Jim Walmsley absolutely destroyed the competition and the course record at the 2018 Western States 100. Rather than kicking back and enjoying the win, however, Walmsley, 29, a professional trail runner based in Flagstaff, Arizona, needed to quickly return to training for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) just two months later. While he started out strong in UTMB, he eventually took a DNF, his legs drained of all energy.
Now that he’s had time to reflect, Walmsley admits that top results at two 100-milers within a couple of months might be a stretch.
“My training went well and I was able to get in more tapering for UTMB than last year,” he says. “But the combination might be asking too much.”
The experience has left Walmsley reconsidering how he might approach his 2019 season.
Walmsley’s two-big-100s-in-a-season approach is something several elites have attempted, with mixed results—Darcy Piceu, Jeff Browning and Karl Meltzer, among them. Fellow elite Tim Tollefson, 33, of Mammoth Lakes, California, focuses only on UTMB each year. Magda Lewy Boulet, 45, of Oakland, California, passed over Western States in favor of a good go at UTMB as well (both Tollefson and Boulet took hard falls and had to pull out last year).
Which begs some questions: Is more than one 100-miler feasible in a given season? And how does the question differ for elites vs amateurs?
Figuring the Formula
The formula for successful marathoning (if your definition of success is placing well) is somewhat tried and true at no more than two per year, says Mario Fraioli, author of the “Morning Shakeout” and coach to Tollefson.
“For most athletes, even elites, racing two high-level marathons a year, between the buildup, the race itself and recovery afterward, is a big ask of the body and mind,” he says. “Two a year is all most people can handle if they’re committed to training properly, performing optimally and recovering adequately.”
In contrast, runners and coaches are still tinkering with the right mixture of 100-milers. It pays to consider the toll that mileage takes on your body, a toll that varies depending on distance and how hard your effort was.
“The intensity of a 50K or 50-miler is a lot higher than it is during 100,” Fraioli says. “On the flipside, 100 miles is a lot longer time to be out on your feet and more things can go wrong. Your body goes through a lot when it’s out for that long (as does your mind), the nutritional demands are different, sleep gets affected, and it just beats you up in a different way under the hood.”
Ian Sharman, coach and founder of Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching, says that pulling off multiple 100s in a season is doable, but should be a game of patience.
“Unlike marathons, where being in top shape on race day is necessary for hitting goal pace, ultras are more forgiving,” he says. “Someone like Walmsley can go into a 100 out of peak shape and that won’t be the biggest factor for how the day goes.”
Temperature, nutrition, trail conditions and the way a race unfolds within the field all play a role, as can plain old luck. Consider the falls that took out several top contenders at UTMB last year, as well as the blistering pace laid down by the early leaders—a pace that eventually chewed them up and spit them out.
Still, Sharman says, elites and amateurs alike should take a long time to build up to the challenge of two or more 100s in a year. “Don’t get greedy,” he cautions. “Make that first race a big deal, and then wait to see how recovery goes.”
That means not fixing a set time to recover or having a second 100 lined up. “Listen to what your body and mind are telling you and don’t force the issue,” Sharman says.
Look for positive recovery signs like a return to normal resting heart rate, the ability to get a good night’s sleep, lack of muscle soreness and mental enthusiasm for a return to training. All indicate you may be ready to return to more normalized training and, eventually, racing.
Fraioli says that because Tollefson is still relatively new to the 100-mile distance, as a team they have approached it conservatively. “A big reason is that at his level, there’s a physical and psychological toll to the volume and intensity,” he says. “The prep is arduous and we need to build in adequate recovery.”
The rules for amateurs, however, will take on a different appearance.
What About the Rest of Us?
For amateurs, the edge needn’t be as sharp. “Many age groupers are running 100s as an experiential event—it’s not their job,” Fraioli explains. “But the same principles of recovery should apply.”
That means not jumping back into training quickly after the first event. “You have an incredible base built up from that first race and that’s probably your best training for your second,” says Fraioli. “Detach from a schedule and keep your running loose and unstructured.”
Until you’ve reached a fully recovered state, run when you feel like it, leave the speedwork at home and keep distances and paces on the shorter/easier side.
That was the approach 44-year-old Jason Bahamundi of Dallas, Texas, took in 2016, when his desire to qualify for the Western States lottery forced him into running two 100s, by accident, just two weeks apart. With seven 100s and several other ultras under his belt, the consistently high-placing age-grouper Bahamundi treaded cautiously in order to pull the double off.
“I ran the Coldwater Rumble in January, mistakenly assuming it was a WS qualifier,” he says. “It wasn’t so I began looking for a second option. Rocky Raccoon was two weeks later, so I went for it.”
Knowing that his only focus between the two races was recovery, Bahamundi completed only a handful of runs, all five miles or shorter.
“I focused on eating healthy and getting plenty of sleep,” he says. “I needed the swelling to go down so I’d be prepared to race again.”
He also approached the second 100 with a conservative mindset. “I was only concerned with finishing and I know I can walk a 15- to 18-minute mile and still finish under 30 hours,” says Bahamundi. “I was able to finish out in 20 hours, three hours faster than at Coldwater. Rocky Raccoon is an easier course so you can wear yourself out pretty quickly if you’re not careful.”
Your Mileage May Vary
Fraioli says that the quest to run multiple 100s in a season will look different for each runner and that there’s no real blueprint to follow. That said: “As a general rule, prioritize rest, recovery and cross training between 100-mile efforts,” says Fraioli. “For most people, you won’t have to rebuild the wheel in between, but you do have to recover and reset so that you’re ready to go to the well again.”
“There are more ultras and more interest in running 100-milers than ever,” he says. “There’s just not much data available yet to understand the toll they will take on a body, so everyone has to figure out their own balance.”