The Training Secrets of the New 50-Mile King

Charlie Lawrence can do a lot in five hours. Here's how the ultrarunner set a new world record.

April 7, 2024 6:45 am
Charlie Lawrence crosses the finish line with a new 50-mile record.
After almost five hours of running, Lawrence says he had trouble getting his legs to stop moving forward.
Courtesy of Charlie Lawrence

Charlie Lawrence is a professional marathon and ultramarathon runner. The son of two cross-country coaches, he won state championships in high school before moving to Boulder, Colorado to train his endurance at altitude and pursue his Olympic dream. (He competed in his first Olympic Trials in 2020.) At the same time, like many athletes in the ultrarunning era, Lawrence has looked for offbeat ways to make his mark on the world of running.

On November 11, Lawrence set a new 50-mile world record, running the distance in a time of 4:48:21 and besting the previous record by nearly two minutes. This was just a month after qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Trials at Bakline’s McKirdy Micro Marathon, with a time of 2:16:10. Lawrence spoke to us about the world-record effort, strategies for pushing past his body’s limits and what’s next on his running horizon.

I’m a marathoner by trade, but it’s not where I excel. I’ve run a 2:16 twice, which is a good but not great marathon. Those times aren’t going to put me onto the Olympic team, and I’m down a few spots when it comes to World Team Selection. I’ve been close, but an athlete needs to ask himself where he can excel. I needed to figure out where I could be the best in the world.

I’ve always been good on long runs, whether ground level or at altitude. And I’ve always been comfortable in that state of uncomfortable that happens on these epic distances. I’ve just always had that mental strength. But the first time I thought about going for the world record for 50 miles was the fall of 2021. I was asked to pace [Desiree Linden] for her world record for 50K. I felt really good during that and was putting up good times every mile.

I knew that if I was going to make the attempt [at 50 miles] I should do it at Tunnel Hill. Tunnel Hill is the place of world records for good reason. The terrain is cooperative, flat and the forest provides shade. You’re running on crushed gravel, not pavement, meaning you’re going a bit slower, but it’s a lot more forgiving on your legs. The other benefit of running at a location that’s hosted a few record attempts: the organizers there know the back end of logging it officially. 

My pursuit of the record was derailed a bit in 2022 when I got a grade 4 stress fracture in my ankle. I blame myself for how bad the injury became. I remember feeling discomfort in my lower back, but I would just take four Aleves and run through it because I was training for a number of races, and of course it got worse and worse. The breaking point came when I tried to do 25 miles on it and ended up not being able to even crawl to my car.

My physio had to intervene and told me that if I didn’t stop I was going to really set my career back. I couldn’t walk around my own home without using my hands to hold myself upright. It was pitiful. That’s when the comeback story began. For months, I was doing cardio in a pool and walking on the treadmill. Finding a way to get this record was my motivation to come back faster. I would be in the pool for an hour, and then I would stay in for another hour, knowing that that was the mindset I would need to get the record. So at the same time I was training back my body and my mind. 

Building the Engine

I was off for a year — working in the gym, in the pool, behind the scenes. My first big runs back were in February of 2023, and my training for the record really ramped up that summer. I started off doing 80 miles a week, then 100, then 120, then 130, and then I had four consecutive weeks of 140 miles a week. Once I’m in my training zone, I can take off at any time of the day and do 20 miles at 6:00/mile pace, at altitude. 

The only real adjustment was more strength training, which I don’t normally focus on a large amount. But having that additional muscle mass was important to have legs that could push through the abuse. I don’t think people normally think about getting big for cardio, but in a situation like this it was important. Everything has to be amplified when you aren’t just training for a marathon…but doing nearly two marathons in a row.

First, though, I ran the McKirdy Micro Marathon, in order to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Trials. That marathon was just four weeks before I was going to go for the record at Tunnel Hill, which made it a perfect warm-up. I know how it might sound, to use a marathon as a warm-up, but that’s where my legs had to be in order to get the job done. Des advised me well that I should get as many miles logged as possible, because after I hit 30 miles, I was going to be in uncharted territory for me, physically. 

I had run the Tunnel Hill course before, but this was going to be a whole new effort. I went online and looked at course images. I ran it in my head, all 50 miles, thousands of times. Going into an effort like this, you have to think of it mile by mile, rep by rep. I never sleep well the night before a race, and that goes especially before a race like this. That’s why I always try to sleep in two nights before a race. That’s the trick.

I woke up in Illinois for the record attempt at around four in the morning. to eat a little bit and start to get some carbs in my system. We were staying a little while outside of the town and I wanted to be at the course around six. Gun time was set for seven. I probably could have had six hours of sleep, if I hadn’t woken up a few times thinking I might miss my alarm. But that’s pretty typical going into an event like this.

Race Day: Tunnel Hill

I love good coffee in the morning too, so I bring my Corvus hand grinder with a scale and water heater. I refuse to drink shitty coffee before a big race. I also had bread with some nut butter and honey. I chose the Nike Alphafly 2s to have on the foot. Oh, and I have a relationship with Bandit Running. I really like their gear. I went with half tights, a jersey, arm warmers. I don’t run without sunglasses. The last thing I want to do is squint or get a bug in my eye at mile 40. 

Before the race, I did the same exact activation routine that I’ve done before every race I can remember. It’s boring, but it’s about 20 minutes of foam rolling, band work and stretches to open up the hips. It’s monotonous, but it’s worked for me. On top of that I ran a quick half a mile with some running drills and a couple strides. Then I was ready to get after it. 

The first couple miles felt a little rough, but at that time I was still warming up to be honest. I had the pace plan between 4:30 and 4:45 per mile. I ended up doing way faster than that because I felt pretty good right off the bat. My body temperature had risen by that point and I took off my arm sleeves. I have an inner dialogue running through these races, but I also like a bit of music. I have a pre-race playlist that hypes me up with Meek Mill, Future and Lil Wayne.

I went online and looked at course images. I ran it in my head, all 50 miles, thousands of times.

I started to hurt around mile 28. That’s when the climb at Tunnel Hill begins. Nothing crazy, but just enough so that you start to notice it…and then you really notice it. My mile times had slowed by a minute, but I was still on pace. I got an additional boost when the next aid station was coming up — where I could see my family and my girlfriend, which helped my mood. I also could grab one of the bottles I prepared with BPN nutrition and Ketone IQ. 

That helped for a little while, but everything got worse at mile 42. I had never run that many miles before in my life. I kept convincing myself that once I got my water and nutrition, I was going to feel better. I didn’t actually feel better once, but at least it kept me moving forward. I would realize that I wasn’t going to feel better after a couple of miles. By the time I realized that, I only had three miles left until the next aid station. The next little lie I could tell myself.

Tunnel Hill does have an actual tunnel that you cross through, and from there it’s downhill. By design the course is already quick, and the downhill is even less pleasant. I was smashing my quads — they’d already put in a lot of work to get there — and feeling fully fatigued. There came a point where I was just picking up my legs and putting them down. I wasn’t getting any power out of them at all. I felt like I was doing a glorified shuffle. 

Risk It for the Biscuit

I pushed for a kicker toward the last bridge on the course, and that took everything out of me. I was doing calculations in my head at that point, around mile 47. I knew I needed to do something, so I made the last-minute decision to stop and stretch my quads for all of 10 seconds. I knew this was a risk. I knew there had been a lot of runners over the years who had attempted big runs and then had their bodies just stop working. I knew that sitting down was not an option; that’s an age-old story, where someone sits down at an aid station and never gets back up again. 

But there was a voice in my head that screamed, “Go!” That’s when I took off again. My legs felt like I was back at mile 20. The choice to stop was a gamble, but it was one that worked out. I saw the finish line and I knew I had the world record. Not to sound cocky — but in my mind the record was already mine way before I crossed that line. It felt like all I was doing was fulfilling a prophecy. All I was doing was going to pick it up, after waiting for two long years. 

I crossed the finish line and I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. There was a moment where I thought I was going to eat it on the ground. I was trying to rest, to bend over and push my hands against my knees, but I was just staggering. Finally, I was stopped and caught by my girlfriend. She screamed, “You did it!” And all I said was, “I told you.” 

There still ended up being another hurdle I had to jump over after finishing the race. The event organizers were aware I was going for a record, but someone forgot to inform USADA [the United States Anti-Doping Agency]. This meant that unless I was able to get tested for performance-enhancing drugs…I was going to have to forfeit the record. So instead of a calm night to rest after the win, I had to get into a car and drive more than two hours to Kentucky to one of their agents. 

I was in the clear, of course, but it left even less time to celebrate. Eventually, I went to a Mexican spot with my girlfriend and some family. I just remember thinking, “Okay, now it’s time to get ready for the Olympic Trials.” But that’s the life I chose. That’s the life of a runner. We keep pushing forward.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!