Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Running That First 50K

I know I said I was going to write about overuse injuries, but that takes research and research takes time.  I don't have much time right now so I am going back to what I have already done research on, running!

As I have said earlier, there is little difference between running a marathon and running a 50K.  Of course the 50K will take longer but at the end, you will feel about the same.  So if you have run a marathon or two or more then sign up for a 50K trail race in your area and run it.

I am going to step back in time and talk about how I selected my first 50k and what I did to get ready for it.  I really thought it would be a lot worse than it was and I did way too much planning and most of that planning was a total waste of time.  I would have run just as fast if Friday night I decided to get up early Saturday Morning and drive to Huntsville and run the race with NO PLANNING.  There is one difference now. There are not many 50K runs or any ultra races that allows race morning registration.  In face, if you don't register weeks or months ahead you may not even get in.  Read yesterday's post!

Two local examples of races that fill quickly are the Stump Jump 50K in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Mountain Mist 50K in Huntsville, Alabama.  These races are very popular local races and both are tough.  They both fill within few weeks or days of the opening of registration.  Another comparable race is Mt Cheaha 50K that I mentioned yesterday.  If you live anywhere in the southeast I would highly recommend any or all of them.  I would not recommend them as a first 50K however.  All three end with brutal, climbs in the last few miles.  Mountain Mist has two, 700 ft climbs in the last 7 miles.  (At the top of the first climb, a slip could be fatal.)  I know, these are short climbs if  you live out west but that is about a high as a climb gets around here.
The first two pictures are from the Mountain Mist 50K.  The start was in the fog with mist falling and the temperature was about 34 deg.

The next three pictures are from the Mt Cheaha 50K
The first picture was taken on the climb up Mt Cheaha on a section called "Blue Hell," a one mile long climb that gains 1,100 foot. The climb begins just past the lake in the picture, at mile 29.  The Pinhoti 100 course follow the same route in the opposite direction and descends Mt Cheaha over this section, then climbs back up to the ridge line to the left and follows the ridge for most of the next 56 miles to the finish.

There are a few creek crossing.

The view from the top.

This is a great report on the Cheaha 50K written by INOV-8 team member Eric Charette.  It is worth reading if you are interested in the race.

It is a good idea to pick out a relatively easy 50K for that all important first ultra.  Of course, I strongly recommend my race, the Run for Kids Challenge, here in Birmingham, May 28th.  It is everything a first race should be.  The trail is smooth, most of the time, and relatively flat compared with other 50Ks.  The trail surface is covered in fine crushed rock and is almost like running on an old cinder track, the kind I raced on in high school in 1968.  You don't even need trail shoes.  It is a professionally designed 5K course where many local schools train and race.  Regional and state cross country meets are also held there.  The course is actually almost exactly 3 miles around so a 50K will be eleven laps.  That means you pass by the aid station every 3 miles.

So pick out a good race that is not too far from home.  My first 50K was the Dizzy Fifties, a multiple loop course on Monte Sano in Huntsville, Alabama.  (The location of the Mountain Mist.) It just happened to be coming up a few weeks after I decided to try a 50K.  That is literally how I chose it.  I had trained all summer  on trails for he Imogene Pass run held in early September.  I decide it was time to try something a little longer.

My only experience with long endurance events was on bike rides I had done around the southeast.  I knew peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were really good after struggling up a 7 mile climb and bananas even tasted pretty good.  I filled a water bottle, made a few sandwiches, gathered some cookies and about 20 GUs.  (I had no idea how many I would need so I took plenty.)  When I got there, everyone had brought a cooler or bag for their supplies, except me.  I never thought about a bag, I planned to leave it all in the car since parking was close to the course.  That worked OK but it did cost a little time.

Actually, I only went to the car twice during the race to get a couple of gels and 1/4 of a sandwich.  There was plenty of stuff to eat at the one aid station you passed through twice each lap.  The only electrolytes I used back then were Enervit tablets that I had learned were great when you started to cramp up on the bike.  Of course, I only ate one if I started to get a cramp.  The course is a double loop with a 4 mile and a 5.59 mile leg and 700 feet of elevation gain each 9.59 lap.  (They throw in a 2+  mile section at the first to reach the 50K distance.  I realized real quick that one central aid station really simplified things if you plan to use drop bags.  Pile everything you could ever need in a cooler or bag, or both, and it is right there every lap.  Another plus is you can also drop whatever you don't want to carry the next lap. If it is cold at the start you can wear a jacket, hat and gloves which I often do.  As it begins to warm up pull off a layer and leave it.  If the weather changes and it gets cold or starts to rain, grab a jacket the next time by.

There is one other reason a multi loop course is good, but I should not mention this one.  If you do have to drop out, it is never too far back to the car.  Of course you would never DNF for any other reason than a serious injury, well, I guess death would be acceptable.


  1. David - perfect timing on this post as I am running my first ultra even this weekend - a 50K event called the Green Jewel.

    I've been pretty nervous about it, but after reading your post, I'm feeling better. I've never been much for organized races, so I haven't run a marathon, but I've been training very hard over the past year+ on longer distances and having run a sub-2hr 1/2 marathon last fall, I feel ready.

    The nerves are more for the "I don't know what I don't know", so thanks for making me feel a little more comfortable.

  2. Dave, I am impressed. My best marathon ever was 2:47. You certainly will have no problems. I took a look at the course. It looks like fun. It is amazing how those hills always seem to appear at the end. I hope you don't have too much snow. How about posting a report on the race.