Easily Go From Marathon To Ultra: Advice From An Ultra Coach/Athlete
If you can run a marathon, you can run a 50k. Here's how you do it.
The average marathon takes 4 hours and 21 minutes. Adding five more miles will add much more than 50 minutes to your race, and not just on the clock. The ultramarathon is a different beast, and it will bring new challenges and a new approach to training if you want to run your best.
Race day itself will not resemble a traditional marathon, which is run on the road. Venturing into the unknown territory of an ultra typically means transitioning to trail running and inviting more external variables into your race. You will quickly find yourself in new shoes, settling into a new pace, testing new strategies, humbled by new physical needs, buying new gear, and loving your run in a new way.
How do you get into ultramarathons?
I pulled up to my first ultramarathon wide-eyed and intimidated. I pitched my little tent at the finish line and boiled water to make spaghetti. “Think of it as 50 miles of trail bliss,” the only ultrarunner I knew had advised, “Don’t think of it as back-to-back marathons.”
I had no idea how to wrap my head around such a long distance. The furthest I had ever run was 28 miles. I had never taken a salt pill. I never ran cross country in high school. I had two half marathons and two marathons to my name. I never owned a running vest or poles; my shoes weren’t even the right size (I found that out later). I worried that I didn’t belong, that I could not do this.
I brought a handheld water bottle, a baseball hat, and a Ziplock bag with a quote written on it in Sharpie: Always do what you are afraid to do. Inside was a granola bar and a pair of socks. What did people put in drop bags? What do you need to run 50 miles? Hopefully not more than encouragement, socks, and 200 calories.
Twelve hours later, I crossed the finish line of that race with happy tears stinging my eyes. I was holding up my arms like goalposts because I did not know that armpits could chafe. There were so many things I could, should, and would have done differently that day, but I finished. As the race director handed me my handmade finisher mug, I knew I would learn them all. I was determined to solve the puzzle of how to do it the better.
Today I have finished more ultras than I can count, including many hundred and two hundred milers. It is a vibrant and inclusive community full of diversity and drive. I have experimented and researched what works (and what doesn’t) to ensure that I can complete my goals. I race without fear of the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) regardless of the distance, and I have the experience to know how to cultivate the tools that unlock long-distance trail running. I have finished first, and dead last, in hundred-mile races
You do not need to be an exceptional athlete to be an ultramarathoner. Distance erodes differences in age, body type, and athletic prowess when it comes to summoning your grit and grinding forward. I believe wholeheartedly that anyone can run an ultra, absolutely anyone who is willing to excavate and polish their resilience.
Non Laurus luctatio
Not the prize but the struggle.
-Race slogan for the 0uray 100
How long does it take to go from marathon to ultra?
The body is always knocked back and humbled by a new distance. After my first marathon, I struggled to step up a curb. After my first 50 miler, I crawled up the stairs to my office when no one was looking. Now, I run training marathons on weekdays before work. I completed a 56-mile training run as part of a ramp-up for a 100 miler to race competitively, and I followed it with a high-mileage block the following week (pain-free). The day after I returned home from finishing Bigfoot 200, I ran 15 miles. The body has an amazing capacity to learn endurance, but it can’t learn it all at once.
The best things in life are progressions. My growth into distance running was aggressive because of how much I loved the sport: I ran a half marathon, the next year a full marathon, and the next year a 50-mile race. After another year of training, I completed my first 100-mile race. Now I enjoy and continue to run all distances (including four races over 200 miles). The amount of time it takes to adapt to higher mileage and push your personal limits further needs to factor several considerations:
Your current fitness level and comfort (or discomfort) during endurance activities. Establishing your baseline gives you a starting point to build upon.
Your ability to commit time to train. Long runs take a long time. Trail miles are slower than road miles.
Injury recovery and weight loss goals: if you are aiming for multiple targets, slow down and do it right. All goals can be achieved, but running distance is more enjoyable if you go at the right pace for you.
Your internal drive. The more you are willing to work for something difficult, the faster you will accomplish it.
Should I run a marathon before an ultra?
Absolutely! Never underestimate the distance. Running a marathon is extremely hard work and a huge accomplishment, especially if your goal is to run your best. Whether you have run one or finished eighty, it is never prudent to discount double-digit runs. A marathon will sap your legs of glycogen, erect the dreaded ‘wall,’ and leave you walking like a penguin two days later. It is no small starting point, but it is a controlled one. There is typically frequent support, encouragement, clear course marking, and camaraderie to motivate you to face the distance and persevere toward your medal.
An ultra is often much lonelier and less supported. I have run races with 20 miles between aid stations. There is a saying in the ultra community that running will take you to discomfort; in an ultra you will live in it. Visit the uncomfortable place before you decide to move in.
Longer distances will lead you to wall after wall; you will confront internal and external variables and have to choose whether to overcome or to quit. You might be faced with this decision more than once. The time under tension for your body, depending on the length of your race, will introduce you to a new level of fatigue and sometimes pain—and you will be forced to feel it and be asked to push through. Weather, temperatures, and terrain can widely vary within one race. You will need to know how to roll with the punches.
You will run more intelligently and successfully if you experiment with one or two new ingredients at a time, rather than drowning in the whole stew. Scientifically, too, you can more accurately pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses when you can see exactly what worked and what was difficult. There is a difference between trudging through the race with chafed armpits and tears and charging across the line with the intrinsic pride that stems from giving your utmost. The bridge between that gap is preparation.
How do you get started runnning ultramarathons?
The best answer is usually the simplest: if you want to run longer, you must learn how to handle the variables of running longer. This is your starting line.
To do this injury-free, motivated, and supported meaningfully will require learning. To train effectively may challenge your old habits. It means inviting suffering, scrubbing away the boundaries of your comfort zones, and letting in a little wild.
Getting into ultras means redefining a few things you traditionally understood about running. How many marathoners carry rain jackets, emergency blankets, and headlamps (with extra batteries!) in their hip belts? Do you know how many calories your body needs during 100k? What if you need to go to the bathroom? What do you do when there is a blister underneath your toenail? When do you need poles? What does 10,000’ of climbing feel like on your quads? 30,000’? What does fueling for 50 miles above 90 degrees look like?
Consider the differences between 26.2 miles and 206-mile race:
Nutrition and hydration
Gear and layering
You can find plenty of information and opinions about each of those bullet points. Learning everything by book or YouTube is inspiring, but it is also often contradictory and subjective. Being a confident, successful ultramarathoner is about defining the strategy that works for you and implementing it expertly. If there was one recipe that cooked up the best race, everyone would follow it.
Much of the dive into ultras involves strategic experimentation. Much of the proficiency in ultrarunning is knowing how to adapt during a race and stay aware of your body and mind. You will need to feel out your limits and be equipped with the right tools to break them. This applies to building endurance, fueling appropriately, recovery, and organizing the factors of the race that you can control (crew, course knowledge, cutoffs, training blocks, etc.) so that you are adept at reacting to the events you can’t control.
I maintain that there is an intrinsic part of the ultramarathoner that is self-made: at the very end of the day, or likely in the middle of the night, you and your resolve will be alone. No one will be watching. No one is just ahead cheering for you. At mile 29, or 46, or 166 it will be your own mind that carries you forward. A large part of expanding your run is cultivating your fortitude. You must be willing to learn the hard way.
But when the wall hits, you will know how to climb it. When exhaustion knocks at your door, you will answer it confidently. The moment you are ready to start pushing yourself into unknown distances, your training has already begun.
‘Aole makao e ho’ohikiwale kela
We wouldn’t want it to be easy.
-Race slogan for Hurt 100
About Coach Julie
Julie has finished over 50 ultramarathons across the country, including four 200 milers and several 100 milers. She enjoys technical mountain running but began distance running in the Midwest. After two road marathons, she discovered trail running and started to research and experiment with a variety of ultrarunning theories to learn more. With self-taught and tested methods, her research and experience led her to longer, faster, and more difficult races. She regularly writes for Ultrarunning magazine, volunteers at races, and hosts running events in Albuquerque.
Franklins 200 Mile (2020) – 1 st female
Bryce Canyon 100 Mile (2019) – 1 st female
Running the Rose 108k (2018) – 1 st female, Course Record
Last Runner Standing (2018) – 1 st female
One of eight women who completed the Ouray 100 (2021)