SD 100: The Turning Point in my Running Career

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” – Edward Teller

At every race, I learn something new. But 100-milers have a way of magnifying those lessons into life-changing revelations that can change the course of your running career, or even your life.

Before this weekend, I thought I had to run a race to learn anything from it. But this year at SD 100 through pacing, crewing, and helping at aid stations, I learned more in 24 hours than I have at any other ultra race I have participated in.

I’ll save the smaller lessons and observations for a separate post, and write here about the two big-picture, eye-opening epiphanies that I can’t get out of my head.

These insights affected me so profoundly that they will change the course of my running career.

But first, some background:

My Duties at SD 100

My original plan was to cheer and support our friends and their crews. Perhaps take some pictures and video and be of help wherever we were needed. We figured if anyone’s pacer had bailed or dropped out, we could be ready to take his or her place at the last minute.

When I posted my plans on Facebook, Michael Miller referred me to Jay Danek from Arizona who had room for a pacer. I was reluctant to commit to pacing, but Shacky was extremely encouraging. Shacky had paced before and had such a great time and learned so much. He thought it would be a great experience for me.

I was scared to fail. When I’m running my own race, I’m ok with failing. But risking someone else’s race? That was completely different. What if I held them back? What if I messed up? This was their 100. I didn’t want to screw up.

I exchanged some emails with Jay and he seemed really laid back and experienced. I told him how slow I was and he wasn’t worried at all, assuring me that he wouldn’t be moving fast when I saw him (from mile 72 to 87, with a big climb at the end).

I agreed to pace him. Then I did some further research on his running page and realized that he ran his FIRST 100-miler in 19 hours. Holy shit.

I also learned that he was currently on a running streak (running every day). He had run for over 500 days and aiming for over 900. AND—his minimum distance each day was 4 miles. He was running 100s during this time, and training for them. So every day he would run between 4 and 100 miles.

A few weeks ago, I tried a 120-day running streak, and couldn’t keep it up after my first 100. The limit was 1 mile per day, and I thought THAT was a big deal.

I picked up Jay at the Sweetwater aid station, ran him through Sunrise 2, then on to Pioneer 2. The first leg was a gradual incline on a smooth terrain. The next leg was more technical and steeper. We finished both in the dark.

My Runner

Runners like Jay race with a different perspective. I don’t want to say “in a different league,” because that sounds too elitist. He’s not an elite, though to some he may appear to be. I do believe he shares more qualities with elite runners than he does with a runner like me, and this intrigued me.

Here are the two things I observed at SD100 that will change my running focus:

1. Love of Running vs Speed

Jay is a fast runner, but his passion for trails and for ultras is also unquestionable and contagious. This surprised me a little. I knew he enjoyed running, but I didn’t think that on those miles in the middle of the night he would be as excited about trails as he was. He was so positive that at times it wasn’t clear which one of us was the motivator.

This made me think.

As back- to mid-pack runners, we often use the excuse of having fun and enjoying the trails as an excuse for why we’re not fast. We use this as a crutch for why we aren’t pushing ourselves or training hard to explore our limits. And even worse—we sometimes judge faster runners by assuming they don’t love or appreciate trail running as much as we do.

That’s bullshit.

Although there may be some marathoners who perhaps don’t have the same passion for trails as some slower-paced ultra runners, you can’t make those judgments on a 100-mile race.

Anyone who runs 100 miles more than once does it because they love it. There’s simply no other incentive to do it. If someone can run 100 miles FAST, it’s because they took their time to train and get better at it so they could run more 100-mile races. They love the distance. They love the trails. And they ARE having fun.

If you have any doubt this is possible, watch this:

Summits of My Life – Trailer from sebastien montaz-rosset on Vimeo.

Just because someone runs fast does not mean they are suffering or hating life.

And again—the 100 is such an equalizer in the sense that EVERYONE suffers at some point.

My big AHA moment was:

It’s ok to train hard. It’s ok to run fast. It’s ok to get better at this. I don’t have to be slower or drop to a DNF to inspire others. I can improve myself. I can run stronger. And I can still love running.

Here is my second epiphany:

2. Women and the 100

The first woman to finish SD 100 ran an impressive race and competed head-to-head with the men. Then all the other women were so far behind her. This made me think about the role of women in 100-mile races.

There has been a dramatic increase in women who have tried ultra running in the past few years. Shorter races from 5Ks to marathons are nearly dominated by women, but the 100-miler has yet to see many strong women stand up to compete.

Although there are some strong female 100-mile runners, you can count those names on one hand. Even the elite female names you DO know may not have succeeded on the 100.

100 miles is no joke. The women who have run them well are viewed at a higher level, out of reach to the general running population. They seem super-human and their performances appear unattainable to us.

But they are human. And they did attain their goals. And there’s no reason why we—who love trails and love ultras—could not succeed either.

The 100-mile distance needs more women competitors. Not just finishers. Competitors. We need women to face it head-on. To train hard for it. To master it. And to inspire other women to do the same.

We need more women finishing sub-24. Sub-20. In the top 5 finishers. In the top 3. Not just on looped courses—on trail 100-milers.

The 100 is still a virgin race as far as strong female performances. And humbly, I’d like to take this on as a personal challenge.

Based on my own running career, it’s extremely premature. But so was my first 100. And my hope is that it will encourage other women who are better runners than I to step up to the plate. Let’s get some competition going and give the boys a decent challenge. It can be done.

As of now, I have not yet completed a trail 100-miler, but I have two on my schedule this year. I know that it will be nothing like the timed or looped races I’ve started with.

I’ve had two 100-mile attempts, and finished only one (my first). The second one, I somehow expected would be easier since I had already completed the distance. It most certainly was not, and I dropped after 55 miles.

That’s what I love about the 100. It does not get easier. It always takes your entire force of will and physical stamina to complete. Right now, I’m not in ideal ultra running shape. Yes, I can finish an ultra. But I cannot compete in an ultra.

I want to change that.

I’ve done the run-slow-and-take-pictures-and-smell-the-flowers thing. I know now that’s not the only way to enjoy an ultra. I know now I can love trails as much as I do, and still run faster.

Although I have had respectable performances, I know in my heart that I have never really pushed myself. I don’t really train.

Watching the runners this weekend and pacing Jay (who finished in 22 hours), I felt that I was given permission to step up my training. I know now I can take it more “seriously,” but have just as much fun and run just as carefree.

My biggest fear in doing this is the elitist vibe that comes with getting faster. Our human tendency is to put fast runners on a pedestal and imagine that we cannot ever accomplish what they have. But that’s not true. I hope to prove that this is attainable for anyone who is willing to work hard.

My greatest hope is to inspire women to run 100s competitively. To build a female presence in 100-miler trail races. I hope that people will see my progress and think, “Well, if SHE can do it…” then rise up to kick my ass.

I hope that next year there are two women at SD 100 fighting for the finish, not just one female who blows all the others away. I hope it’s a nail-biting performance. I hope they are head-to-head. I hope the aid station volunteers track them and take bets. And I hope those two women are the best of friends. That’s what this sport needs.

I love the 100-mile distance. I want more women to love it. And I hope this can be my small humble contribution to enhancing a tiny niche in the great sport of ultra running.


Thoughts Before My First 100

My 100 Mile Race Report

How to Spring Clean Your Second Wave Shit

15 responses

  1. Thanks for this post. I have so many things going through my head right now, I can’t even articulate them well. I am an extremely average runner who has only recently started to think that maybe I can work hard to get a bit faster too. I have only done two marathons to date (and I am quite a bit older than you), but I have finally fallen in love with the distance. In fact, after seeing my husband run in now 3 50-milers and one 100-miler, I am thinking more and more on that. I love trails and I love the idea of the ultra. I am hoping in the next year or so to meld the two together. Loved this post! It was very inspirational. Thanks again!

  2. Such a great post, Vanessa! I had many of the same thoughts you did when I paced Carolyn Howard on her 100 Miler. When she asked me to pace her, I was absolutely petrified to slow her down. Then when I saw how she was basically shuffling the last 30 miles, I realized what an Ultra really was. Of course, lots of people bust out insane times on Ultras and run the entire time, but many people walk/run/shuffle. With that in mind, it makes it seem a little more manageable to commit to such a huge feat. I think it’s really important for women right now to step up their game. It’s all about training. People like Ann Trason and Krissy Moehl inspire me because they took their training to the next level and beat some big shots (Like Krissy beating Scott Jurek on a 100-Miler once). It can be done! I look forward to seeing you’re progression in Ultras, as well as my own progression into them in the first place :)

  3. I do use slow as an excuse to enjoy the scenery. I rarely “train”, but always run. I think as a running blogger I want to let others know that what I do is achievable, and I’m afraid by working harder that I’ll lose a good chunk of my readers. That said, I LOVE reading stories from IM athletes and uber fast ultra runners – I just can’t imagine ever being one of them.

    Another story: during my 6-hour race last month, I stopped at my drop bag under a tent I was sharing with another runner. The runner, a 42 y/o single guy with a huge entourage of support crew, was at least one lap ahead of me. While I was there to run, I really wanted to enjoy my day too. I told one of the support staff as much and her response was the reason I’m so slow is that I didn’t take running seriously. I was so offended, but had no idea how to respond.

  4. Great insight!! Interesting take from that race. I paced a fast runner last year at the SD 100, and like you, I experienced trepidation about messing up another runners race…it all worked out fine. One of the best experiences!!! So when do we start our speed training?? I’m in!!!

  5. thank you again for sharing Vanessa – I throughly enjoy your blogs and look forward to reading each one.

    yes – women we can unite – I’ll never be the first over the line – but boy will i finish with a smile on my face!

  6. Good stuff but I would say that as far as the 100 mile distance being a virgin race for strong female performances, that cherry has long been popped. In fact it is possible that 100 mile races are one of the few athletic endeavors where women have proven themselves capable of competing head-to-head with the guys.

    Ann Trason would have won the Leadville 100 in 96 has the Tarahumara not shown up. And two years ago Diana Finkel was still in the lead at Hardrock after 90 miles before her kidneys failed. It may be true that no woman has ever won a major 100 outright but they have come close and it is only a matter of time…

  7. Agree Mike, but how cool would it be to have a female version of WS100 2010, multiple elite women toeing the line against the horde with anyone’s guess as to who will take the ribbon?
    The SD100 female winner finished sixth overall and had almost a 4 hour lead over the 2nd place female.

    • Shacky – Just to clarify, when you say “female version”- you’re saying it would be cool if the SD100 had a women’s field like the WS 2010 women’s field, right? Because if you’re saying in general that it would be great if there was a women’s field somewhere like the much-venerated 2010 mens race at WS, I must point out that there was! In 2010! At Western States! In fact the women’s race was even competitive by some measure than the mens, top 6 finishers within one hour vs. 6 men within 2 hours. It’s just that JB didn’t film it :-) (not to mention 2011 – both genders 7 runners within 1 hour, and a sprint on the track for F2/F3)

  8. re: the women running ultras – there is a book for you to write vanessa. only 28% of all ultra finishes in the US last year were women. Why? i have a ton of theories. I also have a myriad of reasons why women are better suited to long distance running than men. has anyone covered the “girls only “aspects”, or compiled a book highlighting the female perspective? though there are books out there by individual female ultrarunners – there is nothing covering ultrarunning for females. and you might as well do it if yer killin time right now :-D here, i will offer you a title: “Chick’ed”.

    • shel, before you get to listing all of your hypotheses about “why women are better suited to long distance running than men”, how about some evidence that they are. What do you mean by this? What metrics/values are you using to arrive at the judgement that women are better suited than men? Women are not injured less, they are not faster and as far as I have seen talking to loads of both male and female ultrarunners, the women aren’t any more (or less) passionate about it. Just curious what you’re thinking when you state that women are better suited to it?

  9. I love this post, Vanessa. I love the spirit of it. I love the rallying cry. I love the deconstruction of a glass ceiling. I do strongly disagree on that there aren’t very many talented women competing. This year’s SAN DIEGO 100 was a bit of an anomaly, not to mention

    The womens race in 100 milers varies GREATLY from race to race, and even year to year. Last year’s San Diego 100 had a few more ‘elites’ and a much closer race. 6 women placed in the TOP 21 and earned the sub-24 silver buckle. Krissy Moehl was also 6th overall, and Jenny (2nd woman) was 8th overall only 39 min back (it was close most of the race, Krissy pulled away in the last 15-miles or so). There ARE less women competing in the 100-miler, I’d start by saying women are the more intelligent sex. *wink* This year’s Western States 100 will be VERY, very deep with talented/competitive elite women. Just cracking into the TOP 10 will be a huge accomplishment. And as far as women competing with men in ultras? I’d assert you haven’t been following many ultras nor very long. Look these well known ultra ladies up…

    Ann Trason (arguably the greatest ultra runner of all time of ANY gender)
    Jamie Donaldson
    Kristin Moehl
    Meghan Arbogast
    Elizabeth Howard
    Connie Gardner
    Kami Semick
    Ellie Greenwood
    Shawna Tompkins (this year’s SD100 women’s winner HAS also won a 100-miler outright)

    These were names that I just came up with off the top of my head that represent women who have not just competed at an elite level, but they WON races outright, beating EVERY PERSON (yes, every man, woman and beast) in the field. Some of them did so in 100-milers, others 100k’s, but if you look at the list of names, there were no flukes, they ran stronger longer and were TOP 3 overall at some deep races. Ann Trason was 2nd place at the DEEPEST race in ultra running, Western States, multiple times.

    Personally, I’d LOVE to see more amazing women out there too (but again, think there already are a TON of amazing, talented females). I’m a guy who loves to compete with any human, and don’t mind getting my ass handed to me by a girl who has a strong race. My ego isn’t wrapped up in finishing position, nor in any gender challenge.

    Keep up the great writing AND start tuning for speed! ;-)

  10. I definitely agree with some of your points. I am so inspired when I read about young females who are kicking butt in ultras and I want to hear more! When I read about some guy doing an awesome job in a 100 miler I think “well, he is more muscular as a guy and therefore can handle it.” When I read about a girl however, espec. one who is younger or older than I am, I realize wow – I could do this too – so I need to get off my butt and get more serious about my training!

    I don’t really have the desire to compete in any race tho to be honest – and I admire the women who finish just as much as those who win – I love hearing about their journey – slow or fast, back of the pack or top contender – I just want to hear more stories from women ultra runners period. Maybe those could be included in your book ;-) Lots of personal stories from all around the pack – back to front – on how and why they got into ultra running and let them inspire the rest of us just getting started or those looking to contend.

    I finished my first half marathon on the 29th – training for my next in December and hopefully my first full marathon in the Spring. Your story inspires me and keeps me pushing for more – thank you for all you do – there is an ultra in my future and your stories and those of other ultra-females help me keep that focus and goal in front of me.

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