How to Run 50 Miles Faster than Anyone Else on Earth

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This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

Since he graduated from college, Charlie Lawrence has worked hard to become an elite-level marathoner.

Like hundreds of other American runners, he has his sights focused on the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on February 3, in Orlando, Florida. For the past six years, he's put in long training miles with elite training groups under the guidance of several top coaches.

But he's always been intrigued by what lies beyond 26.2 miles. And with a bit of advice and encouragement from two-time Olympian and Boston Marathon champion Des Linden and two-time U.S. champion Fernando Cabada--both of whom have set records for 50K--he found out.

Buoyed by a huge aerobic base of fitness, the 28-year-old Boulder, Colorado, runner qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in mid-October by running a personal best 2:16:10 at the McKirdy Micro Marathon on October 14, in New York's Rockland Lake State Park. But last weekend, he might have found his true calling by running nearly twice as far.

On November 11, Lawrence broke the world record (pending) for 50 miles while winning the Tunnel Hill 50 ultramarathon in Vienna, Illinois, blazing the course in 4:48:21. Running alone while wearing a pair of bright pink and orange Nike Alphafly 2s, he averaged an astounding 5:46 per-mile pace and surpassed the previous record of 4:50:08, set in 2019 by American trail running stalwart Jim Walmsley on a time-trial course in Sacramento, California.

Lawrence fueled his run with Bare Performance Nutrition's carb mix and Go Gels, and also a few of HVMN's Ketone-IQ shots. He had been on 5:41 pace for the first 35 miles of the smooth, crushed gravel surface of the Tunnel Hill State Trail, but, as expected, the final 15 miles were a bit of a grind.

"It feels awesome, but it still hasn't fully sunk yet," he said. "It had been a goal for a while and I was confident I could do it, so I thought I'd take a crack at it. I knew if I put it together and executed my plan that I had a good shot at it. It was just the unknown after how it might feel after 35-ish miles that I was worried about, but it all worked out pretty well."

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Inspirational Connections

As a middle school runner in the fall of 2008, Lawrence convinced his mom to drive him from their hometown in Foley, Minnesota, to Minneapolis to watch the Twin Cities Marathon, which was doubling as a U.S. championship race. That morning, he watched a 26-year-old Cabada win the race in front of the Minnesota Capitol, which--after buying the same model of Reebok shoes that he saw Cabada wearing--galvanized his interest in wanting to run longer distances. He had no idea that he'd one day become friends with Cabada and be inspired by him to run even farther.

After focusing on the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances during his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, Lawrence began increasing his training volume and qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon with a 2:16:12 effort in his debut at the distance. That helped earn him an opportunity to join the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, one of the best marathon development programs in the country. And that's when he got to know Linden, who ran for the Hansons program for a dozen years through mid-2018.

A man in a white shirt runs around a turn and picks up a bottle
(Photo: Zack Lever/@TrailLive)

"We weren't ever teammates, but I introduced myself after I joined Hansons and we've stayed in contact," Lawrence said. "She's just been like a big sister ever since. It's been helpful to bounce stuff off of her and get her input."

Lawrence had a decent race at the 2020 Trials in Atlanta--finishing 61st in 2:20:40--but knew he could run faster--and longer. After moving to Boulder, Colorado, in 2021 to immerse deeper into training, Linden asked him to be her pacer as she attempted to break the women's world record for 50K (or 31.07 miles) in an April time-trial event. After running side by side with her as she set a new record (2:59:54), his interest in going beyond the marathon grew even stronger.

"He was a great pacer for the 50K, but I thought the opportunity was more about letting him see all the moving parts that went into the record attempt," Linden said. "We chat often and bounce around ideas about training, nutrition, gear--even fashion--and so on. He's one of the hardest working people I've been around, if there's anything he really needs help with it's knowing when to back off and when to do less. I'm not surprised at all that he's found a sweet spot in the ultra world."

Getting Stronger, Going Further

Lawrence got another taste of ultra-distance racing later that summer when he placed sixth in the 2021 U.S. National 50K Road Championship (3:09:10). But before he could target a 50-miler, he was diagnosed with a sacral stress fracture that took him out of racing action for most of 2022. He went through extensive treatments from Boulder physical therapist Kurt Roeser, also a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier, and invested in an $8,000 road bike and pedaled like a fiend to maintain his strength and fitness.

His diligence paid off because, when he got back to training with the Roots Running program under the guidance of Richie Hansen last fall, he was strong and able to layer on mileage. By early May of this year, he ran a new personal best for 10,000 meters (30:18.85) and was eager to target a fall marathon. But that's about the time he decided, after some back and forth with Linden, that his real goal would be to use a fast marathon as part of his training build for a fast--and possibly record-breaking--50-mile effort at the Tunnel Hill race.

With Linden's inspiration, Lawrence broke away from the Roots marathon-specific program and took a self-coached approach with much higher volume than he'd ever logged in the past.

Starting in late summer, he ramped up his weekly mileage to 135 to 140 miles for an eight-week stint and peaked at an all-time high of 145 miles for one of those weeks. He also did a lot of long runs at a faster pace, including several times running 20-25 miles between 5:24 to 5:45 pace at Boulder's 5,400-foot altitude. Instead of doing a 5 x 2-mile workout, he extended it to 7 x 2 miles.

"I've historically responded extremely well to high mileage and been able to handle a lot of volume," said Lawrence, who included that he does core strength exercises every day. "If you have that high mileage, it allows you to do the bigger workouts that you need to do to get ready for a marathon and, in my case, to run even longer."

The Call to Run More Than 26.2

Although the marathon seems to be having a revival since the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, ultra-distance races--essentially any race longer than the standard 26.2-mile distance--have been booming for the past two decades. For some, it's just an intriguing novelty, but for others it's the next frontier of their running career, a new personal challenge to pursue.

According to a report from the International Association of Ultrarunners and Run Repeat, ultrarunning has grown by 1,676 percent over the past 23 years and 345 percent over 10 years, bringing individual yearly participants to 329,584. The data also shows a higher growth rate for ultrarunning than, say, marathons since 2009.

While many marathon runners turn to ultra-distance trail races right away, Lawrence doesn't think he'll ever go that route. Instead, he's interested in pursuing the flat, fast ultras that extend the quick, consistent stride turnover like the marathon, only at slower paces. That's where runners like Camille Herron--formerly a 2:37 marathoner and U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier--has really made a name for herself, setting numerous American and world records from 50K to 100 miles, as well as in 24- and 48-hour races. (Herron broke the 100-mile world record on the Tunnel Hill course in 2017.)

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That's also where Cabada, now 41, has evolved his competitive running career and coaching business in recent years. Although he's still a strong marathoner--he ripped a 2:16:52 at Grandma's Marathon in 2022 after turning 40 to qualify for his fifth Olympic Trials--he began running 50K races in 2021 and set an American masters record for that distance by running 2:57:35, and became the first American to win the Winschoten 50K race (3:09:09) in the Netherlands in early September.

When Lawrence met Cabada in 2018, he told him the story about how he had watched him win the marathon in Minneapolis a decade earlier. They've kept in touch and, when Cabada started running 50K races, Lawrence would occasionally pick his brain. As it turns out, Cabada is the one who suggested he should target the Tunnel Hill race for a record attempt, mostly because it's a fast, flat double out-and-back course at low altitude.

"Over the last couple years, I heard him say he wanted to go after the 50-mile world record, and, whether or not I believed him at the time, that was big and bold," Cabada said. "But after the race last weekend, I texted him and said, 'I'm proud of you, bro! It was inspiring that, whether or not anyone believed you, what was important was that you believed in it, and you went after it, and you got it, and that's pretty awesome."

What's Next?

Lawrence is still eager to race in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Orlando on February 3, but he's realistic about his chances. While he thinks he can take a few seconds off his personal best, he's aware there are more than 90 runners who have qualified for the event with faster times than his.

He'll still have fast marathons on his radar next year, but he's more interested in seeing what other fast ultra-distance races he can pursue in 2024. That might mean the 89K Comrades Marathon or the 56K Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, or trying to make the U.S. team for the 50K or 100K world championships.

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"I'm a 2:16 guy and that's a good marathon, but it's not great," Lawrence said. "There are a lot of guys who have run 2:09, 2:10, 2:11 and 2:12, and I think they could run very good 50-mile races and 50Ks, too, but it's more than just running longer. I've learned that it's very much between the ears when it comes down to it, because you've got to play mental games and convince yourself that it's not that much farther and that you can hold a certain clip for the remaining miles."

What's his advice to other marathon runners who are intrigued about running longer?

"Take a stab at it," Lawrence said. "You've got to start somewhere by putting a race on the calendar and going to see what you can do. If you kind of know your limit at the marathon or at the lower distances, it's a new challenge to pursue. But start with a 50K. Don't try to start with a 50- or 100-mile race right away."

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