Is 100 miles the new marathon?

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In the film Run, Fat Boy, Run, Simon Pegg’s character faces losing his former fiancée to the dashing Whit. Among Whit’s qualities, the fact ‘he runs marathons’ is delivered as the final nail in Pegg’s coffin. After all, how could a mere mortal compete against such a superhuman?

In 2007, when the film was released, this notion would have just about held up. For a long time – since, say, the fifth century BC, when Pheidippides met his fate – the marathon was seen as the ultimate endurance test. Fast forward to 2016, however, and the response to ‘He runs marathons’ could just as easily be a muttered ‘So what?’ as wide-eyed awe. So many people are now reaching the marathon finish line that what was once a dazzling badge of honour has lost a little of its sheen.

And with 26.2 miles no longer constituting the edge of the endurance horizon, many runners are entering the world of ultra marathons and, ultimately, hearing the call of the 100-miler. A huge yet tantalizingly round number, it’s a monster beacon for anyone who has ever wondered how far they can really go.

The number of people going longer and longer is certainly rising, says race organiser James Elson, whose company, Centurion Running, specialises in ‘hundreds’. ‘I started putting 100-milers on in 2011 because there were only two in the UK and I was having to fly to the US to run them,’ says Elson. ‘Now the Americans have around 150 and we’ve got about 25 here. I wouldn’t say 100-milers are becoming more popular, I’d say they’re exploding.’

That explosion may be controlled somewhat by logistics. Just as running a hundred poses serious challenges, so does organising one, as access and geography will restrict numbers. While city marathons pack runners shoulder-to-shoulder on wide roads, 100-milers are likely to be off-road on narrow trails, with runners attracted to the ‘Man/Woman vs The Wild’ element. Pack trails with too many bodies and you get traffic jams, damaged landscapes and grumpy runners. Then there’s the challenge of keeping competitors fed, watered and medically covered for 20+ hours over 100 miles, often in remote areas.

To manage these potential problems Centurion caps race numbers, as do bigger events. All this means that the growth in race participation doesn’t tell the full story of demand.

Take the 106-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Despite the immense difficulty involved in the event – strict cut-off times, tough mountain conditions, 400 summits and 10,000m of climb – soaring demand has led organisers to implement a tough system of qualifying points to join a starting field limited to

2,300. ‘We limit the numbers to respect the runners,’ says UTMB race director Catherine Poletti. ‘They come to run, not to be stuck in traffic.’

Despite the tough criteria, UTMB entries now outstrip places by two to one, reflecting the growth in the pool of seasoned amateurs with not just an appetite for, but also the capability to tackle, such an event. ‘We have more runners applying for the UTMB every year,’ says Poletti.

The boom in entries suggests ultras are becoming a more mainstream milestone, but when it comes to actually running one, it pays to remember that there are still massive differences between trying your hand at a marathon and tackling a 100-miler. Both require preparation before and determination during, but the marathon offers a bigger window of opportunity for anyone stubborn enough to wing it. That approach simply won’t work over 100 miles.

‘One hundred miles isn’t something you can blag,’ says serial ultra runner and multiple 100-mile finisher Kirsty Reade. ‘You need months of training, you need to get your nutrition right, have a decent strategy and much more. A lot has to go right to finish’.

Elite US ultra runner and regular 100-mile podium finisher Mike Foote agrees: ‘There are so many more layers with a hundred in the way you need to take care of yourself, your nutrition, your pacing. They all play a role in marathons, but their importance increases exponentially when it comes to finishing 100 miles.’

This doesn’t make hundreds the exclusive preserve of elites. ‘If you really want it, you can do it,’ says Ian Torrence, a running coach who has run 187 ultras. ‘Normal people who have children and 40-hour-a-week jobs do it. You see people running crazy 200-mile weeks lining up next to people running

30-mile weeks.’

Foote agrees: ‘I believe anyone can run 100 miles. It’s all a matter of desire and preparation. However, in a hundred, no matter how prepared you are, you might just not have your day. If that happens in a marathon, you could walk the last six miles; walking the last 60 miles isn’t an option in a 100-miler. For me that’s a big appeal of the distance, putting yourself into the unknown where failure is a very real option.’

How real? London Marathon finish rates stand at around 98 per cent; the percentage in Centurion’s 100-milers hovers at about 65 per cent, while fewer than 50 per cent of starters finish the UTMB. So while 100-milers and marathons share some common threads, in reality, when it comes to the challenges they pose and the experience of taking part they’re very different beasts.

So aside from the fact that it’ll go on a whole lot longer, just how different is the experience? ‘A hundred miles isn’t the new marathon, it’s a different sport,’ says Elson. ‘You’ll almost always run through the night. It’s not just sore feet and tired legs, it’s all that times a hundred, and with a huge amount of mental exhaustion.’

Yet once you’ve come to terms with its dimensions (20-40 hours on your feet, three marathons, with three 10Ks, to boot) and start running the numbers, you’ll find the pace required to finish seems incredibly slow. ‘The cut-off for our 100-mile races is 30 hours,’ says Elson. ‘If you can walk a good pace for that time, you can finish.’ That ‘good pace’ would be 3.3mph, or, to put it in marathon terms, an eight-hour finish. People have run faster 26.2s on crutches.

‘In many ways the sport has more in common with long-distance walking,’ says Reade. ‘If your background is marathons or shorter, your mindset is probably: running is running, walking is walking and runners don’t walk,’ says coach George Anderson, a marathon runner who ran his first 100-miler last summer. ‘But if you step up to 100 everyone walks some of it because you can go further for longer simply by slowing the pace.’

That doesn’t mean a 100-miler is just a long walk, though. That slow average speed can quickly become a raging demon snapping at your heels: eating, drinking, refilling water bottles, changing kit as conditions change – it all saps precious time and affects your average speed. So does the weight of your pack and the rough ground you’ll be covering. Throw in head-torch batteries that need changing during a 3am storm, a wrong turn thanks to your exhausted mind, plus the sheer weight of compounded fatigue and before you know it, ‘just’ 3.3mph becomes a very tough prospect.

Walking is strategic, employed instead of stopping, while you eat or change clothing, for example. Or to conserve energy on bigger climbs, where a determined hike allows you to maintain near running pace using a fraction of the energy. You need to change gears like a 4x4 to survive 100 miles. As that climb levels out you can shift up and run again.

Another mental shift needed is in how you see ‘failure’. In 100-milers a DNF (Did Not Finish) is part of the process. ‘To drop out of a marathon you need an injury,’ says Elson, ‘but dropping out of a 100-miler is par for the course.’ The biggest factor in avoiding DNFs is often desire. ‘Most people who stop in a 100-miler have simply lost the will to continue,’ says Elson. The overnight factor can’t be underestimated, with the period between midnight and 5am often when you feel at your worst, with your body screaming at you to sleep. You need the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other until daybreak, when your body will naturally start waking up and (hopefully) complaining less.

Most ultra veterans agree that the biggest difference between the marathon and 100 miles is the suffering. The tone grows darker as the distance grows longer. ‘In a shorter race, there are high points and low points, but they’re pretty short-lived,’ says 2014 50K world champion Emily Harrison. ‘You learn how to push through it. But in a longer race, learning how to suffer is very different, especially for people used to being able to run fast and push hard the whole time.’

Before you consider your potential reservoir of 4am desire to run, however, your practical side may be wondering whether running almost four times marathon distance requires almost four times the training miles. Thankfully, no. ‘Before my first 100-miler my longest run was 41 miles,’ says Anderson. ‘I thought I’d have to go much longer, but the more seasoned ultra runners I spoke to, the more I learned it wasn’t the case. Just as you don’t run a marathon in marathon training, nor do you run a hundred in 100-mile training.’

It’s a view Elson shares. ‘In 100-mile training people spend a lot of their long runs doing three or four hours,’ he says. ‘Training much more in a session can quickly become unproductive.’ Elson also cautions that it’s not just fitness that will boost your chances of getting through your first hundred. ‘It won’t prepare you for still being on your feet at hour 20 in the middle of the night, during a freezing downpour.’ Which is why when it comes to choosing your first hundred, Dr Marty Hoffman, Director of Research for the Western States Endurance Run, US, and multiple 100-mile finisher, recommends that you make it as manageable as possible. ‘I suggest people do their first 100-miler on a relatively easy course. Don’t pick a gnarly mountain event.’

George Anderson followed that advice when he tackled his first 100 – the Endure 24, where runners clock laps of a five-mile loop over 24 hours. ‘I love the idea of the wild mountain ultras,’ says Anderson, ‘but a key driver for me was keeping it local so it would be logistically possible for me to do the race, and to train on similar terrain. Balancing family, work, training and the event itself was essential.’

The thinking paid off with a great experience. ‘All I had to do was keep doing five-mile laps and after each I could refuel, change my kit and see my crew. I almost felt like I was cheating being able to look after myself so well.’

Anderson hit his hundred in just over 23 hours, but he knows things beyond his control could have made for a very different race. ‘It wasn’t easy, but I know it was easier than it could have been. I didn’t get any blisters, I only fell over once and it was dry – the year before the course was thick mud.’

Whether or not your sights have shifted from 26.2 to 100, rest assured that ‘the marathon isn’t over’, says Martin Yelling, elite runner-turned-coach and host of the Marathon Talk podcast. He has some food for thought for anyone thinking the marathon is too ‘easy’: ‘While you can survive a marathon on less than perfect training, if your goal is to finish to the best of your ability, that’s very different. Running your best marathon is incredibly hard because it rarely goes right when you’re pushing boundaries to this degree. You’re right on the edge.’

In fact, against the sort of pain required to take yourself to the limits of your marathon ability, there’s even an argument that a steady 100-miler could be easier. And perhaps that’s the key point, that badges of honour aren’t all about distance, they’re about achieving your best over whatever distance you may be running.

Is 100 miles the new marathon, then? ‘They’re very different beasts and to underestimate either is a big mistake,’ says Yelling. There is so much potential challenge in pushing yourself over 26.2 that you shouldn’t feel compelled to go further, but if you’re taken with the idea of testing yourself mentally and physically in a very different event, then the good news is that with the right preparation and sufficient desire, anyone can join the exclusive 100-Mile High Club.

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