Marathon and Beyond

The Marathon As Springboard

By Jeff Hagen
© 1997 42K(+) Press, Inc.

Here's How to Use the Marathon as Training for Your First 50-Miler.

So you've run several marathons, you've reached your goals, you've heard the words of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" during your long runs, and you've anticipated that at some point you might get bored with 26.2 miles. You realize there's more running beyond the horizon. Rumors of ultramarathons filter back to you and your running friends. Those runners who go "beyond" the standard marathon distance pique your interest.

As you continue your marathoning pursuits, the lure of ultrarunning hangs out there like an artfully fashioned fisherman's fly enticing a largemouth bass. Don't despair! Perhaps all you need is that little push-or rather, that little lure-into the wild and wonderful world of ultramarathoning. And you've already got a stride up: You're a marathoner.

Since virtually all ultramarathoners were marathoners before they attempted their first ultra, it seems reasonable to view the marathon not as an "ultimate distance" but rather as just another step in the quest to find one's limits. From this viewpoint, moving from marathons to ultramarathons is a natural course of events, very similar to graduating from 10K races to marathons, but much easier.

If you're a marathoner who has been thinking about attempting an ultra, you may be wondering whether you'll be able to finish a race that goes beyond 26.2 miles. This is understandable, because through your own experience you are probably well aware of how difficult and painful the last few miles of a marathon can be. The prospect of pushing yourself even an extra five miles to complete a 50K race may seem unappealing at best, and nearly doubling the marathon distance to finish a 50-mile race may seem virtually impossible.

Your Invaluable Marathon Experience

The good news is that your past marathon experience is a valuable asset that can be used to your advantage when you train for and run your first ultramarathon. You've learned how to train for running long distances, including how to alternate hard and easy days and how to increase gradually the length of your long training runs. You've learned how to drink adequate amounts of fluid during a race to avoid dehydration. You've learned how to pace yourself, knowing that if you begin a marathon at 5K race pace you'll suffer greatly later in the race. You've also learned how to deal with the dreaded marathon "wall" that appears when your body runs out of energy and wants to sit you down to eat a quarter-pound cheeseburger and watch the rest of the world go by. Finally, you've learned something about how your mind works during the marathon, and how to make it work for you instead of against you when the going gets tough.

The Value of Marathon Experience

  1. You know how to train for a long race.
  2. You know how to stay hydrated.
  3. You know how to pace yourself.
  4. You know how to deal with "The Wall."
  5. You know how to make your mind work for you, not against you.

The purpose of this article is to show you how you can use your marathon experience, as well as the marathon itself, to prepare for your first 50-miler. Although it is not a bad idea to try a 50K race in your transition from the marathon to the ultramarathon, many prospective ultrarunners seem more interested in tackling the 50-mile distance right off. Perhaps the challenge of running approximately double the length of the marathon is more intriguing than the lesser challenge of the 50K, which some consider to be little more than a "long marathon." In any event, the principles that follow are geared to the 50-miler, but they can easily be modified to apply to the 50K as well.


First, let's make some assumptions before you attempt your first 50-miler. The most important one is that your primary goal will be to finish the race and to have an enjoyable experience in the process, not to set a U.S. record for 50 miles. If running a fast 50-miler in your first attempt at this distance is your goal, you'll be able to use parts of the strategy offered, but you'll also need to increase significantly the length of your long training runs. You should also be aware of the risk of injury that accompanies long, high-intensity training runs. By having the simple goal of finishing, you're not as likely to be disappointed in your first attempt at the distance. There will be plenty of time to set new 50-mile PRs in future races. If you set too lofty a goal in your first 50-miler, you may be so disappointed that you'll never attempt the distance again.

The second assumption is that you've maintained a reasonable training base since your last marathon. The actual amount of training will vary from one individual to another, but if it would be enough to get you through another marathon with three or four months of preparation, then you should be able to finish a 50-miler with four or five months preparation. The extra month will provide you the opportunity to schedule a marathon, approximately a month before the 50-miler, which will be used as a training run under race conditions.

The third assumption is that you are willing to try some new strategies during your training runs and during the 50-miler itself. Fortunately, these techniques are probably going to make your training runs easier, not harder, and it is possible that your first 50-miler will actually seem easier than your last marathon. (A side benefit of these strategies is that you may also find them useful when applied to the marathon distance.)

Before delving into specific strategies, let me discuss some basic concepts that are important in making the transition from marathons to ultramarathons, including 50-milers.

Basic Concepts in the Transition

1. Incorporate Walking Breaks. Not too long ago I read a magazine article about the marathon experience of a well-known talk show host. One of her primary goals in the marathon was to run the entire race without walking, a goal that she met and of which she was very proud. This reminded me of the time I ran a Halloween 10K race dressed as a basketball player. My goal for that race was to run the entire 6.2 miles while dribbling a basketball, and to do this without once losing the ball or double dribbling. This was challenging, because the course went over several curbs and through some puddles of water, but I was able to accomplish my goal.

I was very proud of this feat, as well as the fact that my time for the 10K was only four or five minutes slower than for a normal 10K race. I don't mean to belittle the talk show host's accomplishment, because finishing the marathon took an outstanding display of fortitude on her part. However, the goal of not walking even one step during a marathon-an ideal that is shared by many marathoners-is to me as questionable as my goal of dribbling a basketball during an entire 10K.

Although there is far from total agreement among runners on this issue, many marathoners, especially those running 8-minute miles or slower, have improved their marathon times and hastened their recovery after the marathon by taking short walking breaks during the event.

In the ultrarunning world, however, whether or not to take walking breaks is not really an issue. Simply put, properly planned and well-executed walking breaks are an ultrarunner's best friend. It is true that some experienced ultrarunners, including elite runners who follow high-mileage training regimens, will run 50-mile races without walking. However, the rest of us have found that walking early and frequently is the key to success, even in the "shorter" ultras, such as 50-milers.

My own 50-mile PR was set on an out-and-back course that was mostly uphill for the first 24 miles and mostly downhill for the last 26 miles. Walking large portions of the first half of the course conserved my energy and enabled me to run a very fast second half to set my PR.

In events of 100 miles or longer, the vast majority of ultrarunners, including elite runners, take advantage of walking breaks to improve their performance. Tim Twietmeyer, frequent winner of the granddaddy of all 100-milers, the Western States 100, claims to walk 15 percent of the course!

2. Learn to Eat on the Run. Obviously, it is possible to run a marathon without eating during the race-most marathoners, in fact, avoid food during the event. However, if you're thinking of moving up to ultras, one of the first items on your "To Do" list should be to become accustomed to eating during long training runs. Taking nourishment onboard is absolutely necessary to sustain energy levels during ultramarathons. Indeed, you may discover, as I did many years ago, that eating even during marathons will allow you to run faster and feel better than if you abstain from food during the race.

What to eat depends on individual preferences, but foods high in complex carbohydrates are preferred. It is important to determine your own food preferences and tolerances during long training runs, so there will be no surprises on raceday. Some popular foods include energy bars, high-carb "puddings" in plastic tubes, chunks of boiled or baked potatoes with salt, sandwiches of various kinds, cookies, crackers, and fresh fruit, such as bananas, oranges, and cantaloupe. Having a variety of foods available is helpful in races of 50 miles or longer, because what tastes good (and stays down) early in the race may be unappealing later in the event.

Personally, I have two favorite foods that almost always taste good, even late in a race: milk shakes and ice cream floats. Even though I need a crew to provide these tasty treats during the race, and even though they are high in sugar, there is something about milk products that gives me a tremendous boost in energy and also settles my stomach. Obviously, you will not want to try milk products if you are lactose-intolerant.

When to eat and how much to eat also depend on personal preference, but in my opinion it is wise to begin eating within the first 5 to 10 miles of the race or long training run and to eat small amounts of food at frequent intervals rather than large amounts of food at one time. During 50-mile races I like to wear running shorts with pockets and/or a small fanny pack, in which I can carry a Ziploc bag containing a sandwich or pieces of an energy bar. Then I can take a bite and place the Ziploc back in my pocket or pack.

You must also be very careful not to choke on the food while training. Take small bites and try to do most of your eating during your walking breaks, when you will be breathing less heavily.

3. Slow the Pace. It should come as no surprise that your first 50-miler will be run at a pace that is slower than your normal marathon pace. Part of the decrease in overall pace will be to allow time for the walking breaks; part will be used for activities such as rest room breaks, picking up food, and changing clothing; and the remainder will be applied to a slower running pace to conserve energy for the late stages of the 50-miler.

Following are some specific strategies for your general prerace training, your "training marathon," and the 50-mile race itself.

General Prerace Training Strategies

You are in for a pleasant surprise if you think that the transition from running the marathon to finishing a 50-miler is an endeavor that will require a grueling training regimen with massive increases in training mileage. Most runners who have completed at least a few marathons and who have maintained a reasonable training base since their last marathon are capable of finishing a 50-mile race without drastically altering their normal marathon training schedule. Following are some areas on which to focus attention.


If your standard marathon training mileage has served you well, whatever that mileage level is, you should be able to finish your first 50-miler without any significant increases. The reason is that other adjustments in your training and race strategy will enable you to run farther at a given level of training mileage.

However, if your longest premarathon training runs have typically been less than the marathon distance, then you might want to gradually increase your long run to a peak of approximately 30 miles about three or four weeks before your "training marathon." This will be not only for training purposes but also for psychological reasons-to confirm in your mind that you are capable of surpassing the marathon distance.


It is important to practice walking during your long training runs so it will feel comfortable during the race. Two minutes of moderately fast walking per mile during a long run, especially one of 20 miles or more, should leave you feeling much stronger during the latter miles than running the entire distance. You will also recover faster from the training run. This is just a preview of the benefits that walking breaks will provide during the 50-miler.

If your training courses do not have the miles marked, you will have to estimate mileage by time. You can do this by using a track or marked bike path to determine how far you typically walk in two minutes, and how long you typically have to run to complete the mile at your usual training pace. Then you can convert this to minutes, for example, running eight minutes and walking two minutes, or running nine minutes and walking two minutes to complete each mile.

Eating and Drinking

You should also practice eating during your long training runs. Early and often during your long runs eat sandwiches, energy bars, cookies, or other foods that can be easily carried in your pocket or fanny pack. Not only will you become accustomed to having food in your stomach while running, but taking in calories during your long workouts will make the training runs seem so much easier.

Regarding fluids, if you run your marathons drinking only water, you should also experiment with electrolyte replacement drinks during your training runs. A 50-miler can significantly deplete your electrolytes and get you into medical trouble, so some of your fluid intake during the race should be diluted electrolyte replacement drinks. Testing these drinks during training is important to determine which ones you can tolerate.

"Training Marathon" Strategies

While not essential as you train for your first 50-miler, scheduling a "training marathon" about a month before the 50-mile race will allow you to apply your new training strategies in a race setting. This is where you will test your ability to go out slowly, take walking breaks, and eat and drink properly when the rest of the field is "leaving you in the dust."

Forget about running a fast time. It may be your slowest marathon ever, but you should feel better at the finish line than you ever have before. Indeed, the goal for the training marathon is to feel at the finish line as though you could turn around and run back to the starting line. In the upcoming 50-miler, that is essentially what you will be doing. Following are some focus points.


Because most marathons have markers at every mile, and aid stations are usually near a mile marker, it is convenient to take walking breaks every mile. Two minutes of walking per mile should work well for most runners preparing for a 50-miler. If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to walk that much, walk at least one minute per mile or two minutes every other mile. If you begin to feel tired, increase the walking segment as needed. When there are hills on the course, you should adjust your walking breaks so you are walking on the uphill stretches and running on the downhill portions as much as possible.

Eating and Drinking

As in the other training runs, start eating between miles 5 and 10 and continue eating throughout the marathon. If you have a crew that can meet you along the course, plan to pick up food from them, because most marathon aid stations are limited in their food selection. Otherwise, carry enough food for the race in your pockets or fanny pack.
Carry a water bottle during the marathon so that you can constantly take small sips of water as you run. Also drink a cup of diluted electrolyte solution at an aid station every several miles.


Try to stick to the pace that you typically maintain during your other long training runs. This may be difficult because the excitement of the marathon will make you want to run faster than your training pace.

Also, the eating, drinking, and walking that you do early in the race might give you so much energy that it is difficult to hold back even in the latter stages of the marathon. If in the last few miles you feel the strong urge to "sprint" to the finish, it is probably okay to do so. Chances are you will still meet your goal of feeling like you could run back to the starting line.

50-Mile Race Strategies

This is where all of your previous marathon experience and newly-acquired strategies come together. In other words, "It's showtime!" Essentially, you will be doing exactly what you have done during your training runs, including the "training marathon," except that you will be doing it for a longer period of time. Following are a few additional hints.


As in the training runs, two minutes per mile of walking should work for most runners. This might sound like a lot of walking, but for a first 50-miler it will greatly increase your chances of finishing the race. If you want to feel even stronger late in the race, you might try three minutes per mile. My strategy for 24-hour runs includes three minutes of walking per mile, and it works like a charm for that purpose.

On the other hand, if you are a strong marathoner who likes to live on the edge, you could try one minute of walking per mile or two minutes every second mile. Remember to adjust your walking strategy if there are hills. Personally, I prefer to walk all but the gentlest uphill parts of a course.

You can make other adjustments during the race, too. If you begin to feel tired, you can increase the length of your walking segments. Also, if you are feeling strong at mile 45 in the race, it is OK to abandon your walking strategy and pick up the pace to the finish line. As you might imagine, being able to do that in a 50-mile race is extremely satisfying.

As in your training runs, if the miles are not marked on the 50-mile course, use the time equivalent that you have determined for your usual training pace, such as running for eight minutes and walking for two minutes. It is easier to remember when to walk and when to run if the sum of the running and walking segments totals 10 minutes. For example, when your watch reads 8 minutes, 18 minutes, 28 minutes, and so on, it's time to walk. When the watch reads 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and so on, it's time to start running again.

Eating and Drinking

The strategy here is the same as for the "training marathon." However, you will find that the variety of foods at the aid stations is usually greater than is typically available at marathon aid stations. I still like to carry some food in my pack or pockets and a water bottle in my hand, though, so I can nibble and drink between aid stations. If you have a crew, they can bring along and provide your special foods, such as my beloved milk shakes. Also remember to down a cup of diluted electrolyte replacement periodically.

As the race goes on, especially if the weather is warm, you may find that food becomes less and less appealing. It is important to continue eating if possible. If you become nauseous and throw up everything, don't be too alarmed. Your race is not necessarily over. Many runners are able to recover from such an episode and have a strong finish. If you become nauseous with several miles remaining in the race, you will have to find some way to rebuild your energy stores. One trick is to drink milk or defizzed soda pop (7-Up or Sprite stays down better than colas for many of us) until your stomach settles down. If you are running purely on the sugar from pop, though, you will need to keep using it either until the race is over or until you can start eating complex carbohydrates again. This is not the preferred way to go, but if all else fails, I've found that sometimes I can go for hours on nothing but soda pop.


Training run pace is the pace to shoot for early in the race. As I mentioned earlier, if you are feeling strong near the end of the race, you should feel free to kick it in hard. This may sound impossible, but don't be too surprised if it happens to you. The combination of eating, walking, and pacing conservatively is a powerful one, and if it all goes well, you'll feel great as you near the finish. Just be careful that you don't trip over the runners who started too fast and are now "crawling" toward the finish line.

Your Next Challenge

After successfully running your first 50-miler, you'll have some choices to make. If you decide that you like the idea of running ultramarathons, you can start planning for another 50-miler, or perhaps a 100K race. Now that you know you can run 50 miles, you'll probably want to make some adjustments in the strategy that took you through your first ultra. For example, if you are a strong runner who felt very good at the end of the race, you can probably improve your 50-mile time by shortening your walking segments and increasing your pace in your next attempt. If your first 50-miler was a road race, you might consider attempting a 50K or 50-mile trail race. Eventually you might want to try a 100-mile or 24-hour race, each of which has its own set of new challenges.

Even if you decide that the 50-miler was a one-time thing and you choose to switch back to marathons, you may find that the strategies you've learned in the 50-miler will enable you to improve your enjoyment of future marathons. You might even start eating and taking short walking breaks during the marathon. One thing I can guarantee, though: You will never ever forget the 50-miler that marked your entry into the world of ultramarathoning!

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

M&B Home | Learn More About M & B | Readers Say | M&B On the Road | Tables of Contents
M&B Sneak Preview | Subscribe | Order Back Issues/Gear | Advertise in M & B
Write Us | Partners | Links

Back to M&B home page
Created by: M&B Staff
Last update: October 2, 2000
© Copyright 1998-2000 42K(+), Inc.