On March 2, Emily Harrison won the USATF 50k Road Championships by running a 3:15:00.7 at the Caumsett 50k in New York. This course-record time is also the second-fastest time by a North American woman, ever. The fastest time by a North American for 50k is 3:13:51 by Janis Klecker back in 1983. Our interview with her about her near-record day has a heavy focus on pacing and speed, both in the race and her training leading up to it. As such, it also serves as the first in a three-part series on speed in ultramarathoning which we will be publishing in the next couple weeks.
iRunFar: Emily Harrison, you are now a USATF 50k road champion. How do you feel?
Emily Harrison: Pretty good, it’s exciting.
iRunFar: Had you run any of the USATF races previously?
Harrison: I have. I did some of the road-circuit races. So, the USATF 20k championships, the 25k championships, I did the 10 mile one year as well. And then, Twin Cities Marathon… I don’t believe it was a championship that year. So I’ve done those on the road circuit, and then I’ve also done the 50k trail championships, which were at [the] Bootlegger [50k] last fall.
iRunFar: Right, and you finished second at Bootlegger. Had you won any of the shorter races on the circuit?
Harrison: No, those were pretty competitive so always top 10 was pretty much the goal there. I think I managed to be close or to cracking the top 10 a couple times. I believe at the 20k I was top 10 but I’d have to look again [laughs].
iRunFar: Yeah, sure [laughs]. And how are you feeling since the race this weekend? Are you recovering well?
Harrison: I think so. Sore, you know, definitely sore. Towards the end of the race I was starting to kind of stiffen up, so I guess I was expecting to be sore the next day. And we jogged a little bit [Monday], and things started to loosen up toward the end, so maybe not too worse for the wear but still working through it.
iRunFar: Good. Well, let’s talk about leading up to the race this past weekend. Your last ultra was, I believe, the JFK 50 Mile.
Harrison: Yep, correct.
iRunFar: You won that race. That was back in November. So have you been training for Caumsett, and gearing up for it, since then?
Harrison: It was mainly at the beginning of January that I really started focusing on this race. December was kind of a down month for me, I was still running but I wasn’t specifically training for the 50k and I was still trying to finalize my race schedule for 2014. So pretty much January 1 or early January was when I started to focus for [Caumsett].
iRunFar: How did things go between the beginning of January and now?
Harrison: It was pretty good overall, pretty smooth, I was happy with the training cycle. You know, definitely hit a couple rough patches in there but just worked through them and it was fine. So overall it was a good training cycle.
iRunFar: Were you able to get on the trails any in Flagstaff at that time or were you mostly on the roads?
Harrison: Yeah, we’ve been having a really mild winter so it’s been in the 50s and sunny and hardly any snow, which is really unusual. So I’ve been able to get on the trails some, they’ve cleared off a bunch, especially in the last month. And that’s been nice, to get on there for some easy runs.
iRunFar: Definitely. We emailed about some of your workouts leading up to the JFK 50 Mile the last two years. What about the workouts leading up to this race, some of the distances, times, etceteras that you went for in training?
Harrison: Right, it was pretty similar training, really all around, nothing too drastically different. I just try to hit the pavement some for a couple workouts and the long runs, so I kind of get my legs used to that pounding of the pavement, since it seems to take its toll if you don’t. And that was one of the main differences was changing my terrain. I jumped in some workouts with a couple of the elite women up here that I used to train with, so started meeting up with them some more for some of their faster speed workouts. That was nice to touch on that, that kind of speed.
iRunFar: Was the training then largely a marathon training cycle? Did it differ much from what you’ve done in the past?
Harrison: It didn’t really differ too much. I guess it would be kind of a glorified marathon training cycle. I wouldn’t necessarily call it marathon specific, but I also knew that I wanted to be in good shape to run a decent marathon time, so that was kind of what I was keying off of going through [the training].
iRunFar: And I think you did tune up. You had a half marathon not too long ago, right?
Harrison: Yeah, two weeks before the race we were down in Phoenix for a McMillan Running Boston training camp, and they were doing the half marathon as part of the camp and it worked out time-wise. Might as well jump in there, last hard effort. And actually it was one of my first true half marathons on the road, which was interesting.
iRunFar: Did I read that you won that?
Harrison: I did, yeah [laughs].
iRunFar: And how did you do time-wise?
Harrison: I was 1:15:45.
iRunFar: Was that a PR then, since you said you haven’t raced much at that distance?
Harrison: Yep, pretty much [laughs].
iRunFar: So, the race itself. You were 68 seconds off the North American record for the 50k. You’re nodding your head [laughs], so I imagine you were aware of that record ahead of time?
Harrison: [laughs] I was, yes, I was aware of it. Ideally, I was going for that record. I didn’t really know what the loop was going to be like until we got there. So, kind of doing a little lay of the land once we got there, then once the race starts you start to feel things out. I was running pretty well for most of the race and, you know, started to kind of lose it a little toward the end, but again I was running by myself the whole way. But yeah… I knew of it. I knew it would maybe be feasible on a really good day.
iRunFar: So were you on pace, maybe to beat that record, for the majority of the time?
Harrison: I think for the majority of the time. I’d have to go back again and pull up my splits. I haven’t really gone through them in detail yet, my personal lap splits that I had on my Garmin. But I think I was a little bit off [the record] through the marathon, so I mean that’s still a long way to go. I probably wasn’t too far off but I’d have to look again… but I was starting to slip a little bit there.
iRunFar: What was your strategy, in terms of pacing? I mean, with a 10-loop course, you can get pretty specific about what you want to try to do. So did you have a goal, were you going to try to even split, or go a little faster in the beginning because you might slow down?
Harrison: Pretty much even split, that’s kind of how I like to run: just find a groove and a rhythm and lock into that pace. And then on a really good day, I can usually cut down from there or at least maintain pace. So I really wanted to run steady, but it was cold and I started off the first mile and I was like, [laughs] ‘Ew, this is not feeling smooth and steady.’ But then by the first loop or second loop, third loop, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m in a groove now.’ And I was locked into pace and it was fine. So, like I said I was locked in and it was going really well and then just started to kind of lock up a little bit, body started to protest [laughs].
iRunFar: Yeah, of course. That is about a 6:13 per mile pace, on average, so I guess you were a little faster than that, through the first half of the race at least. So what gave you confidence in the months leading up to the race to start at that pace and think that you can maintain it? Particular workouts or something else?
Harrison: My workouts have varied between the training cycles, even from when I ran my marathons; they’ve kind of varied even within marathon training cycles. So this time I didn’t really have a direct comparison, like one specific workout. I didn’t really do those [same] workouts this time. But I can tell just by my training paces, if I’m doing a long run and I’m able to lock into a certain pace and I’m comfortable doing that. I was running with a couple of the women up here and I know what kind of shape they’re in because they race pretty often, so being able to compare with them, if I can hang with them in a workout, then I can say, ‘Okay, I’m probably at this fitness level, relatively speaking.’ So just different gauges like that, I can use. You know if I do a fast-finish long run, sometimes I can use that as a gauge, if I can lock into around 6:00 [per mile] pace up here on the road, at altitude, and feel somewhat comfortable, then it has to give me a little confidence that I can run a little bit slower than that at sea-level pace.
iRunFar: And did you have, for example, any tempo runs where you were under 6:00 [per mile pace] running up there in Flagstaff, or workouts like that?
Harrison: Yeah, we definitely did some tempo work. Sub-6:00 [miles], or some fast-finish stuff, with sub-6:00 [miles]. Especially running with those girls! [laughs].
iRunFar: Yeah, so who are some of the ladies you train with in Flagstaff?
Harrison: It was mainly Kellyn Johnson and Amy Van Alstine. Amy just won the U.S. Cross Country Championships the other weekend and Kellyn just won NACAC Cross Country [Championships]. They’ve been on the cross-country circuit, so I did a workout with them, it was kind of cross-country geared but it worked out.
iRunFar: Nice, well that’s a solid group you all have there!
Harrison: Yeah [laughs].
iRunFar: What about the rest of the year then, what do you have planned going forward from here?
Harrison: Lake Sonoma [50 Mile] will be the next one and then Western [States]. So not too much racing between now and the summer. I like to spread my big efforts out, I’m not someone who likes to jump into races all the time necessarily. I’m happy to just train and be ready for race day. That’s through the summer, that’s the plan.
iRunFar: Then the fall, not too sure yet?
Harrison: Well right now Ian [Torrence] and I are going to be doing TransRockies.
iRunFar: Oh, good.
Harrison: Fingers crossed if I come off Western States okay! [laughs] I was a little banged up last year. Then do a fall marathon, will be the plan, and then probably back at JFK.
iRunFar: Yeah, got to defend the title!
Harrison: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!
iRunFar: And Lake Sonoma, as far as 50 milers go–you’ve done JFK twice–Lake Sonoma will be your first, sort of mountainous 50 miler?
Harrison: Yeah, I did one up here [in Flagstaff], it was the 50 mile [Mormon] Fat Ass, it was a training run up here before Western States, and that was at altitude but it is a fairly forgiving course. So this will probably be definitely one of the hillier, and more elevation gain, if you will, than I’m used to.
iRunFar: Right. One other thing I might ask then. Do you have any other–other than the tempos and some of those fast-finish long runs–is there anything you are doing that you think is giving you an advantage, or giving you the ability to almost break a North American record? Anything on the track or…
Harrison: No, not really. I mean you can defer to Ian [Torrence] [laughs] …
iRunFar: [laughs] Yeah.
Harrison: …for all the nitty gritty details. He’s got all that lined up. I don’t think I’m doing anything out of the ordinary really. So, I think for me, staying in touch with those kind of [speed] workouts is really good for me. And then trying to balance it out with just continuing to build my endurance. And if I can just stay consistent, that’s always been my key to being successful, is being able to build consistent training cycles on top of each other.
iRunFar: And where did you keep your mileage during the [training cycle] leading up to this race?
Harrison: I think I sat probably in the 80s, not super high, compared to a lot of people but… works for me.
iRunFar: Yeah, especially when you’re up [at high elevation] and you have a bunch of trails.
Harrison: Yeah, that is true.
iRunFar: Seems like your endurance is pretty intact, so best of luck!
Harrison: Thank you.
[Editor’s Note: For some more details on Emily’s training and this race, check out these notes from her coach, Ian Torrence, and Emily’s race report.]