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