Photo credit: Hillary Ann (Bigfoot 200)
200 mile races exploded in popularity over the last decade as Ultrarunners flock to measure themselves against the mysterious new distance. These races are so fresh that you have to scour the internet to research proven sleep strategies, find an experienced coach, or even compare effective nutrition plans.
Trolling through UltraSignup, you may be surprised to learn that some entrants haven’t even finished a 100 miler. Runners all over are eager to test the limits of ultra: the California Untamed 330-miler was attempted in 2020, and the inaugural Cocodona 250 took place in 2021. Destination Trail, the premier host of 200 milers, boldly claims, “200s are the new 100s.”
Many of these registrations must be won by lottery due to the spike in demand, even though the price tag typically ranges from $1,000-$1,800. More people than ever are committing themselves to attempting these mind-bending, quad-shredding distances, but nearly half of them will go home empty-handed and broken. Finish rates, on average across the races and years, hover around 60%.
How do you get that legendary buckle?
How long does it take to run 200 miles?
The winner of a 200 miler will not cross the finish line until nearly 60 hours of continuous running. Most finishers will complete the course in 80-90 hours.
These runs are not completed in stages. The runner chooses if or when they will rest, although there are generally aid stations every 15-20 miles offering hydration and nutrition. There are checkpoints throughout the race that a runner must be past (time cutoffs) to be
allowed to continue.
Photo Credit: Scott Rokis (Moab 200)
A mid-pack runner averages 2.5-3 miles per hour. This sounds like a hike, but this pace includes sleep, pack refills, aid stations, eating, bathroom stops, mountain passes, weather, freezing middle-of-the-night hiking, clothing changes, chatting with crew, waiting for your burrito to cook, and more. Ultrarunning on paper is a complex recipe; it has great photos and looks delicious, but you cannot taste it, not even if you know all the ingredients.
It must be tried to be understood.
500,000 steps adds up on your legs, hips, feet, shoulders, and even eyeballs. Some of these courses rack up over 40,000’ of climbing. Muscles get tight, sore, and tired—especially on the second day before your body begins to recover. There is a surprising amount of running and ultra-shuffling just to keep a pace of three miles per hour. The fastest runners on earth average a 14 min/mile at this distance.
Could you power hike it? Absolutely, if your goal is to finish in the back of the pack. There are extremely talented hikers out there that can easily make the cutoffs. Their trick is to be consistent, efficient, and cognizant of time. I would caution you against thinking you can finish a race of this caliber by simply walking, however. You will quickly find yourself fighting the clock if you underestimate the difficulty.
Managing your moving time against your resting time is an integral part of the challenge. Beware the chair is especially important during a 200 miler since you will spend four days and four nights on your feet. You need self-discipline to get moving.
Photo credit: Hillary Ann (Bigfoot 200)
If you can run 100 miles, can you run 200
I’ve started and finished five footraces 200-250 miles long, once winning first female, and all of them have felt like four times the effort of a hundred. The reality is that both your training strategy and race day execution will have several important differences from a traditional ultra plan. Even the best-calculated spreadsheets rarely materialize as planned during a race of this distance due to unpredictable factors.
Experienced hundred mile runners both finish and fail, so experience alone is not an indication of success, though there are important lessons learned during 100 miler that can be adapted to the 200 miler. Dipping a toe into the pools of blister care and sleep deprivation is a wise move as long as you remember that running 200 miles requires different nutrition, energy management, and math.
Hundred milers come in every terrain and time limit, but typically you run through one night, sometimes in less than 24 hours. The majority of 200 miler finishers run through three nights. This is a devastating level of sleep deprivation. Constant exposure during these races beats your body, mind, and spirit. As your muscles stiffen, your pace will slow. You also carry more gear and water than most ultramarathons.
Photo Credit: Hilary Ann (Tahoe 200)
Most of us cannot push through on gels and broth alone. By the end of a hundred miler, the sight of another sticky gel can turn your stomach. Ultrarunning amasses a caloric deficit that is impossible to balance, but it is still necessary to digest real food. A fast, hard 100 mimics your body’s reaction to stress; it will overthrow your parasympathetic system. This cuts off blood flow to your stomach and dramatically slows your digestion.
The 200 miler is too long for your body to shut down in this way, and most athletes consume real food — even full meals — during the event.
How to treat your feet is a commonly underestimated, imperative difference between the 200 and any other ultra. Expect to embrace foot soreness that you’ve never known and blisters that you have never imagined. Runners who swear they never have blister problems find themselves with stinging bloody feet and unable to run.
Most of these races have foot care specialists and medics on standby to triage toes - though the ultimate responsibility for feet is always the runner’s. Not knowing how to manage foot pain, foot hygiene, blister care and prevention is a shortcut to the bottom of the DNF (did not finish) list.
Lancing and taping my blisters in the crew vehicle during Tahoe 200.
The fortitude to finish a graduate level race comes at a heavy price. In a hundred, if you pick up your pacer and you faithfully grind for the last twenty miles, it likely you will finish by lunch. In a 200, you may have 81 miles to go and another full day and night ahead of you (plus weather, summits, and sleep demons taunting you). To enter the race without adequate mental conditioning will guarantee a miserable week traipsing through the woods or trudging through the desert.
Day 3 at Moab 240 (2022)
Do you sleep during a 200-mile race?
Yes! Even the winners swear by short 2-5 minute naps. In 2019, Candice Burt won Delirious W.E.S.T with two five-minute naps. Courtney Dewaulter famously set the Moab 240 course record with a two-minute power nap in the middle of the trail, and the winner in 2020 was captured taking his one minute nap:
Most runners plan more conservatively and sleep a few hours each night depending on the aggressiveness of their goal. 1-2 hours per night is the sweet spot. It is enough to get off your feet and truly reset your mind without wasting time. Some runners try to push through the first night, still thinking they are in familiar 100-mile territory, but that is a mistake. Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty, and my addition -- sleep before you trash.
Fill your belly with real food.
Take your shoes and socks off to let your feet dry out (this is more important than you think).
Eat again quickly when you wake up before you hit the trail.
This is a winning chain of events to reset your race.
There are three options for sleep: use the sleep stations, crew cars, or dirt naps. No matter what option you choose, practice these tricks to save yourself time.
Photo credit: Scott Rokis
These are tents with cots and stinky wool blankets set up at aid stations, and they are often loud, cold, have alarms going off, and have crews milling and talking loudly outside of the
tents. If you could not drum up a hearty crew to follow you around mountain roads for four days and you are running solo, however, a sleep station is a welcome refuge. Curled up and shivering is not a productive use of your time. If you use sleep stations, pack warm clothing and ear plugs in your drop bags. Do not sleep through your alarm.
This is the most comfortable option. Keep a bed in the back of your crew vehicle and sleep whenever you need. Two tricks to this method: kick out your crew, and restrict your amount of sleep. Do not let them open and close doors, sit in the car and chat, or stand against the car outside and chat. When it is time to close your eyes, you need every minute to count. Since you are able to sleep more easily and frequently, shorten your nap times.
Standard safety gear during a 200 includes a foil bivy (bivouac bag) or emergency blanket, and this is a perfect tool to rest safely in. Bivies promise a quiet trail nap, and if you can find a dry, bug-free spot you can even be comfortable. Dirt naps allow you to reset your mind at any time rather than death marching to an aid station. They are a fast way to clear your mind or stop hallucinating.
However, if it is cold and you are encased in the bivy, your breath will soak you in condensation. Wet and cold at night is not a great combination. You are also not eating hot food, changing your clothes, or giving your feet a chance to breathe like you would at an aid station.
Coach’s Tip: sleep at the base of a climb. When you wake up in a bivy, you will be shaking cold. Climbing immediately warms your core. Take 20-30 minutes and keep moving.
Dirt nap on warm rock during Tahoe 200.
How hard is running 200 miles?
A few hundred runners start these races, and sometimes only half finish. When finish rates dip toward 50%, you can bet the race is tough.
I have seen dozens of runners drop because they are unable or unwilling to carry on with torn up feet, with nausea they do not wait out, or exhaustion that brings them to tears. Hallucinations, severe chafing, Rhabdomyolysis , injury, tendonitis, inflammation, dehydration, loss of willpower, and sheer fatigue are just a handful of reasons runners DNF.
You will be faced with challenge after challenge on your quest, and you must face each confidently if you want to cross the finish line. Expect to run the emotional gamut. Expect self-doubt to polish its talons, apathy to lure you to quit, and highs and lows to slosh around inside your skull. Expect the race to smirk and a wink and plunge you into introspection of the most existential question in the universe: why are you here?
Photo credit: Scott Rokis
How do you train for a 200-mile race?
The best answer will be personal. The answer should factor in the goal, the runner, the course, and the runner’s history of endurance. There is no standard formula for a person to finish because each person brings individual grit, discipline, and fitness. I can suggest a few general rules that apply to everyone.
Time on feet is key. Train by hours rather than miles. Replicate the course as much as possible (elevation, conditions, weather). If the course is sandy and hot, you should know what it feels like to run when it is sandy and hot. If there are twenty river crossings, you should know what to do at, or after, a river crossing.
Photo credit: Hillary Ann (Bigfoot 200)
Learn to move well at night. Make best friends with your headlamp. Learn to move quickly over trail with your light bobbing and your thoughts pulling you back to your comfortable bed. Most people drop from an ultra during the long night hours. Run everything. Run when you are exhausted. Run with your poles. Run when you are starving, when you are stuffed, after a workout, after a long workday, or hours before dawn. Embrace discomfort and learn to move well in all circumstances. This is a mental exercise perhaps even more than a physical one.
Practice patience. It is unlikely you will quit because of your body, if you are truly honest with yourself. It will be your mind that convinces you to stop battling the lows of pain and exhaustion, and it will be over-thinking that convinces you that you cannot go on. Resilience that is unfaded and unbroken hour after hour does not come freely. Running 200 miles is more an exercise of spirit and mind than of body. Learning to accept suffering in patience is the intrinsic muscle to strengthen if you wan to bring home the buckle.
Photo Credit: Destination Trail
Handful of repeat participants; 33/311 for Tahoe
167/240 = 69% finisher rate
2022 -167, 168, 127, 86, 111, 98 - Moab
139, 24 (virtual), cancelled, 149, 138, 123, 80, 53, 60 - Tahoe
135, 111, cancelled, 105, 111, 78, 47, 59
Moab 240 = 30% DNF 2022
Moab 240 = 22% DNF 2021
Moab 240 = 36% DNF 2020
Bigfoot 200 = 34% DNF 2022
Bigfoot 200 = 44% DNF 2021
Bigfoot 200 = 34% DNF 2019
Tahoe 200 = 41% DNF 2022
2021 - Virtual
Tahoe 200 = 33% DNF 2019