A Marathoner’s Experience as an Ultramarathon Coach

“What is your favorite 50 miler and what inspires you to keep doing them?” This was a question that I […]

By on October 6, 2009 | Comments

Elyses ClosetWhat is your favorite 50 miler and what inspires you to keep doing them?” This was a question that I was asked on the pre-race panel at the North Face Endurance Challenge, just outside of Washington, DC. As a newbie to the ultra-scene, I had never raced anything above a marathon (and still haven’t). I responded that I had never felt so “not hardcore saying that I was only a marathon runner.”

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mileYou are probably wondering what on earth I was doing on this panel. I was the coach of the North Face Endurance Challenge program in Washington, DC. I coached the 10k, half marathon, 50k, and 50-mile programs on behalf of The North Face. Being a competitive marathon runner and former cross country runner, the 10k through the 50k was like second nature to me, but the 50-mile race, that was a new beast entirely.

I had a committed, all male group attempting the 50 miler. Many of the runners were fairly new to the running scene, and none had ever completed a 50 miler before. Thus, not only did they have to train to be able to complete the race, but they had to learn to run while carry hydration packs, absorb new information about nutrition, and learn to run on challenging, technical terrain as would be the terrain on the race course. The athletes took this on with an abundant amount of enthusiasm, and luckily with the support of ultra runners Michael Wardian and George Banker who made themselves open to supporting the team. Hence, the athletes had access to the best resources, and made use of them.

Arriving on race morning at 4 a.m., I was struck by how relaxed everyone seemed. It was a stark contrast to the road marathons that I am used to racing in. Fifteen minutes before race start when the announcements started, participants were still milling around and catching-up with each other, whereas in a road race, people would have been lined up for half an hour already. The gun went off and the athletes started. I was touched by the amount of camaraderie during the race, with athletes working together and helping each other through the hard miles.

I think what struck me the most was the finish. Almost everyone came through smiling, even after 50 miles of racing. This is something that I rarely see at a road race. I learned that ultra-running is more than just a race. It is about building a community and connecting with the other athletes out on the trail. It is more than just about you and your race, but how you can leverage the relationships built on the trails to help you finish. I was happy to see that my athletes made new friends while racing, and had a truly great time completing the race.

The North Face Elyse Braner

My 50k runners and me on race morning

All of my athletes finished with smiles on their faces and had completed what they set out to accomplish, which was to get their first ultra-marathon under their belts. I think they absorbed and embraced ultra-culture full heartily and are looking forward to running another one. As for me, I think an ultra-marathon is definitely in my future, but first, I need to accomplish what I need to accomplish my marathon and shorter race distance goals, because from what I observed on race day, once you become an ultra-runner, there is no turning back.


  • What struck you most when you were first introduced to trail running or ultramarathons and the communities that surround them?
  • How have you felt if and when you have guided others into trail running or ultrarunning?