Traci Falbo, American 100-Mile Trail Best Holder, Interview

[Editor’s Note: Traci Falbo ran 14:45:25 for 100 miles at the 2014 Tunnel Hill 100 Mile, setting a new American 100-mile trail best in the process. The previous 100-mile trail best was held by Jenn Shelton at 14:57:18  from the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile.]

iRunFar: Congratulations! How is your recovery going?

Falbo: It’s going pretty well considering I didn’t sleep a lot the night after I finished, Saturday night into Sunday. But I got a good night sleep Sunday night. I feel a lot better. I’m a physical therapist. I work with children with disabilities, so I think my job actually forces me to recover better because I get down on the floor and play with kids. I start out the day after a 100 miler or something long hobbling and barely able to get up and down without having to assist myself with my hands. By the end of the day, I’m moving a lot better. It’s sort of like forced stretching and forced movement. I think it helps.

iRunFar: There’s probably a mental aspect to that, too, when you’re spending your day with people who have disabilities not by choice, when you’ve sort of disabled yourself on purpose. There’s that reminder of, Well, let’s just get going.

Falbo: I suppose, yes, there is. Usually I get some sympathy, but I remind people that I’ve done this to myself.

iRunFar: Your 14:45 100-mile accomplishment is a big deal.

Falbo: Thank you very much. I’m very excited. I’ve wanted to break 15 hours at some point in my life. I went for it, and it worked out. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Traci Falbo - Tunnel Hill 100 1

Traci Falbo and others early in the 2014 Tunnel Hill 100. Photo: Mike Howard

iRunFar: Saying “I want to run 15 hours for 100 miles” is not only fairly arbitrary, but it’s also ballsy. Where did this goal come from?

Falbo: I don’t know. I’ve always set goals. I still want to break three hours in the marathon. I haven’t done that although I haven’t really raced a marathon. As I’ve progressed in running, I’ve always set goals. That’s just one I thought I could possibly do that would be awesome—that I would break 15 hours for the 100. I’ve accomplished several goals this year. I thought, I would love to try to get an American record. I know that’s crazy also, so I tried the 48-hour, and that worked out (post-race interview). I finished my 50 states (marathons) all under four hours this year. There’s a 50 States Club. Then I broke the 15-hour goal. I’m thrilled. I don’t know if I feel like I’m getting older and I have a limited time, so I’d better get my butt in gear or what.

iRunFar: When you set your goal to run 100 miles in 15 hours, you must have been aware of the American 100-mile trail record of 14:57.

Falbo: No, I just wanted to break 15, honestly. It didn’t have anything to do with Jenn Shelton’s record. I was aware of her record. I looked at the all-time list. I knew Ann Trason’s number was untouchable, and Pam Smith’s is good. I thought Aly [Venti’s] might be possible for me, but it just would depend on the day if everything fell into place. I would have been pleased with 14:59, literally.

I understand that it’s on a trail and it’s 100 miles, so in all technicality people are calling it a trail record. But the course I ran is fast. This is the first year they’ve had this race. I knew it would be fast. Normally the weather is supposed to be good although this year we had not as great of conditions as I would have hoped. I went down there because I knew it would be a fast course and my sub-15 would be a possibility.

I really feel, if people are going to call it a trail record, like it needs to have an asterisk by it because it seems unfair to compare it to Jenn Shelton’s record. Rocky Raccoon has more climbing and it’s more technical because it’s rooty. This is very much flat. It’s got maybe a seven-mile section that you run up a couple times at a 2% grade. It’s an old rails-to-trails course. It’s very runnable and four- or five-feet wide and crushed limestone. It seems hard to compare this course with Rocky and Jenn Shelton’s record. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but I’m excited that people are saying that.

iRunFar: We checked with the USATF because we had the same questions. The [Tunnel Hill 100 Mile] course has an unpaved surface, but a very moderate one, as you say. We wondered, too, if that met the USATF’s criteria of ‘trail running.’ Their answer was pretty loose, pretty much inclusive of everything that is not a paved surface. The USATF doesn’t technically have a definition of a ‘trail,’ but their perspective on trail running is inclusive of the type of course you ran.

Falbo: Well, that’s pretty cool. I will enjoy it for the next year, because surely word will get out about this course and a bunch of very fast people will come and obliterate my record. I will have a year to relax and enjoy it then.

iRunFar: Your record comes down to somewhere around 8:50 minutes per mile average pace.

Falbo: Yeah, 8:51.

iRunFar: Walk us through your splits for the day. Were you aiming for that 15-hour mark and your splits got ahead of that? How did things go?

Falbo: I always write down what I think I’m going to run, and I give it to my husband who crews me. I wrote down where all the aid stations he was going to be at, I based it off an 8:50 minute-mile pace goal. I came through the first 50 miles at an 8:41 average, so I did fall off a little bit. I didn’t really fall off until mile 76-ish. You hit the start/finish again and you go back on an out-and-back and it’s this 2% grade which isn’t much, but…

We had 22 degrees Fahrenheit at the start. Normal weather here is 60 at the high and 40 at the low. It got up into the upper-30s during the day. Once we hit dark, which ended up being at 4:50 p.m., we had sleet off and on up until I finished.

At that point, I just slowed down a little bit. I lost a little bit mainly somewhere between 80 and 90 miles, but it’s the closest I’ve ever been to what I estimated. My husband was like, “It was amazing how on you were all day.” It just rolled for me. I felt good most of the day. I took in my nutrition like I was supposed to. I didn’t have to stop at the bathroom as much as usual. Everything clicked.

iRunFar: You started out ahead of your goal pace. You settled into about 8:40 minute miles?

Falbo: At the 50-mile split I was at 8:41 [minute-mile pace.] I was trying to slow myself down all day. I’ve learned with the 24- and 48-hour races, especially on a course like this, that even pacing works best. I spent the first 50 miles trying to slow myself down. I had a 7:53 mile in there and I was like, Oops, and then I slowed myself down to a 9:21 and thought, Oops, that’s not right either, you know, trying to find that middle goal. I looked back through my watch because I felt like I was pretty even. Most of my miles, especially in the first 75, were 8:30 to 8:50.

iRunFar: How did you settle on that number, that approximately 8:50 minute-mile average pace?

Falbo: I did 15:35 at the Keys 100 Mile and it was hot, hotter than I am used to. At the Keys, my husband and I, we put ice in my hat and I had bandanas. I’d stop every couple miles and I’d re-ice. We lost a lot of time in exchanges at the Keys. I thought I was capable of sub-15 after I ran that 15:35. Honestly, I just picked the pace that was a sub-15 pace but gave me a little bit of a window.

iRunFar: While you were out there, did you think about that 14:57 record?

Falbo: Sub-15 was the goal the whole time. The 8:50 was my goal pace which would have put me in at 14:43 or something. I knew that was close to Aly’s time which was third on the all-time list. I was aware that Jenn Shelton’s trail record was 14:57, but I wasn’t sure there was really an official tracking of the trail records per se.

Traci Falbo - American 100-mile trail record

Traci hanging onto those 8:50 minute-miles. Photo: Mike Howard

iRunFar: The course itself was essentially two 50-mile loops and the loops were double out-and-backs on this long rails-to-trails path. There is a fair degree of repetitiveness to this, but you ran around a track for two days non-stop. Maybe this degree of repetitiveness didn’t bother you?

Falbo: No, you basically go out 13 miles and back 13 to the start/finish and then go out the other direction 12 miles, and back to the start/finish again. Then you do it all again for the 100. I put my iPod in and I’m content to run by myself and listen to music. I have another friend who also had a goal of sub-15 and it just wasn’t his day. We ran together for about the first 30 miles. He wondered if he’d be bored. For a rails-to-trails, I’ve done a marathon on rails-to-trails and I was bored on that marathon, but this was quite a pretty course. I had a friend who PR’d who has done a lot of hundreds and she said it was hard for her for the sheer fact that it was so flat. She runs a lot more hills, so that got to her.

This was quite pretty, especially the second out-and-back, which I only got to see once because you were in the dark the second time. It has some railroad trestles and the fall leaves were still out somewhat. There were some rocky hills and some streams. The volunteers were fantastic. For a first-time race, you would never have known it. Steve Durbin is the race director, and it was a fantastic race.

iRunFar: You said you nailed your nutrition. You’re a Hammer athlete. Talk about what you did do for your nutrition.

Falbo: I know a lot of people don’t like gels, but it works for me. I live off of gels. Literally, every 30 minutes I take a gel as close to clockwork as possible. In the first 30, I got off because I was busy chatting and wasn’t paying attention to the time, but I take gels every 30 minutes. Hammer has Race Caps Supreme and an Anti-Fatigue Caps and I take those every hour starting at hour two. Then I drink their Recoverite after I get done. That keeps me from puking. I used to puke after every time I did an ultra, and now I don’t anymore. I’m thrilled they sponsor me.

iRunFar: You said that there are a lot of races you still want to do. You put in for the Western States lottery. You could be resting on your laurels after your 2014. You’ve had lots of success. What is next?

Falbo: Unfortunately, I feel like I have to go to Desert Solstice in December—I really wanted to take some time off. There have been a lot of fast chicks who have accrued the mileage for the U.S. 24-hour team. The minute I ran the Netherlands and found out, it was shortly thereafter we found out, it would be 2015 in Italy. I love Italy. I so want to be on the team for Italy.

I had an auto-qualifying spot for this year, but the two events that we were supposed to have got cancelled. So my auto-qualifying spot was lost. That first day at the dome, I ran 135 miles intentionally hoping that would be good enough to qualify me for 2015. In the last three weekends, three women have run above that. Then there are still at least three really good women that could break that at Desert Solstice, so I feel like, Well, if I don’t go and three women break it, then I’m off the team. So I need to go and accrue some more mileage and hope that my legs will come back for that.

Then I got asked to run for charity, for San Jorge Children’s Foundation in Puerto Rico, at the end of January. Joe Fejes, Charlie Engle, and Vlamir Nunes, and I got asked to come and run across the island which is about 180 miles which I’m looking forward to doing for fun and to help the charity out. Other than that, my goal this year is to get into the Spartathlon and maybe the following year into Comrades. There are a ton of great races out there. I like variety.

iRunFar: It’s back to business pretty quickly for you, two big months to come.

Falbo: Yeah, I’m going to take this whole week off and part of next week off and literally do nothing. I’ve learned after the Grand Slam last year that recovery is key. Then I’ll come back for a week and taper again for Desert Solstice, and then I’ll take maybe two weeks off before I ramp back up for Puerto Rico. At some point I need to give my body a good month off, but at this point it’s just going to get a few weeks here and there.

iRunFar: Congratulations again, Traci.

Falbo: Thank you very much. I fully expect some fast times to go down in the future from this course. It is a great one for anybody who wants to PR or who hasn’t been able to break that elusive 24-hour barrier. I anticipate some really fast people to go next year just to see what they can do. It will be fun to watch.

iRunFar: You set a high bar.

Falbo: Thank you.

Traci Falbo - Tunnel Hill 100 2

Traci Falbo and race director Steve Durbin after Traci’s American 100-mile trail best-setting performance. Photo: Mike Howard

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Senior Editor, the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,' and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 2 comments

  1. Danbrannen

    Congratulations to Traci on another great addition to an amazing, still-young career. A suggestion for IRF: drop the "trail record" concept and verbiage. No governing body keeps trail records (vs. track or road records), for the same reason they don't keep cross-country records. "Trail record" (other than specific course records) is an animal which doesn't–and can't–really exist. You can't define the course measurement with anything near the same degree of precision as you can for track & road. How does the intrinsic athletic quality of Traci's run at Tunnel Hill, or Jenn Shelton's run at Rocky Raccoon, stack up against the women's course records at Western States, Wasatch, or even Hardrock? Knowledgeable followers of the sport can have fun discussing/debating that issue, but there is not–and cannot be–a measurable answer. The meaning of the word "record" in the sport of running is entirely dependent on precision of measurement. When you have great course records like those at Western State or Wasatch hanging up there for all to appreciate, raising the concept of national "trail records" doesn't add anything to anyone's appreciation of the sport, and is in fact a red herring. Once you enter the realm of "trail" running (vs. track or road), it's pretty much understood by athletes and RD's that the word "record" can only meaningfully be applied in the case of "course records," and can't (and shouldn't) be extended any further than that limitation. To me, in order to appreciate the quality of Traci's Tunnel Hill performance, rather than comparing it to what Jenn Shelton did at Rocky Raccoon many years ago, I would be much more interested in the question of how the Tunnel Hill course was measured. And how many times? And what was the deviation among the multiple course measurements? It sounds like the course is borderline between "trail" and "road." It also sounds like it is similar to the Umstead 100 Mile course, and Umstead was eventually determined to be certifiable. And it was certified, and it is now listed by USATF as a record-eligible "road" course. Maybe the same can be done (or maybe has been done?) for Tunnel Hill. Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in, thanks for your coverage of Traci's exceptional career, and congratulations again to Traci. -Dan Brannen

  2. sharmanian

    Amazing work, Traci! I think the correct terminology is an 'American Best' and I believe this was also the 'World Best' for 100 miles on trails. A world or national record needs an officially measured course (impossible on almost any trail course although Umsted must be completely non-technical to be certified, as mentioned in the comment above), drug testing and sanctioning by a governing body.

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