How To Train For It:  Big Turtle 50 Miler

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

This post is the first in a new series of blog posts titled “How To Train For It.”

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.  

Interested?  Let’s do this.  Remember:  “How To Train For It” will focus on a single race distance.  Here we will look at the Big Turtle 50 Miler.  Future posts will explore the 50K, 10 Miler, and other races.

Big Turtle 50 Miler

We already did an exploration of the Big Turtle trail races in our “A Bigger Turtle Than We Thought” blog series.  That series of posts reviewed the aspects of the race that were difficult and unexpected from the runners perspective and the event organizers’ perspectives.  You can read Part 1 of that blog series HERE.

Let’s start with what the locals already know and what we have already talked about in other blog posts:  the weather.  The 2018 Big Turtle 50 Miler takes place on April 21st.  That means that the weather can vary greatly, and we may not know exactly what the weather will look like until a week or two beforehand.  Mid- to late-April can be anywhere from freezing to scorching.  So how do we prepare?

Prepare For Every Possible Weather Scenario

It will be essential to prepare for every possible weather scenario as you progress with your 50 Miler training.  In addition to the temperature, we also need to consider precipitation and what the other factors will mean for ground conditions.  Will we be dealing with mud, standing water, or extremely dry ground?  It’s all part of one big package, so let’s cover a few considerations when it comes to weather preparation.

Run In All The Rain

It goes without saying that in any race you should be prepared to run in the rain on race day.  We’ve already established that April temperatures can cover a vast spectrum at the Big Turtle.  So what do we do if it rains and we end up with a cold day?  What do we do if it is hot and we get a steamy, warm rain?  This is where experimenting with your gear will pay off in big ways.

If it rains between now and race day, go out for a run.  It doesn’t matter how cold it is.  Go for a run.  Try out what jackets, shoes, and other gear work best at keeping you dry AND warm.  If we get an unseasonably warm day in March or early April, go for a run.  See just how hot that rain jacket makes you if it is 70 degrees out.  You cannot do enough experimentation in the lead up to the Big Turtle 50 Miler.

Remember, also that the 50 Miler is a long day for most of us.  So it may be cold in the morning when we start the race and warm up significantly.  Practice shedding your layers mid run.  How will you pack it in?  What clothing items are the most “packable”?  That long sleeve shirt that you love to wear on cold mornings might not be the best option when it comes to stuffing it in your pack later in the day.  What is it like to pack up your gear when everything is soaking wet?  Try that out!  

Spring in Kentucky is a wet season, so it is a safe bet to plan on some rain.  In 2017 we all got lucky with a very dry and sunny race day, but we won’t always be so lucky.  Also try running your shoes when they are wet, especially on technical trails.  The last five miles of the course are very technical with a lot of short ups and downs as well as several pretty rocky sections.  It will save you a lot of stress (and blisters) if you know how to run in your shoes over technical terrain when those shoes are wet.  Are you going for a long run but the weather is really nice?  Go ahead and pour water all of your socks and shoes anyway to simulate those rain conditions.  It may sound weird, but having experience running with wet feet will give you an advantage on race day.


On a rainy day, grab the gear you plan to race in and find a section of trail you can run on for at least two hours.  Pack everything you think you might possibly need on race day.  Also, wear a rain jacket.  Then go on a run for at least two hours.  This will give you a chance to practice running while the rain is coming down.  It will also give you chance to experiment with the following:

  • How will you keep important items in your pack dry such as extra socks, batteries, phone, etc.?
  • How will you pack up your jacket if you get too hot?
  • What gear irritates your skin when wet that does not irritate you in dry conditions?

Get Hot

One of the reasons so many people found the heat at the 2017 Big Turtle 50 Miler so unbearable was that they did most of their training in cold weather.  That’s just how the calendar works, right?  So there we all were:  smack dab in the middle of a 50-mile race in 80-degree temperatures and our warmest training run had been 55 degrees.  

Do some training runs in hot conditions.  I realize that not all of us have access to an indoor gym or fitness center with a treadmill.  If you do, however, then this can be an extremely advantageous tool for you.  Hit that treadmill!  Better still:  hit that treadmill with some cold weather gear on.  If it is cold outside but you are training for a potentially hot race trying throwing on some pants and a long sleeve shirt and go for a hard run on the treadmill.  You just want to get some experience with your body and how you will respond when you start to get overheated.  Do whatever you can to get some experience running when you are uncomfortably hot.


Find a treadmill if you have access to a gym.  Dress like you would for an outdoor run in 20-degree weather.  For me, that would be long tights on my lefts, a long sleeve compression base layer shirt, a heavy long sleeve shirt, and a hat.  We can leave the gloves off for this workout.  

Run this:

  1. 10 minutes at an easy pace to warm up
  2. 20 minutes at a harder, almost tempo pace
  3. 10 minutes at that easy warm up/cool down pace

If you do not have access to a treadmill or indoor track and still live in a cold part of the country, try to find any warm, indoor facility and do a similar cardio workout to get your body working hard for 30-40 minutes.

Go Long Without Help

Elk Lick Aid Station:  Mile 17

Terminus Aid Station:  Mile 25

Elk Lick Aid Station:  Mile 33

You’ve got that right.  That is 16 miles with ONE aid station.  This took a tremendous toll on many 50 mile runners in 2017.  This section of the race is a long haul with very little aid.  For most runners, this is also done in the warmest part of the day.  You’ll need to know how much water you’ll consume and how much you need to carry.  You’ll need to know how you will respond both mentally and physically if you are in the middle of this stretch and you run out of water with miles still to go before you reach an aid station.  

Also, you have some decisions to make when you reach the Elk Lick Aid Station at mile 17.  How much water will you take?  If you were carrying bottles up to that point, do you swap those out for a bladder?  Do you pick up an extra bottle?  Do you stick with what you’ve got?  

How long will it take you to cover that 8 mile stretch between aid stations if it is hot?  How long will it take you if it is cool?  How long will it take you if it is raining?  There isn’t a lot of climbing on that section, but it is not flat either.  The course through here remains on top of the ridge, so you’ll need to estimate how long that will take you, how much water and food you’ll need, and how hard you’ll need to push to stay in front of the cut off times.  

Remember:  you need to reach the Terminus aid station and get turned around by 3:00 pm.  Then you’ll have two hours to get back to Elk Lick before that aid station’s 5:00 pm cut-off.  Here’s the kicker:  push too hard toward the Terminus chasing that cut-off and you might not have enough gas left to get back to Elk Lick in time.  


Find a 4-mile section of trail that has at least one climb of at least 400 feet.  Run that route OUT AND BACK.  This will give you a solid 8 mile stretch of trail with no aid whatsoever.  Replenish your supplies when you get back to your starting point.  Then run that 4-mile out and back section again.  Try to get each 8-mile trip done in under 2 hours.  

If you are not yet up to running a 16-mile day, do not worry.  Do this workout now but limit it to a single out and back run of 8 miles total.  Come back several weeks later when you have built up your mileage and make two trips 16 mile total.  If you can do two out and back trips over your chosen four miles of trails (4 out, 4 back, 4 out, 4 back) in under four hours then are in great shape to deal with that section of the Big Turtle 50 Miler course.

What Do The Vets Say?

Experience counts for a lot in trail racing.  Here are some thoughts on training from a few Big Turtle 50 Miler veterans.

Amy McDowell

Raleigh, North Carolina

The Big Turtle was my first attempt at the 50-mile distance and truth be told, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I consulted my ultra running friends, put together a training plan and spent weeks agonizing over the runner guide. I live in North Carolina and couldn’t spend any time on the actual course, so I tried to mimic the elevation profile and it’s effect on tired legs by doing long runs on the road on Saturday (usually 12-26 miles) and shorter long runs (8-14 miles) on single-track on Sunday. Those Sundays were tough. I was often very tired (both physically and mentally), but I think it was good practice for the moments in the race where I just felt fatigued and needed to keep pushing on. I also tried to experiment more with real food that I was likely to find on the course - fig newtons and PBJ sandwiches. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to eat gels and chomps all day long without some serious repercussions and I’m very glad my body was used to those items before race day. 

I would say the one thing in the race I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it would be to keep running in the heat. After about the 30-mile mark, my walk breaks became longer and longer. I didn’t have a crew or a pacer, so it was all on me to get myself running again and that became harder and harder as the day wore on. This year I’ll be bringing a friend to pace me, but if that isn’t possible, I think I’d suggest recording some videos of friends and family motivating you to keep going. I was receiving texts all day and checking my phone every once in awhile was sometimes the only motivation I could find to keep moving. 

Jessica White

Mount Sterling, Kentucky

Last year’s Big Turtle was my first attempt at a 50-mile trail run.  I made the decision to register in January and that winter and spring leading up to the race would introduce me to the wonderful world of trail running and its community.  Having only been a road runner, I had a lot to learn.  I purchased new shoes, hydration packs, new clothes, toe socks, and several Ultra running books.  I listened to podcasts and talked to more experienced runners. I had so many questions and had no clue what I was doing.  Fortunately, I live close to the trailhead so nearly every weekend for 4 months, my pacer and I hit the trail, building up to 35 mile long runs and covering every mile of the course.  During these runs, we practiced with nutrition, talked race strategy, and made a lot of mistakes.  At peak training, I would run 60-75 mile weeks and strength train twice a week.

After a 2-week taper period, I feel like I made it to the start line fresh and ready.  I knew the hills of the course would be the most difficult aspect for me as a new trail runner.  I think knowing the course helped me more than anything.  With a goal to simply finish and make the cut offs, my plan was to save as much energy as possible for the last 10 miles of the race.  However, I was definitely not prepared for the sudden 80 degree temperatures and high humidity that eventually took me out around mile 35.  Inexperience and improper nutrition got the best of me.  The last mile I completed took over an hour.  I was dizzy and could hardly stand up.  The DNF broke my heart but it ended up teaching me so much more than I had expected.  I’ll be back for another shot at the Big Turtle.  Having another year of training and races under my belt, I plan to cross the finish line this time!

Ariela Flory

East View, Kentucky

  1. We followed Hal Korner's 50-mile training plan... the back to back long runs served us well.  We decided early on in training not skip runs, and we didn't.  We changed the order occasionally within the same week.  But stuck mostly to the plan with the flexibility to meet our other obligations.  
  2. Mentality... We never thought about not finishing. A DNF was not an option.  Always spoke in positives i.e. "when we run 50"  "when we finish" "we are running our first 50-miler" There was never the option in our minds to do anything but finish.  We set a goal and then went out and attacked it. 
  3. Finding a training partner that holds you accountable is very husband and I train and run as a team, so when one isn't into it we help motivate each other to keep going.  It also helps that we aren't both typically in a "dark" spot at the same time.  
  4. Practicing competition... we did several marathons, double marathon weekends, and 50 Ks leading up to last April.  We used those races as mostly "training runs" with a competitive edge.  Doing that eased nerves on race day.  We had been at so many start lines leading up to the race, that it felt like another training run, just longer! 
  5. NUTRITION...It is hard to replicate the needs of hour 8-10 when the longest you typically train prior is 30 miles or about 5 hours.  We trained on GU and other gel type substance.  Getting solid food down was difficult, especially in the heat.  I feel that nutrition was definitely a shortcoming in our training.  We tried to eat PBJ sandwiches during the race, but they were too dry to get down.  That being said Lucky Charms from the aid station hit the spot around 35 miles:)
  6. Weather...Since the race is in KY, you know the saying don't like the weather wait a few minutes.  It was unseasonably warm last year, training through heat, then cold, and even rainy situations improved mental toughness that helped us be mentally ready for the fact the weather was an uncontrollable element. Knowing your gear inside and out helps, know how our clothes perform helped us dress appropriately.  
  7. Drop bags...we over packed them.  Took everything we could think of.  We should have picked up lube at our last drop bag for the home stretch because our sweat really started to dry and chaffing got intense.  
  8. Post race..we were going to drive home, but we had to wait on drop bags to get back and wanted to see others finish. We ended up looking for a hotel around 10 that night.  Everything in Morehead was sold out.  We drove home 3 hours and got home around 1 am....worst planning we did. 

Lessons learned at Big Turtle 50 miler

  • Train consistent
  • Think positive
  • Eat right leading up to the race, during the race, and practice with what will be at the aid stations/what you are going to bring
  • Can't change the weather, know how to dress for it...write temperature ranges down and clothes that worked in that range
  • Drop bags - preplan, know what you don't want to be without, get extra socks, lube, clothes if needed
  • Have after race plans finalized, get a room

Bob Luther

Huntington, West Virginia

Specificity of Terrain and Long Runs

The Big Turtle 50M throws a ton of varied terrain at those who decide to take the out and back on the Sheltowee Trace.  Specificity in training is key.  Since rugged single track comprises the majority of the miles, I put in all of my long runs on trails that mimicked those portions of the Sheltowee.  These runs were mostly easy but I also like to ratchet up to a tempo pace late in my long runs.  Besides adding focus, the quicker pace forces me to run hard with time on my feet.  On race day, this really pays off.  Another way I take advantage of my long runs is to knock out a  tempo run the very next day.   A friend once told me, the benefit of the long run is in the last mile and that's when its time to go to work.  The same can be said for the day after a long run.  Don't waste those tired legs.

Train for the Heat

Last year's race was brutally hot.  April in Kentucky is unpredictable.  I like to switch up to some afternoon runs to avoid the cool mornings and adjust to the spring heat.  Find out what works to keep you cool.  I prefer a bandana of ice around the neck.  Even a few runs can start adapting your body to the warmer temps and show you what works for race day.

Speed Work

Even for a 50 miler I spend one day a week on speed work.  For one, I enjoy running fast and two, the variability pushes my fitness and gives clear progress markers through the course of my training plan.  Speed work isn't just hitting the track though.  It's also trail repeats on a tough climb or 6 minute pick ups for time during my daily run.

In our next “How To Train For It” post we will explore training approaches for the Big Turtle 50K.  Join our mailing list to be notified every time a new blog post is published.