Picking an “Easy” Hundred | February 15, 2013
Not that an ultrarunner would ever want to brag, but the fact is that once you’ve mentioned that you’ve run a hundred miles—yes, in one stretch—then not a whole lot more needs to be said. One hundred miles is such an awesome distance, such an awesome concept.
But then there are hundred milers and there are hundred milers. They’re not all built the same. Some hundred mile courses work hard to make you fail. They offer up steep ascents when you’re on your last leg, they scatter rocks everywhere so no step comes without a little extra effort, they knock you out with tight cutoffs, or alternately fry or freeze you to death. But then there are other courses that seem to ease you on down the road. When you need a break, they provide a long gentle downhill. Their trails are smooth as glass. They feed you well, bring you in for a rest when you are weary, and aren’t too fussy about how long you take. We’ll call this type of course an “easy” hundred, though that term is decidedly relative.
Picking an “easy” hundred for your first time out of the box will set you up for success. Then, once you’ve dealt with the sheer distance of the race, you can set your sights on more difficult races with some experience under your belt. What makes a course easy? Not surprisingly, mountains increase the difficulty of a course. Mountainous courses tend to feature lots of elevation change, and with every thousand feet of elevation, you lose a percentage of your running capacity. Mountain trails also tend toward the steep and rocky. Smooth trails and roads that change elevation only gradually encourage you to keep chugging along.
Loop courses can be more manageable than point to point courses. A typical loop course often returns you to a big supportive start/finish aid station where you can rest, regroup and get off to a fresh start. Loop courses also reduce the chance of getting lost since you’re traveling familiar ground later in the race as opposed to always facing new territory, especially when night falls. A race with moderate temperatures also keeps you from having to deal with high temperatures, which increase the risk of dehydration, and freezing temperatures, which can quickly sap your resolve to continue if you’re not well prepared for the cold.
The Javelina Jundred staged in the McDowell Mountain Regional Park on the Pemberton Trail near Phoenix, Arizona, is a good example of a 100 mile race that encourages success. It is a 16.5 mile loop course with a tremendous start/finish aid station and two other aid stations that break the loop up into approximately three 5-mile segments. The loops are done washing machine style, that is, alternating clockwise and counter clockwise directions, so you are constantly meeting all the other runners in the race and getting a boost from seeing others struggle along with you. The trails are mostly flat and smooth, and the elevation change consists of about five miles of gentle uphill, five miles of gentle rolling terrain, and then five miles of gentle downhill. “Gentle” is the watch word. And even though the race location is in a classic exposed desert region, the late October race date makes for mild temperatures day and night. If you have to run a hundred miles, the Javelina Jundred is the place to do it.
Kansas offers two good choices for first time 100s: the well-established Heartland 100, an out and back course through the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, and the brand new Prairie Spirit Trail 100, a rails-to-trails out and back course also in the eastern part of the state that begins in Ottawa, Kansas. The Heartland course is not exactly flat as “Flint Hills” implies. You might also encounter some Kansas “mountains,” that is stiff headwinds that make the going tough, but for the most part the trails and roads are in good shape and elevation change is moderate and gradual. The prairie is a peaceful zen-like place to run and the wide open, star-filled sky at night is awe inspiring.
The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in North Carolina specifically bills itself as a stepping stone between the 50 and 100 mile distance, and it pops up on the list of easier 100 mile races on surveys that use finish times to rank the difficulty of ultras. Others 100 milers that rank as comparatively easy on the same list include Rocky Raccoon in Texas, the KEYS100 and Iron Horse in Florida, Lean Horse in South Dakota, and the Vermont 100.
Of course, no 100 mile run is going to be easy, or even doable, without proper preparation and execution. Don’t make the mistake of undertraining because you think the race will be a snap. Rather, train like you were on your way to Hardrock, Wasatch Front, or Massanutten. The “easy” part happens when you are well trained and you do all the right things. Pace yourself like you were in a hundred, not a 50K. Maintain the eating and drinking for the long haul. Make sure you have the right clothes and good lights with reliable backups. And perhaps most important, work on your mental toughness. At some point in a hundred mile run, almost everybody feels the urge to quit. Be ready for that moment. Practice staying positive and getting determined when the going gets rough.
Finishing a hundred mile run just seems like the natural culmination of all the training, all the sweat, all the Sturm und Drang that we put ourselves through as ultrarunners. Pick an “easy” hundred for your first attempt to give yourself the best possible chance of putting that first hundred mile finish in your rearview mirror. Once it’s back there, no one can take it away.