[Editor’s Note: After running the fastest American 50 miler in decades at the Chicago Lakefront 50 recently, Zach Bitter set the 100-Mile North American record and track 12-hour world records at the 2013 Desert Solstice Invitational. Here is his report.]
Mile three of 100… “I’m actually here. I’m at the Desert Solstice taking a swing at the North American 100-mile record.” I remember this thought passing through my mind during the early stages of the race. Everything seemed somewhat surreal after my shaky start to 2013: a last-minute race change to the Ice Age 50 Mile in the spring left me just outside of qualifying for Western States 100, and my summer ended with a DQ at mile 93 of the Burning River 100 after missing an aid station. This all left me wondering where I should go with the remainder of 2013. I knew I would be returning to the Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile, but I had completely intended on calling it a year if Tussey went badly. Fortunately, a second-place finish at Tussey left me feeling confident, and a quick recovery left me wanting more. A last-minute sign-up for the Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile put me on the start line of the pancake flat, four-out-and-back-style, paved course less than two weeks later. Exceeding my own expectations with a 5-hour, 12-minute, and 36-second performance at the Lakefront 50 rekindled my early 2013 aspirations of a 100-mile track race in Phoenix. Still not entirely sure if this was a wise move, I hesitated for a week. Ironically, Nick Coury of Aravaipa Running contacted me, offering me a spot at the Desert Solstice track meet. This was enough convincing for me.
I had never done an ultra track race before, and I only had one 100-mile finish—at Western States in 2012 (which, considering my training background, I felt went really well). But did I really want to run 100 miles on a track? Why would anyone want to do this? Those are the types of questions that popped up in the weeks leading into Desert Solstice. It’s not sexy like a pristine mountain range. And surely, if you do course-specific training, a track race won’t be a motivational force to get you out of bed in the morning. After all, you don’t hear people say they were invigorated by the track and felt it calling to them as they laced up their favorite pair of running shoes. It’s not only flat and un-scenic, but it’s incredibly repetitive. Incredibly repetitive. So, why? Confidence. My race-day strategy at Desert Solstice was to go out for the first 50 miles somewhere near 5 hours and 50 minutes. My thought process was that if I could do a single 50 miler in 5:12:36, surely a 5:50 for the first half of a 100 miler would leave me feeling relatively comfortable heading into the second half. At that pace, I knew I would have a really good chance of coming back at around six hours, which would put me under Jon Olsen’s newly minted North American record.
The laps leading up to the 40-mile mark slipped by quickly. At first, it was easy to watch my lap split pop up on the screen that Nick and Jamil had placed trackside. It was fun to watch and calculate in my head the different mile paces for different lap splits. As you can imagine, the novelty of this wore off quickly, and I was left to find something new to muse over. The excitement of the event and everyone else on the track, all partaking in their own unique goals, helped keep things fresh. Getting to spectate legends like Pam Smith and Eric Clifton at work, and timeless, ultra-distance guy Roy Pirrung was definitely a way to make the laps pass by. Giving and receiving encouragement on a regular basis was a huge motivating factor when lap paces would slow down.
As the 50-mile mark approached, the heat of the day was in full swing. I finished the 202nd lap of the day with an approximate time of 5:46. With two bathroom breaks included, I was pleased with the pace and how I felt. At this point things began to get personal. Of the 15 ultra events I have done, the majority of them have been of the 50-mile distance. This was something I could wrap my head around. A familiar state of mind. I kept telling myself that I was just one familiar activity away from an American record, and I didn’t even have to do it at peak speed! This definitely spurred a boost.
Race-specific training. Just as people can generate a lifestyle around training in the mountains, speed can do the same. There is something about the hours following a really hard speed session of intervals, progression runs, fartlek workouts, or the like that leaves a person feeling powerful—even accomplished. It can be hard to find the motivation at times, but there is just something about speedwork that breathes life into your lungs. A sense of accomplishment when you hit your split or reach a new mark on a particular training route. When going after a flat ultra, especially one that is paved or on a track, these types of efforts become vital, invigorating, and a source of confidence.
I was thinking about all of these workouts for a good chunk of the next 10 to 20 miles on the track. I thought about the 17-mile progression run I did on the outdoor track back in Madison. I thought about all my 5 a.m. interval sessions. I thought about my tempo runs that ate up the last bit of sunlight after a full day of teaching. These workouts instilled me with confidence and allowed me to compartmentalize the laps into smaller chunks.
Mile 65 came and passed. My splits were still relatively quick and had me well under American-record pace. At this point, I started thinking of ways to block up the remaining portions of the race.
Appeasing the mind. Considering a race like this, the first word that comes to mind for most people is: boring. It is important to find a way to keep focus. If you completely tune out, start questioning yourself, or think too far in advance, you allow your brain to slowly convince your body to slow down.
The next 15 miles I routinely ran numbers through my head; trying to calculate best- and worst-case scenarios of what my finishing time would be. I watched the laps and tried to gauge what pace I could drop to and still come away with the record. Confidence ensued as I began to realize I would have to slow down quite a bit to fall out of pace. I began to break the miles up into smaller blocks. I pictured myself on specific routes back home, and tried to match where I would be on those routes for every lap I completed. A simulation, of sorts.
All the tactics so far had worked quite well. I was still well under pace. But I wavered. Miles 80 to 90 stand out to me as ones in which I didn’t have a solid plan for staying focused, and it showed in my splits.
A new challenge. Keeping things fresh is important. Giving the mind a new thing to focus on can be just the trick to kickstart a high level of focus. Sometimes all you need is a new objective.
It was just a few laps past mile 90 that Nick Coury met me at the start of the back straightaway. Lucky for me, he came with a new challenge! Nick briefly explained to me that if I stay on pace I would have a really good shot at obtaining the 12-Hour world record. If I could manage a simple one-mile add-on, I would have it outright! This was just the shot of adrenaline I needed. A new challenge. My splits quickly started to reverse, and the next five miles flew by.
When I crossed mile 95, everything began to sink in. There was a definite buzz around the track about what I was about to accomplish. I shoveled down a healthy portion (or unhealthy portion, depending on how you look at it) of M&Ms to stave off a bit of lightheadedness coming into the home stretch. The folks that had been around the track all day began to congregate by the 100-mile mark on the track. As I got closer and closer, I could hardly contain my excitement. My pace surely quickened. I crossed the 100-mile mark with a time of 11 hours, 47 minutes, and 13 seconds. The folks around the track were amazing. They all knew that it would be of little challenge to travel an additional mile in the remaining 12 minutes I had, but they kept encouraging me to go faster. In the end, I was able to clip off an additional 1.66 miles past the 100-mile distance to set a new world standard of 101.66 miles in 12 hours. With that, I stopped for the first non-bathroom related time in 12 hours, and a huge sense of relief came over me. I did it!
Keeping it real. Do I think that this means I am the fastest 100-mile guy around? No. I’m sure there are a number of guys who could come out and raise the bar even further. In fact, I’m sure as fast ultrarunning grows, this record will fall multiple times. What this means to me is that I have a new benchmark. I am another step closer to finding out how fast I can really go.
- Vespa Ultra Concentrate (1)
- Vespa Junior (1)
- Cup of coffee
- ½ can of coconut milk
- 2 Tbsp of almond butter
- NOW Foods: Fruit and Greens PhytoFoods Powder and Spirulina Powder
- Xendurance: 4 capsules
- Vespa Ultra Concentrate (4)
- Vespa Junior (4)
- Banana chips
- Potato chips
- Mountain Dew
- Drymax Trail Running mini crew socks
- Skora Base
- Fuelbelt Slice and Sprint
- Julbo Pipeline with Dust lenses
- X-1 iPod shuffle headset