How I Prepared for a 50-Mile Race

by Liz Blair

Two weekends ago, I ran the San Juan Solstice 50-miler in Lake City, CO. It was my first time running 50-miles and with 12k+ feet of vertical gain. I knew there were going to be a lot unknowns: the biggest was wondering whether or not my body would make 50-miles.

How does one prepare for the unknown, particularly in a 50-mile trail race? My approach to training was rooted in balance: finding that fine edge between pushing too hard and not enough; racking up enough miles, but not sacrificing time with family and friends. Over the course of my training, I focused on three main areas: weekly mileage, nutrition, and flexibility.

Williams Creek on the San Juan Solstice 50-Miler, photo by Michael Remke

I knew that if I wanted to feel confident running 50 miles, I was going to need to put in some serious distance - but how to do it without injuring myself? I built mileage slowly until I hit 20+ mile long runs on the weekend. At which point, I incorporated other activities into the mix to prevent injury and mental burnout. For instance, I went on a backpacking trip with my boyfriend in the Grand Canyon for a few days, which ended up being excellent heat and elevation training. The following week, I was back on track with running with renewed excitement.

Nutritionally, I knew I needed a substantial amount of calories over the course of the race. I didn’t want to rely just on bars or gels, so I decided to experiment with different foods during my training. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m huge fan of oatmeal for breakfast. In fact, it’s the only breakfast that I can eat right before exercising. However, I have one friend who feels the exact opposite and prefers smoothies. To avoid overdosing on bars, I began bringing wraps with us on long runs - my favorite was a halloumi wrap from Trail Runner Magazine. Bottom line, use training as an opportunity to experiment and find what works for you.

When I say “flexibility," I’m not referring to physical flexibility; rather, flexibility in your training regimen. For instance, some days I wasn’t enthusiastic about running, so I recruited friends to keep me company. Other days I might have an offer to float the Animas River with friends, or entertain visiting family. While my Type A personality wanted to stick to the plan, I knew rearranging my running schedule to spend time with friends was much more important to my happiness. Learning to adapt to changing circumstances was great training for the race, as extenuating circumstances were likely to come up.

The Continental Divide Trail section of the San Juan Solstice, Photo by the author

What did this approach look like during the actual race? Nutritionally, I focused on getting electrolytes, mainly through Nuun tablets in my water reservoir. I ate more often in the beginning of the race, knowing that I may lose my appetite later on. I also focused on eating a variety of foods so as not to get sick of any one thing.

During the race, I regularly checked in with my body. How was digestion? How did my knees feel? Did I have a headache? For each aid station, I had a plan of attack in order to avoid lingering, which I feared would induce cramping. The check-ins allowed me to be proactive about potential issues (e.g. dehydration, blisters, etc…), which ensured I was mentally and physically feeling good for the full 50 miles. Fortunately, no major hiccups arose during the race - even the weather was perfect!

In the end, I was able to complete the full 50 miles and hit my goal time in the process without injury. If I were to change anything next time around I’d focus on getting more elevation during training. With 12,000+ feet of elevation gain, it’s hard to get enough. Overall, the SJS50 is a doozy of a race, but the scenery and volunteers make it well worth it. I’d absolutely run it again!