For most Americans, the marathon is thought of as the ultimate in endurance. Of course, most Americans have never run a marathon, many have never run a 5K, so the idea of running 26.2 miles sounds downright impossible. And since the marathon is the longest running event in the Olympic games, for most it sounds like the limit of human endurance.
But trail and ultra runners know better. 26.2 miles is an arbitrary number, created in the 1908 Olympic games (in London) so that the start could happen at Windsor Castle and the finish would be on the track at White Stadium. And as the marathon has grown in popularity, with personal best times frequently used in by-lines for running articles, it has become seen less and less as the ultimate in endurance for many runners, with the 50-miler taking it's place.
I know 50 miles isn't the ultimate in endurance. There are, after all 94 100-mile races in North American (not to mention the 135-mile Badwater and Arrowhead races). But 100 miles is a completely different beast than the shorter races, and isn't attainable to everyone who might participate in a marathon or 50-miler. And 100 miles is much more than just running; for most it involves sleep deprivation and constant problem-solving - a nasty combination.
There is a lot of problem solving in a 50-miler, but even if you spend 12 or 13 hours out on the trail, sleep deprivation doesn't really come into play (although you will certainly at times just feel like curling up and taking a nap). So it is the next logical step beyond the marathon.
And let's face it, marathons have lost their luster: they've become clogged with walkers and 6-hour finishers there to raise money for charity or cross an item off their bucket list. It no longer holds any exclusivity, as the bumper sticker says, "You ran a marathon? That's cute."
50 miles on the other hand, is no joke. Even the fastest runners take over five hours to complete it, and most 50 mile races aren't won in less than six, since they are usually run on trails. A four-hour marathoner will usually take 10-11 hours to complete a trail 50-miler, depending on race-day conditions. There's no chance to go do something in the afternoon afternoon after the race.
Training for a 50-miler can be a daunting task, but once you've done a couple marathons, you learn to be flexible with your training, which is exactly what a 50-miler demands. There are very few "training plans" for a 50-miler, since each race is different and the axiom of each running being an "experiment of one" is never more true than in distances beyond 26.2.
Here are some resources, though for those interested:
My review of Bryon Powell's Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons
Kevins Sayer's Ultra Runner Resource site: www.ultrunr.com
Have you run a 50-miler?
How does it compare to the marathon?