My first 100 mile ultra and how to plan for one

Last updated: 23-Aug-18

By Andy Mouncey

My first 100 damn near killed me and my marriage. Western States – read the full match report here! – I knew I was hideously under-prepared physically, even today I can still barely get my head around the level of blissful ignorance I’d adopted, but I figured I’d have enough of the stubborn skills to get me across the line.

I was right and I was right.

But it was flippin’ close. I was a walking corpse at the end, and the planned holiday that Mrs Mouncey had been so looking forward to afterwards was ruined.

So here’s the first tip: DON’T arrange to spend days with your loved one exploring a jaw-dropping National Park immediately after your first 100 mile race that you’ve traveled thousands of miles for and spent loads of cash on.

Lower your sights. Can you do stairs? Feel like dancing? Hey – you’re on fire, dude! Well, either that or you’ve not raced hard enough…

So because I’m nice and lovely and want you to remember your first 100 for (mostly) the right reasons, here’s some stuff to get you to the start line healthy and the finish line in one piece (mostly).

‘Cos you gotta do one. A 100, that is.

It’s the magical distance and here’s the good news. You don’t have to be a running racing snake before you think you’ve earned the right to even contemplate doing one. Granted, there will be some running required but much less than you might think. Other stuff is WAY more important.


15 min to the start of my first 100: Western States 2005 and I have no idea… Photo credit: Charlotte Mouncey.

It’s Gotta Grab You

Right from the off there is something you can do that will load the dice in favor of you being successful. Firstly, choose an event that inspires you.

‘Cos if you’re going to put all this time in to cover all this distance the least you can do is do it in an environment that sparks you up in a location that you’ve always wanted to explore. For me that’s not 18 x 10k flat laps round a racehorse circuit on the edge of an industrial conurbation. But we’re all wired differently, right?

It’s not about the distance


One Hundred Miles: But It’s Not About The Distance

Except that in my experience most runners stepping up to 100 think it’s all about the distance. Don’t get me wrong, the distance is what defines this sport. We are captivated by tales of people covering huge distances over big terrain at incredible speeds and what they go through to get to the finish line. But for me, the distance on its own is not the issue.

Here’s what I think:

  • I think that anyone can stop reading this right now and head out and cover 100 miles.
  • If you’re motivated enough, that is.
  • And you leave a note that you’re going out and you might be some time.

Now there’s also a bunch of stuff around self-management, and you will need to be able to practice the skills of perseverance but the good news is that these can be learned.

If you did head out here’s what I think would happen:

  • Some of you would take far longer than others.
  • Some of you would be in a box at the end.
  • And some of you would take an age to recover the desire to do any weight-bearing activity again.
  • And if you were motivated and smart enough – I think you’d all get there. Eventually.

Leading Ladies

So if it really isn’t about the distance, why is it normal that so many people fail to finish the big stuff? And that proportionally more men will fail to finish than women? And as the length and degree of difficulty increase the leading ladies finish closer to the leading men and will, on occasion, win outright?

Some of the bigger mountain races have a start to finish ratio of around 2:1. That’s right, one out of two people will not reach the finish line. And while some of them will have genuine physical problems, most will DNF for mental and emotional reasons because Performance Is Emotional and the key to that is managing how we feel.

Heed The Signs

If we take the assertion above then there’s clearly something about focus, desire and managing mood – and you all know the food-mood link, don’t you. Yet there also comes a point in big ultras where no amount of Jedi mind tricks will keep you moving. Right at the extreme end of prolonged exertion the brain, charged as it is with self-preservation and maintaining homeostasis, will simply press the reset button and shut the body down. So on that basis there clearly is something physiological as well. What does this mean?

Look after your basics and pay attention to the warning lights. All the damn time.

It’s A Contact Sport

And then there’s the business end: Feet.

There’s no shortage of pictures in books, magazines and online of mashed and trashed extremities, usually accompanied by screaming and crying by the owner, and often by a DNF. Rushing off in the first quarter increases your chances of problems later on and it’s your feet that will take a disproportionate pounding. So there’s clearly something about foot care and shoe choice as well. Also pace control at the start. Except for the big distances we can widen the chafing and rubbing sites to include hands, shoulders, hips and back, the culprits being backpack straps and pole handles. So think ‘Contact Points’ and keep ‘em intact.

So If It’s Not About The Distance – What IS It About The Distance?

What big distance does is introduce the Compound and Cumulative effect.

In other words, it’s never just one thing happening at just one time. There’s usually lots of things happening at the same time over and over again that will keep happening all the way till the finish. Stuff that can be ignored or cut short over the shorter distances can’t be ignored over the longer distance: That little hotspot on your foot could well develop into a raw, bleeding mess if you keep pounding and it will be a problem all race long unless you stop and deal with it in the early stages.

The little stuff is always easier to deal with than the big stuff and one way of keeping it little is to take action early. To do that means having your wits about you, paying attention, have good personal organisation and be On Task. Which of course is significantly easier to do in the early stages of a race when the effort is easy and the happy tank is full.

As the race goes on more effort is required to keep putting one foot in front of the other which means less energy is available for anything else. Throw in some bad weather, a night of missed sleep and even vague competitive inclinations and suddenly what was a simple action at mile 10 becomes a problem of seemingly insurmountable proportions 8, 10 or 20 hours later.

So the distance on it’s own is not the issue.

What the distance does is extend the playing time, which means that little stuff will build to big stuff and one thing will get added to by another, and another and another. Think spinning plates for which there’s only ever one outcome: One of them will fall…

Big Distance = Bigger Cumulative Effect
…and Bigger Consequences if we get it wrong.

One Hundred Miles: What That Means For Your Training

As ever, you should choose workouts that help you make the transition from where you are now to where you want to be. That means being clear about what is different about a ‘100’ because THAT is where you should put the time in.

I think that challenge has the three key parts that I’ve listed below, no doubt you can think of others. Because I’m lovely I’ve also set down examples of how a key workout progression for each could look:

1. It’s Longer

Key Workout: Back To Back* Time On Feet (TOF) & TOF When Tired

But how long is long enough in training?

I have no idea, I still can’t find any definitive research and I reckon anyone who thinks they have the definitive idea is a purveyor of one of those mysterious alternative-fact things.

So here’s some considerations to narrow down how long is long enough for you:

Spending Time On Feet (TOF) for extended periods whether walking or running is important for:

  • Developing the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen efficiently
  • Developing the body’s ability to become fuel-efficient
  • Testing shoe and sock combinations
  • Toughening the feet
  • Testing the other body part contact areas (underarm, groin, and contact points with a bumbag or rucksack) prone to friction and chafing
  • Testing fuelling strategies
  • Learning how to manage mood
  • Learning how to be self-sufficient

All of which means there are lots of reasons to go long so it should be a key part of your training.

A Bottom Line

We get really good at what we spend most time doing.

This is The Training Effect. So it follows that to get really good at running we should run. Lots. Shouldn’t we?

Exactly how much is governed by:

  • What we want to do (the race, the goals)
  • Where we are starting from (our background)
  • What we can realistically commit to (how big a stretch it is)
  • What we can practically do (the real life bit)
  • What state – physically, mentally, emotionally – we are prepared to finish in (and how long we are prepared to spend recovering)

Studies of top endurance athletes compiled by Noakes in The Lore Of Running (2001) lead him to conclude that one of the key factors for success in running is indeed to do just that: Run. Lots. Consistently.

For us mere mortals I think that translates into as often and as consistently as possible given the factors above.

Key Workout: Back To Back* Time On Feet (TOF) & TOF When Tired

*Two workouts close together.

This can be same day as early-late or on two consecutive days as you can make fit. The challenge is to get out on tired legs for the second time. I’ve assumed you have a life/full time job/family and that half a day at a time is as much as you can have to play. B2B workouts are therefore great use of limited time and challenge you to leave an oasis of comfort for another stint on tired legs – just like the race will.

TOF is your choice of run-jog-hike-walk combination: Pace is unimportant – forward progress is. The second session should be more about purposeful hiking. You can run smooth on the downhills as well but if you can/feel like running for short periods on the flat that’s all a bonus and NOT a requirement.

Embrace your hiking. Lots of runners think it’s about running: It ain’t – it’s about forward momentum. If you can hike along comfortably at 4-5kph then you can give yourself a break from running AND still keep a very respectable average speed. But you gotta practice.

There are variations you can use with the B2B format vary the time between sessions, limit re-fueling, use a loaded pack for one outing,  and go daytime to night time. But this is your first 100 and we’re going to keep it simple for now.

Six Week Progression

  Wk 1 Wk 2 Wk 3 Wk 4 Wk 5 Wk 6
TOF (hrs) 2 3 2 4 4 5
Hike (hrs) 2 2 3 3 4 4

2. It’s Darker


Key Workout: Night Time

You will need to be comfortable in the dark stuff. It is a different skill set for a different sensory experience. Many of your usual indictors of progress will be missing – the view ahead, for example. Learning to relax and enjoy the beauty and challenges of running at night can transform your experience.

Simple To Start
Start on familiar territory with friends in good weather where the underfoot conditions are easy and you can still find your way with a good light. Full moon nights under clear skies make it magical and can be almost torch-free. Then go solo on familiar ground in good weather and keep progressing till you are happy(ish) solo on unfamiliar ground in crappy weather.

Light Me Up
Get a good light. Minimalist is fine but first and foremost you want to see where you are going. A diffuse beam option will give you a wide broad light that can be easier to run under than a bright narrow focus beam. Any other gizmos and features are personal choice and a function on how much you want to spend – just test it for ‘faff factor’ and discard if it scores. Your choice should be simple, easy and comfortable to use, and do the job – and with torch technology these days you can get great kit for increasingly less money. Check out our head torch review for ideas. 

Back Up
You should have your main headtorch, a spare (minimal) headtorch, and spare batteries for your main one. If your main one fails you still need to be able to see if you want to change batteries. You keep your spare torch handy in a pocket or similar. Oh and the batteries? Rechargable.

Making The Transition
Dusk can be the most tricky time. As the light fades your eyes are making continual adjustment and your depth perception in particular will vary. This is a time to slow down, relax and allow body and mind to make the adjustments in time with the changing conditions.

Remember The View Rule
Stop – look at the view/listen to the silence – then start running again. Attempting both simultaneously just results in stubbed toes at best.

Six Week Progression

Click on the table to download the plan.


3. It’s Crucial To Control Your Early Pace


Key Workout: Out & Back With Negative Split

This is a workout of two halves on an out-and-back linear route where the return leg is faster than the outward leg by just a few minutes. You can put a few minutes rest at the turnaround if you wish.

A well-conditioned runner with excellent pace judgment will run the out leg at around tempo pace, have a minute at the turnaround, then come back building to threshold effort finishing 30-60 seconds faster. That’s an aspirational position. Just focus on starting slower that you think you should, stay on task and build through the workout.

Six Week Progression

Click on the table to download the plan.


Some Other Stuff

Test Races

Now most people pin on the number, get their head down and ‘go’. Nothing wrong with that at all – and you can also use races to test a specific strategy and build confidence about your ability to cope with a specific scenario. Here are two that will stand you in good stead:

1. Start Slow
A slower-than-you-think-you-should start is almost essential to being able to hold even pace throughout. And even pacing is a rare thing indeed over the big distances even at top level. There’s nothing like a slow jog-walk first mile or so from the back of the field watching most people stream away from you as an exercise in self-discipline and reassurance about how many folks – usually blokes – will start too fast.

Be warned: Even Pace is not Even Effort. Even pace should feel like a walk in the park for the first third; the middle third will have you still in control but having to be ‘on task’ – while the final third will feel pretty much like a threshold-level effort.

2. Start Tired
This one’s easy: Just have a full-on week at work, little sleep with a new baby, or train your butt off for a few days beforehand so you stand on the start line yawning with legs of lead. Your goal is just to finish the thing – even if most of that is at a hike. Great practice for dragging your ass out of a checkpoint (again) in the final quarter of your 100. This time you are deliberately using the ‘pay-entry-fee-pin-number-on-people-around-me’ thing as leverage: You are far more likely to see it through than relying on your own motivation for your own solo outing.

If It’s A Faff You’ll Forget It

Your first 100 is more likely to be a positive experience if you can make it as faff-free as possible.
‘Cos if it’s a faff you’ll forget it – especially in the latter stages of the race.

That means having your personal organization nailed and THAT means you practice and rehearse as part of your training. The specifics of your routine will be the combination of your personal preferences, kit choices, strengths, aspirations and answers to questions such as these:

  • If my hands are full of trekking poles how does that limit what I can do?
  • How can I keep race route details dry and easy to reach?
  • If my GPS fails what’s my backup?
  • Can I reach my snacks with one hand and without looking?
  • Is my blister kit accessible?
  • How do I remind myself to eat and drink regularly?
  • Is this different at night or in bad weather?

Pack your race pack with the stuff you plan to use and use it during key training sessions. Test and test again till you have the best location of these in your pack / around your person so you can do the simple but vital ‘keep-me-happy’ tasks almost without thinking.

Reach The Start Line Healthy

I think the hardest part of a first 100 is to manage to stand on the start line healthy and with a clear head. Nerves will no doubt be trying to crash the party, but nerves just mean it’s special – you should be there, ‘cos this IS what you’ve prepared for. Right?

No niggles.
No training hangovers.
No divided loyalties.

To do this you have to do the usual smart recuperation stuff and three things that most people won’t be doing. Here are three examples:

1. Put Your Downtime In First
The first thing that goes into your training plan is your time off, your breaks, your easy periods, your contrast activities, your time when you prioritize family, friends, work. You do it at the start ‘cos the down time is where the improvement will come, and you do it at the start ‘cos when stuff’s going well it’s easy to want to keep going – till you break.

2. Build In Blocks
Give yourself a block of time to strengthen a weakness or develop a strength rather than trying to fit lots of different types of workouts into say, one week. So you could have a 10-21 day block working on hiking strength. This means you’re more likely to experience improvement from a dedicated focus and less likely to suffer injury from lots of contrasting training stimuli.

3. Watch The Traffic Lights
This is a simple retrospective monitoring tool from US physical therapist and ultrarunner Joe Uhan. You need three highlighter pens red, yellow, green and your training diary. (You do keep a diary don’t you?) Go back 3,4 6 weeks in your diary and mark the days and/or workouts as follows:

Green: Goals achieved, flying, a good day.
Yellow: Average, nothing special, going through motions.
Red: Workout aborted, cut short, felt like going nowhere.

If you find a majority of red and yellow days/workouts then Houston, you have a problem – and if you haven’t already done so you are heading for a crash!

In Summary

It ain’t about the distance and it ain’t about the running. You see all shapes and sizes on a 100 start line and if you looked inside you would see all manner of training histories and motivations as well. Train to hike, be organized and remember it’s a contact sport. Most people will start too fast and the ladies do proportionally better. Do it in a place that inspires you – and do it. Because you’re probably closer than you think.

Who Is Andy Mouncey?
Andy is author of ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’. He runs long for fun and coaches for a living. He lives with his family in North Yorkshire, UK.


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