My First 200 Mile Foot Race – 16 Tips I Learned The Hard Way

I recently competed in the Bigfoot 200 mile ultra marathon. It’s a point to point trail running race through the cascade mountains of southern Washington. I trained all year for this one event and had an unfortunate end to my race at mile 91. Having taken a very scary fall and doing a couple somersaults down a rocky wash I decided to call it quits.

I ended up with a lot of bruising from below my knee all the way to the top of my shoulder on the right side of my body. By some miracle I had no major lacerations or broken bones which left me in a state of grateful shock as I limped it in to my final aid station of the journey. I knew I could go farther in the race but had convinced myself there was no way I was going to gimp another 100+ miles to make the finish. The fall left me just as much mentally shaken as it had physically.

A couple days of rest later, nice and cozy in my bed I found myself feverishly writing down everything I would do different to make sure I could complete this beast of a race on the next attempt. Although I mostly blame my fall on ending my race, I know there are still a ton of other factors I could have done better. Here’s my thoughts…

200 miler training
Just before the start of Bigfoot 200 with Josh.

My Best Advice For Running A 200 Miler

1. Start Slow/Pacing – You really want to make sure you are running your own race. Especially the first 50 miles. No matter how many times I told myself to “run my own race” I still found myself jostling for position early on. Getting frustrated by people blocking narrow trails and creating pile ups etc. Trying to stay with or ahead of friends and acquaintances from previous races. It makes no sense in the early miles but I still found myself doing it. I know I ran at a higher output than I should have early on. I just have to remember that patience is key and after the first 30 to 50 miles, the race will string out so much that just about everyone will be running by themselves anyways.

2. Sleep – Having never done a race longer than 1 night, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around the whole sleep thing. The other issue was that I never did any true fast packing in my training that allowed me to experience what it would be like to sleep on the trail and go do another big day. So, my “strategy” was to just run until I basically passed out. Or in other words, I didn’t have a strategy. I hit one of the aid stations on the first night around 4am and I decided to just push on as soon as I got some food down.

In hindsight, I wish I would have tried to catch a few z’s. The other side of this though is controlling your caffeine intake. I hadn’t planned to sleep at any particular points so I was just constantly taking in coke and coffee through the first night so I would have had a really hard time sleeping if I ended up wanting to.

I think it all comes back to just doing it in training and getting a feel for what your body needs and when. Having a sleep plan is kinda pointless if you have no idea from training. I may even consider carrying an ultra light weight sleeping pad and bivvy during the next race so I can literally sleep anywhere in any conditions. Aid stations have a lot of cheering and noise. So, if you are a light sleeper, being off the trail and more remote could be the way to go.

3. Chafe Prevention – You must, must, must take the time EARLY to prevent chafing in your problem areas. There’s nothing worse than being raw and feeling the burn of friction on every stride. Don’t be afraid to stick your hands down your pants to lube up sensitive parts when at the aid stations. Aid station crew are vets and know what’s up. I carried a small stick of Squirrel’s Nut Butter with me and applied fairly often while out on the trail and it seemed to work pretty well.

4. Poles/Using Extreme Caution – I have a bit of a love hate relationship with my poles. I love how they help me on long steep climbs. I don’t love having to fumble around with them and carry them for more than half the race un-used. The other big issue is that I believe they contributed to my fall in the race. Instead of putting them away before crossing the log bridge I fell on – I held both in one hand and used my other hand to push brush aside. That was the moment I slipped on the wet log and began tumbling down the hillside. The branches slipped through my one free hand but I strongly believe that if I had not had my poles in my right hand, I could have grabbed the branches and stopped my fall with both hands.

The lesson learned is that if I ever come to a section of trail that requires my hands to be used at all to make a crossing or scramble or cliff side scenario – it’s best to put the poles away first and have full use of both my hands. Kinda common sense but when you have gone all night with no sleep your senses can be fuzzy.

5. Nibble – If you are someone that has a hard time keeping food down while running like me – there’s a couple tricks that have worked well for me. First, just remember it’s okay to nibble your real food. Just because you have a whole honey stinger waffle, doesn’t mean you have to eat the whole thing in one go. Just nibble and keep a steady amount of calories coming in over time. Second, experiment with liquid calories. I have found that one bottle of water and one bottle of powder like Roctane or Carbpro is a happy medium. If you start to get queazy from liquid cals, you just have to reduce amount of powder and increase water overall. Again, it’s a balance that you will learn with practice during training!

6. Pre-Race Weight Loss – Being a heavier runner I often find myself loathing the extra weight I carry around. It’s one of the first negative self talk items I have to keep at bay when I am starting to feel the burn in later stages of any race. The “easy” solution is to just make sure I am at an ideal weight well before race day. This is a lifestyle choice that should be worked on year round. Not in the month or two before a race. Just imagine – If you carry an extra 10, 20 or even 30 pounds more than you need to. That’s a lot of extra work over 200 miles!

7. Fast pack 150 Miles In 3 Days Multiple Times – If I could change one single thing about my training, it would be to add in a few extra long fast packing trips where I can practice my sleep, nutrition and time on feet for a race of this magnitude. Practicing 50 mile days and sleeping on trail seems to be the perfect amount. Nothing else will allow you to simulate the race better. Not even a hundred mile race because hardly anyone sleeps during a 100 miler.

8. Run More 100s – I had only done one 100 mile race before I made the jump to 200 miles. Naturally, I think it would be better to have a bit more experience at 100 before making the leap. This is just the common sense of natural progression. But not all of us have much common sense. Like me!

9. Drop Bags Are Important – I found myself just throwing together my drop bags the day before I left for the race. Scrounging up whatever extra food and gear I could squeeze in. Foot care ended up being a lot more important than I realized. Making sure to have extra shoes, socks and lube as many times as possible is critical. With creek crossings and potential for rain at any moment it’s so important to have a way to dry out and keep the feet fresh for as long as possible. Remember to zip bag anything you don’t want to get wet! If it rains, all your spare socks and shoes won’t do you any good.

10. More Time On Feet/Active Lifestyle – I think anyone can benefit from looking for ways to incorporate a more active lifestyle. For me, I work at a desk all day and my daily run is the only exercise I get. I believe it would be greatly beneficial if I added in bike commuting or some other form of “forced” exercise that was just simply a way of life. Things as simple as parking farther from work so you get a couple miles of extra walking in per day or maybe taking stairs every day if you work in a high rise. Find one thing and make it a part of your regular routine.

11. Backpacking As Training – For as much running I did during training I could have benefited just as much from adding some backpacking to the mix. This race is long and I would guess that just about everyone except for the very top finishers were power hiking more than running. It’s a great way to make training fun too. Head out with a buddy or spouse and take time to see some of the sights you might usually blow passed had you been running.

12. Make Strength/Mobility A Priority – If anything is true about a 200 mile race, it’s that your weaknesses will be exposed. There is no hiding! I am definitely guilty of skimping on the whole strength and mobility side of things. I love to get out the door and run but when it comes to flexibility, strength etc. I avoid it like a kid avoids eating veggies. I did start going to a yoga class about one time per week but that is not near enough. Next time around I’ll need to hit up a yoga/strength class at least 3 times per week and also spend at least 20 minutes a day on a basic core and flexibility routine. I think this would pay huge dividends at later stages of a race like this.

13. Heat Training – The early stages of the Bigfoot 200 are very exposed as they cross over the volcanic blast zone of Mount St. Helens. I just kinda assumed that since we would be at a higher elevation it couldn’t get too hot. But I was wrong! I got a bit of heat sickness and couldn’t keep any food down for quite a while and even threw up/dry heaved a couple times which was not pleasant at all. Having done zero heat specific training I was feeling that sun. Next time I will experiment with a sauna regimen and possibly do some power hiking in several layers during mid day summer heat.

14. Pack Enough Cals For Long Stretches – I actually ran out of calories on the longest stretch of the race which was easily avoidable. It caused me to panic a bit and even consider stopping to wait for runners behind me and ask to borrow a gel or two. I ended up being fine. I thought I had 3 hours till the next aid station but it ended up only being about 1. I learned that it makes no sense to rush any of the aid stations and be extra prepared for the long stretches. Most ultra races have stations every 7 or 8 miles. In a 200 mile race like this – you can be out for 20 plus miles and this could be anywhere from 5 to 10 hours with no aid so you must be prepared!

15. Whistle on Pack. Pressure Bandage – My fall during this race could have very easily been much worse than it was. I was truly shocked nothing was broken and I wasn’t bleeding more than a few minor scratches. I fell out of view of the trail and could have been stuck there for several hours if no runners could see or hear me. In a worse case scenario a whistle could help get someones attention. If I had broke something and was bleeding as well. A pressure bandage could help minimize a major laceration until rescue. Previously I would have considered this to be excessive but now I am a bit wiser through experience. Sometimes you have to learn things the hard way.

16. Don’t Tie Shoes Too Tight – It’s been several weeks since my race and I am still paying for this one. I have lingering connective tissue pain on the top of my right foot. The pain is directly at the tying point for my laces. If your feet are sensitive to pain in this area – just make sure that when you change shoes at aid stations that you account for swelling. Some people even bring a larger size shoe for later in the race and now I understand why. In my first 100 mile race last year. I was too sore to take my shoes off at the aid station to empty rocks out. So I had a volunteer help me. They tied my laces too and were a bit aggressive with the tightness. I paid for that for weeks after the race!

If I don’t make the lottery for UTMB in France next year, I will be back at the 200 mile distance for sure as my plan B. I hope this report gives you some practical advice you can use in your next race. See you on the trails…

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