100 Miles in the Shoes of an Ultra Runner

It’s been called the “Race Across the Sky” and it’s at the top of many runners’ bucket lists. It’s the Leadville 100 and it’s pushed limits since 1983. For those unfamiliar, the ultra race — defined as any race longer than a marathon or 26.2 miles — is a 100-mile trail run through some of the Colorado Rockies’ best scenery and most challenging terrain — pushing runners from 9,200 feet to 12,600 feet, from Sugarloaf Pass to Hope Pass, around lakes and through forests.

All this made us ask the question: What does it feel like to run 100 miles? So we talked to six ultra runners — from hobby runners to elite game changers — for a glimpse into everything from their training to the mental game and crossing the finish line.

The Runners

Taylor Bodin:
Years Running: 14
Ultras Completed: 8
Dawn Bodin:
Years Running: 17
Ultras Completed: 3
Garrick Mann:
Years Running: 4
Ultras Completed: 1
Derek Brooks:
Years Running: 8
Ultras Completed: 10
John Grotenhuis:
Years Running: 17
Ultras Completed: 11
Junko Kazukawa:
Years Running: 40
Ultras Completed: 51

Training

Dawn Bodin on a trail run. Photo by Taylor Bodin.

“The goal for training is to do back to back runs, so six hours one day and then go out and do four or five or six the next day. It’s always running on tired legs.” — Taylor Bodin

Ultra runners understand that you don’t approach 100 miles the same way you approach 26.2. You have to prepare the body and the mind equally for the hours upon hours that lay before you. Training the two go hand in hand. “You need to have those days when you’re getting stormed on for an hour,” said Brooks. “Or where you get up super early and go in the middle of the night.”

In a close second to mental and physical prep is diet. “You have to know what agrees with your stomach,” said Kazukawa. “You definitely don’t want to try something new on the day.”

The basics of training are there, but breaking down the specifics is entirely dependent on each runner. Do you calculate your carb to fat intake or simply take in all the calories you can? Do you train by time, distance, heart rate? Even the age-old carb-loading theory is up for debate among ultra runners. “I think, come to ultras, you just do whatever makes you feel the most energetic,” said Kazukawa. “Listen to your body.”

The Start Line

Derek Brooks and friend in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Michael Hodges.

“I’m not super excited about it. I’m just ready for the gun to go off or whatever so I can relax and just see the place.” — Derek Brooks

This is the moment the months of training have led to. At the start line, there’s an undeniable energy in the air as runners gather with friends and strangers to share a race of mutual excitement and suffering — as Kazukawa puts it, “It’s the excitement of ‘I’m gonna start out a journey of 20-some hours of suffering.’”

But not all the energy is focused on the suffering. “I’m probably just more excited to be in the moment and in the start line,” said Grotenhuis.

As the energy of the crowd builds, the more competitive runners size up their competition. “I was just looking around at everyone else, looking at their shoes or their packs,” said D. Bodin. Or as T. Bodin said, “As competitive as we are, I want to see who I might be running with. I just want to do well.”

Finding The Pace

Men trail running. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

“First part, everybody is a little bit faster. Then through the night people slow down. Toward the end, I feel like I’m probably running bad.” — Junko Kazukawa

With 100 miles looming ahead, every ultra runner knows the importance of finding their pace quickly. “People who have done it know if you speed up at the beginning it’s not going to last to the end,” said Kazukawa. Though the excitement at the start line can send even the most experienced ultra runners on a fast start. “I probably start out way too quick,” said Grotenhuis. “You know, the gun goes off and I’m like, Oh!”

While most runners find that pace or rhythm within the first couple miles, with a race spanning 100 miles and 20-plus hours it’s guaranteed to fluctuate. “It’s all paces at all different times,” said Kazukawa. “Toward the end, if you walked you’d probably walk faster than my running.”

The Wall

Taylor Bodin at the Palisades Ultra Trail Series. Photo by Chadwick Photography. Courtesy of Palisades Ultra.

“There was one point when we were crawling. There was an old lady crawling up faster than we were. We were like, why are we doing this guys?!” — John Grotenhuis

“The Wall” is an infamous part of marathons that runners expect to hit between miles 18-20. The adrenaline of that helps you “push through because there are only a few miles left,” said T. Bodin. “But in an ultra, it’s not really that easy because you have a second wind, third wind, fourth wind.” So does “the Wall” play a part in ultras at all? Of every aspect of the race, this is the one area that no one seems to agree on:

D. Bodin: “I feel like to hit the wall either you’re very under-trained or there’s an external factor.”

Mann: “That’s hitting the wall — it’s ‘is there anything actually left in your blood to give to your muscle tissue to use?’”

Brooks: “I don’t think that it’s training or diet or nutrition-based. I think everybody runs into it at some point.”

Grotenhuis: “It’s just one moment where you’re just like, what did I do wrong? It’s like, you have to just start pulling yourself out, dig deeper, search for something you didn’t know you had.”

Kazukawa: “I think it depends on the person what the wall is — physiological change and throwing up can be a wall, sleepy is a wall, some people aren’t moving as fast as they want to be and get mentally discouraged; that’s a wall.”

The Dreaded DNF – Did Not Finish 

Some walls can’t be climbed — “There’s bonking,” said T. Bodin. “You hit a wall and you can’t get out of it.” Every runner seems to have their own encounter with the dreaded DNF — did not finish. For some, it’s a traumatizing experience that knocks their confidence. “I just couldn’t accept that I did not finish,” said Kazukawa. “I had anxiety for the following race, but I tried to prove to myself that I could finish again.” For others, it’s a learning experience. “No excuses,” said Brooks. “I just didn’t finish. It sucked but it’s also good. It’s a humbling experience.” Either way, it’s not an experience that most ultra runners repeat. “I really did not want to get used to the feeling that I did not finish,” said Kazukawa. “No more DNF.”

The Motivation

Junko Kazukawa in the Never Summer Mountains. Photo Courtesy of Junko Kazukawa.

“You squeeze it out. It’s there. If you don’t give up you can make it. And, if you stop, nobody will drag you to the finish line.” — Junko Kazukawa

Whether or not an ultra runner hits a wall or bonks, with 100 miles to cover there has to be a source of motivation to continue putting one foot in front of the other. For most runners — especially those able to call Colorado home — that motivation stems from the pure joy of running in nature. “If you go out and cover 20 miles at a time you just see so much,” said T. Bodin. As Brooks put it, “On the trail, there’s a sense of deep reality — they’re grounding and centering and give me perspective.”

Beyond the element of nature, every runner agrees that it doesn’t take a superhuman to run 100 miles. “There’s this out there in the ultra community world — people say 100 miles isn’t that far,” said Brooks. “And, it’s not. Even when you don’t believe you can do it, take the next step.”

The Community

Leadville Trail 100. Photo by Karah Levely-Rinaldi via Flickr Creative Commons.

“You make some good friends. This last one I ran 40 miles with this one guy and he told me all about what’s going on in his life. It’s just cool.” — Taylor Bodin

Internal motivation is important in any race, but the ultra world is also a community of people there for each other and the shared experience. It isn’t uncommon for ultra runners’ paces to match up for an extended stretch of the course, and when you’re running those long distances what else is there to do but strike up a conversation. “You make a new friend,” said Brooks. “Have I kept in touch with any of them? Absolutely not, but for the time, for the race day, it’s super cool to be running out there with somebody else, talking about life and helping each other get through a hard thing.”

The people on the sidelines, manning the aid stations, are just as important as the people on the course. “People are super supportive and encouraging and they’re out there volunteering their time and they’re sitting there all day cheering you on,” said Brooks. “And even that, there’s a sense of community about it that rarely, or at least not regularly, you get in everyday life.”

The Finish Line

John Grotenhuis taking second place at the Estes Epic. Photo courtesy of John Grotenhuis.

“I’m just looking forward to being done with the race. And, at the finish line, they always have good food and beer and stuff.” — Dawn Bodin

More than a full day after kicking things off at the start line runners finally reach the end goal — the finish line — a place where food, beer and the chance to strip your shoes and socks off await. “It’s just pure excitement,” said Grotenhuis. “You compare it to having a baby. You don’t know that pain! And, once you finish you’re like that was awesome! Let’s go do it again.” Excitement, relief, food — “Crossing the finish line is kind of like, I don’t know, food,” said Brooks — are the thoughts running through the minds of finishers. “I always run to finish,” said Kazukawa. “There are so many things happening in one single race, it’s like a whole life experience. Then all those walls and pain and suffering and negativity are gone.”

What’s Next

Leadville: Training Hike/Run up the backside of Hope Pass. Photo by Eli Duke via Flickr Creative Commons

“I highly recommend pacing to anyone who is a runner. Your sole job is to support the other person — get them to the finish line and peel away as they’re crossing.” — Derek Brooks

The months building up to an ultra race and the hours of the run itself are exhilarating, exhausting and often inspiring for what comes next. As Grotenhuis said, “Let’s do it again.” To keep themselves going, many ultra runners sign up for the next race as soon as one is finished, but even that can require planning. “You need to qualify to apply to some races in the ultra world,” said Kazukawa. “So everybody is thinking about, ok next year I’m going to do this race to qualify to apply for this. And, in my case, I like to add every year some different element of challenge.” For others, the weeks after the race are a bigger letdown. “It’s done and over and now the ensuing weeks after that are almost a depression,” said Brooks. “Because this thing that has been such a big part of your life is now gone, it’s over.” But one way or another, the next goal is waiting somewhere down the line and the community is always ready to grow.

For people who want to get involved, Brooks recommends pacing, but if running any sort of distance isn’t for you, volunteer at an aid station or simply show up at the finish line to cheer on the racers. As Mann says, “It’s something you have to work into.”

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