Thoughts from runners on why the just-more-than-a-marathon distance is so much fun.
Jenny Jurek, a working mom of two, grinds up Little Chinscraper during the 2019 Chuckanut 50K. (Photo Credit: Glenn Tachiyama)
For a lot of runners, the 50K is the first ultramarathon distance they run. It’s longer than a marathon (by about five miles), but it’s not so long that it feels unattainable. At the starting line of a 50K, you’ll find everyone from weekend warriors to elite athletes—it’s the kind of race that breaks down barriers and invites everyone to the party. We called up four runners—some who’ve just finished their first 50K, others who have run many—to ask: What do you love about the 50K? Here’s what they said.
Apparel designer, mother of two young children, New York Times bestselling coauthor of the book, North, about her husband, ultrarunner Scott Jurek’s journey running the Appalachian Trail
For me, with a 50K, you can still have a life, work a full-time job, have a partner, and be a contributing member of your social circle. It doesn’t have to consume your entire weekend. You run a marathon, and you’re like, I wonder if I can run an ultra? I remember everything about my first 50K, which was many years ago at the Cle Elum 50K. … It was my first trail race. I remember thinking, This is so beautiful. It was hot, then cold and muddy. I was wearing these baggy shorts. I remember feeling like it was my scene: people were so supportive, so encouraging. It was just a really good time. I was hooked right away.
After a 50K, you feel like, OK, what’s next? What else can I do? Every bump up—to 50 miles, or 100K, or 100 miles—is significant. But somehow you do it. It’s a good feeling to know you can do something beyond what you thought was possible. It’s galvanizing. You’re tougher than you think you are. You’ve got grit.
Some of the things I love about the 50K: I feel in the moment, present. It’s social, fun and relaxed. For me, I’m a back of the pack person, and with a 50K, you can be a junkshow, and it can still be fun. For me, the 50K is always the first race of the season. You’re shaking things out, getting a sense of where your fitness is, or isn’t. Plus, it’s over quicker than, say, a 50-miler or 100K. With a 50K, there’s usually a fun party after, everyone hangs out. You hear everyone’s war stories, like, Oh, that mud section was so heinous. You get to commiserate and congratulate everyone.
I always feel like the end seems farther than I want it to be. I save music and a caffeine gel for the end when I desperately need it. You want to finish strong. It’s going to feel hard at some point, but you’ve got to push yourself to keep moving. Just keep going. Keep your head down and plow through. It’ll pass. I always say: This too shall pass. That mud section, it will pass. All these things that are annoying, they too will pass.
Cross-country runner at Southern Arkansas University; founder and race director of Texas Outlaw Running Company
I wanted to see how far I could go, explore my boundaries. So I signed up for my first 50K last June in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I’d just turned 19. I could barely sleep the night before the race, I was so excited. On the starting line, I knew I was going to be out there a lot of hours. I just thought, This should be an adventure, it should be fun. I also reminded myself: Do the tortoise and the hare method and be the tortoise. Don’t go out too quickly.
Along the way, it felt like all of us, running together. We were getting to know each other. It helps when someone else is there suffering with you. At mile 23, I was dying and I still had eight miles to go. I got to this place where I felt a pain I’d never experienced before, just pure physical exhaustion. I could barely walk up the hills. Quitting wasn’t an option: I was going to finish. I believe before you even start, you have to say, I’m going to finish this thing. So, I decided to just rejoice in the pain, saying, Yeah, this sucks, and that’s OK.
At the finish line, I had a choice: I could either celebrate or cry. I didn’t know what to think. It was such a long day, such an amazing experience. It took a while to sink in. Later, I was like, I can’t believe I did that. In a 50K, you learn new things about yourself. I learned that my body can go farther than I thought it could.
Two-time World Mountain Running Champion, 11-time USATF Mountain Runner of the Year
It’s a great race for the simple fact that it’s only 8K past the marathon distance. It makes sense for people who are new to ultras. It’s not such a crazy jump to the ultra world, but it will still stretch you mentally and physically. If it’s a new distance for you, be patient. You don’t want to be dying at the end. It’s a long way to be running. To be bonking through the last few miles is never fun. Be smart about your pace. Don’t ruin the experience by starting out too fast.
Gratitude will get you through to the finish. Remember, this is an opportunity, an experience. Appreciate the moment. You’re in the midst of a race, yes, but try to keep it in perspective: You’re just having a good time in the mountains or open spaces. When you have the finish in sight, know all the hard work you’ve put in, all the miles, all the sweat, have allowed you to get there. That’s a reward, getting to the finish. It reminds you that hard work gets you places. I love digesting the race afterward, thinking about the lessons I learned, reflecting on the ways I could have done better. Absorb it, celebrate the fact that you just did something big.
You’ll have a lot of tasks that come into your life that you need to plan for or make sure you have the means to achieve. It’s the same thing when you’re running a 50K: If you trained well, if you had a good strategy for fueling, then it’ll go well. When things don’t go well, it’s a moment to reflect, to learn something about yourself. Don’t take it as a complete negative. You learn a lot when you fail, even more so than when you win.
One thing I always tell people: Sometimes when we’re so focused, or we’re so serious on race day, maybe we’re not as friendly as we normally would be, or we’re too focused on ourselves. It’s important to be kind and respectful. There was this guy I came across on the trails. I was completely bonking, just thrashed. He gave me water and fuel. I’ll never forget that. It pays to be nice to others.
Nonprofit data analyst in the education field; won the first 50K she entered
My first 50K was last year at the Sylamore 50K, a couple of hours from where I live in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a race that’s notorious for having bad weather. Being in Arkansas in mid-February, you get a bit of everything. Last year didn’t disappoint. It was 7 degrees at the start. Within the first mile, you’re wading through a creek, laughing at each other, thinking: Why are we out here? I was trying to think of it as an adventure and a learning experience. I was chewing ice from my water bottle. It was silly but also fun.
I’m not a competitive person. I’m not saying it’s nonexistent—seeing people out there definitely brings out a competitive streak—but the cool thing about trail races is you’ve got to run your own race. Everyone is so spread apart, it’s hard to see others. So, you’ve got to be out there for yourself.
My favorite thing about aid stations? Pickles. Really, it’s the other runners and friends volunteering who give me such a lift. I spend more time than I should at aid stations, because I get caught talking to people, giving out hugs. I spend the last half of every race thinking about what I’m going to eat afterward. Usually, it’s pizza. Sometimes, on long training runs, I’ll order food to be delivered to my house while I’m still on the run, so then I know it’ll be waiting for me when I get home. That gives me that extra motivation.
People have your back out there, even when you forget your water bottle or your gels, like I did in my last 50K. I realized a half mile in that I didn’t have what I needed, so I sent an urgent text to friends and at the next aid station, and someone came to my rescue. Find friends or a group of people who are doing the same race, or on a similar training cycle. Having people hold you accountable, encourage you to stay motivated, and cheer you on at the race makes all the difference. I couldn’t do any of this by myself.A 50K feels accessible. It’s not a 100-mile sufferfest. Whatever your goal is, it gives you a way to work toward that. I always think, How lucky am I to be out here? I try to just enjoy it and soak it all in. I think staying thankful not only helps me run better, but it helps me have more fun out there. It’s hard to be mad when you’re out in nature, surrounded by friends, moving your body, and doing something for yourself.
After having run [my first 100-miler] Brazos Bend in December 2016, I signed up for my first 50K—The Hat Run. This was a late-March race on the east coast, and the day was really hot and humid. The course has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and that was something I hadn’t done before. It was a really challenging experience for me—with the heat, the climbing and probably being under-trained.
I met several people on the course who I’m still friends with today. For example, about 10 or 15 miles into the run, a woman asked about my prosthetic. It turned out she was formerly a prosthetist at Walter Reed—the hospital where I’d recovered from my leg injury and amputation. (Editor’s note: In 2007, while disarming an improvised explosive device or IED Adam was injured by a secondary IED, which resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee.) We spent the next hour running together, and I learned she was formerly a professional triathlete and that she worked at the Delaware Veterans Affairs—she had this really incredible story.
I meet interesting people in most of the races I run. Most of the people [I run with] are pretty interested in running, but there are deeper connections, too. I remain very close friends with the woman [I met on The Hat Run] and we’ve done other events together. I ended up finishing third-to-last that day; I also got lost, had cramps due to the heat, and fell in a sticker bush …It was very challenging, but I think that’s one of the things about ultrarunning—challenging one’s self and building resilience for the next challenge, whether it be in running or life.
You might have a lot in common with people you run with, and there’s also probably a deeper story there. A lot of times my story is more visible, so people may find it easier to find a conversation around my prosthetic. … Just remember to embrace the experience and the people you’re with. I’ve met a lot of lifelong friends through running—specifically in my first 50K and other ultra events. Get to know the people around you and enjoy the experience.
Earlier this year, I ran my first ultra, the Antelope Canyon 55K, in my hometown, Page, Arizona. Page is a border town to the Navajo Nation Reservation. I’m Navajo and I grew up on the reservation, and so I already knew this run was going to be pretty important to me since it was set in my hometown and homeland.
I grew up on every inch of the course and I felt like I knew it like the back of my hand. Page is a small town and as children, teenagers, and then as parents, we spent a lot of time hiking, running and UTV-ing the trails around Page. I didn’t really worry about the race from that perspective.
When it came down to it, the race went way better than I thought it was going to go! I knew from friends and siblings how difficult running an ultra can be. And I’m part of Native Women Running, and I’d heard women share how difficult ultrarunning is. You know, they always say, ‘You run the first part of it with your legs and the rest of it with your heart.’ I really took that in …
The starting line of the Antelope Canyon 55K is at a sports complex where I played softball my whole life. The comfort I felt in that setting almost erased all [of those race-day jitters]. I usually run with music, but this race just felt different. I felt like I was home and this is where I was meant to be. I didn’t end up using music. I just felt like the trail was talking to me. It was like, This is where you went sledding down a sand dune; This is where you had your first campout; This is where you’ve gone rappelling. I didn’t need any distraction because the land was there, reminding me of all the things I’d done.
I surprisingly made it to mile 13 without any drama. I surprised myself and that, in and of itself, pumped me up. I had a race crew that my husband was part of, and every aid station felt like a party. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought I’d just put my head down and grind!
I got so lucky because I had family and a crew, and I saw neighbors along the way. All their words of encouragement—You can do this; You’ve got this; We’re proud of you, Angel—the community of it all just blew me away. I never thought I’d be able to [run an ultra] and to have it go so well made every training run worth it.
What do you love about running 50K? Tell us in the comments below.