Running 50 Miles: Not Just For Superheroes
Granted, there’s a reason it’s not called the North Face Endurance Fun Run.
Ninety-degree heat, extreme humidity, and three mile-long passes along a cliff so rocky it required more tiptoeing than running helped to ensure that my first 50-miler, part of the North Face Endurance Challenge, lived up to the name.
Let me tell you: This race, which ran through the woods and along the cliffs of the Potomac river, was really hard.
But—believe it or not—it wasn’t that hard.
Why It Wasn’t So Bad
Maybe it was that I ran a smart race and paced myself well, staying with a more experienced ultrarunner (thanks Seth!) for the first 20 miles or so. Perhaps it was seeing a familiar face, either my family or someone I’d met online, at 11 of the 13 aid stops. Maybe it was good hydration, salt intake, and a solid eating plan. It could have even been the Coke and Mountain Dew, which I had never tried in training but that I finally came to understand why ultrarunners love so much.
More than any of these, though, I think it was having a good friend pace me for the last 15 miles of the race.
Everyone told me that miles 30-40 would be the part where I’d want to quit. But after 30 miles, about as far as I’d ever run in training, the anticipation of meeting my friend and moving onto the final section of the course kept me going. And once we met up at mile 35, the adrenaline rush made the next five a breeze, probably my fastest miles of the race.
Only after 40 miles did things start to hurt, and by that point, knowing I was 10 miles from such a huge accomplishment made it bearable.
Don’t get me wrong—it hurt. Running for ten and a half hours in the brutal heat will do that to you.
But it was doable. That’s what I hope you take from this recap, if you’ve never considered running an ultra because it seems almost superhuman.
It’s not superhuman. Normal people like me—and like you—can do this.
Miles 1-15: Soaking Wet from the Start
When I stepped out of my hotel at 3:30 in the morning, it was already humid. By 5:30, having been running for only half an hour in the dark, I was drenched in sweat.
My biggest fear going into this race was that I’d start out too fast and realize I was in big trouble with 20 or 30 miles still to go. Thankfully, I was there with a far more experienced ultrarunner. This guy has run not just several 50-milers, but a 100-miler. (Yes, you read that right: 100 miles, over the course of 26 hours.)
Knowing he’d run a smart pace (11-12 minutes per mile), I stayed with Seth for the entire first leg of the race. These miles were uneventful, with the exception of a blister that I felt developing on my right foot. As we ran some quiet trails in the early morning along the river, I counted down the miles until 15, when I knew I’d see my wife and my dad and be able to change out of my trail shoes into my more-comfortable road shoes.
Miles 16-35: The Loop (and Some Scary Cliffs)
The signature section of the race was a seven-mile loop that took us right along the Potomac river, where we literally had to jump from rock to rock, about five feet from the edge of a hundred-foot cliff that dropped straight down to the Potomac river.
It was beautiful, challenging, and fun—the first time.
The second two times, this “marquee section” became “those f’ing rocks in the blazing heat where a single false step could quite literally kill me.” Seriously, I had to step close enough to the edge that when I saw Erin again, I didn’t tell her just how close it was, because I knew she’d worry about me losing my mental faculties and ending up in the river going over the Great Falls the third time around.
After the first pass through the rocks, I felt my legs tiring for the first time. With 28 miles still to go, this scared me a little. But I bounced back, running the second loop in an hour and 22 minutes, four minutes faster than I had done it the first time around. And the third loop was on par with the first, the fatigue starting to set in as I realized I had been running for seven straight hours—a full hour and change more than I had ever run in my life.
Still, I felt great, considering the circumstances. I had expected that at this point, with 15 miles to go, I would hate running and be cursing myself for being so idiotic as to do this, voluntarily no less.
And yet I didn’t hate running. Somehow, I was still having fun.
Miles 36-50: The Hard Part
At the mile 35 aid station, I picked up my friend and pacer, Pat. Pat was my roommate in college, and one of three guys in the ill-fated crack-squad who back in 2002 decided we’d pick up and run our first marathon. That race wasn’t pretty for any of us, but Pat keeps in shape and is the type of guy you can count for this kind of stuff, as well as for world-class entertainment along the way.
So when all the sudden I had someone to run with—Seth and I had separated when I took my sweet time at an aid station—I got a major boost. Pat and I flew through about five miles of trail with the idea that we might be able to make it back in under 10 hours.
Right around the 40-mile mark, though, I started to feel as if—well, as if I had been running for 40 miles. Mostly it was my legs that wanted to quit; everything else, including my mind, felt pretty good. But as we hit the hills that I had barely noticed on the way out (even the downhills sucked, by this point), I started to realize that 10 hours wasn’t in the cards on this hot day.
This was solidified when, during a seven mile stretch before the aid station at mile 42, we came upon a guy who was staggering back and forth, ready to fall into the head-high grass on the side of the trail. It was obvious he was in trouble; the heat and distance between aid stations had gotten to him. While someone else ran ahead to the next aid station to send help, we and some other runners waited with him and gave him water, salt, and food. Help came in time, and we were surprised to see the guy eventually cross the finish line.
10 hours was officially out the window. But it probably would have been anyway.
At least seeing someone in such rough shape taught me a lesson: Be prepared for the worst. When we got to the aid station, even though I was sure I could make it to the next without filling up my hydration pack, I refilled anyway. As this guy had shown, you never know how quickly things might go south.
With eight miles to go and only a flat section of the course remaining, I did everything I could to soak in the moment and enjoy the certainty that I was going to finish this thing. My legs did their best to temper my enthusiasm, but we ran almost the entire remaining distance, stopping only three or four times to walk, when I absolutely needed to.
Finally, we hit the aid station that marked 1.7 miles to go. I had run 48.3 miles, and that felt pretty damn good (no matter what my legs were saying). The moments just before you achieve something pretty spectacular that you’ve been working at for a long time, when it’s a near certainty, are surreal and indescribable. The closest thing I’ve felt to this was the final .2 miles of the Wineglass Marathon, when knew I had qualified for Boston.
As we turned the final corner and could hear the music and the crowd cheering, I told Pat that he had better not try to drop back at the last minute to let me cross the finish line alone. And even though I didn’t mention it at the time, for fear of having my man-card revoked, I got a little choked up as I told him that he had better stay with me as I crossed the finish line.
And then I heard Erin yelling, even before I could see her. I crossed the line, where my mom and dad were standing taking pictures and cheering, and it was over. Fifty freaking miles, in just under ten and a half hours.
What I Ate
I did my best to keep track of what I ate during the race, in hopes of being more scientific than in the past about what works and what doesn’t.
My strategy was to eat slower-digesting starchy carbs and fats early on when my stomach was in good shape, and to shift toward simple sugars for a kick as I neared the end of the race. I must say it worked pretty well; the only hitch was that the heat made almost everything but water unappetizing, so I ate less solid food than I had planned to.
Here’s what I ate before and during the race:
- Half a bagel with peanut butter
- Two pinole-chia waffles with maple syrup
- A few tablespoons of chia seeds in water
- One orange
- Handful of almonds
- Three small boiled potatoes with salt
- Water with lime juice
- Electrolye Brew (the sports drink at the aid stations)
- Salt tablets
- Half a pita with hummus and lettuce
- One orange
- Half a bag of M&M’s
- Mountain Dew
- Ginger ale
- Electrolyte Brew
- Nuun Electrolyte Drink
- Salt tablets
- Peter Rabbit Organics fruit puree (I found this at Starbucks)
- One small potato with salt
- One orange
- Water with lime juice
- Electrolyte Brew
(Told you the soda was good.)
It seems that the longer the race is, the longer the thank-you list gets.
First, my personal support crew: Pat, Erin (who carried our seven-week son around all day), my dad, and my mom, all of whom drove a long way and put in an even longer day to make mine easier. Counting down the miles until I’d get to take a five-minute break with them got me through this thing.
Next, the volunteers who worked the aid stations for all four races that happened on Saturday. In particular, Andy Campbell, who wore his No Meat Athlete shirt to support me, Heather, who I saw three times since she was working an aid station on the loop, and Andy Gingrich, who was nice enough to shake what must have been a disgustingly sweaty hand of mine at mile 46, and to help me realize just how close I was to being finished.
Some fellow runners I ran into along the course who said hi and made it just a little bit easier, Thomas and Delip.
And of course, Charm City Run and The North Face for allowing my to run this fantastic race gratis.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the need to collapse and take a nap in my own filth immediately after finishing the race. I’d say I was more tired immediately after qualifying for Boston than after the 50 miles.
What I did feel was feverish, with sporadic bouts of chills, for about six hours after I finished. I suspect this had to do with my body temperature being elevated for such an extended period of time.
After that, I started to feel like I’d been hit by a train, and all I really wanted to do was lie down under blankets. I wasn’t very hungry, but I did what I could to eat some solid food.
On Sunday I felt surprisingly good. I was sore, but no more so than after a marathon or 50K. By the end of the day, I caught myself running up and down the steps like I always do, simply out of childish impatience.
So what’s next?
The Vermont 50-miler in September, for sure. As I was running miles 40 to 50, another 50-miler seemed like a pretty crappy idea. But now that I’m done and in a better mood, I’m glad I registered for this one before I had even finished my first. Should be a lot of fun, and 50 degrees cooler would be nice.
And the Boston Marathon in April 2011.
Other than that, it’s wide open.
The natural next step after another 50 or two, I suppose, is a 100-miler (if there’s anything natural about that at all). When I finished this race I briefly thought, “If I had to do that entire distance again right now, I’d die.” But I thought the same thing the first time I finished a marathon, too, and a 50 is pretty damn close to two of those.
So I don’t know about that yet. Let’s just say the seed has been planted, and leave it at this:
Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
That’s what proving to myself that I’m able to run 50 miles has done for me. I encourage you to find something that will do it for you.
Epic Matt. Congratulations on accomplishing such a huge milestone in your running career. I was anxiously awaiting hearing how this went, as I missed all the race updates Saturday.
Way to go, Matt! You’re an inspiration!
Wow. What an amazing feat! A HUGE congratulations to you!
Awesome job! I was thinking about you and your race while I was doing my own run — 42 miles along the Appalachian Trail and side trail… I love your Holmes quote. I’m toying with a 50 mile race maybe in the Fall… And who knows what lies beyond. Again, congrats!
This is absolutely amazing. Congrats to you for all your accomplishments. I could NEVER imagine tackling something like this. I really appreciate this great recap, especially of what you ate before & during the race. You are an inspiration!
Great race report! Glad it went so well for you. That’s no mean feat.
Congrats, Matt! Sounds like you breezed through it! It’s great you’re so ready and excited for another 50 miler so soon.
And miles 16-35 sound tasty 🙂
Love the quote you’ve included … though it scares me to death because I’ve briefly entertained the thought of doing a 50 miler, but not sure my body can handle it – but if I thought it, does that mean I will try to do it someday?
Congratulations! Sounds like an amazing adventure, and I appreciate the awesome recap. Kind of makes me want to run 50 miles… 😉
What an accomplishment and what a great recap:):) You had more people cheering for you than you probably realize!! Way to go!!! If I can work things out w/ work, etc, I hope to maybe be part of the Vermont crew.
Great race ! It’s nice to hear it went so well.So much for the idea you need to eat meat,chicken or other animals to run well in long distance races.
Way to go!! you deserve to be on cloud nine after that accomplishment!
What an absolute inspiration! I was following the updates on Twitter Saturday (thanks Erin!) One of my ultimate goals in life is to do a 50-miler and I am just so moved by your accomplishments!
Way to go, Matt! Proud of you and your accomplishment.
Absolutely, unbelievably, amazing. Fantastic job – so happy for you (and – you AND your support team makesm e teary eyed!) 🙂
Congratulations, Matt!!! When we saw the two front-runners come through, Completely drenched in sweat, I was completely floored as to what you were all putting yourselves through. But, needless to say, it was an amazing experience to be there and help you guys out when we could! And if that’s not inspiration for ANY level of running, I don’t know what is. It was SO great to meet you, every time you left I was shocked at “with it” you were. haha! After that distance I think I’d be pretty out of sorts, but you were definitely going strong 🙂 If you’re in the area again for a run or race, let me know!
awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! Congrats! I love all the details (what you ate, how you felt (before, during and after!). Amazing! And so cool that your baby got to be there for it. You and Erin could not be more adorable. Congrats again
Sounds like you had a great experience. Its great that you aren’t bitter or too disappointed about not hitting the 10 hour mark. Sounds like you definitely will under 10 hours in Vermont.
Fantastic effort on that crazy hot & humid day! It was nice to see you at Great Falls and at the finish line. Great pictures from the race!
Great achievement, congratulations! Now don’t let anybody talk you into a 100-miler. There is a limit you know. 🙂
This recap is awesome. What a great day and I love how happy you all look at the end – and I agree, three cheers to your wife for carrying around your son all day! SO IMPRESSED with you AND your beautiful family!
Congratulations on your first 50-miler. It brings back memories of my first back in 1993. Job well done!
Wow! Obviously you need that much food to keep up your energy…but just the sound of it all, during a race, sounds like alot…I don’t know if I could stomach it…I’ve dreamt of doing an Ultra since immediately after my first marathon…I really want to do a 50 miler someday. Thanks for your posts and helpful tips…I’m sure it will be a while, but it’s encouraging to see other people doing it!
Wow, I am in awe! Congrats on your amazing achievement!!! I really enjoyed reading your recap, and I’m excited to continue following along on your upcoming races!
hands-down my favorite entry ever!
Were you with Seth Roberts by any chance?
Wow! I just have to join in and add my hearty congrats. I’ve been reading your blog since I started distance running in February, and I find it such an encouragement. Even though I only just completed my first half-marathon this weekend, your story gives me faith that I’ll be able to continue on to bigger and better things as well! Thanks Matt!
I just found your blog, and I’m so inspired by it! I’m a vegetarian who is training for her first half marathon in Aug and full marathon in Feb. I ordered a No Meat Athlete technical shirt! Congrats on your 50 miler! I read Born to Run and I run in Vibram Five Fingers. I’ve decided maybe I’ll become an ultra runner as I approach my 40s! It’s so great to know that I can do this without eating meat.
Thanks for your blog!
I’m speechless. What an amazing accomplishment.
Congrats, Matt! You’re a huge inspiration to newbie runners and vegetarians (like me!) and I think your accomplishment is just incredible. 50 miles seems unthinkable, so 100?? Wow! Keep dreaming big!
ps the pictures of your wife and son are too cute!
Matt, congratulations!!! I knew you could do it.
Congratulations Matt! What an amazing feat! I loved reading your race recap. You are truly inspirational!
Congrats!! You did great despite the heat and humidity!
OK, I’m curious…what’s the deal with the Coke & Mountain Dew??
Congratulations! I really enjoyed reading your race report – I am in awe but I love how you say regular people can do this. It’s true – the only limit is what we believe we can do. You did great!
Phenomenal job Matt! Your desire to succeed is second to none. Great job capturing your experience on NMA, to include the attaboy’s for your family, crew, volunteers, and in race meals 😀
Matt – CONGRATULATIONS on your accomplishment. I first found you a couple of weeks ago after googling Chia Fresca, yes I had just finished reading Born to Run. I have enjoyed reading all the info you have posted and am trying to change my eating habits (after nearly 61 years !) to a more vegetarian diet so your site has been a great help. I am looking forward to reading about your next running adventure – you are a great inspiration. Best wishes to you and your family. Michael
What a great recap. Congratulations! That is such an amazing accomplishment.
I have gone hiking in that area, and I know how scary those cliffs are – I can’t imagine running there!
I have to say that I’m a frequent lurker on here and love your blog. I thought of you on Sunday morning while I was struggling to get through a 12 mile long run. I was right down the road in Herndon, and yes, it was hot and humid.
Congratulations Matt! You’ve accomplished something amazing. I’m happy to hear it went so well (relatively speaking, of course!).
Dude, the fact that you RAN 50 MILES totally cancels out the misty eyes at the finish. Man-card intact. 🙂
So proud of you.
You’re the man.
Amazing job Matt, you make it sound easy. I was there and I know it was anything but. Maybe you are superhuman. It lifted my spirits to see you on the trails.
Congrats! Running 50 miles is such an amazing accomplishment – even when it’s not done over a rocky path and in 90 degree humidity 🙂
Wow! Thank you for sharing your experience! 50 miles! I can’t even imagine….I’m stressing about my first 1/2 this month!
Too cool Matt! Your performances get more impressive at every race. Keep up the great work…
I’m not going to lie to you-you look kinda terrified in the pictures before the race!! haha Congrats on such a great accomplishment and for being an example to vegetarians everywhere!
Congratulations! I’ve been considering signing up for a multi sport event but have been concerned its too long, but after reading this I’m all motivated.
I loved reading this recap! What an amazing accomplishment – and in this crazy heat, to boot! I definitely did think “If I had to run this again, I would die” after my half marathon yesterday – I can’t IMAGINE doing it nearly 4 more times!
Also, very funny coincidences as you commented on my blog!
p.s. I love the title and first sentence of this post. Lol!
Congratulations!!! (That word isn’t even big enough!) Knowing that only 6 miles nearly killed me in that heat, I am even more impressed with how outstanding you did. I think you may have inspired more ultramarathoners than you know 😉 Great job!
That is just absolutely amazing! 50 miles – you rock!!
I’ve done a half marathon, and I can’t even imagine a full!! congrat’s!!
Congratulations! Thanks for the recap, too. Your vivid descriptions make it as if I actually witnessed the entire endeavor, especially the edges.
So proud of you! What an amazing accomplishment – congratulations!
Absolutely AMAZING! Congratulations…what a beautiful description as well.
Awesome job! I always love your RR because it’s like we’re there with you – without having to suffer so much. I love that your family is so supportive. Happy Recovery, Amy
Awesome recap! A bunch of us bloggers were there doing the Marathon Relay too! It was so much fun! Sorry we missed you, I read your blog daily and would have loved to meet ya! Maybe another race!
Here is my recap of the Marathon Relay if you are interested!
Congrats again on the 50 miler!
Congratulations!! That is amazing and I really enjoyed reading about it!
Congrats! Really good recap, kinda makes you want to try one of these 🙂
Fantastic job! Fantastic recap! Congratulations.
Well done, heck I got a little teary and choked up just reading about it! You should be so proud!
Congrats, Matt, that’s amazing!!! You put so much time and energy into this, but I’m sure it’s all worth it. I qualified for boston this weekend, so I’ll be there in April loving every second of it. By the way, if you’re looking for an extremely friendly, laid-back and fun race with breathtaking views, try San Juan Island Marathon next year..nothing beats spotting orca whales while running a marathon. Again, congrats to you for finishing that 50-mile sucker! Well done!!!
Congratulations Matt!! What an amazing accomplishment! I loved reading the recap — it’s so inspiring. And even more inspiring is the fact that you’re already feeling motivated to do another.
It was really interesting to read not only how you felt, but what you ate. Is there anything (in terms of fuel) that you would have done differently? I’m also curious about how much time you think you spent at the aid stations. I realize these are a big part of ultra marathons, and I want to know if it feels strange to stop during a race (as opposed to a marathon which is also long, but you usually just keep on going until you reach the finish)?
Congrats! I loved reading this.
Congrats, that is amazing and I knew you could do it! (I do not even want to walk when it is 98 degrees:) Absolutely beautiful countryside to run in.
Glad to be a *very* small part of such a momentous event for you!
Congratulations Matt, this is so incredibly impressive!! I really enjoyed reading the recap and hearing how you battled through everything. I was just curious about fueling – when you ate the pita, potatoes, etc. did you stop or eat on the run Dean Karnazes style? I have such a hard time running and being able to stomach solid foods and was just wondering if it’s something that comes with being so tired from an ultra. Thanks!
Absolutely amazing and inspirational, way to go Matt (and support team)! I’m really glad you didn’t fall off the cliff, you’re a constant source of motivation to this long time vegetarian and novice runner!
Thank you for this inspiring post: not only is your accomplishment incredible, but you’re so darn humble that you make it seem anyone could do it. Whether or not that’s true, it made for a fabulous read! Congratulations!
I know this is just repeating what everyone else has said, but, thank-you for being such an inspiring person Matt. I have recently completed my second half marathon and aim to do a marathon in the near future. Reading about your experiences helps push me along the way!
Congratulations Matt, you’re a star!
Congratulations on such an amazing race! Can’t wait to read about your future races!
You are beyond awesome.
Don’t kid yourself Matt, you ARE a Superhero! Congratulations, I hope to earn my cape someday as well
I said this on twitter, but MUST say it here too…YOU INSPIRE ME!!! I have been a vegetarian for almost 8 years, but have NEVER considered myself an athlete much less a runner. Sure, I run now and then (with extreme difficulty more often than not) but don’t truly love it. I’m trying to love it. I’m hoping to love it. I’m even trying out a half marathon in hopes that I will love it, but reading your story gives me hope, faith and courage to go ahead and register for my half marathon. I’m not much concerned with running a fast half. I much more interested in finishing a half. Thank you for the story and for giving me the courage to attempt something I never ACTUALLY thought I would REALLY do.
You are such an inspiration to me! I’m planning on running my first ultra marathon next June, and will definitely be referring back to your training advice. keep up the amazing work!
Oh my goodness you’re incredible! What a huge accomplishment!! I can’t even imagine how amazing that must feel. You’re a rock star! I loved the recap and am glad you didn’t die or anything. hehe
Congrats Matt! I knew you could do it! 🙂 Welcome to the club…
You. Are. Awesome! And so is your blog!
Great job Matt! I did the Ironman Kanasas 70.3 the same weekend. It was my first my Ironman competition, and I had many of the same emotions and reactions as you did for the 50 miler. It is a great acomplishment and you should be proud.
You’ve made me want to run an ultra!
Thanks for helping me Matt! I was the guy around mile 42 that was going to fall into the high grass. I don’t think it was the heat as much that I’m an insulin dependent diabetic and had a low blood sugar. Regardless thank you very much for stopping and assisting me and keeping me in the race. And a Big Time Congrats on the completing the 50miler that’s an amazing feat!
CONGRATS and great job on completing the 50-miler. I have been telling my husband about you! I’m traiing for my 1st marathon and read your blog for tips and inspiration.
Congratulations! Job well done! Woohoo!!!
Congrats on your finish and great run recap! finishing in hot and humid made it more special:)
All the best with your future runs…
Loved the race report….
My name is Michael Wentz and I am the founder and creator of DNF Publishing. We are a team of runners dedicated and committed to the sport of ultrarunning. DNF works with amateur ultrarunners and authors to create, publish, and distribute books on how to train for and finish specific ultramarathons.
Our goal and mission at DNF is simple. We want to publish and distribute books on how to train for and complete every ultramarathon. Yes, we know what you’r thinking … there are many books available already. That being said, there aren’t many, if at all, geared towards specific races. As an ultrarunner, you probably recognize that most ultra’s are entirely different from one another and require specific planning, training, and preparation. As such, DNF collaborates with you in putting together a novel for the race(s) you have completed and gives you a portion of the royalties received from each book sale.
I just happened to be reading your your race story and noticed you have a distinct writing style that I believe would be a great fit with DNF. I would like to co-publish a book with you on your completion of The North Face Challenge. It appears you have done most of the work already…
It’s actually very simple. There are two parts to each book. The first part entails general ultra training methodologies (written by DNF Publishing) and Part 2, specific race strategies (written by you). Although, before I launch into telling you how the process works, you might be interested in who we are ….
Check out our website. http://www.dnfpublishing.weebly.com
Let me know if the opportunity interests you and we’ll get you started on your first novel:) How cool would that be….
GREAT work Matt! I realize this was like a year ago…but I just read through it as I’m planning on my own 50miler in 2011 or 2012.
Your post was very helpful, especially explaining all the details…it’s tremendous to get to stand on your shoulders.
I ran my first 1/2 in 2010…and will do my first marathon here in 2011. I was planning to train for a 50 miler in 2011…but recently had to let my running coach go for a few months. (Stu Mittleman – whom I was introduced to through Tony Robbins…I know that you know these guys)
Hopefully I can re-hire Stu in the coming months and get back on track for my 50 miler…but it helped greatly to get your perspective on it!
(Especially since I’m on a mostly alkaline/vegan diet)
Awesome work Matt in everything you’re doing here on your blog and in life!
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