Thunder Rock 100: A True Test for Chattanooga’s Ultrarunners

Mark McKnight
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The 100-mile trail race is the Holy Grail for ultrarunners. It is the next logical step in their development in the sport (50k to 50 mile, maybe a 100k, then the 100 mile). It has all the allure of a siren’s call and is at once inconceivable, and possible. Abstractly, the distance is about experiencing the extreme unknown, overcoming fear, and mastering the self. For family and friends of runners, it is about surviving with your runner.

Running 100 miles is scary, especially the first time. How do you survive the week leading into the event when your training has been cut to almost nothing and your pent up fears and neuroses crowd in with the nauseating power of your worst high school moments? Read on to see if you recognize any of the concerns spinning in the heads of the registered runners: Did I train enough? What will I do when I get tired? What if I get lost or miss a cut off? What if I get hurt/fall off a cliff? What if I don’t finish? How will I handle being out on the course for however long it takes me to finish (18, or 23, or 30 hours)? What happens if I get blisters or have the runs? What happens if I get stuck running with someone annoying or someone who smells worse than I do? What happens if I see a snake?

Battle wound
Battle wound

Overcoming these concerns is part of the mental preparation required for such an event and takes many forms such as, not surprisingly, training in the first place, as well as visualizing the course and imagining yourself as successful.

Trying not to put too much pressure on yourself especially the week leading into the event, is extremely challenging. Trust that you have put your time in preparing. Wasting energy worrying at this point won’t make you any fitter and it could undermine your performance. The sense of responsibility you feel towards your family and friends for the time you’ve spent away from them while training, or your crew members who have taken time off to help you is understandable, but worrying is useless to you now. You simply have to trust that you are ready. Just do as Chattanooga runner Sarah White-Woerner, (winner of the first 100 she entered) suggests, “Envision yourself as being successful. Focus on relaxing, staying calm, and being at peace in the days leading up to the race," says White-Woerner. Huntsville, Alabama first timer Will Barnwell says his preparation has included the hope that when he starts to feel really challenged during the race he will draw from his training and find comfort in knowing he has put himself in a position to do his best.

Put a smile on.
Put a smile on.

Veteran of three 100 milers, Chad Wamack put too much pressure on himself to succeed his first time out. “I psyched myself out and didn’t finish,” he says. “The night before I made my second attempt I had a message from my friend Randy Whorton, who said, ‘don’t even think about it...just go out there and do it...’ Instantly my attitude shifted. I realized I was thinking about it too much! It’s too hard to get your mind around running 100 miles especially your first time. You have to avoid thinking about the big picture. Break it down in smaller parts, aid station to aid station or by sections, and then just go out there and embrace the journey,” says Wamack. With this strategy, he was successful.

The Ocoee River provides a scenic backdrop for the Thunder Rock 100
The Ocoee River provides a scenic backdrop for the Thunder Rock 100 Joe King

Stress management doesn’t end when the race starts. Because of the distance, the time spent moving toward the goal, and all of the other variables like weather, fatigue, potential for injury or getting off course, you have to manage the highs and lows that you're bound to experience during the event. Accomplishing this sense of calm comes in part from minimizing the elements that can’t be controlled. If you struggle with heat and humidity, the uncertainty of the weather, especially in eastern Tennessee in May, is a factor. Brooke McClanahan of Tifton, Georgia says, “I tend to suffer the most in that type of weather like heat and humidity. This week I’m making a list of what I’ll need to help me get through it successfully.”

Stopping to smell the roses and take in the views.
Stopping to smell the roses and take in the views.

If you start to doubt yourself this week or during the race, remember that mistakes made in training can be invaluable. Nathan Holland, a Chattanooga local who will run Thunder Rock 100 as his first 100 miler acknowledges, “I attempted the 3-day training run in late April thinking it would be a great boost. On the first day I had one of the worst bonks I’ve ever had, got lost and dehydrated, and ended up only doing about 45 of 50 miles I planned before calling it a day. My legs and body were trashed and I knew that I had physically and mentally damaged myself. A couple of IV bags later and a few days off for recovery, I was feeling better but a little bummed from my failed training run. In the end, I learned that on my worst day I managed to keep moving. This makes me feel confident.”

If you are a family member or friend, just keep your distance this week, as your runner may be incapable of speech, unable to sleep, short tempered, and obsessive about organizing and discussing the event.

Just one thing you can expect to have at the end of the race.
Just one thing you can expect to have at the end of the race.

If you are a runner, the following advice might help:

1. Don't make the goal harder than it really is.

  1. Know that you will have definite low points, but you won’t give up. Keep moving.

  2. Walk with purpose when you need a break from running. Don't hammer the down hills--you'll blow up your quads.

  3. Stay present in the moment. Fifteen or 23 or 30 hours is a long time to focus and to control your mind, but you must. Worrying about the "what if's" won’t do you any good and it will make you uneasy.

  4. The mind is exceptionally selfish; it is trying to protect you when it urges you to drop. Take charge of it.

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