Why I want to run a HUNDRED MILESSun, 21st Jun '09, 1:15 pm::
Yesterday, I ran the longest distance I ever have in my entire life - 35 miles (56 kms) in a little under 11 hours. To train for the 100 mile Grand Teton Ultramarathon in September, I have been running 20+ miles every Saturday for over a month now. Most people I know run considerably faster than me though they can only run 3-10 miles at most. While millions of people run marathons each year, very few run distances beyond 50 miles. Ultrarunning, or running further than the 26.2 miles of a marathon, is a whole different experience and requires a unique set of training, capabilities, and strategies. Since many of my friends and family have been asking me about the experience, I'll post an FAQ of everything I've learned in the past few months.
Q: Um, why are you trying to run ONE HUNDRED MILES?!
Because I suck at running. In fact, I run so slow that last weekend during a 3.3 mile Adventure Run, I finished 321st out of 331 runners. I was slower than 97% of the Marine Corps Marathon finishers in 2004 and the fastest mile I've ever ran was a little over 10 minutes. Most people who can run a mile, can run it in under 8 minutes easily. I can't. However, just because you suck at something doesn't mean you give up. Instead, you do it as much as you can. So while I can't run faster, I try to run further. Three months ago when I thought about running 100 miles, it seemed like an impossible goal and it seems even harder today because now I actually know how difficult it is to run for half a day non-stop. I want to run because I feel it's something I just can't do and wasn't made to do. Proving myself wrong is my favorite hobby. Running, kayaking, or sailing are just the means.
Q: Can anyone run 100 miles? Don't you need to be in peak physical condition to run that far?
If you can run 10 miles, you can run 10 miles, 10 times. However, you can only run 100 miles if you train right. You don't have to be in great physical condition and I'll be the first one to confess that I'm not. You do have to spend a lot of hours actually running though. Most people don't have that kind of time, energy, or desire.
Q: Do you think you will run 100 miles successfully?
I don't know. I try not to think about the result. I believe there are three steps to every bold ambition. First, is to have the drive and courage to dream big. Second, is preparation - putting in the time and effort to reach the goal. And third is the result - crossing the finishing line. No matter what the goal, we have control over the first two. I signed up for a 100 mile race and I am putting myself through the gruelling training. I don't know if I will finish or not because anything can happen before or during the race. I want to start the race knowing that I prepared to the best of my abilities.
Q: How long will you take to run 100 miles?
As per the race rules, the 100 miles must be completed within a span of 36 hours. That's a pace of 2.8 miles per hour or 21 minutes per mile. I am hoping to finish in about 30 hours, with an average of 18 minutes per mile. I don't intend to sleep and hopefully will not stop for more than a few minutes per aid station. My comfortable long-distance pace is 15 minutes per mile so an upper limit of 18 minutes per mile is quite conservative.
Q: How does a person run non-stop for so long?
Running for 30+ hours non-stop means your body has to be able to do its normal functions without any interruptions. So breathing, digesting, growing hair and beard, healing wounds, fighting diseases and allergies, everything must go on continuously the whole time. The goal for me is to make my body feel relaxed like it is sitting on the sofa watching TV the whole time I am running up and down mountains. And there is only one way to do that - run long distances without stressing my body out and get my body used to it. If I am exhausted after running 25 miles, I cannot run the other 75 miles easily. But if I ran 25 miles as if it was just a minor jog, I will be much more capable of running another 25 and then another 25.
Marathon runners train very differently than ultramarathoners. They aim for speed and strength. They push their body to the limit from the first mile right until they cross the finishing line. Ultramarathoners are in no hurry to get anywhere. The saying goes that "the secret to running an ultramarathon is to start slow and then slow down." Often many good marathoners fail to finish ultras because they push themselves too hard early on.
I am incapable of running fast so I don't have much of a problem with this. I just have to make sure I don't slow down too much. I jog at a speed that feels natural and comfortable to me though it's such a slow pace that people walk right past me! However, it is a pace that I have learned to maintain. I can keep moving at that pace as if I am sitting on the sofa watching TV. When most people want to get in shape and start running, they try to run too fast too soon and end up getting side stitch (sharp pain on the sides) or worse, injure themselves. The trick is to just run slower and further. You will burn a lot more calories if you can run three more miles a day than run 10% faster.
Q: How fit are you?
Not that fit. At 5'8" tall, currently weighing 177 lbs (80 kgs), I am technically overweight with a BMI of 27. I still have a relatively high body-fat ratio (18%) and don't look muscular or skinny. I am just like your average computer programmer in every shape and form.
I did lose about 15 lbs (7 kgs) in the first two months of training but haven't lost any weight since. I actually gain a few pounds every weekend because I like to eat a lot during my long runs. I can't bench-press much nor can I lift a lot of weight. Truth be told, I don't act, look, or feel like a guy who just ran 35 miles.
Q: So then how did you run 35 miles?
By not stopping when I wanted to and stopping when I had to. Ultrarunning is 99% mental and 1% MENTAL. The body is never in control and the mind must never lose control. I had been mentally preparing myself for a 40 mile run for over two weeks. I expected to run 40 miles in 12 hours after running 20 miles in 6 hours multiple times. This is the same pace I expect to maintain for my race. From the first mile early yesterday morning till the last mile at sunset, I kept a running inventory of all of my body parts and the condition they were in. It's like a video game where you keep an eye on all your soldiers, ammo, and equipment and make sure they are all taken care of for optimal performance.
Just because my feet hurt, doesn't mean I stop. Barely into the second mile, my left foot sent a message to the brain, "I'm in pain! Stop!" Had my brain listened to it, I would have run a total of 1.2 miles yesterday. Instead, my brain ran an analysis on the left foot's real-time condition and came to the conclusion that though the left foot is indeed in pain, it is stable, not on the verge of breakdown, and in no way severely in pain. So I kept running.
Over the course of the next 23 miles (8 hours), the temperature (feels like) rose from 83F (28C) to over 108F (42C) with humidity hovering at 65%. My feet, legs, arms, shoulders were all in pain but it was bearable. However, my brain decided it was too hot to continue at a good pace in this heat so I went home and relaxed for two hours in the shade. Once the temperature outside fell, I ran another 12 miles in 3 hours. At the slow pace I was going right before I stopped, I couldn't have completed 12 miles in 5 hours. My body was completely cool with pushing forward but my brain thought better. Stopping actually made me go faster. Had it not been for the high temperature earlier in the day, I could have easily gone 40 miles non-stop but there is no point in running 40 this week in blistering weather and being sick for the next month because of it.
Q: All of the above sounds horrible! Will your race be like this?
Trust me, the above felt much more horrible in person. Hopefully, the race will be quite different. I live in Florida at an altitude of 20 feet and this has been an excruciatingly hot summer. The race is in the Grand Teton area in Wyoming at 8,000 feet altitude with average daytime high of 70F (21C) and nighttime low of 40F (4C). Instead of this heat, I will actually be bundling up for most of the run. However, that also means running with more gear and dealing with low-oxygen at high altitudes.
I am planning to arrive at the race venue 4-5 days ahead of the race so my body can get acclimated to the altitude. After I donated blood a month ago, I had a first-hand experience of trying to run with 20% lower oxygen in my bloodstream. It's not going to be easy but I think I can manage, especially if I can stand to run in 108F heat. The other challenge is that the race will go up mountain peaks and down canyons while Florida is pretty flat. That's where gym training helps. I've been doing Stair Master and Elliptical machines at the gym for 2-3 hour durations at moderate speed to build my leg muscles up. Also I cross a lot of pedestrian bridges during my long runs and that gives me some training with steep inclines.
In reality, nothing can prepare me for the race as well as training on the actual race course. Since I work and live in Florida and Wyoming is a four-hour flight away from me, I just have to do whatever I can.
Q: What do you eat/drink these days? What about during the runs?
I have a pretty healthy vegetarian diet and have started to eat a little more protein than I am used to. I've been a vegetarian since birth in India and don't see any reason to change. I eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, drink tons of V8 V-Fusion, and avoid fatty or high-carb foods. Unlike runners who bulk up on high-carb foods right before a marathon, ultrarunners eat steadily throughout the runs.
Yesterday, I ate two foot-long veggie sub-sandwiches over the course of 11 hours. I eat one Powerbar Gel every 30-45 minutes. I drink water constantly (one sip every 15-60 seconds). I have a hydration pack that I fill up with Gatorade and sip it every 2-3 minutes. Sometimes I feel like I run solely to justify my hedonistic appetite for sugar. Of course, eating and drinking so much also means I have to take more bathroom breaks than normal but that is a good thing because it is clear evidence that my body is functioning properly and not shutting down or falling into starvation mode.
Q: Aren't you afraid of collapsing from heat strokes or worse?
Of course, I'm worried about heat strokes and thousands of other things that can go wrong during a long run. That's why I constantly check my heart rate, temperature, vision, balance, breathing, sweat-rate/salt-loss, fluid-intake, and skin irritation. One of the key lessons I have learned from my training is that nearly every bad condition is avoidable if detected early enough. A stitch in time saves nine is nowhere truer than in endurance activities like ultra-races.
If I so much as feel a pinch in any of my toes, I stop, adjust my shoes, socks, and insoles till everything feels right, and then continue. The mindset during a marathon is to continue non-stop at any cost. That's great when you have to run for another 2-3 hours but completely breaks down when you have 28 hours to go. It was actually pretty tough for me to change my mind about this because I constantly feel like I am slowing down my pace if I stop. Turns out, over the course of 11 hours, I only stopped for about 14 minutes total for the various adjustments to my shoes, socks, hydration pack, shorts, hat, headband, and water bottle. Failing to adjust any of these could have caused me to lose balance and fall, get blisters or skin abrasions, or in case of hat, headband, and water bottle, get a heat-stroke and pass out.
The most fun I had yesterday was stopping at every mile or so, filling up my bottle at a water fountain, and drenching my entire body in cool water over and over. It took only about 45-60 seconds but I gained that by running considerably faster. As a side-benefit, I avoided heat strokes and didn't collapse from exhaustion.
Q: Does the kind of gear you have matter? Won't any pair of shoes and water-bottle do?
The right gear is extremely critical! Every little piece of gear on your body will rub up against your skin constantly and drive you crazy. On some of my runs, I have desperately longed for a piece of string or rubber-band so I could keep some part of my shoe lace or hydration pack strap from moving in an annoying way. Whatever you choose, it has to be extremely comfortable and durable. This doesn't mean I spent $500 for a water-bottle but it does mean that I tried four $7 bottles till I found one that I liked and that worked well. Same with shoes, headband, and I'm afraid hydration pack. The one I have leaked during my run, causing a liter of Gatorade to flow down my shirt, shorts, and feet into my shoes and socks, making my blisters worse. I didn't even realize it till I got home for my break because my entire body was drenched by water and sweat. These are the kind of things that happen 7.5 hours into a run.
Q: Other than your long runs, what else do you need to do?
I have a pretty busy work week and have classes/homework couple of weeknights so my exercise regimen during the week isn't too intense. I try to mix in different activities to make sure I don't just exercise my feet. I swim an hour or two a week and train on Stair Master and Elliptical. I don't like running on the treadmill and prefer to train my calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads with targeted exercises. I do some weight training with low weights and sets of 100-300 lifts. I also stretch a lot on days I feel too lazy to go to the gym. And at least twice a week I go running in the morning for 2-6 miles. The funny thing is that my long runs have trained me so well that I can recover from two hours of Stair Master within minutes.
Q: What does your wife have to say about all of this?
She knew I was a determined guy with odd ambitions before she married me so she has learned to just live with all of this. She fully supports me in all of my goals, as non-conventional they may be. She is in medical school to be a PA and studies take up most of her weekend hours. I use the same hours to train for my long runs so it works out quite well. She also makes my life much easier by buying most of my running gear and supplies for me. Oh and she picks me up when I decide that 108F is too hot to run and I'm four miles away from home. I don't think I give her enough credit for it but she's extremely supportive of my training though she keeps mentioning every now and then that I'm stupid for putting myself through this mess. Due to her school schedule, I doubt she'll be able to come to Wyoming for my race but if my weekend runs are any indication, I know I will be thinking of her every mile (mostly hoping that she'll come pick me up and take me home already.)