Last Thursday, if you would have asked me the most important elements to succeed in a 100-mile race, I would have answered, in the following order: First, you need to have an extremely high level of fitness that is targeted at the specific race you’re running; Second, you should have a smart pacing strategy; Third, you need a well-thought out race-day fueling plan, and then, on race day, you need to properly execute that plan.
After witnessing the Black Hills 100 on Saturday from lots of angles, I’ve changed my mind. Now, I think fueling is the most critical element to success in a 100-mile race, even more so than fitness. I don’t know who said it, but ultramarathons truly are eating and drinking competitions, with a little exercise thrown in on the side. The longer you go, the more true this becomes. If you don’t eat and drink enough (because of neglect) or you can’t (because of an underlying health problem), it doesn’t matter how fit you are, you won’t finish.
It’s much easier to observe this when you’re watching a 100-mile race than when you’re running it. When you’re running you are so into your own world you don’t think about why someone else may or may not be ahead of you. But as the day goes on, and you see a runner who could run a 2:45 marathon get passed by a runner who probably couldn’t break 3:30, you start to question how it is happening.
Last Saturday, there were probably 15-20 runners who had the fitness level to run under 24 hours on the Black Hills 100 course. Problem was, only three of them finished the race. At mile 17, there were at least two dozen runners who buzzed through the third aid station in under 3 hours. All had finished the most uphill section of the course, and all were on pace for a sub-20 time. They were running hard and they were jockeying for position. All of them refilled their water supplies and headed out back on the trail in short order. But I noticed that only two of them stopped to eat anything: The guy who won and the guy who got third (I didn’t notice the guy who got second). The guy who eventually won downed three gels at the mile 17 aid station, chugged some water, and went about his way. He was the only one who seemed to be concerned with fueling, instead of just drinking water.
What’s more, the eventual winner was the only person who put ice in his hat to try to regulate his temperature before the heat got totally out of hand.
By the time the 29-mile aid station came around, half of the fast guys were already fried and had little hope of recovery. A quick glance at these guys and it was obvious that they were serious runners who had logged lots of miles. But, a few minutes later, less athletic, less fit athletes with far less ability came trotting through looking much fresher. The ones that sought out not just water and ice, but also food, were the ones who didn’t wilt.
I remember reading that when Geoff Roes made his huge push to catch Anton Krupicka at Western States 2010, he was eating 400 calories an hour. Everyone focuses on the how fast he was running when he caught Anton, but few comment on how he was able to do that. Those calories were probably the factor that enabled him to get there. Meanwhile, the great Kilian Jornet has lost very few races of any kind, but at both Western States and Transvulcania, he collapsed with severe dehydration at the finish. It would appear that just about the only times he’s ever lost in an ultra, the loss could be pinned on a poor nutrition and hydration strategy.
Proper fueling is also probably a big part of the difference between 2004 Matt Carpenter and 2005 Matt Carpenter. It's not as if he wasn't fit in 2004. But by race time in 2005, Carpenter knew the exact amount of calories he would eat, down the number of sips of fluid between aid station. Talk about being dialed in to nutrition and hydration!
Conversely, 200-mile weeks and the greatest fitness level of his life weren’t enough to get Anton Krupicka to the finish at Leadville in 2009 or 2010, because he suffered from Giardia (medical issue) in 2009 and didn’t eat and drink enough in 2010.
That doesn't look like fun.
As ultrarunners, it’s something we know intuitively, that you must eat and drink to finish. But when the gun goes off and the adrenaline starts pumping, most of us think less about nutrition and hydration and much more about our pace, our place, our times, and how we feel. But the most important thing we can do to help us achieve our place and time goals, and to feel better, is to eat and drink well.
It is important not to extrapolate too much from a few anecdotal cases, but I left the Black Hills with one paramount lesson learned: There’s only so much I can do to improve my fitness level between now and August 17th. But there is one thing I can do that will have an enormous impact on my success or failure that day. From now on, I will treat every long run – first and foremost -- as my weekly opportunity to practice eating 300-400 calories an hour, every hour, rather as a time to achieve some mileage, training, or fitness goal.
Fitness is important. But if you don’t eat and drink properly on race day, there’s no amount of fitness that will get you to the finish of a 100-mile race.