Lessons Learned from Training to Run 50 Miles

Think of somewhere that takes you an hour to get to by car.  For me, that’s about 50 miles, and it’s too far to drive to get dinner or to commute to work.

But ten days from now, I’m going to run that far.

I’m past the phase of waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “What did I do?” in regards to signing up for something so outlandish.

Now it kind of feels like a big, nasty dentist appointment that you know you have to go to but you try not to think about.

You know you’ll get through it.  You know that when you’re done, you’ll feel a huge sense of relief.  But you also know it’s really going to hurt, and you just have to deal with that.

I count the period since qualifying for Boston as my training for a 50-miler.  That’s when I set the goal, and the ultras I’ve done in the meantime have just been part of the process.  And I can tell you, without a doubt, that I’m a much different runner than I was before.

So here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned during this training for a new, previously unthinkable distance.  Most apply to running; perhaps a few apply to life if you make a stretch.  But that’s not the point, so don’t go crazy with that.

You can run a lot farther if you slow down.

Obvious, right?  I don’t think so.

You say you can’t run farther than a marathon, or maybe a half.  But it’s very likely you ran that race as fast as you were able to run it.

What if you slowed down?  You’d run farther.

What if you slowed down a lot?  (And even walked sometimes?)  You’d run much farther.  It’d be scary, because you’ve never done it.  But once you had, it wouldn’t be scary anymore.  And you could run farther still.

Comfort is everything.  So be comfortable.

Unless you’re trying to win the race, running 30 or more miles isn’t really about how well you can run 30 or more miles.  It’s about staying comfortable while you run that circus distance.  The more miserable the experience, the less likely you are to come back the next week and do it again.


Wear shorts that don’t chafe you.  Get a hydration vest or some other way to carry stuff that you like.  Use blister powder and wear good socks.  Try compression socks. Apply Vaseline or other lubricant liberally and bring some for the road, just in case.  Run slowly enough, especially on hills, that you’re not breathing hard or raising your heart rate too much.  Find (or make) a sports drink you really like.  Figure out what food your stomach can handle and what it can’t.  Pee when you have to pee.  Bring toilet paper.

Trail running is more fun than road running.

It just is.  And running long on trails doesn’t hurt my feet or joints the way running, say, a 20-miler on the roads does.

Most of the ultras you’ll find are trail races, so learning how to run trails always seemed like an annoyance I had to put up with in order to become an ultrarunner.  Now it’s the best thing I’ve ever done (except get married).

It’s a mind game.

I’ve gotten lots of advice from friends, and none of it is about running.  Running a few miles, five or six minutes slower than you’re capable of, is the easy part.  It’s about getting your head in the right place so you can run 50 (or 100) of them.

Blaine told me how awful miles 30-40 will be, but that it will get better after that.  My friend Shawn told me that it’s about getting your legs to be your mind’s bitch.  My friend Dave told me that going out too fast and hitting a wall early in a 50-miler feels roughly 100 times worse than it does in a marathon.

A lot of this is scary, but I’m glad I learned it from them first.  Respect the distance.

I will finish.

I can say this now because I’ve been tested.  The two 50K’s I did, especially the first, taught me that I will keep running even when it hurts and I hate it and I never, ever want to run again.

No marathon ever tested me like that, even the Boston qualifier.  Ultras brought a new level of suck, and I learned that I will keep going even when it is terrible.

50K isn’t 50 miles.  But if someone held a gun to your head and made you run, you could run a lot farther than you think (though that would be a rather weird thing for a gunman to demand).  So if you make quitting seem like getting shot in the head, you’ll keep going.  If it comes to that, I think I will.

Unless I get hurt.  Then I’ll stop.



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  1. I love it when you say that it is all about getting your “legs to be your mind’s bitch.” Although I haven’t run that far before, I have run a marathon and this is sooooo true!! This is so true for so many events as well. It is a mind game. It is ALL a mind game. My husband talks about “dog brain” all the time. When dogs run, they don’t think about how hard it is or how tired they are. They just run. This is what I’m working on right now. I need to get my wimpy human side of my brain to shut off, and just run (or swim or bike). Good luck! I know you will do great!
    .-= Nicole @ Geek Turned Athlete´s last blog ..Norwegian Cruise 2010: Beach Bound in Corfu, Greece =-.

    • Nicole, I like that “dog brain” idea. You really do have to turn it off, even in a marathon distance. When people talk about focusing in an endurance race, I don’t know what they’re talking about. The longer I can stay unfocused, the better!

  2. JeanneB says:

    I love this post. You are going to do great at North Face and I can’t wait to read about it.

  3. I think running even short distances is such a mental/mind game. I can only imagine how mental a run that long must be. Great lessons learned. I can’t wait to read your post after this one!
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Weekend of Eats! Grill 225 & Charleston’s Cafe =-.

  4. Good luck!

    Don’t do anything stupid in the next 10 days and you’ll be fine. 🙂
    .-= Blaine Moore´s last blog ..How to Win a $4500 Custom Road Bike…For Free =-.

  5. Great post Matt! And having done a few marathons prior to taking on Ironman last year I thought I would’ve been more mentally prepared for such a distance. Prior to my training however I realized I was NOT. But you hit it on the head with the “fear of the unknown”. These distances are scarey mostly just because we have not done them yet. I found that if you are honest in your training, your body will prove to you that it’s up to the task. I laughed out loud at “weird thing for a gunman to demand”.

  6. Your dedication and training is admirable, good luck!

  7. Very inspiring! I can’t imagine running anything over a marathon distance, except secretly – I can. I’m training for a triathlon right now, and the main thing I’ve learned is how much I like running and how much I actually miss those three hour training runs! Maybe an ultra is not as impossible as I thought…

    Can’t wait to read your recap! Best of luck!
    .-= Chrissy (The New Me)´s last blog ..LGRAB summer games: social cycling =-.

    • Chrissy, you are definitely a potential ultrarunner if you miss doing 3 hour training runs! I don’t think I could miss anything over an hour. I get bored! But it’s worth it on race day, of course.

  8. I’m so impressed and think what you said in this post makes absolute sense. I was running home from work the other day, which is an 8.5+ mile run… no big deal you would think because I’ve run a marathon, but on this particular day I felt like I just couldn’t do it. Fortunately for me It was a point to point run and in order to get home I simply had to keep going. By the time I got to Central Park and could’ve just run straight across to my apartment I had by then decided I wanted to keep pushing myself because I had just proven that I CAN.

    Have you ever read “Ultramarathon Man” by Dean Karnazes? I find that book incredibly inspiring – seriously every time I want to stop I think of the book and the amazing feats Dean has accomplished while still having a “normal” family life and I get more power to keep going.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Slaw & salad =-.

    • Catherine, yes that is always a cool feeling when you truly think you can’t do something, and then you prove yourself wrong. It kind of goes against “positive thinking,” I suppose, but it’s always a great reinforcement of what you’re capable of.

      I haven’t read Ultramarathon Man, but I’d like to. I’ll check it out at the library or bookstore. Dean Karnazes is going to be speaking and presenting the awards at the 50-miler next weekend! (Not that I’ll be getting one of those.) I think he does a kids run or something too.

  9. I love these. Although I’ve never run an ultra before, I really think some of them can be applied to any distance that challenges you.

    You seem to have a great attitude going into this, and you should know you have tons of fans who will be virtually rooting for you the whole way! Rest up over these next 10 days! Can’t wait to hear about the race 🙂

  10. Way to go, Matt! Your legs are definitely your mind’s bitch!!

    I just signed up for my June and July races…slowly marking off the race a month goal. June is a 20K and July a 15K.
    .-= Nicki´s last blog ..Winner, Winner =-.

    • Nicki, congratulations on all your races. I loved that goal of yours and it’s great that it’s working out for you. Do you have another half later this year, or am I thinking of the 20K?

  11. How long after this until we see you in Badwater??
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Tight Squeeze =-.

    • Lisa, don’t give me any ideas. My wife asked me yesterday if I really thought a 100 miler was reasonable one day. I sensed she didn’t LOVE the idea… I can’t imagine she’d be too fond of Badwater!

      It must be hard to get into Badwater. I checked out their site and they said you needed at least a few hundreds or Ironmans I think. Assuming you have that, is it competitive?

  12. tracey English says:

    Great post. Many of your tips apply to shorter races, too, which is awesome. I commend you for doing 50. Wow.

  13. Good luck with your 50 miler!! You are going to rock it! This is probably more of a chick thing, but I wanted to let you know that your blog inspires me! I tagged you with a “Beautiful Blogger” award because of how motivating you are. If you’re interested in participating, the details are on my blog. Thank you for all your posts!

    • Thank you for the award, Laura! I sure hope I rock the 50, but I might not be too rockin’ at the end. We’ll see…

      But really, thanks. It’s awesome to think that I motivate a few people.

  14. My husband and I just discovered your blog the other day. We’ve both been nearly vegan since November last year (I say nearly because we’ve both eaten sushi since then, and I’ve had eggs), and we’re trying really hard to become 100% vegan. The main problem is that I have intolerances to so many things (whole wheat, broccoli, onions, mushrooms to name a few) that I sometimes don’t have other options when in a bind.

    Anyways, we’re both runners, and I’ve done four marathons (qualified for Boston twice, went once). I’m also a triathlete and have done two half-Ironmans but I don’t have the time to train for the full IM right now, so I’m thinking of training for an ultra (50K). I have a bunch of local options since I live in a trail running mecca (Santa Cruz, CA) and train on hilly trails almost exclusively. I enjoy it much, much more than triathlon and it costs me significantly less time and money. If you’re ever out here, do some of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs. They’re absolutely amazing!

    • Hey Amanda, glad you guys found me. And I commend you for trying to become 100% vegan (especially with so many intolerances, that’s really admirable). I’m not there yet, but getting close. Fully vegetarian, of course, so no more sushi, much as I used to like it.

      Looking forward to more from you (and tell your husband to leave a comment too)!

  15. Oh, and my husband wants to train this summer for his first ever marathon and he would eventually like to qualify for Boston. He has some of the same problems you did (chronic IT band problems; I bought him a foam roller) that prevent him from running as regularly as he should or would like to run. Thanks for the tips and instructions for using the foam roller! He was really excited to read your blog posts.

  16. I don’t think you’ll ever know how many people you inspire. I can’t even imagine 50 miles, but I have no doubt that you will do it.
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Vega Shake & Go Smoothie Review =-.

  17. Just found your blog the other day, and it’s awesome =) I’ve run several 50Ks and 50Ms, and I think you’ll do fine- the only thing is that paper towels hold up when wet (from sweat or rain) while toilet paper will fall apart. Just just fold up a paper towel and you’ll be all set!

    If you get it in your head to do another 50, Bull Run Run is an awesome race. Less technical than North Face, put on by local runners, great food and volunteers =)

    • Thanks Peihan. And good tip about the TP; I hadn’t thought of that. I actually carry that kind of stuff in my hydration vest, so getting wet isn’t as much of an issue. Though I guess a water spill is always possible!

      I’ve heard great things about Bull Run. I set my sights on that one first this year, but my wife had our first child only a few days after it, so that was out for this year. Perhaps next?

      Nice to meet you; I hope to hear more wisdom from an experienced ultrarunner like yourself!

  18. 50 Miles….Incredible. For anyone I speak to about the veggie lifestyle, I always make sure to mention your athletic endeavors and blog. Before stumbling onto this blog (googling vegan tacos) I thought the regular 26 miler was the maximum humans can run. Thanks for being an inspiring ambassador and best of luck!

    • Hey Warren, that’s really neat to hear. I used to think the same thing about 26 miles being the most humans ran. Funny how relatively unknown the sport of ultrarunning still is.

      There are far more impressive examples of vegetarian runners than myself though! Scott Jurek, a vegan, just broke the American record for miles run in 24 hours. 140 or 150 or something insane like that.

  19. In a way, we do have a gun to our heads on these types of runs. Less support, in the middle of no where, no big crowds or First Aid tents galore. If we have to stop, barring a bone fracture, did you ever ponder how those folks get back when there is no road access, only a bumpy 1 track trail on the side of a cliff ? Either way, finishing or not, have to walk your butt back to the finish or start, might as well push through miserably and finish.

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