The Revival of the American Ultra-Distance Track Race

A look at ultra races on the track and an introduction to the inaugural Desert Solstice 24 Hour race.

By on November 30, 2011 | Comments

2011 Desert Solstice 24 Hour RunA century ago, a little-remembered sport known as Pedestrianism existed in America. More accurately, it exploded. Tens of thousands of spectators crammed into a stadium in Madison Square Garden to watch a dozen men circle a 200 meter track for six days straight, cheering and betting on athletes reaching performances that are scarcely touched to this day. Going out at 6 minute miles and passing through the 100 mile mark in as little as 13 and a half hours, these pedestrians covered as much as 600 miles within a six day period.

The modern revival of long distance running in America continues to explode on the trail scene, with 50 and 100 mile runs taking place on the dirt every week of the year. Even the looped ultras at distances up to 24 hour are seeing an increase in popularity, as runners including Connie Gardner and Scott Jurek make assaults on the current American records. [Broken link to May 24, 2010 Scott Jurek blogpost entitled “This Is What You Came For” removed.] Yet one area of the sport that has been missing in recent years is the track race.

A quick survey of world performances brings to light the performance advantages of running on a track. The consistent surface, flat terrain, nighttime lighting, and controlled conditions all prepare a runner to focus on the task at hand. Beyond this, competitors are ever-aware and pushing each other, unlike point to point races where runners may go hours without seeing a soul. And taking a cue from the old 6 days, the energy provided by a constant stream of live spectators has to be electric!

What has happened to the track race? Well, it has reappeared for brief and heroic moments in the past half-century. Take for example the performance of Cavin Woodward at the Tipton 100 in England, 1975. The 100 mile race on a quarter mile track was an invitational open to but 20 runners, a 16 hour cutoff in place. Cavin takes off at a 5:19 mile, passing 10 miles in 56:27 and hitting 50 miles in a world record 4:58:53 as the first man to ever go under 5 hours. He then holds on for another 50 miles to set the 100 mile record in 11:38:54. Not to discount the rest of the field, six men went under 13 hours that day.

One could also look at the unreal performance of the great Yiannis Kouros in Australia, 1997. ”Running a totally-inspired race”, Yiannis passed through 100 miles in under 12 hours and continued on to hit 303.5 KM (188.5 Miles). Not bad considering it is 17 miles beyond the next best recorded distance by any other runner.

Perhaps the closest battle on a track is the standing world record at 100 miles. Oleg Kharitonov and the 22 year old Denis Jalybin, both from Russia, attempted to break Don Ritchie’s 25 year old record on the same track where it was set. After pushing each other all day, Denis had a seven lap lead with seven miles to go. Oleg made a surge running 6 minute miles, passing Denis with 135 meters to go and both runners breaking the previous record.

Joe Grant – Desert Solstice 2010

The Desert Solstice 24 Hour race seeks to revive the long distance track race in America. The goal of the race is to encourage national and world class performances at 100 miles and 24 hours. On December 17th, over a dozen national-caliber runners will fly on the same 400 meter loop, seeking personal bests, records, and selection onto their national team. Spectators are encouraged to arrive day and night to cheer on the runners to the very end. For those further away, streaming webcams and instant updates will be provided through the Ultracast so everyone around the world can see the action.

Every entrant is admitted based on their ability to hit the national team selection standard of 135 miles for men and 120 miles for women. It is the race’s goal to inspire runners to hit these standards, then use the Desert Solstice as a competitive venue to reach new heights in their performances.

This year’s field includes an impressive field of runners that is continuing to grow. Runners interested in competing can inquire to [email protected].

Men’s Field

Name Notable Performance
Michael Arnstein 15:26:20 (100 Mile)
Dave Carver 17:51:19 (100 Mile)
Mark Godale 162.45 Miles/261.454 KM (24 Hour)
Dave James 13:06:52 (100 Mile)
Dan Rose 139.22 Miles/224.05 KM (24 Hour)
Nick Pedatella 18:10 (100 Mile Trail)
Tatsunori Suzuki 129.56 Miles/208.50 KM (24 Hour)


Women’s Field

Name Notable Performance
Liz Bauer 205.01 Miles/329.93 KM (48 Hour)
Suzanna Bon 137.78 Miles/221.73 KM (24 Hour)
Jamie Donaldson 137.706 Miles/221.61(24 Hour)
Connie Gardner 145.25 Miles/233.77 KM (24 Hour)
Debra Horn 131.75 Miles/212.03 KM (24 Hour)
Carilyn Johnson 126.99 Miles/204.37 KM (24 Hour)

[Nick Coury, owner of Aravaipa Running and co-RD of the Desert Solstice 24 Hour, wrote the preceding article. ]

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