Embracing Uncertainty: Training for a 100-Miler

Jessica Hewitt tells her tale of training for a 100 mile footrace with grace, wit, and an understanding of what it takes to go that extra mile.
Jessica Hewitt Jessica Hewitt
Ultra Runner
August 23, 2018
Embracing Uncertainty: Training for a 100-Miler

“Stuart, is that you?” I didn’t care that I said it aloud… nor did I care that Stuart is a mass of granite, incapable of a response. After traveling nearly 40 miles over the weekend with another 15 to go on an endless forest road, alone, I was relieved to see a familiar face. Exasperated, I pushed my poles to my forehead and let out a sigh that came from a deeper place in my psyche than I’d like to admit.

I was previewing one of the most remote sections of my course. Seeing a familiar face was comforting, but it didn’t quell the nagging doubts in my mind as to whether I was even on the right trail. Within ten minutes, I heard the comforting sound of running feet on crushed gravel. Definitely on the right path- faith vindicated!

Six months ago, I was the type of trail runner who became anxious during a race if I didn't see a pink ribbon marking the path for more than three minutes. Never mind that there was nowhere to lose the trail; the dearth of pink ribbons meant I was lost in the woods and probably many hours from reaching my finish line pizza and beer! The uncertainty would gnaw at me, make me stop in my tracks, further delaying finish line celebrations.

In training for 100 miles, I’ve learned to trust myself a little more and have faith that if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I’ll be headed in (roughly) the right direction. In the immortal words of Dory, "Just keep swimming." It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be perfect; actually, it’s almost guaranteed to be anything but. Tackling a new distance is a jump into the unknown. The success of that leap is dependent on patience and a commitment to see it through.


I spent almost six months unsure of whether the race was even going to happen; first waiting for the lottery results to be revealed, then an additional five months sitting on the waitlist. Waiting and hoping was a profound exercise in patience and faith. I trained and learned to embrace that maybe the race would be on my calendar, or maybe it wouldn’t. I couldn't control that, but I could make sure I was ready if a spot opened up.

Along the way I asked myself whether I was genuinely up to the task at hand. I only had one 50-miler under my belt and a handful of 50K’s, and that 50-miler didn’t exactly go according to plan. Was I really the kind of runner who should be toeing the line of a 100-miler? What was the motivation to even attempt such a race? And is that motivation going to keep me going 70 miles in?

The journey from hemming-and-hawing wait-list denizen to shiny-belt-buckle-or-bust hasn’t been a straight-line. It’s involved more than figuring out uses for all of the pockets on my hydration vest. It’s been a lesson in how to obsessively plan. And how to frame the times when things don’t go according to plan, so that they are building blocks rather than crises.

The Cascade Crest Classic makes a large loop starting and ending in Easton, showcasing beautiful stretches of the PCT and more remote sections near Keechelus and Kachess Lake. An area featuring stunning views of the alpine lakes and beyond. It’s known for running through the Snoqualmie Train Tunnel. On a hot summer day a few weeks ago, I decided running through the tunnel would be a great way to add miles and avoid the heat- what I didn’t plan on was my headlamp going out as I was headed back, with most of the tunnel ahead of me.


 I fidgeted with the buttons for a few minutes before accepting my fate. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? There seemed to be a few groups of people heading towards me from the opposite direction, so all I really needed to do was keep moving forward. After I got past those people, there would be more… right? Wrong.

In those short seconds following, my mind flipped through a list of things you shouldn’t think of when you find yourself alone in a dark tunnel. Catacombs. Sleeping animals not wanting to be disturbed by not-so-intrepid runners. Shelob, the large spider from Lord of the Rings.

After cycling through the series of uncomfortable thoughts, the final image- a large spider about to eat some plucky but far-outmatched Hobbits, it dawned on me. I might not have the phial of Galadriel to ward off evil, but I did have a flashlight on my phone! I emerged from the tunnel a short while later to find my running buddy waiting with some ice water for me. In case it’s not immediately clear- trail buddies are the best buddies you’ll ever make.

On the drive home I realized how far I’ve come from the runner who’d lose it when she couldn’t see pink ribbons.  Fumbling around in the dark, I’d had the faith that if I kept moving forward in the darkness, eventually I would make it to the other side. Some quick thinking and a willingness to improvise even made it so that I didn't have to keep going in the dark. That newfound faith is something I fully intend to lean on come race day.

August 25 has been on my calendar since I entered the lottery at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Seeing that it’s only a few weeks away leads to momentary panic, no matter how much I tell myself that I’m ready. There won’t always be the beacon of pink ribbons to affirm that yes, the path I’m on will lead me where I am hoping to go. My legs and resiliency are what will move me towards that finish line. But the support of my crew, fellow runners, and race volunteers is what will keep me going when I falter.

A sense of community is what turns the tide when I get nervous about race day. The list of things that can go wrong during a 100-miler is long. Far more experienced runners have not finished on their first attempt. Who I have on my support crew, what gear I bring, how I prepare, I can control. For everything else, I will “just keep swimming.”

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