It was just before 5 am on April 29th.
I was standing in the corral with 500 other runners in downtown Auburn, CA, the “Endurance Capital of the World,” waiting for the start of the UTMB Canyons 100k race.
It had been an interesting past few weeks and months for me, and I hoped my training for the UTMB Canyons 100k had been enough.
I had spent the last six weeks in PT, working to eliminate the case of runner’s knee I was experiencing. A few weeks before the race, my lower back tightened up on me as well, something that happens once or twice a year.
Both of these ailments altered my training and left some doubt in my mind that I had done enough.
On the race front, about three weeks before the start, we got an email from the race director. Due to record snowfall in Northern California, they had been unable to access the second half of the course, which climbed into the mountains.
I feared the email was going to say the race was canceled, but it informed us that they were altering the course. The original was a point-to-point course with 16,000 ft of climbing. The new course would start and end in Auburn and would now climb 10,500 ft.
A week out, we got another update. The area was expecting record-high temperatures for race day. It was going to be in the upper 80s, maybe even in the 90s. They recommended we increase the hydration capacity we planned on carrying.
All of this was on my mind as I waited for the race to start. I wondered if I was prepared for the heat. I wondered if I had done enough long runs. I wondered if I was ready for the climbing and descending.A few minutes later, I was caught up in a sea of bodies, winding my way through city streets and heading towards the trails on the outskirts of town to begin my day.
It was me and 500 other runners from all over the world, testing our bodies against their mental and physical limits.
How do you prepare for a race like this? How do you set yourself up for success when attempting such a physical undertaking?
We will examine the variables that can lead to a successful finish or a DNF. Read on for my recommendations for training for the UTMB Canyons 100k.
My Training For UTMB Canyons 100K
There are several elements that you will want to focus on when training for any ultramarathon. The following are the main points we will focus on specifically for the UTMB Canyons 100k:
- Elevation Gain (and Descent)
Let’s see how each plays a vital role in whether or not you are prepared for the event.
UTMB Canyons had four distance options: 100 miles, 100k, 50k, or 25k.
I chose the 100k distance for my race. 100 kilometers is the equivalent of 62 miles. The race would ultimately cover about 65 miles from start to finish.
Training for 100k is a serious undertaking requiring months of preparation for most runners. I finished a marathon in mid-January and, after a few weeks off, began my training for the Canyons 100k.
The race mostly takes place on single-track trails with a few miles of asphalt mixed throughout. I focused on keeping my weekly mileage moderately high and made sure to get in longer trail runs on the weekends.
My original plan was to get in several runs of 20+ miles, including a 50k and 40-mile run, 4-6 weeks out from the event. Unfortunately, plans don’t always work out.
After a few down weeks after the marathon, I built back up to 40 miles a week when my left knee began to give me issues. I battled runner’s knee in my right knee for most of the summer, and my training suffered greatly because of it.
Determined not to repeat history, I went to a new PT and began treatment.
We worked on strengthening the muscles (quad and calves) to help take the load off my knee. My mileage dropped from 40 for the first two weeks of February to 11 and 18 for the last two weeks while I got everything figured out.
I got a bit behind in my training in February. I broke down and finally bought a treadmill. I figured I could at least hike and get some uphill training from the comfort of my own home while trying to recover from the injury.
My mileage began creeping back up in March: 28 miles, 36 miles, 41 miles, and 51 miles.
I got in a 21-mile run on trails and was able to test fueling and gear. Otherwise, there were only three other days where I got in double-digit runs. Once again, I was behind on where I needed to be for my training.
April came much too soon, and I knew I had to get in a few quality days to make sure I was prepared for the big day.
I got in an 11-mile trail run with a running partner that featured a lot of climbing and some descent as well.
Three weeks out, I put in a 6-hour run and got 31 miles in. I ran circuits around a 4.5-mile loop and treated my truck like an aid station, grabbing what I needed every two laps. This was essentially a dress rehearsal, testing out gear and nutrition for race day.
The next two weeks, I got in a 14-mile trail run and then a 10-mile run seven days out. I peaked at just under 62 miles a week, two weeks before the race. My highest weekly mileage would not even be the equivalent of the distance I was racing.
I was a little nervous about my lack of long runs and low weekly mileage leading to the event. However, I was optimistic that my cumulative training over the past six months, and ultimately the last 3.5 years, would allow me to dig deep and finish the race.
In hindsight, my longest day was only 6 hours. It would have been beneficial to have some 8-12 hour days mixed in of running, hiking, or walking. This would have better prepared me for the long day I was getting ready for on race day.
#2: Elevation Gain (and Descent)
The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc 100 has a total elevation gain of over 30,000 ft. That’s the equivalent of climbing to the top of Everest from sea level and then some.
So it should come as no surprise that any event bearing the UTMB moniker is going to have some serious elevation gain.
Even with the course change, Canyons 100k was going to feature over 10,000 ft of elevation gain. Since the course switched from point to point to starting and finishing in the same location, that also meant that there was over 10,000 ft of descent as well.
Honestly, with my knee injury, I was happier with the original course. While it had an additional 5,000 feet of climbing, it didn’t have as much descent, which would have been better on my knees.
Clearly, climbing and descending trails would need to be a major part of my training. Luckily, that wasn’t too difficult living in Colorado.
On a whim, I decided that I was going to do the Manitou Incline once a month for 2023.
The Manitou Incline climbs 2,000 ft in just under .9 miles. With an average grade of 45%, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes for elite athletes to well over an hour for the average individual to make the climb.
I figured adding this to my training once a month would help make any of the climbs at the Canyon 100k seem like child’s play.
In addition to the incline, I included plenty of trail runs and hill repeats/circuits in my training over the course of February, March, and April.
These are difficult months for trails in Colorado, as snow cover on the trails increases with elevation. This was another reason I broke down and got a treadmill.
I held off as long as I could but finally realized that I could make things way more convenient and get in a lot more hill training if I bought a treadmill.
I spent a lot of days running and hiking on the treadmill, setting the incline anywhere from 1% up to 10% (the max on my particular model) to prepare myself for the literal ups and downs of Canyons 100k.
I also made sure to test my knee with some downhill running mixed into my training.
Downhill running can be tough on your joints and engage muscles in different ways than you are used to. It’s important to include this in your training if you are getting ready for a race with significant downhill sections.
I feel like I did a pretty good job preparing myself for the elevation gain and descent of this race. I got in a lot of vert on trails and roads and incorporated strength training as part of my PT to prepare my body for the uphill and downhill sections.
I also paid attention to my calorie intake during the last 4-6 weeks of my training and got myself down to a healthy racing weight that saved me weight on the uphills and unnecessary pounding on my joints on the downhill.
About ten days before the race, I checked the weather, and my jaw dropped.
It was showing a high of around 90 degrees for race day. A week before race day, an email was sent to racers encouraging them to increase the hydration capacity they were carrying and be prepared for the warm conditions.
It was extremely hot on Friday and Saturday of the race weekend. The area was seeing record-high temperatures, and runners were suffering from it.
As someone who grew up in the heat and humidity of the southern United States, I’ve always felt like I performed poorly in warm weather, even more so than others.
With ten days to prepare, I took action to try and prepare myself for the impending heat.
Colorado isn’t known for heat in the spring. We had a couple of days in the 70s in early April, but the weather had stayed between 20-60 degrees for most of March and April.
Digging through all the articles I could find on heat training, I came up with two courses of action.
The first was active heat training. Saturday – Tuesday, the week of the race, I added layers to what I would normally wear for my run. These runs mostly consisted of an easy 3 miles, so I threw on a hoodie to increase the temperature my body was feeling.
I took these runs very easily, so I didn’t stress my body too much and stopped 3-4 days before the race to make sure I was recovered and ready to go on race day.
The second thing I did was passive heat training. A lot of articles will tell you to seek out a sauna to get some additional heat training. With no access to a sauna, I made do with a hot bath.
I would run a bath as hot as I could stand it and then sit in it for 30-40 minutes. I closed the door to my basement bathroom and didn’t turn on the vent. This essentially created a mini sauna in my bathroom.
This was also helpful in relieving some of the back pain I was experiencing at the time.
Finally, I went out and bought a white moisture-wicking tee and some electrolyte tabs, making sure to test both on runs before the event. I also added a 2-liter bladder to my running vest, which I didn’t wind up using (but wish I would have).
In hindsight, I think I did an extremely good job of preparing in the limited time I had. I would caution anyone who is considering heat training to make sure you don’t overdo it.
I was hydrating more than usual to make sure I wasn’t putting my body through too much, and I made sure to stop several days before the actual event so I could start getting electrolytes in my system several days ahead of time.
Fueling has been a bit of a mixed bag for me in ultras and longer events. I’ve managed to dial it in pretty well and typically try to take fluids every 3 miles and gels or solid food every 6 miles. I generally supplement with BCAA tablets, electrolyte tablets/pills, and Tums about once an hour as well.
This was essentially the game plan for Canyons 100k, with an added focus on hydration and electrolyte tablets.
With the warm weather, I picked up some electrolyte tablets from REI a week out from the race. I made sure to try them on a few easy runs to make sure my stomach would handle them well.
For gels, I typically use Huma, as they sit well in my stomach, and I like the consistency. For fluid, I use Nuun Endurance. It has less sugar than a lot of sports drinks, and I can stomach it better.
I would occasionally grab ginger ale or something similar at an aid station. My wife also got me a cherry Coke at mile 48, which really hit the spot at that time.
Solid food is a mix of Honey Stinger stroop waffles, Oreos, and usually chips at aid stations. As the race goes on, it’s harder for me to chew solid food. So I usually up the liquid calories and back off solid food as I go along.
I carried a little pill case in which I put my BCAA, electrolyte pills, and electrolyte tablets. I also packed a small bag of Tums, which I left at the aid station at mile 14.
This led to some stomach issues from mile 20-27. I was having trouble eating and drinking during that time. I stopped to pee and noticed I was very dehydrated.
Luckily, an aid station around mile 25 had some Tums, and I focused on getting in a lot of fluids for the next couple of hours. I got everything back under control and was good until around mile 45.
There was an aid station at mile 40 that was immediately followed by the biggest climb of the day and then a lot of ups and downs on a ridge with sun exposure during the hottest part of the day. It was also the longest stretch with no aid station.
I filled both my 17 oz flasks and my 12 oz bottle, but I had to ration water the last 4-5 miles of that stretch, and it was miserable. In hindsight, I should have filled my 2-liter bladder for that stretch so I would have had more fluid.
Ultimately, I think I did a good job with my fueling. It would have been better if I hadn’t forgotten the Tums, but I managed to self-correct and avoid any lasting stomach issues.
I need to work to improve my ability to eat solid food late in races so I can supplement my liquid calories and help make sure I don’t bonk.
Canyons 100k had a mandatory and suggested gear list that was sent to all runners.
The mandatory gear included:
- 1 liter of hydration capacity
- A reusable cup
- A headlamp with spare batteries
- A jacket with a hood
Suggested gear included:
- Running pack to carry gear
- Additional nutrition
- Cell phone
- Survival blanket
I carried all the mandatory gear and had the suggested gear minus the survival blanket.
I’ve made some adjustments to my ultra kit over the years and felt that this was the best I have ever done.
Some additions include:
- Toe socks – These helped me not experience blisters between my toes.
- Short sleeve shirt instead of a singlet – I often would get chaffing where my arms rubbed my lats close to my armpits. I opted for t-shirts for most of the day and only switched to a singlet for the last few miles. I also got a plain white dry-wicking shirt for the hottest part of the day.
- Additional hat – Something about changing into a dry shirt/hat that just lifts your spirits, even if it’s just for a few miles. I also dipped it in streams or poured water and ice on it at aid stations to help cool myself down.
- Other- I also had sunglasses for most of the day, swapped shoes and shorts at 48 miles, and had a buff. I also dunked in the water whenever possible.
One piece of gear I didn’t bring that I wish I would have had: trekking poles.
I’ve used them in longer races before, and they have been a lifesaver. Mine wouldn’t fit in my carry-on, and I hadn’t trained with them anyway, so I went without. I definitely think it would have helped with the climbs and descents later in the race.
You may be wondering if I finished the race and, more importantly, if I beat the cutoffs to qualify for UTMB and Western States.
I came into the aid station at mile 48 feeling pretty bad and thinking about quitting. My wife sensed this and quickly got my mind off it, giving me food, helping me change, and getting me back on my feet.
“The next section is the easiest. Just 8 miles of gently rolling downhill. Then you’re at the last aid station.” I perked up. It’s only 3 miles from the last aid station to the finish, I thought. I can do this.
I started walking, jogging occasionally as the terrain allowed. I closed in on the last aid station just as the sun was setting. I popped out on the road, and my heart sank: This wasn’t the last aid station.
I’m not sure if my wife knew this or not. In the end, it helped me mentally get going again, thinking I only had 11 miles left. If I had known it was closer to 16, I might not have left that aid station.
“How far to the end?” I asked a volunteer as he filled my water. “Only 3.7 to the next aid station, and then just a 5k from there.” Surprisingly, I didn’t think of quitting. The next section was a gradual downhill on asphalt, and I started running with everything I had left.
When the road turned to gravel and the sun set, I turned on my headlamp and walked as fast as my legs would take me. About 45 minutes later, I came to the last aid station.
“Only 3 miles left the worker told me. Same 3 miles everyone who does Western States has to do to finish. And they ran farther and in hotter weather,” the aid station volunteer told me. “What a weird pep talk,” I thought to myself.
The last 3 miles climbed 1,000 feet back into the town of Auburn. I passed several people as I pushed myself toward the finish line. When the road finally flattened out, I started to run again.
I made my way through town, slowly picking up my pace as much as my legs would allow. I made a couple of right turns, and suddenly, I could see the tunnel and the finish line ahead.
I crossed in 16 hours and 45 minutes, 15 minutes under the Western States cutoff and an hour and 15 minutes under the UTMB cutoff. I had finished.
The UTMB Canyons 100k is a beautiful but difficult course that should not be taken lightly. However, with the right training and some determination, you can finish this amazing race, too.
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