This weekend marked the end of the eighth week of training for my first 100-mile ultramarathon. That’s a full one-third of the 24 weeks on the schedule — now behind me, absorbed (hopefully) into my legs.
This is terrifying, in the best way possible.
It’s the same type of fear I had when I trained for a 50-miler the first time. The feeling where even though you know that humans routinely (sort of) run the distance, on some level it just doesn’t seem possible. Especially not for you.
That’s the nature of ultrarunning though. You don’t get anywhere near the race distance in your training. For my 50’s, I never ran over 31 miles (50K) in training. For this 100, I’ll do a 50K and one run longer than that — however far I get in a 12-hour race around a 5K loop that I’m doing in June. Hopefully 100K (62 miles), but anything over 50 miles will do. But that’s it for runs over 30 miles.
And then on race day, you wake up, go out, and get it done. And here, “get it done” just means running 40 miles (!) farther than you’ve ever run in your life.
No big deal … right?
What Training for a 100 Has Taught Me So Far
Shorts-staining fear aside, I’m really enjoying the training. I’m not doing any speedwork (but tons of hills), and most of the miles are done at a comfortable pace. Which means lots of time for thinking, listening, enjoying the mountains, and thinking some more.
Here are 8 lessons I’ve discovered in all of that running (and thinking), one for each week of training.
1. The difference between a 100-miler and a shorter ultra is almost entirely mental (really).
The training itself isn’t much different at all. Like I said, there’s only one run longer than 31 miles. It’s not much different from just training for a 50, running it, and then deciding you’ll do a 100 a month later.
Mentally, though, the difference is immense.
Right after I finished my first 50-miler, I asked a friend who has run many 100’s how it’s possible: I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get to the finish of that 50, turn around, and do it all again.
“It’s a mindset thing,” he said. Great. And so very not helpful.
I thought he meant on race day, and maybe he did. But I’ve noticed it throughout these 8 weeks of training, and after 16 more, I believe I’ll be mentally ready to run 100 miles.
When I run now, I don’t think about pace. I don’t even bring a watch. I just go run, mostly mountain roads, until I’ve covered the day’s distance. I seek out hills (and they’re easy to find here), so that I can train myself to hike them efficiently, and to make the long run take longer. The goal is time on your feet, on terrain like you’ll have to run on race day.
I’ve even picked up a few shifts waiting tables on nights after long runs to get more feet time and acclimate myself to misery. Okay, that part’s not true.
2. I can’t yet run in minimalist shoes every day.
Oh, how I would love to. My runs in my Brooks PureDrift are so much more enjoyable than any others. That whole “connection with the ground” that barefooters talk about is pretty woo-woo, but I can feel it in these shoes.
The problem is I’m not ready to be an exclusively minimalist runner. The PureDrifts don’t have five toe slots and therefore don’t look ridiculous — in fact, they look pretty much like normal shoes — so it was easy for me to forget that they’re not.
I did every run in them for the first two weeks of this training program, and for another month before I started the official plan. And then I started getting sore.
My lower legs ached after every run; tightness woke me up in the middle of the night.
I thought it was hills, so I did my best to avoid them for a few weeks. No help.
I did more foam rolling. No help.
I scaled back the mileage for two weeks. It helped, but as soon as I picked it up again, the soreness and tightness occurred.
Finally, it occurred to me to try new shoes. So I put on my 890’s, ran 18 miles, and felt just fine.
I still love my PureDrifts. I run in them as often as I safely can, and right now, that’s about two short-to-medium length runs per week (12-15 miles).
Funny that when someone asks me for advice about running in minimalist shoes, Rule #1 is always “Transition slowly!”
Ah, the taste of vegan humble pie.
3. “Hills are speedwork in disguise.”
Frank Shorter said this. But I never really got it — I just figured it meant, “Hills are hard, so you can elevate your heart rate and your exertion level without actually increasing your speed.” Pretty obvious.
But that misses the “in disguise” part. I think what Frank meant was that if you’re running hills, even when you don’t feel like you’re working hard, you’re still getting in a pretty good workout.
I won’t pretend to understand how it’s physiologically possible to work harder than your exertion level lets on, but I noticed something rather remarkable that serves, at least, as anecdotal evidence: After a year of so-so, only halfway-consistent training in Asheville — on hillier terrain than I’ve ever consistently run in my life, a few weeks ago I ran my fastest half marathon.
In training. As part of a longer run. On hills.
Granted, I’ve never clocked a great half marathon time because I tend not to run half marathons. Prior to this, my fastest half marathon was both the first and second halves of my Boston-qualifying marathon.
Still, I have no business running a PR half marathon without really trying. And so I credit the hills, the only real change in my training over the past year.
4. Fresh dates are a fantastic fuel source.
Gels gross me out. Even homemade ones, now.
But Mother Nature gave us another portable, energy-packed source of gooey, sugary, quick-digesting carbohydrate: dates.
Get fresh, medjool dates — the kind with the pits still in them. Even pitted dates that call themselves fresh are tougher and not nearly as delicious. The fresh ones are so soft you can push out the pit with your fingers, or just take a bite and remove it.
I carry a few in a plastic bag in my pocket and eat one every few miles. Each one has about 18 grams of carbohydrate, 16 of which are sugar. They’re like gummies, but real food.
5. It’s better to walk up hills with good form than to run up them with bad.
Ultrarunners have known forever that walking up hills is often better than running them, since you save a lot of energy while losing only a little time (which you’ll make up on the way down).
But in my training for this race, there have been several occasions during my long, slow, hilly runs, when I just haven’t had the energy to run strongly up a hill. The choice is between running weakly and walking strongly.
Since I’m going to be walking hills in my 100 — all of them, if I listen to most of the advice for first time 100 runners — I figure it makes sense to train my hiking muscles. And if I can do that with good form, instead of doing that horrible, slouched-over shuffle thing that we runners do when we’re wrecked but really don’t want to be seen walking, so much the better.
6. Back-to-back long runs are the key to saving your Saturdays.
I once wrote a post called How You Can Run an Ultramarathon (and Still Have a Life). Because I like having a life.
I’m different from many other runners. They like having lives too, I’m sure, but they also really, really, really like running.
I like running, too — for about an hour. That’s enough time for me to get the endorphins flowing, listen to an audiobook without getting bored, or think about life before my thoughts drive me crazy. Once it goes beyond 60 minutes, though, it’s work. Again, much more mental than physical — I just get bored.
Back-to-back long runs, which are used extensively in my training program (from Bryon Powell‘s Relentless Forward Progress), offer an interesting alternative.
The idea: instead of running, say, 5 hours on Saturday (1 hour of fun, 4 hours of work), then taking Sunday off, run 3 hours on Saturday (1 hour fun, 2 hours work) and 2 hours on Sunday (1 hour fun, 1 hour work). That’s 2 hours of fun, 3 hours of work.
Less work, more fun. Less feeling like your run (along with the after-effects) takes up your whole day.
And since my 100 is probably going to take me around 24 hours, I don’t think too much is lost by spacing out the miles over a 24-hour period instead of doing them all at once.
7. Ain’t nothing wrong with roads.
Like many runners, once seduced by trail running, I went through a road-backlash. When the alternative was beautiful, unpredictable, peaceful, dirty trails, I never wanted to run roads again.
But now that I live in a place where the roads are interesting (complete with snakes, bears, and pheasant/turkey things that I can’t identify) and offer climbs up mountains, I actually do much more road running than trail running.
I like that I can leave my house and just start running, without tacking 20 minutes of driving time onto each end of the run. I like passing houses and people and even running through downtown. And since my race has a large amount of roads, I think it’s important get my legs accustomed to them.
I’ll do some trail running too, and I’m sure I’ll swing the other way again and go anti-road. But for now, I’m back to roads.
And where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Oh wait, that makes no sense and is the teaser for Back to the Future Part II.
8. Run the way that makes you happy, because that’s what will make you run.
Number 7 is one example — for a while, I felt oddly like I “had” to run trails, that I was committing a crime against running humanity by choosing roads.
Another one is listening to music. I went through a phase where I didn’t listen to anything while I ran. In some way it was because I wanted it that way; I was into meditation and really “feeling” everything about the run, especially my breathing. But partly, it was because I had heard too many runners scoff at the idea of desecrating the act of running by involving earbuds.
I get that in some situations, headphones are dangerous. And that wearing them in a race, especially on trails, is inconsiderate of other runners who depend on your hearing them approach you to pass.
But when I’m on my own, if listening to music or (more often) an audiobook is going to make the difference between getting out the door and not — and sometimes, for me, it does — then I’m firing up the iPod. I’ve come to look forward to my daily runs as a time to listen to something interesting, something that I might not make the time for otherwise.
This isn’t about listening to headphones while you run, of course. It’s about engineering habits so that you stick with them, really, and not listening to those who tell you you’re wrong.
So I hope that one of these eight lessons is useful to you … and if I could pick just one, it’d be this last one. I’m beginning to understand that the differences between sticking with something and quitting are very, very minor — things that seem inconsequential, the choice to “just suck it up” instead of doing it the way that feels good. If you want to keep at something that isn’t always easy (like running, for me), set it up so that you enjoy it. That’s so simple, but so crucial. No extra points for pain.