My 2022 Training Plan for a 100 Mile Mountain Trail Run
This year my bucket list item is a repeat of last year’s item that I didn’t accomplish – running a 100 mile mountain trail race. Specifically, I want to finish the Cascade Crest 100. I would really love it if I could do so in under 24 hours, but I learned last year how hard that was and so I’m setting more moderate expectations (though, of course, I’ll try to overdeliver and get under 24 hours, because that is how I do things).
Finishing the race at all is an accomplishment features over 20k ft of elevation gain (running up mountains), and is mostly on rocky, single-track trail. Last year I got COVID the week before the race and ended up dropping out after 35 miles, though later in the year I was able to run 100 miles in 24 hours on a flat course.
Though I attribute most of last year’s failure to my COVID case, I still feel like I learned a lot of things that I can improve for this year. So I’m going to adjust my training plan from last year and publish an updated version here. While I could just publish the updates, I’ve learned that repeating myself is often valuable so folks don’t have to go read two blog posts to look for differences. So here is m 2022 training plan in full.
The best way to train for a 100 mile mountain trail run, is to run a lot. Unfortunately, that isn’t really possible for me right now. I have 4 kids and a job leading a team at Google, so I don’t have as much time to train as I would like. To accomplish this goal (and not risk losing my job or family) I need to come up with a plan to get in shape for a strong performance, that requires a smaller investment of time and energy.
Last year I came up with a plan that only involves three runs per week of ~1-2 hours each and I was in decent shape by summer. This year I will modify a few things, but likely keep to that general structure.
High Level Plan
I plan to train for this using a modified version of my three day a week marathon training plan. It follows a pretty standard training season schedule with a base period, blocks of quality workouts, rest weeks and taper at the end. I’ve had a lot of success with this model and have a ton of workouts to draw on that have gotten me in shape to win 5km, 10k and marathon races in the past.
I’ll be focusing most of my training on four categories:
- marathon training plan workouts to get my V02 Max up
- long walks on my treadmill desk to build my toughness and physical endurance
- trail runs to build strength and stability muscles
- strength training to increase my resilience and power
Last year I trained with the idea that “I’d rather be behind the wheel of a V8 Mustang than a 4 cylinder Jeep” and I learned some things that weren’t ideal about that approach. This year I want to have a V6 Jeep – a mix between the two.
What I am specifically not planning on doing much of is many weeks where I run 5, 6 or 7 days. I will be depending much more on targeted workouts than volume.
Finishing 100 miles requires only one thing; grit. Given enough time and proper support, anyone can cover the distance. What makes things hard is the time limit – either the limit specified by the race, the limit imposed on you by the elements or the limit being self-imposed by a goal.
To be able to get under that time limit, a racer will put stress on a number of systems, one of which will eventually fail. Most of the time a failed race comes down to injury, systemic exhaustion, bonking (fuel problems) or lack of grit. I am going to have my training focus on developing a few things that reduce the chances of any one of those happening so I can cross the finish line quickly.
Specifically I need to focus on the following, in roughly priority order:
- Grit – my ability to push through pain, discomfort and setbacks to achieve a goal
- Skeletomuscular endurance – the ability of my bones and muscles to deal with ~24 hour of movement on my feet
- Cardiovascular fitness – the amount of oxygen my heart and lungs can pump to my muscles with each breath
- Fuel consumption and processing – the ability to eat 100-200 calories and hour and turn them into available energy quickly
- Leg strength – the ability to fight gravity for 20k ft of upward movement for ~160-170lbs of person and gear
- Fuel storage and throughput – the ability of my body to store thousands of calories as fat and glycogen and to make them available to for forward momentum generation
- Footwork and stability muscles – the ability to run on an uneven and rocky trail quickly without falling or getting injured
- Self-care – the skills to maintain your body over the course of the race so that it keeps working all the way to the finish line.
- Systemic endurance – the ability of my nervous system, heart and lungs to deal with ~24 hours of work in the 120-130 bmp range
- Running economy – the ability to move at my target race pace while expending little effort
- Foot toughness – the ability of ones feet (muscles and skin) to withstand the beating of 100 miles on the trail
- Gear selection and management – the ability to cary all of the gear needed for a 100 mile run, and the various suboptimal scenarios that can occur and access it without losing much time
- Navigational skills – the skills required to stay on the race course and not cover extra distance
Let’s talk through what those are, which I think I need to train the most at and how I will do so.
I already mentioned this was the most important factor in a long race. I don’t plan to do much specifically for this aspect in this training cycle though. The reason is simple, I’ve got a lot of it already. Untrained I ran 93 miles in 48 hours two years ago – that was 100% grit.
When I dropped out of last year’s race at mile 35 I was worried this was a sign of my no longer having the type of grit I thought I did. I told myself I was being smart by doing it, but it is hard to know if that is an honest assessment or just me making up a story to feel better.
Later in the year I did two things that helped confirm I still have grit though. In October I did a 24 hour step challenge and set a new record for employees at Google, logging 204k steps on my fitness tracker in a single day. In December I did a 24 hour race, covering over 100 miles. Those both took a lot of grit and I now feel reassured that grit is not an area I’m lacking.
Certainly the hard workouts I do during training will help sharpen my grit, but that is a mostly a peripheral benefit and not the main intent.
Fitness and running economy will dictate the maximum possible performance, but the reality of races is that maximum is almost never achieved, usually because something else fails. One source of failure is muscular endurance, certain muscles not being able to withstand high effort for a sustained period of time. This surfaces as fatigue, cramping, or injury – sometimes in the affected muscle and sometimes in another muscle that stress is shifted onto by the runner (either consciously or subconsciously).
The best way I know of to develop muscular endurance is to simply repeatedly beat your muscles up so that they get tougher. If you do too much too fast you’ll get injured, but if you slowly build up, you can toughen your muscles so they are able to take 24 hours of pounding without giving out.
One way to achieve this is to go run a lot. You could start by running one mile and work your way up to 100 miles slowly. Most training plans don’t recommend that as repeatedly running 30+ miles in a short period will likely do more damage than good. Instead most ultramarathon plans tend to recommend building up to running back to back long runs on two consecutive days – sometimes 30 each day. If your body is able to deal with 30 miles and then recover to do another 30 within 24 hours, you’re likely in good shape to handle 100 miles on race day.
I plan to develop muscular endurance by doing lots and lots of slow walking. I have a treadmill desk which I can walk on while working and I usually spend ~10 hours a day in the office. My plan is to get to the point where I’m walking 30-40 miles per day so that my body is used to taking a long and slow beating. All of my running will be on top of that meaning a 6 mile run is really 6 miles of fast after 30 slow. With that, my long runs of 20-30 will actually end up being more like a tired 30 as if I did a bak to back 30, from the perspective of muscular tiredness.
This comes down to how much effort it takes you to move your body at a certain speed as measured by heart rate and speed. The difference between being in shape and out of shape for me is easily seen by how fast I can move my body at a given heart rate. Early in a training cycle 160 bpm only lets me go 6:45 pace but once I get in shape, I can hold 6 minute miles at 160 bpm, which saves me a lot of time for no more effort. I know from experience at many different events that I can hold each heart rate effort for a certain amount of time before my body just starts shutting down, so I consider that a ceiling. For a 24 hour effort, I expect the best I can do is ~115-120 BPM, meaning the best race I can possibly have is limited by how fast I can move at 115 BPM.
Covering 100 miles in 24 hours requires me to move at 14:24 per mile on average (including stops) on the race course, which is roughly equivalent to 10:15 per mile on flat-ground. So I want to get my body in shape to be able to hover around 115 BPM while moving around 10:15 per mile. That will ensure fitness isn’t my limiting factor.
The plan to do that is to run fast. Running tack workouts and tempo runs tells your body it needs to be able to move faster when being asked to work at 170-180bpm, which changes your body in some ways that help fitness even at 120-130BPM. For example your heart gets stronger and pumps more blood per beat and your blood begins to carry more oxygen per liter, meaning less blood needs to flow to a muscle in order to get it the oxygen that it needs. So by running some very fast track workouts, much faster than I will go on race day, I am actually helping myself get in shape to go slow and long.
Fuel Consumption and Processing
This is one of the biggest areas where runners fail long races. They aren’t prepared for how much you need to eat for a longer run. For context, back in college I never ran with a water bottle or gels despite doing runs that got close to 20 miles. That sort of strategy won’t work for a 24 hour race.
My stomach has proven to be my downfall in a few races over the past years. In my October effort in 2021 I ended up with the hiccups and burping for over an hour, which really slowed me down and almost forced me to stop.
I will be experimenting a bit with different sources of calories to figure out what works best for my while maintaining a hard effort. I know some junk food items go down easy and I know that real food tastes great, but can give me some heartburn, so I’ll have to find the right combination of running food, junk food, real food and antacid that gets me maximum output.
If you’ve never seen me in person, picture a stick figure and you’ll be pretty close. I was great at flat road races because at 6’2″ with disproportionality long legs, I had a lot of stride without much weight to cary around. This is slightly less beneficial when dealing with trail runs where you just need some brute strength to get up mountains.
I noticed in last year’s race that I could easily keep pace with the pack on the flats but when things turned uphill, I would fall behind. I think my lack of leg strength meant that I had to work harder to keep the same pace on uphills. After even just 8k feet of climbing, my tiny leg muscles were tuckered out and I was dragging on the ups and even the flats, because of that.
I did some research on other runners and I found that in the six months leading up to the race, most had put in between 200k and 400k ft of vertical climbing across their training runs. I had done about 40k ft. So this year I’m planning to do a lot more vert training to get my legs strong. I’ve added weekly vertical climbing goals to my training plan and have ~190k ft scheduled for this year. If I can do that, I’ll be in much better shape come race day.
Finally, I’m going to add in some good old fashioned strength training with weights. I have a workout plan my trainer at the work gym helped me create that should give me an extra focused strength in a few critical areas.
Fuel Storage and Throughput
Your body has hundreds of thousands of calories of energy stored in it at any given point. When you feel hungry, you are actually nowhere near running low on fuel. I have some experience pushing the limits here with a two day desert fast I did a few years ago where I was perfectly fine after 48 ours without eating and only drinking water.
The problem is most of those calories are stored in a way where it takes your body a while to turn them into useful fuel. The trick in a long race is to get as much of that energy to become usable as soon as possible.
There are lots of people that want to crack the secret to this, and maybe someday we will. It seems lots of training is the best way to do it for now and that isn’t really in the question for me. What I can do, however is supplement in a few fasted workouts and fasted days as a way to stress my body into reacting some. The hope is that by going on a longer run without having eaten in 12+ hours, your body will start to realize it needs more energy accessible at any given time, and then starts to make changes to make that happen. I don’t plan to do this often as it runs counter to other training goals, but I will be working in a few.
Footwork and Stability Muscles
Running on a trail is tricky. I struggle with it as my background is roads and track. On one of my first trail runs a few years ago, I kept up with the group but fell six times during the hour due to poor balance and footwork. It is simply harder to find good places to plant your feet and ways to shift your weight than it is on a predictable road course.
On top of that, trails offer lots of risk of injury. I am prone to ankle sprains thanks to a previous injury. It is especially bad on trails because my normal running shoes have a lot of stability padding to stop my feet from pronating, which acts as a fulcrum when it catches a rock the wrong way and quickly puts a lot of stress on my ankle. In my 93 mile train run a few years ago I had a bad ankle sprain in the middle that resulted in me having to walk most technical spots for the final 50 miles. Last year I had a bad ankle sprain during a training run a month before the race (I was stupidly running fast to get a Stava segment record on a trail at night with my road shoes on). During my race I also had a minor sprain in the opposite ankle.
The best way to train for this would be lots of lots of trail running, but that isn’t something I am able to do this year. I will certainly do some, but I need to find other ways to gain these skills. My plan is to work on keeping my turnover high so that I’m used to taking many smaller steps and can do so if needed to find good footing. I am also going to use strength training as a supplement here. Single leg workouts seem to be the best approach as they build strength while requiring stability. One leg pistol squats, single leg deadlifts will be two key workouts and I intend to eventually do both with weight and on a wobbly surface.
While a lack of self-care can ruin a race, an excess won’t win the race for you. I plan to execute a strategy I’ve developed over the course of the past few years of runs of 30+ miles where I make sure I eat and drink roughly a certain amount each hour, take a few short breaks to change socks and apply Vaseline liberally. I’ll be testing out some new gear during longer training runs in hopes of figuring out what sort of things stop me an how I can recover from them. It is amazing how much better you feel after washing down some Ibuprofen and a caffeine pill with Pepto Bismol.
This is a more recently identified trait that is sort of the hot topic in endurance sports. There is an idea that one source of failure is a slow and steady degradation of the body’s ability to keep sending strong signals at a systemic level. This goes all the way to the level of neurons firing to tell a muscle to move. It has historically been hard to predict ultramarathon success as two similar athletes in terms of fitness, as measured at shorter distances, might end up with very different ultramarathon results. There are theories floating out there that each person has a rate of systemic degradation and those with a better rate will do better at ultras.
I suspect, like anything, this has some genetic factors but can also be trained. I suspect this is an area I am strong at given a few years ago I was able to show up untrained and run/hike 93 miles or my 24 hour max-distance attempt last year where my muscles were giving out at the end, but my mind/body weren’t.
The training I plan to do here is similar to muscular endurance. I plan to walk a lot and tell my body it needs to get used to doing work for long periods of time. I also plan to do a few longer trail runs to help here – likely a 50k or 50 miler earlier in the summer.
One note – sleep deprivation is a closely related factor to systemic endurance, but not one I suspect I’ll have to deal with on a 100 mile course. I dealt with it a little last year on a 4 day adventure after 30 hours of moving, but given I intend to finish in 24-34 hours, I think I’ll be ok this year. It might be something I have to deal with more when I start moving to the longer races – 200, 500 and 1k miles.
This is a measure of how efficient your body is at moving. A more economical runner requires less fitness to go at the same speed. Economy is somewhat dictated by body size/shape but is enhanced by having a good running form that wastes little energy. Another big part of economy is how much weight you are carrying – it takes less energy to move 140lbs a mile than it does to move 150lbs. That is especially true when hills come into play as gravity makes it harder to move each pound uphill.
I don’t plan to work much on running economy other than getting some rust off. I have been running and racing various distances for close to 30 years. Over that time I’ve put in my time on the track running sprints to get my running form to be pretty darn efficient and this isn’t an area I believe I can improve much this year. What I can do is wake up all of that muscle memory, which I plan to do through a few faster track workouts where I run reps in the 5:00-6:00 pace range.
I do plan to be a bit lighter on race day than I have been the last few years. In college I used to race at 145lbs where as I’m often 160-170 lbs when not in race shape. For this type of longer race I’ll likely be closer to 150, but I want to make sure that is a lean 150 where most of the weight is from muscle and very little is wasted on useless things like belly fat and leg hair.
One of the most common reasons for quitting a long race is foot issues – mainly blisters or open wounds. Some of this can be prevented by self care during the race (baby powder, mole skin, etc.), some of it is impacted by gear choice (the shoes and socks you wear) but a lot of it just comes down to toughness. Literal thick skin. Through training I always develop some thick calluses that help prevent a number of blisters. I always end up getting blisters during a race anyhow, but not nearly as many or in as critical spots as I would have if my feet weren’t so tough.
I don’t plan to do much extra here. The training I do to help other areas will help develop the toughness I need here.
Gear Selection and Management
For a 10k you show up with your shorts and shoes. For a marathon you might bring a gel or a small water bottle if you prefer sipping slowly over chugging cups at the mile marker. For a 100 mile race you need a pack with layers, a flashlight, food, a first aid kit, water bottles, water filter, a map, poles, etc. There is a lot more to it.
I don’t plan to do much here as the events I’ve done the last few years have helped me hone my gear. In fact, the events I’ve been doing were unsupported or self-supported meaning I had to carry everything I needed for multiple days in the wilderness. In this race I’ll certainly need a few things but between aid stations and drop bags, I’ll be able to cut some weight and go with a simpler pack. I learned last year that what I put in my drop bags ended up being a bit excessive anyhow. The aid stations are pretty well prepared, so the main thing you need is extra layers and a flashlight for when it turns to night and then any special food you need.
You would think this isn’t that important in an organized race, but a few years ago a professional trail runner was on pace to set a record in the biggest 100 mile event when they got lost and went miles off track, only to get passed by the next runner. A similar thing happened to me in a trail cutoff race a few years ago where I nearly got eliminated in the first lap thanks to a wrong turn and an extra mile (which is particularly embarrassing because I was jogging with the race director’s wife at the time – if anyone should have known the course, it should have been us).
Making wrong turns usually happens when you’re in the lead – mid-pack runners usually have someone to follow and glitches have been sorted out by the time they get to a confusing corner. I’m not sure I have a chance of being in the lead for this race, but it might feel like it even if it isn’t true as there are only 200 runners and the range of finish times will be ~20 hours. It is quite possible I’m miles away from the nearest runner and thus, won’t have anyone to follow on turns.
While the course will be marked off and won’t try to be confusing (some races make this easier than others, some are even known for intentionally making it hard to follow the course), it will still be up to me to make sure I know the course. I have been running some backcountry trails using maps the past few years and have gotten good at following paper and phone maps. I only recently got a watch that can upload courses, so I need to test that out as well. My backup plan will be a paper map though and I feel pretty confident using it if push comes to shove.
So in conclusion, I’m going to run a little, I’m going to run faster in training than in my race, I’m going walk and ton and I’m going to add in some strength training.
One other thing I plan to improve for 2022 is starting training earlier. In 2021 I got a slow start to the year due to an injury. This year I ran a 100 mile race on Dec 28th, took a few weeks to recover and then got right back into it. By the end of February I had already done a few runs between 15-20 miles and it has barely gotten warmer than freezing. I’m feeling optimistic about getting in some more weeks at higher mileage, which should help my legs be ready for race day.