By Suman Silwal
Since 2012, when I started to transition from the regular marathon world into the trail and ultra-marathon world, I was frequently asked if I would ever run a 100 mile race. I heard many horror stories of running 100 mile races and the challenges it brings, and so my answers were always “never”, “maybe one day”, or “only after crossing the Boston marathon finishing line.” As a runner, we all want to progress and challenge ourselves to “go beyond” and find personal limits. I could have stopped at 5k, but now I have already run 41 marathons and ultra-marathons. Eventually, I would run a 100 mile race after running a few 50 miler races – a natural progression of a runner. I did not know it would be on March 29th and 30th of 2014.
This was the inaugural year of the Lake Martin 100 (LM100). After giving much thought to it, I signed up for the Lake Martin 50 with the option of moving up to the LM100. My trail running mentors Vanessa Stroud and David Touch (the race director of the LM100) kept telling me I was ready for my first 100. However, like most would say, running 100 miles through day and night was just unimaginable. I didn’t know how runners could get ready for such an epic event and run that much in one setting. Every time I thought about running the LM100, I started to get a cold sweat.
As I was packing for the race, I had bags ready to either volunteer after the 50 mile race or run the LM100. When I got to the LM lodge – the race headquarters- and started talking to other runners, I realized that I might actually be prepared for the 100 mile race after all. A few friends who’d trained with me and/or knew about my training told me that I was more than ready. Still, 100 miles is 100 miles, and I’d never ran an all-night run. One of the runners at the lodge, who overheard me talking about my inexperience running trails at night, told me that he had a similar issue when he was pacing someone through the night. He was told that “Running at night is like bleeding – natural.” That boosted my morale a bit. I went to sleep at night while thinking of running the LM50 and woke up with a sudden thought – if I go for the LM100, the worst possible thing that would happen to me is that I would not finish and instead settle for 50 miles. It would be good training for future 100 milers and help me to “go beyond” my current distance.
In a race environment, I am the type of runner who runs only distances that I am committed to. There was no way I would commit to a 50 miler and run a 100 miler. So when I got to the stable, where the race started, I requested to exchange my 50 miler bib to a 100. News flew quickly to my trail running community – “Suman is going for 100.”
There I was, 15 minutes before the race started, with a commitment to something that I never done before with many unknowns and unanswered questions. But I had no time to think any more. I had just enough time to put all my drop bags, pin my bib, and line for the race. Once I started the race, my heart was at peace and my mind and body were ready to go the distance. I was there to complete the journey to my first 100 mile finishing line!
How does one train for a 100 mile race?
A common answer I hear from runners who train for a 100 miler race is “you really cannot train for a 100.” What? No training, really? I did not understand the concept. I had a long Facebook conversation on this topic. One of the common tips in the conversation was to do a long run around 30-40 miles, and run 10-15 miles for the next few days. I was also recommended to do some night runs. Mostly, people build up to the 100 mile race rather than just running a full 80-90 miles as a training run.
Little did I know that my training may have actually started in February 2013, when I paced a 4:30 Mercedes Marathon group and in less than a week I ran the Cheaha 50k. I also ran two other weekend races back-to-back: the Country Music Marathon and the Kids Challenge 50k. Through the summer of 2013, I ran many trails and road runs with different combinations including road to trail runs to prepare for summer and fall races – I enjoy summer training, and this is where I log most of my miles. Also, the 2013 Birmingham Stage race by Southeastern Trail (http://www.southeasterntrailruns.com/), which covered 53 miles in 3 days at 3 different mountains around Birmingham, helped to boost my morale on distance racings. Even though none of the stage races were an ultra-distance race, I felt a sense of accomplishment after finishing these weekend races.
In November of 2013, I had an opportunity do some extreme trekking around the Mt. Everest region. I grew up in Nepal. For city dwellers from Kathmandu, trekking was always for people came from outside the country. It was not for local folks like us. But when I finally tried it, I loved every minute of my trekking experience. At the beginning, I thought trekking had hurt my running, which took a bit longer to recover. I found during the LM100 race that it in fact helped me (more on this later). In December, I attempted more back-to-back races when I ran the Rocket City Marathon and the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society’s (BUTS) Barely Ultra.
Once the calendar rolled to 2014, my goal was to go slower paced and cover distances to get ready for 3 ultra-marathons and three 4:30 marathon pacing group gigs that I had signed up for. I ran most of my road training run in 10:00 – 10:15 paces to train for pacing marathons. Before I ran Mt. Mist 50k, we had a run named “Got Hill?” where we continually climbed up and down the hills of Oak Mt. I ran 4 races: Mt. Mist 50k, New Orleans Marathon, Mercedes Marathon and Cheaha 50k, all in less than 4 weeks. It was an epic experience. In all these races, I was covering distance at a much slower pace than normal, which helped me to recover quickly. I did not realize these experiences were slowly preparing me to get ready for the LM100 in March.
Something I’d started since the Tranquility 50K in November was using running to recover from running. I was trying a concept called “Iron Cuts Iron”, which translates to “Running to heal running pains”. The idea was to run at a much slower pace, but still run post long runs and races. In the past, I used to take a few days off. The day after I paced the Mercedes Marathon, I ran to get ready for the Cheaha 50k. As I was running at an almost walking pace, one of the neighborhood kids yelled at me: “Why are you NOT running?”
When I started the month of March, I had 3 races planned – one 5k, the Publix GA marathon, and the LM50. I ran 5k for time/speed. The day after I ran the Sub-21 5k, I attempted my last epic 40 mile training run (Disclaimer: I don’t advise you to run a fast 5k and then a 40 miler the day after). I had a lot of friends join me to start the run for some distances. Some ran 5 miles, some ran 10-15 miles, and one, Ryan, stayed with me to run up to 31 miles. I was committed to run 40 miles, so I did it. It took me around 10 hours from to start to finish. It was my first run beyond a 50k distance and past 7 hours. I was very happy to get over with this 40 mile hangover that I had wanted to do for so long. At the end of the run, I knew that I could now finish my first 50 miler. After my 40 mile run, I continued to run every day till Thursday of that week.
I paced the hilly course of the Publix GA marathon on March 23rd. Once the GA marathon was over, I tapered for my last epic race of the series that I had started in January. I ran 6 quick trail miles with friends from the Georgia Ultra Running and Trail Running Society (GUTS) at the Kennesaw Mt. trails north of Atlanta. It was spring break week, so I took a few days off to hang out with family and rest/recover for the LM50.
Between the months of January and March, before the LM100, I was continually between trails, roads and the treadmill. I never logged more than 60 miles in a week and more than 176 miles in a month. Depending on the week, I ran 4-5 days per week. This was a hard winter, so I tried to minimize outdoor running as much as possible. Staying healthy through this process was important.
That is all the training I had. You may still have a question: did this really prepare me for a 100 mile race? My answer: I guess it did. I didn’t know till I tried it. As I look back, I assume others had trusted in my training and ability to run 100 than myself.
Finally, it made sense why I could not really train directly for a 100 mile race. After all, it was those back to back races and building miles that had helped me get ready for the race.
The Lake Martin area had around 2 inches of rainfall before the race started and a lot of rain leading up to the race day. We knew the creeks would be flooded a bit, but we did not know the course was going to be a muddy puddle. Within a mile or so from the start, we started to see signs of what was to come for the rest of the course: mud, mud and more mud. Even though only 10% to 15% of the course would be covered with mud, it felt like more than 90%. Since it was a loop course, we were going to see those muddy parts of the course again. As the day progressed and more runners passed through that mud, it started to get worse. Small water crossings were flooded the most.
I am well known for taking off at the start of a race. From the start, I stayed at the middle of the pack group. As the day progressed, I moved up. My goal was to run 5 miles per hour in my first 25 miles. I walked even the smallest hills at my trekking pace. When I felt like I was giving any sort of hard effort, I slowed down. I knew that I needed to save as much energy as possible. I ran right through the middle of a mud and water crossing. I did not try to save myself from the muddy course – something I learned from running muddy races like the 2012 Mt. Mist 50k.
By the time I finished my first 25 miles, around 5 hours after I’d started, my shoes were completely muddy. Margaret advised me to hold off until I’d finished my first 50 miles. At a very early part of my second loop, I caught up with Dawn, a mother of 3 and ex-US Army Captain, who was running her first 50 mile race. As we ran, we realized we were running at almost the same pace. We kept each other company for the entire 25 mile loop. At mile 31, I hit a wall, but I was saved when she gave an energy gummy. It was less than a mile to the BUTS aid station. I was very hungry and a bit dehydrated. When I arrived to the BUTS Aid station, Dr. Gordon Harvey brought some vegan food just for me (thanks, Gordon!). Those vegan cheese quesadillas saved my life. I carried a few of the quesadillas for the road. I was back on track and running normally.
My goal was to get to the BUTS Aid Station before dark on my 3rd loop, so Dawn helped me to push and stay focused. We ran where we could. We shared our life stories and kept on moving, which helped our miles go quickly. We also decided to break the race into terms of aid stations, which helped us visualize the race in small manageable parts.
I finished the first 50 miles around 10 hrs. 30 min. Dawn was the 2nd overall 50 mile female finisher. I was so proud of her, as well as thankful. Unless I am pacing, I do not usually run with others – I am either too fast or too slow. This time was different. In the end, we helped each other reach our goals.
I changed my shoes and clothes and was off to my 3rd loop. By this time, I was headed towards a lot of unknowns. The only thing I knew was that I was still ok and able to run. I was not scared of miles or any distances I was covering. I was drinking and eating more now. Starting on the 3rd loop, I was more careful about the mud. I tried to stay as dry as possible. Still, it was hard to avoid the mud and creek crossing. Since the rain stopped early in the morning, the creeks started to go down a bit. When I got back to the BUTS aid station at around 58 miles, it was almost dark and it had started to get a bit chilly. I ate, put on a long sleeve shirt, buff headwear, and head lamp. I was off to start my first true night trail run. As I headed down to the trails, it felt natural. I had a bright headlamp with brand new batteries. I ran at almost daylight pace. When I looped back to the BUTS aid station, Kyle, the president of BUTS, reminded me that I was 3rd overall; and I had about an hour lead. I told him that I did not care about being 3rd overall at this point. My goal was just to keep on running from aid station to aid station and finish the race. Coming as a top finisher was not my goal.
When I arrived to the stable, Johnathan was ready to serve me some hot veggie soup. It felt great during the cold night. Being a vegan, it is a bit hard finding options during races, especially post race. Since David and Marye Jo, event organizers, knew that I would be there, they made sure that we have some kind of vegan options as well.
Last 25 miles:
I knew the last 25 miles would be the hardest, almost as if the first 75 miles were easy. I’d already slowed down due to distance and the dark. I was excited to know that this would be my last loop. The last word from my trail buddy Sony before left the Stable area was “You’re still 3rd overall. How’s that for a motivation to finish your race strong, Suman?” My answer was the same one I’d given to Kyle. I did not want to think too far at that point. The night before the race, Margaret had mentioned that “from miles 80-90, a lot of runners get in trouble.” I came a long way to take the DNF. At that last loop, I was more determined to finish it than ever.
Since I’d been using my headlamp for so long, the brightness had started to go down. I used my flash light to navigate me through the woods. Past the BUTS aid station around 83 miles and post midnight, in the thick wood, I got a bit disoriented. I almost went back to the aid station the same way that I came, but I backtracked. I lost about 10-15 minutes and learned a good lesson. I arrived to the BUTS aid station for the last time around mile 87. Like always, Kyle, Vanessa, Howard and my other BUTS friends were there to cheer me on. Before I left the aid station, Kyle said: “Get it done Suman!! If not, I will disown you.” I told him, “I will try my best.” That was the first time I realized that I actually had a chance to finish the LM100 and place 3rd overall. It finally became a motivation factor for me to finish the race strong. Those late miles, I was maybe hardly running, but still moving.
I left the stable area for the final time around 93 miles at 5:15 AM. I was excited that I only had 7 miles remaining to finish my first ever 100 mile race. I knew that I had this. I was also happy that the sun would be coming out soon. It was a clear night, so I knew that I would get to see the sun rise. With coke, food, and support, I was able to keep on going.
When I first saw daylight, I was about 3-4 miles from the finish. Once daylight arrived, those trails looked so different. I did not even realize I’d ran in those areas during the night. I kept my slow moving pace. I did not want someone to pass me on my last miles anymore. A competitive nature and determination to finish were set in my mind. When I made that last turn towards the stable, I said to myself “Get it done!” At last, I arrived to the stable 25 hours and 3 minutes since I started my 100 mile journey. I ran through mud, rain, the cold and more than 13,000 elevation gains, daylights, night, two sunrises and a sunset. Yes, I was finally done. When I stopped, I was not sure whether to cry of joy or scream at what I had accomplished. Nevertheless, it was celebration time and another big achievement was crossed off my list.
I managed to finish my first 100 mile race without a pacer, crew, any big planning or extreme training. I am glad it turned out to be a happy ending.
My family finally arrived after I finished. They did not get to see my epic finish, but I was happy and thankful that they were there to share those post-race moments when my energy was completely drained and I could hardly move.
Once I sat on a chair, I could not get up. Everyone helped to bring food, coffee and beer, and Johnathan even took off my shoes (which I am thankful for). I could barely move around. This was my first marathon experience all over again.
I spent most of Sunday and Monday catching my sleep and feeding my hungry body. It took me all the way to Wednesday to finally fully catch up with my hunger, and it took me a week to catch up with sleep. Even though I tried to run a few miles, it took me more than a week to even have a desire to run again. I hear that it takes around 2 months to fully recover from the race.
Now, I have to learn to trust my training and ability. If I didn’t try the LM100 this time, I would have had to wait another 2 years or so before I could try again. Now that it is off my list, I feel that I can do more. I did not realize how much a 25 hour journey can change a person’s life. I am blessed to have continuous support from my family and friends. Without that support, this journey would not have been completed.
Someone recently asked me: “Is this the limit, or do you plan to ‘go beyond’ 100?” My answer was: “This is the limit – for now!”
Common questions I was asked and comments post 100 miler:
Did you take breaks?
* I read and heard that some people take quick naps and some keep on going. I took breaks when I reached the aid station and sat only once when I finished my 50 miler while changing.
Do people actually run from beginning to end?
* I had similar questions before this race. Running ultras, I know that walk breaks are part of the race. I ran where I could, but walked most hills or run/walk hills. Most walks were power walks. When I felt that I was giving more effort than necessary, I also walked.
Did you get scared at night?
* Not really. I had not run a night run before, but I was in the woods during nights. Growing up in Nepal helps as having electricity 24/7 everywhere is a luxury. US forests do not usually have wild animals like tigers and etc., so that was not a problem, although I did see squirrels and deer.
Did you eat anything?
* Some people have crews who give them food and other stuff. I was self-crewed. However, aid stations had plenty of food. I ate most of the food from aid stations. As well as this, a trail running buddy brought vegan food just for me. I ate that as well. I was well taken care of.
Common question from non-runners:
Why did you run that far? Was something chasing you?
* Yes. A big grizzly bear :)!!