Everything you wanted to know about my upcoming 100 trail race
Wait, what are you doing this weekend?
In just four days I’ll be running the Riverlands 100 in Turner Maine, Saturday May 13-14th, 2017. It’s Maine’s first 100 mile trail race. No, I’ve never run a 100 miles before. And yes, people do this. Read on for answers to more FAQs.
I was never voted “most likely to run 100 miles”
I wasn’t the most physical kid, I had hip dysplasia so I couldn’t run, skip or jump without considerable pain and I also had the unsettling trait of turning bright red and sweating profusely with the least amount of exertion. Even my high school coaches would make me sit out rowing races with an ice pack on the back of my neck least I die of heat stroke.
In highschool and college I rock climbed, rowed crew and cross-country skied and though I ran to stay in shape, it wasn’t easy and I never loved it. Then in 1999, shortly after I had finished thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail my twin brother invited me to join him at the Honolulu Marathon.[Side note: My brother survived childhood Leukemia in the 1970’s and today’s incredibly successful childhood leukemia treatments are based in part on the success of his test group. Which is why he chose to train for his first marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.]
So we ran Honolulu together. It was ridiculously hot and humid and I’m sure the two of us went through more frozen sponges than all of the other 20,000 runners combined. The following year we ran another Team in Training marathon in Dublin. And the year after that I ran the Burlington marathon and headed out a week later to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail. It was my third long-distance thru-hike and my body wasn’t holding up well. 2,000 into the CDT I had partially torn my ACL and worn down a lot of cartilage, plus had several stress fractures in my feet, nasty looking hammer toes and a very painful Morton’s neuroma. [A few years ago I made a short slide show about how I got into running, and more specifically barefoot running.]
What followed were some very dark years. Six years to be exact. I thrive on wilderness, solitude and movement and some days I couldn’t walk half a mile. Some days I could barely drag myself out of bed. The vicious cycle of injury and inactivity led to nearly debilitating depression and exhaustion. It was also during this time that I broke my wrist in such a way that I couldn’t climb or do much yoga (or cut bread, open a car door, carry fire wood, stir soup . . .) and the pain, as the broken bone slowly died and dissolved over the course of three years was often all-consuming.
Toward the end of this period I had two babies. I also worked as a Park Ranger at Acadia National Park so I got to be outside quite a lot. Getting out on the trails every day slowly started to work it’s magic. So so slowly. I walked back and forth to the end of my driveway, I bought a road bike. I taught myself to swim.
In 2010 I started competing in sprint and Olympic length triathlons. The only way I could comfortably run was barefoot and it took me a couple years to build up to running for an hour or more. By 2013 I was running strong (if not fast). My legs ached and my feet hurt but my knees and hips felt better than ever. That year I ran two 50k trail races, a marathon and my first 50 mile trail race. Running that far was a big deal for me. I felt like I had reclaimed by body, my confidence and my freedom. I’ve had a few set backs over the last few years, including a year of plantar fasciitis (well documented in early posts) and a resurgence of hip pain. But these set backs have also helped me hone-in what kind of strength training and cross training I need to do to support my running.
Once you’re in shape to run 50 miles it’s hard to want to ease up too much. I really love the freedom. Have I already mentioned that? I love being able to run up a mountain alone and I love the comforting view of the ocean and forest of Downeast, Maine. In the last four years I’ve run five 50 mile trail races, eight 50k trail races, seven official road marathons and an uncounted number of training runs between 25 – 32 miles. Of these races my fastest times are pretty slow relative to the running world and pretty fast relative to the world of me. Since I’m not competitive with my race times I’m not very good at keeping track of them, but I just looked them up and here are my best times over the last six years: Road marathon 4:22, 50k 5:32, 50 mile 10:51.
And this brings me to the FAQ section of this post
How long does it take to run 100 miles?
Somewhere between 12 and 32 hours. (Zac Bitter holds the world record at 11:47)
People actually run 100 miles?
Yes. There are dozens of 100 mile races in the U.S., and many more around the world. There will be about 50 people running the Riverlands 100 along with me, 13 of those are women.
Why are you running 100 miles?
I first started thinking about the possibility of running 100 miles when I was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999 and heard that there was this race called Western States taking place nearby. At that time I really enjoyed seeing how far I could hike in a day, and often hiked 30 miles and a few 40s too. The thought of a 100 seemed crazy but enticing. Then in 2002 when Jerome and I were hiking the Continental Divide Trail we hiked past Leadville, CO, home of the famous Leadville 100 bike and trail running race. Adding to the mystique locals told us about a nearby running cult that only eats red food the night before the race and their members always win it. (I’ve come to find out that some but not all parts of this story are true.)
So I’ve had a 100 miles in the back of my head for a while, occasionally testing the idea out against what my body, work life and home life could sustain. The big mountain races out west are the most enticing to me but I don’t see how I can effectively acclimate to the altitude of those races while living here at sea level. Plus, most of those races are in the summer which is my busiest work and family time. Then last spring while I was running the Pinelands 50K I overheard some runners talking about planning Maine’s first 100 mile trail race. Cool! I thought. I wouldn’t have to travel or acclimate or take time off from work . . .
Fast forward to this fall when I has just finished running the Vermont 50 miler. My twin brother was scheduled for brain surgery to remove a tumor that likely resulted from the huge amount of radiation he received during his experimental leukemia treatments nearly 40 years ago. He’s like a cat (or turtle) with nine lives. The dude has had more near-misses than anyone else I know. Has he ever told you about the time he fell out of the car while we were driving to school? Or when the canoe flipped over on a family canoe trip and he got caught under it and nearly drowned? And then there’s the knee replacement and heart arrhythmia. And being transgendered, which is a kind of near-miss and comes with its own assortment of medical risks.
So there he was, getting the top of his skull sawed off and I decided, fine, if he can survive this I can survive running 100 miles. I hit the race registration button and here I am. Jerome jumped in too – putting together a 5-person relay team (Team Turtle Tracks because my brother’s Appalachian Trail name is Turtle Tracks). As I write this my brother is thru-hiking north on the AT somewhere in New Jersey, and if he doesn’t get eaten by black bears he’s planning to hike his first 20 mile day the same day as the race.
Ok, now back to the FAQs
How do you train for a 100 miler?
My intention was to run the bare minimum weekly mileage that would still give me a good chance at finishing this race. Many ultra runners run between 50-100 miles a week but my biggest goal this season was to not get injured. My average weekly mileage is typically around 35 miles and during the training for this race I only had seven weeks where I ran between 45-60 miles. Everyone seems to agree that the key to training for long-distance runs is to run “back to back long runs”. So for most of the weekends this year I’ve run something like 15 miles one day and 15 the next, or 20 and 10, or 20 and 20 or my favorite, 20 and 30 (ouch!). Also this winter I really upped my weight lifting, mostly to keep me occupied so I wouldn’t run too much (and thus get injured) but also because it’s fun to learn new things. I’m hoping all those squats and lunges will pay off in the wee hours of Sunday morning as I get tired and my form starts to fall apart.
What’s the course like?
How fast you can run 100 miles depends a ton on the trail conditions. How “runable” the trail is depends on if it is broad and flat or stoney, sandy, muddy or root-filled, how steep and long the hills are and what the total elevation gain is over the course. In this case the course is fairly runnable, with about 20 miles of rooty single-track trail, some deeper sandy sections, some mud and a total elevation gain of about 10,000 feet.
Where can you find 100 miles to run in Turner, Maine?
This race is at Riverlands State Park along the Androscoggin River. It’s an out and back course consisting of five 20 mile laps. That means 10 miles out, 10 miles back, five times. I like this format for my first 100 miler because it keeps the clothing/food/gear logistics simple.
Will anyone run with you?
Often people have a crew – people who get your gear organized and help you at the aid stations. Or a pacer – people who are allowed to run with you during the last 40 miles. I don’t have either. But Team Turtle Tracks will be out there running their relay laps and if I’m lucky they will run a few miles with me.
Do you really run the whole time?
No. The secret of ultra running is that most ultra runners walk a lot. Ok yes, there are in fact people who can run non-stop for 14 hours, but the rest of us mortals walk, power-hike and slow jog up most if not all the hills, and after 50 miles anything that isn’t downhill is uphill.
How do you stay awake?
I’m not sure. The longest I’ve ever run was 12 ½ hours. I’ve only been awake for more than 24 hours twice in my life. The first time was at a Grateful Dead concert in 1993 and the second time was when I was in labor with my first kid. Most people do run through the night though I’ve also heard of people lying down on the side of the trail for a quick cat-nap. I have some caffeinated Tailwind drink mix that I plan to use for the first time during this race.
Do you stop to eat?
Sort of. This particular race will have aid stations every five miles. Runners can stash a personal bag with drink mixes and food at the aid stations so in addition to the snacks the race provides I will also have the stuff I am used to, which is primarily Tailwind drink mix. I really try to minimize the time I spend at aid stations. I open up my water bladder, pour in Tailwind and water, shake and go.
I’ve tried many different food (fueling) strategies over the last few years and finally settled on Tailwind almost exclusively. The trick is to keep your digestion working even while you’re body would like to shut it down completely. This means sticking to easily digested starches. I typically start to feel pretty nauseous around the 12 hour mark, but on my most recent 50 mile run in Spain I still felt really good at the end of the race despite the fact that I was recovering from the stomach flu. I’m hoping that if I start to feel sick during this race I can simply puke and keep going. (Who knew that puking throughout my pregnancies would be great training for running ultra marathons?)
On slower training runs I have found that I can eat some very specific solid foods such as certain flavors of Cliff bars and certain brands of ginger snaps. Gu is no longer an option for me while running (though curiously I can still digest it when I’m biking). I often long for hot soup or bone broth but can’t quite stomach the instant broth they serve at races. I also find myself fantasizing about cheeseless vegetable pizza. Both of these cravings are telling me that I need more salt. I sweat a ridiculous amount my sweat is really, really salty so I try to take a couple of salt pills every hour.
Do you take painkillers?
I often take one Aleve about eight hours into a run which is when my hip pain gets bad enough to alter my running form. I also find I sleep better after a race if I’ve taken painkillers during the race. There are millions of very good reasons not to take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflamatory drugs) so I really try to minimize my use. That said, I’m expecting to be a very sorry mess for a few days – maybe even a week – after this race and I might have to up my use just to get to work.
Do you go to the bathroom?
In my experience porta potties are never located where you need them. But the woods always are. When it comes to peeing I am an expert side-of-the-trail speed peer. When it comes to #2 I carry two small ziplock bags, one with clean toilet paper and one for dirty toilet paper. I put some effort into reducing my need to poop while running by taking a larger than usual amount of magnesium citrate the day before, thereby helping to ensure a complete evacuation the morning of the race. Runners are notorious for their poop-horror stories so I’ll spare you any more details and let you google Runners Poop by yourself.
What about getting your period during a long race?
Yeah, that totally sucks. I’m always pretty frickin’ psyched when my period ends the day before a race.
What do you wear?
I tend to be unfinicky when it comes to running clothes and shoes. I think all those years of barefoot running toughened up my feet as I am not prone to bad blisters. My toes and toenails often blister but so far they haven’t caused me any pain while I’m running. I hope this still holds true at miles, 70, 80, 90 and 100. Also over the years I’ve accumulated several common chaffing spots on my upper body that can be incredibly painful if I forget to put Glide on (Glide is a silicone lubrication used by runners to prevent chafing).
It’s going to be cold (40s-50s) and possibly rainy so I’m planning to have a few sets of spare clothes in my bag at the aid stations. I don’t care about wet feet but I’m definitely concerned about getting cold and wet at night and not being able to move fast enough to stay warm.
Do people seriously injure themselves doing this kind of thing?
Of course. And people seriously injure themselves walking to work too. But you knew I was going to say that. So yes, here are a few common things that happen to ultra runners: Dehydration, over-hydration, hyperthermia and hypothermia. BIG blisters on the soles of your feet or heels that get deep enough to cause real and lasting damage. A somewhat life-threatening thing called rhabdomyolysis which happens when you break down muscle faster than your kidneys can process the waste (less common with slow runners like me) and musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains, strains, cramps and stress fractures.
Aren’t there more important things to be doing with your life?
Yes. But I can’t do them unless I take care of myself mentally and emotionally, and for now that means running. Plus, I am ridiculously lucky to have a job that allows me to spend so much time with my family and still have time to run and draw and yes, obsessively call and write my state senators and representatives to tell them what I think about health care, trans-rights, local food sovereignty and immigration. And if the world really does fall apart maybe I’ll be able to outrun it?
Do you really think you can you do it?
It is said that completing a 100 mile race is more of a lack of failure than a success. A few people have gleefully pointed out to me that in order to complete this race in 24 hours I only need to “run” 14 minute miles and how hard can that be? I agree, I think if everything else goes smoothly the running part isn’t the hard part. It’s all the other stuff, like wasting time at aid stations, trying to find your gear, getting lost, slowing way down because the roots/rocks are hard to see in the dark, not being able to digest calories, or letting your mood and attitude get negative for too long.
I have no idea if I can do it, but I am curious about what kind of adventure I’ll have trying.