by John Medinger
One hundred miles is a very long way to run. There is a temptation to think that you must do mega-mileage in order to be able to attempt running this far. You will hear stories of elite runners who train at 120 or 150 miles per week. But, unless you are truly an elite runner, mega-mileage training is not recommended. Elite runners are elite because they are blessed with biomechanics that few of us can even dream of. These talents and abilities allow them to run faster and more miles without becoming injured. When the average runner attempts a similar schedule, the results can be disastrous, usually resulting in serious injury.
First, you should start thinking in terms of hours instead of miles. Second, your training should be as specific as possible. Western States is a trail run, with many very demanding climbs and descents, and usually run in very hot weather. The more that you can mimic these conditions in your training, the better off you will be. A training run from Michigan Bluff to Last Chance and back might take you seven hours, but it is only about 25 miles. This will do you much more good than a 30 mile run on flat roads that might only take you 5 hours.
It is not necessary to run 100 miles a week to finish Western States. Many runners are able to finish on about half this amount. Everyone has their own formula for what they consider an optimum training program. The key to most training programs is a weekly long run. It is important to stress your body (but not to the breaking point) and then allow it to recover before stressing it again. Reduced to its simplest form, training is all about stress and recovery. Everyone has a different breaking point, but it seems that many ultra runners can handle up to about six hours of running without significantly breaking down their muscles. If you run longer than that, such as in a 50-mile trail run, you will find yourself stiff and sore for a few days. While this is occasionally acceptable or even desirable, it is not something that most runners can handle on a frequent basis.
Start your buildup in January, slowly increasing your total time and distance during the first three months of the year. In order to be able to do the heavy work that is required during April and May, you will need to develop a significant base during January through March.
A typical training program for the months of April and May might look something like:
Monday: rest, or 45 minutes easy Tuesday: 60 to 90 minutes Wednesday: 2 to 3 hours Thursday: rest, or 45 minutes easy Friday: 60 to 90 minutes Saturday: 5 to 6 hours Sunday: 1 to 3 hours, slowly – even walking
Depending on the terrain and your speed, this will give you somewhere between about 50 and 90 miles in a week. It is important to allow for recovery after a hard effort. It’s generally better to take another easy day or a day off and get ready to stress your body with another worthy effort than to just slog through a bunch of dead-legged runs. In ultras, there’s a temptation to think that more is better. But more isn’t always better. Smart is better – again think stress and recovery.
Some runners train with back-to-back long runs, running maybe 25-30 miles on a Saturday and backing it up with 20 more the following day. While this approach might help generate the ability the run well while being very tired (and, make no mistake, you will be very tired during a lot of the actual race), it is also a somewhat risky tactic as you will be quite susceptible to potential injury. So, we urge you to use this approach carefully and judiciously, if at all.
Once a month or so, it is good to do a longer training run of 8 to 10 hours, or a 50-mile race. Use these longer efforts to simulate what you will want to do during Western States. Practice eating, drinking, changing shoes and clothes, etc. If you are running in a race, do not be too concerned about your competitive position. You may well be a little slower than normal since you are in the middle of your heavy training period. Keep your eye on the big prize!
Train on trails whenever possible — the more hilly and rougher, the better. Train in hot weather whenever possible. This should be obvious, but again, think specificity.
Practice walking. Most runners will walk most of the uphills and many runners will incorporate large amounts of walking toward the end of the Run. Being able to hike aggressively will get you there a lot faster than walking slowly. Ultra pioneer Dick Collins – a 10-time Western States finisher – once told me not to stroll, but to “walk like you mean it.”
If you do not have any experience in running on trails at night with a headlamp, you should practice this also once or twice. This is also a good opportunity to test your nighttime lights. Some runners prefer headlamps, others prefer hand-held flashlights. Each causes its own special problems in adjusting to the dark, and it is useful to experience it firsthand before the race. Whatever lighting you use, we recommend strongly that you carry a spare light of some sort in your pack, and place an additional spare light in each of your nighttime aid station drop bags. Virtually every experienced runner has “flashlight stories.” Don’t make the mistake of trying to save a few dollars by not having extra lights and risk ruining your Run.
Other tips. Many runners incorporate a weight lifting routine into their training. It is important to have a strong core, and also strong arms and shoulders. Carrying a water bottle for 100 miles will definitely make your arms tired! Weight lifting should emphasize light weights with many repetitions. A rule of thumb is: if you cannot do three sets of 20 reps, you are using too much weight. Curls, bench press, upright rowing, lunges, crunches and planks are typical exercises that will be beneficial.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
It is also instructive to look at the reasons why runners do not make it to the finish line, and to prepare yourself to deal with these issues. The most common reasons are:
- “My quads are shot”
- Nausea and Vomiting
- “I’m completely out of gas”
- Bucklemania and other brain cramps
- Altitude problems and/or snow
Let’s examine these one-at-a-time and get acquainted with what to do and what not to do.
This is the most common reason for “DNF’s” at Western States. It typically is very hot during the Run. The average high temperature in Auburn at the end of June is 92ºF (34ºC) and it is not uncommon for race-day temperatures to exceed 100ºF. And remember, official temperatures are measured in the shade. You will be in the sun much of the afternoon, and the June sun adds about 30ºF to the “feel” of the temperature – so, when it’s 90ºF in the shade and you are in the sun, it will feel like 120ºF.
The relative humidity at Western States is typically very low, often less than 20%. This is good news, since it means that your sweat will evaporate very quickly. It is this evaporation that cools your body. However, for those who are used to more humid climates, it may not seem like you are sweating all that much, since you won’t be as wet as you are used to. This does not mean that you don’t need to drink as much.
How much do you need to drink? All the recent research shows that many runners have been overthinking this. The answer is simple: drink when you’re thirsty.
Everybody is different and some years are hotter than others. You don’t need some sort of fancy calculation, just listen to your body. When you are thirsty, drink until you’re not thirsty anymore.
Most runners should expect to lose about 2% to 5% of their body weight during the entire run if they maintain normal hydration. But it is now understood that weight alone is not a totally accurate means to determine overall hydration.
Monitor your urine output. Infrequent urination doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dehydrated, but dark urine will usually mean you are. If your urine is dark, be mindful that you are likely dehydrated and need to be more aware of your thirst.
Over drinking can lead to hyponatremia, a potentially dangerous condition where your body does not have enough sodium. You should avoid “force” drinking or sticking to a strict drinking schedule. Again, listen to your body and drink when you’re thirsty.
Maintaining the proper electrolyte balance is a very important factor in getting to the finish line. It is important that you experiment in training with both salt intake and find out what the right amount is for you. Every runner has different needs and even for an individual runner it will depend on how well heat-trained you are. After about 10 days of training in hot temperatures (above about 80ºF), your body will automatically start holding onto salts more efficiently. It is simply one of the ways that your body adapts. For many runners finding a place to train in hot temperatures in late May and early June is easy. It certainly is the most desirable way to prepare for the heat during the Run. For others who live in cooler climates, this may not be possible. For everyone, we recommend experimenting with electrolyte replacement strategies during training to find out what works for you. Medical research has estimated that runners lose between 200 – 1100 mg of sodium per hour – a very wide variance. Your body can use some of the sodium it naturally has stored, so you won’t need to take in quite as much as you lose. But most runners find they need to use some sort of salt supplement during the run to maintain proper electrolyte levels.
Another way to help alleviate the heat is to douse yourself with water at every opportunity. The human head has about 7% of the surface area of the entire body. Because of the high degree of vascularity near the surface, the head is relatively more efficient than the rest of the body in exchanging heat. Studies have shown that in hot weather up to 20% of your cooling is done by the head. (The notion that you lose half your heat through your head is an old wives’ tale and has been completely debunked.) The Western States course has many small stream crossings; at each one, take your hat or a handkerchief and scoop some water, wetting down your head and neck. This will cool you in the same manner as sweating.
If you find yourself struggling with the heat, it is usually best to back off the effort a bit during the hot afternoon hours and try to increase your effort once the sun goes down and the heat becomes much less debilitating. This is especially true at Western States, where most runners will be running the canyons – the hardest part of the course – during the hottest part of the day.
“My quads are shot.”
Western States is a downhill course. There are several very long downhill stretches, where you may be running downhill for an hour or more. This is very abusive to your quadriceps muscles, which will absorb much of the pounding. The only way to get your legs used to this is to train on long downhills prior to the Run. Many of the local runners spend hours and hours in the canyons prior to race day. For those who live outside of northern California, it is recommended that you find a steep hill that is at least 3 miles long and practice running down it. For those who do not live in an area that offers that kind of terrain, you may find that you can achieve some of that training effect with weight training specifically oriented toward your quadriceps.
On the long downhill stretches of your training runs, try to develop a fluid running pattern that allows you to run downhill in a very relaxed fashion. Concentrate on letting the energy of the pounding flow all the way through your body. Avoid at all costs the practice of using your legs as brakes to slow you down on the really steep pitches. Nothing will use up your quads faster than this.
By the time you reach Foresthill (mile 62) during the Run, you will be done with most of the tough climbs. The stretch from Foresthill to the finish line is actually fairly gentle terrain. But you have to have enough left in your legs to be able to do something with it. Those who do well are the runners who are rugged enough to persevere to Foresthill and then are able to run well on the more moderate downhill and flat terrain from Foresthill to the finish line.
Nausea and Vomiting
This is a particularly vexing problem; nothing will shut you down faster than a bout of nausea. The causes of nausea are many. They include dehydration, running too fast (relative to your ability and training), electrolyte depletion, overeating, and sometimes, simple exhaustion.
In many cases it is simply your body’s way of protecting itself. When the body gets into extreme situations, it automatically starts shutting down non-essential systems to protect the vital organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc.). One of the first systems that it typically shuts down is the gastrointestinal tract. As you keep running, your muscles are calling for more energy and more fluids. So you continue to eat and drink. But as your gastrointestinal system is shutting down, it no longer is processing the food and drink (or is doing so at a significantly reduced rate). You will often experience a sensation that is described as a “sloshy” stomach. Eventually, all that non-processed food and drink has to go somewhere and so it comes back up.
How do you prevent bouts of nausea? There are no sure-fire cures. Directionally, it seems to help many runners to eat solid foods periodically from the start of the Run. Upon the first symptoms (“sloshy” stomach, or queasiness), slow down. Better to give up a few minutes the next few miles than to spend a couple of hours later on in a chair somewhere. Many runners have reported that taking additional salt at this point helps empty their stomach. Sometimes sucking on ice chips can help. Some report that eating something really bland, like a couple of slices of bread, will help. Carbonated sodas like 7-Up sometimes help. Burping or belching is generally considered a good sign – an indication that your stomach is processing stuff again. DO NOT eat or drink anything new on race day. This is not the time to experiment.
What do you do after you have started throwing up? Again there is no absolute consensus. Some runners recommend trying to get it all out of your system. Stop and sit for a while if you have to, but try to keep moving at whatever pace you can muster. Vomiting will empty your stomach of both food and fluids. At some point – the sooner the better – you will need to replace them. Energy gels, such as GU, PowerGel, or ClifShot, are designed to be eaten on an empty stomach. And your stomach will probably never be emptier than this! GU comes in an unflavored version, which may be the most palatable on a nauseous stomach. It is important to try to start eating and drinking again as soon as you can. Once you have vomited enough to have emptied your stomach, you probably only will have 2-3 hours of energy left in your system; if you don’t start generating new energy sources you will probably not be able to continue much beyond that. Some runners report that once they get everything out of their system, they start to feel much better in about an hour. Others take many hours to recover. Let’s hope that if this happens to you, you are among the former!
“I’m completely out of gas”
This, generally, is one problem that can be fixed. Most runners will experience “flat stretches” where they just don’t have much energy. This is usually reflective of low blood sugar and can be remedied by eating and drinking. But beware of the quick fix. Simple sugars will make you feel better quickly, but also trigger an automatic insulin response which can make you crash about a half hour later. What is usually best here is a combination of quick energy and some longer-lasting food sources. Again, energy gels (such as GU) are designed to be eaten on an empty stomach and are effective at getting some energy quickly. Combine a couple of packets of gel with a sandwich, soup, or some other food of substance. This combination will be the most effective means of giving you the combination of short and long-term energy sources you will need to make it to the finish. Many runners report that, once you get behind in your energy intake like this, it is difficult to catch back up completely. So, you might expect to suffer from the “low blood sugar blues” at periodic intervals for the rest of the Run. Each time, the remedy is the same: eat and drink!
Bucklemania and other brain cramps
Many runners’ focus is on that beautiful silver buckle. Breaking 24 hours is a worthy goal. At the same time, it should be recognized that the main goal is to make it to the finish line. Finishing Western States – no matter how long it takes – is a tremendous accomplishment! Recognize that typically fewer than 25% of the folks toeing the starting line at Squaw Valley will finish the Run in less than 24 hours. If you do not typically finish in the top 25% of runners in other ultras, chances are you won’t here, either. Setting an unachievable goal for yourself is a recipe for disaster in something as difficult as running 100 miles. Your number one goal should be to simply finish.
The first half of the Run is mostly physical. The second half of the Run is mostly mental. If you spend the first half of the Run worrying about splits, who you are ahead of and who’s ahead of you, chances are you won’t have the mental energy it takes to get through the second half of the Run. Take the day as it comes and run your own race. Don’t let yourself get too caught up in competing for position in the first half of the Run. Instead, spend the first half of the race running well within your abilities, and concentrate on eating and drinking. You will be surprised how many runners you will pass later on. Experienced runners often say that the race really starts in Foresthill. Heed their advice.
Every year there are several runners who are unable to finish due to injury. Injuries can be separated into two categories, chronic and acute.
Chronic injuries are the most common form for distance runners. They are usually the result of overuse. Many runners will stubbornly stick to their training programs and try to “run through” the injury. Sometimes this works, often it does not. Among veteran runners, it is an axiom that it is better to show up at the starting line a little under-trained than it is to show up a little injured. Common runner injuries such as plantar fasciitis, patellar tendinitis, and iliotibial band syndrome are usually easier to deal with if aggressively treated in their infancy. Once they get well-established, they can be very persistent. It is better to take a few days off in April than to be hobbled at the starting line.
Acute injuries – ones that occur during the Run itself – are usually things such as sprained ankles and abrasions from falls. Check with the medical personnel at the next aid station; they will help you make the determination as to whether you are doing any permanent damage or not by continuing. If you are risking permanent damage by continuing, by all means stop! There’s always another day.
Altitude problems and/or snow
Even though the first 30 miles of Western States average about 7500 feet of elevation, few runners have significant problems with the altitude at Western States. Some runners may experience headaches, dizziness, or nausea in the early stages of the Run, but there have been relatively few reports of serious difficulty with the altitude. If you have a history of problems at elevations in the 7000 foot range, it would be a good idea to acclimatize at altitude for two weeks prior to the Run, if at all possible. For most participants, the worst thing that will happen is that the altitude will slow you down a little.
Snow in significant amounts is a relatively infrequent visitor to the Run. Since 1974, there have been seven years where snow has been a significant factor. Run management will keep you posted during the spring as to expected snow conditions for the Run. If it looks like it will be a significant snow year, it is a good idea to practice running in snow if you can. Even the alternative “snow courses” used in 2010 and 2011 had several miles of snow running. Running in snow is often treacherous; most runners will fall several times. Shoes with a very aggressive outer tread seem to work best. Also, runners will probably want to change shoes at Duncan Canyon; one of the effects of several hours of running in snow is that the mid-soles of your shoes will freeze and become rock hard, depriving you of the cushioning you will need once you get out of the snow.
Blisters. While blisters don’t account for many “dnf’s” they do cause a lot of runners problems. They can slow you down significantly and create a painful aftermath. You should expect that the trail grit and dust will permeate your shoes and socks – even if you wear trail gaiters. This, combined with wet feet from stream crossings and from your own sweat, is a perfect breeding ground for blisters. In your training, you should experiment with blister prevention techniques, such as putting Compeed® or duct tape on friction points, ointments such as vaseline or bag balm, frequent sock changes, etc. Many runners change shoes and socks at Robinson Flat (3 miles after Duncan Creek crossing) and at the far side of the Rucky Chucky River Crossing. You probably should plan to do the same, especially if you are blister-prone.
Beware of the chair! To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever finished Western States while sitting in a chair! If you must take a break at an aid station, allot yourself a modest amount of time (5 minutes) and then force yourself to get up and leave. The longer you sit there, the better it will feel, and the more likely you won’t leave the aid station. Some runners will even practice sitting for 5 minutes and then getting up and going on in their training runs. Focus on relentless forward motion. When you can, run. When you can’t run, walk. When you can’t walk, walk anyway.
Tapering. It is recommended that you include a tapering period prior to race day, to assure that you are well rested and not over-trained on race day. Most runners will start to taper their training two to three weeks prior to the Run. Typically, the penultimate week should have a total mileage not more than half of what you have been doing in the previous couple of months (i.e., if you have been running 60 miles per week, this week should not be more than 30.) In addition, your longest run should not be more than about two hours. The week of the Run itself, most runners like to do very little. Perhaps a 20 or 30 minute run or walk each day, just to burn off a little of the nervous energy that almost always precedes the Run.
Pre-hydration. It is not a good idea to consume large quantities of fluids in the days before the Run. Extra fluids simply get urinated away and over-drinking puts you at higher risk of hyponatremia. The concept of “cameling up” before a run has been completely debunked. All medical research now suggests that you simply drink when you are thirsty. It doesn’t get much simpler than this!
Mental preparation. Every runner has his or her own approach to getting mentally ready for a Run. We wouldn’t begin to tell you what might work for you or suggest that you change whatever your normal mental preparation might be. We only caution you to follow it. It is very easy to get caught up in all the excitement that surrounds Western States in the days immediately prior to the Run and get away from your normal mental preparation. Try not to get too caught up in this and risk losing your normal focus.
Mental approach during the Run. Most runners find it much easier to assimilate the concept of running 100 miles by breaking the Run into small segments. First, break the Run into maybe four large segments: the high country (start to Robinson Flat), the canyons (Robinson Flat to Michigan Bluff), the tough third quarter (Michigan Bluff to the River Crossing) and the victory stretch (River Crossing to the finish line). Develop a basic strategy for each section, such as:
- High Country: Stay relaxed, take it easy, focus on eating a lot.
- The Canyons: Float on the downhills, hike hard on the ups, don’t overheat, focus on staying hydrated in the afternoon heat.
- The Third Quarter: Don’t stop eating! Concentrate on working hard, focus on pushing through the pain. Get your game on: the race starts here.
- The Victory Stretch: Keep moving forward, beware of the chair, smell the barn!
Within each section, your mental focus should be on eating and drinking and making it from aid station to aid station. If you are at mile 60, running 40 more miles might well seem impossible. But surely you can make it another 3 or 4 miles to the next aid station. So focus on that instead. Constantly monitor your body and take the time to take care of any little problems before they become big problems. And don’t forget to have some fun, enjoy the scenery and the camaraderie of your fellow runners. After all, this is recreation!