How to run 31 miles

This past weekend I traveled to Vermont to put preparation into practice and take myself for the longest run of my life, running the 50km (31 miles) course at the 25th annual VT50 Trail Run and Mountain Bike race. As a mere mortal, with a full time job and garden and life and pets and family stuff and other things to do…it would be fair to wonder how I managed to make it happen (I wonder too). I had some time to think as I made my way along the course, and here is what I came up with:

Commit. Soon after successfully completing my 20 mile leg of the Riverlands 100 Relay, I felt fool hardy enough to think about running further. I’d run the MDI marathon a few times years ago, before I got sick, but with my health restored, I’d stuck with 25km (15 miles) or less. I’d been toying with a return to a longer distance, just to see if I could do it. I contemplated heading back to Utah for another go at the Moab Marathon, but the timing just wasn’t right. Enter the Vermont 50, a venerable New England race, whose timing allowed me to peak my mileage just as the semester started and taper in the first weeks of the semester. Perfect.

My old school training plan. I need to see in the big picture. It hangs in my kitchen so I see it every day.

Train. If you’ve read me before, you know that training isn’t always my priority. Work, garden, dogs, family all get in the way of  otherwise solid training intentions. This year I started early, building on the early prep and successes of running Riverlands and Rockwood. I pretty much always got a long run in a week, and fit in a second shorter long run and shorter distances when I could. Throw some dedicated elevation work in there, mixed with a heavy dose of my favorite ingredient Recovery, and I was well on the way. Three weeks ago I suffered through a 25 mile run in Acadia testing out some new shoes, two weeks ago I put got in 5700′ of elevation on Katahdin, and then I took it real easy.

Set some goals. A friend and early running mentor advised that I should set three goals for every event (race, run, whatever) that was important to me. A conservative goal (a minimum goal you can feel good about), a medium goal (one you can be reasonably confident in achieving) and a stretch goal (a maybe). I find it is nice to keep these in mind during the event, and let them ebb and flow depending on how you are feeling the day of. The conservative goal is usually just to finish (and not die).  The medium goal is how I realistically think I will finish, and the stretch is something I could dream of on a really good day. I often underestimate myself. Maybe it is humility, maybe it is the chronic American woman lack of confidence syndrome, maybe it is just plain fear. Based on my performances in my training runs, I was hoping to average at least 4 miles an hour (15 minute miles on average over the course of the race, which was advertised as having 5600′ of elevation gain).

The course description said the elevation gain was 5600 feet. My watch logged 3600. That might have helped!

That pace would have put me at the finish line at 7 hours and 45 minutes (comparable friends running it a few years ago finished in 7 and a half). Even though the temps tagged 90 degrees in the afternoon on race day, making for some challenging conditions (especially in the direct sun), I broke 7 hours and came in a 6 hours and 57 minutes, achieving my stretch goal for the first time that I can remember. Doing the math and realizing it was a possibility out on the course kept me running every moment it was possible for me. A few seconds here, a few seconds there, every second counted. At the top of the final descent to the finish line, I looked at my watch and was pretty sure that I would come in under 7 hours, but I didn’t have confirmation until I saw the clock at the end. Having all the preparations come together shouldn’t have been surprising, but since the best laid plans are easily derailed it was a wonderful surprise indeed. I ended up 12th out of 35 in my class, and the fastest female 40-49 year olds ran the course in 5 hours and 33 minutes. Humbling.


Talk some smack. Critical step. Don’t omit it.







The breakfast of champions.

Eat a good breakfast. Go to any race or search out any online running forum and you will hear endlessly inane discussion of what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat etc. The reality is it is different for everyone. The only way to figure it out is to try different things. You’ll know soon enough if you chose correctly. I love the clean burn of simple sushi, and now that you can get it pre packaged at many grocery stores, I figured it was worth a try. For once I chose right.

It was hard for the volunteers to keep up filling drinks in the heat!

Drink as much Coke as you want. As a rule, I don’t drink soda. But about half way through the race, I wanted some caffeine to go with my  fluids, electrolytes and sugar (gatorade, fig bars and pretzels). Something about the sugary deliciousness of Coke invokes childhood and mischief, good sensations to have in the middle of a long stretch of nonsense.

And then there was this guy, ringing his cow bell and cheering us on.

Speaking of childhood, make some kid’s day and let them spray you with a hose, or put a sponge saturated with ice water on the back of your neck at an aid station (just remember to take your phone out of your pack before they do). The aid stations were run by volunteers, and much effort is made by the race directors to both keep the local community happy and to foster community spirit. Many race volunteers brought their kids along, kids who relished the job of wielding the icy sponge. Much of the course ran across private land, through people’s front yards. I encountered several people standing at the end of their driveways with hoses offering melting runners a refreshing rinse.

Along the lines of unofficial community support along the course, politely decline the beer offered at an unofficial rest stop midway through the course. I’m not into PBR or MillerLite anyway, no matter how cold they are but hearing bluegrass music filtering down through the trees as I made my way up some steep dusty single track was pretty awesome.

It wouldn’t be a run in Vermont without cows and dreamy little farms tucked onto every mountainside. Sigh….

Enjoy the view. We trail run because we like being outside. Don’t forget to look around and notice how tall the trees are, how many leaves have fallen, what birds are singing, how different the rocks are from home. It is the best performance enhancing drug there is.

He’d rather be home drinking tea.

Thank your support people. They put up with you driving to Acadia National Park to spend days on a long runs instead of with them. They looked the other way when you ordered another pair of running shoes. They accepted your apology after you yelled at them in the car when they neglected to give you directions when driving to Vermont. They agreed to come cheer you on, surprised you by showing up at a hot and sunny mid course aid station and drove you home after the race. You couldn’t do it without them, and don’t forget it.

Search out and expose yourself to things that inspire you. Do it enough and you will be caught in the slip stream of your dream, and the next thing you know, you’ll have a training plan tacked to your kitchen wall, and another long run to do.



Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.