How I trained to run my first 50-mile race

Yesterday I ran my first 50-mile race and placed 3rd overall out of 401 participants. I had very limited time to train but put a lot of thought into the preparation. It was a rough one with several high points and a few very low points. I took the wrong turn at mile 17 and ran 1.7 miles extra. I ended up at the finish line at 51.7 miles in 7 hours and 26 minutes.

Below are a few notes about my race training, race strategy and actual race.

Race Training
In October, I ran the Long Beach marathon and trained pretty well for this so my weekly milage was a good base for this 10 week Ultra training. Initially I planned on running several 80-100 mile weeks in the mountains, which required a lot of time. There were also several other things going on in my life that required time and attention, like raising a 9 month old baby, running our own business Love vs Design during the Holiday season and launching a new photography print business Aika Collective. I made the decision to train and run smarter, not harder. It became my goal to find which minimal efforts were required to run a strong race and place top 5.

Weekly mileage
I analyzed different top ultra runners to see how many miles they run a week. Some guys train 100-200 miles a week, while others have won Ultra races training less than 40 miles a week. I read one study that there hasn’t been any evidence that training more than 70 miles per week is beneficial, it could even set you back due to higher injury chances.

Here is what I ended up running:
• 10/28 – 11/3 = 24 miles, 2900 ft elevation
• 11/04 – 11/10 = 23 miles, 1700 ft elevation
• 11/11 – 11/17 = 40 miles, 3600 ft elevation
• 11/18 – 11/24 = 42 miles, 4700 ft elevation
• 11/25 – 12/01 = 7 miles, 0 ft elevation
• 12/2 – 12/08 = 45 miles, 4300 ft elevation
• 12/9 – 12/15 = 64 miles, 5000 ft elevation
• 12/16 – 12/22 = 24 miles, 1800 ft elevation
• 12/23 – 12/29 = 49 miles, 400 ft elevation
• 12/30 – 01/05 = 20 miles, 700 ft elevation

Blood Lactate Test
This May I started using a Heart Rate monitor on all my runs. For several months I trained mostly aerobic at 180 minus my age = 31 = 149 beats per minute. I wanted to take my HR training a step further, so I met up with Gareth Thomas, a High Performance Coach at Sport Science Facility Trio for a Blood Lactate test. He had me run on a treadmill for an hour, slowly increasing the speed (and my HR) and poking my fingers for blood samples every 10 minutes. With these test results he created optimal training zones and specific workouts for training based on heart rate and speed.

Instead of only running aerobic (at or just below 149 HR), I focused my training on:
HR 135 – 149 (Aerobic) = 50% of my runs
HR 150 – 158 (Lactate Threshold) 25% of my runs
HR 159 + (AC, SST, V02 Max) 25% of my runs

Race Weight
The Avalon race has about 6500 feet elevation gain. Knowing this, I wanted to weigh as little as possible, because every pound of unnecessary body fat slows you down significantly. For my October marathon I was 142 pounds with about 9% body fat, this is something I wanted for Avalon as well. I continued to avoid eating processed carbs and processed sugars. Instead I’d consume lots of beans, lentils, veggies, fish, chicken, nuts, almond milk, coco nut milk, green tea and a lot of water. Besides losing weight, it also ensures my body metabolism burns fat instead of glycogen.

Practice Race
4 weeks prior to the race, I ran my longest training run ever in the mountains, 35 mile / 4800 feet elevation total, pretending it was my Avalon 50 mile race. I wanted to see if I could maintain a HR of 155 – 159 for 5 hours and only take gue gels, salt pills and water. This run felt great and gave me the confidence that my body could keep this up for 2 more hours.

Mindset
After my 35 mile training run, my body felt like it was in good shape, however I still had to mentally prepare for the unknown, mile 35 – 50. I reached out to several experienced and fast Ultra Runners like Jimmy & Kate Freeman, Dominic Grossman, Guillaume Calmettes, Billy Yang, Jack Rosenfeld, David Villalobos, George Gleason, Cameron Reilly, Derick Gallegos, etc. I asked 2 questions and received several great answers:

When things get tough for you in a race with several hours to go, what are your strategies to push through discomfort, pain and mental fatigue?

• Accept in advance that there will be tough spots that you feel uncomfortable and in pain. In the times of the low, remember it will only get better, stay strong and you will work through it.

• During the tough moments, you have to divert your mind to fixing the problems at hand. Try some more calories or salt or water, create small goals like “just run a ¼ mile good”.

• Run from “aid station to aid station” ie. digest the race into small chunks at a time so as to not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the distance you still have left to cover.

• Focus on your running form, take small steps, make sure your chest is open, breath out hard.

Is there anything you do differently now for a 50 mile race, vs your first Ultra?

• Focus on just doing the best with what you have on race day in you. No day is perfect, but your resolve to challenges can be. So, don’t get obsessed with a goal, but rather with good problem solving and a good attitude.

• Run your own race. At the beginning you feel great. Ask yourself from time to time, is this a reasonable pace.

• Focus a lot of attention on nutrition. Don’t eat when you feel you need it, take it like consistent.

• If you haven’t tried some aid station food in training runs, don’t touch it.

• Take 20 grams of protein every 3 hours.

Nutrition
Lack of consistent nutrition was a big mistake that most Ultra Runners run into. During the race I’d burn about 1000 calories per hour so at least 7000 – 7500 calories. Your body can only handle a limited calorie intake and your body fat stores will have to fill in the gab, eliminating the need to overcompensate with calories.

Several sites recommend that 240-280 calories per hour is sufficient for the average size endurance athlete. Taking in more calories can cause stomach issues and works counter productive.

My nutrition strategy was to take 1 gue and 1 salt pill every 25 minutes, drink 20-25 ounce of water and take eat part of a protein bar every 2 hours.

Race Day – Saturday January 11, 2014
My alarm went off at 3:45 am and I ate my standard breakfast of 3 eggs, 1 banana and a glass of coconut water. At the start line I met up with some Coyotes before heading to the front of the line for the 5am start.

Last years winner Fabrice Hardel took off with 6 minute mile pace and I decided to run my own race, especially after Jimmy’s warning for the first 4 miles with 1500 feet of climbing. As soon as my HR would hit 162 I’d walk for 10-15 seconds until my HR dropped to 156. About 20 people passed me before we reached mile 4. Over the next 9 miles I passed 10 runners with a pace of about 7:30.

Mile 13 – 19 is a steep and long downhill, I ran mile 14 in 5:45 and mile 15 in 6:10 faster than I should be going, passing 5 more guys. At mile 17 there was an inter-section with arrows pointing both ways, so I was unclear which direction to go, left was looking to go downhill, right was looking to go uphill. With no one in sight and no time to lose, I took the left turn.

I came from the left side in this photo and took the left turn.

After about half a mile this fire-road turned into a climb, but I should be going downhill??!!, maybe its just a short climb before descending further?!? I decided to run around the corner, now nearly a mile out and realized I had taken the wrong turn.

Initially there was a lot of anger going through my mind, why were the course directions so unclear, why didn’t I pay more attention, now I have to run 52miles instead of 50!! When you’re feeling like shit, remember it will get better!

Last week I bought a book called A Complaint Free World. It’s about how you can avoid complaining by changing your thought process to become more positive. This book came in handy for the rest of the race to try to keep my thoughts positive and leave this mistake behind, even though it was tough. While I ran back towards the intersection I laughed out loud while realizing I just lost 15 minutes, oh well, time to catch up on many more guys now.

Mile 19 – 27 was more climbing and down hills while passing some guys for the 2nd time now. Mile 27 is the Isthmus turn around point, so by counting the guys ahead of me, I realized I was in 5th place, better than expected. Around mile 31 I saw 3rd and 4th place guys ahead of me. At Little Harbor Aid Station mile 33.5 I only took 20 seconds to fill my water bag and passed them both.

Mile 35 – 46 was a long gradual climb that was runnable most of the way. I felt surprisingly strong, taking my gue and salt pill every 25 minute and drinking 24 ounce water per hour.

The last 3 miles was a steep downhill on a technical asphalt course. This was painful on my entire body but I was nearing the finish line. I hit the 50 mile mark on my watch at 7 hours 12 minutes and laughed about the extra miles I had to run. Ended up at the finish at 51.7 miles in 7 hours 26 minutes. I was beyond stoked to see my wife, my kid and Coyote friends at the finish line.

Ice bath in the ocean!

Next up
The last few months have been pretty nuts with lots of different projects going on. I’m going to take a recovery break from running and focus more time on my family and 2 start-ups. In Q4 2014 I want to run a 1/2 marathon in 1:18 and get in shape to run Boston marathon 2015. Right now I’m excited to eat as much as I can to get some lost calories back into my body.

Learn much more about RUNNING FASTER WITH LESS EFFORT! Many exciting articles in the works, be the first to hear about new posts, giveaways and exclusive content.  

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23 Comments

  1. Kelly van Schie January 13, 2014

    Fascinating to read. Incredible!!!

    Reply
    • floris February 6, 2014

      Thanks Kelly, glad you liked it! Looking forward to running with you and Fred sometimes soon!

      Reply
  2. Brad January 13, 2014

    Congrats! 3rd place in your first 50 mile race is impressive, good work buddy. Great blog post too, I learned a lot and inspired to step my game up.

    Reply
    • floris February 6, 2014

      Thanks Brad, much appreciated! Glad you learned some stuff from this post. Now that you’re on Strava Premium get a HR monitor already! Cheers

      Reply
  3. Michel January 14, 2014

    Congratulations…this is quite impressive…but when you know the father, you understand how the son can do that !!

    Reply
    • floris February 6, 2014

      Thank you Michel. My dad ran an 18k race in Holland this weekend, I hope to run like him when I’m his age. Have a good one! Cheers

      Reply
  4. Johnson March 9, 2014

    Great Blogs !!

    Inspirational

    I am interested in the mile by mile analysis which looks like some kind of iPhone app ?
    Is it an app that you use to record and then download the date ?

    Thanks

    Johnson

    Reply
    • Flo March 20, 2014

      Hi Johnson,

      Check out the app and website Strava, a lot of runners and bikers are using it. You can either use your phone to record, but I sync my Garmin data with HR monitor etc all into this program. Fun to see when and where your friends are running as well.

      Cheers!

      Flo

      Reply
  5. Bill March 26, 2014

    After meeting with the High Performance Coach, would you recommend trying the 50% Threshold/25% Lactate/%25 VO2 max plan for a marathon as well? If it worked for an Ultra, wouldn’t it be effective for a marathon with perhaps slightly altered percentages?

    Thanks.

    HR 135 – 149 (Aerobic) = 50% of my runs
    HR 150 – 158 (Lactate Threshold) 25% of my runs
    HR 159 + (AC, SST, V02 Max) 25% of my runs

    Reply
    • Flo March 26, 2014

      Hi Bill, good point. The breakdown of 50% Threshold/25% Lactate/%25 AC, SST, VO2 max can work well, however from my experience building a very solid aerobic base by focusing primarily on slow aerobic runs worked very well for me. By slowing down, over time you’ll become a faster more efficient running with the same HR. Once this is into place, then adding the faster runs will be beneficial. Adding speed work too early in your training, will not help build your aerobic base, it could actually slow it down.
      Hope that helps. Cheers,

      Flo

      Reply
  6. josh z April 10, 2014

    I don’t know how I came across this site but it’s very insightful. I train similarly due to a similarly busy life and have had decent success in tough races up to 50k. I am hoping to do a 50-Mile sometime in the near future but thought that 50k was about the limit one could push on such low mileage (I average 70ish when in a good block but those can be followed by a few months of 50ish, all with plenty of elevation change). Just out of curiosity what was the fall marathon time? if you don’t mind sharing.

    Reply
    • Flo April 10, 2014

      Hi Josh, glad to hear you liked it. That’s rad you’re thinking about doing your first 50-miler. Finding the time to get your miles in can indeed be a tricky one. The early morning or late night runs during the week + longer weekend runs can make up for some of it. My fall marathon time was 2:55, it was my first sub-3 hour marathon. Here is a little post with some training insight for that: http://www.flotography.com/how-i-trained-to-run-a-sub-3-hour-marathon/

      Good luck with your training!

      Cheers,
      Flo

      Reply
      • josh z April 12, 2014

        I know all about early mornings. Feels like I should have car stereo in my hands at the hour I usually get in my runs. Anyway, thanks again for sharing about your race. All the best.

        Reply
  7. Van August 9, 2014

    Very interesting reading.
    What were the blood lactate levels that you used in setting your HR training zones? I noticed that the upper end of your aerobic zone coincides with MAF formula – was this intentional?

    Reply
    • sildenafil February 23, 2015

      You have the monopoly on useful information-aren’t monopolies illegal? 😉

      Reply
  8. Flo December 31, 2014

    Hi Van,

    Good question, it’s funny but the LT test indicated a max aerobic HR of 149, and the MAF formula gave that exact same HR. This is definitely not the case for most people, but it was the case at that point.

    Cheers,

    Floris

    Reply
  9. Brittan April 3, 2015

    I love your positive attitude and enjoyed reading your training and runner stories. (marathon under 3 and first 50 miler).

    Reply
    • floris April 22, 2015

      Stoked to hear that Brittan, I think having a positive attitude is key, if you’re not having fun on your runs you’re not doing it the right way 🙂 Thanks and cheers!

      Reply
  10. Swire Ho January 11, 2016

    Floris,

    Great job. I would love to run at Catalina next year.

    I got into MAF training from reading your blog. Did you use MAF method or modified to fit your schedule for training?

    I’m training for my first 50 miles trail run in Big Bear Sept 2016, and been running with MAF for a couple of months now. I’m fine with the weekday “city run” with MAF heart rate, but on my weekend long run I like to train in the mountains with hill climbing. My MAF heart rate at 142 won’t allow me to run any hills, I can only do power hike at best.

    Did you keep your heart rate around 156 during the race?

    Please advice on some “hill run” with the MAF so I can start running them.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • floris February 5, 2016

      Hi Swire,

      That’s exciting you’re running the Big Bear 50 miler. Here is the thing that took me a while to get used to, with ultras, especially 50 milers and longer, you don’t want to run the hills. Seriously 50 miles is a long distance and running up hills just burns too much energy if your HR goes too high.

      Your much better off going up the hills aerobic or just slightly above aerobic (set an alarm on your watch to avoid having to look). Then on the downhill you can run it down fast, because your HR doesn’t go up high.

      Learn to hike up hills. Use it also as an opportunity to catch up on nutrition, eat something, drink something, etc. Slowing down will let you race so much smarter, you’ll thank me later in the race 🙂

      Have fun out there! Cheers

      Reply
  11. Michele August 17, 2016

    I came upon your blog while researching for 50 mile race. Great write up, particularly the mental preparation of running 50 mile. No one has ever told me that.
    Thanks for sharing all the pieces!

    Reply
    • floris September 26, 2016

      Thank you Michele, the mental preparation is definitely a very important part and I’m surprised everyone always focused mostly on the physical training only. Have fun at your upcoming race!

      Reply
  12. richard December 6, 2016

    Hi thank you for sharing you race experience! I also read your article on how to run a sub 3 hour marathon. It completely changed my training plan! I am 18 years old, currently a high school senior. Does that mean my max heart rate when training should be 180-18=162? I remembered the website that you recommended said I should also subtract 10 from 162 which should be 152? Should I train with 152 or 162 heart rate? Thanks!

    Reply

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