Lessons I Learned Failing To Run a 100-Mile Ultra Marathon

Lessons I Learned Failing To Run a 100-Mile Ultra Marathon
Running under the various tunnels along this canal. Photo credit: https://jenniferthorsen.smugmug.com/ 

It was an exciting morning — early October in the middle of nowhere Illinois. Today was going to be a test, and one of the hardest physical tests of my life. To run a 100-mile race.

There’s nothing like getting up when it’s still dark out. The race kicked off with a beautiful sunrise. Was I ready? Did I do enough? There was no turning back now. I was either going to find out if I can run a hundred miles or find out how far I can run.

Even though I didn’t finish, this race humbled me with how much planning goes into running 100 miles.

Ultra Marathons Require A Lot of Planning

A point-to-point race is a lot different than a lap race

When I did my 5th ultra marathon, it was a loop race. I didn’t have to think a lot about my drop bag, all I had to do was throw a bunch of my stuff into a duffle bag and a cooler. Every 10 miles, I would be able to replenish whatever I needed.

This was a point-to-point race. I had to build a spreadsheet of every aid station and figure out how much time it would take so my girlfriend could meet me at the aid station without waiting all day. Some of the drives she had to make were 20 or 30-mile drives from our hotel.

If I could do it all over again, I would have looked for a hotel that was more centralized instead of near the finish line. Unfortunately, I was thinking about making the packet pickup and the drive toward the end of the race to be short and easy.

Failing To Plan Is Planning To Fail

I had a plan, however, it wasn’t a good plan. It needed to be more dialed in to account for every aspect of the race including what my crew is going to do. I should have made a more detailed plan. I should have thought it out at every step like I was going through the scenario in their shoes.

I should have had a step-by-step plan of all gear and what was needed for each aid station that was separate from my drop bag.

The biggest gap in my planning was I didn’t plan for the aid stations to start closing. I had a hydration bladder that I could have carried with me to have extra water. I could have switched to a larger pack if I needed to. There are a lot of things I could have done differently.

Always Have An Exit Plan

When I decided to drop out of the race, it was a hard call to make. I was 63 miles in, it was 1:00 am and 40 degrees outside. If I stopped moving, I was freezing. I had to call my girlfriend to pick me up. I put her in a bad position to drive 40 miles at night in an unfamiliar area on a pitch-black night.

I should have had a better plan if I had to quit. I should have carried something that could have kept me warmer in case I had to make it through the night. I might have made it until morning if I would have been able to stay warm. There are parts of the plan I didn’t think all the way through. In a 100-mile race, anything can happen. Your body can fail, but you also might not be able to make the cut-off.

Things Don’t Always Go Your Way

Learn to be humble

I almost had the arrogance to just say “fuck it” and run 37 miles with low water and low on food. I’m glad I listened to the voice that knew it was time to throw in the towel. I have the mentality to never quit but you have to weigh the risks. I was doing this to challenge myself and find out how far I could push. There’s no need to have the ego get in the way of having a DNF next to my name in the race, though. I looked at the results and almost 40% of the people attempting the 100 miler didn’t finish. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in not finishing.

I will have the opportunity to test myself again and make sure I have everything planned for next time. I learn by doing and I am positive that if I spent 10 more hours planning this race, I would have had the same results. The best way to gain experience in anything in life is to do it.

You Never Rise To The Occasion, You Fall Back To Your Training

There’s an old military saying that you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back to your training. I didn’t prepare enough — it’s plain and simple. I was running 30–40 miles per week but my runs weren’t productive. I didn’t ramp up my mileage. I would do a run of about 4–6 miles four times during the week then do a run of 10–15 miles on the weekend.

I did a few longer runs of about 20 miles and I ran a 50K about five months before the race but it wasn’t enough. My training plan was just a default exercise mode — there was no intention to it. Something in my mind made me think that just because I made it through a 50-mile ultra with minimal training, I could make it through a 100-mile ultra with half-assed training.

If I’m going to be serious about running a 100-mile ultra again, I need to have a disciplined training plan and ramp up my mileage instead of counting on myself to rise to the occasion.

This led me to look into a different philosophy in training. Instead of trying to get PRs on any of my runs, I’m looking to raise my floor instead. My new training philosophy is instead of attempting to run a sub-6-minute mile, I want to be consistent in running a sub-7-minute mile even on my worst days. This philosophy has led me to not beat myself up on my worst training days, but to celebrate them.

Whether or not you finish, always have a smile. 

Running an ultra marathon forces you to appreciate all the things that you have. It’s a reminder of how much the people in my life mean to me. I know my girlfriend didn’t “want” to crew me but she wanted to help me. She put her needs behind my own and that is a true act of love. When you have people in your life that want to help you succeed and ask for nothing in return, you appreciate all the connections you have.

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