50K is the New 26.2 – Running Your First Ultra Marathon

Posted on February 26th, 2013 in Blog.

By Sarah Nels – You can follow me here as well.

One tenth of one percent of the U.S population has completed an ultra marathon. With record attendance at marathons in 2012, why aren’t more marathoners graduating to 31.06 miles?

Running a marathon is a major accomplishment and common bucket list item, but the fun doesn’t have to end at 26.2! Ultra running is technically defined as any distance over 26.2 miles, with common distances of 50K, 50M, 100K, and 100 miles. A common saying in Ultra Running is “If you can run a marathon, you can run a 50k!” It only takes a little extra effort in your training to join the elite ranks of long distance runners called “Ultra Runners.”

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My journey to Ultra Runner status started years ago with turkey trots and half marathons. IT band and tendinitis issues forced me to move my running to softer ground or give it up forever. I loved hiking and running, so it seemed like a natural progression to attempt trail running. I found a group of runners that hit the trails every Saturday morning and decided to give it a try. After spending a few weekends listening to their epic adventures and being truly inspired by their unworldly perseverance, I signed up for a 50K training program. I had never run more than 15 miles and didn’t even know what a marathon felt like. 10 months and a few injuries later, this was my Facebook status update:


I now have six 50Ks under my belt and two more scheduled for March 2013. My last 50K was the Tahoe Rim 50K – it took me almost 8 hours to complete, but it was an epic journey with lots of volunteer support, trail shenanigans, breathtaking vistas, and a major sense of accomplishment at the end!

You can’t drive to this view on the Tahoe Rim Trail!

You can’t drive to this view on the Tahoe Rim Trail!

If you’re ready to upgrade your status to “Ultra Runner,” here’s my 5-step plan:

  • Step 1: Put your money where your mouth is: Sign up for your first 50K. Depending on your current level of fitness, give yourself at least 12 weeks of training time.
  • Step 2: A goal without a plan is just a wish: Find a training plan and stick to it! A 50K training plan will likely include more cross training than a marathon program and recovery runs on Sundays – both are key to your success as an Ultra Runner. Building core strength helps with climbing, descents, and tricky technical trails while recovery runs help you make the adjustment mentally to running on tired legs.
  • Step 3: Join a trail running or ultra running group: Five hour Saturday runs will go by much faster if you’re chatting away with a group of like-minded individuals, and more importantly, safety in numbers on isolated trails. I’m no stranger to having friends run ahead of me to scare away snakes.
  • Step 4: Eat and drink early and often: While every runner has different nutritional needs, I try to consume at least 100 calories an hour on a 2.5 hour run, 200 calories an hour on runs 3 hours or more. Use practice runs to learn what your body likes during long workouts. As you will be eating and running at the same time, your stomach might not be able to digest complex foods. There are lots of energy gels and bars on the market – try them all. You can also pack fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (a personal favorite), mashed avocado or potato. Training is the time to dial in your nutritional needs.
  • Step 5: It’s all in your head: Set a seemingly impossible goal, know what it takes to achieve that goal, accept that there will be hurdles along the way, and just do it! With a little mental toughness and commitment, you will amaze yourself!

Hope to see you on the trails!


P.S – No, I haven’t read Born to Run.