The rise of the 100-mile marathon runner

Originally published on The Running Bug

Forget marathons, 100 miles is the hot new race distance to aim for. Don’t believe us? This lot should convince you.

The rise of the 100-mile marathon runner
To a beginner runner, a marathon may seem like a race distance beyond your wildest dreams. But a new breed of runner is on the rise; one that makes 26.2 miles look like a walk in the park. Could you ever conceive running 100 miles in one go? This lot can, and they believe you can too if you put your mind (and your feet) to it.

Kate Driskell from London ran the Centurion Running North Downs Way 100 earlier this year in 28 hours. ‘I have something of a diesel engine,’ says Kate, ‘Through luck of genes plus my diet, I don’t need to eat carbs to fuel my runs. I also really enjoy running alone, so the longer the better for me- plenty of time to myself!’

Kate maintains that 100-milers don’t compare. ‘It’s nothing like running a marathon,’ she says. ‘Marathons are really hard! Running brings discomfort in many different ways. I associate marathons with a deep nausea and pains in my stomach which make it hard to keep up the pace. I’m not that quick at marathons as a result!’

Ultras are a different ballgame. ‘You go through cycles of your brain sabotaging you in different ways, as well as niggling aches and pains that come and go. There are almost always periods where you think “I’m rubbish, I’m so slow, why am I even doing this?” but it’s all just your mind trying to protect your body from damage, so if you want to finish you have to push on through the dark periods.’

The good news is these don’t last. ‘They always go away and you always have better thoughts later. If you’re good at problem solving and self-talk you can do fine at ultras.’

For Kate, the most challenging aspect of the distance was the terrain. ‘I suffered with sore feet in the last 30 miles with lots of rocky ground and little protection from it,’ she says. ‘I made up a song about how much I hated rocks and sang it loudly for many miles. There may have been swearing in it a little bit.’

But rocks aside, she enjoyed the race. ‘I loved running under the stars in the woods and fields – so quiet and beautiful – into the dawn.’

Mental strength

Michelle Burke from Limerick, Ireland started running in 2013. ‘I always knew I wanted to run further than marathon distance,’ confesses Michelle. ‘I made the decision at the end of my first marathon that I would go longer. Within about 12 months I knew I would take on 100 miles, although I never imagined I would do it so soon!’

Michelle credits mental strength with her running success. ‘When it comes to great distances and difficult races, it really is a matter of how strong you are mentally,’ she says. ‘After some personal struggles I wanted to prove to myself that I am stronger than I could have ever believed.’

All the pain was worth it. ‘The best part was seeing how my wonderful family and friends rallied to support me. No matter what happened out there, the support showed me I have great people in my life.’

‘Self-belief is imperative,’ she added. ‘Believing you can cover the distance is key. Pick the right race for you. Not all races are the same. Pace is everything, and run your own race; not someone else’s. But I think anyone can do it, with the right attitude.’

Positivity is key

Cat Simpson, a Student Nurse from London, ran the North Downs Way 100 last year. ‘It was probably one of the hardest ones for a first go and it took me 25.5 hours! But for me completing a 100-mile event was the ultimate long-distance race and I didn’t really feel like a real ultra runner until I’d had a crack at this distance.’

‘The most challenging aspect of the distance was resisting the temptation to set out at a pace that you can’t maintain,’ says Cat. ‘Staying positive and not overthinking things like pains can be tough too. But not having to worry about doing anything other than running and eating for a day is pretty enjoyable.’

To train for the event Cat ran to work and back to get her base mileage up. ‘I also kept in a couple of speed sessions a week for variety and got up to about 30 miles as my longest run,’ she says. ‘I’ve been up for 24 hours in the past on nights out clubbing, so figured if I can do that then I can run for the same duration!’

She believes anyone can do it. ‘If it’s something that you want to do, then you absolutely can – it just takes consistent training.’

Gradual progress

Paul Foster from the Scottish Borders gradually worked his way up to 100 miles over the past five years. ‘I first opted for the 95-mile West Highland Way race in Scotland,’ he says. ‘I was lucky enough to get a ballot entry and ran it in June 2016 taking 21:29 and came 33rd out of 201 runners.’

You don’t need to be an athlete to take on such a mammoth distance. ‘I knew to run 100 miles would take me near or over 24 hours, so I didn’t know how I’d handle the sleep deprivation,’ he says. ‘I have three young kids though, so maybe that’s helped with training!’

100 miles may sound like a very long way to run, but most runners factor in walk breaks. ‘I don’t think many people other than the elite/pro runners could finish a 100-mile race without walking,’ he says. ‘I walked up the hills and after eating I would walk for a short while to let the food settle before picking up the pace again. I also walked during the night time section to sneak through fields of cows!’

Paul agrees 100-miles just doesn’t compare to marathon running. ‘Most people in a marathon will be running at a very fast pace for the whole race,’ he says. ‘In a 100-mile race (and most ultras) you need to find a slower “forever” pace that you can maintain for a much longer period of time.’

But there are little moments of magic that keep you going. ‘Five or six miles into West Highland Way race at about 2am I stopped to take a pee. A really big clear shooting star went by overhead that I would’ve missed if I hadn’t stopped – I took this as a good luck omen that I was going to do ok!’

The mental battle

Susie Chan from Surrey progressed to 100 miles three years after she took up running. ‘I had done a few ultras by this point, but you really, really need to want to run 100 miles before you sign up,’ she explains. ‘It’s such a mental battle more than anything. A strong desire to finish will prevail over leg fatigue!’

‘The first time I cheered a 100-mile race, I could not believe my eyes once you get past 75 miles!’ she adds. ‘The sheer grit of the participants was incredible. I knew the day would come when I had to run one too see what it was like for myself!’

Susie does struggle with eating. ‘Food was a battle, and you really need to keep on top of it in a 100 miler,’ she says. ‘Of course it’s mentally challenging past 70 miles. It’s a daunting distance, but I broke it down into check points.’

She agrees that 100-miles doesn’t compare to marathon running. ‘It’s a very different ball game,’ says Susie. ‘Your brain kind of adjusts to the distance. If you get the first half out if the way, then it’s all mind games and grit for the second 50. Having said that I started seeing things overnight on the first 100; I thought all the tree roots were snakes!’

But it was worth it. ‘The best thing about running 100 miles is the people you meet. The camaraderie is unbelievable. That and the finish line!’

Break it down

Martin Hookway from Doncaster started running in 2012. ‘I did my first ultra after only eight months of training,’ he says. ‘I wanted a challenge. Since then I’ve had the bug and now I want to see what I am capable of, I plan to attempt to run further and further each year.’

His meteoric rise was not without challenges. ‘Apart from the obvious wear and tear on the body, I struggled initially with nutrition, mainly because I could not swallow food while running,’ he explains. ‘But the satisfaction and sense of achievement after completing these distances is immense.’

Martin broke the race down into checkpoints. ‘I hate marathons with a passion, they feel like oversized 10K races,’ he admits. ‘Ultras are so much more fun; yes, I said fun. You get to run at a “steady” pace on the flat, you can walk up hills, and then fly down hills like a madman, the change in pace really does brake the run down. Oh and don’t let me forget the cake; you won’t see a table full of cakes and goodies half way around a marathon.’

He found running at night to be the hardest aspect. ‘Your mind will start to play tricks on you; you need a strong mind to get through it. But you just plod on until the sun comes up, a sunrise can give you that much needed boost.’

Martin believes anyone can run 100 miles. ‘As long as a person has good fitness levels, a strong mind will get them to the finish.’