In December of 2022, I finished a 50 mile Ultramarathon in the mountains of North Georgia.
Prior to the summer of 2021, I had never run over 5 miles in a single run in my life.
You see – – Training for a 50 miler is not all that common, so it is not as easy as picking a random training program online like you would for a 5k, Half Marathon, or Marathon.
50 miles is a crazy distance..nearly 2 full marathons. Plus all of these races are on trails, meaning it is about twice as hard as running on a road.
So why would I do this?
In 2021, I saw former Navy Seal Chadd Wright livestream the Mid-State Mile on his instagram page. The Mid-State mile is a Last Man Standing Ultramarathon, meaning the race will continue until there is 1 runner left that has not quit.
Watching Chadd run for 36 hours straight was like watching a man walk on the moon..I couldn’t believe it was possible.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this random Instagram Live would change the course of my next 18 months.
What happened in the 18 months in between was a crazy learning experience filled with ups, downs, and a lot of doubt. I dealt with injuries, failed races, and had to push my planned race by 8 months.
Looking back, I learned a bunch of key lessons along the way as well as basic education on how Ultramarathon’s even work.
Here are the 5 most important lessons I learned while training for a 50 miler and also a list of the basic questions I had when I first started training…
The 5 Key Lessons I Learned Going from Zero to Ultramarathon
Lesson 1: Get Help
Ultramarathons are growing in popularity like crazy..Each year there are more runners than ever putting themselves to the test.
Even with the spike in interest, it is still kind of the Wild Wild West when it comes to proper training.
I knew there were thousands of training programs online for running a 5k, Half Marathon, or Marathon…But I was surprised to learn that there is relatively limited information available on training for Ultra’s.
Given I had never run over 5 miles before, I was concerned about picking a random training plan online. It felt like this would result in almost a guaranteed injury.
Instead of following a cookie cutter program – – I found 2 people online that had successfully run 50 milers before and sent them DM’s on Social Media to see if they were willing to jump on the phone with me.
One was a regular guy that had run a 50 miler and the other was one of the top female Ultra Runners in the USA.
In a matter of days, both had responded and I had calls on the books to get their opinion. I wanted their feedback on:
- Am I crazy for wanting to do this?
- Should I do a 50k or a 50 Miler?
- Is it even possible for me to run 50 miles?
To my surprise, both of them encouraged me to go for the 50 Miler and neither of them thought I was crazy. In fact – – the top female Ultra Runner agreed to be a mentor/consultant on my training for a small monthly fee.
Looking back, hiring an expert was the #1 most important thing I did when planning out my path from Zero to Ultramarathon.
Rather than stumble along the way, she was able to talk to me 1x a month and immediately teach me:
- How my training should be structured
- What I should eat while training
- What gear I needed (exact products)
- Timeframes on when I needed to have races scheduled
She gave the expert guidance and it was up to me to execute the plan.
Here is the learning: You can get help from experts online for super cheap and this will drastically improve your chance of success in running an Ultramarathon.
I had success with cold emailing and sending DM’s on Social Media, so I would recommend this as well.
Lesson 2: Proper Nutrition
If you are going to go on trails and run for several hours, nutrition becomes probably the most important aspect of your day.
I learned this on my first ever trail Half Marathon on Thanksgiving Day 2021.
Rather than have a proper nutrition plan, I only took 12 ounces of water with me and no fuel sources. Things felt great for the first 9 miles, but I then started cramping in what felt like every muscle in my body.
Don’t Be Dumb Like Me: If you are going to run for over 90 minutes, you need to have a nutrition and hydration plan.
Here is what worked for me:
- Eat 400-500 calories prior to running
- 250 to 300 calories/hour during run
- Salt/Electrolytes on the hour (LMNT & SaltStick)
- Hydration is dependent on the person, but I drank 500ml/Hour
While this was the magic formula for me, everyone has different needs and requirements.
The best thing you can do is use this as a framework and then test each week on your Saturday long runs. Notice how you feel and make adjustments for the following week.
If there is 1 thing you do, you need to nail down your nutrition plan prior to the actual race. Testing out a new plan on race day is a recipe for disaster.
Lesson 3: Zone 2 Training
Ultramarathons are super long and super slow (Shocking, I know). To be successful, you need an incredible endurance engine.
When I had initial discussions with the Ultra experts (Lesson 1), both of them mentioned to me how important Zone 2 training was.
I’d had some experience with the idea of Zone 2 training in my prep for Mountaineering, but I had never taken it super seriously or tracked my heart rate.
The idea of Zone 2 training is to use Heart Rate monitoring to keep your workouts in a certain range of beats per minute.
To calculate Zone 2, I used the Maffetone Method, which is simply:
180 – Age = Zone 2 window (For me, this was 146 BPM)
Most of my training runs throughout the prep for my 50 miler were Zone 2 runs, meaning the intent of the run was not to exceed my Zone 2 window (146 BPM).
I used a Coros Apex to track my Heart Rate on these runs. If I went over 146 BPM, I simply slowed down or even walked until my heart rate recovered. Once it dropped below 146 BPM, I started running again.
This is super challenging at first as you have to run SLOW.
Throw out your normal pace and be prepared to start essentially run/walking and then building up to a better pace over the course of months.
While a little clunky at first, you build a tremendous aerobic base that helps you be successful in Ultramarathons.
I can honestly say, I was never super aerobically tired for my entire 50 Miler. I attribute this pretty much 100% to Zone 2 training.
Lesson 4: Trail Running Requires Practice
I love running on trails.
You get solitude in the woods and get to spend many hours in nature. Jumping over fallen trees, hopping from rock to rock, and running on different elevations.
Here’s the thing though…Trail running is HARD and takes practice.
If you have run mainly on the road in the past, you will need to spend some time developing your Trail Running skills. This is super important to dial in prior to running any Ultramarathon.
First off, you will need to get comfortable with running slower paces. Trail Running terrain is much more complicated than a road, so I would plan on running up to 33% slower on trails compared to the road.
While every trail race is on different terrain, you can still learn the basic skills of trail running.
For me, I needed to learn:
- Walking the inclines is okay and expected on long trail runs
- Downhill is key to make up lost time
- If the terrain is too challenging (Rock Fields, ec), sometimes walking is faster
- ALWAYS be paying attention to the terrain
- You’re going to fall, there is a 100% chance. And you can learn how to fall in a safer manner.
I recommend spending as much time running on trails as possible prior to your Ultramarathon.
For me, I tried to have every Long Run on Saturday be on trails. If I could get any additional time on trails during the week, this would be a bonus.
Lesson 5: Practice Races are Key
My Ultramarathon coach encouraged me to sign up for several “test” races along the way prior to my first ultramarathon.
I ran two Half Marathons, a 25k, a 6 hour loop run, a 50k, and then ultimately the 50 Miler.
Having these “test” runs every 10-12 weeks was super critical for me and I would encourage any aspiring Ultrarunner to do the same.
For one, I naturally had motivation to get my training runs in as I knew I had a race upcoming. It’s much easier to get out of bed when you have an objective in the near future.
Second and more importantly, race day logistics can be challenging and also result in anxiety. It is very important you get past this prior to your main Ultramarathon objective.
Running a race requires you to:
- Drive to a new location and be on time
- Have your warmup dialed in
- Plan out all of your gear and nutrition
- Go to the start line with a bunch of other people which can be nerve racking
My first few races (2x Half Marathons & one 25k) were amazing at having me overcome general race day anxiety and fears.
By the time my 50 miler came around, I felt like a seasoned pro at Race Day execution.
I’d recommend getting a minimum of 1 prep race in prior, but the more you can participate in will be beneficial for you.
FAQ’s from First Time Ultramarathoners
Interested in learning more about Ultramarathons or have you signed up and have a bunch of questions?
Good – – Here are the most common questions and ones that I needed help answering when I decided to go for my first Ultramarathon.
What is a Ultramarathon?
Let’s define what an Ultramarathon is..Simply put – Anything longer than the standard 26.2 mile Marathon is considered an Ultramarathon.
As you are looking at races to sign up for, you will notice that most Ultramarathon’s have similar standard distances. The most common race formats are:
- 50 Miler
- Timed Races: 6 Hour, 12 Hour, 24 Hour
- Last Man Standing
While there are more variations than I could possibly list, the above options are the most common.
Where Do I Sign Up for a Ultramarathon?
The best and easiest way to find a Ultramarathon to sign up for is at www.ultrasignup.com. On UltraSignup you can find races near you or look throughout the country to find a cool race that motivates you.
I also had a lot of luck with www.unningintheusa.com and have found there are some races on this website that are not listened on UltraSignup.
What Gear Do I Need?
For all runs over 90 minutes on trails, I used the below gear:
- Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 5
- Socks: Switfwick Vision Five
- Watch: Coros Apex
- Hydration Vest: Salomon ADV Skin 5
- Hat: All Day Running Co Official Team Hat
How do Aid Stations Work?
Pretty much all organized races from 5k to Ultramarathons will have aid stations.
These aid stations can vary greatly in what food/hydration is offered, so it is important you read about this for your specific race. Most aid stations offer:
- Water, Gatorade
- Electrolyte Powders, Gu/Gels, etc
- Some sort of high calorie food (PBJ, Bacon, etc)
The most important tip I can provide regarding Aid Stations is to spend as little time at them as you can. Simply drink a few ounces of water, grab a few snacks, and go.
It is super easy to be tempted into standing around the comfortable aid station. Meanwhile, your legs are tightening up and you are losing time.
Do I Need a Crew?
From my experience running up to a 50 miler, I would say a crew is not necessary as long as the race has a sufficient Aid Station setup.
It obviously doesn’t hurt to have a crew helping you out and cheering you on, but for the most part this is going to be optional.
This is also assuming you are just trying to finish and not trying to win the race.
What is a Drop Bag?
Many races allow you to use Drop Bags, meaning you can give them a bag of essentials (Food, Electrolytes, First Aid) and they will drop it at a predetermined mileage mark.
Once you get to that mile, there will be a way to retrieve your bag.
Make sure to not overthink it and pack too much. I did this on my 50 miler and had to throw a bunch of food away simply because I packed too much (my drop bag wasn’t necessary).
Conclusion: Zero to Ultramarathon
In December 2022, I achieved a multiple year goal of finishing a 50 Mile Ultramarathon.
While the achievement was great, in hindsight the true value was the 18 months of preparation and learnings leading up to the race itself. Hundreds of hours spent on the trail in nature by myself trying to get better.
For anyone that is trying to set a lofty goal like running an Ultramarathon, the key learnings I had were:
- Get Help/Hire a Coach
- Learn Proper Nutrition Strategy
- Train Primarily with Zone 2 Runs
- Develop the Skill of Trail Running
- Work Test Races into your Schedule
For anyone looking to learn more in bite sized pieces, follow me on Twitter @KevinJohnMartin.