There's a reasonably profound clarity provided by declaring one's self bad at a thing, so it's pretty nice to say that I suck at ultras. Not that I'm especially pleased with that reality--but I am pleased to know it with the degree of certainty that I do. Of course, people have pushed back a bit against that notion, which is both expected and fair. Coworkers who do not run suggest that completing them is transcendent in and of itself, and people I know who have done them simply respect the challenge, and the possibility of failure.
They are all right enough, but I think we must have a certain right of self-determination, when it comes to such things. I have wanted various things when starting ultras, and mostly, I haven't had them when I finished (or didn't).
Of course we first must grant that my expectations were inflated. But I'd suggest that doesn't contradict the stated sucking, but rather is a natural component of it. Optimally training for an event gives one a pretty good picture of what is possible, and then proper execution makes is real. If I expected too much, it's because I failed at one or both of these components.
Addressing the second point first, because it's a short answer: I pace like an idiot.
On training, I could actually write even less: Specificity matters.
Not really a shock, that. And it's something I knew, but to be human is to be capable of a pretty staggering degree of hypocrisy and self-delusion. So that which I would suggest to others is not that which I have done consistently. Simply, I've been unwilling to abandon my "template" week. You know what this looks like without my telling you: Track on Tuesdays (or hills), Tempo on Thursday, a long run (rarely a back to back) during the weekend, with moderate to high (for me) mileage sprinkled throughout. This is, generally, what everyone does. so it's not that the template itself is in error, as it's my stubborn adherence to a stricter version of it.
People will argue this point forever, so I certainly don't claim the last word on it, but: My long runs aren't long enough, or hard enough, because I don't want to thrash myself so horribly I can't get my other shit in, because god forbid I lose some races during the local summer 5k series (I still did lose one of the four though), and hell, there's a road mile, let's hammer that too, etc.
Prolific masters runner Pete Magill has written that, for most average hobbyists, it's possible to stay in reasonably good shape for 5K to half marathon all at once. The marathon, he suggests, is a different beast. You have to sacrifice some things if you're going to tackle it. He's not written about ultras (that I know of), but I can only imagine that's even more true as the mileage increases.
Which is not to say you ignore the faster stuff. But priorities have to shift. Most coaches (I know, I know, there are exceptions) suggest long runs of either half the time or half the distance for 100s, because the race doesn't care who could run a decent half marathon every day for a week, but rather who can keep their legs moving for one day. Maybe there's not any physiological justification for this. I can go on about mitochondrial biogenesis being maximized at 120 minutes--or whatever--but the pain in your legs isn't going to listen. And anyway, there's something to be said for doing what works for most people, most of the time. I'm too contrary sometimes, too willing to think I've got a better idea. That's not always a fault--people at work like that I suggest novel things, for example--but in this case, there's something to be said for the wisdom of accumulated experience.
So for this 100, I hit 30 miles three times, and 20+ more than I can recall. I was in great shape to run a 50K! Probably a good 50 mile, had I not jacked my ankle. But even if I hadn't done that, 100 was going to be a disgusting, shuffling affair. (This is the part where I acknowledge that some people do indeed crush 100s on nothing but 20 mile long runs. They usually race ultras a lot, though, and have more lifetime miles in general.)
That brings me back to point two, which I (for some reason) addressed first: I could've just paced better. Conservative training can pay off with a conservative race plan. But you can't cash chips you never won.
Having spilled all these words, the logical question is, of course, so what? Are you prepared to do things differently? To that I would say yes, while simultaneously acknowledging that saying a thing isn't doing a thing, and often, there's a massive gap between them. So really, I don't know. My ankle is still clicking around and sometimes burning a bit, so it's all hypothetical anyway. I can say for certain I'm excited about some half marathons this fall and winter, though, and a couple races in the neighborhood of 50 miles in the spring. 100 is a long fucking way though, and it's important to consider whether I want to do it--and do it right--or simply want to have done it.
You know what's cool, though? My dad finished his first marathon at the same event. Proving what I mentioned at the outset, he's not at all happy with his time, but I'm very pleased with it for him.
Also, my cousin finished her first 50-miler the following week (her first marathon too, simultaneously), taking second at the North Face Endurance Challenge, Wisconsin edition. She did not share my specificity problem, doing 30-mile long runs every weekend.