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Ultrarunning At Its Best: Western States 100

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November 5, 2012 Comments (8) inspiration, Journey To A First Ultra, Musings

Choosing Your First 100 Miler

Last April I wrote a piece on TAUR titled “Choosing Your First Ultra.” For those of you seriously considering bringing your ultra running to the next level, and into the world of 100 milers, I of course suggest you click the link above and read that post. Much of the advice I gave then, still applies now, when choosing which 100 Miler to be your first. The discussion points reviewed in that post were:

  1. Shoot for the moon, Land Amongst The Stars
  2. Each Course Has Variables
  3. Ask Questions of Fellow Ultra-Runners
  4. Decide What’s Worth The Price
  5. Old School vs. New School
  6. Roads, Trails, or Wilderness
  7. Nix The First Year Event
  8. Decide on a Distance

There really is some fruitful conversation within those topics and again, I urge you to delve deeper. However, now that we know what distance we want to run (100 Miles), I want to really focus in on the following very important discussion points on deciding which 100 Miler to make your first.

1.) Rely On Your Progressive Experiences
Let me start by saying that I am strongly against folks relying on their marathon training in order to run a 100-miler. I’m also against folks jumping from 26.2 right to 100 miles. Though it’s been done before, studies will show “varied results.” We’ll go over training in a future post, but for now I’d like to impress upon you the notion of running a marathon, then a 50K (31.05), then a 50 miler; on your way to your first 100. I would take a look at the ultra’s you’ve done on your way to your first 100 and try to match your selection, for a first 100, based on your previous experiences. If you’ve run a rugged, mountain 50 miler and didn’t have much fun; then stay away from those when selecting a first 100. If you bore easily and can’t stand pavement for 24+ hours; then stay away from multiple-loop courses and courses which feature loads of paved running.

2.) Just Because You Read It In A Book…
Two of the most popular running books of all time, UltraMarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner and Born To Run, are loosely based on running the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Leadville Trail 100, and the Badwater 135. Just because you read about these races in a book, doesn’t necessarily make them good ideas for first time 100 milers. When I started running 100 Milers (2007), there were around 35 in the United States. Now, there’s close to 100. There are plenty of 100’s to choose from and many of them make for good time 100 mile events. To see a list of the 103 North American 100 Milers, Check out Stan Jansen’s Site at Now, if you’re one of those folks who know’s you want to run Leadville and/or Western States and that’s it.. perhaps none of this post applies to you. But if you imagine that you want to have some longevity in this sport, I would seriously shy away from making one of those your first 100. Leadville and Western States are tough given their own individual reasons; something I wouldn’t want a first time 100-miler to experience their first time out there. Also, its likely you have an incredible 100 right in your own back yard. There is nothing worse than training for a race that is a few thousand miles from home, then showing up and laying an egg. Your 100 miler career will be over in a jiffy.

3.) What Is A Good First 100-Miler?
This question has been asked many times before and the answers always seem to be the same: Vermont, Umstead, Rocky Raccoon, Burning River, Oil Creek. All great suggestions… but why? Many ultra-veterans consider these races to be some of the “easier” 100-milers. Now, certainly there is no such thing as an easy 100; but as far as 100 milers go, these tend to be the most runner friendly. Generous cut-offs, challenging courses, yet not a “graduate run” type experience, ample aid stations, numerous chances of having access to your crew/supporters. It doesn’t really get much better than that. Other suggestions might be races that feature multiple loops of 10 miles or less at a time (if you’re into that kind of thing). Courses like this allow you to access your crew and/or your drop bags at a frequent and always guaranteed clip. In other words, you can count on seeing your aid and people every 10 miles. Keep in mind though, that those multiple loop courses tend to be the easiest to quit on.

4.) Consider the Terrain
I can’t stress this enough. I’ve been to many races and have seen the following countless times. Example: One year while running the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in Virgina, I struck up a conversation with another participant. This runner informed me that, “So far the course is killing” them. Why? Because Massanutten is the rockiest nastiest 100 East of the Mississippi. It offers up 18,000+ feet of elevation gain (and loss) over the course of 100 miles with every rock known to man laid out upon the course. The runner, who was running it as their first 100, flew in from the farm fields of Kansas. They have no mountains, and no rocks, where he trained and thus, the challenge was more than he bargained for and the experience.. not as amazing as he had always envisioned. For those other races, consider that Western States is a 90% downhill run on technical trail and fire roads. Leadville is mostly a road run with incredibly tight cut-offs, forcing runners to run at every chance they get. Not to mention that it happens at 10,000′! Food for thought. Look around your typical training areas. Look at the areas you think you’ll be able to train. Now choose a 100 course the most closely resembles what you have available to you. You’ll be thankful for it in the end.

5.) Research, Research, Research
I’m talking about the race itself. For instance, for the sake of my current project, the Vermont 100. A quick Google Search for “Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run” offers up countless bits of information. From the race website (read it in it’s entirety!), to videos, to race reports, to news and magazine articles. There is a mountain of information out there on the web that speaks about the event. After a look at the information available on the web, I should be able to decide if I want to run this race or not. But what exactly am I looking for with my initial research of events?

The Following: Course length, elevation gain/loss, Elevation profile, course description, photos of what the course actually looks like, historical weather information for the area that time of year, number of years the event has been put on, who does the race benefit, how much does it cost, number of aid stations and the average distance between them, number of times my crew can access me and the average distance between those times as well, number of finishers the last 3 years, average number of finishers to starters on any given year (testament to difficulty of the event), and finally.. the course records.

6.) Research Some More!
After you’ve done the initial research outlined above; watch some videos that other runners have made about their time at the event. Given the success of YouTube, you’re bound to find plenty of videos to peruse. A search on the VT100 lands ten YouTube videos on the first page! Read a few race reports of runners who have been there. Most times they’ll be incredibly honest with their thoughts on the event as a whole regardless of their success or not. This beta will help you decide if it’s an event you truly want to run or not. You’ll either get fired up, goose bumps, and tingly inside after watching videos or reading reports; or you are none-of-the-above. If you are none-of-the-above, move on to researching another event. If you’re fired up and can truly envision yourself running across the finish line, you’ve found your race!

7.) Consider The Distance and Accumulated Time
After doing all of the research above, ask yourself one big question. Does it sound like an event I’d enjoy being on my feet for 30 hours at? Does it sound like an event that I can see myself being on my feet, running, for 24+ hours? Does it sound like something I could get people to help me out with? Does it sound like an event that I could be proud to say I was apart of? Only with these answers can one truly discover if a particular race is for them. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you want to run a 100-miler just once and then move on forever.. then forget everything I’ve said. Have at it! But if you want to truly run a 100 miler, enjoy yourself, have the time of your life, push yourself, and consider doing it again someday down the road.. then pay close attention to the advice I’ve given here. I can’t fail you!

This post is part of a series known as Journey To 100 Miles. We Welcome your comments to add to the discussion.

Previous Posts: Journey To 100 Mile Intro

8 Responses to Choosing Your First 100 Miler

  1. […] Previous Posts: Journey To 100 Mile Intro Choosing Your First 100 Miler  […]

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  3. […] has been getting us ready for this. Training. By now, We’ll assume that you’ve Chosen Your Which 100 Miler is your First, You’re Committed, You’ve done ample research, and you’ve started building a […]

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  7. […] To 100 Mile Intro 2. Choosing Your First 100 Miler 3. Ultra Commitment 4. Researching An Ultra 5. 100 Miler Base Building 6. A 100 Mile Training […]

    • Randy says:

      I am training for my 1st ultra, 100M, and I chose the Ghost Train Trail Ultra, in Brookline, NH. The entry fee was only $40 (5K races charge that now a days). It is very flat, and 95% trails. Running in New England at the end of October will be past peak foliage, but the cool weather will be nice. The course is 7.5M out and back, (repeat, repeat, repeat…). After doing 6 loops, you then do just 10 miles. The nice thing about this race IMO is that there are 15, 30, 45, 60, 75, 90, and 100M races, so if you have to drop out after 80 miles, you still get to claim that you did a 75M ultra. It’s a nice safety net if you are at a high risk to DNF.

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