Tuesday, May 21, 2019



Unfortunately, most people think of ultras as just running, but there is so much more. An ultra is about managing a whole bunch of potentially race-ending issues, while you are running. That’s what I love so much about the sport - all the planning and execution that, coupled with good running, will equate to a good result.

Obviously, the first thing that comes to most ultra runners minds is TRAINING - train harder, run more miles, cross train, etc. Don’t get me wrong, training is critical and the amount and intensity is a big differentiating factor between us mortals and the “elites”, yet there are other, relatively simple ways that most ultra runners can shave minutes and even hours off of their 100 mile times. These are low-hanging fruit, so be sure you have these figured out if you’re looking to reduce your finishing times. I believe these tips will help anyone, though if you’re vying for the podium, you’ve probably already figured most of this out by now.

Disclaimer - these recommendations will help with any ultra, but I’m focusing on 100 milers because the effects will be greater. Also, I’m focusing on the Leadville 100 because I’ve raced it 4 times and paced once, plus, there’s lots of data available to analyze.


If your race is at a high altitude (Leadville, Run Rabbit Run, Hardrock, etc.) and you live within reasonable access to the mountains, then you need to take altitude out of the equation. It’s simple - it takes far less time and effort to acclimate than it would to improve your running enough to compensate for the effects of high altitude.

You can acclimatize by running at altitude, but you really don’t need to. The most important thing is to spend time at altitude. Over the 2 months prior to Leadville, I try to climb a 14er once or twice a week and then spend the night camping in the back of my car at 11,000’+. Hiking is a great break from all the running training (physically and mentally) and sleeping up high is a great way to acclimatize without having to find extra time for additional training. Everyone has to sleep, so why not do it where you’ll get some added benefits? Additionally, most of us need to power hike up the hills during an ultra, so it presents a great opportunity for this specific training. As you get comfortable, you can introduce some weight in your pack, or ankle weights, but don’t overdo it. You still want to be moving at a reasonable rate. I would also recommend taking off the ankle weights during the descent and if you’re using water as pack weight for the climb, ditch it at the top. The extra weight on the way down will increase the chance of injury and it’s just not worth it.

The higher you can go, the more benefits you will reap (as long as you don’t get sick by going up too quickly). If possible, go higher than the highpoint in your planned race. Obviously, 14K is the limit here in Colorado, but why not go all the way to 14, even if the race only goes to 12? If you can function at 14, you’ll be feeling great at 12.

My goal is to have no ill effects as I’m going over Hope Pass, other than a little heavy breathing. Imagine the other runners gasping for breath, or bent over on the side of the trail puking. Think how much time you will save compared to them if you can properly acclimate.

Aid Stations

Leadville has 13 official aid stations, and an unofficial one at the top of Powerline on the return. Spending just 5 minutes at each stop will easily add up to over an hour! I’ve seen lots of runners taking a seat and having what appears to be a 3 course meal as they chat with crew and spectators. If you don’t care about the clock and are out there to hang out and have fun with your friends, by all means, do it. But if you’re chasing cut-off times, or want to improve your finish, you just can’t afford this luxury. Leadville has some of the most efficient aid stations around, so even without a crew you can get in and out quickly. My goal is less than a minute, preferably less than 30 seconds at most stations. I might spend an extra minute at Winfield, and possibly up to 2 minutes at Twin Lakes to change shoes on the return. That’s a total of 10 minutes vs. over an hour, and many runners waste closer to 2 hours. How much training would it take to be able to run an hour or two faster, rather than just being efficient?

Know what you need before you get to the aid station and don’t be afraid to ask the volunteers for help filling bottles, etc. That’s what they’re there for. Also, organize your drop bags so that you don’t have to spend precious minutes rummaging around for stuff. I tend to pack extra emergency stuff, just in case, but I have that at the bottom of the bag, packed in separate zip-loks. If everything is going well, I can just grab my can(s) of club soda and a small ziploc of snacks from the top of the bag and move out quickly.

Leadville has instituted the “clear bags only” rule for drop bags. While this may be annoying, and cost a few extra dollars to buy clear bags, it should also make it easier to see and grab what you need.

If you have a pacer for the second half, use them to run up ahead to the aid station and get you moved through efficiently. A crew is nice to have, but a pacer is much more critical, especially at Leadville. This is one of the only races I know of that allows muling - your pacer can carry everything for you! Even if you travel light, like I do, imagine not having to carry 2 water bottles, ajacket, and snacks as you’re climbing back up Hope Pass. DO everything you can to secure yourself a pacer.


There’s an old saying that “ultras are basically a giant buffet with a bit of running thrown in”. Unfortunately too many runners take this seriously. One of the main reasons for DNF’s is gastro intestinal issues - the result of either too much food, or the wrong type of food. Most runners simply eat too much, in the mistaken belief that they need to replenish all the calories they’re burning. Yes, we burn 600-900 calories per hour, but if you try to ingest that much during a run, it’s most likely going to come out - one end or the other. I know of a few elite runners who ingest 300-500 calories per hour, but they’re burning 800-1,000 and there are very few stomachs that can handle that kind of caloric intake.

Keep in mind that we all start with about 2,000 calories in our fuel tanks, and even the skinniest of runners still have 15,000-20,000 calories in reserve, stored in body fat. You are in no danger of wasting away.

Fueling is a very individualized issue so each runner needs to figure out what works for them, but if you’re having even the slightest stomach issues, don’t be afraid to cut back before it’s too late. GI issues are much more likely to lead to a bonk than lack of calories. Experiment in training and have a plan going in, but be flexible. Our bodies react differently on a daily basis due to constantly changing circumstances. It’s going to vary by effort, altitude, and certainly by temperature. When your body is fighting to keep you cool on a 95 degree day under a relentless desert sun, there’s not much left to go to digestion. Conversely, if the temperatures are down below freezing, your body will be able to handle more calories and most likely, demand them.

The other side of this issue is the type of foods eaten. Fats and proteins are more difficult to digest. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any, but be careful and don’t overdo it. Unfortunately, simple sugars can also cause problems if overdone so most runners won’t be able to get all their calories from gels and energy drinks without consequences. Experiment during long runs and training races.

Personally, I tend to go with 100-150 calories per hour, but that’s not going to work for everybody. I get most of my calories from sodas (ginger ale and cola) and chips (Doritos and Pringles). Chips and soda are unhealthy snack choices when you’re lounging around at home, but on the trail, they’re perfect. Chips provide a good combination of carbs and a little fat, plus the salt induces thirst, which is always a good thing while racing. Soda provides quickly and easily digestible calories, while also aiding hydration.

I’m going to throw caffeine into this section on fuel, even though it doesn’t actually provide calories. A little bit of caffeine can be a digestive aid. Too much however, can induce GI issues, especially if paired with too much sugar. You may want to save the caffeine boost till you need it later in the race or if you’ve hit an unexpected low spot. Caffeine not only gives you a physical boost, but it can help mentally as well. If you find yourself in a psychological pit, try some caffeine and/or sugar, just don’t overdo it.


Dehydration is another major cause of DNF’s and poor performance. A 100 mile race will take most of us 20-30+ hours. If you under-hydrate even by just a little bit early on, when you’re feeling great and the temperatures are mild or even cool, the cumulative effects will catch up with you before the finish. In severe cases, dehydration can require IV’s or hospitalization, but even in moderate cases, it can slow you down considerably.

The effects of dehydration will vary, but for me, I’ve gone from sprinting down a hill at a 7 minute pace to barely walking at a 25+ minute pace, on the same downhill, one lap later. Dehydration will amplify the effects of altitude and can impair mental functions. The bottom line is that dehydration will slow you down, by minutes, or hours - Don’t let it happen!

I know there’s much hype about hyponatremia, especially from the Leadville race doctor at the pre-race meeting. Some say that you should just drink when you’re thirsty. I can tell you from personal experience, if I followed that advice, my list of DNF’s would be exponentially larger. I find thirst to be a lagging indicator - by the time I’m thirsty, it’s too late to hydrate. I’ve seen world class athletes fall apart due to dehydration because it was cool and they weren’t thirsty. I’m not a doctor and certainly don’t want to see anyone die from hyponatremia, or dehydration. Experiment but be smart. No race is worth your life, or even your health.

Peeing at regular intervals (once every few hours) is a good indication of proper hydration, as long as the color is more like lemonade rather than iced tea. Not peeing for many hours might not necessarily mean that you are dehydrated, but it becomes harder to gauge. You really have to know your body well and keep a close eye on performance to feel comfortable with not peeing for 5-8 hours at a time. You’re on the edge, and you may not know when you’ve gone over until it’s way too late.

In addition to the bag of Doritos sticking out of my shorts, I’m well known at ultras for downing 1 to 2 cans of club soda at a time. That’s my drink of choice. Out on the trail, I mainly stick with plain water, but if I have the option of a drop bag at the aid stations, I go with club soda. I find it much more refreshing and appealing than water or sugary drinks. On hot days, I can easily guzzle 2 cans in less than a minute and be on my way. I also find the carbonation to actually settle my stomach. And, as an added bonus, I can usually delight the younger spectators with an impressive belch as I leave the aid station.

An important part of hydration is taking in adequate electrolytes. I learned this lesson the hard way after my very first ultra - I drank so much fluid after the race, in an attempt to re-hydrate, that I wound up throwing up for the first time in over 30 years. It was all liquids, and all because I hadn’t taken in any electrolytes. My stomach simply couldn’t absorb the liquids.

Personally, I get tired of sports drinks after the first bottle. Nuun is a more palatable option later in the race because it has very little sugar and is easier to stomach, so I use the tablets occasionally. You can get the needed electrolytes through a sports drink, but I generally prefer using capsules (Salt Caps, or similar). On a really hot day, I’ve taken as much as 4-6 capsules in an hour. I generally gauge it by how easily I’m absorbing the liquids - if my stomach is sloshing, I’ll take a capsule or two. I also keep an eye on my black shorts - if they’re caked in white salt crust, I know I’m losing quite a bit and have to make up for it.

Everyone has different needs, and those will change with time, temperature, effort, etc. You just have to experiment, as too much salt can cause stomach issues - yes, pretty much anything can cause stomach issues on a 100 miler.


This is one of my favorite subjects.

In talking to a fellow runner who had just gotten a golden coin to run Leadville, his first 100 miler, I said that he should aim to get to the halfway point (Winfield) feeling pretty fresh. Both he and his wife were incredulous. “How could you possibly feel fresh after running 50 miles?” My response was “how can you possibly expect to race another 50 miles if you’re not feeling fresh?”

It’s easy to run a fast 50 miles on a 100 miles course, or a fast half marathon on a marathon course, but so what? What have you actually accomplished? There are very few races that hand out prizes part way through the course. Will anyone sing your praises for being the first into Winfield if you have to drop before mile 80? Is it really impressive to run the first 50 in 9 hours, only to slog through the last 50 in 16 hours?

Running a consistent pace, which will actually require an increasing effort, is the surest way to have a great race. And, for most, it will mean finishing hours faster.

I have experienced the effects of poor pacing first hand, more times than I wish to admit. I have also seen so many runners succumb. It is truly painful to watch. I stand by my assertion that proper pacing will make or break a race. More importantly, it will give you the best possible result that you are capable of, whether it’s a 20 hour 100 miler or 30 hour.

Pacing takes discipline. First, you have to be realistic about your expected finish time and secondly, you have to stick to it, no matter how great you are feeling early on. When people tell me how great they’re feeling as they’re running around Turquoise Lake in the wee hours of the morning, I just want to smack them upside the head. Seriously. If you’ve still got 90+ miles to go, you damn well better be feeling great. That’s not an indication that you should be going faster. The early parts of an ultra should feel almost effortless. No, I’m not crazy. If you’re really working early on, you’re going to pay for it later, and big time.

Along with proper pacing, comes the use of pace charts (here’s a link to my Leadville pace chart). Pace charts are extremely useful tools, which unfortunately, are typically misused. Most runners use pace charts to push themselves to go faster - WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! A pace chart should be used to slow you down and keep you in control over the first 50-60 miles. That may sound crazy, but it’s true. It is almost unheard of for a runner to be going too slow early on, yet the vast majority of runners actually go out way too fast. At Leadville, the typical runner returns 4 hours slower in the second half, and believe me, they are not enjoying it.

Lots of ultra runners like to argue with me about the merits of even pacing (maintaining a steady speed while increasing your effort throughout the race). No one argues about even pacing on marathons. Due to the increased numbers and competition, even paced marathons have long since been proven to be produce the best results. After running hundreds of races (including 37 100 milers), observing hundreds of runner, and studying thousands of results, I am more convinced than ever that even pacing is best way to get the best results out of your body.

So there you have it, hours of time can be cut off of most runners times, without actually running faster. If you doubt me, try to dissect your last 100 miler, or find the opportunity to observe some runners from the sidelines.