Running a marathon can be a life changing experience. First, you developed the courage to call yourself a runner and sign up, next you completed a long and rigorous training program, and lastly you put everything you had into crossing the finish line. Just ask any marathoner, the sense of accomplishment earned is well worth the struggle. But what’s left for those runners who are looking for more? Fortunately, there’s a platform for these runners to explore their limits. From a personal experience, when I crossed the finish line of my 3rd marathon I distinctly remember thinking to myself “Wow, I feel like I could keep on running.” The place to keep on running is on the course of an ultra marathon and they are more common than you may think, well, at least the 50k distance is. There are several distances to choose from when selecting ultra marathons; however, here we will discuss the shortest ultra marathon length. No it’s not running a marathon than jogging to the car, although I applaud you for the hustle. The shortest ultra marathon distance is the 50k. So, let’s explore the difference between a marathon and a 50k and see if it’s the right fit for your next race.
Is the 50k distance a long marathon or a short ultra? That will depend on the coarse. The mileage difference is approximately 5 miles. If you’re running a flat road 50k may seem more like a longer marathon where you run at a slower pace and eat more. On the other hand, most 50k runs are found on the trails with many more quick hills and elevation gain than a marathon. On this type of course is where you discover the real nature of an ultra marathon.
Whether it be a technical mountain side, quick rigid trails, flat soft gravel, or long hilly roads, the type of terrain will seem like the biggest difference of all. Finding yourself running up a city street during a marathon as compared to finding yourself trekking up the side of a cliff on a technical narrow trail will be an absolute culture shock unless you’re ready for it. In like form, marathons mostly consist of long straightaways’ whereas most 50k runs are found along trails with turns and climbs that are much more steep and fast. But keep in mind that some 50k ultra marathons are flat. If you decide to make the transition your best bet is to view the course description on the website and choose a layout you’re most comfortable with. Although, the word “comfortable” quickly disintegrates during any ultra marathon. So here’s my word of advice: just find a course description that sounds somewhat “doable”.
The number of minutes it takes to cover 1 mile, or pace, will change between a marathon and a 50k, especially throughout the last 5 miles of the race. When stepping up into the 50k arena the most effective and efficient way to pace is to slow it down a bit. For the majority, ultra marathons tend to be less about speed and more about extremely intensive endurance, relatively speaking. Nevertheless, for most of us if we go out too fast then we can expect a vicious payback later in the race. I’ve been there and I’ve done that, seduced by the lore of your race day adrenaline creating one deep hole to dig yourself out of.
Aid stations certainly vary between a marathon and a 50k, but you know what, they also vary between a 50k and a 50k as well. A marathon aid station typically utilizes nothing more than water, sports drinks, and a few gels with a line of volunteers holding out cups. If you’re lucky you’ll catch someone handing out oranges or something similar within a few miles from the finish line. On the other hand, while running a 50k, and depending on the course, it’s likely you’ll find an aid station table or tent filled with an abundance of food and drinks. Although, for the more low-key events you might be required to bring your own fuel. Another consideration is the length in between aid stations. During a 50k the aid stations may be more spread out so it’s imperative to carry extra fluids whether it be with a handheld water bottle or a hydration pack. This type of gear is an essential add-on to anyone’s 50k race day wardrobe. In like manner, you may need a hydration pack to fill up at aid stations anyway. Many ultra marathons are environmentally friendly as they take place in national parks and restrict the use of plastic cups. Furthermore, littering is absolutely unpermitted in these parks and will even disqualify you from the event. There is over 250 million tons of litter produced within the US each year, everyone’s contribution helps to the greater good.
Gear also varies between the two distances. As previously stated, a hydration pack or handheld will be most beneficial. Gaiters are also a fan favorite in the ultra world. They connect and cover the upper section of your shoe to prevent any debris from finding its way in like gravel or pieces of sticks. A small rock in your shoe at the beginning of a race will eventually feel like a big boulder towards the end. Minor irritations can become big problems during an ultra marathon because of the prolonged time spent on your feet but fortunately these problems are avoidable with the proper gear.
I think breaking into an ultra running state of mind is important. Before the point of crossing the finish line of an ultra marathon most of us were programmed by the repetitious thought patterns of 26.2 miles being the maximum distance. But these beliefs have no physical characteristics so try to break up the pattern of thought. This can be done by reading articles and books or listening to podcasts or watching documentaries all on endurance athletes breaking down amazing barriers. As you step into the world of super endurance sports suddenly these once unfathomable distances become a bit more realistic providing just enough hope to take the plunge. Remember, even the greatest athletes in the world were once beginners at some point in time. Your time is NOW.
As you see, the differences are not so abundant between a marathon and a 50k. Sure, it takes more time and effort but isn’t that true about anything worth doing in life? With this information, you can now see the potential is real. You see, knowledge itself shows you the possibilities but knowledge with execution shows you results. The knowledge is now yours for the keeping. Ready to execute?