How to Plan and Run a Successful First-Time 100-Mile Ultra

“You look like you’re having waaaay too much fun in your first 100,” said Mike Benge, my editor at Trail Runner magazine, after he saw some photos of me running last weekend’s Rio Del Lago 100.

It’s true, I acted like a goofball at many points on the course—blowing kisses, giving hugs and high-fives, flying with airplane arms over the timing mats, stuffing my face with food and exclaiming, “This tastes sooooo good!”—because I truly felt joyful and grateful to be running a 100-miler and, in the process, fulfilling a longstanding goal.

Near the Cool aid station. Photos by Nate Dunn

Blowing a kiss to my crew near the Cool aid station. Photos by Nate Dunn

I’m going to come right out and say something that I hope doesn’t sound too braggy: I nailed my first 100-miler. I avoided major problems or meltdowns on the course; I nipped minor moments of negativity in the bud when they arose; and, best of all, the last couple of miles felt as fast as if I were finishing a marathon and going for a PR.

Instead of giving a blow-by-blow race report, I’ll endeavor to lay out all the things I did and learned that contributed to a successful 100-mile debut, with the hope that my examples might help others plan for theirs.

“Preparation is the key to success,” a coach I used to train with, Alphonzo Jackson, liked to say. He’s right. I’ll break this into three areas of preparation, each probably equally important: mental, logistical and physical.

Mental Prep

“It really IS all mental. You have to really, really want the finish. Otherwise, there will be every rational reason in the world to quit, and you will give in,” my friend Jennifer O’Connor wrote a few days before the race.

I copied and pasted her advice into a document called “Mantras and Affirmations,” which you can read here, and studied this document in the days and nights leading up to the race. Having mantras to refocus the mind really helped when I’d start to worry, to push too hard, or to feel sorry for myself; I’d repeat phrases in my head, in rhythm to my stride, such as “No stress, relax” or, “Steady and strong, wild and tough.”

First, I made a pact to finish no matter what, barring a very serious medical issue. Of course I wanted to break 24 hours and thought I should be able to, given the shape I’m in and the fact it’s not a terribly difficult course for a 100-miler—but just finishing was the all-important goal. If I went more slowly than I anticipated and realized a sub-24-hour finish was out of reach, then I would not let disappointment lead to excuses for dropping out.

I packed a heavy-duty ankle brace in my gear bag and told myself that even if I sprained my ankle, I’d put the brace on and finish. If I started puking my guts out, I’d walk it off and finish. If I went off course, I’d retrace my steps and finish. Only a serious injury, like falling and smashing my head on a rock or breaking a limb, would justify dropping out. A DNF (Did Not Finish) would have to mean “Do Nothing Fatal.” I was NOT going to DNF in my first 100-miler, no way, no how!

Secondly, I broke the race roughly into quarters and thought about each quarter separately, and I planned to “hit the reset button” or pretend like I was starting fresh at the start of each quarter. I vowed to run the first quarter (to Mile 24, the first meeting with my crew) as relaxed and conservatively as possible. I wanted this first quarter to feel nearly effortless. Then my plan was to run the second quarter listening to my iPod and blissing out on music (the second quarter is Miles 24 – 54, which includes the big climb up K2 hill, the somewhat monotonous double loop near the town of Cool, and the climb back up to Auburn Dam Overlook).

Heading out on one of the Cool loops.

Heading out on one of the Cool loops in the second quarter.

The third quarter back to Beals Point (mile 78) and fourth quarter (the final out-and-back 22-miler) would be through the night, sans music, with my wonderful pacer Clare Abram.

RDL100 Elevation Profile (click to enlarge). Note: the hardest parts to me were not the hill climbs; it was the "rock garden" tough technical 6-mile stretch we repeated four times (at Miles 5, 68, 84 and 90).

RDL100 Elevation Profile (click to enlarge). Note: the hardest parts to me were not the hill climbs—I excelled on the hills. The most difficult part was the “rock garden” aka “meat grinder” tough technical 6-mile stretch we repeated four times (at Miles 5, 68, 84 and 90).

For the first 16 or so miles, I ran with several people (and enjoyed their company) who ended up finishing several hours behind me, an indication that I went out slowly and/or they went out too fast. Then, on the first significant hill climb (Cardiac, up to Auburn Dam Overlook), I passed a lot of people because my legs and lungs felt good, but I’d dial back my effort any time I felt as if I were pushing my heart rate out of the “conversational pace” zone.

Finally, for mental prep, I vowed to run my own race and not get caught up in trying to pass others. I recognized that my competitive streak could be my undoing, and I did not want to sabotage a “steady and strong” race plan by stressing out about where I was in relation to others. Therefore, when I came to the first meeting point with my crew (Mile 24) and Nate Dunn said, “In terms of placing, you’re doing—” I stopped and shushed him, saying, “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!”

Keeping my competitiveness in check became more difficult later, however, when I realized after an out-and-back section that I was leapfrogging for 2nd or 3rd place among the women. I made the mistake of telling my crew at Mile 54, “No more Mrs. Nice Guy, I want a podium finish!” Then I instantly regretted saying that, because I knew it could come back to bite me. Subsequently, in the second half, the only time I started to feel stressed out or negative was when I worried about catching up to—or being caught by—another woman.

I made a pivotal, and in hindsight smart, decision coming into the Mile 78 aid station. This is at Beals Point, the start/finish area, where the course throws a big mental challenge by making runners go back out for a 22-mile out-and-back on the same difficult stretch we just ran. Coming into this turn-around, I decided to let go of my concerns about my place, and instead to take care of myself by using the toilet and eating real food at the aid station. This was not “giving up” on the race but rather a conscious decision to do what I needed to do so that I could stay strong and positive for the final 22. I did not want to run the final stretch feeling hungry and like I had to take a crap!

I therefore took time to go to the bathroom (which is about an eighth of a mile away from the aid station meeting area, so it took many minutes). I appreciated the simple pleasures of a flushable toilet and a sink to wash my hands, which felt relatively luxurious at that point, and then I savored some macaroni and cheese and sugary vanilla milk. It tasted so good, and afterward, I felt so good!

At Mile 78, I'm drinking from a carton of vanilla milk while Sabine reads me friends'  and family's messages of support sent via text and Facebook (which I greatly appreciated!) and Clare refuels. Note: I never sat down at aid stations (other than on the toilet)—beware  the chair!

At Mile 78, I’m drinking from a carton of vanilla milk while Sabine reads me friends’ and family’s messages of support sent via text and Facebook (which I greatly appreciated!) and Clare refuels. Note: I never sat down at aid stations—beware the chair!

Leaving the aid station, my other crew person, Sabine Gillert, said, “You’re going to have to pass a couple”—meaning, a couple of women had gotten ahead of me because they left the aid station sooner.

“I don’t care!” I said, and I actually didn’t, which felt so liberating! I just wanted to hit the reset button and rock the final 22 miles. I was doing the math in my head and realized I could break 22 hours—two hours ahead of my sub-24-hour goal—and that new goal of getting under 22 became the only thing that mattered.

Clare and I head back out for the final quarter (all these photos are taken by Nate Dunn).

Clare and I head back out ready to conquer the final quarter.

In this last stretch, we have a final turnaround point (mile 89) so you can see who’s ahead of you when they’re running back. I was confused about whether there were two or three women ahead, and then I said to myself, “whatever.” Also, I kept leapfrogging another woman, and at the turnaround I calculated that she was a good 10 minutes ahead and therefore un-catchable. Again I told myself, “whatever—quit worrying, run your own race.”

I tried to care only about two things: (1) getting through the “meat grinder” or “rock garden” 6-mile technical stretch as efficiently as possible—and not getting grumpy during it—and (2) running as hard and fast as possible, once we hit the smoother part, to the finish. Clare and I did exactly that.

As we ran the last couple of miles on the flat, smooth levee, I increased the length and turnover of my stride and recalled how it felt in 2009 to go for a PR at the Napa Valley Marathon. I really mentally relived that magical marathon moment, as if I were turning back the clock to my younger, faster self. Back then, I had wanted to break 3:10 because I wanted to “BQ like a man” (qualify for Boston under the men’s time standard). When I realized in those final marathon miles at Napa that I could get close to 3:05, I gave it everything I had and finished in 3:05 and change.

Similarly, I realized in this final stretch of my first 100M that this was gonna be my 100-mile PR on the books for who knows how long, so I wanted as low a number as possible!

So we pushed like hell and crossed the finish in 21:43:35—4th female, 16th overall, 1st in the 45-49 age group. (Full results.)

Crossing the finish with Clare

Crossing the finish with Clare

My sister asked me later if I was disappointed that the 3rd place woman finished only two minutes ahead of me. Hell, no! I had no idea we were so close behind her. I was elated to have closed the gap by that much and to finish feeling like I was flying. Sure, maybe I could have in fact pushed harder earlier in the race and finished faster to snag 3rd. But an earlier push, or less time spent taking care of myself at aid stations, could have made me fall apart later. All in all, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Logistical Prep

Recruiting two experienced, reliable and cheerful crew people, and a very experienced pacer with a great personality, might have been the smartest thing I did for this race. I could have done the race all on my own, using only drop bags and aid stations since the aid stations were plentiful, but since it was my first 100, I wanted to take advantage of all the support possible.

Think a lot about whom you ask to crew and pace, and find out as early as possible if they can commit to the date. Eliminate anyone you suspect might have the slightest trace of flakiness or might annoy you after several hours. Also, make sure they genuinely want to be out there all day and night. I was fortunate to find three helpers who thought it actually would be a lot of fun and satisfying to be on my team.

Finally, don’t ask family or loved ones to crew or spectate unless they really want to be there and they’ll genuinely be supportive. Don’t invite them if they will complain about waiting around and/or might encourage your thoughts of dropping out when the going gets tough. My husband Morgan and I talked about him being at the race and mutually decided it would be better if he stayed home and took our son to his baseball game. Morgan didn’t really want to drive the two hours both ways to the race and hang out there in the middle of the night, and I felt relieved that I didn’t need to worry about whether my family was feeling OK while I was on the course.

I wanted Clare Abram to pace because she is one of the smartest runners I know in terms of pacing, and she has raced lots of 100s. Plus, I love her personality—she is a soft-spoken, unassuming British woman with a wicked sense of humor underneath. I asked my friend Nate Dunn to crew because I crewed for him last year at Rio Del Lago, so I knew that he knew the course well, and he’s a super reliable and nice guy. Finally, I asked my Grand to Grand Ultra tent mate Sabine Gillert to be the other crew person because I knew from the Grand to Grand that she is ultra-organized, smart and fun to be around.

Sabine following my instructions to rub sunscreen on me midday.

Sabine following my instructions to rub sunscreen on me midday, with all the stuff I had planned and packed laid out.

Nate and Sabine on my left, Clare on my right—what a team!

Nate and Sabine on my left, Clare on my right—what a team!

Last summer, when I paced at Hardrock for Betsy Nye, I learned a lot about crewing from her uber-organized crew chief Helen Pelster. I used what I learned from Helen, combined with my food and gear prep for the Grand to Grand Ultra, to create a meticulous race plan for Rio Del Lago, complete with check lists, calculated pace ranges, etc. Then I shared this document (which you can read here) with my crew, and on the Wednesday before the race, the four of us had a phone conference to go over all the details.

I also created a separate packing list for myself with every single item I would need, and then double-checked to make sure each item was in the correct bag. Planning for an experience like this taxes one’s executive skills—for example, it’s hard but important to think through which items should go in certain bags to give to your crew for later in the race, and which items should go in the bag you’ll need when you’re getting dressed the morning of the race—so I found it essential to make all these lists. And I did it more than a week ahead of time, so I could mull over and tweak the details.

I packed way more food and gear than I ended up needing, but it gave me peace of mind to be prepared for almost any circumstance. My amazing crew laid out everything for me in advance of our meeting points. I felt so spoiled and pampered after the self-supported minimalism of the Grand to Grand Ultra!

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Foodwise, for example, I took baggies of trail mix (which I loved during the Grand to Grand) but ended up not liking their crunchiness and dryness. Instead, I liked the softness and satisfaction of turkey/avocado and almond butter/jelly in a whole wheat tortilla. Then at night, it felt good to switch from drinking Sprite to that vanilla milk. I was able to stay on top of my calorie needs by having one Gu gel per hour, and a small amount of something solid a half hour following the Gu, so I had at least 200 – 300 calories per hour and at aid stations even more. I also took a salt pill every 90 minutes.

I never suffered the swelling or GI problems I’ve had in the past. Only at one point, around Mile 60, did I feel a wave of nausea and began burping a lot. I tried a ginger candy chew but found it annoyingly chewy, so I spit it out and tried orange-flavored Tums (which I had never tried before but stuck in my pack as a “just in case” item). The Tums did the trick, and I felt fine afterward.

I had a full blister kit and a change of shoes and socks, but I never used them. I decided not to fuss with my shoes because the blisters I developed were not too bad. Yes, I’ve had lots worse than this, and this felt OK to run on!

RDL100 blister

I had a blister like this on both feet, on the side by the ball of my foot. I think it’s because my feet slipped around laterally in my shoes a lot while navigating the boulder-strewn technical section.

The other thing that worked well logistically was planning to sleep right next to the starting line, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting there in time for the 5 a.m. start. I reserved a campsite at the starting line area (Beals Point) and spent the night in my van. I ate a light dinner early, which I packed from home (salad with salmon, pumpkin bolani bread and water—no alcohol) to avoid eating bad restaurant food and so I wouldn’t feel heavy the next morning. My friend Mark Tanaka pitched his tent there too, and we had fun hanging out and talking.

Mark and me taking a selfie at the campsite the night before.

Mark and me taking a selfie at the campsite the night before.

Then I took a half an Ambien sleeping pill and slept for six hours. In the morning, I drove to the starting line at 4 a.m. and got dressed and ready there. I ate a banana with almond butter and half a Pro Bar for breakfast, and then was good to go! I felt unusually relaxed and ready.

Physical Prep

Nothing beats the Grand to Grand Ultra’s 165-mile, calorie-restricted week for peak training six weeks before this 100-miler. That event got me in top shape in terms of endurance and caused me to lose about five stubborn pounds. I’m now a believer in a week of very high mileage with back-to-back hard efforts during peak training, and trying not to eat like a horse (as I usually do) during a peak week.

Running into the Cool Aid Station around Mile 47.

Running into the Cool Aid Station around Mile 47.

After the Grand to Grand, I had an easy recovery week of about 20 miles, then a moderate 40-mile week, then a hard 70-mile week that included a medium-length (14-mile) run with several miles in the middle at tempo pace, plus a 28-mile hilly long run followed the next day by a hard 10-miler. Then I started to taper for Rio Del Lago with a 45-mile week, then a 41-mile week, and in the final week before Rio, just two runs (a 6-miler on Tuesday with 20 minutes of tempo pace in the middle, then a very easy and relaxed 3-mile run Thursday, two days before Rio).

I did my best to sleep well, eat moderately and (mostly) abstain from alcohol during the week prior to the event. I switched to decaf coffee so the caffeinated Gu’s would pack more punch during the nighttime part of the race. Also, in the past six weeks, I incorporated yoga twice a week and a lot of additional stretching and core work. I believe this helped me run better and prevent injury. I am definitely keeping yoga in my routine going forward.

Final thoughts

As my last post detailed, I waited so many years to attempt a 100-miler. I’m glad I waited until this point when I felt really fit and ready. I don’t think I could have asked for a better day. I had to be tough and push through discomfort, but overall, it actually was FUN!

The Rio Del Lago 100 is a great 100M for first-timers, because it’s well supported, near sea level, and not too difficult in terms of elevation gain or terrain. We also lucked out with mild weather and a full moon. The volunteers were wonderful, and I want to thank RD Julie Fingar for putting on a great event.

Mostly, I want to thank my team of Clare, Nate and Sabine for supporting me at the race, and Morgan for supporting me from afar.

I can now kind of, sort of agree with Karl Meltzer, “100 miles is not that far.”

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14 Responses to How to Plan and Run a Successful First-Time 100-Mile Ultra

  1. Scott McLean November 11, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    Congratulations on a great race; a fourth place finish at your first 100 is very impressive. My second finish at RDL was memorable also with an hour and 26 minute improvement over last year. I sat behind you and Eldrith at the briefing, but it started before I could introduce myself. I did manage a “Go Sarah” when I saw you out on the Cool loop. Here’s to many more 100s!

  2. Monica Torres November 12, 2014 at 5:31 am #

    Congrats! Thank you for the tips on prep. I am new to the sport and am trying to pick up as much bits of wisdom as I go. Hopefully my first 100 will go as smoothly as yours.

  3. olga November 12, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    You totally did nail your first 100 miler. Funny, I did as well, it’s the second that came not so good, may be because I went into it with a little bigger head than first one, when respect and unknown keep you grounded. I learned my lessons:) Wonderful report, great pacing, and I hear you on the 4th: you can’t be disappointed when you gave your best, and I wish I wasn’t asked those questions, we run for our personal goals, and those are what matter. Congrats on nailing, on fulfilling your dream, on staying within.
    olga recently posted..November is a Gratitude month…My Profile

  4. Sean November 13, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Congrats, what a great first 100 for you! I appreciate you sharing the level of detail you did, and I’ll be bookmarking this for review before my second 100. My first was Pine to Palm in September, and while it wasn’t nearly as smoothly executed as yours we did share the “I will finish” mentality which was the key for me to get through the rough spots.
    See you on the trails….
    Sean recently posted..Pine to Palm 100 Race Video…and the brief history of my journey to the startMy Profile

  5. Carly November 13, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    Congrats on a great race! This was an awesome post, lots of good tips, info, and advice, thank you for sharing your experience!! 🙂
    Carly recently posted..Stonecat Trail Marathon 2014 Race ReportMy Profile

  6. Allen Lucas November 14, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    Ha – I think Olga is onto something; beware the second 100M race! The thing is, I had a pretty hard time picturing you as a 100M virgin based on what you’ve gone through at Grand to Grand twice – but looking at your crew tables (and reading that you had crew!) really made this clear that it was a totally different experience. I know it’s got to be nearly impossible to compare the events, but which do you think is more challenging – this 100M race or the G2G events? (My money is on G2G, but mostly because it’s so much longer, time-wise.)
    Allen Lucas recently posted..Running with the tarantulasMy Profile

  7. Martha Howard November 15, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    I love the mantras. Applicable to life in general (not just running)!

  8. Strong Runner November 17, 2014 at 4:47 am #

    Awesome job and great finish. Very inspiring article with very useful advice.

    • Andy September 13, 2015 at 5:38 am #

      Congrats Sarah on your amazing finish!!! and thank you so much for the valuable info you shared with us. keep moving!!!!

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