Setting big, intimidating goals often brings out the best in us. This is the story how Don prepared for his first 100-mile ultra marathon (after less than four years running).
Audacious goals come in many forms but for those that want to push themselves to the limit, 100 miles is a particularly daunting challenge.
But Don tackled it with vigor!
Couch to Ultra Marathoner
Don was not a lifelong runner. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2014 a friend asked him to run a Tough Mudder and at the time he admits, “I had never run a step in my life.”
That Tough Mudder was nearly 10 miles long and filled with obstacles (it was also his first race ever). With only two months of training, he embraced the challenge and soon got hooked on the sport.
Less than a year later in May 2015, Don was lining up for his first marathon. He had an incredibly successful debut, running it in 3:43:32. He told me, “I smashed my goal of breaking 4 hours.”
2015 continued to be a stellar year for Don:
- He ran a successful first ultra marathon in June with a 50k
- Later that year he crushed his marathon best, running 3:19 at the Steamtown Marathon
- He ended the year with the JFK 50 miler, running an eye-popping 8:51 for his first attempt at the distance
We could end this story here and congratulate Don on running PR’s and new distances successfully. But periods of enormous progress are often followed by setbacks…
Erratic Training –> Erratic Racing
Don’s success was relatively short-lived because his training was often inconsistent and overzealous as he tried to “make up” training time to get in better shape.
In early 2016, Don got injured while trying to push himself in training for another marathon PR:
I was determined to run 3:05 in Pittsburgh. The paces felt too fast but I stuck with it until a predictable calf injury about a month out. I ran the race anyway but wasn’t anywhere near 100% and didn’t meet my expectations.
Although Don completed some other ultra marathon races that year, he wasn’t able to better his marathon best.
2017 brought a new mix of highs and lows. Don was able to finish the 70.5-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra but the race challenged him physically and mentally. He admits that his training was erratic and told me that “I suffered mightily throughout.”
Unfortunately, the rest of Don’s 2017 races suffered from a string of less than ideal decisions. Rather than recovering properly from his June ultra marathon, Don threw himself into marathon training hoping to earn a Boston qualifier.
Again, he fell short of his goal. His next decision had even worse repercussions: the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). Don told me:
Thinking I could make the most of my fitness, I bumped my entry from the 50K to 100 miles! I jammed in some long trail runs and hoped for the best.
DNF @ mile 60.
To cap off the dumpster fire that was my second half of the year, I ran a thoroughly flat JFK 50 in 8:56. My training and recovery cycles were all messed up and needed a hard reset.
Rather than continuing this downward spiral, Don realized he needed to make some changes.
While he had achieved impressive results with his initial commitment to training, he knew he needed a better plan to continue moving forward.
Better Planning –> Faster Racing
Rather than plunging into a new training cycle, Don took the time to consider what his next step should be. He said:
I took some time off at the end of the year and decided I first needed to pick a goal and devote myself to it 100%.
I wrote down a number of options and ultimately decided that I really wanted to check off the 100-mile distance and also get my Western States lottery ticket for the year.
After considering scheduling and location, Don decided on the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Miler in Virginia.
While every 100 miler is difficult because of the distance, adding 19,000 feet of elevation gain and rocky, unforgiving terrain makes it even tougher.
Compared to the 100-miler that Don had previously been unable to finish, this was a significant step up in difficulty.
But Don had done his research, considered the options, and made a commitment. In order to make the race a success, he knew he needed to make changes to his training.
I knew that I needed to get back on track with a well thought out and organized training plan if I was to have any chance at success. Enter the custom training plan…
More Strategic Ultra Marathon Training
Don invested in a PR Race Plan, a customized training program built to his specific fitness level, goals, schedule, injury background, and a host of other personalized factors.
He new that he needed a fresh approach to brea through his plateau and avoid his most frustrating injuries.
For Don, the decision to purchase the PR plan was an easy one. He admitted that he needed help with his training:
Frankly, as a data-oriented person, I finally had to admit that my way wasn’t cutting it anymore. With such a scary goal on the table, it was worth investing a small amount to try and increase my chances of success.
Don’s new training plan not only included mileage, pace ranges for every run, and faster workouts, but also daily pre- and post-run routines to build strength and dynamic flexibility.
While the running was familiar to him, adapting to the new strength routines took time. But he committed to them fully and recognized that the little things matter.
A challenge was making sure I did the routines consistently. Especially on days where I could not execute right after the run, there was a strong temptation to skip them when I got home and had dinner.
I had to remind myself that this is what I signed up for and in the end the little things would make a difference.
Committing to a goal can be the easy part. Following through is often far more difficult!
How Did Don Feel During Ultra Marathon Training?
Compared with his previous training, Don felt his new plan accomplished a lot more:
- It provided variety in his daily runs (both length and pace).
- It reduced training monotony.
- It included days with harder efforts to improve fitness and turnover.
- Long runs and workouts progressed in a logical manner.
As Don progressed, he noticed he felt more resilient and bounced back quickly from his workouts and long runs. He no longer felt like he had a “strong engine in a weak body.” He told me:
I had become accustomed to breaking down as plans progressed. My hips would normally ache on longer trail efforts. My lower back would get sore. It would hurt when I coughed!
With my new plan all of that was very much minimized. I felt fairly strong the entire 20 weeks and in the race had zero issues of that nature.
Because he remained injury free, Don was able to train consistently throughout his entire plan. Rather than having a week of mega miles followed by a week of recovery, he consistently ran moderately high mileage with just a few targeted cutback weeks.
The consistency paid off after a 50-mile tune up race, when he was back to running 7 minute miles just a few days later!
How Don Ran His 100 Miler
As the weeks passed and Don continued to get stronger, his training plan prepared him to face the physical and mental challenges of his 100-mile race:
The PR Race Plan delivered an organized, logical plan to follow for the duration of my training, including tune-up races and additional strength work.
I knew what I had to do each day to get better and was able to focus on execution. This alone made me feel much more positive about my running and my chances for success on race day.
When race day arrived, Don was able to execute his race plan successfully, finishing well ahead of his pacing plan!
Here’s what he told me after his first 100 mile ultra marathon:
I finished one of the toughest 100+mile races in the East in great shape and ahead of my goal time. On a day that saw 33% DNF’s I never really gave it a thought.
My legs and core were super strong throughout despite the 19,000+ feet of vertical gain and famous rocks.
Don credits his success to two things in particular that should resonate with all runners:
- The little things matter, a lot.
- Consistency is king.
By making tweaks to his training and adding short strength workouts to his daily routine, Don found that these little things added up exponentially over time.
As he stayed healthy and bounced back from his workouts, he remained consistently strong throughout his training cycle.
In the end, this allowed him to complete an incredible challenge: a successful 100 miler.
It is hard to express how much was on the line for me in this race. I had already failed at the distance. I was very public amongst my friends and at work about my goal. There were no available excuses – all that remained was the question of whether I could do it.
Was it good enough? I finished 76/190 and 1hr 20 min ahead of my pace plan! My legs were incredibly resilient throughout the race.
I can tell how well prepared I was by the fact that I was entertaining a run by the following Wednesday.
Don’s success and positive outlook while attempting something so difficult is a stark reminder of the power of intelligent training and patient, consistent execution.
He’s already looking ahead to the future, establishing new goals and maybe tackling a new marathon PR.
His recommendation of the PR Race Plan speaks for itself:
I would definitely recommend this plan to someone with similar goals. The flow and strength work allow you to maintain relatively high mileage for the balance of the plan, and that builds resilience that will get you to the finish line.
Congratulations Don on not just a successful 100 mile ultra marathon finish, but doing so with a smile on your face, no injuries, and under goal time. That’s the type of success story we love sharing here on Strength Running.
If you’re training for an ultra – or any race – consider a custom training program to stack the odds in your favor and achieve your next daunting goal!