8 Lessons Learned in 8 Weeks of Training for a 100-Miler

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. πŸ™‚

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. πŸ™‚



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  1. Are you running the BMM 24 in NC in June? If so, I’ll be there! Great event!

    • Yes, but the 12, not the 24! That’s my big training run for the 100. We’ll have plenty of time to chat on the 5K loop, I imagine!

    • Tammy Austin says:

      Oh my gosh. I have been training like crazy for my first 100 miler in September. This blog brings me down to a more practical reality. LOVED this lessons learned. I have been scared to death, but I know I can do it and this will really help. Thanks for sharing.

      • Marla Neumann says:

        How did your ultra go? Or it upcoming? I like the quote: Whether you think you can or think you can …you are right. Best wishes!

  2. Such great advice and insight, as always. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and lessons learned.

  3. Great and informative article…

  4. I ran my first 1/2 marathon this past weekend and even training for that I had to battle the mentality more than I anticipated! Getting myself to out out for an 8 mile run is a lot harder than I expected, even if I ran 7 the week before with no problem. But having those struggles through training, made me feel that much stronger come race day. Good luck with your training!

  5. Where do you buy your fresh dates? I’ve never seen such a thing – didn’t even know they were available πŸ™‚

  6. My experience in training for my 1st 100 totally lines up with what you’ve discovered so far. Keep at it. Before you ever get to the race, the journey of training is an incredible experience.

  7. Dug Campbell says:

    Great post, thanks Matt. I definitely have an ultra somewhere on the horizon over the next couple of years in terms of goals but juggling the training with other commitments does worry me a bit. A post like this gives me confidence that it’s possible – though next time, you need to add Lesson 9 (how to convince the wife and kids that it’s a great idea….!) πŸ˜‰

  8. I’m so sad that I’m now allergic to dates. And yes, I got to taste those beautiful fresh (still on the branch) dates before I became too allergic to consume them any more. They were ambrosia.

    Any suggestions for fuel for those who can’t have dates? I do raisins, but… well… they’re raisins. Mix it up with prunes, figs, or apricots now and then, but I miss dates!

    • 1. Bean and rice/quinoa burritos on a corn tortilla, wrapped in aluminum foil
      2. Baked sweet potato

      Don’t forget on runs longer than 3-4 hours, you need to be taking in some protein, not just carbs.

  9. Good thoughts on ultra training. Yiou really need to find what works for YOU, then have faith in it. Roads, trails–both are good. How long is the longest run? Whatever you can fit into your schedule and remain uninjured. For me it’s usually one 50-miler with two 50Ks, one marathon, and then lots of 18-20 mile “regular” long runs. Practice eating and drinking a LOT during your longest runs. Adjust electrolyte consumption and see how you feel during /after runs. Practice taking pain killers too (if you will use them during the 100). One extra tip–try a Pepcid AC to calm your stomach (acid reducer). I take one before I run, then another after 10 hours of running. It helps.

    Just finished the Umstead 100 last weekend (23:56!). I hear ya on the non-minimalist shoes for ultras. Usually go very minimal, but I used the Altra Torin and Hoka Stinson Evo for Umstead. They are NOT minimal shoes.

    • I’m a minimalist at heart too, but for Ultra’s I go up a notch. Last year it was the Peregrine, this year it is the Mix Master 2. I’m finding my feet quite tired after 30-40 miles in the MM2’s, so I’m about to try the Altra Superior. I borrowed a pair of Stinson’s for a five mile run and actually kind of sort of liked them. I’m seriously considering a pair for the latter half of Leadville this year.

    • Alanna Garrison says:

      Congrats on your Umstead finish! Nice time on those hills!

    • I would respectfully disagree with the painkillers part. There is significant and growing evidence that taking painkillers during ultras is a bad idea and can contribute to kidney failure. No ultra I’ve been to has any painkillers at any aid stations, aid station workers are not allowed to give you any, and runners are generally warned not to take them. I would argue that if you can’t do it without painkillers/drugs, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

      Agree with everything else, but note that Noake’s new book/research Waterlogged does provide a ton of evidence that electrolytes are unnecessary (didn’t use a single one during my last two 100’s, Chimera and Cascade Crest, and had no issues) and you should drink to thirst only.

    • I was at Umstead too! Congrats. Please see this video on the shoes. I noticed that this was the most popular shoe at the event!!

    • Chris,
      Congrats on Umstead! I recently joined your Buffalo yahoo group and saw that you finished and finished WELL. I ran Clinton a couple weeks ago. Didn’t do so hot. My goal is to do my first 50 miler next year at the Ice Age 50 and then a 100 the year after. We will see how that plan goes.

  10. Alanna Garrison says:

    Great post, Matt! I train in the Pure line as well, but have come to accept that I need more cushioning once I get past the marathon – 50K mark, so I’ve turned to my trusty Hokas. I also use them if I’m doing back-to-back long mileage weekends, just to save myself a little wear and tear πŸ™‚

    I’ve tried your suggestion about dates – works wonders!!!! Gels taste awful after so many hours.

    I’m glad to see you are comfortable with your training so far – once you have the base mileage in, it really is all in your head. I’m going for 150+ at a 48-hour next month, and going for my third official hundred finish at Mohican in June. Best of luck to you and remember to fit in lots of walk training!!!

  11. Thanks for the great post, and I hope you stay strong out there!

  12. Matt,

    I love your posts and love what you are doing for those of us who have chosen not to eat meat (or animal products). Thank you very much.

    Bill Berenson

  13. John Warner says:

    Great post!

    Keep doing what you’re doing and thanks for telling us about it!

    Ontario, Canada

  14. What 100 are you doing?

  15. I’ve been loosely dreaming about doing an ultra (50 miler) next year… and this has gotten me motivated to take it from dreaming to setting a firm goal and finding an ultra that works into my schedule.

    Any suggestions for 50 milers in May 2014?

  16. Try stuffing your dates with coconut oil for some extra oomph.

  17. Great stuff, Matt. Love the dates suggestion. (In my 50-milers and during Ironman marathons, I found candied ginger — admittedly not as pure as dates, but certainly more a “real” food than gels — to be hugely helpful, both as a quick carb source and for the stomach-settling qualities.)

  18. Rippleberryrazz says:

    Great post. All points make sense. Dates and bananas are my go to foods – and the Pete’s candied ginger sounds good, too.

  19. Hey Matt – I love it. Crazy, ridiculous, awesome. I know the mental vs physical you’re talking about and I simply have to tip my hat to you, commend you and call you a crazy but very inspiring dude.

    Can’t wait to hear how you go!

  20. Roy Tuller says:

    Matt, like all above, great info. Thanks for all you do and the inspiration you provide. I feel like a real wimp here…lol. Getting ready for my 1st marathon next month at 55 yrs. Have been training with dates on my long runs (again feeling wimpy around the ultra marathoners to call them long). I look at the dates as my reward after each couple of miles. All of this is possible because of my ‘plant strong’ lifestyle! Thanks again.

  21. Great post!

    I’ve actually started using raisins on my long runs and they work great. Just in case though, here’s a little self-fulfilling prophecy by the way of scientific research. I’m sure dates work in a very similar way.


  22. Michael Blanchard says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing, and here’s to more great weeks of training!

    Now, I gotta get a run in. πŸ™‚


  23. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Another gem of a post Matt. How do you carry the dates? In a ziploc in a backpack? I sweat so much and already acrry a Fuel Belt with 4 water bottles and such. I can’t imagine where I would even put a bag of adtes to carry, let alone pulling a sweaty ziploc baggie with the dates all mashed together.
    Have fun and run easy.

    • Hey Jon! Always good to hear from you. I just put the dates (4 or 5, usually) in a plastic baggie (not ziplock) or two, and then put it in the pocket(s) of my shorts. They don’t take up much more room than carrying 2-3 gel packets would. I wear those shorts where there’s a band of 4 or 5 pockets that goes around waist. With a fuel belt, it’d be tougher.

  24. Hi Matt, I’m training for my first marathon and trying new things out. I’ve been eating flapjack for the oats and sugar energy but I ran out of steam at 17 miles and shuffled the last 3 miles last weekend. I’ll give the dates a try on next weekend’s 20 miler. Good luck with your training. I found this blog interesting and useful with ideas like the dates one.

    • Jan,

      Dates vs. flapjacks/sugar isn’t going to make any difference. You are likely better off with what you were using as it’ll be a better mix of fast release and slow release carbs, plus a tad more protein (for longer runs). If you’re running out of energy at that length (time is more important, but you gave it in miles anyway), that’s likely due to:

      A. You’re not taking in enough, consistently, throughout the run from the very start. If you’re a 170lb male, that’s ~250-300 cal/hour, but take in half that every half hour. For a 120lb female, adjust accordingly by weight ratio.

      B. If you’re still running out of energy, then either you’re working too hard and burning too high a proportion of carbs to fats (unlikely unless you are pushing HARD the entire way, and by 20 miles your muscles would know it) and/or your fat burning system isn’t well enough developed, and thus you’re using too high a % of carbs vs. body fat. If all your training has been above your aerobic threshold, this is possible, as running too hard, too fast all the time fails to develop the fat burning. Phil Maffetone has much to say on that, and while he’s the extreme on the slow burn side of the spectrum, it’s info worth noting.

      I’d also point you towards the Hammer Nutrition site in the education download section, and download the Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Success. It’s basic fueling info, and doesn’t require use of their products.

      • Thanks for that Matt, the 20 miles took me 4 hours. As a 130lb woman I will try to eat the cals you recommend on next weekend’s long run. I did not eat nearly that many calories last week, nearer 100 cals per hour or so. I will look at the site you mentioned as well. Appreciate the reply.

  25. James Mahurin says:

    Great write-up with a lot of good things to think about. I’ve hit 50k and 50m and sooner than later, I’ll be aiming for that great 100m.
    Best of luck!

  26. I dig the permission to both run with and without earbud. I like to do a mix of both. I think it’s important to be aware of your body when you run esp. shorter tempo and speedwork runs, but on my LSD’s I usually wear headphones.

  27. Great article! I’m currently training for a 50K and then a 50m later in the summer. I’m trying to do all of my fueling with natural foods, because I’ve had some stomach issues using “product”. I’ve also been using dates and a dates/water/chia combo and am curious what other natural foods you use during your long runs and races?

    • Really, dates are the main one. I make a sports drink from lemon juice, dates, water, and salt too. And sometimes I eat other fruits, like bananas and oranges. Pitas with hummus are another favorite of mine, but right now I’m trying to stick to the sugar and stay away from starchy foods to see how that works out.

  28. great article, thanks. there is something I can’t understand. If you don’t like long-running (more than an hour), why are you an ultra? wouldn’t it be more fun training for shorter races?

  29. This is a great post as I prepare to begin training for my first 100 miler in May. I’ve heard that before, if you can run 50 miles you can run 100 as the last 50 is all mental (figuratively and literally I guess). Thanks for the tips πŸ™‚

  30. Immense thanks for your post. I ran my first 50 miler last year and loved it; so I planned to run my first 100 Miler at the end of May (same course). I got a late start (March 1st) as my daughter is a single parent in the nursing field and I enjoy the time with my grandson while she takes on extra shifts. My boyfriend even thought I should drop out, but, after reading your tips, I am confident that I can still take this on. I had only trained a total of 50k over 24 hours last year and I felt strong all the way through. I also love dates and choose them when I want that sweet craving. I’m happy to incorporate them into my run. You have inspired me to keep training and I thank you! I use to love to run and live and now I love to live and run.

  31. Hey Matt. Just read this article. Feeling inspired by you, as I begin to train to run the mountain-to-sea trail this fall.

    Also I’m moving to Asheville in a couple months. So maybe I’ll see on the trails(or the roads).


  32. I ran 14KM 2x in the past 4 days without any lead up training. I actually haven’t ran in about 5-6 years previous to that and I was never really into running. I’m thinking of maybe trying for a marathon and working up to something crazy like 100 miles. I appreciate the tips!

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