Surviving Solo Long Runs

Guest Blogger Luis Bueno


After my first-ever 18-mile run, which I ran alone in Nov. 2009 in driving rain and 40-degree temperatures in Seattle.

Amidst all of the challenges marathon training poses, perhaps the most difficult one is the long run.

Now, there are long runs (10-16ish miles) and then there are long runs (18 miles and above). Most marathon training cycles feature three or four of the latter. Of course, the former runs pose challenges of their own but runs of 18 miles or more are unique.

They can be imposing, daunting, intimidating and downright terrifying.

Taking on these runs of 18 miles-plus with another runner or a bigger group can take some of the sting off. After all, everyone is in the same boat, going after the same goal, and everyone can help inspire, motivate and help each other out.

But solo trips to the Land of High Mileage can make it much more difficult. Aside from the long distance and inevitable pain these runs can bring, now there is a different challenge – the mental demon, the same one that can easily take you down if you let him come to life.

There are ways to combat the mental demon during these long runs, methods you can use to either keep the demon at bay or strap a muzzle on him altogether.

Route It Through: Your route can make or break you. If you pick the wrong route, your mind may be mush by Mile 15. There should be something on the route to engage your interest. Pick a boring, lonely route (as I foolishly did in my first-ever solo 20-miler) and the miles might seem to drag on more than they normally would, particularly near the end. A new, unfamiliar route will keep you mentally engaged and may make the miles fly by.


I tweeted this shot of the Santa Ana River Trail in Riverside, Calif., on April 17 during a solo 20-mile run.

Route It Through, II: You can also keep yourself guessing on your route. Choose a route that, if you switch-up mid-run won’t destroy the run. Then, make a game of your route. How many miles can you go out before you turn around and how many miles are you willing to tack on at the end? Can you go five miles before turning around? Can you stretch it out to six? Seven? Eight? Can you go half the distance? It’s really a no-lose situation – go short, and you can play that mental game on the other end; go long and all you have to do is get back to the start.

Try New Tunes: If you run with music, try mixing up your playlist. Save your A-list running songs for the end and try some different tunes at the start. Or better yet, play another mental game – how long can you go without music? Try to make it six miles without tunes and then go from there. You might be surprised how long you can go without tunes, and you may feel energized when you music finally starts playing through your headphones, which will hopefully be somewhere well after Mile 10.

Challenge Within A Challenge: Try something that you normally wouldn’t. Is there a monster hill nearby? Incorporate that within your route and set your sights on scaling it. One such feat I tried once – I ran part of a solo 20-miler on my local high school track. The school is two miles away but I took a scenic route there and got onto the track at Mile 6. I trudged along on the far outside lane and did so for more than two hours. At Mile 18, I raised my hands in the air and set off for home. A similar challenge – run part of it on a treadmill. Figure out how many miles it is to your gym, run there, run however many miles you need to on the ‘mill and run back home. Or drive and park a few miles away and do the same thing. If you have a ‘mill at home, even better. Run four miles outside, run 10-12 miles on the treadmill and finish up with a short outdoor run.

Be Social: Can’t run with others? Want to bring your friends and family along for the ride? Live-tweet it. Or live-Facebook it. Or heck, send group text messages if you need to. Take a picture every one, two or whatever miles and send it out on your preferred social media platform. Not only will this give you a bit of a break (at least long enough to snap the picture) but it will keep you very engaged. You will get a reward every mile (or two). Best of all, the run will become interactive. Your Twitter followers or FB friends will cheer you on, and that virtual support will become as real as any crowd’s.

Tips From The Pros

More suggestions from my fellow San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors

Libby Hallas Jones: I’ve done a bunch of trail races where I’m alone for 20ish miles in the wilderness (small races and I’m very back of the pack). I don’t run with music, so I’ll make lists, sing to myself, focus on counting something, or try to remember something that takes a lot of concentration. If it’s a smaller race with out-and-back, I count all the people coming back. I also like to make a big 20-mile loop through the entire town so I can’t easily quit or get discouraged 11 miles in because the car is still REALLY far away.

Charlie Johnston: I  map most of my long runs (when I’m home) so they pass the same convenience store just past the halfway point. I take a few minutes to buy a bottle of water, choke down a GU or other food, and chat with the super nice employees for a minute. They’re always excited to talk and it gives me a mid(ish)-way point to look forward to. Sure, the stop might not be considered ideal in a lot of training regiments, but it seems to be working for me.

Nancy Cook: MUSIC! I have some really great super long playlsts. It truly keeps me moving at a good pace. I also love playing “I Spy” where I do a run report of how many towns, miles, hills, horses, dogs, and cool visuals along the way. If you follow me on dailymile – there is never a dull moment.

Laura Langerwerf: I try to pick a new route if I’m going to be running it solo. Running the same route you usually run alone is no fun, especially when it’s that long. I also pump up my running mix so it has all new songs or pick a different Pandora station on my iPhone.

Daniela Vasquez: When I was still in Denver, I would do HUGE loops of the city, hitting all the parks and doing a loop around them, to keep my mind busy. I like to think small mileage count… I NEVER think ‘Ugh I have 18 to go.’ Instead I focus on getting to my next stop – example: from home, get to Cheesman Park, once there focus on getting to City Park, and so on. I always plan my long runs so I know where my bathroom break will come (and that also gives me a chance to refocus, on body and breath! On trails, I count animals. On a 17-miler once I saw seven horses, 12 dogs, one deer (that started running alongside me and made me feel foolish after I saw him displaying such grace while running) and a few rabbits. I’ll never forget that run because I was having a really tough time, and seeing all that made me look at the big picture. Now that I’m in a new town, I still try to plan my runs based on maps from other runners, but I try to really take in all the new scenery. Playlists?! A must for me!

Emily Favret: I only listen to tunes for the second half of solo long runs (I do the same thing to races over 13.1). I also sadly do similar “scav hunts” that Nancy Peck-Cook does – which normally consists of how many puppies and yellow running gear I see.

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