Gina Slaby set a new gold standard for women’s track ultrarunning at the 2016 Desert Solstice by resetting the 100-mile world record to 13:45:49, which required an 8:15 minute-mile average pace. The previous record of 13:47:41 was held by Ann Trason, which she set at a road-running race in 1991. In this first interview with iRunFar, conducted by telephone a couple days after the event, Gina talks about her life working around the world as a Navy lieutenant commander, how the Navy introduced her to running, and her running history that preceded this performance. Read also as she describes how her world-record performance unfolded, from her pacing, to her nutrition, to the support she received during the event, and more.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your run this weekend! That was a phenomenal performance.
Gina Slaby: Thank you.
iRunFar: How are your legs feeling?
Slaby: They are sore. They are like any other 100 miler I’ve run.
iRunFar: The same kind of soreness? The repetitive motion of the track seems different from the other ultras you’ve done so far—at least according to UltraSignup.
Slaby: Yeah, I have aches and pains in different spots. My calves are pretty beat up compared to other races. I’ll definitely have to take some time to recover my calf muscles from this one.
iRunFar: I want to ask you some details about the weekend, but this is iRunFar’s first time interviewing you. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your running background and life?
Slaby: Sure, no problem.
iRunFar: I think you came to trail and ultrarunning from road running. How did you get into running?
Slaby: I did road running—marathons mostly, the longer the better. Yeah, I’m not a sprinter in any way. 5ks are awful [laughs]. I had the most success in marathons. I had been training mainly for marathons until February [of 2016] after the Olympic [Marathon] Trials. That’s when I decided to get more into trail running. I’d dabbled in trail running before that, but now my focus is just trail and ultrarunning.
iRunFar: Are you an adult-onset runner or did you run in college?
Slaby: I started running when I joined the Navy, out of college. It was about 12 years ago—I’ve been in the Navy for 12 years now. I started running because of the PRT, the [Navy] Physical Readiness Test. It’s a mile-and-a-half run that we have to do. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pass the PRT, so I started running.
iRunFar: Did you have any early inclinations on your speed and your potential? You said you aren’t really a sprinter and the PRT is a relatively short distance.
Slaby: I was stationed overseas and I’d never run a marathon before because I was on a military installation in the Indian Ocean. I contacted the Navy running coach, Jim Felty, and said, “Hey I want to try and make the Navy running team and run the Marine Corps Marathon.” I’d never run a marathon before. He ended up flying me out there to run it. I think I was fourth overall and ran a 2:55 or something. That was the first inclination that I had some sort of speed for the longer distances.
iRunFar: I read on the internet that you were also stationed on a boat in Hawaii. It seems like some of your early running was limited in terms of the locations, in this installation and on a ship?
Slaby: Yeah, my first five or so years in the Navy, I wasn’t able to run very much because we would deploy all the time and I wouldn’t be able to get in consistent training. When I left Hawaii, I went to Arizona for a shore base. I met up with my coach and I was able to consistently get in runs every day. This was when my running started to improve.
iRunFar: The repetitiveness of training on a ship, how did you mentally cope? I think probably what you’ve done in the Navy has required you to be very mentally strong. But you must have needed to cope somehow with the running?
Slaby: I tried to run on the ship. I would do laps on the weather decks in the middle of the ocean. It was probably 15 or 20 laps of the steel deck plates to get a mile in. It was rough on the body. I would get shin splints and other things. It was an unforgiving surface.
iRunFar: Did you have company? Were other people out running, too [laughs]?
Slaby: So, it did start a trend [laughs]! People would join me. Not many, maybe three or four would go out for a mile or so. It caught on a little.
iRunFar: Can you set all this in time and space? What year was it that you ran 2:55 at the Marine Corps Marathon?
Slaby: Oh boy, I’m not good at remembering. I think it was 2007.
iRunFar: Your Navy career has taken you all over the world and the U.S. You must have had some really interesting places to run on both roads and trails over the years?
Slaby: Yeah. I’ve been to Ethiopia, Kenya, to Thailand, the Philippines, running everywhere.
iRunFar: Is it true that your husband, Steve, is a runner?
Slaby: He’s an awesome runner. He just won the Plain 100 Mile and he’s a 2:29 marathoner. He’s the one who’s really pushed me to get into ultras. He ran the Hellgate 100k back in the day. That was his first ultra…
iRunFar: Whoa, that was his first ultra?
Slaby: I think so. I remember thinking, How can anyone run that much straight? He’s awesome.
iRunFar: Did you meet through running? Did you take the sport up together? How did all that come about?
Slaby: We were stationed together on the island in the Indian Ocean—Diego Garcia was the duty station. It’s off the coast of Africa. We met there. Before he showed up, his boss told me, “There’s a new officer coming on. He’s a big runner. He’s a good guy. You should go out for runs with him.” Before I met him, I’d only run maybe 10 miles. After I met him, my distances went up to half marathons and longer. At one point, we ran tip to tip on the island–it’s 36 miles, I think, from one end of the island to the other. I guess that was my first ultra.
iRunFar: You just went and did it [laughs]?
Slaby: My first long run [laughs]. Actually, it was a bike race and we asked them if they would drop us off and we’d run back in. So there was a bike race happening, and we did our own run.
iRunFar: What can we estimate, maybe six or seven years of largely road running before you started to dabble in trail and ultrarunning?
Slaby: I’d say so. When I was stationed in Hawaii, I did the Peacock 54 Mile and the HURT 100 Mile. Probably seven years of road running and a couple of ultras in there, and then back to road running. My focus was on the Olympic Trials in 2012 and again in 2016.
iRunFar: You qualified and raced both of them. Where does your marathon PR of 2:39 come from?
Slaby: The Twin Cities Marathon.
iRunFar: The trail running, was your husband already starting to do that? Was he calling you to the other side? Did you feel like you were done with road running after the 2016 Trials? How did the transition you mentioned earlier happen?
Slaby: Steve is a big trail runner. Once the Trials were done in 2016, we just decided to focus on that. I wanted to try something different.
iRunFar: How did you hear about the Desert Solstice track race?
Slaby: The first time I heard about it was when I was stationed in Arizona. I was talking to Pam Reed and she said she was preparing for a 24-hour race. I was surprised to hear people did that stuff. Probably a year ago or so, I was talking with some local runners and one of the girls said she was trying to make the [U.S. 24-hour national] team. That’s been my focus for the last six months or so.
iRunFar: You have been doing a bout of focused training for Desert Solstice then?
Slaby: My big focus after the Trials was the Vermont 100 Mile, which was in July. After July, from then to now, I had a six-month training plan for Desert Solstice.
iRunFar: At Desert Solstice, what were your goals? Were you intending to compete for the whole 24 hours? Were you going after that 100-mile time?
Slaby: Going into it, I was definitely trying to qualify for the national 24-hour team. I wanted to compete internationally at the [IAU] 24-Hour World Championships in Ireland next year. That was my number-one goal. Before I started the race, I looked at the 100-mile world record. I was looking at the times for certain distances. They were in the back of my mind before I went out there. I talked to my coach, Jim, and Steve, and my plan was to go out at between 8 and 8:15 [minute-mile] pace and try to get in as many miles as I could early and then keep backing it off as the race progressed. I was feeling good through 60 or 70 miles. Steve was telling me that I was several minutes ahead of the world-record pace, and that I had to only keep running at 8:30 or 8:40 pace—I can’t remember exactly what it was—to get the record. So, at maybe mile 70, I figured I could hold on for that and continue on for the 100-mile record instead of the 24-hour team.
iRunFar: Wow. Did that happen naturally, where you just ended up being able to maintain sub-8:15 pace, the average pace needed to get the record, longer than you thought you could?
Slaby: I knew how I felt at the pace I was running. I knew that, in the grand scheme of things, that 30 more miles was doable.
iRunFar: [laughs] You realize people will read this and feel squeamish about how easy you make that sound. Hearing you say that 30 more miles—after 70 miles at sub-8:15 pace—was doable. Did it eventually get difficult?
Slaby: [laughs] Probably the last 10 miles were tough. I kept backing off the pace. I was worried, nutrition-wise, that I was going to crash. I was worried about tearing a muscle or getting a cramp. That was the biggest thing going through my head. I’ve gone 90 miles and what if I can’t sustain the last 10? I won’t set a record or make the 24-hour team either. That was the worst-case scenario. Every lap, my husband was calling out paces. “Hey, you only have to run 2:15 per lap.” “Hey, you only have to run 2:20 per lap.” “Now only 2:25 per lap.” I continually backed it off so I kept enough in the tank and could still finish faster than the record.
iRunFar: You were feeling muscle-type stuff toward the end?
Slaby: My quads were screaming. I was really struggling to maintain my stride at the end.
iRunFar: What was your nutrition like? That’s a tricky pace. At shorter distances for you, 8:15 pace would be such an easy effort, but for 100 miles, it’s huge. How did your nutrition pan out?
Slaby: Nutrition-wise, I bought a lot of food, expecting to eat lots of things. For other ultras I’ve done, like Vermont and HURT, potatoes and salt or rice balls and salt, those were the go-to foods for me. They were the only things I could get down in those races. At Desert Solstice, I didn’t eat any of that stuff. The only thing that sustained me was Honey Stingers. A good callout to Honey Stinger!
iRunFar: The chews?
Slaby: Yeah, the chews. And Endurolytes. I was taking them by the handful to keep from cramping [laughs].
iRunFar: [laughs] Pumping the electrolytes!
Slaby: Big time.
iRunFar: Did you try the other food and you couldn’t digest it? Did it not sound palatable?
Slaby: I didn’t even try it. The only other thing was—I had Ensure to try and get some calories in. I have had Ensure in other ultras, too.
iRunFar: The track-racing environment is unique from the hydration and fueling standpoint because you have constant access to it. Were you dosing on intervals? A few chews every couple laps?
Slaby: My nutrition was so much worse on the track! I didn’t stop at all. My husband would just hand things off to me. I never once stopped. In trail ultras, I stop in aid stations to fill water bottles and eat. At Desert Solstice, I never stopped.
iRunFar: Often in trail running, at the front of the pack, you spend a lot of time alone. At Desert Solstice on the track, there are people around all the time. What was that experience like?
Slaby: It was helpful. Racing on the trails you won’t see anyone for hours. Here there were people around and they kept you mentally into the game.
iRunFar: When you crossed that 100-mile point marked on the track and you were able to stop, what was going through your head? You’re now a world-record holder.
Slaby: I was thinking, I am so happy I can stop. I am so exhausted. I stopped and walked a few steps. Everyone kept yelling, “Keep running! You need to keep running! Do a few more laps!” I tried to jog after that, but I was pretty much done. I knew there was no way to make the 24-hour team. I was done for the day.
iRunFar: Why exactly were people yelling for you to continue? Did they want you to ease off the effort so you didn’t collapse physically? Because they knew your original goal was to make the 24-hour team?
Slaby: They wanted to make sure there weren’t technical issues, so that I covered more distance than was required.
iRunFar: So you literally crossed the 100-mile point and people urged you to go a bit more to make sure?
Slaby: Yeah, for one or two laps. At the time, I didn’t understand why they wanted me to. The jester, Ed Ettinghausen, he was a great guy on the track. He was there at the finish line and he said, “You know why you have to keep running? It’s just in case there’s a technical error, in case someone disputes it.” I wish they had told me ahead of time! As soon as I stopped, I felt done.
iRunFar: How do you feel now? It’s been a couple days. Has it set in, what you’ve accomplished?
Slaby: I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until a little while later. My husband told me how big it was—beating that record and how long it had been in place. It had been in place since 1991. I definitely know who Ann Trason is. She’s an amazing runner. To have my name mentioned with hers is a huge honor. This is definitely the pinnacle of my running career. This is great. I’m ready to heal up and get back out there and see what else I can do.
iRunFar: As a journalist, I often feel like asking, “What’s next?” to a runner right after a long ultra is a recipe for getting smacked in the head [laughs]. But you seem eager for what is next.
Slaby: [laughs] I am already talking to my coach. I need to see the schedule. I know they make decisions for the 24-hour team by April. I need to see if there’s another 24-hour race that’s scheduled [before that]. I don’t know if I’ll be recovered by then. I’ll start in the next couple days looking at what I’m going to do in the next six months.
iRunFar: Fantastic. Well, Gina, congratulations! I hope your record sinks in and that you can feel what you’ve accomplished.
Slaby: Thanks again.