How I Decide Which Races To Run Every Year

How Susan Donnelly decides which ultramarathons to train for to keep a good mental life balance

With the many 100-mile and other races I do, and the tons of ultramarathons to choose from these days, how do I decide which to do?  

Great question!  

Since I’m knee deep in the process right now, I'll walk you through it.

Step 1. Set my intentions for the year.

This is the most important step and the one you’re most likely to skip. 

Blow by it and you could find yourself next December wondering where the year went and why you didn’t accomplish anything big.

And why would you skip it, anyway? It’s the most fun! 

Now's the time to aim BIG and ask

  • What kind of challenges feel inspiring to me?

  • What will I dare this year?

  • What'll feel satisfying to accomplish?

  • What have I been curious about trying?

There’s typically more than one answer, and this year it's a combination of:

  • Mostly 100 milers - shorter races only where there’s not a 100

  • More 200 mile races (now that I know what they’re like, I want to have more fun and see what I can do)

  • Hard races I’ve never tried

  • Four 100s in a row, if the schedule makes it easy

  • My favorites, with as many new ones as possible

  • A non-race project?

  • Maybe another overseas race

  • As always, hard, beautiful, technical courses win over flats and loops

These answers become the decision-making criteria for the rest of the process.

Step 2. Brainstorm a full wish list that fits my intentions

I consult lots of sources - my own wish list, Stan Jensen’s Run100s website (my go-to since I started running ultras two decades ago!), dog-eared pages from Ultrarunning and Trail Running magazines, qualifier listings for races I’m considering, something a friend happens to mention on Facebook... 

Each time I find a possibility, I test my physical reaction by imagining myself there - at the starting line, running the race, crossing the finish line. Sights, feel, and sounds. 

Races that spark a positive “ping” of interest, curiosity, or outright “Hell, yes!” - get jotted down on a blank yearly calendar.

I don’t rule out races quickly. A 100-miler may not be interesting by itself, but combining it with three other consecutive 100s creates an exciting four-in-a-row challenge. 

I also ignore conflicts on the calendar for the moment. They’re options I’m grateful for and are helpful if I don’t get in a lottery. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to weed them out in a moment.

Step 3. Add life events to the calendar

Vacations to see family, holidays, birthdays, conferences...any important commitments or possible commitments. 

On the schedule they go!

Step 4. Pick the races I want to do

Now that I have a complete picture of the possibilities and constraints, it’s time to decide what fits the criteria from Step 1. 

I highlight my choices but keep the conflicts because as you know, life changes over the course of a year. It’s good to have a handy picture of interesting options if a plan falls apart or I change my mind. And I pad it with downtime.

That’s it. That’s how I decide.

It’s not an overnight thing. I pause between steps so I can revisit it with fresh eyes. And if I can’t decide between two races that are months away, I let that decision sit awhile.

Let me know if this is helpful. If you decide you want help planning your year I have a Power Day open in December and one in January. Planning is fun stuff!

Be daring!