Journey to 100K: How to select the best shoes for an ultra

Training for my first 100K means understanding the courses and picking out the best trail shoes for the conditions.

On my way to my first 100K, a foot issue has slowed my training. The month of February represented my lowest running total since I began running nearly seven years ago – 43 miles, or roughly two-thirds of what I will do in one day for my goal race this year.

With the foot healing, I have begun to once again increase my training. I chose to skip a full marathon in mid-February to ensure I would heal up and be ready for my 100K, the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC), in mid-May.

In my build-up to the 100K, I will be doing my second 50-miler about six weeks from this writing. That will be the Big Turtle 50-miler in Morehead, Ky.

Understanding the courses

Both races present different challenges, steep climbs and various terrain. Even though I am behind in my training, I have put some thought into one of the most important gear selections for these races: the shoes.

As I have weighed my options, I paid close attention to the course descriptions for each race. Here’s a breakdown:

The Big Turtle, which is an out and back course, has about 8,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal descent. From the organization’s website: “This race will give you a little bit of everything: rolling meadows, steep climbs and descents, rugged terrain, creek crossings, fast forest roads, and amazing spring views of the surrounding foothills.” There will be two aid stations where runners can pick up drop bags.

UROC has about 9,000 feet of gain and about 8,000 feet of loss over its 63.5 miles. The race website says the “Point-to-point course starts at Camp Blue Ridge and ends at Skylark Nature Preserve and Lodge. It is 80 percent single track trail and double track trails, with 10 percent on gravel and 10 percent on the Blue Ridge Parkway.” There are six aid stations where runners can pick up drop bags, including latter stages in the race at miles 40.7, 45.2 and 52.9.

The options

From a previous post, I indicated that my plan was to bring two different types of shoes and then make the best educated guess on race morning on which pair will handle the course more effectively, based on weather conditions.

For the 100K, I may also decide to leave one pair of shoes in a drop bag that I can access late in the race. A fresh pair of shoes – and socks – makes a world of difference for ultra runners. For the 50-miler, I don’t think I will opt to change shoes.

Also from that previous post, I listed my four favorite trail shoes which are the ones I am considering wearing at one or both of the races aforementioned. Since then, I have tested another pair – the second version of the Brooks Mazama – and have included it among my options.

The first three are ones I would consider for races that feature a fast course, and the last two are ones I would wear for courses that are technical and durable shoes are the way to go:

It's a new trail shoe that delivers on its promise of a fast, comfortable ride. It feels light like a road shoe but the sole allows the runner to quickly navigate through dirt, water, sand, rocks and other trail hazards.

The follow-up model is a fast, responsive and lively shoe, handling flat sections, rolling hills and downhills with ease. It will be on my go-to list for races where the terrain will allow for speed. The most significant change is a revised upper, which alleviates concerns some runners had with the shoe's tightness.

It's a sleek, fast and comfortable trail shoe that is quickly becoming my go-to choice for quality trail runs. In my review, I noted that it is very similar to the Mazamas and among my favorites for racing trails.

This shoe prides itself on being durable and handling trail obstacles with ease. The rugged trail shoe lives up to that promise with solid protective layering inside and outside, including a reinforced toe bumper and plate that are smoothly integrated within the design.

This is a new model intended to deliver maximum cushioning for trail runners. Beyond the comfortable fit, the Endurus provides solid traction through dirt, mud, snow and even ice.

My conclusions

Due to my limited training thus far, I have not been able to test all of the aforementioned shoes on a run over 10 miles. (Note: Runningshoesguru reviewers like me put at least 50 miles on each pair of shoes before we publish a review, though there are no hard and fast rules about the length of individual test runs.)

In preparing for my two ultras this spring, I am going to be more comfortable in choosing a pair that I have adequately tested during a continuous long run that is comparable to race conditions I’ll find in Kentucky or Virginia.

That will be a challenge as time is creeping up. But I expect to soon hit double-digit mileage runs that will help me transition to the longer ultra race distances. During those training runs, I will not only be enhancing my fitness, but learning about how the shoes perform – and my feet react – to longer distances.

For runners, it is of course advisable to train in shoes that you plan to wear on race day. I would take that a step further in tracking your mileage so that the shoes are broken in enough but won’t be near the point of breaking down when race day dawns. For me, I would say that would be between 50 and 200 miles, depending on the quality of the shoe, miles on race day and generally how long the runner wears shoes before retiring them.

I will bring two pairs of shoes for the 50-miler because I still need to figure out some things. Will my foot be fully recovered, allowing me to push the pace? What will the weather be like – the website indicates that April weather in Kentucky can be anything from snowy to rainy to unseasonably warm. Will it be really muddy? If so, my Endurus may be the choice since they have experience in thick mud.

At this point, I am thinking of bringing my Inov-8 Roclites because they are more durable and provide better traction than the Mazamas. If I feel that I can run fast on race morning, I will wear those. However, if weather makes the course wetter and more challenging, I will lace up the Under Armour Horizons on race morning. The extra protection will surely be welcome in that case.

For UROC, I am taking a similar approach. In this case, given the longer race and more severe elevation gains, I am leaning toward the UA Horizons.

The 100K is almost exactly two months away. As I rev up my training, I will also pay particular attention to testing my gear, including the shoes I plan on wearing during the races. Stay tuned as I further refine my choices for gear and nutrition.




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