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Successfully Transition From Road Marathon To Trail Ultra

by Joel Hatch

For many road runners finishing a marathon is the ultimate accomplishment. It can take months or years of dedicated training, sacrifice, and dietary discipline to reach the holy grail of 26.2. This is a big deal! You should be proud of yourself for finishing this daunting physical and mental event, right? Of course you should, but it’s likely you are already looking for another marathon so you can improve your time or you have a wall full of marathon medals. If this is you, that runner who is forever curious and looking for the next challenge I have a modest proposal for you, run a 50k trail race. Yes I know it’s only 5 more miles than a marathon, but the added distance combined with variable terrain will present you with a new and rewarding challenge. To get you well on your way, here are my top 4 tips to successfully transition from road marathon to trail ultra.


When I talk to new trail runners it’s inevitable that frustration with pace will come up in our conversation. A person who normally runs 8:30 pace will likely see a drop in pace, like 9:00 – 9:30 pace, due to the variation of a trail. It’s difficult to maintain the steady output due to rocks, roots, steep hills, and the social visits with other trail runners.

If the slower pace wasn’t already frustrating enough then wrapping your head around the concept of walking will certainly be hard to grasp. For most trail races in the Mountain West, there will be a variety of climbs you’ll experience from gentle rolling hills that are runnable to monster 4000 foot climbs that require a mix of running and hiking. Knowing when to transition from a run to a walk/power hike can mean all the difference in finishing a race with a good time or dropping out of the race with blown quads. Walking the uphills allows your heart rate to recover, reduces leg muscle fatigue, and it’s a great opportunity to take in some calories. And if you’re still not convinced about walking then take solace that most of your fellow racers will be walking as well, even the front runners walk sometimes.


All that marathon training is the perfect base for the leap to trail ultra. I asked Ty Draney, a Patagonia sponsored ultra runner and coach of the 7 time state cross country champs at Star Valley High school in Afton Wyoming, what is the best workout to add to your training and he recommends “back to back long runs”. Coach Draney likes the back to back long days to help build run specific strength needed for the extended time you are going to be spending racing on trails. What does a week of training look like with back to back long runs?  Here’s an example of what Coach Draney had me do in July of 2016 in preparation for a fall 100 mile race:

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: 30 minute Power Run

Wednesday: 70 min Easy Run and then 10 x 100 meter Strides

Thursday: 90 min Easy Run

Friday: Rest

Saturday: 15 hilly miles

Sunday 20 hilly miles


The slower pace of the trail ultra gives you a bit more wiggle room in consuming calories from solid foods. A slower pace means the blood flow shunt from gastrointestinal to muscle extremities is not as pronounced as a faster marathon pace would produce. The extra blood flow to the gut means you can train your body to take on “solid calories” which is a welcome reprieve from the sugar bomb gels.

Since you’ll be spending more time on the race course for a trail ultra you’ll need to adjust your caloric intake to match the energy requirements. A general rule of thumb states you’ll need 150 – 300 calories per hour during a trail ultra race. Those calories can come from gels, sports drink mixes, or solid food like PB&J squares, boiled potato, or one of my favorites watermelon.

Aid Stations

In a trail ultra race, aid stations (AS) are generally placed every 4-10 miles depending on access and trail difficulty.  You’ll want to study the race’s AS spacing, carry enough calories and hydration to support yourself between AS. As you’re approaching an AS you should start making a mental checklist of what you’re going to need in terms of calories, hydration, clothing change if you have drop bag at the AS, or if you need to take care of any blisters be prepared to ask for help.

With your mental checklist prepared before entering the AS, you can be efficient and move quickly out of the AS. Getting out of the AS fast is important because many runners get distracted by the buffet style food, the friendly volunteers and the dreaded comfy chair that can suck you into a 10 minute break.

Race Recommendations

Along the Wasatch Front we have several excellent trail marathons/ultras perfect for the first time road marathoner.

Logan Peak Trail Run – Held the last Saturday in June, this 28 miler starts runners off with a steady 4 mile climb that is perfect for practicing your power hike. The views of Cache Valley for the top of Logan peak are beautiful and the descent to the finish is a barn burner. More information on Logan Peak can be found here: http://www.buffalorunadventures.com/logan-peak/

El Vaquero Loco 50k – This is hands down one of the prettiest race courses I’ve ever run! The high alpine lakes and the carpet of wild flowers will make you forget the 7000 feet of climbing. El Vaquero Loco runs through the high peaks of the Salt River Range in Afton Wyoming and is held the first Saturday in August. The race will sell out quickly so it’s best to sign up early. More information on El Vaquero Loco can be found here: http://www.tydraneyendurance.com/el-vaquero-loco/

The Skyline Marathon – With over 500 feet of climbing this trail marathon is a great way to transition into the trail ultra scene. The 3000 foot climb up the backside of Ben Lomond will be covered in wild flowers and the occasional moose sighting. After climbing up Ben Lomond you’re treated to a steep 4 mile descent to the AS where you can fill up on salty potato chips and top off your water bottle because you’ll have a 2000 foot grunt on the south Skyline trail that overlooks Pineview Reservoir. The finish line for the Skyline Marathon is at the old town park in Eden Utah where families can await your arrival. The Skyline Marathon is held the third weekend in August.   More information can be found here: http://runtheskyline.com/

The Mid-Mountain Marathon- this classic trail marathon starts at Deer Valley and rolls along the Mid-Mountain trail for 26 miles and descends to the finish at the Utah Olympic Park. The AS are spaced about 4 – 6 miles apart which means you can carry less supplies between AS and the finish line party is fun and family friendly. The Mid- Mountain Marathon is held the third weekend in August.  More information can be found here: http://mountaintrails.org/event-race-mtf/mid-mountain-marathon/

Joel Hatch      Owner of Bomber Athlete and co-host of the podcast TrailManners

Trail Runner

“My first taste of trail running was inadvertent in nature. At first running down the trail was a fast means of escaping the high country after climbing in the Tetons in the late 90’s. Soon it became a way to pass the time between the ski resort shutting down and waiting for the local crags to melt out. Eventually trail running replaced snowboarding and climbing as my sole obsession.

Since the late 1990’s I’ve run trail marathons, 50k’s, and 100 milers. Even though I’m an aspiring mid-packer, I’m the sports biggest fan. I love everything about trail running from the old-school races like El Vaquero Loco to the hoopla of Western States 100.”

Joel is the Owner of Bomber Athlete where the focus is on developing durable athletes for mountain sports. Joel is also the co-host of the TrailManners podcast, a weekly show dedicated to all things trail running.

This is one of several great articles from Run Utah Magazines 2017 Summer Edition. Check out our other great articles below.

Hayden Hawks Interview: The Life of an Elite Ultra Marathoner

Hayden Hawks was an elite collegiate athlete that graduated from Southern Utah University. While in School he specialized in the 5k and 10k, running 13:51 and 28:53 for those events. He still lives in Southern Utah and trains as a professional ultra marathoner…  READ MORE

Feeling Overly Fatigued While Running? Low Iron or Vitamin D May be the Culprit

Do you have excessive fatigue with your running? If you do, you should consider seeing a physician to have blood work done.  The most common causes of fatigue in athletes is poor nutrition, sleep problems, underlying medical problems, iron deficiency, and Vitamin D deficiency.  When seeing patients experiencing fatigue, I usually check a panel of labs to look for underlying causes as well…  READ MORE

The Top Ten Voted Trails in Utah

Summer is the perfect time of year to get out the door and run. Trail running is a favorite in Utah due to Utah’s incredible scenery and well maintained back country trails. With the vast number of trails throughout the state many runners find themselves constantly exploring new places to run trying to find the perfect trail. If you fit this description look no further…  READ MORE

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 13th, 2017 at 9:21 am and is filed under Run Utah Magazine, Summer 2017 Edition, Utah Running. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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