How to Survive Your First 100-Miler
When running four marathons in a row, it helps to enlist a professional for help. I tested a bunch of her advice so you don't have to.
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It was somewhere around 4 a.m. I’d been running for 24 hours and aggressively dry heaving for five. I was wearing two puffy jackets, two pairs of gloves, and a permanent grimace. Our fourth headlamp had just gone out, and we were using a dim cellphone flashlight to illuminate the trail. I was delirious and nauseous and wanted out of my body.
A different kind of wanting got me to this point, though. About nine months earlier, I met ultrarunner Clare Gallagher while working on a film shoot. It was two months after she won the women’s race at the 2016 Leadville Trail 100 while also putting up the second-fastest time for a woman in course history. Gallagher was a 24-year-old rookie who crushed her first 100 and quickly got scooped up by The North Face. Those 19 hours and 27 seconds changed her life. I wasn’t gunning for sponsorship, but I wanted to do something so hard that it changed my life, too.
By this point I had been a borderline obsessive runner for about a decade, having fallen victim to the standard progression: half marathon to fulls, roads to trails, 50Ks to 50-milers. I remember when 13.1 miles seemed crazy long to me, but it’s actually just a gateway drug to the addiction. I did a lot of emotional running—“running from” and “running toward”—but I was finally running for no reason other than I liked it. But I never thought I’d do a 100-miler; that distance was for other people. But once the idea popped into my head, I couldn’t shake it. I started to picture the finish line.
I’d read about what happens to your body during an 100-miler. Extreme fatigue, crippling gastrointestinal distress, hallucinations. And for some masochistic reason, I wanted that. So when the Leadville 100 lottery opened in December, almost seven months before the race, I put my name in. Six weeks later, after an all-time powder day in Silverton, Colorado, when running was the furthest thing from my mind, I got the email: I was in.
Clare became my beta queen. I spent the better part of this year thinking about her. What would she do? What would she eat? What would she wear? Whenever I didn’t know the answer, I’d just ask her. I also took to the web. My Google search history was full of queries like: “First 100-miler?” and “How tired can legs actually get and still work?”
I also assembled a solid crew that included my twin sister, Outside editors Erin Berger and Matt Skenazy, and Outside contributor Lauren Steele. I spent about six months training, focusing mainly on the very important weekend back-to-backs: I’d run 20 to 25 miles on Saturday and 10 to 15 miles on Sunday to practice running tired. I also made the most insane Google doc ever (modeled after Clare’s proprietary doc, “How to Slay Leadville”) and spent $70 on candy. I was ready.
But none of the prep matters if you don’t execute on race day. I had so many questions for Clare (and the internet) about what to expect and how to translate solid training into a successful day. If you find yourself in the same position, Googling around for 100-miler tips, I went ahead and tested a bunch of them for you.
Eat a Lot and Do It Early
Clare: “If you stop eating, you’re looking at a tough day where you miss cutoffs. Everyone’s stoked because it’s Leadville, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, 20 miles! I don’t need food!’ When really, you need to slow down, eat copiously, and pass those people in ten hours when the race really starts.”
The gun goes off at 4 a.m., so when my alarm sounded at 2 a.m., I quickly reached for a 64-ounce tub of peanut butter. (A total dream.) I spent the next 20 minutes curled in my sleeping bag, spooning it into my mouth, drinking electrolyte water, and trying to avoid thinking about how weird that was. I forced down a banana. I tried and failed to eat an English muffin. In retrospect, I should have forced down a lot more food then and in those first 20 miles. Leadville is a running event, sure, but it’s also an eating contest. Once you get into a calorie deficit, everything becomes harder than it needs to be. Eat while you still can.
Clare: “If you feel stressed prior to mile 60, you need to chill out. Get your heart rate down, eat, drink, and run like you could run for six days straight—that slowly.”
This was no problem for me. I’m made for distance, not speed. I ran at a pace that allowed me to periodically shove candy in my mouth without losing my breath. What I didn’t know was that I should’ve run slightly faster during the first four miles to avoid the impenetrable conga line that formed on the singletrack around Turquoise Lake. If you have time goals, it’s smart to tweak your pace to avoid bottlenecks on the course. But ultimately, it’s an ultramarathon, not a marathon. You have to run for a full day—keep your pace manageable.
Don’t Let Your Crew Screw It Up
Clare: “Make sure Matt and Erin don’t f*** things up for you.”
Clare harped on this one, but I felt like I had a higher chance of screwing it up than my crew did. That said, there’s plenty of room for error, and it’s imperative that you give your crew the tools they need to get things right. I didn’t want my crew to have to read my mind if I was unable to articulate what I needed, so my Google doc included everything from expected arrival times and explicit directions about what to do at each aid station: refill my water with Skratch, make me eat a peanut butter-oat-chocolate chip-salt nut ball, take my headlamp, give me a jacket for Hope Pass crossing.
Plan out your race like it’s your wedding. If something goes wrong at your wedding, you’re still getting married, probably. But at a 100-miler, it could be mean a DNF.
The Race Doesn’t Start Until Mile 60
Clare: “This is an imperative mindset. You chill to Winfield, then get over Hope Pass (again) and then get to Twin Lakes (again), and then you get ready to feel really weird and awesome.”
This one stressed me out prerace. The longest I’d ever run was 50 miles. Everything past that was uncharted territory. And 60 miles is a long way to go to get to the “start,” with 40 miles still to go. But man, is this one true. Eat, chill, and try to keep it together until mile 60. That’s when things are going to get real and hard. At mile 60, the mountains were getting hit with killer alpenglow, the sunset was amazing, and Matt (my first pacer) and I were having a grand old time splashing across rivers. Things got weird shortly thereafter. Be ready for this.
You’re Going to Shit Your Pants
Clare: “Well, not your pants, but plan to need to use the Porta-Potties at every aid station.”
Around mile 55, I turned to Matt and said, “So this might be TMI, but I haven’t pooped once.” This was notable because I’d been eating and moving for 14 hours. Soon after, we were cruising down singletrack on the backside of Hope Pass, and he tried to pick up the pace. That speed, umm, sped things up. I loudly told Matt that I was going to shit my pants if we kept up such a pace. We saw a head turn uphill at the comment (turns out we were on tight switchbacks). It was Anton Krupicka (of course it was Anton Krupicka), pacing another runner. Let the record show that I did not shit my pants, but we did run faster to flee from our embarrassment.
My relationship with my GI tract during the last 26 miles was…contentious. I was extremely nauseous and dry heaving every few seconds. It was torturous, but it must’ve been equally terrible for my second pacer, Lauren, to listen to for eight hours. Despite ingesting basically nothing, I had to pull off the trail every 15 minutes. I couldn’t really swallow any food and was running (well, shuffling) on fumes at this point. This might’ve been preventable had I eaten more earlier, but it’s also a reality that you might not be able to avoid and should mentally prepare for. In addition to solid food options, it’s worth having your crew carry different liquids (smoothies, applesauce, etc.) in case you can’t chew real food.
Address Problems Right Away
Clare: “If you have hot spots on feet, deal with them immediately. You should carry Vaseline. Treat your symptoms as they come, and speak up if something’s bothering you.”
Small problems quickly become big problems when you’re running for an entire day. I had discussed blister and sock-changing methods with my crew. The strategy was simple: Do it like a NASCAR pit crew. At the mile 50 aid station, I threw myself on a blanket while they ripped off my shoes, swapped my socks, rubbed sunscreen on me, poured coconut water into my mouth, and replenished my food supply. It was incredible. Toward the end of the race I got a dagger-like blister that stopped me in my tracks. Lauren ripped an earring out of her ear, sanitized it, popped and bandaged the blister, and put my sock back on. NASCAR.
Around Mile 70, Expect to Feel Bad
Clare: “You’re gonna feel terrible. You’re gonna wanna die. Trick yourself into knowing that it’s OK, and convince yourself to keep going.”
I’d been waiting for this aid station to appear for what felt like hours. (It may have actually been hours.) When we got there, I sat next to a heater in the pop-up tent. I drank cups of Coke and salty broth and tried to eat a potato, but it was like I had an invisible force field around my mouth that allowed no solid food to pass. I waited for the calories to make me feel better, but they didn’t. Everyone in the tent looked to be in the depths of despair, nobody was smiling, and people were dropping out all around me. I was woozy, behind on calories, and shivering. I didn’t know how I could keep going feeling this way. Matt wasn’t having it. He made me get up, and I trudged behind him back into the cold, staring at his neon orange socks for seven more miles. “Run babysitter” is perhaps a more apt description of a pacer’s job.
The Best Way to Stop the Death March Is to Shuffle
The internet: “The best way to stop the death march is to breathe deeply, remove any negative thoughts, and start to shuffle your feet. A slow shuffle will loosen the muscles and eventually allow you to run freely again.”
I gave explicit instructions to my crew about how to deal with this: Under no circumstances do I get to quit. If I enter the Heart of Darkness, do not give me pity. If I’m walking, try to get me to shuffle. After Western States this year, Cat Bradley, who won the women’s race, told Trail Runner, “Every time I stopped, I felt like I was going to faint, so I stopped stopping.” I kept thinking about that. I sat down briefly once, somewhere around mile 82, which made Lauren very angry with me, so I got up pretty quickly, because it turned out that not moving didn’t feel any better than moving.
You’re Gonna Get Emotional
Clare: “You might cry. I cried. That’s OK.”
You spend all this time alone in the dark, and then you reach this oasis of people and love and food at aid stations, and you’re feeling like shit, and the juxtaposition is too much. Tears just fell out of my eyeballs at the mile 75.5 aid station, and I couldn’t stop them. I’d had a bad time in the woods, and I still had a marathon to go. I tried not to be overwhelmed by the distance. Matt was saying, “You gotta get going! You gotta go!” I felt better, because it was obvious based on his bloodshot eyes that he’d been crying too. (He’ll tell you he got DEET in his eyes.)
The Pain Will Come and Go
The internet: “If you’re suffering, it will pass.”
I typically experience good and bad waves during ultras. Oftentimes, when you think you’ve had enough, you start to feel better, and that’s comforting to remember. I rode a series of waves at Leadville until the aforementioned very low point at mile 70. It never got better. In fact, it got so much worse. Aid stations served as little beacons of hope along the way, but somewhere around mile 80 we reached an absurd unofficial station with blaring music, a maze of psychedelic neon lights hanging from trees, and a marijuana stench so strong I almost yakked. This type of feeling bad was foreign to me, and I didn’t know if it was OK to feel this way or if something was wrong. It’s usually OK, if not “normal,” for a race this long. You can feel the worst you’ve ever felt and still technically be alright. Try to eat and drink to mitigate serious medical issues—and pay real attention to things like heat stroke—and take solace in the fact that even if you feel terrible, you can probably still move your feet forward. After 29 hours and 21 minutes of doing just that, I finally crossed the finish line. Moments later, I was feeling better already.