FM Show: Are 100 Milers Competitive or Unhealthy?

Tim Mile 27

Tim topping out on one of the big climbs at mile 27 of the Zion 100.  Photo Jill Parker

Welcome to Elevation Trail and this edition of the FM Show with Footfeathers Tim Long and Matt Copeland.  Today I recap my Zion 100 mile race that took place over the weekend, which leads us to the discussion of whether 100s can really be competitive or are they simply a challenge of survival to reach the finish line as the main goal?  Also, we talk about the physical and possible mental damage racing 100 milers can cause.  Matt wonders whether I’m serious about giving up 100s.

Please leave a comment with your opinion or question and we’ll address it in our next show.  Thanks for listening!

30 thoughts on “FM Show: Are 100 Milers Competitive or Unhealthy?

  1. It’s only competitive for maybe the top 10 finishers. And there may be some rivalries that exists between the “slower” runners, but you can’t even call the 100-mile distance a “race.” I’m already mentally damaged. How much more can a 100-miler do to me? As for the physical damage, people can’t even train for one without getting hurt. It’s definitely unhealthy. Stick to the 5ks….and run them at a 100-mile “race” pace. That’ll be my motto if I make it out of SD ok.

  2. One thing I’ve never understood about competitive trail running is why the elites run so many brutal races in a year. Elite marathoners can give 2-3 efforts a year, yet it’s nothing to see a an elite on the trail running 6+ races a year. I am new to the trail scene coming from a college career several years ago. Maybe someone can explain why it is okay to race so many longer distances on the trail than a couple max efforts on the road?

    • David,
      I can’t speak for the elites, but here’s my perspective…as a newbie to the sport. When I got into ultramarathons last year, I used the 50k races as my training runs for the longer ones. I ran two 50-milers last year using the 7-50ks as training runs. I’m training for my first 100-miler this year and all of my races so far this year, including the upcoming Miwok 100k, are all just training runs. And a lot of the people I run with do the same. And as much as I like to think they’re just training runs, I tend to run them faster than such…but I’m not competitive enough to actually ”race” them.

  3. I believe that there is some level of research out there that the number of marathons (remember that sprint distance) that an elite is most effective at is something like 5 or less. If I am recalling right, Noakes in Lore discusses how there is some sort of trend of how most marathoners achieve their best efforts within this number of marathons, and their performances tail off.

  4. Nice! That was great to listen to. So much to think about that it’s actually hard to comment in a way for discussion. Anyway, thanks for jump starting my brain this morning.

  5. I’ve never done any research, but I’m guessing the marathon, 50k, 50m and 100k all had a progression that made them “raceable.” I can imagine a day when front runners were just trying to finish the marathon. Perhaps the 100m needs to evolve and one day it will be a race as well.

  6. For all the reasoning you guys gave, I wonder if Tims perspective would be different if: he had had a pacer, or lower expectations of performance going into the race, or if the effort had resulted in a top 10 finish.

    The main points beIng made remind me of a post Christian Griffith made on his blog a bit back.

    • Good questions, Nicole. I run well without a pacer. I was shooting for a top 10 at Hardrock – came in 34th and still was entirely content with my run. Not much of those things would change my growing wariness of the distance and damage done, which I just added to my race report:

      Sharp strain in left quad
      Left knee pain and swelling
      Left Achilles strained
      Left ITB pain
      Both ankles, feet, knees swollen
      Entire big toenail detached after smashing it into edge of slickrock
      Lips cracked and bleeding from sun/wind
      Digestive system out of whack
      Left hip/glute sore
      Nose raw and bleeding
      Slight depression and inability to think clearly

    • Also, I think we clearly point out that we’re talking about actually running these things and not simply fast hiking them (i.e. 15+ min/mile pace). Maybe I could just start walking these things and taking it easy to eliminate the damage. But I can do adventure hikes on my own without a bib number pinned to me. When I line up at an event it’s to race.

      • I’m obviously not numb to your facetiousness, Nicole. You should be able to see the difference between racing an event and simply covering the distance. I could jog a marathon every day for a month but I could only “race” one or two marathons in a month. I know for fact, based on HR data that a lot of people don’t push as hard as others in races. Though I get credit often for “coaching” people to improved times in races, it’s typically more the reality of them learning that they can push themselves through the pain and discomfort. To your point, I could be lumped into your group of “us joggers” when I take it easy in a training race. I can, however, push myself to my physical limit over a given distance. Because I recognize that people don’t have that ability yet or choose not to push that hard, doesn’t make me a judging elitist.

    • Please take my previous comment at face value. I understand there’s a difference between racing an event and running/jogging/finishing an event, and I understand one of the points of the podcast is that racing 100M’s puts more stress on the body, in general. I have no experience at all in those arenas to be able to add much to the discussion other than to raise my original question, which you answered with your perspective.

  7. I’m with you Tim and I can totally relate. I sign up for races not “for fun”. What’s fun about running a 100 mi. Ok, the first 60-70mi might be fun but that’s a 100k. You need to go through those last 30 excruciating miles in order to finish a 100 miler, and it’s not fun. At any rate, I did two 100’s last year just to see if I could and I will never do it again. In fact after the second 100 I made a list of why I hate running 100’s, just to remind myself later when I got sentimental and just about to hit submit on a registration form. It is as follows: 1. I get incredibly, ravenously hungry, but I can’t eat because I’m so completely nauseous.
    2. Running at night sucks, period. Tunnel vision and the sleep monster are my arch nemesis.
    3. The death march portion really blows
    4. They take a really long time for me to truly recover from and feel normal again
    After the second 100 (Wasatch) I also promised myself that I wouldn’t do another 100 for at least a year. The problem for me was that I didn’t run the first one (Kettle Moraine 100) incredibly hard. I finished in sub 24, but it wasn’t an A race. I didn’t push myself, but I didn’t take it incredibly easy either. After that race I couldn’t bounce back like I wanted to so I could train for Wasatch. I could barely make it out the door every day for 5 mi. I had very little energy and no motivation. I was tired and grumpy for about 7 months straight. Is it worth it? Not to me. I figure that all these people that are just getting started in the sport and doing race after race will come to the same conclusion in about 2-3 years, but they’ll have to come to that conclusion on their own because even if dozens of people told them what the future holds they would still think that they were different, they’re special, like Michael Wardian or Karl.

  8. Just a quick question regarding a tech aspect of your podcast releases. Prior to the last two releases, you would post a direct link as an mp3 file. Now it plays on the pc as an adobe flash or downloads in itunes as a podcast which I need to remove somes tags in order to play on my mp3 player. Any chance for you to continue the mp3 link?

    • Hi Curt,
      That’s something that just changed automatically within WordPress. I’ll look more, but I didn’t see a way to make it upload the old way. I find the best way to listen is by just using the itunes button (and you may subscribe) on the left column.

      • Thanks for the explanation Tim. I did subscribe through itunes (last week) but that was when I found I needed to manipulate the tags in order for my mp3 player to find the file (as opposed to a music file).

      • Hey Tim:

        Problem solved for now simply by my signing on to the “follow” tab in the lower right corner of this page. I receive an email with the mp3 attached and ready to add to my player without the hassle with the tags.

  9. Interesting podcast. At one point when describing Zion you seemed to hint at how many 100s feel artificial in the sense that the course has arbitrary loops and out and backs just to reach the 100 mile mark. I will probably never run anything close to a 100, but if I did I would need to feel that my effort actually got me somewhere or circumnavigated something. In my mind, races like UTMB, Western States, Hardrock are more about the journey, less about the mileage and hence more doable…more natural. In contrast, something like Zion or Rocky Raccoon, seem more like a hundred miles for its own sake. What do you think?

  10. Good discussion. I think you nailed it when you pointed out that the scope of this sport is so wide that a 50-kilometer lap race along a 2-mile flat course fits under the same umbrella as a 1,000-mile self-supported race across Alaska. Of course the people involved, and their motivations, are going to be as wildly variable as the sport itself. As to the question of competition, I wonder if it simply feels limited because the participation level in 100-mile races is still so relatively small. I can’t recall the exact stats, but I’ve read that annual participation in 100-mile races is less than 10,000 people worldwide. With a pool this small it seems natural that new people would come out of the woodwork every year to crush old records and dominate. Maybe many of them do decide the risk and pain isn’t worth the reward and move on. I think it’s tough to argue that most disappear because they wrecked their bodies racing. Even Geoff can’t say with certainty that his health woes are a direct result of racing. It’s his own theory, it’s true. But scientifically, there’s too little precedent in 100-mile racing to extract any amount of certainty. It’s that whole experiment of one aspect that makes it so intriguing to people like me.

    I’m curious if your Zion 100 experience caused you any new thoughts about the Tour Divide. It’s a different game, with an even smaller range of participants, but multiday stuff really requires a kind of perpetual pace. Guys who excel in that sport have essentially mastered the art of not stopping; no one is pushing themselves to the limit anymore at 16-plus days of racing, at least not the ones who finish. But the scope of participantion keeps getting bigger, so who knows what the future holds?

    • Hey Jill,
      You’re right. I can’t speak for others but based on my own experience, I haven’t had an overuse running injury (or any running injury for that matter) since 2005. The only time I’m sidelined is when I ran some of my 100s. As for the Tour Divide, coincidentally, I was going over gear lists and competitor reports last night. I’m not giving up endurance events (on the contrary, I plan to work on getting faster at certain distances) – just questioning whether I’ll race certain types of 100 milers on foot. I have several endurance MTB races lined up and plan to do the Divide. The only limiting factor for that adventure is financial.

  11. Great podcast Tim…I think your points about Sage et al are dead on, especially when you think about that classification of guys who are just going after and taking down 50’s and 100k’s…but at the 100m level I think you are overlooking someone like Mike Morton. He doesn’t do a “lot” of 100’s in a year like the “elite” regulars but he specifically trains for a small handful and then just destroys them. I mean…14:28 at Rocky and then a WEEK LATER 13:14 at Iron Horse??? 5 races in 2012, 3 of which were 100’s and all 3 of those were 13’s. This guy shows up to your race and you just know something magical is going to happen. No sponsors…full time job and big family guy…just a 100 destroyer. Definitely something magical going on there…

    • Thanks Nate.
      Morton isn’t really a good example about longevity in racing 100s. Chronic hip injury took him out of the sport in his absolute peak in ’97. More power to him if he can keep this comeback rolling. Super gifted 100 runner.

  12. Absolutely right…guy was a breakout phenom in late 90’s and then pulled a Lt. Col. Markinson and vanished for a decade. To your point in your podcast…a lot of these guys burn up/out because of the volume…I guess my point was more about the guys like Morton and Canaday who are in it to win it and not string along a dozen races because of endorsements or whatever…guys/gals who are fixated on dominating rather than doing it for the purpose of volume or popularity. I daresay Mike went into the sport to conquer everything and had a decade long epiphany about his purpose and then came back to do specifically what HE wanted to do. Maybe there are only a handful of those people out there like that but it makes me think long and hard about why I do it. I will never be a Mike Morton but I like the model of selecting and training for 2 or 3 races a year so when I get there I will feel strong and solid and be able to “race” and not walk it in. When I was at Umstead a few weeks back I actually “felt” like I raced it and that was the best part for me. It sucks that you had a bad race at Zion but your model seems to be trending that way too…P2P is your race and maybe a few others that are near and dear. What if you just focused on those each year?

  13. I’m not an ultra-ist so will just act as a poser for this comment… but I think sometimes we reach a point where something that held such allure to it – be it the challenge to perform “it” better, or overcome some obstacle by repeating it, or simply because physical pain was so much better than dealing with emotional pain and good god we have to run really long right now so we don’t go crazy… or whatever the reason(s) – suddenly those reasons and why we started that journey becomes obsolete and the race doesn’t hold the same meaning. Everyone’s purpose is different but eventually, if you’ve done enough of them, your view changes. And there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s other things out there to try which may become your new love (I could totally see you running shorter, faster ultras – you have the speed). I’ve always believed that racing was about the race’s competition (even if it’s internal), and performing your best on that given day – otherwise why not just go for a 100 mile hike at the park. But once that race becomes a slug-fest finish that mentally and physically breaks you down to the point you don’t rebound well, then it’s time to move on and tackle something that is once again challenges your heart. Those are just my thoughts…but it’s why I chose to move to another direction this year. Hardrock, though…I could see you doing it just for the love of that race – just like me and Boston.

  14. Just found your podcast, and listened to the first 8 episodes in under a week. Great listening.

    I agree with the observations about hundreds being almost too far to really race. In half of my hundreds, I could definitely say by mile 60 or 70 that I had gotten everything from the race that I was looking for, and the rest of the way would just be a painful slog to reach the finish line. Much prefer 50k to 100k races. You raised some good points about some of the elites burning out or risking injury, too, sad as that is.

    That being said, I’m planning to do Pinhoti 100 this fall, so there’s definitely something that keeps drawing us back…

    Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Jon. Appreciate the nice words and your viewpoint. I’ll be racing Leadville 100 too and after that who knows? I’m sure Hardrock will always be in my life at the very least. Hope the Southeast is treating you well.

      • Tim- good luck to you at the Leadman. You should do great. And having seen Hardrock last year, I can certainly see the appeal. I’d love to do that one. Maybe the Bear again, too. Some races are just special to us, hundreds or not.

        SE is great- lots of great people, some good trails. Loving the races and happy they don’t get more press such that they fill up- Barkley (my most recent), StumpJump, lots in Asheville, Virginia- great terrain.

  15. First time listener here! I really enjoy your content and delivery! Very down to earth and value-added. I have become somewhat obsessed with the ultra scene this year after reading David Goggins’ book. I am running in the Detroit Free Press Marathon next month and running the Stoney Creek Ultra 50k in November. Super pumped to run my first ultra and looking forward to progressing into longer distance. Thanks for your knowledge and platform.

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