On November 11, 2023, at the Tunnel Hill 50 Mile, up-and-coming runner Charlie Lawrence entered the history books by breaking the men’s 50-mile world record in a time of 4:48:21.
This time beats the previous record of 4:50:08, set by Jim Walmsley in 2019, placing Lawrence right up there with some of the best ultrarunners in the world.
We caught up with him to learn a little bit about his background, about the build-up to this record attempt, and to hear how things played out on the day.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
iRunFar: Congratulations on the new 50-mile world record. You had some strong results before this on the road in the marathon and half marathon distance. Could you briefly talk us through your background as a runner?
Charlie Lawrence: I coach about 14 or 15 people, and I’ve been in the sport for a long time. My mom was my high school cross-country coach, and my dad was a track coach when I was born. Long story short, my parents got divorced when I was in first grade. So, in second grade, it was either go to cross country and track with my mom or go to daycare.
It evolved from there all the way through high school. [My coach through college] is one of my best friends, best mentors in the sport, and I really wouldn’t have gotten the shot I did after college without him. I was not a rockstar in college, I was decent, All Region in cross country.
[Editor’s Note: Lawrence ran cross country at the University of Minnesota, an NCAA Division I school.]
We set our eyes on just getting a half marathon right after college. He continued to coach me and then in spring 2018 I did the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Minnesota, just a couple hours up the road from Minneapolis [where I lived then], and ran 64:14. At the time I was like, that’s a pretty solid foundation with the half distance.
Everyone started asking, “Are you going to run a marathon?” I stared to think of a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and the standard at that time was 2:19. I’m like, yeah, it would be a cool kind of bucket list thing, just to qualify for the trials. So, we decided on the USATF Marathon Road Championships [at the California International Marathon] in 2018 to be my shot at a qualifier time.
I was working a full-time job in ticket sales and also finishing my graduate degree, so it was a pretty busy fall and summer. I got it done in 2:16:10 there as my marathon debut. I say this a lot now, but 2:16:10 in 2018 was a lot better than it is nowadays. It was still the early boom of super shoes and all that.
I’ve now been out here [living and running in Boulder, Colorado,] for four years or so and had some pretty average results, truthfully, just been getting healthy. I was out all of 2022 with a stress fracture and then had some decent results for sure. I guess that’s the long story short.
iRunFar: You’re still pretty new to long distances then. Was this your first ultra or had you done 50 kilometers before?
Lawrence: I’ve done 50k. Off the bat and pretty fortunate, a person who I owe a ton of credit to, is Des Linden. I knew her husband Ryan first, but we followed each other on Instagram and she just said messaging back and forth, “If you need anything, let me know.” We kept in touch over a couple beers and coffee here and there, some runs.
Then in 2021 she mentioned, with races canceled [because of the COVID-19 pandemic], that she wanted to take a stab at the 50k world record, and I was like, “Hey, if I can help in any way, let me know. I can pace you if that was something you’d be interested in.” And she was like, “Well yeah, I’ll need a pacer for it.” So, it just worked out that, already being a friend of hers, and as someone I look up to a lot, it was a great opportunity. I paced her for that 50k [where she set the then 50k world record].
I ran the USATF 50k Road Championships seven weeks after that and blew up. Honestly, I didn’t respect the distance. I went for the win way too early, started running 5-minute miles, a couple of sub-5s, and just blew up. I ran 3:09 or something. I was quite frankly pretty embarrassed with it. But again, a learning experience, you’ve got to respect it. So, to an extent, that was my ultra distance experience. I’d run, I guess, five marathons. But my favorite day of the week is Sunday long run.
iRunFar: With the 2023 Tunnel Hill 50 Mile, on your social media, you nailed your colors to the mast by calling it out as a record attempt beforehand. How long had you had this idea to try to break the 50-mile world record?
Lawrence: Truthfully, about two years. In 2021, I’m not sure if you know who Fernando Cabada is, but he’s someone I’ve known since my first race post-collegiately. I watched him win the USTAF Marathon Road Championships back in 2008 when I was in middle school. He’s someone I can bounce stuff off. I was having dinner with Fernando in 2021, that fall, and he was doing some ultra stuff himself. I told him I wanted to go for the 50-mile American record [which was also the world record].
Unfortunately, I came down with a grade-four stress fracture that January. So that definitely put it on hold. But he’s the one who was like, “You can do it, you should do it at Tunnel Hill.” I never heard of the race before that. It’s kind of been on my radar, I guess. This goal really came up two years ago.
iRunFar: The record you broke was set by Jim Wamsley. Did it make it more intimidating, or more appealing, to have such a big name attached to the record?
Lawrence: Honestly, not intimidating at all. Some people definitely laugh at it and there’s definitely a part of overconfidence on my side because of how, I don’t want to say effortless, but I could on any given day go run 30 miles at 5:40 per mile pace in Boulder. There’s part that’s mentally — it’s only 20 miles, you need to do 20 miles more at that pace, and when you factor in the altitude. So really not intimidated whatsoever.
I knew it was a tall task, so you got to go do it. My biggest day ever in practice was 35 miles, so there’s still the unknown of 15 miles, and for a lot of people 15 miles is still a long run, so you’re stacking a lot on it. But no, definitely just super, super confident in myself and the work I put in the last few months. Almost overly confident, truthfully, but at the same time that’s how I get for these races. Just truly believe I can do it.
iRunFar: Your pacing strategy — you seemed to start slower and ease into it. Was that the plan and how did that work out?
Lawrence: Actually, it was a mess, but the [the published splits from the race] were way off.
iRunFar: Oh, ok! What actually happened then?
Lawrence: Yeah, I had a lot of money in the bank. I was under 5:40 for every mile [in the first half of the race.] My first mile at 5:40 was mile 25, it was 5:40 even. So, I had a lot of time in the bank.
iRunFar: Were there any low points in the second half or were you able to hold that effort fairly well?
Lawrence: No, it got hard. It got really hard. I had to really commit to it and stay on it.
Relatively, it is a flat, fast course — but there is a stretch from roughly mile 30 to mile 38 or 39, it’s all uphill, it’s nothing steep but you’re climbing the entire time. Which is great, but at the same time I already have 30-ish miles in my legs at 5:40 pace. I had to put a lot of effort in to maintain pace up that.
Then you turn around, you have this downhill going back home after you go through the tunnel, it’s great. Obviously you’re running downhill toward the finish the last eight, nine miles. But at that point, I’d stuck to it really hard for 30 to 40 miles to make sure I had it. My quads were pretty fried from climbing and the 40 miles prior, so running downhill didn’t feel great.
iRunFar: What’s next for you? Have you got anything else in mind?
Lawrence: Short term, I have the Olympic Marathon Trials coming up in 80 days. That’s really the plan, to maybe get a fast half, to run the Houston Half Marathon to work on some speed.
Beyond that, a big goal is the USATF 100k Road Championships coming up, as far as I know, next fall. I’d love to go get a title there.
I know things change with [the International Association of Ultrarunners] and everything, but we’d love to also try to chase a U.S. 50k title down the road, make a worlds team there.
And to be competitive at the marathon, because I think being efficient at the marathon and being able to run 5:10 per mile or even quicker helps exponentially with being able to run 5:40 to 5:50 pace for a 50 miles, or 5:50 to 6-minute pace, for 100k. So absolutely if you can do that, you’re competing for world medals.
iRunFar: You have lots to look forward to. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, and I hope you recover well.
Lawrence: Thank you.