Lessons From 50k Base Building – The Wall, Nutrition, Mindfulness, and the Golden Pace

Most athletes are familiar with the formula to successful training cycles: base, build, peak, taper.

Think of the base portion as letting your body adapt to the distance before you get to the speed work (build). If you’re training for a half marathon (13.1 miles), you’ll run that distance…slowly… sometimes several times a week. It takes a lot of discipline: you’ll want to push your pace, but you have to hold back. A lot of important and complex things happen physiologically during the base phase (the mitochondria, which are organelles in your cells that basically do all the energy processing, get larger in preparation for the intensity of speed work), so it’s a crucial step you can’t avoid.

In music, this is similar to the conditioning work a musician does on a piece. If a performer knows they have a large musical work to perform in the near future, they’ll spend weeks playing it slowly (sometimes while they’re still working on a previous program), internalizing the fingerings, analyzing the piece, studying up before they begin the drilling, technical, and tempo work.

This past summer, I’ve been base building for running 50k (31 miles). There’s a distinction between base building for a distance you’ve raced at and a distance you’ve never raced at. I learned some very important (sometimes painful) lessons along the way. I found them as applicable in artistic settings as in athletic. The first…

The Wall

When your body hits the wall, it hits the wall. It doesn’t matter if you have 1 mile left or 10. You will battle for ever step of that distance. And by the time you feel it coming, it’s too late. Something happens in your brain, that central governor, when it decides on its own that it will turn against you and there’s nothing you can do to convince it otherwise. Inflammation spikes, pain levels rise to unmanageable levels, and your whole body starts fighting you in turn. If you’ve never spent any time pushing past the wall (in any discipline), you haven’t lived.

“You have to almost trick your mind that you are invincible and that you are going to finish this,The ultras allow you to do something that’s awesome, but you do it at your own pace. You don’t have the pressure to finish in a certain time. As long as you’re finishing, it’s considered awesome.” (What Happens To Your Body During An Ultramarathon).

The take-away? You cannot test and train your willpower before you hit the wall. Your growth happens after the gut check. Are you preparing for competition? Preparing to launch your startup? If you’ve never seen your team, your mind, your body operate at its breaking point guess what: you’re not ready.



As most beginner athletes learn, there’s a point at which your body can no longer operate on stored calories, and you switch from bringer a bottle of water on your run/bike/swim/hike to bringing calories. Athletes who cross into ultra distances have to deal with an additional issue after they cross a line several hours into training: the loss of sodium, calcium, and electrolytes. Going on a long run? Starting at dawn and finishing before lunch? Bring a few gels and some water. Coming home closer to dinner? Better figure out how to replace those other nutrients and rebuild your base with a solid fueling plan (lots of math and planning)

The take-away? There’s a point where what you have with you is no longer sufficient. When I began my teaching career I had decades of experience watching great teachers and working with great students. After a time, I realized my knowledge would no longer cut it. I needed infrastructure: a standardized course to help students manage their perception of progress, and a statewide and international stage for students to break out of their small world and be inspired by others. And as with any change in infrastructure, deconstruction and restructuring will come before the breakthrough.


You simply can’t coast into success. It just doesn’t happen (or if it does, you don’t own it). You’re several hours in and you realize your form is sloppy. Give it a momentary thought and you’re back on track, right? Wrong. Constant mindfulness is your only way forward. Have you checked out? Are you in your happy place? Have you gone to your pain cave? You will pay for it. You’ll blink and find you’re an hour late on nutrition, or you’ve been running with a narrow gate for miles. Stay in the moment. Are you recruiting your large muscles for every step so your smaller muscles don’t get overloaded? How’s your cadence? When did you last hydrate? How many calories have you had this hour? Think you’re suffering too much to think about all that? Better get your mind right or you will suffer much, much more later.

The take-away? Years ago I found myself struggling to put together the Brahms violin concerto. It was such a massive amount of material that I neglected intonation and fell behind on drilling those impossibly difficult 10-second passages in favor of memorizing the remaining pages of moderately difficult material. In the end, it was a few nasty bars and a few untuned areas that caused me to realize it just wasn’t up to par; I missed my deadline. Think it’s too tough to focus on the details? It’s harder to pay the price for not doing so.

The Golden Pace

My first two attempts at the 50k distance, I was too fast out the gate and paid for it later. Somewhere around mile 20, I knew the wall was coming. So I slowed it down next time; stress the system less, save some energy for the end of the run. Then I slowed it down again. The funny thing is, I think after the first two attempts I was running too slow for the next 5 runs. Running slower means you’re out on the course longer and there’s a point where your body starts shutting down because of duration on the course and not just because of intensity. I don’t know that I ever found my golden pace for a 50k, but I picked it back up on my very last attempt and maybe had my best run.

I still never felt like I fully “ran” a 50k. I would always fall apart somewhere between mile 26 and 30.

The course I was shooting for had 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Could I have knocked out 50k if I ran a flat course? Probably. Or if I had figured out my pacing by the 3rd or 4th run? Most likely; you can only train so many weeks running a marathon every weekend before you just burn out. Lots of lessons learned, and looking forward to tackling this goal again in the future.

Years ago, tackling another concerto, I was obsessed with intonation and ignored my father’s advice “Set a fixed amount of time for intonation work, then you must compartmentalize and move on. When you’re drilling, doing tempo work, shaping, your intonation will slip. But if you obsess with intonation you will stall and crash.” And so I did. The take-away? Focus on the long-game, and find that golden pace between progress and quality. There’s always something you can do better, and there’s always more road to travel. Focusing on the one without the other is a losing game.

In music performance, the concerto is the ultra of the music world. The stress it puts on the performer is astounding. The sheer volume of material the musician has to learn (20 pages, 30 pages, 40 pages?), memorize, and perform is astounding. While the technical level of the average concert-level concerto is maybe a 6/10, (the 10/10 difficulty pieces usually average 5 minutes in length), it’s the sheer volume of material, mental endurance, and physical endurance required that makes them the feat they are.

Building that base, performing all the movements of a major concerto, is something I think those studying music overlook in importance during their younger years. Just building that base of being able to play an entire concerto (or two back-to-back if you’re @pashaviolin) is something that can’t be underestimated. I see the terror in many of my students’ eyes when they are about to perform an entire concerto for the first time and it reminds me of how I feel about racing an ultra for the first time. What if I DNF (the dreaded Did Not Finish)?

Well, I suppose I’d just regroup and try again with better training. For now, I’m taking all these things and putting them in my high-value mental box to pull out again next time the trails call. See you all at Iron Man Oceanside…

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