Heartland 100: Lessons Learned on My First Hundred Miler

On the prairie, distance and the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as difficult to penetrate as dense forest…a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seems every time the foot is raised the earth rotates underneath so that the foot falls just where it had lifted from. Whatever else prairie is – grass, sky, wind – it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge.”

-From Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon

I once heard someone say that running 100 miles is like experiencing an entire lifetime in one day. After finishing my first 100 miler, I now see the truth and wisdom in that statement. The Heartland 100 was the toughest physical challenge I have ever faced, and I am satisfied with achieving my goal of completing the race within the time cutoff; final time was 26:43:16. However, it should be noted that I passed 100 miles at 24 hours and 16 minutes, I ran 5.5 extra miles after a wrong turn on the course, but more on that in a moment, that’s one of my lessons learned from the race. I boiled this down to three main lessons learned, then a final reflection.

Good:

  • Gear choice
  • No blisters or hotspots
  • Finished within cutoff
  • Lasting memories with friends.

Bad:

  • Painful feet and knees
  • Wrong turn added over an hour
  • Left knee aftermath
    • Insufficient training? form? shoes? genetics? poles? TBD.

1) Know the Course

At mile 70, my pacer and I missed a turn as we chatted away about who knows what. Eventually, we saw a turn and found it strange that there were no markings. We then realized that we hadn’t seen any ground glows or signs indicating we were on course. I also did not have visual cues as it had turned dark since I last ran on that section of the course. We ended up going over 2.5 miles before turning around. This added a little over five miles (and one hour) to the race for me, not ideal (I never was the guy who did extra credit).

Yes, the course should be marked clearly so that runners can easily see which way to turn, but sometimes in this cruel world things don’t work out perfectly. If you are a well-prepared runner, then you have studied the route and have a backup plan to be ready for the rare occasion where turn cues are overlooked, tampered with, covered up, or otherwise not obvious to runners. After all, it is my race, and my responsibility to know the course.

Lesson Learned: In pre-race planning, study the route in depth and have a backup plan in case the course markings become compromised. Know the route so well that even if markings are unreliable, you are still able to stay on course. I recommend a Garmin or Suunto wrist device that has a map function and can show you your current position relative to the course and your previous track. 

Me and Ismael Lone Tree back.jpg
The author with pacer and fellow MURCAn, Ismael. 

2) Pacing

My plan was to “go out slow and remain steady.” I went out slow, but apparently not slow enough. From looking at my splits on Strava, the first 75 miles was 13:13 average pace, and the last 31 miles was 19:26 with mostly walking on lots of pain in the feet and knees. Too large a delta between those two splits in my opinion. I would rather have something closer, with less degradation in pace toward the end = more steady and consistent.

Lesson Learned:  I need to do more speed walking/powerhiking. For me personally, at this point I can’t actually run a lot over the course of 100 miles; it is more efficient in terms of both time and energy, to walk fast. Not that I’m going to do another 100 miler, but if I did, I would start even slower, with the goal of keeping my desired pacing throughout the entire race, as opposed to degrading into a pained hobble at the end.

Heartland100-2018--X3

3) Mindset

My mindset was so focused on finishing that I would have sucked up A LOT of pain and discomfort, and I did. I was quick to dismiss pain as something that can be dealt with later. The plan was to alternate run/walk. As the walk periods began to increase relative to the running, eventually I got to the point where my left IT band simply would not pick up my left foot quick enough to call it a running motion. There was way too much pain, and at that point I realized that running would result in serious injury, so we walked. Since this was my “A” race, I was willing to accept pain to the point of minor injury, but that won’t always be the case and is never desirable.

One thing that I found hard to simulate and prepare for in training, is the mindset required when things get tough, particularly toward the end of a 100 miler. Due to the combination of physical pain, lack of sufficient calories (another lesson I still haven’t learned), and delirium from not sleeping, I felt fatigue like I’ve never felt before. Toward the end, it was all about fighting off negative thoughts as three miles seemed daunting, and the last mile was the longest mile of the entire race; I just didn’t want to move forward any more. But facing this kind of physical and mental hardship is the test I signed up for, to see if I could make the tough decisions. Our own body and mind are capable of so much more than we think, the 100 mile footrace provides an opportunity to wrap your head around what it takes to keep going when every sense is telling you to stop. 

img_8360.jpg
With one mile to the finish, exhaustion sets in. Time to dig deeper.

Reflection on Training Build

After deferring my race entry for the 2017 Heartland 100, I set out to devote the next 12+ months to get myself ready for the 2018 race. I incorporated all of the training and education I have received from various certifications, leaned on the wisdom and experience of those who have gone the distance many times, and read as many race recaps and articles on the distance as I could. I called on my attack pilot planning skills to look at every aspect of the race so that no stone is left unturned. Considering my own capability and the information available at the time, I feel confident that I trained properly. However, now that I have gone through the experience of running 100+ miles in one day, there are a few things I would do differently next time (not that there is going to be a next time).

  1. More strength training, particularly focused on the hip and glutes.
  2. Slightly more volume for the peak weeks (+10-15 more miles per week for about 4-10 weeks prior to the race)
  3. More cushioned shoes. I ran in Lone Peak 3.5 (moderate cushion/stack height). Next time I would use max cushion (Hoka Clifton 4 or Altra equivalent).
IMG_8268
This shows my weekly volume over the year leading up to the race. Minimum per week was 30 miles, max was 70 miles, average was about 45 miles per week.

Final Reflection

As I lay around executing the post-race RICE prescription and watching Star Wars, I ask myself: “Was my training build sufficient?” The answer is yes. I believe I trained properly and have no regrets. However, if I ever do another 100 miler, I will incorporate the above lessons learned and modify my training slightly. There is no substitute for experience. No matter how many articles or race recaps you read, the lessons you learn by running your own 100 miler are far more important and impactful. The Heartland 100 also gave me a renewed appreciation for the 5K distance, which I plan to turn my attention to for a spring PR effort! 18:00 minutes here I come!

Heartland100-2018--54-X3
By far the best memory of this race is the time spent with these fine gentlemen. Thank you Chad, Ismael, Gerry, and Bill, you guys kick ass. 
IMG_8493.jpg
ENDEX.

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