What I Learned Running 100 Miles (And What's Next)
Judging from the way things look, you wouldn’t know that almost a month has passed since I ran my 100-miler. (Like the fact that I’m still writing about it …)
Remnants of seven different blisters still blemish my feet — no longer painful, but clearly visible. My Hokas are still caked in mud; I’ve had no use for them. They’re really meant for long runs, which I haven’t thought of doing, much less actually done, since.
And my gear bag — no use for that either, right now — still gives the appearance that today is race day, save for the handheld water bottle, which I’ve learned is slightly more pleasant when you clean it out instead of leaving sports drink in it to fester for weeks on end.
But it’s not just my feet, my shoes, and my gear that are frozen in post-100 contentment: my brain is still stuck in the state of satisfied exhaustion it was in during the days right after the race.
No urgency to think about what’s next, just wallowing in the afterglow of an accomplishment that took so much preparation. And filled with a sense of awe, not so much at what I achieved, but at what the human body and spirit — anybody’s, not just mine — are capable of.
Warning: I have no real plan for this blog post. I’m writing it mainly for myself, to put a bow around my first hundred and move on. But if you get something out of it, great!
What has stuck with me
There have been three themes, if you will, that I keep thinking about as I replay in my mind the abridged version of a race that took more than an entire day.
Thought #1: It wasn’t that hard.
If you’re a runner, especially a marathoner or ultrarunner, then you know the feeling. During the race, you’ve never done anything harder. But just three, maybe four days later, the memory of the pain has all but evaporated, and you entertain the idea of doing it again. Most of the time, you actually do.
I once read in Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness about a phenomenon that explains this mysterious disappearance of the painful part of the memory: our brains are wired with a bias towards the end. There’s no way my brain, for example, could store all 28 hours and 40 minutes of my race. So it instead chooses a few snapshots, a few highlights, and puts them in a box labeled “Burning River 100,” to be looked back upon and cherished for years to come.
But the tricky part is that one of those highlights, the most significant and best remembered, is the end. And from a survival perspective, this makes sense — if we want to learn from an experience, so that we can make a judgement about it and decide in the future whether or not to repeat it, we should pay attention to the end result above just about anything else.
The last few minutes of my race, of course, were pure emotion. Triumph, delight, gratitude. The love and praise of family, hugs from my children, parents, and wife, and eyes heavy with held-back tears of joy.
And so I remember the experience as a good one. One to repeat.
Which all explains my desire, at times, to do this again. But when the rational part of my brain has time to catch up in such moments, I’m reminded that I don’t want to put such a strain on my family and crew next time. A course like Umstead, eight identical 12.5-mile loops where I might drop a bag of food and fend mostly for myself (not to mention finish in much less time, I hope), is appealing.
Thought #2: Where’s the limit? (Is there a limit?)
At mile 85 or so, I remarked to my pacer, Greg, something like the following:
What’s really mind-blowing to me is that before this, there was no evidence to suggest that I was capable of running any more than 50 miles. Even in the 12-hour race, I only made it 53 miles or so, and I stopped then with 45 minutes to go, unable to fathom running another mile. So how, after 85 miles today, am I still running?
The obvious answer, of course, is that I had paced myself. Instead of running the first marathon in four and a half hours, the way I had in the 12-hour race, this time I ran it in five and three-quarters hours — about 25% slower.
But that doesn’t fully explain it. After my first 50-miler, I asked an experienced ultrarunner friend how anyone possibly runs a hundred miles. His answer: “It’s a mindset thing.”
During that first morning of the hundred, I constantly reminded myself that there was a good chance I’d still be running at this time tomorrow morning (which, as it turned out, I was). When I hit the 35 mile mark, it occurred to me that if I were running a 50 with this same mindset, it would be a remarkably easy race, even if an extremely slow one.
That’s when I realized my friend was right. It wasn’t just running the slower pace. It was this manner of thinking, of holding a different, much more distant target in my head, that made it possible.
The natural conclusion — well, natural perhaps for a person with whatever disorder causes you to think this way — is that 100 miles isn’t my limit. I can’t help but think that one day I could go a lot farther.
And in this way, I now understand, just slightly better, what compels the crazies to run 200-mile relays without a team, run across the country, run across Death Valley in the middle of the summer, and do just about anything extreme for no other reason than that it’s extreme.
I’m not saying I’m going to become one of them. Yet.
Thought #3: Certainty is immensely powerful.
Stories abound about Roger Bannister, the sense of certainty, and the four-minute mile.
Supposedly, what allowed Bannister to do what had never been done before was his sense of certainty — he played the race out in his mind, over and over, until he believed with every fiber of his being that he was capable of running a mile in four minutes. And then he went out and did it.
The kicker? People had been trying to break the four-minute barrier for hundreds of years. Just two months after Bannister did it — now that there was proof it could be done, hence, complete certainty — John Landy did it and Bannister repeated the feat. In the same race, no less.
Shortly thereafter, dozens more men did it (so go the stories — I haven’t seen an official list). Nowadays, strong high school runners run four-minute miles.
It’s a nice story. I don’t know that I completely buy that certainly played such a role that some say it did, but my 100-miler provided me with another example.
I wrote about it in my recap: at about the halfway point, after an insanely muddy three-mile stretch of trail that took me over 90 minutes to navigate, I gave serious consideration to quitting. It didn’t last long though, and within 30 seconds after the thought entered my mind, it occurred to me that I was not going to quit if I was able to keep moving forward. Not that I “shouldn’t” quit, but that I couldn’t, as if it wasn’t even my decision to make.
I’ve never had another moment like this. It was as if this truth had existed long before this race began, and it took coming to the crossroads to actually understand what had already been decided. Here at mile 50, when the knowledge that I had no choice but to finish this race finally did surface in my conscious mind, it was strangely and immensely freeing.
In the weeks leading up to the race, and even as I lay awake in bed the night before, I had wondered again and again if I would finish. At mile 50, that question was answered. And once I knew the answer — “Yes, of course you’re going to finish, dummy! What other option is there?” — the second half of the race became little more than a formality.
Miles 51 to 100 were incredibly tough, of course, running through the night on trails that were still muddy and slippery, with every inch of my feet and legs aching, my toes screaming with blisters. But never again did I even consider that I might quit. Because now I understood: it simply wasn’t an option.
This illustration of the power of certainty is what will stay with me — the nugget at the core of all the training, planning, logistics and execution that has made all of that effort worthwhile.
In October, I’m running the RAGNAR relay in DC as part of an ultra team, where each of our six team members will run between 25 and 39 miles. That will be fun, even if (or perhaps especially because) it happens mid book-tour: the thirty hours of relay madness are sandwiched between book events in Philadelphia and DC, one the night before the relay starts and the other the day it ends.
But RAGNAR isn’t really “what’s next.” Whatever that is won’t be something that I can accomplish just by maintaining fitness. I’ve learned — and I’m completely aware that this is a defect, not a virtue) that I don’t do well when I let myself bask too long in goalless glory.
I’ve been told several times, “You should just relax.” Enjoy things the way they are; run a few times a week to stay in shape and keep the endorphins flowing.
But that doesn’t work for me. And it’s not that I’m so driven that I simply must have an inspiring goal at all times — it’s that I flounder without one.
I’ve gone over ideas in my head. Learn to swim, get into triathlons, do an Ironman — perhaps with my wife, Erin. Run two more hundreds, so I meet the bare minimum requirements for applying to Badwater, even if actually getting accepted over other (far stronger, more qualified) runners that apply would be a long shot. Maybe the application committee likes bloggers? 🙂
These ideas, though, require a tremendous amount of time. The nature of endurance sports, I suppose. And so I’ve started thinking about goals that would require me to increase the effort, without increasing the time and the miles …
… which has led me back to the marathon. Breaking three hours was a goal of mine, for just a few days after I qualified for Boston, before the grittier, slower-paced world of ultrarunning seduced me.
Maybe, just maybe — and if I’ve learned anything about myself as a runner, it’s that I know this is subject to change — a marathon time that starts with “2” is what I’ll try to chase down next.
This is such an insightful blog post that has life lessons which are applicable to so many disciplines! I’ll definitely be sharing!
Matt, I have really enjoyed your posts about the lead up and accomplishment of your 100 miler. I had to laugh on you commenting on the sports drink left in your bottle and all your gear still packed. I did my first (and only so far) Ironman in 2010 and remember my bike looking like I was heading to a race, complete with bottles and race numbers, for at least a month afterward.
I had planned on doing my first ultra last weekend but I had to get over the stubbornness of admitting I was too injured to do it. There will be another race.
Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures!
Matt, I’m so freakin’ proud of you for the 100-miler. Every time I read your blog, you persuade me that I can do the unthinkable. I suppose I’ll need it often in med school 🙂
Can’t wait to come support you in your DC book events/races!
I am the exact same way with running. I love it but if I don’t have a goal then I can only keep up my weekly runs for so long before I find more and more reasons to skip them.
I’m finding myself being drawn towards ultra running and I think it’s because of this reason: I can push myself to keep going when I don’t want to for much longer than I think I can and not be completely miserable. If I’m running fast and pushing myself then I check out a lot faster mentally. The thought of running a faster marathon sounds a lot worse than running a 100 mile race. Keep in mind, this is coming from a girl who is still 13 weeks out from her first marathon, so I have no experience with either marathons or 100 miles races!
I waiting for the day you decide to do Leadville (I’m reading Born to Run right now so Leadville is at the forefront of my mind). Good luck with whatever you decide!
This post couldn’t be more timely. It’s been almost two weeks since my first 50k, and my gear bag is still kicking it on the floor of my bedroom, completely untouched (although I did rescue a few uneaten Picky Bars) and I have no idea what to do next! You’ve reminded me that there are so many possibilities out there…now I just have to pick one and run with it (terrible pun intended). Thanks for sharing your journey 🙂
As you say…. Keep going…
Why not join us on a 1200k/80 hour randonee sometime.
You’ll REALLY know that you’ve been away…
Good luck with your new adventures
WEll done, you are now ready for the “diagonale des fous” on réunion Island…
HOpe to meet you here in 2014 :):)::)
Mano , getting ready for Ccc in 5 days . . Run carrot, run…
Congratulations again on a job well done! Nothing wrong with taking a while and basking in the glow of your accomplishment. There’s always the 6 day transcendental run in New York. I’m still happy in marathon mode so I will live vicariously through you a little longer. What amazes me is how you have been doing all this essentially injury free (unless you’re not telling us everything). Don’t forget the goals of being a good husband and daddy as well.
When will you be in DC? I’m doing the Marine Corps Marathon again and would dig trying to cathc up to your book your. You going to be in New England at all on the tour? Great post, as always.
Sub 3 hour marathon, eh? Now there is a goal I don’t think I have the desire to shoot for, but we all are wired differently. I also can’t even believe you mentioned Badwatter? That is one ultra I have sub zero desire to run! 🙂
Hi Matt, this is a great read. I did my first 50k in March, and am planning on a 50 miler this fall, and hopefully a 100 miler in the spring. As someone who has done an Ironman, I doubt you’d have a problem with it. 140.6 miles isn’t that bad because 112 of those miles are on a bike, moving a hell of a lot faster than running! Even the swim isn’t that bad once you get used to swimming. Total Immersion is a good book for open water swimming, seems like a good method for adults learning how to swim freestyle.
Oh, and I ran Ragnar NY a couple years back, it is probably the most fun I’ve EVER had doing a ‘race’. Mine wasn’t an ultra team, but my old coach had done a Ragnar in TX with just 4 guys on his team and his was an insane adventure. Running at 4am listening to metal, trying to pick off runners from other teams was just a surreal experience. My van slept maybe an hour total, otherwise just getting progressively loopier on adrenaline, endorphins and caffeine. If your team is into it, wear costumes! It makes it a lot of fun. Also I know some guys who put check marks on their van for each slower runner they pick off. Some of the vans start looking like WWII ace fighter planes. 🙂
Congrats on running your first 100 mile race. Look forward to hearing about many more.
100 miles is hard to do. You should be very proud and talking about it for a long time!
Awesome post. I totally know where you are coming from about having a goal with running, I am the same, I need to have something to push myself towards. I’ve really been inspired to one day take on an ultra after reading all your posts.
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