I have been quietly putting in the running miles for Tunnel Hill 100 in November. As I run, I have a lot of time to think about the enormity of running 100 miles – the training, the race, the external needs, etc. I attempted the 100-mile run in 2021, but ultimately dropped at the 50-mile finish and was allowed to accept the 50-mile finisher award. I was warned as a 100-mile registrant to resist the urge to quit at 50 by many different people but quit I did. I’m not ashamed of it at all, as completing 50 miles is a pretty impressive accomplishment. But as all of the people warning me indicated, I would regret it sooner or later. For me, it was sooner. By the time I had gotten to the hotel, cleaned up, and had some food, I was already regretting it. I felt that I let myself down, my son and my daughter-in-law who had come to pace me, and my wife who was there for support and provide all the dumb things I needed to go 100 miles. They were there and ready to do their jobs, I just didn’t do mine.
Continuing past the 50-mile mark while attempting to hit 100 should have been a no-brainer. I often say that the hardest part of any run is taking the first step, as once you get started you often will finish the job. But I just didn’t take that first step past the halfway point. I spent miles 30 to 49 debating with myself as to whether to drop at 50 0r keep going. I vacillated back and forth many times, but at the time I was worn out, tired and sore and felt that going on would have been rough on me. I guess I was afraid of what was to come and getting the 50-mile finish was a pretty good consolation prize. Until it wasn’t.
I have spent many a training mile thinking about the mistake or mistakes I made last time, but I am reluctant to call them mistakes. I think that making improvements on what happened would be more productive, so I am focusing on the positive and trying to make improvements. Here are some of the things I have been thinking about improving upon.
DO THE APPROPRIATE TRAINING – My first attempt at Tunnel Hill in 2021 became a secondary event to Ironman Chattanooga when Covid-19 messed up my plans and put the two races in the same calendar year. Nothing I could do about it, but at the time I chose to make Chatty my priority, and focus my training on the Ironman and hope that it would be enough to get me through the ultramarathon. I’m not totally convinced that the Ironman training I was doing wasn’t enough to get me through 100 miles, but it’s really hard to substitute swimming/biking/running for just long-running. This time I decided to focus my training on just doing the ultra. I haven’t even raced a sprint triathlon or 5K this year, I’m just doing long, slow distance running.
TRAIN THE BRAIN – Ironman can be emboldening, making you believe that “anything is possible” (a motto of theirs), so I thought that if I can finish an Ironman (or now five of them) I can easily get through an ultra. Boy, I underestimated the ultra distance and what it took mentally to get through it. Pushing on was something I wasn’t able to do. How do you get over that mental hurdle? I’m still trying to figure it out, but for now, I keep pushing myself out the door when I need to do so. In marathon training, you typically build to one 20-mile training run before the race. I’ve done several 18-milers and a couple of 20-mile runs so far, with many more to do. I need to get those distances in not only for my legs but for my mind as well. I’m guessing with the miles I run and the time I put into them, my mind will get used to being along for the ride.
Right now it’s summer and it’s been a hot and humid one too. I have to resist the temptation to judge where I will be in November based on where I’m at now. My brain sometimes tells me that I’m going to struggle with this, but it’s all because I’m currently struggling with heat and humidity. Got to get through the plan and get close to race day, then I will know where I stand.
USE THE GADGETS – I acquired what I thought I might need to run long distances – shoes with more cushion, shoe gaiters, trekking poles, headlamps, portable watch and phone chargers, and other odds and ends, but I haven’t really used them much. Last year I did use the lights from about mile 35 to 50, but I wasn’t used to running with them. I did very little training running with lights, and they can be kind of weird. Some runners say that the bouncing movement of the light from a headlamp can make them feel a little unbalanced. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but I can see it having a strobe light-type effect. I did practice with the watch charger in training last year, but having a new watch with better battery life might make them unnecessary. I think the watch will last the full 100 miles. But I should probably refresh myself on how to use them while running.
DO SOME NIGHTTIME RUNNING – My wife Kari “coaches” me often with thoughtful suggestions, and one of them that I could benefit from is doing some nighttime running. Tunnel Hill starts at 7am in November and you had daylight until about 4:30pm, so not even 10 hours of sunlight. The majority of the race will be run in the dark. Last year it was so dark in southern Illinois that without the light I couldn’t see anything. There were people coming back to finish 50 miles without lights and I had no idea how they were staying on the path! Some practice running at night with lights would be a good idea. But I think she is also suggesting that I run at night when it’s the time of day that I’m getting tired. I don’t really remember feeling “sleepy” tired last year, thanks to caffeine, more of a fatigued muscles-type tired. But it is a good suggestion. I will suggest that she join me.
RE-EVALUATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS – Last year I had no idea what to expect and just going off of what my training leading up to the race was telling me, I foolishly thought that a sub-24-hour finish was probable. Heck, I was averaging 5.5 miles every hour in training and thinking a sub-20-hour finish might happen! Man, did that race teach me a lesson. I did happen to finish the 50 in 11 hours and 32 minutes, but there was no way I was going to be able to do another 12-hour 50 miles. The experience from last year has made me adjust my expectations a little. I’m still going to shoot for around 24 hours, but the overall goal, and one I can’t overlook, IS TO FINISH THE DAMN DISTANCE!
WHAT THE PACE? – One of the crucial elements of running 100 miles is going at a pace that won’t kill you too soon, and I think I blew this part of it last year. That’s a surprising statement seeing that my local friends all went out much faster than me for the first 25 miles of it. It was quite a shock to be bringing up the rear when I was holding a sub-20 pace myself! With the exception of Leah, who turned in and impressive 22:54, Jim ended up slowing and dropping out around the 70 mile mark, and Jodi seemed to run out of gas as well, but added another exceptional finish to her ultra running resume. I think that they tend to run until they can’t any more, and then walk some to recover. I try to build walk breaks into my miles by run/walking, essentially running four minutes and then walking for 2. But am I doing enough walking?
As I mentioned above, I could hold 5.5 miles/hour fairly well, which gave me the expectations of easily going sub-24, but I tired and ended up slowing down in the last 15 miles pretty dramatically. I settled on a 4-minute run/2-minute walk method in order to give me a break and keep me from overdoing it. But I think it was still too fast. Since I hit the 5-mile mark around 50 minutes, I have tinkered with walking the remaining 10-minutes of every hour. This will give me an additional extended walking break, and still keep me on track. I will see how this goes.
GET THE NUTRITION DIALED IN – In my five Ironman races I have been fortunate to have been pretty consistent with my in-race nutritional needs. For some reason, I just struggle with it during training. Lately I have been a little better, but on race days I tend to skip eating solid food when I shouldn’t. Sometimes what the race is offering isn’t all that appetizing to me. Sometimes I don’t eat enough. My two Backyard Ultra races this year I struggled both times with getting enough food, even though I was trying to do better. It’s tough to run on a full stomach, so I might have to experiment with eating more over a longer period of time, rather than just scarfing down a bunch of food in a 2-3 minute break.
So there you have it, I’m sticking to the plan, trusting it, doing the work, and trying to avoid the mistakes. I just hope I’m not overthinking it. Future updates to follow, I’m sure. Thanks for reading.