Chasing Ann Where Pigs Fly: Caroline Boller’s American 50-Mile Trail Best Report

[Editor’s Note: This is Caroline Boller’s report from setting a new American 50-mile trail best of 5:48:01 at the 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile. The previous mark of 6:14:51 was set by Ann Trason in 1994. All photos by Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer.]

There must have been a special kind of magic in the air across America last weekend, because in the span of a few hours between Saturday and Sunday, ultrarunning women kicked a massive amount of butt. Gina Slaby set the new 100-mile world record on the track at Desert Solstice, breaking Ann Trason’s 1991 mark. And Maggie Guterl, Courtney Dauwalter, and presumed Ultrarunner of the Year Kaci Lickteig all clocked overall wins in their races.

I felt it, too. As dawn broke on Saturday in Needville, Texas, I relished the snap of cold in the December air. A quiet confidence whispered to me that of all the racing days that had gone before it, this was going to be my day. The Grinch sent me off and I felt the weight of a responsibility to bring my very best. I had told Race Director Rob Goyen and my crew John Stasulli (aka The Grinch) along with his son AJ that I was trying to break Ann Trason’s 50-mile trail record. On Rob’s course, I thought I could even break six hours.

Before the 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile

The Grinch at the start of the 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

Brazos Bend is a swamp. A full-on, lime-green, moss-covered swamp. The Grinch warned me that even in winter, mosquitos might be a problem. Then there were the alligators. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see an alligator on the course (alligators? really?), but everyone told me I probably would. My friend Myles Smythe, there to film the race, had seen one just the day before. In the end, neither the bugs nor the alligators made an appearance. Instead, of all things, it was flying pigs.

Only a couple of miles into the race and a disturbing ruckus of snorting and stampeding feet erupted from the brush to my right. What the…? For a few seconds, there was only the noise, coming closer and closer with each passing moment. I looked at the oncoming runners on this out-and-back section. They looked back at me, wide-eyed. Right in between us and just a few feet away, a dozen or so wild pigs came streaking across the trail at a full gallop. I paused, pretty sure I could still hear more snorting in the thicket from the ones left behind. Here goes nothing, I thought as I braved my way through, waiting to be taken out by a charging, squealing swine eager to catch up to his or her group.

Once clear–phew!–I got back into my rhythm, paranoid now about the continued sounds I could hear coming from the scrub. Fast as I was going, I couldn’t seem to outrun them. At the first aid station, 40 Acre, 4.10 miles in, The Grinch awaited. “Two minutes ahead [of pace],” he informed me, rather sternly. I shot him a big smile. “Oh, but I’m feeling so gooooood!” I shouted back as we made the seamless transition. At each aid station, I grabbed a 10-ounce bottle filled with one or two VFuel gels mixed with water–shaken, not stirred–and continued on my way.

Caroline Boller - 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile

Caroline outrunning the flying pigs. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

The plan had been to go out on 7:10 minute-mile pace and stick there like glue. This would have resulted in a 5:58:24 finish, with a smidge of cushioning if I was flagging at the end. I was determined to try to break six hours. By the end of the first 16.67-mile loop, I was well under. Six minutes under. The course was as fast as promised, with only a few short sections of clay mud and deeper crushed-gravel footing that weren’t quite as speedy as the rest of the essentially flat course. At home, my husband Robert and coach Mario Fraioli exchanged texts. Robert was ecstatic, of she’s-crushing-it mentality. Mario was a touch more reticent, knowing that at this pace the last 10 to 15 miles could turn into a one-way trip to ugly town.

Mile after mile, my pace remained consistent in the low- to mid-6:50s. On a flat surface, I can usually lock into a comfortable, fixed pace and just go, go, go. Still, with each passing mile, I braced for the inevitable crushing burden of fatigue. On a 50-mile course, I knew it was coming, the only question was when. It slowly seeped in, starting around mile 37. The danger is always the pitfall of giving back all of those beautiful splits, losing them to the overriding slow miles toward the end. Thirteen miles of 7:30s, for example, could quickly erase all that I had accomplished up to that point. I held myself to stay on task, knowing that the pain was only temporary, willing myself to squeeze all I could out of each passing mile.

Toward the end, I was grimacing with the effort, alternating between growling out loud to self-motivate and whimpering with suffering. Oncoming runners looked duly concerned. My slowest mile was at mile 45, a 7:30-something, as I came upon the lead runner Michael Daigeaun. Michael had dropped down to the 50-mile race from the 100 mile because of an impending cold. He had been ahead the whole time, often just out of sight. We would exchange encouraging words to each other as we crossed at the out-and-backs. He’d been running strong all morning and at mile 45 I naturally fell into step just behind him, thankful at the thought of having some company in my decline. I soon realized that I needed to pick up the pace to stay on track, though, and passed by. It helped, knowing he was back there. I imagined him closing in on me, spurring me to try to stay a few steps ahead.

In my mind, there was another runner leading the way. I knew that I was now well ahead of Ann Trason’s historic 1994 run in Hunstville, Texas. Yet I still imagined her there–her ghost*, if you will–always slightly ahead of me and leading the way. In that race, Ann ran 6:14:51 for 50 miles. I’m told this was the fastest women’s 50-mile time recorded for a race where the surface is entirely trail. The race no longer exists, but extrapolating from what little I know about the area, the course probably had somewhat more elevation gain, and was undoubtedly more technical with some root-laden sections. I believe this is where the Rocky Raccoon races take place, courses known as generally fast and fairly flat–although it’s always hard to compare times run at any two trail races.

In the end, I came across the line in 5:48:01 (a 6:58 minute-mile average pace), absolutely spent and raw with emotion. I’m so grateful to those who were there to capture some beautiful images of the moment. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the new overall course record, inching past Ford Smith’s 2014 time by nine seconds, albeit on a slightly adjusted course. It’s also the third-fastest 50-mile time ever run by a North American resident woman on any surface. (Camille Herron holds the world’s best of 5:38:41, run on the road, with Ann Trason’s road time a close second, at 5:40:18**).

Caroline Boller - 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile Champion 1

Crossing the finish in record time. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

Saturday marked my 42nd birthday. On that day something very unlikely happened to someone who still thinks of herself as a rank amateur among giants. The take home, I suppose, is to keep plugging away, take risks, and hold yourself to the task at hand.

Because you just never know when the pigs are gonna’ fly.

* Don’t worry, Ann Trason is very much alive, and thank goodness for that. She’s my hero, and she should be yours, too. Whether or not you’re familiar with her accomplishments, they’re worthy of discussion, being nothing short of spectacular. Ann won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run a whopping 14 times. She was voted Ultrarunner of the Year for more than a decade. Ann set 20 world records over the course of her career, at distances from 40 miles to 100 miles, and numerous course records, many of which still stand today. Stop for a moment and absorb that. It’s only in recent years, as the popularity of ultrarunning continues to grow and women’s participation in it surges, that Ann’s records have begun to be challenged. Ann set the bar so very high, at a time when her only real competition was often the men (whom she regularly beat, winning races outright).

** The Brazos Bend 100 Mile course is USA Track & Field (USATF) sanctioned. The Brazos Bend 50 Mile course I ran on Saturday is exactly 50.01 miles. Each 16.67-mile loop is part of the six-loop, 100-mile course and the 50-mile course is simply three of those same loops. The difference between certified and sanctioned is this: a certified course has been measured as accurate for the distance. However, a course cannot be certified–is not officially record-eligible–if it does not meet the USATF criteria for setting records. For reasons unknown to the author, USATF does not certify trail races. Additionally, Camille Herron’s 50-mile time is officially a ‘world’s best’ rather than a world record because it was set at a point-to-point race, which is another type of course that USATF does not officially certify. Essentially, Camille holds the fastest 50-mile road time ever recorded and I now hold the fastest 50-mile trail time ever recorded, at least by a North American resident, and possibly anywhere (since 50-mile races are very much a North American distance). Just don’t call them American records or world records because some people get really bent out of shape about stuff like this. As Traci Falbo put it: tomato/tomato.

Caroline Boller - 2016 Brazos Bend 50 Mile Champion 2

Caroline Boller after running 5:48:01 for 50 miles. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

There are 39 comments

    1. Caroline Boller

      Thank you, Sarah. It means a lot to hear from you that you enjoyed the post. (Especially since I’ve never thought of myself as much of a writer). Mario definitely deserves a lot of the credit for this result! It’s great to have him in my corner.

  1. Bob Hearn

    Congratulations on an amazing accomplishment! Wow. What a weekend. I was at Desert Solstice, watching Gina’s performance (and being the top guy beat by Courtney). What both of you have done is, I think epoch-defining. We are clearly entering a new world now.

    I’m not “getting bent out of shape” about what is and is not a record — I mostly agree with Traci, toMAYto toMAHto — but I would like to comment on one thing. You say

    “Camille Herron’s 50-mile time is officially a ‘world’s best’ rather than a world record because it was set at a point-to-point race, which is another type of course that USATF does not officially sanction”

    Actually, there *are* no world records for 50-mile. I think you mean that it’s not officially an American record (still Ann Trason’s 5:40:18). The only ultra distance for which there is a world record proper (IAAF) is 100km.

    And that means… yes… there is not officially a 100-mile world record either. So why is Gina’s result being called a WR, whereas yours is being called a 50-mile trail best? Well, there are *effectively* world records for other ultra distances, maintained by the IAU, not the IAAF. But they make it clear that only IAAF is entitled to maintain “world records”. Instead, the marks that IAU maintains are called World Best Performances (WBP), or World Age Best Performances (WABP). It is Ann’s WBP of 13:47:41, technically, that Gina beat. (Also, 50-mile is not a distance that makes the cut for IAU, which is why there is no 50-mile “world record”, colloquial or otherwise.)

    But for whatever reason, it is considered appropriate (at least in the US) to call these WBPs “world records”, whereas it is not considered appropriate to call world best marks such as yours “world records”. Normally the reason given is that you can’t accurately certify a trail course. But as you point out, Brazos Bend *is* certified.

    In summary… in my opinion, at least, there is really nothing usefully coherent in the formal distinction between what is officially a record and what is not, which is kind of a shame. (And, don’t even get me started on surface distinctions.)

  2. Caroline Boller

    Thanks for the clarification, Bob. I have to admit that all of this is completely new to me and I’m still not entirely clear on how it all fits together. What is clear is that if decide I care about any of these distinctions (which seem more than a bit arbitrary to me to be honest), I should probably consider running a road 100k. On a certified course. That’s also sanctioned ;)

    1. Bob Hearn

      The sad thing is, there is really no one who is completely clear on how it all fits together. Or if so, they are unknown to me. At least, there is no comprehensive resource on the web of what is a record and what is not, and where one looks to find what the records are. I’ve been working for a few months on a blog post “What’s in a Record?”, hoping to address some of this. Maybe I should wrap that up.

      Again, congratulations on a huge accomplishment!

    2. Markus

      Caroline,

      The problem is that everybody could come up with his own “World Record” on his own made up distance and surface. Like a 47 mile trail “World Record”.
      The idea of World Records are that things are somewhat standardized. Like distance and additional rules (pacing for example.

      Here is a explanation on the IAU page
      http://www.iau-ultramarathon.org/images/file/Rationale_for_combined_WABP.pdf

      You see in this document that the distinction between road and track was removed regarding ultrarunning distances because track races are not really organized often enough and they also can’t have lot of participants to begin with.

      Regarding trail and road surfaces:
      When people think about trails they might think about Hardrock or Western States but there is no such thing as a trail definition. It could be a flat path with a lot of paved sections. It’s a soft transition from roads to trails and there is no way to correctly categorize that.

      But one of the main issues with all these categories is the statistic work which has to be performed to keep all these lists. Ultrarunning has already a big amount of distances and splitting them up even more makes it almost impossible to keep track of it all. You also have to keep in mind that these statisticians like the German Jürgen Schoch are not getting payed (as far as I know) for that tedious work.

      More list are here:
      http://statistik.d-u-v.org/

      At the end I don’t think we do our sport a favor when everything gets announced as a new “world record”. We have already too many of these around which makes the real top performances going under in a sea of “World Records” from barefoot runners and Superman suit wearers (which is kind of fun :-)

  3. Caroline Boller

    Hi Markus, I hear what you are saying regarding standardizing distances that are record-eligible. However, the 50 mile distance is a very standard distance in our sport, at least in North America. Since the Brazos Bend course is USATF certified for accurate measurement, I’m not sure it really matters if I run 50 miles on road, track or trail. Obviously, anyone who chooses to run on trail is likely disadvantaging themselves for a number of reasons. The terrain, even when largely flat, has other factors that make it challenging (such as 180 degree turns, 90 degree turns, some sections of more difficult footing such as mud or deep gravel, less energy return/spring, etc, etc). I can understand if the argument is that we can’t ensure the distance is accurate, but here we can. So I would argue that my 50 mile time, run on trail, and unpaced, is every bit a “real” performance, and one that counts as much as any comparison between anyone else running commonly raced distances — even if it’s not an official “record” (as I already point out in the blog).

    1. Bob Hearn

      I agree with you completely, Caroline. Which raises the question, suppose you had beat Ann’s time, which is the 50-mile American road record? Would yours not count because USATF would not sanction the course for records, even though they had certified it? Then, IMO, we would have a real problem.

      It’s worth mentioning that USATF keeps separate road and track records (for most distances), and, officially, no overall records, which is very odd. (And no trail records.) IAU used to keep separate road, track, and indoor WBPs (no trail), as well as overall WBPs. Now, they only keep overall WBPs.

      Really, the whole thing is pretty messed up.

    2. Markus

      I just asked Rob Goyen the race director of Brazo Bend 50/100. Kindly he answered straight away.

      Here is his answer:
      “The course isnt certifed like most trail races.. The only people on the course with maggie where teammates on the last loop that wanted to get in extra miles with her. But she didnt have pacers for the race and didnt get assitance outside of aid stations.”

      1. Caroline Boller

        Hi Markus, I checked back in with Rob. Like I said, all of this is new to me and I’m still figuring it out. I mixed up sanctioned and certified. The course is sanctioned, not certified, since trail races are not capable of being certified under USATF rules. Since you’re saying 50 miles is not an ‘official’ distance anyway I guess it doesn’t actually make any meaningful difference, but yes, I got that part wrong.

        1. Caroline Boller

          Also, I’m Caroline, not Maggie, and I didn’t have pacers. Not that I think that matters, because for the Bandera 100k Trail National Championship, for example, they allow ‘safety runners’ which is very similar to a pacer. Which brings up an interesting point: I guess a trail course can be the National Championship course even though not certified for distance. Since USATF doesn’t certify trail races. Weird. All I can say is I am left scratching my head.

  4. Stewart Gunyon

    Hey Caroline, Thrilled to watch your running career thrive! Been a big fan since hearing your interview with Eric last February. This race report and race were awesome! And it’s obvious you’re having fun at it. Congratulations! Stew

  5. Jamie

    The quibbling about semantics here is silly. It’s a record. I say that because we have reliable verification that the distance, time, and performance are all legit, and there is no known faster time with comparable verification. It’s a significant record because 50 miles is among the most common and standard trail ultramarathon distances.

    If you need a sanctioning body — i.e., a bunch of people with an acronym — to call it a “record” before you can acknowledge it as such, that’s fine, but you’re no longer using English words properly. You’ve adopted a strange definition of “record.” In any case, we can all agree that it is, by a significant margin, the fastest known trail 50 mile time by a woman, which is pretty awesome.

    1. Caroline Boller

      Thank you, Jamie.

      I know that it does matter to some people, and I respect that. As for me, I just wanted to get out and challenge myself to see how fast I could run 50 miles on a flat trail course. Mission accomplished. Others can debate its relevance, and that’s fine.

  6. Jon Tanner

    All of this semantic talk on record, course record, certified, etc. is idiotic. First, let me congratulate Caroline on a phenomenal run, because that should be the focus of these comments.

    Addressing each of you that are arguing over the semantics of the word “record” –

    What defines a “record” how it is measured, what circumstances must surround the record, has evolved over time, and will continue to evolve. Ultimately a mass of people (or a representing governing body) accept a set of circumstances that make a record recognizable. If a mass of people want to acknowledge this as a different type of record from what is important to you, then that is fine. Let them do so. You can track the records that are important to you, and ignore the one’s that aren’t.

    But your semantic arguments are belittling another’s accomplishment, and that shouldn’t be what this is about.

    Congrats again to Caroline, on a phenomenal run.

    1. Bob Hearn

      I am very sorry if anything I said belittled Caroline’s accomplishment. I was trying to clarify the situation, but perhaps I should have left well enough alone. This is an important discussion to have, but you’re right that this is not the place for it.

  7. Larry Anderson

    Caroline,

    Many, many, congratulations!!! So exciting to see such a long-standing record get broken.. and you did it in my state– Go Texas Ultrarunning!!! As a 44 year old runner who returned to the scene 5 years ago, I am inspired by your accomplishment. If i may ask, have you run trails for a long time? Do you find that, as I so commonly read and with which I’m starting to agree, recovery must be respected more as we age than when younger? Have you find that running lots and lots of miles in preparation for Ultra’s has resulted in any notable loss of speed for short distances? So many questions:)

    I am SO intrigued by trail running, yet have not ventured beyond road 5k’s yet :). Any suggestions for a trail newbie? I’m looking at a couple of trail half marathons in early 2017. Think this might be a good place to get a feel for it? I did register and train for a 50k trail race in the fall of 2015, but after it was rained out, I just retreated to local 5k road fun, figuring I would try to get as close as I could to my 1989 times. Haven’t returned to sub-17 minutes yet, but think at a least sub-18 is possible :). And All the while, trail running articles and race reports are still stoking my curiosity:).

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your race with us here, congratulations to you and all who were there to help you along the journey, and I look forward to reading about, if not seeing, more records fall in the future!

    Sincerely, Larry

    1. Caroline Boller

      Hi Larry! Trail half marathons are a great place to start. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge and jump into a 50k when you’re ready though. You never know what you can do until you try. Very best of luck with the trail running ahead! (More comments to you in response to your post on my Facebook page :)

  8. Nadia HM

    Congratulations on this awesome accomplishment. I’m not a good long distance runner since I cramp pretty badly, but now I want to try a 50K next November with TROT in El Paso, TX. Thank you for the inspiration!

    1. Caroline Boller

      Thanks, Nadia! Be sure to keep some electrolytes to hand for the cramping and stick to a pace that feels sustainable. I know the science is mixed on electrolytes, but try it. If it works for you, then that’s what matters. I wish you all the very best with your running and the 50k! More than anything, don’t forget to enjoy it.

  9. Ben P

    Fantastic run.

    Some more fast times run in the past:
    Ann Trason ran 6:09:08 at American River in 1993
    Ellie Greenwood ran 6:12 at JFK50

    For Men’s:
    Charl Mattheus (South Africa) ran 5:20:25 at Sunmart in 2000 (same general course as the current Rocky Raccoon).
    Tom Johnson ran 5:33 at American River. Jim Howard ran 5:32 in a year the course was considered short by about a mile.

    In the past some have disputed whether American River or JFK are true trail races because part of the course is paved or towpath but both have more trail elements and difficulty than Brazos Bend. This just highlights how there is no agreed upon definition trail races that allow enable certifications as defined by USATF / IAAF.

    1. Markus

      Exactly Ben. That’s what a lot of ultra trail runners don’t want to understand: There is no such thing as a trail record because trails can’t be accurately measured and the trail surface can differ a lot from year to year. So it’s even hard to compare results from different years on the same course.

      I know people think I make this up, but you can read more here about this matter:

      http://www.americanultra.org/statistics/recordguidelines.html

  10. Eli

    Fantastic race, Caroline! Reading this report was super inspiring to me as a fellow trail runner. This will carry me through my (slow) 18 miler tomorrow! So very happy for you. Can’t wait to see you crush more records too. All the best,
    ~Eli

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