How To Train For It:  Big Turtle 50K

Tricks, Tips, & Suggestions For Running The Big Turtle 50K

In the “How To Train For It” blog posts we will take a deep dive into a specific race distance to explore training tips, suggestions, and even sample training plans from the Race Directors and past runners of that race.  The “How To Train For It” blogs will include sample training plans put together by the Race Directors along with actual training plans used by runners in their current or past training cycles.  

Big Turtle 50K

The Big Turtle 50K trail race presents some unique challenges.  On one hand, it is an out and back.  So that makes it easier knowing that the second half of the course is something you have already seen.  Right?  Maybe not.  But it has a 12-hour cut-off which is super easy.  Right?  Maybe not.  There is a long section of gravel road where 50-mile and 50K runners can go really fast.  Right?  Maybe not.  Let’s see what it takes to train for the first ever Big Turtle 50K.

Patience:  The Mental Game

50K and 50 Mile runners at the Big Turtle get a nice, healthy dose of gravel forest road running.  Many trail runners will moan and groan at this.  Others may look at it as a chance to relax and recover while letting the miles tick away.  Still, others may see it as a golden opportunity to gain some serious ground.  Regardless, you will first have to decide what your goals are for the race and what you are going to do with the relatively flat sections of gravel (and a very short section of paved) road.

If you are a competitive runner, the forest road along FS-977 will be a great opportunity to open it up and really check off some miles.  The trick is pacing it correctly on the way out so that you have some gas left in the tank on the way back.  If you are a mid-packer with specific goals but aren’t chasing at top finisher spot, this will be a great opportunity to recover from a tough first 5 miles on the way out.  On the way back, it can be a great chance to regain some ground if you’ve fallen behind your goal pace or if you’ve had to adapt your game plan due to other unforeseen circumstances.  

Here is what you cannot do in this race.  You cannot allow the gravel road section to bore you.  You cannot allow it to frustrate you.  It is part of the course and must be met just like every other challenge.  Whether you look forward to that type of terrain or dread it you must have a plan for getting through it.


Find a long section of gravel road.  An actual Forest Service road will work, but any gravel road will do as long as the gravel is not too big.  The smaller the gravel the more accurately you will be simulating race day circumstances.  Find a long section and go out for a LONG run.  I’m talking 15 miles (or whatever you consider a long run).  

NOTE:  This is not intended to be a fun workout.  Instead, this is intended to get you used to running on terrain and in circumstances that are less than desirable.  If all you ever do is run where you absolutely love it and have tons of fun you won’t be mentally prepared for the gravel grind on race day.


The Big Turtle 50K obviously doesn’t have as much total elevation gain as the 50 Miler, but it does have some significant climbing.  In fact, the middle section of the race from roughly mile 11 to mile 20 is particularly challenging.  This is due to the relentlessness of course at this point.  On your way out after crossing the highway at mile 11, you have a steep descent to Big Tom Brown Branch.  Then across Holly Fork Road you climb over the ridge and descend to Dry Branch Road:  your turnaround point.  Then, instead of getting a break, you must turn right around and do it again.  If your plan was to gain ground on the gravel sections from mile 20-25 you’ll need to make sure you don’t beat your legs to oblivion in miles 11-20.


Find a trail that will give you a good solid 400’-500’ hill where you can also find some flat section nearby that extends for several miles.  That flat sections can be a gravel road, a paved road, or even a well-groomed flat trail.  Just make sure it is something that you can run for 2-3 miles without significant elevation change at a pretty fast pace.  Let’s say faster than your race pace.

Start off by running that 2-3 mile section of flat at that fast pace (or pick another pace that is challenging but not an all-out HARD effort).  Record the time it took you to do that flat.  That will be your goal for doing it again later after you’ve done your climb repeats.  

Next, now that you’ve recorded a fast 2-3 mile effort, hit that climb FOUR TIMES.  Up and down.  FOUR TIMES.  Then go back to your flat section and try to run the same time you ran before your climb repeats.  The goal here is to still have “legs” left despite a hard climbing effort.  This will prepare you for climbing back up out of Big Tom Brown Branch at mile 20 and still feeling good enough to really “roll” when you hit the road.

Downhill On Tired Legs

Perhaps the most brutal, steepest, and most challenging descent of the race comes in the last mile.  Of course, it does, right?  We call it Heart Attack Hill, and you will climb it early that morning.  Coming down it at mile 31 is the truly hard part.  The challenge here is not just how late in the race it is.  It is the fact that the four miles leading to that point from about mile 26 to mile 30 are the most technical of the course in terms of rocks, roots, and overall challenging terrain.  As you begin to descend the hill at the end your legs are extremely fatigued from the recent beating they took from the trail leading up to that point.  You must be able to control yourself on the descent.  You don’t want to be like the rest of us that make it all the way back to Morehead unscathed only to fall down Heart Attack Hill and gain new scars.


This one is simple, but focus portions of your cross training on increasing the muscular strength in your legs.  That means squats, box jumps, leg presses, and other leg strengthening exercises.  You don’t need a gym membership either.  Body weight squats are perfectly acceptable and incredibly beneficial.  

Additionally, focus on your core.  Leg lifts, planks, crunches, and other core strengthening exercises will help you maintain balance and complete control of your body during that final descent.  

Finally, practice running downhill A LOT.  Especially in the shoes you plan on wearing on race day.  I’ve found that a large part of being a successful downhill runner is having footwear that you trust and can handle the terrain.  The final descent into campus toward the finish line is slick with loose dirt and slate-like rocks that slide against themselves to make your footing very uncertain.  You’ll need footwear with good grip.  Not just big lugs, but GRIP.  The best shoes I’ve worn for that particular descent are my La Sportiva Helios shown in the right.  However, that doesn’t mean that they prevented me from busting my ass.

What Do The Vets Say?

Experience counts for a lot in trail racing.  Here are some thoughts on training from a few Big Turtle marathon veterans from 2017 (C'mon it’s ALMOST a 50K!).

Kevin Lashley, 2017 Big Turtle Marathon Winner

Bowling Green, KY

I used the Big Turtle marathon as a training run for a 50-mile race I had coming up a month later. About 5 weeks before Big Turtle I had just run my first 50-miler and was still in good shape but needed a few long runs before leading up to it. So in preparation for the marathon I continued running 2 workouts a week as well as 3 to 31/2 hr long runs each weekend including the weekend before the race. One of my workouts each week was a hill workout that was about 4 miles of uphill work and the other would be k's or mile repeats. I didn't train much on trails at the time but it would've been a great idea. My plan for the race was to use it as a workout and whatever happened, happened. I was not familiar with the trails there at all so I ran the first HILL and each after that. Do I advise that? NO! My overall experience with that race was awesome and yes I recommend it. My biggest take away from that race is to take what the day gives you and that goes for all races. I should've hydrated a little more but nutrition and body was fine overall. Yes you do have some elevation change with the course but with a few long runs out on the trails I think you'll be prepared.