I’m happy to see some renewed interest in running fast 100s lately (along with the equally interesting “let’s find the hardest, gnarliest course out there” school of thought). While one of the neat things about trail running is that each course is so different, and even each year on the same course is so different due to weather and other variables, there is something to be said for nice round numbers, like a sub 3:30 50K, sub 6:00 50 miler, or in the case of trail 100s, the yet to be done sub 13:00.
As the number of trail 100s explodes (I think now over 40 in North America), there is still a short list of possible candidates for a sub 13:00 effort (or for whatever your speed goal is). Based on current course records, the fastest 100s are:
Rocky Raccoon – 13:16, and 2nd fastest is 13:17 (not in same year)
Vermont – 14:05 (way easier course than the current one)
Heartland – 14:26
Umstead 14:38 (slightly easier course than the current course)
Javelina – 15:25
Rio Delago – 15:31
San Diego – 15:48 (does it change every year?)
Arkansas Traveler – 15:52
While this is a good place to start, obviously you have to look at other factors such as age of the race, who has run it, and the course itself. Some factors to consider:
Time of year
Total elevation gain/loss
Low/High point of course
Ease of getting your stuff (crew/aid station/drop bags)
Wild cards (crowded conditions, other hazards)
Here is my own subjective ranking of the fastest courses with special attention to the ones I’ve run (either the race or on the course itself).
1. Rocky Racoon - by far the quickest course I've seen, and weather is generally not much of a factor. However, less daylight in Feb. Nice smooth trail that is protected by trees. There are some roots however but overall nice running. Loop course makes aid easy, but at 20 miles you’ll have to carry something. 5700 total climb. Another bonus is you can wait till the last minute to sign up. High and Low points on course only 105 feet apart. Every good runner I know who has done Rocky set their PR at Rocky.
Tie 2. Javelina - super fast course unless you'd prefer no technical running at all. There is about 1 mile per 15 mile loop that is a bit technical,and another several miles on smooth single track per loop. I ran a 50K on this trail in 3:11:55 so obviously it couldn't be too difficult. Not sure ofthe amount of climbing here, but I think it is about 7000 feet total. Weather was hot this year, but not always super hot in late Oct. Aid every 5 miles.
Tie 2. Heartland - Probably easier than Javelina if just looking at profile, but the wind is pretty much a given, and the dirt roads tend to have alot of sharp little flint rocks. 6200 feet of total climb, and the high and low points are about 500 feet apart. I think that some climbing is good so you aren't just using the exact same stride the whole way. Most of the climbing is in the middle 50 miles. Wildcard – lots of cattle and cattle guards to cross over. If you have super large feet, subtract 5 minutes from time. If you have small feet, better be careful crossing them!
4. Umstead - About the same amount of climbing as Heartland, but the hills tend to be shorter and steeper (the downhills then being the problem). The footing is great except for the first and last .75 miles of each loop. Weather is often humid/hot. 12.5 mile loop seems to be just about the right distance.
I haven’t personally run on any of the other courses except Vermont, which is not a candidate for fastest anymore. From what I’ve heard, I’d probably put Arkansas Traveler at #5 and it is crap shoot after that. I’d love to see not just one person, but several runners go after a fast time at the same race. While time trials are great, the real excitement is when people are racing to fast times.
As for me, I’d love to do Rocky this year, but I may be ready to curl up and hibernate for awhile after ATY. I do plan to do a fast 100 sometime in 2008, and it will be one of the 4 listed above.
What is Needed to Break 13:00?
While I think anybody who has a shot at breaking 13:00 would need the capability to run a marathon in the low 2:30s, I think the more important thing is to be efficient at goal pace, which would be about 7:45. While the stories are endless of 2:20 marathoners who used to go to WS100 and blow up (this is when Levi Strauss was offering 5000 bucks for the winner in the early 80s). I think any of them could have won the race if they did some slower running, but you can’t expect to train 100 miles a week at 5:00 - 6:00 pace and then run for 18 hours at 9:00 pace without practicing it a bit. They also didn’t have any history with eating/drinking on the run or with mixing walking into their runs.
Now let's get out there and put up a 12:xx!