[The following is the second installment in a series of “firsts.” In this post, self-described mid-packer Peter Lawson recounts his preparation and execution of his first hundred miler, complete with lessons learned and reflections on his training.]
I’m 51 and live in Claremont, CA, at the foothills of the San Gabriels, not far from Mount Baldy. I’m strictly a mid-pack runner (ultrasignup score of ~62%) and I think I fit the stereotype of the average ultrarunner pretty well. I just recently finished my first 100-miler, I’m writing to pass on what I’ve learned getting there.
My.first marathon was the 2004 Big Sur marathon. I went out way too fast and was a wreck by mile 16. Although I eventually finished, I swore I’d never do anything as stupid again. But after moving house in 2009 and beginning a regular long commute to work, I knew I needed to resume regular exercise. About that time there was a feature in the local paper about an octagenarian triathlete, and I thought if he could do that, there was hope for me still.
I started to run again in 2012 with the idea of eventually qualifying for Boston. After three marathons (Santa Rosa, Napa, and St George), and numerous visits to sports medicine doctors and physical therapists, I eventually straightened out all of the problems I had had at Big Sur. No more runner’s knee, IT-band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, or tronchanteric bursitis. About then I discovered Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man.
I ran my first 50k races in 2013 (Harding Hustle 50k and Bulldog 50k), which gave me the confidence to sign up for the American River 50 miler – which I ran in April 2014. I then started to strategize to run qualifying races for Western States and the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), and before the glow of the Christmas holidays wore off in 2014, I put my name in the lottery for the Wasatch Front 100 mile Endurance Run. I ran my first 100k at Bandera, TX, in January 2015, and then my first 100-miler, the Indiana Trail 100. These notes are to pass on what I’ve learned. Much of what I’ve learned has come directly or indirectly from URP. In particular, I really liked “Lessons from a Hundred” by Ricky Haro. This write-up is partly inspired by that report.
A Selection of Books:
I’ve read most every book on ultrarunning I could find. I once took my kids into the Zombie Runner store in Palo Alto, and my daughter remarked “Dad, this is weird. You’ve read every book on that shelf.” It’s true that I do make a lot of use of the Los Angeles library system and I buy the books I can’t borrow. A selection of my books and magazines are shown here.
I find it extremely useful to always have a very specific long-term goal. For me that goal is qualifying for UTMB. This gives purpose to every run I do. I’ve been working at it very slowly and progressively, doing longer relatively-flat runs, and then tackling races with more and more vertical.
The photo below shows most of my gear. The Oatmeal would be proud. It’s probably too much, but it works for me. I have a Garmin Foreruner 610 GPS watch (recently refurbished), a Timex Ironman watch with a count-down timer, Road-ID, a “Peter Bakwin” Ultimate Direction pack, a Black Diamond “Storm” headlamp and Coast HP5 hand-held lamp (with Ultimate Lithium batteries), and Dirty Girl gaiters. I also have an assortment of exercise items, including a foam roller, a lacross ball, an exercise ball, and Andrew Biel’s Trail Guide to the Body – so I can pretend I know what I’m fixing. Not shown, but perhaps my favorite item, is a Solumbra “Ultra Athlete” shade hat.
The first ultrarunnerpodast interview with Sunny Blende was extremely useful to me. She pointed out that the body can only take in about 300 calories per hour, and recommends setting your watch to beep every 20 minutes to remind you to eat. I have the Timex Ironman watch for just that. At 20 minutes past the hour I take one Gu; at 40 minutes past the hour I take a second Gu; on the hour I take half a bar (Lara bar) and a salt pill. That works beautifully. To keep to this plan, I don’t eat the aid station food. At aid stations, I dump garbage, refill on water and move on. (I used to drink Gatorade and eat Gu, but that made me sick, burnt out, and exhausted. When I switched to the above plan, I ceased having stomach problems.)
Hydration and Electrolytes:
I drink when I’m thirsty, so about 20 oz of water or less every five miles depending on the weather. The salt tablet every hour (timed with the ½ bar) provides the electrolytes, but I know isn’t quite enough. When I see that my watch-band feels tight, I take an extra salt tablet. I still haven’t figured out how much salt to take. I just take more when I seem to be falling behind.
I enjoyed reading Tread Lightly: Form, Footwear, and the Quest for Injury-Free Running, by Peter Larson and Bill Katovsky. I have flat feet and wear orthotics, so I had felt compelled to buy only shoes with firm medial posting and anti-pronation features. From that book I learned that the shoe recommendations you get even in the best running stores are pretty much meaningless for injury prevention. There is little or no correlation between what you’re told is best for you and what shoes actually work best for your feet. That freed me up to try “normal” trail shoes. I’ve been wearing Brooks Cascadias since then with the orthotics, and they work just fine.
I found Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes by John Vonhof to be very, very useful. My major take-aways from this book are as follows:
- Use toe socks to prevent blisters. After I started wearing Injinji socks, I no longer had blisters. These socks really work extremely well for me.
- Trim your toe nails very, very short. Shorter than you might think was reasonable.
- File down the ends of your toe nails so that when you run a finger up across the tip of a toe it feels smooth and you cannot feel the edge of the nail. This will prevent black toe nails.
- Use Epsom salts to bathe your feet and soften up callouses; then scrub off the callouses. Getting a blister under a callous may be a very painful experience.
I used the “Training for a 100-Mile Race on 50 Miles per Week” plan in Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons. I followed it as closely as I could. Knowing that my pace would be slow, I didn’t incorporate speed training or intervals.
I have a very understanding wife, who herself likes to run marathons but refuses to be rushed. (She particularly likes to take her time at bandit aid stations in big city marathons.) I also have a son who runs cross-country in high school, and a daughter who is very pleased to have the house to herself when everyone else is out running. Although I’m interested in running more miles during the week, the “50 Miles per Week” plan is pushing the boundaries of what the family will accept. So, the family comes first and if I have to shuffle my schedule around or miss a day or two, I do just that. I’m always available for housework and homework.
If ever I have any hip, leg, or knee pains, I see a physical therapist and get a recommendation for appropriate strengthening and stretching exercises. I am bloody-minded and very persistent about doing the exercises; they invariably fix whatever the problem is within 6 weeks. I enjoyed reading Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry. It covers this subject really well. But when everything is right again, I stop core work. There are just not enough hours in the day for me to be fixing things that no longer need fixing.
I still make mistakes. Before Christmas 2013, I got it into my head that I should run stairwells… thinking I was Zach Miller on a cruise ship. So, I ran sets of 10 flights of stairs regularly that season until I got a pain in my right knee that came on suddenly and was so bad I couldn’t run any more. After learning all about Pes Ansurine Bursitis, I did all the stretching and strengthening exercises at Christmas, tentatively ran the Bandit 30k (with my son), and was back in shape to run the American River 50 mile in April 2014.
I also thought I could enter the training program of the Hansons Marathon Method (by Luke Humphrey) mid-program in parallel with an ultra training plan. The ramp-up in training was huge, and brought on a pain in both hips that by mile 3 of any run reduced me to a walk. Thus, I bought the lacross ball to work out piriformis syndrome. Amazingly, after a weekend of indeed painful rolling on that spot just above the rear pocket line, the problem went away. But I shelved thoughts of Boston for another year.
None. My wife really wouldn’t enjoy staying up all night to see me for 60 seconds every three hours at aid stations. It’s a non-starter. I prepare zip-lock freezer-bags worth of Gu & bars in drop bags. I pick up a bag as needed, and head off. Works well.
None. I’ll eventually enjoy having my now 15-year old son Felix pace me. He finished the Bandit 50k with me in February, almost half an hour before I did. However having a pacer is a complication that I’m not quite ready for.
Yes. I’m always getting small stones and/or mud in my shoes, and wearing gaiters entirely prevents that.
None. I have tried running with music, but every time I find it to be an unwanted distraction.
Taped with large-size Band Aid Tough Strips. Problem solved.
For any particular race, I look at results from previous years and choose a pace that is slightly ahead of the mid-pack finishing time. If 100 people finished a race, I’d aim for the finishing time a little ahead of last year’s finisher #50. When I think I might do better, I check the ultrasignup scores of the mid-pack from the previous year – as all races are different. I use my GPS watch to keep my pace slow as long as the battery is alive.
On the course I remind myself how beautiful the trail is and how lucky I am to be there. I accept that the weather is unpredictable and at times worrisome, but also part of the challenge. I treat every race as a training run; a run to prepare for a more ambitious race some time in the future. I never get angry at changing circumstances. I’ve been very, very tired in races, but things have never been so bad that I’ve had to resort to mental toughness strategies. Nicademus Hollon, in his URP Tor des Geants interview, has really dug into this topic and has some interesting suggestions.
Two weeks before the race:
I try to arrange a deep tissue sports massage to loosen my chronically tight right calf and lower legs. There is only so much I can work out through infrequent yoga and even less frequent foam rolling.
Two days before the race:
I eat a larger than normal meal of pasta. In fact, I try to eat a larger than normal amount of food the whole previous week.
One day before the race:
As per Sunny Blende’s recommendation, I try to limit my intake of food to liquids (Ensure) or reduced fiber food. Another meal of pasta.
I knew before my first hundred, that I’d need to plan to run at an even pace of 100 miles per 24 hours, or slower. That is 14:24 minutes per mile… so very, very slow. So, I practiced a walk/run at that pace during my taper leading up to the Indiana Trail 100.
The race: Indiana Trail 100
I chose the Indiana Trail 100 because it is reasonably flat and in 2014 was listed as a qualifier for both Western States and UTMB. It consists of 6 loops of a 16 and 2/3 mile circuit in Chain O’Lakes State Park, Indiana. For a 24-hour finish, that is 4 hours per loop.
I was one of 193 runners who started before sunrise on Saturday, April 25th 2015. By sticking to my pace, I was soon way at the back of the pack: the 177th runner to pass the first aid station.
It rained heavily during the first 12 hours of the run. It rained so much that a large part of the trail turned to deep mud, which was inescapable, as the edge of the trail was often bounded by thick thorny scrub. However, my gaiters kept the mud out and my feet remained clean.
The race was very well organized. Race Director Mike Pfefferkorn and volunteers did a wonderful job, and I was very happy to shake hands with Traci Falbo, who cheered me on in the early afternoon.
I very, very, slowly passed people. I was the 152nd runner at mile 31 and 76th at mile 67. But by 10:00 pm I knew I was falling behind pace and wasn’t going to finish in under 24 hours. I relaxed somewhat and took more time at aid stations. I knew that I wasn’t getting enough electrolytes, as my watch band was feeling tight. So, I increased my intake of salt pills and started to drink chicken broth at every aid station.
Around 2:00 am I felt what seemed to be single large blisters forming in the middle of each of my feet, so I stopped at the main aid station at the start/finish line and asked to have them looked at. I had no blisters, but rather a deep crease forming along the center-line of each foot beside the big toe, caused by the damp. The medic there cleaned and dried my feet, powdered them, and with a fresh pair of socks from my drop bag I was on my way again. Other than falling down twice in the mud, that was the only real problem I had.
My ~24 hour pace was so slow that nothing ever hurt. I just got very tired and was indeed glad to see the finish line at the end of the 6th loop. After seeing the sun rise for the second time on that course I finished 46th with a time of 26:14 hrs. There were 96 finishers and 97 DNFs.
Let me say a few words about after the race, as I’ve never heard much discussion about what to do. I’d booked a hotel near Indiana Dunes State Park for later that day, so spent a few hours by the finish line organizing my things, cleaning up and watching other runners come in. I felt so stiff that I used my car to shuttle myself back and forth across the parking lot by the finish area to get around. I drank about a dozen small bottles of Ensure over the course of the morning. Before I got to the hotel, I had a large lunch, then slept till about 6:00 pm. I got up, had a steak for dinner, then soon went back to sleep till the next morning. The next day, before heading off to the airport in Chicago, I felt pretty good, not all that stiff, and good enough to hike the Indiana Dunes “3 Dune Challenge.” I was surprised and pleased.
I had gained 5 pounds, but lost 3 of them in the following week. I stopped running for 10 days (a day off per 10 miles was the advice I’d heard), and it took about that long for the swelling in my feet to completely disappear.
I had no problem with my gear. The pace I chose was about right. My nutrition plan went like clockwork: no cramps, no pain, no GI distress. However, I had set out to finish in under 24 hours, and that didn’t happen. I knew beforehand that all the sub-24 hour finishers from the previous year had higher ultrasignup scores than I did, so I wasn’t very surprised. The lesson I take away is that if I want to finish with a faster time, I need to increase my mileage in training. (A dangerous proposition: see “Family,” above.)
I also need to understand electrolytes and salt intake. I haven’t got that figured out yet and Sunny Blende said it was so individual that it’s difficult to predict. I need to finish reading the last couple of chapters of Waterlogged, by Tim Noakes.
And now I’m in training for the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in September.
Next up: Wasatch
Since my name was picked in the lottery, I’ve switched all my training to the nearby hills. I still need to add more vertical and run at higher altitude. Fortunately, Mount Baldy is only a 20-minute drive away, and there is a network of trails there I’ve yet to explore.
I ran the Old Goat 50 miler in the Cleveland National Forest in March (13,423’ elevation gain “not for the squeamish, the easily intimidated, or the undertrained”) and came back with other lessons. I need to learn how to run downhill. I love hiking up hills but tend to burn myself out doing so, then I’m very, very, tired running downhill. I need to adjust that strategy. I have the Mount Disappointment 50k on my calendar in July, so I still have plenty of time to make new mistakes and correct them before September.
What did you take away from Peter’s planning and execution of his first hundred?
Would you have done anything differently? Do you plan so thoroughly?
Thanks again to Peter for sharing his story with us!