The Journey to the Starting Line of a 100-Mile Ultra

(This is an updated version of a post originally published Oct. 15, 2013.)

What a difference a year makes.

Last fall, I came back from summertime injury and developed a cocky plan to run the Rio Del Lago 100-mile race—my first 100—on minimal training. I wrote a blog post about it, which is excerpted below, and called it, “Why I’m Running My First 100 Not According to Plan.” It’s sort of funny, sort of painful to re-read it, because the epilogue was a nightmare: a stress fracture attacked my metatarsal, so those race plans went out the window. I spent November through New Year’s hobbling, then slowly rebuilt my base in the spring.

Eleven months later, I’m finally, finally ready to do it! Unless something awful happens between now and the weekend, like I fall down the stairs and break my foot (which I did a few years ago), I will start the Rio Del Lago 100 this Saturday, Nov. 8, at 5 a.m. You can follow the race through the UltraLive Webcast and check my progress; I’m bib #75.

I have spent more than a decade watching others run 100’s and wondering if I could someday, too. Some rookie ultrarunners jump right into 100s. For me, however, the journey to the starting line of a 100 has been circuitous, cautious and marked by setbacks. The time feels right this year, however, because of the shape I’m in physically and mentally six weeks following the Grand to Grand Ultra. And unlike last year, I have my race day logistics planned meticulously.

I hope the race report following this blog post will be a good one! Meanwhile, here’s last year’s pre-Rio Del Lago 100 post, which shows some of the thinking that leads to a 100-miler, and challenges along the way.


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 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 educate our 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.

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 more than fifty marathons and ultras 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. My best-laid plan to run the Pine to Palm 100 in September turned into one big joke. It is pretty funny, 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 re-injure and DNS or DNF.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


Sadly, how I actually spend 2013’s Rio Del Lago: crewing for a friend while wearing a Velcro cast on my injured foot. I’m counting on a better outcome this year!

Hanging out with my buddy Ken Michal while injured at last year's Rio Del Lago 100, which I plan to run this weekend.

Hanging out with my buddy Ken Michal while injured at last year’s Rio Del Lago 100, which I plan to run this weekend.

On the comeback trail at the Miwok 100K last spring:

Coastal Trail in Miwok 2014

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19 Responses to The Journey to the Starting Line of a 100-Mile Ultra

  1. Martha Howard October 15, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    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.

    • Sarah Lavender Smith October 15, 2013 at 7:39 am #

      Ah Marth, thank you for reading this so soon and for your love and support! I will indeed “push myself to a bad place physically” — that is inherent in the challenge — but “bad” as in it doesn’t feel good, not that it will do long-term harm. I will be careful!
      Sarah Lavender Smith recently posted..Why I’m Running My First 100 Not According To PlanMy Profile

  2. Pete Ferguson October 15, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    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 October 15, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    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)

    part 1
    part 2

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

    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)

    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. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill) October 15, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    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 October 15, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    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 October 15, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    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 michal recently posted..Rob Lahoe HURT 13 Pacing ReportMy Profile

  7. Heather Hafleigh October 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    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 October 16, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    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 October 16, 2013 at 5:32 am #

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

    See you then!

  10. Olga King October 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    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 October 17, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    Great post. I listen to one podcast before EVERY race:

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

  12. John Nguyen October 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    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

  13. Erica November 5, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    Sarah, good luck to you! You’re going to KICK ASS!!! Looking forward to following along and cheering you on! Run, girl, run! I hope you have a blast and just keep moving!

  14. Scotty Kummer November 6, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    Go get it!! can’t wait to follow you on this journey.
    Scotty Kummer recently posted..Making the Best of ItMy Profile

  15. Anita Bhatt November 8, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    Sarah- Martha has helped me exercise/run my vocal chords for 4 years during vocal class. The commitment that you have made to run 100m is amazing. I know this because I signed up for a half marathon (small in comparison to the 100m)which has changed my life for the better. Best of luck.. I know you will be amazing. We are all cheering you on!!


  1. Daily News, Thurs, Nov 6 - November 6, 2014

    […] Sarah’s updated Journey to the Starting Line of a Hundred Miler. […]

  2. How to Plan and Run a Successful First-Time 100-Mile Ultra | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More. - November 11, 2014

    […] 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! […]

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