Be aware of what you're getting yourself into

•  Before you enter.

So you're thinking of entering a 100 mile race then? Before you hit that enter button though be aware of what you are getting yourself into. 100 mile runs are hard, physically and mentally, everyone suffers. You will be in pain, you will most likely feel sick at some stage, you have at the very least a 25-33% chance of not finishing. Many 100 milers have attrition rates of 50%. Average marathon is 1% or 2%. Attrition rate at the Marathon des Sables? The self-proclaimed “toughest footrace on Earth” – in 2012 it was 7%. Leadville 100 2012 in comparison? 55%. I don't think I've seen any 100 mile results with a DNF rate of less than 20%.

You will be sore, tired and miserable for long periods of time. Long ultras are not like multiples of shorter distances. Marathons are hard work, but a 100 mile run is not like 4 marathons in a row. I always thought a half marathon is about four times easier than a marathon. A 50 mile or 100k run about four times harder than a marathon. I'd then rate a 100 mile run four times tougher than a 50 mile run. So that, if my math is correct, is 16 times harder than a marathon.

How much do you want it? You do not enter a 100 mile run, you commit to it. Those that sign up to “have a go” aren't likely to finish. Beware what you are getting yourself into. Be prepared to suffer.

•  100 mile event types.

Point to Point –
Most of the bigger well known 100 mile runs are point to point, you start at x and 100 miles later (hopefully) you arrive at y and at one end you're bussed or driven to the other. Personally I prefer this type of event as it has the sense of the “epic journey” about it, 100 miles across country on foot. They're logistically more difficult and time consuming of course, but you do get a sense of journey out of it. I like the thought that I did the South Downs Way in one go; I'd like to do it in a day mind you.

Out and Back or Single Loop – The next best thing. An out an back you'd go out 50 miles and then come back the same way, a loop you do a 100 mile circuit and end up back where you started. Logistically simpler as you don't have to be transported 100 miles at some stage, but perhaps less sense of the “epic” about them.

Multiple Loops – These make up the 100 mile distance with shorter loops, Rocky Raccoon uses a 20 mile loop, Zumbro 16.67. Others go right down to a one mile or two mile type loop. These are logistically the simplest events, navigation is less of an issue or even a non issue, if you forget something one loop, it'll come around again. I'm not so keen on these types of events personally as they feel somewhat artificial, you're doing the distance, but you're not going anywhere. On the other hand, I did my first 100 mile distance this way and that helped no end, the camaraderie is great and there are less issues to worry about. No navigation, no real “night running” to worry about, no hours traipsing around on your own, I just wish they wouldn't ratchet up the “aid station magnet” every lap!

•  Choosing your event.

You probably already have a fair idea of the event you are interested in, and the types of events you prefer. It's important to know what you're getting yourself into. If all your experience is in flat road marathons, doing a mountainous 100 miler is going to be doubly difficult. Many people find looped courses less daunting for their first attempt, especially if they're not crewed. Navigation is invariably simpler or simply not an issue on a short looped course and having access to aid stations and drop bags at a regular basis can be useful. It can also be a disadvantage of course, time can be eaten up at aid stations. Do a search for race reports on the event you're thinking about, many people write blogs/reports/reviews and these can give valuable insight. One thing especially to watch out for if you live at or near sea level is altitude and don't under estimate its effect. Those views at Leadville are incredible, but all views cost and there is a reason that Leadville has such a high DNF rate.

•  Navigation

One thing that comes to a surprise to some runners is that they may have to one degree or another navigate themselves around the course. If you're happy reading a map, following a GPS trace and are very observant on signs, ribbons or arrows then you'll be fine. But for many folk it's a scary prospect and believe me, 100 miles is hard enough without getting yourself lost and adding mileage. Add in that for long periods it's likely to be dark and you'll be getting increasingly tired and it becomes incredibly easy to make mistakes on navigation, even when the direction you should be going is clear.

To this day I still don't know how I went wrong at the SDW100 in 2012, we were on a wide clear trail following the ridgeline, I had a GPS trace on, we never left the path, I must have missed the beeping “off course” warning. And then suddenly you can see the route on another hill, and this is when you're just not thinking straight because its mile 81 and you've been on the go for 25 hours. Instead of back tracking we thought, let's just cut straight across the gap, down we plunged an escarpment and suddenly that hedge line became an impenetrable barrier and we were going more and more off course and then in the distance we saw a road, so off we headed towards that. Not sure to this day really why, it just seemed a good idea at that time. Eventually we got back on track but it was maybe two weeks before I admitted that we'd done an extra three miles to my running partner!

You have to take responsibility for getting yourself around the correct course. Markers fall over, get vandalised or sometimes you just miss them. Maps are hard to read at 2am by torchlight in the pouring rain. Know what you're getting yourself in to.

•  Elevation

Ultra Running Magazine grade ultras by elevation gained on a scale of 1 to 5 (nobody seems quite so worried by the downhill bit! But obviously the same on a loop course and it's not usually THAT different on a point to point event.) 1 is flatish, less than 50 feet per mile, so under 5000' on a 100 mile event up to 5 which is more than 250 per mile, or 25000' of ascent over 100 miles. Remember that the tallest mountain on the planet, for real, the mountain claims nothing, is 29000' So you'll be climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest more or less. All 100 milers are not created equal, they are all tough, it's just some are tougher than others and elevation is probably the main dividing line. Big ascents at the end of 100 mile events can be a cruel, cruel grind, big steep descents are probably even worse. Once again, know what you are getting yourself into.

•  Altitude

Linked to elevation is how high you'll be running at. 29000' feet in 1000' bursts over 100 miles is far more straightforward than 29000' straight up in to the atmosphere. One of the reasons that Leadville has such a high attrition rate? It's the altitude. It's all above 8000' and up that high the air is thin and if you're not acclimatised or used to that kind of lack of oxygen you're at a big disadvantage right from the start. A 15000' of elevation gain 100 miler is far more straightforward around sea level. I live at sea level and can begin to feel the effects from about 3000' and by 5000' I'm working harder than normal and puffing hard on any kind of decent ascent.

•  Terrain

Another thing to think about it the sort of terrain that you'll be traversing and the quality or otherwise of the surface. There are 100 mile events that are purely on road, which is no doubt the fastest surface to be completing the distance over but then that also presents its own problems of repetitive strain injuries from 100 miles on a flat, hard surface. Fire roads are easier to traverse than technical single track, what about roots? Rocks? Sand? Are there big drop offs? Will it be muddy, or likely to be? Are there river fordings? All things that you can research from race reports, Google images or You Tube. Being prepared is critical at 100 milers, and as always, know what you're getting yourself into. Rocky terrain? Trail shoes with a rock plate would be beneficial, going to get soaking wet feet one mile from the start as you have to cross a stream? Extra pair of socks in the ruck sack.


Back to the 100 Mile Menu

home | about me | wise words? | race reports | contact Copyright © Traviss Willcox. All rights reserved