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A backpacker’s training plan for a 100-mile ultra marathon

Summit view from Bear Peak (elev 8,459'), which towers above Boulder and which I have climbed countless times this year. From my front door, it's a 3,000-foot climb and takes about an hour.

Summit view from Bear Peak (elev 8,459′), which towers above Boulder and which I have climbed countless times this year. From my front door, it’s a 3,000-foot climb and takes about an hour.

On Friday I’m racing Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The official distance for this ultra marathon is 102.7 miles, though the consensus among participants is more like 107. There is 20,000+ vertical feet of climbing and elevations are often around 10,000 feet. It will be my longest race of the year, and my first 100-mile race since 2008.

So, what was my training plan for something like that?

I’m a decent runner, but my primary identity and my comparative strength is not running. And even though in 2015 I will have competed more than in any year since college (three races: 50K, 100M, 50M), I decided early in the year that I was unwilling to let my training undermine my primary interest: backpacking.

Thankfully, I think that backpacking can be an excellent complement to running, or at least to ultra running, especially for the longer distances (e.g. 100K, 100M) and for mountain courses. In some respects, it is probably even better than pure running in developing a deep base of endurance:

  • More time on feet: 8-14 hours per day, day after day
  • Higher sustainable volume: 150-200 miles and 20k-35k vertical feet of climbing per week, assuming on-trail, with less risk of injury
  • Hiking practice: If David Laney hiked every uphill for the first 50 miles during his third-place finish at the 2015 Tour du Mont Blanc, maybe ultra “runners” should plan to hike more, too.
  • Weight training: Pack weights, even among gram weenies, are still heavier than an Ultimate Direction Race Vest, or no pack at all.
  • Calorie-restricted diet: When I return home from a backpacking trip, I am always leaner and I always see a drop in my times, especially on climbs. On intense trips, it’s impractical to carry as many calories as you burn.

Think I’m wrong on this? Maybe, but it’d be hard to prove: relative to the training plans for more established distances — e.g. 1M, 5K, Marathon — there is little scientific consensus on the optimal training program for a 100-mile mountain course. Training advice is almost entirely intuitive and anecdotal, and is often highly personalized, i.e. “This is what seems to work for me.”

Personally, I think one factor reigns above all for ultra marathon training: volume. So I have done a lot of it in the lead-up to Run Rabbit Run, with a notable uptick in the 16 weeks since early-June.

Volume, volume, volume

I log all of my training on Strava. For details, follow me there; I’ll just stick with the highlights:

Running

  • 2 x 1-week periods with 100+ miles and 20k+ vertical feet of climbing
  • 3 x 1-week periods with 80-90 miles and 15k vertical feet of climbing
  • Longest run: 38 miles with 6k vertical feet of climbing
  • Longest back-to-back days: 61 miles with 13k vertical feet of climbing

Backpacking

  • Kings Canyon High Basin Route + alternates: 200 miles (50% off-trail), 70k vertical feet of climbing
  • Wind River High Route + alternates: 200 miles (45% off-trail), 55k vertical feet of climbing
  • Aspen Four Pass Loop, in porter role: 28 miles, 8k vertical feet of climbing
  • 14 days of guided trips, on which the days are shorter but my pack is heavier
  • Multiple day-hikes up Flagstaff and Green Mountain (1500-2500 vert) with a 55-lb backpack of bricks
Overlooking the Middle Fork of Bull Lake Creek, one of the prettiest views on the Wind River High Route. My next objective is in view: Blaurock Pass, the low spot on the ridge with the clouds above it. It's a 2,000-foot off-trail climb, mostly on scree and talus.

Overlooking the Middle Fork of Bull Lake Creek, one of the prettiest views on the Wind River High Route. My next objective is in view: Blaurock Pass, the low spot on the ridge with the clouds above it. It’s a 2,000-foot off-trail climb, mostly on scree and talus.

The littler things

It’d be hard to hack a 100-mile race if I hadn’t put in sufficient volume. But to achieve peak performance, which is my goal, I focused on a few other things, too.

Body weight

In explaining my lackluster performance at Dirty 30 in late-May, this is one of the factors I identified. With all the volume I have done since then, the weight has come off, and I’m at least 5 pounds lighter now. I tipped the scale this morning at 154 pounds (I’m 6 feet tall), which is about the same as my high school weight. My wife and mother think that I’m too skinny, but in the words of Kate Moss, “Nothing tastes better than fast.”

The bed head and nipple tape haven't changed, but my body has definitely leaned out with better diet and extreme training. May 31 versus September 15

The bed head and nipple tape haven’t changed, but my body has definitely leaned out with better diet and extreme training. May 31 versus September 15

Course scouting

Given other things going on, there seemed to be no convenient opportunity to scout the course, but last week Amanda insisted that I drive to Steamboat to look it over. I’m glad I did, as I’m now much more familiar with the course and the crewing logistics.

Nutrition & hydration

Through numerous long runs I was able to dial in my hydration and nutrition. My takeaways will not be perfectly applicable to the race, since temperatures in September in Steamboat are notably cooler (by 30-50 degrees) than Boulder in July. Plus, it’s a race, not a long run. But I’m confident that I can spontaneously tweak my intake in order to get it right.

Caffeine

For the last two weeks I have survived without coffee. I miss it, but I think that being extra sensitive to caffeine will prove worthwhile at 2 AM when I’ve been running for 14 hours and still have a marathon to go.

The taper

No doubt, I was obsessed with training for much of the summer, and worked really hard to become as fit as I currently am. The temptation is to maintain that fitness by continuing to train, but this would be counterproductive for race day. Instead, in the final 2-3 weeks it’s more important to rest, with only some light running and some intense but short workouts. Equally important, I find that the taper is a nice opportunity to emotionally recharge and prepare myself for the experience ahead.

What do you think? Am I ready for this?

If you’re interested, there will be live athlete tracking. My race starts at noon MDT and I’m bib #70. Amanda will also be posting updates to my Facebook page.

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12 Responses to A backpacker’s training plan for a 100-mile ultra marathon

  1. Brian September 16, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Awesome stuff, Andrew. I was just about to say good luck in your previous post and ask if you’d be so kind as to share some of your training. But you already did it! I really like reading how non-specialists prepare for what are often highly specialized events. As someone who is after overall fitness and also likes to do some ‘big things’ once in a while, this is really helpful.

    I hope you have a great time, and I look forward to your post race report.

  2. David Eitemiller September 16, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Dude, you even look happier in that later picture. Good deal. I can certainly vouch for the positive impact of climbing passes every day for a week. That and going up and down Pikes Peak multiple times in part or in full have given me climbing legs I didn’t know I could have.

    Been a great summer, lets finish it well!

    • Andrew Skurka September 16, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

      Don’t underestimate the effects of vertical training. There is no substitute.

      See you tomorrow!

  3. Aubrey September 16, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    Nice pasties! 🙂 Seriously… I hope that you have a run Andrew!

  4. Rob September 16, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

    I know that my fastest marathon times are when my weight is lowest, which is a result of proper diet and training. And I too go with out caffeine for two weeks before a marathon, and can feel the difference.

    Have a great run!

  5. chelsea September 17, 2015 at 1:11 am #

    Wahoo! Sending good vibes. Never stop adventure-ing, I need to keep having you as a role model 🙂 cheers

  6. Paul September 17, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Good Luck Andrew! Thanks for all the great info you share!!

  7. Mark H September 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Have you read “Training for the New Alpinism”? A lot of what you are saying here speaks to what they have to say here, in that there is no real formula (yet) for training for Alpinism, and I think the same could be said for Ultrarunning and thru-hiking. The main theme of the book is that there is no substitute for volume, training endurance at effort levels that seem to slow.

    Check it out!

  8. Albert September 17, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    I love watching you endure these sufferfests Good luck out there!

  9. mike September 17, 2015 at 7:42 pm #

    Andrew I couldn’t agree more. As a backpacker and ultrarunner I think you’re spot on in your training philosophy. I did the JMT this summer and return home 15 pounds lighter and feeling bulletproof after 20+ mile days and all those passes. Have a great run-I know you’ll do well!

  10. Michael Chamoun September 19, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    I have to agree with the backpackers training philosophy for 100s. When I’ve had success in mountainous hundreds it’s been a year where I’ve backpacked a mountainous long distance route (ie JMT, GR5). It’s the best training, IMO, and it doesn’t burn you out as easily as running can.

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