[Editor’s Note: The 2013 IAU 24-Hour World Championships took place last weekend in Steenbergen, Netherlands, with great success for the American squad. On the individual podiums, Jon Olsen won men’s gold, Sabrina Little and John Dennis both took home silver, while Suzanna Bon garnered women’s bronze. In the team competitions, both the American men and women took home team gold. Here is Sabrina Little’s humorous take on her race in which she set the women’s 24-hour American record at 152.03 miles.]
Individual: 152.03 miles, American Record, Silver medal.
Weather: Overcast and windy, punctuated by bouts of sleet and rain.
Best Part: There were so many countries racing! It was like a United Nations summit, with all representatives wearing spandex in the colors of their country’s flag.
Other Best Part: The International Anti-Doping Agency tested me twice (once pre-race, once post-race). I am happy to live in a world where little nerd balls like me can, with sincerity, get tested for performance enhancers twice over a span of three days. How fun! I have the muscular development of approximately a primary schooler. But this will keep our sport honest.
Worst Part: Sleet.
On Tuesday of last week, I said goodbye to my students. They sent me away with hugs and cards and released 24 balloons into the air (one for each hour I would be competing). “It’s simple, Mrs. Little,” they advised me. “All you have to do is be the fastest.”
My husband, David, and I packed up and flew off to the Netherlands the following morning. We landed in Amsterdam and explored the city. Late that evening, we arrived in Bergen Op Zoom, a small city 15 minutes away from the race site where the American contingent would be staying.
The next morning, we ate breakfast, and the U.S. athletes who had already arrived piled into a big van and drove to race site. This was good for race-terrain reconnaissance and for team building. We ran together for about an hour and talked. We bonded. When you share ultrarunning with a person, then that person remembers to ask you about all the other aspects of yourself that nobody else asks because they’re too busy asking about ultrarunning. So ultrarunner-to-ultrarunner conversations are the least socially reductive conversations available for ultrarunners.
Later that afternoon, we had a team meeting and made a grocery list for race day. We talked about expectations and assigned roles to our staff and crews. I was beginning to get nervous.
There are some exclusive clubs that are difficult to gain access to, but once you get in, life is easier. You can relax. Take Ivy League institutions, for example. A U.S. National Team is not like that. Earning the American singlet is difficult, and once you do that, more is demanded of you because running is no longer a singular pursuit. You represent your country—your coaches, your family, and your freedoms. It was weighty, so I was feeling anxious.
The day before the event, David and I were leaving the breakfast room when Coach Howard Nippert pulled me aside. He told me I was strong and fast and that I could be in the mix to place well. That was that. My nervousness sublimated into zest, and I was ready to compete. Encouragement, when it comes from the right source, is impactful and world-shaping. I could have climbed Mt. Everest if he’d told me I could do that, too.
David and I ran alongside some cow fields on the outskirts of town, and then the Anti-Doping Agency swept me away to take two vials of my blood. We took team photos, marched in the parade, ate dinner, and waited for the morning.
When we awoke on Saturday, a cold rain was falling. Athletes scurried about, trying to stay dry for a few final moments and to set up their crews. The American contingent was a well-oiled machine, so I had no worries.
Traci Falbo and I lined up next to the Estonian team, just ahead of Canada, but when the gun went off, I lost sight of her and the rest of my teammates. The course was a 1.45-mile mix of pavement and bricks. Spectators lined the course, and locals hung their heads out of windows. It was as rowdy as an American marathon.
Strategically, I break my races into two parts: 100 miles, then everything else. I try to get to 100 miles as quickly but painlessly as possible—reigning myself in but not running at a leisurely pace either. I ate early and often, primarily Honey Singers and Shot Bloks, with sliced turkey every two hours, and water with S! Caps whenever I could stomach it.
Those first 100 miles were uneventful. I ran back and forth with a man from Great Britain who called me “Miss America” all day long. Not a problem. I scarcely saw any Americans, but when we did pass, we encouraged one another. From crew reports, I knew I was leading the U.S. women, with Connie [Gardner] about a kilometer back and Traci and Susanna a couple of laps behind her, looking sharp and at ease.
At one point during the night, Traci and I crossed paths, and she was cranking out mileage. I typically wait until sunrise to push the pace but had no reservations about joining her, so I dug in, too. We noticed Susanna doing the same. The Americans were making their move.
At 15 hours, 14 minutes, I hit 100 miles and assessed myself. I felt fine and was on pace to hit 150 miles if nothing catastrophic occurred. At around that time, I noticed Connie leaving the course with hypothermia. My heart sunk because I knew we shared a race goal. Connie is a stud, and her American Record attempts have emboldened my own and refined my efforts. She is a tremendous teammate and raises the level of competition. Even though breaking records is striking uncharted grounds, it hasn’t felt that way because of the way Connie has spoken of breaking the 150-mile mark with such bold inevitability. The sleet and heavy winds took down a lot of athletes during the night, and she and Harvey Lewis (on the men’s U.S. team) encountered hypothermia. After being treated, Connie returned to the course and continued to log more miles for our team as if nothing had happened. Unreal.
I passed Debbie [Horn] and Carilyn [Johnson], long-time veterans of the U.S. team and wonderful friends. They were focused and racing hard. Susanna, Traci, and I found ourselves in the top four. The stronger I ran, the more I genuinely felt like I was in the right place, being myself. It’s like Aristotle says, “The true nature of a thing is the highest it can become.” And how Justin Beiber says, “If you need me I’ll come running from a thousand miles away. When you smile, I smile. Oh wh-o-o-o-a-a.” (Is that relevant here?)
In the final four hours, I was tired. Mike Spinnler and Howard started checking my lap splits and making sure I was on pace for the record. I whined and told them my legs were done. Also, at that point I had arrived at the idea that an “American Record” was an arbitrary consignment of value, since if Pangaea had split in a different way, America might have been a bigger landmass with more people on it capable of beating me anyway.
The miles did pass, and I got the record by over two miles. As I dropped my partial-lap wooden block at the sounding of the horn, a woman from the Anti-Doping Agency peddled up beside me and told me she was there to escort me to a drug test. I asked if David could come. I didn’t want him to miss such a fun time. Sharing is caring!
At the awards ceremony press conference, we were awarded Team Gold. We were wobbly and tired, so the French women kindly helped us climb onto the top podium block. When the U.S. National Anthem played, I got chills. But I also had the chills because the Anti-Doping tests took a long time, and all of the hot water was used up in the showers by the time I got in. After the press conference, Dr. Lovy’s team wrapped me up in metal blankets, rubbed down my limbs, and fed me hot soup through a straw. The taste of victory! Dream come true.
Thanks so much for all of the love and support, especially from David, my family and friends, Howard and his staff, DryMax, and Dr. Lovy’s medical team. It was a neat weekend.