Training & Racing

Why I’m Running My First 100 Not According To Plan

14 Comments Posted by: Sarah Lavender Smith, October 15, 2013

One side of me is supremely cautious, always prepared like a Boy Scout. I study forecasts before travel and pack for all possible weather. I carry water in my car and never let the gas tank go below a quarter full in case a natural disaster hits and we have to evacuate. I research, plan and calendar my kids’ summer programs as early as possible, with the systematic professionalism of a project manager.

The other side of me is impulsive, diving into intense experiences. As a teen and young adult, it led to the kind of partying and experimentation that, in the words of a teacher who tried to set me straight, put me on “a path of self-destruction.” If one hit, line or dose felt good, then I wanted all three at once.

But that impulsive side can lead to positive outcomes when the spontaneity comes from a gut feeling that something feels right and I shouldn’t miss an opportunity.

It’s what prompted me to encourage my husband to leave his work, travel nomadically and school the kids on the road for a year with no “Plan B” (and we actually did it). Months later, somewhere in the Outback east of Melbourne, it made me overcome my fears of jumping into  a lake of murky, buggy water where things might bite or sting. With zero experience in open-water swimming and only a borrowed pair of goggles, I plunged in and swam across with a bunch of better-trained athletes so our family could compete as a team in a mini triathlon (our team name: “Gotta Try New Things”).

Emerging from the swim leg of an Australian tri, to a towel and cheer from my daughter.

Emerging from the swim leg of an Australian tri, to a towel and cheer from my daughter.

These two sides have battled within me for the past couple of months as I struggled to decide whether to commit belatedly to a milestone in the development of an ultrarunner: a first 100-miler. In this case, the Rio del Lago 100 in the foothills north of Sacramento on November 9.

Ever since close friends started running ultra distances about ten years ago and I did my first 50K in 2007, I’ve studied what it takes to do a 100 by reading the sport’s literature and watching others train for Western States. I’ve developed gradually, debating whether to sacrifice the time and energy required to train for a 100-miler. While scads of younger, less experienced runners took to the trails and graduated from the 50K to the 100-mile distance in scarcely more than a year, I bided my time.

It took me fifty marathons and ultras (lots of 50Ks, a few 50Ms and one 100K) to convince me that yes, I do in fact want to try the ultimate test of a 100-miler. And this would be the year.

So I made a plan to do everything right. I sketched out six months of training, hired a coach and ran intermediate races to work up to the 100-miler in September.

You might guess what happened: It went spectacularly wrong. Summer threw curveballs of unexpected challenges and changes of plans. I overdid it racing shorter distances and got injured. I took a couple of weeks off from running in mid-summer, stepped on a treadmill to test out my fitness, and still felt pain radiating in my lower back and foot. My best-laid plan turned into one big joke. It is pretty funny, now that I think of it in hindsight and now that it’s passed.

Yes, it’s passed, and what a difference two months makes. I did a 50K with about 6000 feet of elevation gain two weeks ago, and I had a 70-mile week of training last week. I’m feeling good, no joke!

About five weeks ago, after my first good long run, motivation surged back and I caught the bug again to fulfill my 100-mile goal. When I looked at the course and date of Rio del Lago, the cautious side of me said that’s crazy, that’s way too soon. Undertrained and underprepared, I could reinjure and DNF.

But the other part of me saw a great opportunity and a lot of reasons why it actually made sense to try it. Among those reasons:

  • It’s a logistically easy course close to sea level—two hours from home, no complicated travel or altitude.
  • Two of my most inspirational runner friends, Eldrith Gosney and Lynne Hewitt, are registered to do it, too. Eldrith, 72, has become a true role model and friend to me over the past year. Lynne, my Grand to Grand tent mate, is from New York, so this is a rare chance to see her. I feel like they’re angels on the course, and I want to share the trail with them.
  • I trust the race director, Julie Fingar, to put on a well-organized event, and I’m familiar with much of the trail from previously running the American River 50 and Way Too Cool 50K. I won’t worry about event snafus or getting lost.
  • A bunch of familiar faces will be racing and crewing there, making me feel part of a big happy tribe.
  • I don’t want to wait until spring or summer to try a 100 because I have other plans for those seasons.

The reasons go deeper. I find it liberating to attempt something so big with only the minimal level of preparation, because it relieves me of my perfectionism. Instead of preparing perfectly to have the best debut possible at this distance, and instead of feeling a self-imposed pressure to fulfill what I think is my potential, I’m heading into it fully embracing the attitude every first-time hundred-mile runner should have: Just finish. Don’t worry about your time. Crossing the finish is victory, period.

Beyond that, I want to bookend the year on that trail, having done my first race of 2013 there (the Way Too Cool 50K) shortly after my dad’s passing. I visited my ailing mom last weekend in Colorado and visited my dad’s grave, which made me reflect more on health and mortality. I got that Kris Allen song “Live Like We’re Dying” in my head and am taking the message to heart.

I objectively know it’s ill-advised to debut at a 100-miler after only 10 weeks of solid training (which will include a two-week taper, so I’m really only talking about two months of good running post-injury). And my “solid training” is adequate for 50K or 50Ms but far less than optimal for a 100-miler. I’ll get in one nighttime practice run later this week but haven’t done the kind of grinding back-to-back daylong long runs that I should. I know, I know!

But this is one of those times I’m going to go with my gut more than my head. I’m registered for Rio del Lago and am going to do it because too many factors make it feel right. I’m feeling what I felt before I did the Grand to Grand Ultra last year: If I did not do it, I’d regret it and dwell on “what if?” Plus, I’m intensely curious. What will happen? Will I fall apart? Of course I’ll fall apart to some degree, but will I be able to troubleshoot and push through it?

Don’t think I underestimate the challenge of the distance. Karl “100 Miles Is Not That Far” Meltzer is totally wrong; it is that far, and as I climbed up to an insanely steep ridge around mile 25 in the recent 50K, I thought a lot about how I was only a quarter of the way through a 100, and what it would really take to keep moving for 24 or more hours. But I really want to go past my furthest distance of 63 and experience those nighttime miles in the final third of a 100-miler.

On my way to breaking 6 hours and finishing first in the very challenging Berkeley Trail Adventure 50K on Sept. 28 (photo by Myles Smith, Michigan Bluff Photography)

On my way to breaking 6 hours and finishing first female in the very challenging Berkeley Trail Adventure 50K on Sept. 28 (photo by Myles Smith, Michigan Bluff Photography)

Ironically, sometimes I do things better when I meet challenges by the seat of my pants; that is, by responding in the best way possible in the moment and mustering my strength, rather than planning ahead and over-thinking it.

But I won’t completely wing it. I’m lining up two great pacers to run by my side through the two main sections from mile 54 to the finish. I’m figuring out what to pack in my drop bags and mentally coaching myself on how to push through the low points. I’m storing up inspiration and advice by reading some great race reports and listening to podcasts about first 100′s. Two I particularly liked were Eric Schranz’s interview about his first 100 on Ultrarunnerpodcast.com and the No Meat Athlete’s first 100 report. Got any others to recommend? Please share the link in the comment section below, along with any other advice you think will help me make it to the finish line. I also welcome tips on drop bag essential items that I might not have thought about (for example, Eric recommended a toothbrush and toothpaste, because brushing your teeth around midnight after chomping on sugary snacks all day feels great).

I may ultimately fail miserably. But if—or when—in the midst of the 100 I feel like I’m failing and can’t go further, I’ll try to see the humor in the situation and find a way through.

I’ll recall the moment when I stared down a chute of snow on a mountain run above Juneau, full of fear and dismay because I was cold and tired and realized I didn’t know how to glissade. I felt frozen, unable and unwilling to go further. Then I stopped thinking about it, took a deep breath and plunged down on my butt, hoping for the best. It felt painful and exhilarating all at once, and totally ridiculous. When I reached the end, I was so glad I did it.

Getting down a mountain in Alaska by the seat of my pants.

Getting down a mountain in Alaska by the seat of my pants.

Your Comments

14 Comments so far

  1. Martha Howard says:

    This is great. I’m impressed and terrified at the same time. I trust you and know you’ve put a lot of thought into this big decision. I just hope that, if you truly need to stop in the midst of the 100M, you are honest and don’t push yourself to a bad place physically.
    XOXO-Martha

  2. Your mind is in the game for sure. Really that’s all that matters at this point. You have enough base to get your body through it all. I’m really excited for you! Can’t wait for that race report :) I’ve been through a lot this year and do to injury and other stupid things in my life was ready to give it all up a month ago. How life can change from week to week. I feel great now and am doing my first Ultra in December (NorthFace 50K). I’m more inspired now after reading this blog. Thanks for the boost and I think you’ll surprise yourself, as usual! Now go Run!
    Pete Ferguson recently posted..San Francisco Marathon-All Or NothingMy Profile

  3. Melissa says:

    Wish you all the best! Can’t wait to see how you do. Sounds like you’ve come back REALLY strong, would love to see more details about how you did that.

    I haven’t run an ultra yet. I had targeted a mid-November marathon to PR, got injured in late August (in the midst of the best training I’d ever done – and highest mileage, probably the problem, ramped up too quick) and am now working my way back, retargeting for mid-March marathon. Trying not to let your post entice me to run the Nov race just to do it…. :)

    Check out TrailRunnerNation podcasts – here are a TON of links, use what you want (Jimmie Dean Freeman is always good, Ashley is a hoot, and there are some first person talks about first hundred miler)

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/07/preparing-running-100-mile-race/

    part 1
    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/10/jamie-walker-pre-race-palm-to-pines-100-mile-endurance-run/
    part 2
    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/10/jamie-walker-post-race-palm-to-pines-100-mile-endurance-run/

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2013/04/4-keys-to-race-execution/

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/10/its-all-in-your-head-anna-hughes/

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/08/learn-lot-running-100-miles/

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2013/09/ac100-leadville100-tired-jimmy-dean-freeman/

    this is just kind of fun (and there’s a part 2 also)

    http://trailrunnernation.com/2012/12/ashley-walsh-and-jimmy-dean-open-pandoras-box/

    This is a fun informal UK podcast, I haven’t listened too much but know they discuss 100 milers (Israel, one half of the duo, has moved to the US and ran UROC)
    http://thelongrunpodcast.com/podcast/

    There are probably some talkultra episodes from a couple of years ago where they followed an “average ultrarunner” in training if you search – or you could probably tweet Ian Corliss & ask which eps.

    Hope some of this is helpful!

  4. Love the attitude, backed up by a deep well of experience. I look forward to reading about your race.
    Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill) recently posted..Shutdown affects endurance racesMy Profile

  5. ScottD says:

    If you toe the line, it’s not failure no matter what happens. Good luck!!!
    ScottD recently posted..Frederik Van Lierde and Miranda Carfrae Crowned 2013 Ironman World ChampionsMy Profile

  6. ken michal says:

    You are definitely strong enough to finish a 100!!! Have a solid mental plan (quit list that’s set in stone, etc) and be ready for things to slow down on the back end!! Geoff Roes told me himself that even he does a 20 minute mile or two by the end!!

    If all goes well, I’ll be out there cheering and maybe looking for a runner to pace in for the last leg!! Hope to see you there!! Hope your taper is going well!!

    All Day!
    ~Ken
    ken michal recently posted..Rob Lahoe HURT 13 Pacing ReportMy Profile

  7. Heather Hafleigh says:

    Once again Sarah, so revealing and at the same time so inspiring. I continue to be impressed by your honesty with yourself and in your writing. Good luck with this! I look forward to hearing about it!

  8. Gayle says:

    I follow your site regularly (I live in Scotland) and absolutely love it. I just want to wish you lots of luck in your first 100! You have such great personal insight – I recognise so many personality traits in myself everytime I read one of your articles and this one is no exception….your thoughts about minimal training relieving you of your perfectionism is something for me to think about! Have fun and I look forward to reading the report! X

  9. Lucus says:

    I’ll be out there with you at Rio del Lago for my first 100 as well.

    See you then!

  10. Olga King says:

    You got it, I have no doubts in your ability. Your training is just fine, girl. It’s all in a head.
    Olga King recently posted..In the news.My Profile

  11. Scott Kummer says:

    Great post. I listen to one podcast before EVERY race: http://trailrunnernation.com/2013/04/4-keys-to-race-execution/

    I highly reccomend it.
    Scott Kummer recently posted..SUPPORTING OTHERSMy Profile

  12. John Nguyen says:

    I think you’ll do great! I look forward to hearing all about it! This is a race that I wanted to run too, before my PF problems reared its ugly head. This was my first attempt at a 100 way back in 2010, when it was run in the September heat. I’ll definitely be running this race again someday! Good luck to you, Sarah!
    John Nguyen recently posted..My first WIN at the Cool Moon 12-Hour Night RaceMy Profile


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The Runner's Trip is a source of information and inspiration about: running and travel, destinations for runners, marathoning, ultrarunning, trail running, race reports and extended travel. Please subscribe by using the buttons above!

My 2014 Race & Family Travel Calendar

Lake Chabot 30K, Feb. 22. Race report.
"Uncool 50K," March 8
Night Sweats Marathon, March 24. Related post
Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, April 19. Race report.
Miwok 100K, May 3. Related article
Pacing at Hardrock 100, July 9 - 11. Report
Family trip to Honduras and Costa Rica, late July. Costa Rica report
Crystal Springs 50K (pack training run), Aug. 9. Report
Grand to Grand Ultra self-supported stage race, Sept. 21 - 27
North Face Endurance Challenge 50M, San Francisco, Dec. 6

Proud to race on the team of Inside Trail Racing. Check out their calendar of great trail races.

Recommended Products

I use Honey Stinger waffles, chews & bars for long runs.

Wear Road ID for safety when you run, www.RoadID.com:

This Fenix flashlight is perfect for nighttime running; see this post on the lighting system I recommend.

I recently discovered the Nathan Quick Shot Plus 10 oz. hand-held bottle with a pocket, and I really like it for shorter races when all you need to carry is a gel, your car key and a small amount of liquid.

My 2013 Race & Family Travel Calendar

mid-February: Telluride
Way Too Cool 50K Mar. 9. Race report.
Oakland Marathon, not racing but volunteering as leader for the 3:40 pace group, Mar. 24
Lake Sonoma 50M Apr. 13. Race report.
mid-April: exploring Vancouver for Spring Break
East Bay Triple Crown Series: Tilden Tough 10M May 19, Lake Chabot Half June 2, Woodminster 9M June 16. Short recap.
Marin Ultra Challenge 50M training run, June 22. Story & pics.
6-day Maine biking trip, trip report.
8-day Colorado River rafting trip! Trip report.
Aug. 11: Skyline 50K in the Oakland hills. Injured.
Pine to Palm 100M Sept. 14 Injured.
Berkeley Trail Adventure 50K Sept. 28. Finished 1st F!
Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Run Nov. 9 Injured.
Quad Dipsea, Nov. 30 Injured.

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