Fact #1: The first time you attempt something you’re gonna suck at it.
Fact #2: You’re not going to be much better the second time.
I don’t know why I seemed to have forgotten these facts as I started my quest to finish a hundred 100-milers. I had some “successes” at shorter ultras (i.e. I finished them) mixed with several setbacks (i.e. Stone Mill). One of the things I enjoy about running ultras is the sense of accomplishment I get at completing something hard. It makes you believe that you can accomplish anything. The downside is that you start believing you can accomplish anything. This isn’t necessarily bad, however it has lead me to setting unrealistic goals. Goals like running 100 miles inside 24 hours. I remember heading into my first 100 mile race thinking I had a decent shot of hitting this time. I mean, it’s only a 14 minute, 24 second pace for crying out loud. I can walk my dogs at that pace. I had already run a couple 50 milers inside 10 hours. It’s no big deal to run another 50 miles at a pace 4 hours slower than that. Right?
Not only couldn’t I run 100 miles inside 24 hours, I couldn’t even run for 100 miles. I might be able to run for 40 miles or so, however soon I’d be run/walking which would quickly lead to walk/walking. One of the reasons I dropped from my first 100-miler is that I just couldn’t wrap my head around walking for 30+ miles. It’s a race. I’m supposed to run the whole darn thing. Right?
Turns out not everyone runs all portions of a 100 mile race. Even if they’re pancake flat. Most people need to walk in order to conserve energy. Or manage hills. Or recover from low points. The only people actually running all 100 miles where the 4 or 5 runners whose backs of heads I would see for about 2 minutes at the beginning of each race. And that’s OK. Because running 100 miles isn’t about running 100 miles. It’s about covering the distance in whatever way is necessary. I learned this my second go at C&O Canal where I had to walk in the last 30+ miles. This still ranks up there as one of my greatest achievements even though it was a really, really sub-optimal performance. You see, it’s not so much the time that defines the 100-mile finish as it is what you have to endure in order to reach the finish line. A run with no suffering doesn’t have the same flavor as one that pushes you to your limits (self inflicted or otherwise). And I have definitely been bumping against mine for the past year. There were many times that I wondered why I would put myself in these situations. Why I would seek out this manufactured adversity. Times where I wondered if I would ever get any good at this.
Well, it’s taken me seven races, but I feel like I’m finally becoming proficient at this. This doesn’t mean I’m anywhere close to elite, nor will I ever be based on my training volume (30-60 miles per week). This means I have a high degree of confidence that I can start virtually any 100 mile race outside of Barkley or Hardrock and finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. These won’t necessarily be perfect runs, but I feel like I can minimize my mistakes (nutrition or foot care seem to consistently crop up), endure through the low points, and recover after a period of time. My biggest improvement this year has been my fitness after mile 50. In years past, I wouldn’t be able to run much after mile 60 and when I did my pace would necessitate the use of quotation marks around the word I would be so slow. But at Umstead and Old Dominion, I still had decent stride mechanics 90+ miles into the race. I had definitely slowed down by this point, but I was still running strongly (no quotation marks needed).
I attribute the improvement to two things: 1) increased protein intake during the run and 2) time. Before I would only eat carbs (primarily gels) during races, however I’ve switched over to Ensure shakes which have a decent amount of protein in them. I think this has helped reduce muscle fatigue as I progress past the 12 hour mark, however I’m no doctor and I didn’t sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night. Probably a bigger reason though is simply that I have more experience running longer distances. You can only get better at something by doing it and there’s no way to adequately simulate 80 miles of wear and tear on your legs in training. You can really only get this by running 80 miles. So I’ve slowly adapted my body to be able to handle these really, really long runs. There could be many other reasons that I’ve improved (better training methods, healthier eating, more recovery, etc.), but I haven’t really changed that many things within my life to account for the spike in performance.
So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until it stops working. Then I’ll try something else. If this was easy, simple, and straightforward; then everyone would be doing it. And I’d probably already be bored and onto the next thing. But it’s still challenging and exciting and I’m not sure what the next race will bring. . .
Oh, wait. It’s Eastern States. I know the world of hurt that awaits me there and I hope I didn’t just jinx myself.