How to Run Your First 50Km Ultramarathon

On Sunday August 8th, after sleeping in and lounging about the house until noon, I decided to take on my first ultra-distance trail run.

I’d run one marathon back in April, the beautiful Skyline to the Sea, but taken on only two twenty-mile plus runs since then. Immediately following SttS, I’d also begun the process of completely rebuilding my running style with a forefoot strike, trying to be kinder to my knees. I started my running career less than a year ago altogether.

How did I do? Horribly, and wonderfully. My time was terrible, and I wouldn’t have made the final cut-off at many 50K events. Nonetheless, I got out and there and did it all by my lonesome, just curious to see if I could, and the day was beautiful, and nothing hurt too badly by the time I was done.

How did I do it? If you’re looking for advice on how to run ultra-distances well, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if, like me, you care more about distance than speed or grace, read on. Please note that I am not a particularly experienced runner, I am not a fitness or nutrition expert, and I am only discussing what worked well and what I think I could have worked better for me.

1. Run a Marathon First

This might sound obvious, or even patronizing, but it’s got nothing to do with how you increase your mileage. If you can run 23 miles, you can probably handle 31, and adding another three to your prior trials won’t tell you a whole hell of a lot. The simple fact of the matter is that both 26.2 miles and 50 kilometers are completely arbitrary distances, but they’re both major milestones in running culture (even if it’s only trail runners who seem to care so much about 50Ks). Don’t rob yourself of the chance to celebrate both.

2. Slow Down

Don’t just pace yourself, slow way the hell down. It was easy to congratulate myself on running mile two at my overall target pace, but mile two was uphill. The same went for mile three, and some of mile four. What was I thinking, exactly?

I should have been walking every hill. If I’m going less than about fifteen miles in a day, I like to try to run everything, but this was the time to be as conservative as possible, keeping every spare erg in reserve. If you have anything left on the way back, great, those hills will still be there. Otherwise, you should only be running them if you’re training to be competitive at this distance, and if so, turn back now; there’s nothing in this blog post for you.

This is also where a GPS or pedo-watch comes in handy. If you’re down in the single digits for minutes per mile when you aren’t going downhill, you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt. That is, an extra world of hurt on top of the one you volunteered for.

3. Start Fresh

Make sure that marathon wasn’t three days ago. It’s also nice to sleep in, but I’m a lazy bastard, and you’ll note that I finished up in the dark.

4. Don’t Bore Yourself

This is especially important once you get a handle on point two, slowing down, and considering how long you’re likely to be out there. You don’t need to scale Pike’s Peak this time out, but if you like running hills, run some hills.

I’m sure I could have run 50Km months earlier in my running career if I’d tried going around the block 60 or 70 times instead of traversing the ridges and gullies of Lake Chabot and Redwood Regional Park, assuming I didn’t pass out from the dreariness, but the only part I would have enjoyed would have been stopping when I was done.

5.Bring Extra Fuel

If you normally go through x liters of water and y ounces of energy goop per z miles, throw that formula away. Feed yourself based on time, not mileage, bring about half again as much as you predict you’ll need, and make sure dehydration won’t be a factor at all. I used a 1.5 liter hydration pack, but I had ten miles before the first water fountain. Don’t forget electrolytes, whether they come in the form of salt capsules or a sports drink mix; you’ll sweat out more minerals than you might have thought humans could carry, even externally, and failing to replace them is not just unpleasant but, in rare cases, fatal.

Bring along a little variety, too. I mostly suck down packets of caffeinated slime every hour, myself, but at about three hours in I started throwing some arbitrarily flavored protein chews into the mix. It was nice to get a bite or two (but no more) of solid food into that roiling void of a stomach.

6. Bring a Headlamp

This is less of a concern if you’re one of those bright-‘n’-early weirdos, but you might be out there a lot longer than you expect. Even if you’re not, a lightweight light source is a comforting thing to have on you when the shadows start to get long, and if things go really wrong, it could be a life saver. Be sure to test that it works and has fresh batteries before starting out, and store so that it won’t get doused or switched on accidentally.

If you are out past sunset, get the headlamp ready, but I suggest not actually using it until you’re fully uncomfortable running without it. There might come a time when you’re forced to rely on your night vision out on the trail, so it’s not a terrible idea to get a bit of practice. Be careful, though, and remember how much easier it is to misjudge things when you’re fatigued.

7. Bring Shoes

For most runners, this probably seems obvious, but I’m mostly talking to the barefooters out there. If you haven’t run close to this distance unshod before, bring something with with a sole, and I’m not talking about the Five Fingers. If you mostly run in toe shoes, you might consider a lightweight backup pair.

I run on my toes and the balls of my feet, and after about twenty miles, I needed to change things up a lot of the time in order to keep moving forward. Sometimes this just meant walking (and towards the end, sometimes walking was faster even on the flats), but sometimes this meant heel strikes. Even though I don’t normally run that way these days, it helped to take some pressure off my calves when they needed it most.

8. Pick Up All Your Damn Trash

Or I will find you and hurt you.

9. Run 25K, Then Turn Around

This is the real secret to running your first 50K.

It might sound like a joke, but charting a straight out and back course is the easiest way to keep yourself on target for a new, daunting distance, especially when you’re not running in a group. Running in loops makes it too easy to stop early, and running a complicated course makes it too tempting to cut mileage on the way back. On the other hand, if you’re struggling before you even get to the turn-around, it’s a clear sign that you should consider heading back early after all. There’s always next weekend.

10. Enjoy the Hell Out of It

With any luck, you’re doing this because you love trail running, not because you’ve got some macho chip on your shoulder. Don’t forget to take in everything the trail has to offer you; if it were only about running, a treadmill would be easier.

After some number of hours, you will have run more than a marathon, farther than most runners will ever even try to make it in a day, and you won’t be done yet. If the thought of passing that point doesn’t make you smile, you’re going to need to find something pretty powerful to keep you going out there.

It’s worth taking a moment to note how privileged you are in terms of health and leisure time to have had the chance to make it out here. Don’t be afraid to talk to people about what you’ve accomplished – their reactions will be diverse, fascinating, and universally encouraging – but do try not to brag. It’s surprisingly easy to cross the line from inspiring people to making them feel bad about themselves.

Most of all, remember, you’re not just a marathoner, you’re an ultramarathoner now. Hell the fuck yeah.