Marathon and Beyond


by Jeff Hagen

If You Think a 24-Hour Race is Tough, Try Two of them in Tandem.

© 2001 42K(+) Press, Inc.

For those of you who have moved far beyond the marathon distance to participate in 100-mile or 24-hour races, the journey to discover your personal limits is not necessarily over. If you have been able to sustain or even pick up the pace at the end of a day-long event, you have probably wondered if you could have gone on for several more hours. Does this sound like you? If so, a 48-hour race might be your next step toward satisfying your curiosity about how many miles you can accumulate in one event.

First a warning: a 48-hour race is far more than twice as difficult as a 24-hour event. There's something about that second night on the track or road that wreaks havoc on a runner's body and mind. Mental toughness is essential for a successful 48-hour experience.

Now that you've been warned and are still interested, you probably have some questions about doing a 48-hour event. Here are some common ones:

  • 1. How much training is necessary?
  • 2. To sleep or not to sleep?
  • 3. Are planned walking breaks optional?
  • 4. What about pacing and split times?
  • 5. What should I eat and drink during the race?
  • 6. How do track courses compare with road courses?
  • 7. What is it like running through the second night?
  • 8. How much damage will the race do to my body?

    How Much Training Is Necessary?

    The training mileage you'll require to run a 48-hour race is basically the same as you need for a 24-hour race. For elite runners, that translates to 100 miles or more per week, while for some of us training renegades it means no more than 20 to 25 miles per week. Increasing training mileage beyond the 24-hour training level is probably futile, as it's not possible to train the body to run 150 to 200+ miles on reserves alone. Other factors, such as pacing and walking strategy, play a much greater role in 48-hour races than they do in shorter races.

    It helps when training for a 48-hour event to do occasional workouts on a bike path that has mile markers or on a track, to practice your walk/run strategy for the race. This will accustom you to the walking and running pace you intend to use during the race.

    To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

    Because the 48-hour race serves as the transition between single-day and multiday running events, it's not surprising that the sleep issue is prominent. Most runners trying to accumulate high mileage during a 24-hour race attempt to run the event without significant sleep. On the other hand, virtually all runners in a 72-hour race take one or more major sleep breaks. Three days is just too long for most people to go without sleep.

    The 48-hour event lies at the center of the no sleep/must sleep spectrum. Some runners try to run for two days without sleep, especially if they're shooting for a record, but most runners choose to take one or more naps ranging from 30 minutes to several hours. I have done it both ways. In a November 1993 race at Gibson Ranch in Sacramento, I took a 90-minute nap the first night, followed by a 10-minute nap the second night on my way to a 213.75-mile performance. In November of 1999 at the Texas A&M 48-Hour in College Station, I took only a few 7- to 8-minute naps during the second night, en route to a 216.41-mile total. Either way seems to work, but it's a good idea not to schedule the sleep breaks rigidly. It's most efficient to run until you can't keep your eyes open and then take a nap. Decide ahead of time how long you intend to allow yourself to sleep, and ask a crew person or bystander to wake you at the right time. (If you plan to wake up on your own, you might snooze your way through the remainder of the race and not wake up until the middle of the awards ceremony.)

    Are Planned Walking Breaks Optional?

    Almost everyone needs to have a planned walking strategy for a successful 48-hour race. Yes, some runners can complete a 24-hour race without walking, but virtually no one tries to run 48 hours straight (with a notable exception in Yiannis Kouros, the 48-hour world record holder). Anyone who tries to run nonstop for two days is likely to find that the second day is as pleasant as being staked to an anthill for 24 hours.

    The key word in any planned walking strategy is "planned." It's terribly inefficient to walk only when you're too tired to run, and doing so will lead to disappointment in a 48-hour race. Planned walking means that the walking breaks need to be scheduled, and it's important that you start them early in the event.

    If you have had success with a walking strategy in 24-hour races, use the same basic strategy in your 48-hour race but increase the length or frequency of the walking breaks. A greater proportion of walking is necessary to provide adequate rest for the 48-hour event. For example, in a 24-hour race, I walk four minutes per mile, starting at the second mile. In a 48-hour race I walk five or six minutes per mile. For both events, I reduce or eliminate my walking breaks near the end of the race, when I start my "finishing kick."

    At the Texas A&M 48-Hour in November 1999, I virtually eliminated my walking breaks with seven hours left in the race. This was earlier than normal to stop walking, but through mental math I had realized that if I could run more than 35 miles in the last seven hours I could break the North American men's 50 to 54 age-group record. But there's no way I could have put forth that much effort at the end of the race if I had not been walking at least five minutes per mile for the first 41 hours.

    Other 24-hour runners prefer a plan that calls for less walking, such as running 25 minutes and walking 5 minutes. While this is not nearly enough walking for me, many of the runners who use this technique are national-class competitors who have had good results with it. Converting this technique to the 48-hour venue might consist of running 15 or 20 minutes and walking 5 minutes, or perhaps running 23 or 24 minutes and walking 6 or 7 minutes to maintain the convenient 30-minute total.

    What About Pacing and Split Times?

    As in any other race, two basic philosophies apply for pacing in a 48-hour event. One is to start fast and try to hang on, while the other is to start conservatively and then pour it on at the end. It should come as no surprise that in a two-day race you should strongly consider the conservative start. Starting too fast usually results in a miserable second day, and there's a good chance that you'll quit early.

    What kind of splits should you shoot for? Ideally, the splits would be even, but this rarely occurs. However, in the January 1993 Gibson Ranch 48-Hour in Sacramento, Ron Kovacs ran identical 24-hour splits of 101 miles for a total of 202 miles. In the same race, Jim Drake ran 129 miles the first day and 84 miles the second day, as he set a new North American men's 50 to 54 age-group record with a total of 213 miles. In my 1999 Texas A&M race, I ran 112.9 miles the first day and managed to cover 103.5 miles the second day as I pushed hard to break Drake's North American record.

    By sticking to a good walk/run strategy, the splits should take care of themselves. But if it appears that you're heading for a 24-hour personal best during the first day of a 48-hour race, it might be a good idea to back off on the pace to save something for the second day.

    What Should I Eat and Drink During The Race? The longer the race, the more important eating and drinking become, so it should surprise no one that proper intake of food and fluids is critical in a two-day run. There might be a bit of good news for runners who often have stomach problems in 50-mile and 100-mile races. When I was in my 30s and early 40s, I used to boast of a cast-iron stomach. But now that I am in my 50s, I routinely have bouts of gastric distress about 50 miles into a 100-miler. However, I have had no stomach problems during recent 48-hour races.

    The ability to digest food seems to be closely related to running pace. I have discovered that the slower pace of a 48-hour race enables my body to assimilate fluids and process solid food more easily than it does during the faster paces of shorter races. The key to the slower pace is the long walking breaks. Walking allows the heart rate to drop and, in turn, enables the body to shunt more blood to the digestive system. Walking breaks are also a good time to eat and drink because it's hard to literally eat on the run.

    Most 48-hour aid stations offer much more than the standard "cookies, bananas, and crackers" fare found at 50K and 50-mile races. Having "real" food such as baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, fried chicken, or pizza is a welcome treat at dinner time, and I look forward to oatmeal in the morning to start the second day right.

    To this I add some favorite high-calorie snacks, such as milk shakes or ice cream, to ensure that my body doesn't run short of fuel. Whatever you decide to eat, if you tend to have stomach problems when racing, eat small portions to avoid overloading your digestive system.

    Dehydration is a concern, as it is in other ultramarathons. However, I have found that the slower pace makes it easier to absorb fluids and maintain hydration levels. I used to think that a large part of this was because most 48-hour races are held during the cooler times of the year, but at the Texas A&M race a November heat wave pushed daytime temperatures into the mid-80s. Carrying a bottle of ice water in an insulated bottle carrier and drinking frequently throughout the race, I was able to stay hydrated. To avoid electrolyte depletion, it's a good idea to supplement your intake of water by drinking an electrolyte solution periodically. Make sure the brand used at the race agrees with you, or bring your own favorite brand to the event.

    How Do Track Courses Compare With Road Courses?

    Two-day races are usually staged on a 400-meter track or on a longer loop course. The latter are sometimes on roads and sometimes on jogging trails in a park. Typically, these longer loops are approximately a mile in length, give or take a half mile.

    An advantage of track races is that they are more predictable, because one rubberized track is essentially identical to another. Minor variations may occur between tracks, such as access to rest rooms, lighting, and exposure to the wind, but all are flat with similar running surfaces and one aid station. Some runners might add that all track races are monotonous, but others like the constant access to crew, rest rooms, and aid station.

    The main disadvantage of track races is the shortness of the laps, which makes lap-counting tedious for both counters and runners. Computerized lap counting, when available, is more runner-friendly. The tight curves on a track can also be a problem because of the torque placed on knees, ankles, and hips. Most 48-hour track races provide periodic reversals in running direction to balance stresses on the joints.

    Forty-eight-hour road courses are usually more scenic, such as the one-mile loop around a duck pond on the original Gibson Ranch course in Sacramento. Another advantage of road or bike-path courses is that the turns are usually more gentle than on a track. Disadvantages include less-frequent access to aid and rest rooms, a road surface that usually is more firm than is found on a rubberized track, and the possibility of small hills that eventually seem like mountains.

    Your walking strategy needs to be adjusted on road courses to compensate for hills, wind direction, and changes in road surface. The ideal place to walk would be uphill, against the wind, on the joint-busting concrete sections of the course, but rarely do these three elements coincide.

    It's an advantage for a 48-hour course to be very simple, so runners can follow the course "mindlessly" when their ability to think begins to deteriorate. Sometimes, however, the courses turn out to be very interesting and challenging. At the Texas A&M 48-Hour Race, the course consisted of three complicated loops in a park, with a total distance of 1.547 miles. Part of the course involved a concrete sidewalk, with occasional toe-stubbing ledges. Another portion was a winding brick cobblestone path bordered by mud on the first day, which dried into ordinary dirt by the second day. Running the tangents would have involved going from brick to mud to brick to mud, so most of us just stayed on the bricks, which meant we ran more distance than we got credit for. A third section of the course was a cross-country route over uneven ground, which was tricky at night. Finally, there was a trail section, which had been laid over an old pipeline of some sort. About every 10 feet were two-inch-long metal rods sticking out of the ground in the middle of the trail, apparently part of the joints in the old pipeline. There were also some hills on the courseónot big ones, but they "grew" as the race went on. This was a course on which I had to pay constant attention to avoid going off course or tripping on an obstacle.

    Choosing between track and road courses is almost a moot issue. There is little room for runners to be picky because only a handful of 48-hour events are offered each year in the United States. If you want to try a 48-hour event, just select one that is convenient for you. Either type of course has advantages and can provide a very interesting race.

    What Is It Like Running Through the Second Night?

    Almost everyone I've talked to who has run a 48-hour race stresses the trials of the infamous "second night." That's when a runner's brain can turn to mush, and self-doubt and hallucinations become common.

    In the January 1993 Gibson Ranch race, both Jim Drake and I could have sworn that trees and stop signs were chasing us. The course lights created shadows that appeared to move as we ran, but at that point in the event, we were so tired that it seemed real. The Texas A&M race provided special challenges. To fit this on-campus race into a weekend in the middle of a semester, the race director started the race at 7 o'clock on Friday night and ended it at 7 o'clock on Sunday night. Because it was November, it had been dark for an hour when the race started. Although streetlights illuminated parts of the course, the cross-country section was quite dark, so I carried a flashlight for the first 50 or 60 miles.

    The second night was easier than usual, perhaps because it began only 23 hours into the race. The big challenge came at the 47-hour point, when darkness enveloped us for the third time in the event. During the last hour of the race I was running very hard, but it was difficult because my eyes refused to focus properly. Part of the problem might have been the inner-ear condition I've had for the past 8 years, which has affected my balance. Whatever the cause, not only the trees but the ground itself seemed to be moving. On the cross-country portion I tried carrying a flashlight, but this created even more moving shadows, so I finished the race running the uneven terrain in the dark, essentially from memory.

    If you find that trees are "chasing" you in a 48-hour race, this might be an excellent time to take a nap. A short snooze could be all you need to bring you back to the world of the living. On the other hand, some runners might say that being chased by stop signs is cool and choose to enjoy their altered state of mind until it disappears with the next sunrise.

    How Much Damage Will the Race Do to My Body?

    Make no mistake about it: a 48-hour race is a grueling event that should not be taken lightly. If you do everything right and are lucky, you might be able to walk to your car after the event, but it will be painful. By way of comparison, a maximal 48-hour effort makes a 24-hour event seem like a walk in the park. The 48-hour event could even be considered a type of medical test for determining the weakest parts of your body because during or after the race these weak spots are likely to make themselves known.

    My weak spot happens to be my left eye. Twenty years ago I contracted a bad viral eye infection. Since then it has recurred only twice: once the week after the November 1993 Gibson Ranch 48-Hour and once a couple of days after the 1998 Across-the-Years race in Phoenix. The last episode resulted in corneal scarring in my left eye, with permanent vision loss. An ophthalmologist determined that I have inadequate tear production in my eyes and running for 48 hours in cold, dry air apparently had dried my eyes enough to allow the virus to reactivate. Now I apply eye drops frequently when I run ultras, and I've had no recurrences.

    At the very least, running a 48-hour race will diminish your immune response and make you susceptible to infections for several weeks after the race. My inner-ear problem has had a major impact on my life due to unpredictable episodes of severe dizziness and significant hearing loss in one ear. The condition first appeared when a virus settled in my inner ear a few days after the 1991 Gibson Ranch 48-Hour. I had run the race before recovering completely from a cold, which was unwise, and I'll be paying for this mistake for the rest of my life.

    Adequate rest after a 48-hour effort cannot be stressed too much. Take a few days off work and just relax. I failed to heed this advice, and I picked up those infections. Also, your sleep pattern might be disturbed after running for two nights, so a few days off lets you rest when you need to. In any case, don't even think about running for at least a week while you're recovering. Even if your legs don't hurt, they probably will feel "dead" for weeks or even months. In 1998, I ran five 24-hour races and one 100-mile trail race in a period of six months, with no adverse effects, but the extreme effort I expended at the Texas A&M 48-Hour last November left my legs feeling sluggish for more than six months. It seems prudent to avoid entering any significant races until you feel fully recovered from your 48-hour race.


    A 48-hour race is a fascinating and demanding event that determines your physical limits in a way that shorter events can't. It is also a good way to test the ability of your mind to function under extreme stress.

    If you don't have an abundance of natural speed but feel strong at the end of 24-hour events, an event of twice that length might be your race. The only way to know for sure is to find the nearest 48-hour race and sign up. But be aware of the hazards involved in a race of this duration, and prepare to allow for adequate recovery time after your effort. And for those of you who find that a 48-hour run is an insufficient challenge, you can always sign up for a six-day race to test your mettle.

    This article originally appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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