Zach Bitter, New 200k American Record Holder, Interview
Last weekend at the South Carolina 24-Hour Race, Wisconsin-ite Zach Bitter set a new 200k American record by running 16:22:27. The previous record was set by Rae Clark at 16:55:12 in 1990.
iRunFar: Congratulations! You went to this race in South Carolina, in my understanding, with the intent to qualify for the U.S. 24-hour team.
Bitter: Yeah, I guess it’s called the ‘last-chance meet’ because the window for [qualifying for] the world-championship [team] would close the following weekend. So it’s the last chance to try to get a qualifying time for that. The interesting thing about that is [the IAU 24-Hour World Championships] actually got moved to December instead of late June, so it’s not really known yet if the USATF is going to bump that window back further yet or not. My goal originally when I signed up was definitely to get a mark for Team USA.
iRunFar: But then your plans changed in the middle of the race, right?
Bitter: Yeah, I don’t know if my goals necessarily changed. But I was thinking while I was running around the track—I was talking to myself and calculating paces in my head—and I was curious if I was on pace for the 200k American record. I asked Joe Fejes [who was there spectating] what it was and he looked it up. So then I started calculating in my head again and realized I was pretty well on pace if I kept going at the rate I was. I kept doing that. Between hours 12 and 13, my right Achilles started to hurt a little bit, not really badly, what you’d almost expect as everything starts to hurt at that point. But then as I got closer and closer to hour 14, it started to kind of spread up to my calf and get more and more tight. So I didn’t want to stop and stretch it out knowing I was on pace for the 200k American record. So I thought to myself that if I just keep this pace going, get the 200k [record], stop and stretch it out, and try to get everything fixed, then at that point I’d only need another 26 miles to get on Team USA. My problem was that at the 200k mark when I stopped, it tightened up more and I never really got it loosened up enough to justify going back out there and risk hurting it even worse.
iRunFar: So, I want to know about your original plan. The qualifying mark [for getting on the USA 24-hour team] is 135 miles, is that right?
Bitter: The qualifying distance is 135 miles, but based on [other runners’] previous performances, I would have had to go 151 in order to get on the team.
iRunFar: Do that math for me. It sounds like you’re really good at doing math on the run. [laughs] What pace did you go out at this race at?
Bitter: [laughs] I didn’t really ever calculate the exact pace for that because thought I’d pretty easily be able to get to that distance unless something weird happened… well, like what did happen. It’s somewhere around probably a 9:00-mile pace if you would average that the whole way.
iRunFar: Then the 200k record pace that you just set is somewhere just under 8:00-mile pace, is that right?
Bitter: Yeah, I think it came out to be a 7:56 or 7:57.
iRunFar: Did you just start out going a lot faster than 151 miles/24-hour pace or did you bring it down when you realized that [the 200k record] was in reach?
Bitter: I was really torn on how to go about the 24-hour distance because if you look at some of the top performances, it really varies on how they go about the strategy. I know that when Yiannis Kouros ran 188 miles, his strategy was basically to go out pretty much at whatever was a good pace, not like going artificially slow which was technically way too fast when you look at what an average pace would be. So that was kind of my thought process, too. I didn’t want to force myself to go slower, but then again I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to push myself either. So I was actually going quicker at the beginning than I was at the end. I think I came through the first hour at under 7:00-mile pace and that was just purely because that was what felt comfortable at the time. My goal was just to keep going at whatever felt comfortable. If an 8:00 mile felt comfortable then that was what I was going to do. If a 7:00 mile felt comfortable then that was what I was going to do—and to just keep going like that and with the goal in mind to keep moving the whole time.
iRunFar: The 200k American record idea—did that come into your head when your Achilles started hurting and you were like, Oh, I’m not sure I’m going to make it 24 hours? Did it spontaneously pop into your head on one of the laps? [laughs]
Bitter: I’m trying to remember exactly when I asked. [laughs] I know I asked before my leg started bothering me. I kind of thought, This is something I can get in addition to hopefully qualifying for the team. And maybe, if I had a really good day, I could get up near Mike Morton’s American record for 24 hours. So I kind of thought that this is a great little midway, not necessarily midway, but partway-through milestone to think of because it’s kind of a recipe for disaster to start thinking about the full 24 hours all at once. So my mindset then was like, Let’s just separate this into chunks and have the small goal of trying to get the 200k record and then not even think about the next part of the race until I get to it, so it didn’t seem like such a big task. But once my leg started to bother me then my mindset kind of shifted to, Get to the 200k American record so you know you have that, then kind of assess where your leg is at and decide if it’s worth risking to push for the rest of the time.
iRunFar: I read that you’ve had Achilles trouble before? Is it the same leg that has bothered you previously?
Bitter: I’ve had Achilles tendonitis in the past, but it’s been such a long time… I’ve had a few running injuries but the funny thing is, since I started doing ultras, my issues have been almost nonexistent. So I really haven’t had a whole lot of issues with it. My theory with it is that with running on the snow and ice all winter, the Achilles weren’t as fresh as they could have been. So when I went on the track and started running some of those long flats and the fact that I was going on for as long as I was after running on snow and ice all winter, my Achilles were probably primed to fail on me.
iRunFar: We’re about four days out now. How is your Achilles doing?
Bitter: It’s doing really well. I don’t really foresee it being a big problem. When I finished, I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I was going to take a little more downtime after this race than I normally would at this time of year because I want to do the Mad City 100k in 3.5 weeks. So I’ll probably give myself a couple extra days to recover, then get a couple weeks of training for Mad City. But the Achilles has been progressing really well. I’ve been pretty proactive with it by taking Epsom salt baths and trying to address it nutritionally with an anti-inflammatory diet with plant foods and things like that. So it’s been doing well. My muscles are pretty much recovered at this point. I’m at the point now where I could do some slow easy miles tomorrow and test it out.
iRunFar: That’s a pretty quick comeback.
Bitter: Yeah, I was glad that it didn’t turn into something worse. That was one of the things I was debating after I did the 200k. Was it worth it to go out there for another 7.5 hours and risk getting a long-term injury, or do I cut my losses right now and hopefully bounce back quicker and be ready for some of these spring and early-summer races? To be honest, one of the big reasons for my decision to not push through it was because the [24-hour] world championships have moved to December. Now that it’s moved back, it’s going to probably conflict with what they just announced was the [new date] for the [IAU] 100k World Championships. If I had to pick between a 100k and a 24 hour, I’d definitely take the 100k. That’s also assuming I stay… right now I’m on the team in terms of qualifying standards, but I feel that I probably need to lower my time a little to guarantee that I get on because the split that has me on there is my split from Desert Solstice. They actually had my 100k mark and that was good enough of time to meet the window.
iRunFar: So your next objective is Mad City 100k in April and then hopefully representing USA at the newly-reannounced-for-the-third-time IAU 100k World Championships in Qatar. [laughs]
Bitter: [laughs] Yeah, hopefully it stays there.
iRunFar: I want to back up a little bit and talk a little background on you. You’re a [University of Wisconsin -] Stevens Point graduate. I think you graduated in 2010?
Bitter: I was at Stevens Point in 2005 and ran cross country and track until 2008. Then I graduated. I started teaching. Then I went back to school to get some more teaching certifications later on. The second time I went back to school is when I started running ultras.
iRunFar: You did a pretty fast jump from the collegiate-running scene through road racing and onto the ultra scene. Some people take a while to do that, but that happened pretty quick for you. How did that happen?
Bitter: I just think that it was a little-easier transition for me because at Stevens Point our coach, Rick Witt, was a high-mileage guy. So I was able to do pretty good volume work in training in college which set me up to continue to build after college. Then naturally with any collegiate program, there was a good amount of speedwork. So it kind of taught me the various different types of speedwork and what they’re good for and how I could use them. That experience kind of led me to what I consider my ultramarathon-training protocol.
iRunFar: When I look at your background with ultras since 2010, your results have always been quite strong. Then there seems like there was this pretty significant step up last fall when you went from your 50-mile PR of 5:26 and then you ran 5:12 at Lakefront 50. What happened that caused that really significant jump?
Bitter: I think there were a couple of things that happened. One was when I ran the 5:26 it was fairly early… I think it was my third ultramarathon ever. At that time my diet was a high-carbohydrate diet. I was obviously doing okay with it, but I was noticing I was breaking down quicker and not recovering as fast as I would have liked to be able to race as often as I wanted to. So at the end of that 2011, I switched my diet to be more of an anti-inflammatory approach which is a higher-fat diet. I think just over that two years of training my body to be able to be fat adapted and to be able to metabolize fat has really helped me from a bonking perspective but also from a recovery perspective. If you look at the Chicago Lakefront race, that was 13 days after Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK. So I didn’t have a lot of recovery time, but it looks like I was stronger at Chicago than I was at Tussey. I think the diet had a lot to do with it, but then also working to my strength a little more. Chicago Lakefront is a paved course and it’s flat as a pancake. A lot of my training just from where I live puts me on flat concrete an awful lot. I have this enormous base of miles that is done on flat, concrete-type surfaces. So Lakefront might have been the first race that was really angled toward my strengths. Then Desert Solstice was kind of a follow-up to that which is on a track; so that’s as flat and as fast as it gets. So that also kind of works towards my strengths.
iRunFar: Another curious thing, when I reflect on what you’ve done so ultrarunning so far, so for 3.5 to four years, you have specialized in 50k’s and 50 miles and then all of a sudden… well, I think you ran Western States one time, right?
Bitter: Yes, 2012.
iRunFar: But then this past fall you did Desert Solstice with the 12-hour world record and the 100-mile track American record and now what you did last weekend. You’re basically doubling your racing distance. What I see is a theme emerging in that you’re starting to race these longer ultra distances. Where is this interest coming from?
Bitter: When I got into ultrarunning, I was fascinated by the 100-mile distance. I think a lot of people are. I’ve always kind of had an eye on that, but also realized that you see some of these guys like Mike Morton and some of these other guys who–Karl Meltzer, Dave Mackey–who are doing pretty darn good at 100 milers even as they’re older. So I guess when I first started I didn’t have this huge rush to jump right into 100 milers. Even Western States, I did that mainly because I won Ice Age and got the qualifier. I was told you don’t pass up on a Western States bid. So I took that advice and did it. Then Western States got me really intrigued with the 100-mile distance because I do think that is probably going to be one of my stronger distances based on my natural speed and my training. I’ve always had the 100-mile distance in my mind as one that I want to make my primary event for awhile now, but I’ve been patiently building up to it.
iRunFar: I want to ask about your training. You put some of it online for people to look at. We just published an article on iRunFar earlier this week where you talk about some of your training principles. But training for what you’re doing right now, like to run 150 miles in 24 hours, what did your peak training weeks for that look like?
Bitter: In the past, peak training weeks have gotten all the way up to 189.5 miles, I think is the furthest I’ve done. But more often than not, it’s usually around that 150- to 160-mile mark that I’ll hit in a peak week. Then I’ll have a whole bunch of weeks in the 130-mile range. I didn’t actually hit as high of a peak for the 24-hour [training]. But what I did was I bunched some really, really long runs together and tried to recover. So my overall mileage wasn’t quite as high as if I was doing this training block in the summer, but if you look at some of these three-day blocks, I had a three-day block where I ran almost 80 miles in three days. I was really trying to get that feeling of, I’ve been running on tired legs for a long period of time, but then backing off and giving myself a chance to recover.
iRunFar: You continue to do speedwork even though you’re training for a race with a pace that is in the comfortable range for you?
iRunFar: Do you tailor your speedwork toward that effort? Are you doing longer tempos or workouts that are in the easier range of speed but longer? Or do you stick to your normal speedwork protocol?
Bitter: I do a really good mix for a couple reasons. I’ll do speedwork all the way down to what’s sort of considered sprinter’s speedwork. I’ll do these things called 20-40’s where I’m sprinting as hard as I can for 20 seconds and then just jogging for 40 seconds and then sprinting for 20 seconds and jogging for 40. I’ll do those a lot. It’s kind of an over-speed-training philosophy where if you can learn to control your body at those fast, all-out efforts, all of a sudden your ability to control your form and your body at an average pace becomes really, really good. So if you look at something like Desert Solstice where I was out there for 12 hours, my form was identical at the end to what it was at the beginning. I credit a lot of that to my over-speed training because it’s just so much easier to hold form when your body has experience going much, much faster. For some of the other more middle-speed sessions like a tempo run or a progression run, a lot of those I do just simply to make that pace I’m going to do at race pace feel easier. If I do a 7:00 mile and it feels effortless, then that’s going to be a huge mental boost for me in the early and late stages of the race.
iRunFar: Let’s go back to this weekend’s race and talk about a few more details. Talk us through your crewing—did you have a table set up? Were you crewed? Did you crew yourself? How did that work?
Bitter: I didn’t bring a crew person to South Carolina, but there were a few people who offered to help me out when I would ask. So I don’t think I was as efficient as I was at Desert Solstice where I literally didn’t really do anything but grab stuff from people, but I definitely had somebody helping me out. So I had a little table set out with some of the stuff I wanted or knew I was going to use. Then some of the folks there would ask me if I wanted a bottle refilled or they’d put the food I was eating into plastic cups so I could just grab a cup off the table and put it back the next time around and they’d refill it. Then there was the general aid station where they just had a bunch of stuff out. You could just kind of swing out to the far lane and grab something off there real quick if you needed to.
iRunFar: Were the tables set up in the outer lanes? How far out did you have to deviate to get out to your crew table?
Bitter: The personal table, the stuff that I brought was on the inside, so we didn’t have to deviate much at all for that. The general aid station with stuff for everyone was out in lane five or six on one of the turns, so you’d have to swing out to get those things.
iRunFar: The farthest I’ve run in at rack race is five hours, but I know from personal experience it’s easy to overdo your nutrition and hydration because you pass by your little aid station every lap. When you do these track races, what has become your nutrition and hydration plan?
Bitter: It sort of depends on the weather a little bit. At Desert Solstice and at Chicago, the weather was pretty much ideal. It was maybe a little warm during the day at Desert Solstice, but I could fuel at pretty much what I would call ideal fueling where my body was able to process as much as it possibly could without the weather hindering it. At South Carolina, though, it got a little bit warmer during the day. So the first six to seven hours of the race, it was pretty warm out. I think it got to 82 degrees [Fahrenheit]. There was a decent wind, too, which was kind of nice from a cooling standpoint but kind of frustrating heading into it every time you come around that one straightaway. I think a lot of people experienced this at South Carolina that it just wasn’t very feasible to fuel as much as you might have if it was 50 degrees because your stomach just doesn’t want to take in lots of calories when it’s trying to cool it to help at the same time.
So I definitely didn’t fuel as much at the beginning as I would have on cooler temperatures. That’s another reason I’ve turned to a higher-fat approach, because since I’ve done that I’ve been able to get away with less fuel during race day. Then when it does get warm like it did at South Carolina, I don’t have to worry about running this really—I mean, I’m going to be running a calorie deficit but it’s not going to hinder me as much because my body is good at metabolizing my body fat.
iRunFar: Given your nutrition approach to life and running in general and South Carolina’s hot day, how did you end up fueling?
Bitter: I was doing a little bit of experimenting at this race. Up until now, my approach has basically been that I train low carbohydrate and then when I race I bring the carbohydrates back. But then with that in mind, realizing I don’t need as many carbohydrates, this race I tried not bringing the carbohydrates back as much. My thought was that because I’m going to be out there longer, I’m not going to need to reach into that threshold where I need carbohydrates as often as I would in a faster 50 mile where I’m almost constantly going up into those paces.
At the beginning, I was eating more fat than I was carbohydrates. I had these cups that had banana chips that are cooked in coconut oil which come out to be about 65% fat and then the rest carbohydrate. With those banana chips I had coconut flakes which were unsweetened and almost all fat. So my carbohydrate intake was pretty low in the early stages. I stuck with that for the first five or six hours. Then I just didn’t feel quite as sharp as I did at Desert Solstice or some other ones where I’d take in maybe 200 calories an hour of carbohydrates, so I started cycling in a little more carbohydrate and I actually started feeling quite a bit better. Some of that might have been that it started to cool off a little bit, too. I think even for someone who is fat-adapted like me and avoids carbohydrates in training, finding the right amount during racing might make the difference between feeling really sharp or feeling a little bit off.
iRunFar: When you started to cycle in some carbohydrates, are we talking gels?
Bitter: I didn’t take any gels, but what I was taking in was some sugary drinks. We actually had some slushies there that someone had picked up which was really nice after the hot weather—it really hit the spot. Then once it got to be later in the night, I started taking in, I was pretty careful about monitoring to not overdo, but started taking in some sodas because I wanted to trickle in a little caffeine with it, too, so that my body didn’t try to go into bedtime mode and try to stave that off a little bit.
iRunFar: You said when you did your report for us after your Desert Solstice outing, that you experienced a little bit of energetic bonkiness, lightheadedness at the very end of that effort. Did you have any of that this time?
Bitter: I didn’t really notice any of that at South Carolina. I’m guessing a lot of that has to do with the pace because my pace was about 50 seconds per mile slower on average than at Desert Solstice. For someone like me who trains my body to be efficient at burning fat, I could probably run a 7:30 mile or so without touching hardly any carbohydrate in my storage. So if I’m really careful at monitoring my pace, I could probably get away with a lot less than what I did at Desert Solstice or the real early stages of South Carolina where I was doing a sub-7:00 mile or right around a 7:00 mile.
iRunFar: You have recently become an Altra athlete?
iRunFar: In the last year or so you switched from Skora to Altra shoes?
Bitter: I guess it was in 2011 I decided I wanted to train my feet to be stronger, so I started to transition to zero-drop shoes. I tried to do it smart so I didn’t get hurt in the process. Up until this year I’ve used a combination of Skora, Inov-8, and Altra. This is the first year where I’ve been primarily all Altra.
iRunFar: How is that working out for you going from having some shoes with a bit of drop to shoes with no drop?
Bitter: The other shoes didn’t have much of a drop at all. The Skora were zero-drop still. The Inov-8, most of them were zero-drop shoes as well. I think the highest one I used was 6mm drop heel to toe. So my feet are really good at the 0mm as I used those most of the last season. The thing I notice is that Altra has a bigger variety. I can get a lighter road flat or I can get a beefier trail shoe which is one of the reasons I went with them. I do want to still run trail races and stuff. So if I’m going to commit to one specific shoe brand, I need to be able to have access to a shoe that is good for any condition. I felt that Altra had a wide-enough range that I could find a shoe that would work really well for me whether I’m on a track or a trail or mountain race.
iRunFar: That was going to be one of my last questions for you. You’ve been spending a lot of time on roads and tracks surfaces lately, but you do have a pretty strong trail-racing history. Do you have more trail-racing ambitions?
Bitter: I’m signed up for the Ice Age 50 miler now which is four weeks after Mad City. I think it’s the second weekend of May. Ice Age is the last qualifier for Western States. I’ll probably go about that with the same mindset as I did in 2012 that if I qualify for States I’m not going to pass up that bid. I’m going to probably be somewhat out of my element in terms of what I’m trained for. In the end, if I’m lucky enough to qualify for Western States, then I’m in Western States. Part of it, too, is not doing the same thing all the time and doing what you enjoy. I enjoy running track, road, mountain, trail, and all that stuff, so I don’t want to ever really commit to just one specific environment.
iRunFar: So, Mad City next month. Then Ice Age a month after that. Then potentially Western States the month after that. Then World 100k Championships at the end of November. What else is on your schedule between potentially Western States and 100k World Championships?
Bitter: Between those two I’m probably going to do this race called Six Days in the Dome that Joe Fejes is putting on in Alaska in August. You can do anything from a 24-hour event up to a six-day event. I’m definitely not doing anything bigger than 24 hours there. I’m sure it will be a great time especially if I do the shorter part since I’ll be done earlier and will be able to hang out and watch people beat themselves up for awhile. That’s kind of one I’m looking forward to potentially getting a really fast 24-hour time at or maybe taking another time at lowering the 100 mile American record or 12-hour world record.
Between Western States and there I’ll probably do little or no racing in those couple months just to kind of give myself a little bit of time to do some good training blocks before the fall. I’m signed up to do the USATF 50-Mile Road Championships which is in Door County[, Wisconsin] at the Fall Classic this year. Some of that may depend on the 100k World Championships because that race is, I believe, in October and I don’t want to jeopardize any performance at worlds if it’s too close. I’ll definitely be monitoring where I’m with recovery.
iRunFar: You are becoming a master of these timed, pace yourself, working against the clock rather than working against other human beings kind of events. What would you say to ultrarunners—fast guys and fast girls who are used to racing other human beings—who are thinking about doing something like this where you’re racing yourself or the clock?
Bitter: I think it’s really interesting because if you’re racing another person, I feel like you’re always trying to convince yourself that you can only worry about yourself. But in reality, you have to worry about other racers, too, because if you want to beat someone else you have to worry about whether they’re going too fast or whether they’re going to blow up or if they’re going to maintain. Whereas when you’re racing against the clock or for a specific distance, it’s just you. If you back off or don’t get there, it’s because you didn’t do something right. If you do get it, it’s because you did pace it right. The big difference to me is the fact that it is really all personal patrol, assuming that you’re not trying to go for something that you’re not physically capable of.
iRunFar: Thank you so much for the conversation and congratulations on your spontaneous American record.
Bitter: Thank you for having me.
iRunFar: It must feel good that you can pull an American record out of your hat. [laughs]
Bitter: [laughs] Yeah, it was kind of funny. I can’t remember who it was—if it was Ultrarunnerpodcast—someone tweeted at me, ‘It’s pretty cool that your Plan B results in an American record.’ I was like, yeah, I guess that was a lucky way to have things happen.
iRunFar: This is definitely a reason to think that, when you lay down in bed at night and look up at the ceiling, it’s been a good day.
Bitter: Yeah. Thanks.