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How to Finish a 100 Miler – Part 1

The following is the beginning of a multi-part series on how to finish your first 100 mile ultramarathon.

So you want to run 100 miles? You obviously were dropped on your head as a child! Congratulations, you will now be ostracized by your co-workers, family, and peers. Get ready for the constant “100 miles, I don’t even like driving that far!” and “What, are you crazy?” comments. At its worst, training for a 100 miler can be an exhausting, draining, expensive, injury-filled misery with your family and spouse feeling neglected. When done right, it is a transformative, exciting, fun, and life-affirming experience.

The following series of articles aims to show you how to finish your first 100 miler with the least amount of pain and suffering. It is not a guide on how to become an elite runner or how to even hit a time goal. You can worry about that later. This article covers setting goals and finding the right race. The future articles will cover training, mentally preparing, tapering, crews, pacers, what to do during the race, and how to recover.

Setting Your Goal

The goal for anyone’s first 100 should be to finish. That’s it! Don’t overthink it. Don’t get delusions of grandeur. Getting to finish line is hard enough.

Finding the Right Race

  • What type of race do you like? The first step is finding the right race to give you the best chance of finishing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the easiest race out there, though that helps. It means the best race to suit your preferences. There are plenty of people who have done Leadville, Wasatch, or other mountain races as their first 100 and finished. If that is the type of race you love, go for it, but the purpose of this article is to give you the best odds of finishing. To do that, you will want an easy course. Do not do a first time race. Many times there are problems at first time events, and you don’t want to be wandering around lost or have missing aid stations. Pick a race with a long history and a positive reputation.
  • What time of the year is best? Pick a race at least six months away. This will give you time to get physically and mentally prepared.
  • Loops or No Loops?
    • Many of the easiest 100 mile courses are 10 to 20 mile loops. Loops make the logistics much easier. There are no surprises late in the race, and it is easier on your crew if you are going to have one. You will likely be around other runners the whole race so you will have company to pass the time. Since there are fewer aid stations, it is likely that they will have a lot more hot food (pancakes anyone?) per aid station. Packing your drop bags is much easier too.
    • The biggest problem is that loops can be really boring. The sight of your car every loop makes it really easy to drop out. The other problem is that those fast guys and girls are probably going to lap you, sometimes more than once! Will that demoralize you? I remember in 2006 at the Javelina Jundred, I was walking up a hill at mile 55, as Karl Meltzer double-lapped me, while doing eight minute miles up the hill (he was at mile 85!). It was completely demoralizing and I dropped at mile 60, where my car was waiting. A great motivator when you are tired, cold, and want to drop is knowing that if you drop, you’ll have to wait for hours to get a ride.

My Recommendations

These are all races I have completed. There are several races in the TALON region, and a few elsewhere. There are plenty of other great first time races too, such as Umstead, and Pumpkin Holler, so take some time to investigate all of the options out there. Read race reports from previous years. Once you figure out which race works for you, sign up right away. Many races fill up.

Pumpkin Holler 100 (Photo: David Hanenburg)

Loop Races

  1. Rocky Raccoon: 20 mile loops at the Huntsville State Park near Houston. It is a mix of mostly soft single and double track with a few roots. It is a well-directed event, with great aid stations, generally nice weather, and very fast course. It is very competitive so you might be getting lapped a lot. It is a huge race so you will not be alone out there for most of the race
  2. Javelina Jundred: 15 mile loops that alternate directions on 10 miles of single rack and 5 miles of double track outside of Phoenix. This is another well-directed, very competitive race. It takes place on a full moon. The trail and amount of climb is a little more than Rocky Raccoon, and it can be hot, but it is still an excellent first time 100.
  3. Cajun Coyote: 20 mile loop around Lake Chicot in Louisiana. The trail is very similar to the trail at Rocky Raccoon; mellow, forested single track with some cool bridges over Cyprus swamps. Chris Scott and the Coyote folks put on a big party. The race is less serious than most races, but still superbly directed.

Views from DamNation Aid Station at Rocky Raccoon. (Photo credit: Lynn Ballard)

Non-Loop Races

  1. Heartland: Single out and back on gravel country roads in Kansas, with 6,000 ft of climbing. This was my first 100 in 2005. It has great crew access, great aid stations, and is small enough that you will get personal service, but not so small that you will be totally alone all night. The large gravel on the roads can wear down your feet, and if the weather is bad, you are completely exposed to the elements.
  2. Salt Flats: This is a newer race that I had the pleasure of completing this year. It is a figure-8 on and around the Bonneville Salt Flats at the Utah/Nevada border. The race has 8,000 feet of climbing. The best feature this race has for a first time 100 is that the cutoff is 36 hours. If you are nervous about the 30 hour cutoff of the other races, this one is for you.
  3. Arkansas Traveller: A classic, old school race with 12,000 ft of climbing on a mix of dirt roads and trails. It is in early October and about 45 minutes Northwest of Little Rock. The aid stations are great. This race has a little more climbing than the others, but still makes a perfect first 100.
  4. Lean Horse: This out and back in the Black Hills of South Dakota features 8,000 ft of climbing on a soft rails to trails path and some road. It is another race with great crew access points and they even take the time recognize all the first time 100 finishers at the awards ceremony.

Other Resources

  • Endurance Buzz Race Guide – Collection of trail/ultra races in the TALON region.
  • Run100s: The oldest and best site for 100 mile info and ultramarathons in general.

– Jim Breyfogle

David here – Let’s Talk 100 Milers

  • Are you planning to run your first 100 this year or next? Have you picked an event? Which one and why?

About the author

Jim Breyfogle Jim took up running during college in 2002 after a wild and unhealthy youth. He ran his first ultra in 2004, and since then has completed over 80 ultras, including 17 different 100 milers, plus many shorter races, triathlons, mountain bike races, and adventure races. For more information on Jim, check out the About page where you can see some of his run related projects.

6 Responses to “How to Finish a 100 Miler – Part 1”

  1. on 02 Jul 2012 at 1:06 pm Josh

    My first was last October at the Arkansas Traveller and it was a blast. A great course with great support that I recommend to anyone. I think it is more important to shoot for something really close. I had the pleasure of having family and friends around, either cheering or participating. That is an invaluable experience.

    Happy trails.

  2. on 02 Jul 2012 at 1:59 pm Chris McElveny

    Awesome, really looking forward to this series of articles! My first 100 will be Javelina this Fall. Mostly picked it as my first due to location, timeframe, and relative ease. I definitely need to stay focused on the goal of finishing, but it’s hard to keep those time goals from sneaking in.

    Jim, it was good to see you at Angel Fire this weekend.

  3. on 03 Jul 2012 at 8:34 am olga

    I agree that close location is often a great benefit for the first time, and the relative ease of the course (I view it in terms of how resembling it is to the terrain you’re training on more than flatness). Good start on picks.

  4. on 03 Jul 2012 at 9:40 am Jonathan

    Mine will be Rocky Raccoon. How can I not as it’s my hometown ultra? And who doesn’t enjoy a Joe Prusaitis race? I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering at Rocky and that put me over the edge and deciding to attempt one when I thought it would be impossible for me. I would say that being a volunteer at the chosen race, if possible, can give one valuable insight on how that race operates and how selfless the volunteers are, many of them spending hours giving assistance and encouragement, often without sleep.

  5. on 09 Jul 2012 at 12:39 pm Burke

    Rocky Raccoon, 2012 was my first 100 miler. I would recommend it or Cajun Coyote to anyone for a first time 100. I would also recommend that if you are training to run Rocky in February, you should do Cajun Coyote’s 100K option. It is 8 weeks out, and that was perfectly timed for me.

  6. on 10 Jul 2012 at 9:22 am David Hanenburg

    Thank you all for sharing!

    Josh – I can definitely see the benefit of being close to home and having a support team around you…especially for the first one.

    Chris – Javelina is a many looper I believe. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

    Olga – I like the connection to typical training terrain!

    Jonathan – Going after it! Nice!

    Burke – Great recommendations! I tried to connect a 100k (Bandera) and Rocky four weeks apart, that didn’t work so well for me as I went into Rocky with a knee tweak that only got worse and forced me to drop. I imagine Cajun Coyote has terrain more similar to Huntsville State Park (Rocky)?