Note: Photo by Sheldon Smith.
In the first 50 miles, don’t be stupid. In the second 50 miles, don’t be soft.
You cannot win a marathon in the first mile but you can lose it.
I never would have gotten here without help from my family. These are time consuming endeavors and without the support of your spouse and your children, you would not be able to get out there and knock out a big goal like running 100.3 miles through the beautiful Ouachita National Forest during the most beautiful weekend of the year. Thank you to Abby, Max, and Gus.
I also wouldn’t have been able to run this without the help of my friends that have helped to teach me the art of trail running. Jody Hodges, Josh Berry, Michael Hirons, Mary Ann Lipin – you have all helped me to get here and I have learned so much from all of you.
I am still new to this: three brass Traveller buckles and two DNFs at Devil Dog 100. I don’t have all the answers. But I do get a lot of questions and I wanted to share what I know. If I am wrong about something, let me know. If I need more information, let me know.
Trail running and ultrarunning and just plain old running is fun because of the people involved. Social media has made it a lot easier to stay in touch with my Traveller family. You meet some of the world’s best folks out on the trail. And there is probably something to the suffering together with folks that sort of accelerates the bonding process.
First of all, you can do this. You can finish this race. If you can run a marathon, you can finish this race. If you can run 20 miles without getting sufficiently gassed, you can finish this race. This race is more of a metaphysical challenge than a fitness challenge. I have finished the Traveller twice (I am still new to this) and never did I feel that my fitness was holding me back.
Go ahead and make up your mind that you are going to be out there on the course for thirty hours. Don’t go on ultrasignup and compare your finish times for other events to your friends that have run comparable events. Don’t get to thinking that you can sneak in under 24 hours. Of course you can; don’t blow your chance to hold your pants up with a shiny buckle by ignoring your body in order to hit the Powerline Aid Station by 4pm (10 hours).
Plan on spending all day out there. If you finish a little faster than that, then great. If you finish slower than your goal, then you finished. If you don’t finish for some reason – congratulations, you have figured out one thing that doesn’t work for you.
Get used to the idea of walking. The race is called the Arkansas Traveller 100. Not the Arkansas Traveller Run The Whole Time 100. I hear from lots of people that they ran their first race of X-distance and they ran the whole time!Not that this isn’t an accomplishment – it is. For me (and most ultrarunners that I know and run with), it is most important to get to the finish line in any form and to have a smile on my face while I do it and when I get there.
For your strategy, many runners say to walk the hills. This is a good strategy. It takes a lot out of you to run hills. Remember your goal:finishing. Running the big climb up to Flatside Pinnacle (which isn’t thatsteep) will allow you to pass a lot of runners. A lot. But running up the hills is not quite as efficient as walking them. Running the hills takes a lot more energy than walking them and it doesn’t get you there all that much more quickly. Walk. Drink something. Eat something. Talk to your friends.
I asked on facebook once how many flat miles there are out on the Traveller course. Now, it depends on what you call flat but the easy answer is that there are zeroflat miles on the Arkansas Traveller course. If your plan is to walk all the hills and run all the downhills and flats, you will run – at most – 50 miles out of the course.
Keep pulling on this idea – how often do you train to walk fifty miles? This is half of the ground that you will cover in your race and most folks don’t even train for it. If you can walk fast late in the Traveller you will be at a significant advantage.
Back to the main idea – this is a 30-hour race. You have already made the decision to spend thirty hours out there in the Ouachita National Forest. Now you need to make the right preparations to stay out there for 30 hours.
If you get injured in training, you might have a short race.
If you get injured on the course, you might have a short race.
If you get behind on water or food and get dehydrated, you might have a short race.
If you get too cold at night (and you will probably get cold, despite the weather) you might have a short race.
For your entire race, you must constantly be making decisions to manage your race. Manage your small problems before they turn into big problems.
There is a constant checklist that you must be going through. Folks ask all the time – isn’t it boring out there? The answer is a resoundingNO. The entire race – How am I feeling? When was the last time I drank water? When was the last time I ate something? Am I sweating a lot? Am I not sweating enough? Are my hands swelling? How do my feet feel? Am I moving fast enough? Am I keeping it slow enough? Where is my heart rate right now? Too high?
I have said in the past that during a race (maybe life in general…) we have a box of matches. If you push a bit too hard in a section – you burned a match. If you pushed your calories? Burn a match. Went for too long with empty water bottles? Burn a match. Your entire goal during a hundred miler is to make the miles as easy as possible. When you go above that baseline, you are playing with fire and you don’t know how long you are going to be able to maintain that effort. Or whether that energy will be there the next time.
But my main strategy for Traveller is to run fun. I can’t wait to get to Powerline Outbound and pick up my first pacer. I want to tell them all about my race so far. I can’t wait to get back and head back over Smith Mountain the dark! Run fun. A positive attitude – and I have no idea how to train for this – is probably the best thing that you can carry with you during Traveller.
Know this – Traveller is NOT what you expect it to be. You will have expectations about the race and about what you think you will have trouble with. You will likely experience those challenges and many more that you had never anticipated. For me, this is exciting. 100 miles is a long way and 30 hours is a long time. Can you ever make it through a day without something unexpected happening? Why would the Traveller be any different? Why would you WANT it to be any different?
One of the athletes in Christopher MCDougall’s Born to Run says that ultrarunning is an eating contest with some running thrown in. This is not far from the truth. Your success will be determined by the number of calories that you are able to consume.
I think that I read somewhere or heard on some podcast somewhere that 300 calories an hour should be your goal and that that is the most that you can get in. What I do to try and get there is to eat two gels per hour. Yes. That means one gel every thirty minutes. Yes, that is disgusting.
I am a nerd. Numbers and precision matter to me. Being able to check off 200 calories per hour definitelymatters to me. While it is still gross, I like the VFuel gels. They taste like real food, which helps I think. They have a bunch of stuff on their web page about why theirs are better and such. I have read it; it doesn’t’ sound unreasonable. They taste better. I have done GU as well. They don’t taste as good. I know the big thing a couple years back was to load up on maple syrup but that stuff turned my stomach in an instant. (NOTE: at the time I started writing this, I was NOT a VFuel Ambassador. I am at present. Feel free to use code ‘Kurt20%’ for a discount. I like it. I used it before I was an ambassador; I will use it long after I am an ambassador.)
I also make an effort to look at all of the food at each aid station. I won’t always get a lot. But I look at everything. If it looks good, I grab it. I usually skip the candy but if that is what you want, grab it! I think of this as my body trying to let me know what it needs. Sometimes turkey sandwich with a TON of mustard on it. Sometimes PBJ. Sometimes bacon. Watermelon for sure. Often a cup of ginger ale – which seems to help the old stomach feel better. Sometimes beer.
I know that stomach problems are the reason lots of folks don’t finish ultramarathons. I think the science goes something like your digestion slows once your legs are really moving. All that extra blood is keeping you moving and your digestion is less of a priority. The gels are a little easier on your stomach, I think, and the small amount of aid station food helps to trick your body into thinking you are not hungry. The less you have in your stomach means the less your chances of GI distress are.
One of the newer things out there are the complete drink mixes from Tailwind and Skratch Labs. I have not had much luck with these, mainly because I have a tough time managing the calories. If I drink it full strength, it seemed too salty and I had a hard time drinking it. If I didn’t drink enough, then you were behind on water, salt, and calories – not a winning combination. Now, this is my experience only and plenty of others do this exact thing with great success. It seems to be a bit like putting all of your eggs in one basket.
Of course, plenty of folks do plenty of other things to get them from Camp Ouachita back to Camp Ouachita. This has worked for me. One of the things I hear frequently is “I like realfood…” Again, nothing wrong with this but it has been harder for me. What does 300 calories look like in an hour? Can you eat it and avoid digestive distress?
As with a lot of things, it is very hard to predict what is going to happen out there in the wee morning hours. Eating like this is good training but eating like this is very hard to train for.
Chris and Ronnie last year led a whole lot of great training runs. Most weekends they were running 25+ miles either ON the Traveller course or out there in the Ouachita National Forest so it was the same kind of roads and trails.
I don’t have the recovery capacity or the time to get out there and crush big runs like this a few times a month. But know this: there is no substitute for getting out there on the course and breaking off a big run. I also don’t lay down impressive times like Ronnie and Chris do.
I run five times a week and train strength twice. On my Monday – Tuesday – Wednesday runs, I try to train a skill. Right now, I am doing hill repeats on Monday and Wednesday, and something that vaguely resembles intervals on Tuesday. I do the hills because I need the elevation. I do the intervals to improve speed.
Friday and Saturday are long-ish run days. I run 8-12 miles on Friday before work – just running. Then I do what I can on Saturday. I shoot for 20 but I may run out of time to get there. My goal on Saturday is to get done what I can in the morning and then try to stay active with the boys all day. Soccer games. Karate. Whatever. We will take a train to DC and walk the mall. Time on feet is what matters.
Then, once a month I will try to race an ultra of some stripe. There is an all night 50-miler here that is good night time practice. Maybe a timed race. Something. I don’t live near a whole lot of trails similar to Ouachita National Forest, so these races substitute for my trail time.
Again, not ideal. But I try to keep near 45-55 miles per week for most weeks and longer once a month when I race. This is all about balance for me. Keep moving as much as possible.
New Pedestrian Approach
Part of writing this was done with the intent to describe a Traveller completion approach that involved a whole lot of walking. In order to help with this, I have been training walking more. Two evenings a week, I put kids in bed and go for a walk. I put my trail shoes on or sandals – depending on how I am feeling – and go for an hour long walk or so. Walking intervals, too. This is an easy way to sneak in an extra 8-12 miles of training per week without the additional wear and tear of that much more running.
When it comes to the Traveller course, there are likely some sections that are better for walking than running. The Ouachita Trail section comes to mind. My buddy Kristin says that if the OT were any less runnable it would be a brick wall. Maybe walk this entire section to ensure you stay upright. The other parts that I might walk are the sections between E-Tower and Rocky Gap. Then the part between Rocky Gap and Wynona where it is still kind of rocky. The section between Pig Trail and up and over Smith Mountain is tricky, too.
I guess the approach here is like most of ultrarunning – don’t take unnecessary risk. Don’t trip and fall and hurt yourself in an attempt to make a couple of minutes up over a nasty section. As always, it depends on your goals. But it is better to get to finish in one piece than take a nasty fall and DNF. When I deployed to Iraq, our battalion Executive Officer used to say: “Do what you can afford to do.”
In 2017, I am not sure I ran a step after the Lake Wynona Aid Station at Mile 32 or so. Seriously. It was a hot day and I was gassed when I made it there. My legs felt heavy and swollen and I couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm. So I did what I could – and that was walk. I walked the whole way from Wynona to Powerline. I ran a few steps between Powerline and Turnaround. Then I walked the whole way back up from the Turnaround. No need to risk Smith Mountain at night, you know? So let’s walk that.
If you can get to Powerline in 12 hours – you can walk to a finish. You can’t give up too much time. But you can get a finish. It won’t be easy; it will take all you have. But you can finish.
I am not the best runner out there by any metric. I feel like I am a reliable runner. I generally finish mid to back of the pack and maybe mid to back of the mid to back of the pack. But if you want to share some miles in the most beautiful course in the second most beautiful state (Hawaii is #1), then line up withme in October.