Mind the Woods Trolls—A Reasonable Runner’s Guide to Finishing Your First Ultra

2019 Kettle Moraine 100

Five surprisingly useful tips you’ll only hear from a non-pro.

By Moriel Rothman-Zecher Oct 9, 2019

100 miles is a lot of miles to run.

Fortunately, if you google “how to run 100 miles,” you will find a lot of useful, sophisticated tips and guidelines by professional runners and coaches. I am not a professional runner. These tips probably shouldn’t be categorized as sophisticated, but they did get me through my first 100 at the Kettle Moraine Endurance Runs. Really, that might make them more useful, because again, I’m not a professional runner. I’m a dad. I chug Coke mid-race. And I tend to hallucinate in the woods (it helps).

1. Find a training partner who is also an infant.

So, unless you’re Zach Bitter or Camille Herron, or are planning to run your first 100 in Reykjavik during summer solstice, chances are that a good chunk of your race will be run at night. This means that you will likely be sleep-deprived, bleary, and bushes may start to look like squatting woods-trolls. I’ve heard that some runners address this in their training by doing a bunch of night runs, which sounds unpleasant. Lucky for me, I had a shortcut. Three months before I started training for my first 100, my daughter was born. This angelic little howler made sure, as my training cycle progressed, that I never ran on a full night’s sleep. (Hello, Mr. Bush Troll).

An additional benefit here is the cross-training. During a 100, you’ll engage parts of your body in ways you’ve probably never done before, so it’s a good to strengthen a variety of muscles in advance of your race. For me, weightlifting and burpees were subbed out by baby-lifting and burping, rock climbing replaced by rocking back to sleep, pushups by pushed-strollers, strategic fartlekking by strategic fart-listening (Do we have to change our 76th diaper of the night, or can we sleep for another 8 minutes?). You get the point.

If you don’t happen to have an infant on hand, you could always adopt a whole litter of puppies. Or a Chia Pet somehow hooked up to a bullhorn. Or just go ahead and do those night runs.

2. Find a training partner who is also a two-time Badwater finisher.

In addition to the aforementioned nonsleep-training partner, I strongly recommend doing at least some of your runs with a training partner who has run 135 miles through Death Valley on the hottest day of the year. Twice. In my case, this was Jay, who I met in the woods running one morning. After exchanging details about our planned runs, he asked me to extract a loose ear-bud from his ear-drum with an ear-stick (which, for the curious, is just a regular stick). Operation successful, we finished our morning runs together, and soon started doing most of our weekly long runs together, and eventually weekly back-to-back long runs. Every time I’d feel tired, say, 15 miles into a run through the slightly bumpy footpaths of the southwestern Ohio woods, I’d think about my present company trying to make sure he stayed on the yellow line in the middle of the road so that his shoes didn’t melt on the asphalt, running in heat so severe I’ve heard it described as “similar to that feeling when you open an oven set to 400 degrees,” for, you know, 120 miles longer than we’d just run. And then, all of a sudden, I wouldn’t feel quite as tired anymore.

Of course, your training partner doesn’t actually have to have finished Badwater (twice!?!). They just have to be tougher than you are.

3. Find a jar of pickle juice and chug.

Most 100-mile training plans will tell you to make sure to practice eating, in training, the foods you plan to eat on race day. And indeed, for the first 37 miles of my 100, I managed to stick to my strict regimen of ingested 100-125 calories every half hour in the form of Salted Caramel GUs, Maple Sea Salt RX Bars, Honey Stinger waffles, and Spring Energy ElectroRide, pow, blam, zop, UltraFood, et cetera. And that went great. Until mile 38, when I couldn’t swallow another bite or swallow of any of the aforementioned delicacies, and my stomach began to seize up like there was a miniature woods-troll implanted therein, squeezing at my stomach lining and neighboring organs with all of his stumpy might.

Not a nice feeling.

Fortunately for me, the race directors and volunteers at the Kettle Moraine 100 had been doing this longer than I had, and when I stumbled miserably into the 40-something-mile aid station, I was offered a cup of pickle juice.

Would that I could write a psalm or sonnet about pickle juice.

Pickle juice!

Shall I compare thee to a sweet milkshake?

Thou art more lovely and more tasty, at least at mile 40-something.

For whatever scientific or mystical reason, within five minutes, almost all of my stomach cramping had cleared, and I was able to run and to eat again. I made the decision, then, to go with my gut, quite literally, and spent the rest of the day (and night) eating bagel bites, watermelon, veggie soup, bean burritos, and downing obscene quantities of Coca Cola. Should I have trained with a jar of pickle juice in hand? Perhaps. Or maybe we just need to make peace with the fact that over the course of 100 miles of running, one cannot plan for things to go as planned.

4. Find a big package of bite-size candy bars and meditate on their significance.

Okay, so this metaphor is going to be a bit of a stretch, but I think this is actually the most genuinely useful piece of advice I have to offer. A few years ago, Karl Meltzer set the fastest known time on Appalachian Trail fueled by beer and candy bars. But most of us are nothing like Karl Meltzer, and this tip actually has little to do with his AT record, other than that I love that fact about his diet and wanted to sneak it in here somewhere. This tip has to do with the concept of “bite size.”

When you run 100 miles, you should make sure to spend as little time possible thinking about the fact that you are running 100 miles. In other words, if, at mile 22, you feel tired, and you think, “I’m tired and I’ve got 78 more miles to go,” yikes. Not good. But if, at mile 22, you feel tired, and think, “I’m tired, but I’ve only got 2.6 miles to go to the next aid station,” (where I’ll get to drink some pickle juice? Or at least get a smile and a high five from a volunteer), that seems doable. You’re an ultrarunner, after all. You can always run another 2.6 miles. Same goes for mile 43, and mile 71, and mile 86. Break it up into bite-size sized pieces, and your chances of finishing the race skyrocket.

Sounds strange, because of course, on some level, your brain knows that you’re trying to run 100 miles. You’ve been training for this for months and months, maybe years. But your brain’s ability to trick your brain is phenomenal, and critical. Perhaps more phenomenal and more critical, even, than any bodily feat required to run 100 miles.

When I stumbled into the 62-mile turnaround, just before 8:00 PM, I felt my mind starting to slip into panic mode. I was arguably more tired than I’ve ever been, and had unarguably just run farther than I ever had. . . and I had another middle-of-the-night trail marathon and a half to go. Possible? No way. Impossible. Maybe I should just stop here. But I caught hold of my mind just before it spiraled down this fluffy, downy, warm, soothing, beckoning rabbit hole that ends in a DNF. So, I sat down. Changed my socks. Asked a volunteer at the aid station for a cup of coffee. Brushed my teeth. Put on a new shirt. Nodded to Jay, who had flown to Wisconsin to pace me from mile 62 until the end, and I said, “Hey, look at this, we’re just starting another weekend run together. How’s it going, man? I’m feeling great.” And we set off, as the sun set, with just a few miles to go until the next aid station.

Bite size. You can always run another few miles. And though I’ve never tried it, I am confident it’d be easier to eat an entire package of bite-size candy bars than to eat one super-long candy bar. Not that I recommend doing either. (Although after your 100, you may want to. Or you may never want to look at anything sweet ever again, your teeth rotting from having just imbibed ~62 liters of Coca Cola (and pickle juice).)

5. Laugh throughout the process.

Running 100 miles is something you have to prepare for seriously, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be serious the whole time you prepare, or while you race.

Because let’s face it: You will probably end up pooping or at least think about pooping in some very strange places. (Let’s pray this three-leafed plant is not poisonous.) Let’s face it: There will almost certainly come a time in which you feel like you are running as hard as you can, but are, in reality, moving about as fast as your 96 year-old great uncle Merv. After his CrossFit class. Let’s face it: Running is a funny way to spend so many hours of your life. And a beautiful one, too.

When you stumble out of the 96 mile aid station, the first rays of dawnlight cracking over the hills, you might find yourself on the brink of tears as you realize that you are going to finish this run, that there’s only one more bite-sized chunk to go, zero more cups of pickle juice.

And you might laugh through the tears welling in your bleary eyes, and then glance over to smile at the photographer crouched between the trees, and then realize that the photographer is not a photographer, but a tree stump.

And you might finish, and give a huge, sweaty hug to your infant training partner, and to your two-time Badwater-finisher training partner who paced you through the night, and to your partner who supported you throughout this crazy process, and your family members and friends who think you are nuts but love you anyway, and are proud of you. You might then eat a whole bag of bite-size candy bars, or you might just crawl down the rabbit hole of furry, downy sleep that ends not in a DNF, but rather begins in having just f’ing F’ed your first 100-mile ultramarathon.

Because let’s face it: it’s quite strange to be alive, to be human, but in the midst of all this strangeness, it’s a pretty damn beautiful gift to get to spend hours running, on pavement or on treadmills or on trails, alone or with company, for 100 miles or for one, laughing as you go.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a writer and trail runner based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Find this original article and more at Runners World:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.