Sunkist and Sunshine at Desert Solstice: Pam Smith’s Report

[Editor’s Note: On December 14, 2013, Pam Smith broke Edit Bérces’s 100-mile track world record running 14:11:26 at the Desert Solstice Invitational! Bérces of Hungary had ran 14:25:45 on September 22, 2002 in San Giovanni Lupatoto, Italy. Ann Trason previously had the American track record in 14:29:44 in 1989. Below, Pam Smith shares her report on her record-setting run.]

Start time approaches, and the runners congregate at the line with rainbow and butterfly goals dancing in their heads. Just 400 meters till you are back to the start, a seemingly insignificant distance for a group of experienced ultrarunners. But the laps are like the drips of Chinese water torture, the aggregate sum slowly wearing down your resolve and the doubt creeps in. The doubt poisons those butterflies and turns your mind against you: “Why am I doing this? This is stupid. I can’t do it.” For why indeed would anyone run for hours around a small, rubber oval? It defies explanation and logic, unless you have been there and you have crossed that finish line. Then you see your power within, a greatness that is even bigger than you could’ve imagined, and at that moment all those laps make perfect sense.

* * * * *

I realize a track ultra doesn’t appeal to everyone (or even most) in the sport. Most ultrarunners find new challenges in tougher terrain/environmental conditions or in longer distances. But to me the over-reaching ideal in ultrarunning is testing one’s limits and expanding boundaries, and trying to run a distance as fast as possible fits into that notion. Track and road ultras allow you to get to running at its purest: it really is just ‘lace up your shoes and go.’ The clock serves as the ultimate competitor. And I like the idea of going after records and using historical times as motivation. Yes, I love trail running, but for all of the above reasons, I also enjoy road and track running and I was excited to head back to Desert Solstice again this year.

After doing the 100 mile last year, my original goal this year was to do the entire 24 hours. Truth be told, the main reason I wasn’t interested in doing the 100 again was that I wanted to get a record and the 100-mile American and world records seemed like they were out of my league. The 200-kilometer American record (21:01) and the U.S. track 24-hour record (139 miles) seemed more reasonable goals.

One of the keystones to my success at Western States this year was specifically gearing my preparation for that race. Employing the same tactic for Desert Solstice, I had several long runs in my training slated for 8:45 pace, a pace that I thought I could hold for 12-plus hours. There was just one problem: I continually failed to run this pace in training. 8:30 pace always just seemed to be where I fell into my groove, even though I knew that was faster than the 100-mile world record track pace and a presumably stupid pace if one is aiming for a 24-hour run.

Well, you race how you train, so I guess it was no surprise that I made it exactly one lap at 8:45 pace before my pace started creeping down to around 8:30. My husband, Mac, would scold me every time I did a lap at 2:05 or faster, and I was giving him plenty of opportunities!

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - start

A nice easy group start… for everyone except Zach Bitter, who is already out of the picture. Photo: Michael Miller

But my head was still rainbows and butterflies… all the way to mile eight. No joke, around mile eight my calves were getting sore and I could just start to feel the connection of my hamstring right under my sit bone. Mile eight?!?! Are you kidding me!! By mile 11, my calves were burning knots and I had some mild panic that I was hurting so early, but I was still able to maintain the same steady pace. I just smiled at Mac every lap and acted like nothing was wrong. And then in a couple miles, nothing was wrong, and by mile 25, I felt so good I was winking and waving every time I went by the aid-station tent. You might be an ultrarunner if you need a marathon to warm up! ;)

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - 2

“Everything is thumbs up!” Photo: Nick Coury

The only other real problem I had during the race was around four and a half hours, where I just felt really bloated and like my stomach wasn’t processing well. I had a very specific plan for my nutrition similar to the one I used at Western States, with a bit less fluid due to the lower temperatures. Unfortunately, Mac and I had a bit of a communication breakdown and we weren’t on the same page (I learned after the race) when it came to the concentration of drink mix. So the final nine hours of my race were fueled entirely by orange soda! That is definitely not my ideal for a nutrition plan; however, it seemed to be the only thing I could take in with in significant quantities and I didn’t have any energy lows.

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - thumbs up

“Still thumbs up. Oh, wait, that is just how I run.” Photo: Nick Coury

The switch in the game plan came pretty early, right around five hours in, for at that point my confidence was actually building and I really felt like I had a good chance of being able to get under the world track record. And in the U.S., you aren’t ‘old’ in the running world until you are 40, but world age grouping actually starts at age 35 and I was on pace for the world age group 12-hour mark as well. The hardest part was convincing Mac that I should change my goal since he has heard me talk about doing 24 hours at Desert Solstice for an entire year. I think he didn’t want to see me miss the world records and then be so spent that I failed on my original goals, too. But I really felt like I had it in me and that I wouldn’t be disappointed to abandon my original goals, if it meant that I would end up with two world records. And with that, he gave up scolding me for laps under 2:06!

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - four

“This part of the course looks really familiar.” Photo: Nick Coury

One of the nicest things about a track ultra is how much interaction you have with the other runners on the track. Not only is there lots of encouragement every time you pass someone, but there is also a lot more opportunity to run a few laps with other runner in the race, even though you may be several laps apart. In the first half, I would run a few laps behind people to reign in the pace a bit to make it a bit easier to hold back. In the second half, I’d run behind people for a lap or two for a bit of a mental break. A special shout out goes to Olivier Leblond, who I ran behind three or four times in the second half. Not only was he super consistent with his pace, but when he found out I was trying to break the 12-hour age group world record, he asked me if I wanted him to speed up for me! Olivier never let up and ended up winning the 24-hour division with 152.5 miles!

At twelve hours I was about 900 meters ahead of the old age group world mark with just over 84.5 miles. Not only was that a great intermediate goal, but it was another big confidence boost. I was still running about 8:30 pace, but knew I only needed to average nine-minute pace for the 100-mile record. Focusing on the time left was easier than focusing on the miles or the laps left, and so I started counting down from 140 minutes. It made it even easier when I could skip nine minutes because I was still ahead of pace!

With one lap to go, the crowd was cheering, and one guy yelled at me to “channel my inner 400-meter runner.” I don’t have an inner 400-meter runner even without 99.75 miles on my legs! But I gave what I could and managed a 1:59 for the last lap; however, I don’t think I will be mistaken for a sprinter anytime soon!

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - night(WCA)

“Things look totally different in this direction! And look at the crowd out to cheer me on for my last two hours.” (Actually, they are all there to congratulate Zach, wrapped in the U.S. flag.) Photo: Wendy Cordeiro Andre

Right after finishing, I was still thinking I could continue on. But in the last 90 minutes, I had really given what I could to hold the pace and I really dug myself into a pretty good deficit with calories and hydration. I tried to regroup by stopping for 10 minutes or so to eat, but my stomach was raw from all that soda and I couldn’t really eat anything. And by standing around in the cold, I got really stiff and cold to the point I was shivering. I tried to walk a couple more laps in my puffy jacket, but I realized I had put all of my mental and physical energy into the first 100 miles and I really didn’t have anything left for another nine hours. My only regret is that I didn’t walk two more laps so I could have been ahead of Zach Bitter in the 24-hour standings! :)

But after calling it a day, my challenges weren’t over. Drug testing is required to get a world record ratified and for that they needed 90 cubic centimeters (cc’s) of urine. I just laughed because I knew how dehydrated I was. Three pee stops in the first half versus zero in the second was the real reason I was able to negative split the race (7:06:20/7:05:06)!! :) My first attempt was woefully inadequate. Two hours and 10 cups of fluid later, I finally got the 60 cc’s needed to complete the testing. I won’t be surprised if the test shows I had toxic levels of hot chocolate in my body at that point! Fortunately, I could fill out all the paperwork while I was waiting, and rattled off all the meds and supplements I had taken in the last three days: fish oil, iron, vitamin D, two naproxen, Singulair, and Symbicort. At 2 a.m., we finally headed back to the hotel, where Mac promptly crashed.

Pam Smith - Desert Solstice 2013 - urine sample

“Nothing unusual here. Just drinking cocoa on a high school track at 2 am while guarding my partial urine sample. Happens all the time.” Photo: Nick Coury

He didn’t get to sleep long.

“Mac! Mac! Wake up! I don’t take Symbicort, I take Pulmicort!”

“So what?” he mumbled.

“So Symbicort is a banned substance!”

“So? Your drug test will be negative.”

“Mac, I just signed my name that I took a banned substance!” I was approaching full panic and he was still not fully conscious. I bugged Nick Coury at 3 a.m. and then even tried to get a hold of the drug-testing agent (surprise–she didn’t answer her phone). If the four liters of orange soda didn’t give me an ulcer, this certainly did!

The only thing I could think to do was check the USADA website. All my panic was unwarranted as Symbicort isn’t even on the banned substance list anymore! (It was never a performance-enhancing drug, but it was a known masking agent. Better testing has negated that effect, so the drug is no longer banned.) And then the next morning the testing agent texted me that she would just change the form and everything was fine. Whew, crisis (in my head only!) averted!

Setting the track 100-mile world record feels amazing, but I know that record comes with a bit of an asterisk since the overall 100-mile world record is still faster. But this race gave me a lot of confidence and I don’t think I have run my fastest 100-mile time yet. I told my family that if I had a good race at Desert Solstice, I wouldn’t be going back next year. Fortunately, my family knows that they can’t trust anything I say when it comes to ultrarunning! Nick and Jamil put on such a great event with all the details covered to help people set records and with so many inspiring athletes, that I can’t wait to go back next year. Besides, I have an asterisk that I’d like to erase!

There are 15 comments

  1. BuzzBurrell

    “Nothing unusual here. Just drinking cocoa on a high school track at 2 am while guarding my partial urine sample. Happens all the time.”

    Classic! I've never been able to finish reading a George Sheehan or Amby Burfoot essay but love this.

  2. Scott_RJ

    A world record is a world record- no asterisk needed! Awesome, awesome run. You have my vote for UROY as well as race report writer of the year.

  3. Rte1122

    I also write down drugs I'm not taking by mistake..just the other day I wrote down cocaine instead of caffeine on an application..Oopsy daisy. Just the fact that symbicort and pulmicort are even mentioned raises some eyebrows.

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      Readers,
      While the above commenter uses an image of me as his or her avatar as of December 26th, 2013, it is most certainly not me.

      Rte1122,
      Please remove the photo of me as your Intense Debate avatar. If you do not, I will have to remove you comment.

      Thanks,
      Bryon

  4. Rte1122

    Throwing Stones? Another drug reference perhaps?

    The paragraphs that mention the symbicort are just out of place and struck me as odd. Why is that content included? Just find it strange. Hence the 'raised eyebrow'

    Also, people abuse drugs every day—whether it's prescribed by a doctor or not. Let's not be naive 'macdaddy'

  5. Tony Mollica

    I meant to ask how often do they switch direction on the track? I assume they don’t have you running the same direction for 24 hours.

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