing.
5. Commit to cross training. As runners, we like to run. And you will be doing plenty of it during the 100-miler. But in your training, don’t neglect cross training. Biking, core work, swimming and yoga are all good options. Use dynamic movements on your rest days to keep the body fresh and as a counter measure to the repetitive movement and pounding the lower body is hit with while running. That stress will take a toll unless balanced with movements that stretch out the tendons, muscles, etc.
6. Incorporate biking into the plan. My favorite method of cross training is biking. It’s an excellent way to warm up and get the legs (and heart) pumping. The workouts do not — and should not — be fast and furious. One or two easy to moderate bike rides a week will prove beneficial. In fact, I use a 20- to 30-minute bike warmup most days before my run to get the legs moving and add physical activity to my running workouts.
7. Understand the race course. Be prepared to know the type of course you are getting yourself into. The two 100-milers I have completed, as of this writing, were vastly different. My first, Rio Del Lago in California, was mostly trail but also had some pavement. It also gained 10,000 feet and had a lot of large rocks to navigate in the final 20% or so of the race. Hennepin was almost entirely on a canal path and had only 1,000 feet of gain. The only issue with rocks at that race were tiny ones that might get stuck in one’s shoe.
8. Train specifically for that course. Once you get a firm understanding of the terrain, elevation gain, projected temperatures and other factors, train as best as you can for the type of race. Even if you live in a flat area at sea level, you can train for a 100-miler at elevation. Here are some guidelines on how to do so.
9. Find joy in your training. We don’t have to do this, we get to do this. Waking up, shaking off the cobwebs and finishing a workout before zero dark thirty day after day takes determination. That mental toughness is important to finish successfully on race day. In the process, find joy in what you are doing. If you are unable to, then what’s the point of this?
10. Rest, then rest some more. Of course, it is important to get to race day well trained. But don’t overlook being well rested. Throughout your training, work in rest and recovery days to let your body, heal and adapt to the stimulus of training. That goes for any race but is magnified, given the duration of a 100-miler.
11. Get yourself a good crew. You can certainly do a 100-miler solo. But having a crew with you will certainly be helpful. The crews I had during my first two 100s were excellent and helped me finish. Identify someone who will be the leader or crew chief. It’s up to that person to take the lead on decision-making and direct others. Having another person in charge of logistics is good, especially when navigating from aid station to aid station in a remote area can be challenging.
12. Plan, plan and plan some more. Once your crew is together, there are a lot of logistics and planning to settle on. How do you want to interact with your crew at aid stations? What do you anticipate wanting to eat? How frequently do you want to — or can you — connect with them? You will also want to pre-determine the process at the aid station stops. I ask my crew to lay all my nutrition, extra gear, etc. on a blanket or two. That way, I can just point to or say what I want or need, and it’s already out in the open. Putting all the items in baggies is useful for the crew so they don’t have to continually take out and out back individual items. Also: pack a folding chair. You’ll need it.
13. Start out slow, then slow down. Moving on to the actual race, know that it’s not a sprint, nor a marathon. It’s 100 freaking miles. You’ll need that energy that you are burning early. Be conservative early and finish strong at the end.
14. Don’t spend too much time at aid stations. It’s tempting to relax, chat with friends, family members, other runners or volunteers. And that chair is too inviting. But your task at hand is to finish the race. Use the timely wisely at aid stations to refill bottles, restock yourself with nutrition to carry, deal with any issues and discuss any vital matters with your crew. There will be plenty of time for deep conversations later.
15. Take care of those feet. You will be asking a whole lot of your body, especially your feet, on race day. Before long runs and races, I always apply Squirrel’s Nut Butter and have literally never had a blister. During the race, if you get a hot spot on your foot, or feel like a tiny pebble, dirt or something else is in your shoe, stop and deal with it. Taking a few minutes early to solve the issue will work out much better than letting the issue develop into a more significant problem. It’s also advisable to re-lube your feet, and get a change of socks and sneakers during an aid station stop or two. Your crew and/aid station volunteers will be able to help.
16. Remember your “why.” There will be hard times and dark moments during a physically and mentally exhausting event that will take 20, 24, 30 or even more hours. When the demons are telling you to quit, you will need that “why” to keep pushing through. And when you do cross that finish line — with your “why,” pacer and crew with you — it’s time to celebrate your epic accomplishment.