Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The 50k - a long marathon, or a short ultra?

The 50k is an odd distance. At 31.25 miles, it technically qualifies as an "ultra marathon", but it's really just a few miles longer than the 26.2 miles (and change) that us marathoners do. So is it really an "ultra", or is it just a marathon with a few miles added?

(Photo for purchase from the amazing Don Charles Lundell)

I've spoken with some ultra-marathoners over the last year, and the race they describe doesn't quite match up to the short course stuff I'm used to. They talk about "mental walls", "slow pacing", "walk/running", and "being able to take in thousands of calories". Although I definitely think about those things, I wouldn't say they are critical to a good 20 mile run. And walking? Fugghetaboutit. So clearly at some distance, the race strategy shifts to more of long endurance event. I have no doubt that a 50 miler should be run this way, but a 50k?

I figured the only way to find out was to sign up for a 50k and see if I could run my marathon pace through the whole race. As a marathoner, I usually have enough juice at the end to kick hard for the last two miles - would it be the same after 30 miles?

I picked the Woodside 50k, a beautiful trail run put on by Pacific Coast Trails in the northern Santa Cruz Mountains. These are my home trails, and I've clocked 20-26 miles here before without too much trouble. This course incorporated four parks/preserves (the Phleger Estate, Huddart Park, Bear Gulch Open Space Preserve, and Wunderlich Park), with about 4,600' vertical. The last four miles were mostly downhill too, which I thought would be convenient in case the "no man's land" of those final miles proved to be too much.

As I set up for the race, I began to realize that the 50k was going to be more akin to a Half Ironman than a marathon. Given the hilly course, I thought it might take me 4:45-5:00 hours to complete. I prepared four water bottles of G3 drink, three packs of Sharkies, two packs of Power Bites, four Gu gels, and an iPod with a 5 hour playlist. This was going to take the better part of the day.

I lined up at the starting line with about 30 others (four other first timer ultra marathoners - nice work you guys!), and we cut through the cold valleys of Huddart Park and began the first 1500' foot climb. The pace was brisk along the flat part of the course, but everyone slowed substantially once the hills started. I felt frustrated by the slow pace and pulled out in front - let the rookie moves begin!

At the first aid station at mile 8, about three of us were cruising along at about a 7:15 mile pace. Given the vertical we just did, this was a pretty brisk pace. The other two stopped at the aid station to get a bite to eat, refill their water bottles, and take a breather. They gave me a funny look as I kept going, but soon caught up to me again. So far, so good.

About 13 miles in, Troy Limb (one of the three) took the lead and began pacing up the second set of hills. Judging by the size of his quads and his "Silver State 50 Miler" t-shirt, I got the impression he was no stranger to ultras. His pace was just slightly slower than my pace (around a 7:30 mile), but I also noticed he would slow to a very fast walk if his heart rate picked up too much (note, however, that his fast walk is faster than I have ever walked). He carried one water bottle in each hand, one filled with water, the other with some sort of fuel mix, and always stopped for a minute or so at the aid stations. As we occasionally switched off the lead, Troy always had nothing but words of encouragement, atta-boys, and "you go, brother"s. He was clearly in his element, and was happy to share the experience.

About 19 miles in, I noticed I was falling behind in the calorie intake. As I've learned the hard way on this, the only thing you can do is slow down and let your body catch up (or pay dearly 45 minutes later). I let Troy and the third guy pull ahead, who began pacing off each other. As I lost them, I realized how beneficial it was to have someone to pace with - following can be the easiest motivation on long runs. Perhaps this is why "pacers" are also common on the longer ultras.

About 28 miles in, I found my answer - this is DEFINITELY a different kind of race than a marathon. My body slowed to a 8:40 mile pace, and was not hearing any other requests. Fifteen seconds faster, and I was spinning harder than a fifth of Jack Daniels on an empty stomach. Fifteen seconds slower, and the runners high would kick in to the point of not remembering why I was out in the woods. But 8:40 with a quick short stride felt great. My body was sore, but I wasn't really feeling the pain. And there was a constant smile on my face from the anandamide/endorphins coursing through me.

By the time I crossed the finish line, I was giggling with delight and absolutely starving. Troy had finished some 15 minutes ahead of me, managing to keep a consistent pace through the whole race. The third guy was nowhere to be found (apparently DNF's are much more common in the ultras), leaving me with a second place finish. As I ate and stretched, I became more apparent of how tired I really was. My muscles weren't burning like a short course race, but my whole body had this dull ache right down to the bone. This felt very different than a marathon recovery.

As I swallow a handful of ibuprofen and exchange stories with the other racers (Troy congratulated nearly every racer who finished), I've concluded a few things. First, the ultra is a very different animal than the marathon and under races. One shouldn't think of it as a "marathon plus", but instead give it the respect it deserves as a full-blown endurance event. Second, I still have a lot to learn about the pacing and mental game of the ultra. The "fast walk" is a crucial skill as well, and one that should be practiced. Troy and many of the others ran a very consistent race end-to-end, and were fully aware of their capabilities along the way. I've got some practicing to do, but I have no doubt I will be trying another 50k....or maybe a 50 miler....let the addiction begin...


  1. You're right that the ultras are a different breed. I've found the tips posted at to be helpful in understanding how to prepare for them.

  2. Hal Higdon, the marathon training guide guru, has an interesting ultra training piece at .

  3. Marathon or 50k, it doesn't matter. YOU'RE NUTS!!!!!!!!

  4. Great post. Keep 'em coming. Good running and writing.


  5. I liked your story, and thanks for sharing the race preparation details. Did you really eat all that during your run? It sounds like well over 250 calories per hour, which I thought was the recommended intake for ultras.

  6. How do you choose what is on your iPod playlist? And do you really listen to 5 HOURS?!?


  7. to prepare for the croom 50k..i went to run the north loop..8 miles...missed the turn off and spent 3 and 1/2 hours cruising the forest.. what a trip...what a life..can we do this some more?

  8. Hi Scott,

    Jim Schroeder here from Indialantic, FL ... looks like you have room in your schedule for The Keys 100, a fun and well run event!

    I just travelled west to run the Napa Marathon ... wonderful experience, plus headed out again in a few weeks for Big Sur.


  9. Really enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing!

  10. Thank you for the tips! I'm about to sign up for my first trail 50k that will be just a few weeks after my 4th marathon.

  11. I told my mom, and she said with a smile "By golly, it's an ultra!" She says that because it was her first official ultra. Right on, mom!

  12. So i'm just trying a 50k as a newbie who hasn't run a marathon. Would it be smart to run a pretty slow race the whole time? say 12 minute miles?

  13. I love your story because it really puts things in perspective.
    I am signed up for my first 50K trail run this March from Troy's California Trail Run and it will be in Mt Umunhum (South San Jose). I have been living the South Bay for years and the building on top of Mt Umunhum has been staring at me (this is off limit, it's an old air base station) so this is my way to claim it.
    I've only done 1 marathon and did not really train for it. This marathon was in December 2012 and it was raining a lot prior to the event which put a stop to my training.
    This time, I am following what my friends and family say a "crazy" schedule. You run every day except Mondays and Fridays and put in 30-50 miles a week depending on the week. I feel like I am making great progress. What really gets me is that I have been mostly training on flat (due to convenience after work) but only get 1-2 runs on hills so I wonder if I should increase the distance to compensate for the lack of up/down hill.
    I'm not trying to break any records here, I just want to be able to finish the race
    Also, I never run with food. I usually carry water & gatorade but during races, I will just stop at the aid stations and drink from there, should I carry my own fluids for longer distance? What about food, I typically will eat carbs the night before and maybe have a banana before the race. Once the race is done, I will be starving regardless of the distance...


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