Behind the Scenes of a 100 Miler

When signing up for a 100 miler, winging it is really not a good option. There are very few people who can pull that off successfully, and I am not one of them. For me, it requires lots and lots of training, and meticulous planning with my crew chief (aka my wife, hereafter known as CC) to make it all happen.

Looking at the big picture, I run the race, and don't think about too much else aside from what hurts, what I need, and how to keep going; meanwhile, CC will travel from aid station to aid station, make sure she's got everything I need (or don't), listen to me whine, take care of my sweaty gear, refuel me, give me intel on the course, make me food, and speed me off so she can meet me at the next aid station. It's tricky because she has to guess at when I'm going to be showing up and how I'll be feeling, and then has to prepare everything ahead of time. On the other side of things, all I'm doing is taking a stroll through rocky trails, trying to bang my feet on as many rocks as possible, and tearing up my body prior to every aid station I'd see CC at.

CREW: Cranky Runner Endless Waiting

I would hope that CC would admit, I am not that cranky of a runner. I tried to be cognizant of the fact that while I'm trying to stick to a schedule, CC has to anticipate where I'll be and if I'll be early, on-time, or late. Usually, that meant showing up early and waiting. As luck would have it, at Massanutten 100 this year (MMT), I was spot on with hitting my goal times throughout the day; however, that doesn't take away from the fact that there are 3+ hours of downtime between aid stations.

Pace sheet (heavily used). AS Names in bold are crewed aid stations

I'm not trying to paint a picture where I was calm, cool, and relaxed every time. There were times I'd show up and was tired and just wanted to complain, or would be demanding with what I needed, or I would simply stay quiet while CC did her thing. It's a long day for both of us, and I go through ups and downs while CC tries to take care of me no matter my mood when I arrive... even though she's tired and has probably been waiting and worrying awhile.

Fueling the Fire

My nutrition for the race was primarily two soft flask bottles of GU Roctane (a powder that gets mixed with water), and then an assortment of gels, bars, bloks, and whatever else REI had that I thought looked good at the time of purchase. Each time CC would get to an aid station and setup, she would fill up an extra soft flask bottle so it's ready to go. When I would arrive to an aid station, she would take both of my empty bottles (hopefully both, as that would mean I'm drinking), fill one with the powdery goodness, and hand the full flask back to me along with whatever gels or bars I asked for, and put the empty one in rotation for next time.

If that were all there were to an aid station, my life (and CC's) would be easy! As is the case with a fire, sometimes it burns too hot and all that's left are embers. The only way to get them started again is to carefully add back some tinder before it starts roaring again. The extra variable, in this analogy, is the kid from down the street (Hank) that comes and pees all over your fire. When that happens, there's some troubleshooting over how to handle Hank, and then what to do with the fire. I met Hank a few times along the trail, and CC was left with figuring out what to do, while I sat like a loaf on chäir (RIP ultrarunningmemes).

On a handful of occasions, I showed up to an aid station feeling spent, cranky, and unmotivated. This usually meant I needed more food, even if I didn't want anything. CC is a master at troubleshooting and figuring out what I need. She had brought her Jetboil that she could use to heat up some veggie broth. As I would glug down the broth, she would go see what that aid station had to offer and see if she could get me more treats. I couldn't always eat everything, but CC was good at trying to see what worked.

Feeling spent at mile 60

This scenario described was on the longer side of stops, and happened with greater frequency later in the race when I was tired and losing the will to keep going. This is pretty typical of any ultra runner, especially on a hot day late into the day or night. CC is the right person for the job, for without her troubleshooting and refueling, I almost certainly would have let my trashed carcass wither away into DNF oblivion.

Timing Is Everything

When covering 100 miles by foot, the average support driver should expect to drive around 3x that distance, depending on the neediness of the runner. (I just made that up, but it's probably right). The compounding factor for the crew for most ultras is the terrain. Trail races are typically through forests, mountains, wilderness and the actual race terrain is inaccessible to vehicular traffic. There are aid stations across the course, but not all of them are accessible by the crew - the RD typically will design the aid to be at strategic locations.

CC has been to a few different races and understood the challenges of getting from point A to point B. She studied the provided maps and referenced my race to plan to time her movements accordingly. She traversed the landscape like a champ, and was always ready when I showed up on time, a little early, or a lot late (see time table above). That meant that she typically had time to check out the aid station, read a book, or explore the beautiful countryside.

Even through the night, CC was always there with some hot broth, some lube, and lots of encouragement to keep me going. The only time that I was quite late was when I decided to take a 15 minute nap at 3 AM. Even then, CC was patiently waiting for me, worried and tired, but happy when I showed up... and for what she's had to endure previously, she luckily wasn't waiting long this time.

Estimates at each Aid Station (bars)

Joy at the Finish

Having made it through the night, both CC and I knew the finish was imminent. I saw CC at an aid station around 5 AM (mile 88), and by that point we had both been up for more than 24 hours with minimal sleep, but we knew that would be over soon.

From the eyes of CC, I was able to cruise into the finish with good form and a big smile, while I felt like I was trudging my body across the line. I know she was just as excited for me to finish as I was. From a runner's standpoint, having a dedicated CC is crucial to finishing the race and makes it so exciting to have her greet me at the finish. I can only imagine the joy any crew would feel seeing their runner finish in good spirits.

Aftermath

In an ideal world, our camp would have been packed up by house elves, and bodies cleaned by some mystery of the world, and we'd be on our ride back feeling more rested than Rip Van Winkle. In the real world, our tent and sleeping bags were still out waiting for us to attempt a nap (too hot) and complain about being tired and sweaty (post shower). We began our journey home feeling hopeful that we'd have enough energy to remain alert throughout the long trip...

Less than 5 minutes after leaving race HQ, both of us were hit by extreme exhaustion. We crawled into a Sheetz parking lot (gas station), left the car on (since it was still hot outside), and we ended up napping for 2 hours. Fast forward a few hours and we did make it back home safely, but I think this illustrates the aftermath well considering we weren't the only runners that were napping in that Sheetz parking lot.

When I look back at the race and what went wrong and right, the factor that enabled me to get over hurdles and that lifted me up from low spots was an on-point CC. Truly a master at her craft, and definitely in her element too. CC was as much a part of the race as my trashed (but finished) carcass was, and I definitely would not have been successful without her.

APPENDIX

Prior to the race, I scraped MMTs website and splits data. It is well organized, which is much appreciated. I was able to pull out the different times each runner came into each aid station, along with the distance it was to each. I could use their finish data to help correlate times as well. I used this data to help plan out my timings into each Aid Station, which is what I handed to CC and ultimately what came out as my time estimates. I'll be working on a separate that goes more in depth to how I came up with the estimates. I think it could be useful for future races that provide split data.

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Tomas Castillo

I'm an ultramarathon runner, and outdoorsman when I can, while keeping bees and playing with data on the side. I plan on sharing my explorations and adventures here.