Hints on Preparing for the 100 Mile Walk

Race Walking began as an ultra-long distance sport in the eigthteenth and nineteenth centuries and still maintains a great following in Europe. Easily the most famous event in the world was the Paris to Strasbourg walk (320 mile 3 day event) which has been rebadged as the Paris to Alsace and in 2015 was raced over a distance 426.5km for men and 321.5km for women. The fact that it is generally won in well under 60 hours gives you some idea of just how good the top ultra distance walkers really are. The European calendar still includes many long distance walks including the Roubiax (France) 28 hour walk in which many European countries enter teams. On top of this, a number of countries have active Centurion Clubs which offer life-long membership for sub-24 hour 100 mile walk performances.

Here in Australia, we also support the concept of ultra-distance walking and are pleased to provide these notes about training for the basic mainstay of the sport, namely the 100 mile event. In Australia, such Centurion events are generally held on a 400m track and are run under the auspices of the Australian Centurions Club.

People as young as 16 and as old as 73 have finished the 100 mile races held previously in Australia. Some have been in the prime of their walking careers while others have been non-race walkers who have had a desire to succeed and the individual fortitude necessary to 'bash it out'. Nowadays such races are restricted to those aged 18 years or older but that is about the only restriction on entry.

If you are thinking of entering such an event, then you need some serious planning and a total committment if you are to succeed. These notes are meant to provide some basic ideas on which you can build. Read on...

When one talks of preparing for these endurance events, it is really a question of consistent daily training, previous experience, common sense and guts. From a time and distance standpoint, training is similar to that of a 50 km walker but the long distance walker must work on the elements unique to that sport

  • Judge the pace in the opening hours.
  • Keep the action going through the inevitable bad spots.
  • Prevent the pace from dropping drastically in inclement weather and the unbelievably tiring later stages.
  • Eating and drinking play a large part in success in endurance events and can quickly bring you through the bad stretches that inevitably hit you. This is discussed in depth further down.
  • Particular care must be taken to use vaseline very liberally (for obvious reasons). Spare clothes and shoes (but never brand new ones) should always be available, as well as foul-weather gear, even if the day seems promising when the race starts.

All in all, the ultra-long distance aspirant must

  • be a good judge of pace
  • not get panicked
  • be able to take a hard jolt and come out of it
  • never seriously consider the thought of retirement.

Some thoughts on the type of training

As mentioned above, training is similar to that of a 50 km walker. However, there is one basis training session that must be added.to your regime. You will need to include one long walk each week or each fortnight (depending on your situation). During this long walk, the emphasis is not on speed or even on distance covered but on time spent on the feet. Try a session of some 5 or more hours and walk at the pace at which you intend to start out in the 100 miler. Take some money with you and stop and buy some refreshments and take regular breaks (as you will do in the 100 miler). The aim is to prepare both physically and psychologically for the event.

In the old days, the English walkers used to walk from London to Brighton (a distance of just over 50 miles) on the Saturday and then walk back on the next day. Now that is probably a bit extreme but you do need to prepare yourself for 24 hours of walking and the only way to do that is by judiciously placed long walks. Your last really long walk should be 3-4 weeks out from your event. You want to make sure you are fully recovered and ready to go on the big day.

Hints for the actual race

  • Make sure that your take precautions against blisters - tape feet/toes if necessary, etc. Experiment in this matter beforehand.
  • Have your initial pace worked out so that you are not heading off to fast.
  • Do not forgo your race plan in the early stages when you feel good and want to speed up.
  • Have your stops well planned in advance and take them even if you still feel ok.
  • Feed regularly - when you feel the need for nourishment, it is generally too late already.
  • Have changes of shoes, clothes, wet weather gear, whatever medical gear you might need, plenty of vaseline or equivalent, etc.
  • Have someone experienced looking after you and making sure that you adhere to your plan. That person should be able to calculate what breaks to take, how much time remains, etc. You might not be in a fit state to make these sorts of decisions for yourself.
  • Come into the race with the conviction that you will finish.

Eating and drinking in the race

Eating and drinking play a large part in success in endurance events and can quickly bring you through the bad stretches that inevitably hit you. In races of 24 hours of less, it is better to stick to highly digestible foods - tinned fruit, high energy drinks, barley sugar, etc. However, everyone has their own favourite recipe be it Coca Cola or rice pudding or porridge (yes, seriously, I remember someone who used to have it during a 50 km event). Warm tea is helpful on warm days and soft drinks should never be taken too cold. In races of more than 24 hours, more substantial food is needed in addition to the above. Omelettes, warm soup (with bread mixed in) and roast chicken are all used successfully in Europe. Obviously that is one you must work out for yourself through practice.

Now the paragraph above was written many years ago and sounds rather simplistic nowadays so let's tease it out a bit.

  • You must carbohydrate load in the last few days leading up to such an event. Amongst other things, this reduces the probability that hypoglycemia will develop during the race. But this alone is not sufficient.
  • You must also eat a pre-race breakfast (eg cereal and fruit) In fact, you should ensure that you ingest adequate carbohydrate in the 12 hours before the race (ie at dinner the night before and at breakfast on the day of the race). Note that you should practice this before hand - the last thing you want is to have breakfast when you have not tested it out before and then get sick during the early hours of the race. But this is still not enough.
  • You must also ingest carbohydrate during all races of further than 4 hours or 50km. The evidence suggests that the greatest performance benefit is seen with an ingestion rate of 1gm/kg/hr of carbohydrate (ideally consisting of glucose:fructose in a 2:1 ratio). So a 60kg walker should aim for around 60gm/hr of carbohydrate. But this is harder than it sounds as the gut will not tolerate such high doses of carbohydrate over long race periods unless it has been trained beforehand - or else you risk the dreaded GI issues (dizziness, nausea, stomach or intestinal cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea).
  • You must also drink regularly during such an event as it is vitally important that you avoid dehydration.

So what to do. I work on a mixture of gels and drinks and solid food. For gels, I prefer PowerBar PowerGel Sachets with Caffeine or High5 IsoGel with Caffeine. Both are easy to take and don't seem to cause me any issues. For food, I take bananas, fruit, honey sandwiches, etc. For drinks, I use PowerBar Isoactive Drink Mix. This comes in powder form and you mix your own sports drink to your own satisfaction. Your job is to experiment to see which combination suits you.

Here are some specific questions and associated answers:

What sort of background should you have before doing this sort of event?

Most of the walkers who have done it well have come from a background of walking and have done at least one 50 km race. I feel that this is important as a race such as a 50 km prepares one mentally for the tiredness that will be experienced in a 100 miler. If you wish to walk a 50 km race, you have to do some consistent regular training that includes a weekly long walk (in the region of 3-4 hours). With such a preparation behind you, you are well on the way to completing a 100 miler. All you have to do is add a couple of very long walks (nice slow pace and make a day of it). These would be well spaced apart and would not be in the last month before the actual event as you do not want to come into it tired and with possible injuries. I personally recommend to people that they need to have done one or two walks of at least 8 hours to really prepare the body for the event. When I was in England years ago and talked to the old English walkers who did well in the London to Brighton and back, they talked of the sort of training preparation that they did - walk from London to Brighton on the Saturday and walk back from Brighton to London on the Sunday. Now I do not recommend such a vigorous weekend but the principle still holds - you must perpare your body with at least 1 or 2 very long sessions at some stage or you will suffer a lot during the 100 miler.For every rule, there are exceptions and we have had some people who have done it without such a preparation. Bill Dyer did it at 16 years of age with no distance preparation at all (and suffered no aftereffects). But these are exceptions to the rule.

What sort of weekly mileage is needed to succeed at the 100 mile distance?

How many kilometres per week? Now I would suggest that to walk a good 50 km, you need to do in the order of 100+km per week with the occasional bigger week of 120-140km. The same sort of training load will get you a decent attempt at a 100 miler provided you do the occasional long slow stroll. You do not have to do huge mileage - in fact if you did, you might injure yourself and miss out. I got through on this sort of mileage and, sure it hurt, but it is going to hurt regardless of how much you did. This is the sort of mileage that most of our centurions have done in preparation.

Should you take regular breaks or try to walk it with a minmum of stops?

Most of our Centurions have done it with a minimum of breaks. Those who took big breaks generally did not finish (perhaps this is coincidence but perhaps not). Most took very few breaks up till at least 50 miles and generally only stopped for a couple of minutes to change shoes or have a quick rubdown or just sit down for a drink for a little bit. As you go on into the second half, you sometimes have to stop as you are just physically wrecked but it is best to keep the stops short and keep on the move. This takes a big physical effort but seems to be how most do it.

How fast do you need to be?

If you walk 5:30 for 50 km, you have lots in reserve. At that pace, you would complete the first 50 miles in about 9:20. So you could go conservatively and still do about 10:30 to 11:00 and have plenty up your sleeve for the second half when you are going to inevitably slow down a bit. Our first woman to do it, Carmela Carrassi, is only a 6:30 50 Km walker at best but she still finished in under 24 hours.

Why do people stop?

Now that's an interestin one. Generally it is because they are not sufficiently strong mentally. Once it reallys starts to hurt, they pack it in. Yet I have seen others walk on through such anguish and they finish. So the big difference is mental preparation and mental toughness. You have to just shut out the tiredness and soldier on.