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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?