Zach Bitter’s Track 100-Mile American Record Report

[Editor’s Note: Last weekend, Zach Bitter set a new track 100-mile American record at 11:40:55. He held the previous record of 11:47:21, which he set two years ago.]

The Desert Solstice 100 Mile and 24 Hour Track Invitational is an event put on by Aravaipa Running, which targets fast times. As the name implies, it is on a track, which at first thought probably seems boring at best and inhumane at worst. So why?

When I first contemplated doing a track ultra, I dug into the history of it a bit. The first man I came across was Don Ritchie, a badass of epic proportions. For those unfamiliar, the man held the 100-mile world best for 25 years with a time of 11:30:51. More astonishing was the way he did it. I won’t get thick into the details, but the man split a 4:53:28 for 50 miles and 6:10:20 for 100 kilometers in shorter races of the same nature. Let me say that again. The man split a 4:53:28 for 50 miles and 6:10:20 for 100k!!! You can read detailed information on Don Ritchie on this website. This led to an intrigue that eventually had me looking into other flatlander greats such as Bruce Fordyce, Frank Bozanich, Yannis Kouros, Rae Clark, Oleg Kharitonov, and many more. I eventually ended on an article written about the current world-best performance of 11:28:03. This quote sums up what it must have been like to be at the Crystal Palace in London in 2002, when that record was set after a latest-race battle between Russians Oleg Kharitonov and Denis Jalybin:

“Kharitonov some four laps behind Jalybin incredibly began running 6 minutes [sic] miles — 93 miles into the race. Jalybin was struggling, pale and looking as if he would drop out.

“Jalybin clung on to the lead until the end of the 402nd lap, a mere 135 meters from the finish. Suddenly Kharitonov went by, pushing on to clock a new 100 mile world best of 11:28:03; just over 6:52.8 per mile. It was to take Denis Jalybin nearly two minutes to cover the last 135 meters whereupon he collapsed, looking very pale. Jalybin also broke the old mark, recording 11:29:32.” – American Ultra Association (full report)

The beauty of a track or any flat surface that remains relatively the same throughout history has been intriguing to me. It allows you to not only gauge specific improvements and regressions in performance, but also lets you race the greats of the past.

Another intrigue to me has been something that has been innate for some time, which is running at its most basic form. No need to navigate, dodge, hike, scramble, hurdle, and the like. Just run. Think of nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. Some, or I would venture to say most, may see this as boring or mundane. Certainly it is when compared to the trails and other more scenic venues, but it has its own freeing characteristics.

The track puts forth a final characteristic that cannot be matched: complete exposure. You cannot hide on a track. Every strength, weakness, and physical and mental struggle is on full display for whomever desires to watch. Watching these events has been just as fascinating to me as actually participating in them. Again, something which would at first thought seem incredibly boring reveals itself with an onset of intrigue and questions of how and what next.

Zach Bitter - track 100-mile American record at the 2015 Desert Solstice Invitational 1

Zach Bitter on his way to setting a track 100-mile American record at the 2015 Desert Solstice Track Invitational. All photos: Aravaipa Running

For this year’s Desert Solstice Track Invitational, I went in with the main goal of putting myself in position to break the world-best time of 11:28:03. My training leading up to the event went quite well and I felt as fit as ever for a 100-mile track race.

I was intrigued enough at what my potential was that I put a lot of thought into how to pace it. Eventually I knew one thing for sure. I didn’t want to finish the race asking if I had been too conservative in the beginning.

This led to a relatively aggressive start, but it felt right and I trusted my training. My first marathon of the day was 2:52:30 and I came through the 50-mile mark of the race at 5:33:30, which if replicated would have me over 21 minutes faster than Kharitonov in 2002. I knew this wouldn’t be the case as I assume at best a slight depreciation at events like this when the day’s long hours begin to tax both mentally and physically, but it was where I wanted to be. If things went well and I regressed a bit, I could still finish a solid 10 to 12 minutes ahead of the world record.

My next mini-goal to keep myself from getting too overwhelmed by the number of laps/miles remaining was to get to the 100k mark in under seven hours. I remained fairly consistent and reached 100k in a time of 6:58:00, which unbeknownst to me at the time was an track 100k American track record (not to be confused with Max King’s road 100k record of 6:27:43 set at the 2014 IAU 100k World Championships, which is still one of the best performances I’ve witnessed in person.

I was in a good place through 100k and very optimistic about the position I was in through nearly two thirds of the event.

As I focused on closing in on the 70-mile mark, things felt smooth, but as one would expect, the tolls of the day were starting to become more apparent. I had some time in the bank, so I didn’t worry about slight decreases in pace. In fact, it is this part of the race that can often become very exciting because you run a variety of finishing scenarios through your mind and pass the time with simple math calculations of current, past, and projected lap pace. With the exception of slight cramping in my right hamstring, which seemed to be kept at bay with extra electrolytes, I felt decent.

Zach Bitter - track 100-mile American record at the 2015 Desert Solstice Invitational 2

Zach during one of the direction switches.

The biggest noticeable barrier came at hour eight. On the track, you switch directions every four hours, which is typically a huge benchmark in these events and a source of motivation. Mentally it was, but physically the next few laps felt like I was trudging through molasses. I’m not sure if it was the aggressive early miles or not, but my time slowed.

As I came through mile 80, I did some mental math and realized I need to average approximately a seven-minute mile to set a world best. Mentally, this was motivating and I began to make a bit of a surge. I thought to myself that if you had told me at the beginning of the week that I would get to mile 80 needing seven flats, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.

This final surge was fleeting, however, and my muscles began to break down beyond what I could push through. I could feel my form breaking down and pictures confirmed that I was leaning way back and not running with ideal form, which I’m sure exacerbated the slow down.

The final 15 miles felt like an eternity, but I was able to keep it together enough to get a 100-mile PR and lower my own track 100-mile American record by six minutes and 26 seconds. By the end, I was barely holding off the right-hamstring cramping and it immediately tightened up as I reached the 100-mile mark and began to slow down. I had no choice but to lay down.

The best part of this sport is taking your experience and learning from it. Every race is valuable regardless of outcome as it provides you with new intelligence for future progress. I think I learned more from this race and build-up than any other event.

Things I learned:

  • In the future, I need longer tempo/progression efforts. I feel like this would give me the needed strength to hold up muscularly the final 15 miles.
  • I need to be more strategic with timing of posterior-chain strength work (hamstrings and glutes). Something I will definitely focus on this winter.
  • I knew this going into the event, but lane two adds up. When doing 100 miles within a 24-hour event, passing in lane two is inevitable. It’s part of the game, though, if you want to do it within a longer timed event. My Strava data clocked 104.7 miles, which a healthy chunk of is GPS error. In training, I calculated it to produce a bonus of eight to 10 seconds per mile when doing workouts on a track. This information has me excited for future events where hugging lane one is possible.
  • I can’t thank Aravaipa Running enough for putting on such a cool event. They are top notch in planning and executing. Rich McKnight, my crew chief and a true disciple of the sport, was phenomenal in helping me get what I needed before, during, and after the event. The inspiring performances by the other competitors was a huge motivating factor both during the event and in spectating.
  • Finally, a big thanks to my sponsors Altra Footwear, Drymax Socks, Orange Mud, Extreme Endurance, and Vespa OFM for believing in me and helping me explore my limits and reach for new ones.
Zach Bitter - track 100-mile American record at the 2015 Desert Solstice Invitational 3

Laying down after setting his record.

There are 3 comments

  1. BrettSC

    Using circumference = 2 * Pi * Radius, I calculate the radius of a track (if it were a circle) as 208.811 (off of a circumference of 1312 feet (400 meters).

    So if you run in the inside of lane 2 (3 feet further out), thats a radius of 211.811 feet. Or a new circumference of 1330.85 feet. So running on the inside of lane 2 adds 18 feet per lap. Doesn't sound like a lot until you correct for 100 miles on a track (over 402 laps) and all of a sudden you're talking 1.48 extra miles. If your last 1.48 miles are doing 8 minute pace, that's 12 minutes and suddenly you're right on top of the world record.

    1. @bob_hearn

      Actually there are two mistakes here… the track is not circular, which makes a big difference, and the standard lane width is 1.22 m, or 4 ft, not 3 ft.

      These errors somewhat cancel, so you're not far off. If Zach had had to run the entire race in lane 2, the distance would've been 101.915 miles. At the 7-minute pace he was running, 11:40:55 – 13:24 = 11:27:31, or 32 seconds under the WR. However, this would be worst-case; in practice he was often in lane one. So I don't believe the extra distance did (quite) cost him the WR.

      1. BrettSC

        Hi Bob, and thanks. I searched around to get an estimate of lane width and just went with the minimum (3 feet) instead of the maximum (4 feet)…I didn't know what the actual width was on the track at Solstice (I probably should have searched that out). Also, I used Zach's pace at the end instead of his average pace, because the miles you would save would be at the end (ie, he gets to chop off his slowest last ~1.5 miles). And finally, it doesn't matter for the purposes of math if the track is not circle – just take a circle and then bend it into the shape of a track and all the measurements of lane 2 versus 1 stay the same. I just used a circle since the math would be easier to calculate circumference on. If you want to do the math for an actual track instead to prove it out, then you have to determine the width of the track (how far is one straightaway from the other), how long it is from corner to corner through the curve, etc. Maybe you know all this, but I didn't, so I was just trying to keep it simple. But as you said, even if some of this came out wrong, he's got pretty close to 2 miles he can chop off. So he really is right there!

    2. @zbitter

      I love this comment! Bob is right though, I definitely wasn't in lane 2 the entire time. There were laps where I was in lane one. You'd also have to consider passing on the straight aways. You still have to move out and back in which adds distance; albeit very small amounts compared to the turn. It's all part of the game though. I knew that coming into the event.

    3. BrettSC

      I found this:

      If the track is a 4 feet lane, then lane 2 (if you ran there exactly the entire time), would be 407.67 meters on a 400 meter track…or 25.15 feet longer. If you take my math up above and fix it for 4 feet instead of 3, its exactly correct…assuming the information on this link is. So hey, assuming a circle works. :) 25.15 feet longer per lap is (like Bob said) 1.9+ extra miles. 1.9+ extra miles at 8 minute pace at the end is over 15 minutes. That's ~11:25!

    1. @zbitter

      I will probably do a seperate post on that. It was basically what I normally do. I get really fat adapted before the race by following optimized fat metabolism, which has me drop the carbs really low the week leading up to the race. I begin to sneak some carbs back in under a blanket of fat a day or so before the event. Once the event starts a tickle sugar in throughout the day.

      1. Runninghobo

        Will look forward to it, thank you. I have been working on fat adaption but I then struggle during the event fueling over the long distances.

  2. Ben_Nephew

    Great run, Zach, insanely impressive.

    Have you ever thought about trying to get someone that was running a shorter race at the same event to pace you for a while?

    If you had been lapping me, I would have stepped out into lane 2 every time. I guess that is not standard policy at long track events? Were you running in lane 2 the entire time?

    How did this pacing compare with your prior AR run?

    With the hamstring, do you think you need more strength work, or was that you needed a bit more of taper and that leg was more tired at the start?

    I thought the experts have concluded that cramps have nothing to do with electrolytes? I'm on the same page as you, and find them extremely helpful with cramping as well as overall tightness in the hips late in races that would seem to be inflammation rather than cramping.

    What was the wind doing during the race?

    Do you think the change in direction was problematic towards the end?

    1. @bob_hearn

      Ben, pacing (even by a registered participant) would disqualify the record. About stepping into lane 2 — we didn't always hear him coming. It would be tough, unless he yelled "track" each time. Which is the policy at some events, but not this one. Although I'd heard that if he was still on pace for the WR in the last hour, everybody was supposed to give him lane 1.

      The policy here was run on the inside of lane 1, pass on the outside of lane 1, walk in lane 2, but in practice Zach did often have to wind up in lane 2.

      1. Ben_Nephew

        That is interesting about pacing considering how it is allowed in standard track races, road marathon, etc. In that case, Zach should find someone that wants to run a fast 100 and work together. What if there was someone going for a 6 hour distance that was at his pace, and preferred to lead, or they decided to trade off? Seems like a tough thing to enforce. If I was going for that kind of time, I'd want the lane 1 policy, and I'd wear a bell! He must have made quite a few passes over the 11 hours.

        1. BrettSC

          When Mike Morton ran 164 miles at Hinston Lake 24 hour several years ago (back at the time, that was real close to what the American Record was), he probably ran quite a few miles further – there were 300 other runners on a 1.5 mile zig zaggy packed path through the woods. I felt so bad for how far out of the way he would have to run (you can't run tangents if there are 3 wide walking and talking), but he always had a smile and waved and could care less…but DANG! I guess it all worked itself out as he eventually ran over 174 (if my memory serves me right) at Worlds.

        2. rundavejames

          Ben, Hope you are having a great Christmas Holiday with your family! It would be awesome to get you out on the track next December at Aravaipa's Desert Solstice!

      2. rundavejames

        Bob, You ran an incredible race yourself at Solstice this year man! Is there a race report of your amazing performance folks can read?!

        1. @bob_hearn

          Thanks, Dave! I will write one of my Tolstoy-length blog post sooner or later. But this what I posted on Facebook.


          Two days later… there is a lot I have to say about my experience at Desert Solstice; I learned so much. I will save most of it for a blog post for those who are extra curious. But these are the highlights of my race (already too much to read, sorry).

          Before that, though, let me say how amazing it was to witness Zach Bitter throw down an 11:40 100-mile performance, bettering his own American record. That is something you don't see every day, let alone get to be in the middle of! He had words of encouragement for everyone each time he lapped us, though we were all in his way.

          1. I went out slightly too fast (though slower than almost everyone else). Everyone else slowed, I held, and I started passing them, but then I blew up. Like a switch was flipped. My left adductor cramped, I walked, backed off pace, same thing, then my muscles would not work at all to run. I tried everything. Walked several laps. Almost dropped at mile 55. Then, again like a switch, I could run again. I don't know what happened. I basically held the new pace (as fast as felt comfortable) for the rest of the race. Having this happen was like a free pass — this type of event is mostly mind over body. You want to find the pace your body is capable of running basically indefinitely, but the real challenge is making your mind hold it for 24 hours. It's hard. But here, I mostly escaped that hard work after the first 8-9 hours. It just made no sense to try to hold something that was any kind of challenge. I had to go by what my body said. Until the last few hours. Then it got hard — but I really, really wanted to maximize my mileage. My total was 149.24, the longest distance run in 24 hours by any American over 50. Woohoo! Any other year, that would also be good enough to make the U.S. National 24 Hour Running Team. But this time I have a feeling it might take a bigger number. I'm crossing my fingers.

          2. The expected battle with Joe Fejes for age-group records and a possible team spot did not disappoint. (Like me, Joe had just turned 50.) After the fireworks above settled, I was 8 laps ahead of him with about 5 1/2 hours left, continuing to lap him, feeling pretty safe. Then he started cranking it. You can see everyone's lap splits on the board at the timing mat. So when I hadn't lapped him in a while, I started paying attention. Oops! Those numbers were scary. The glove had been thrown down; I had to respond. I considered just letting him work to lap me 4 or so times, then sticking on him. But I was afraid that could turn into a painful race, with him pushing to drop me. I thought it was smarter to hold him off as long as I could, hoping that as the time disappeared making up 8 laps would look increasingly infeasible. I had to speed up to about my initial race pace. After about an hour of this — where I was terrified I would blow up again — he backed off. Whew! (However, I have little doubt my newly minted American Record will be his sooner or later. I'm pretty sure he's got more 150+ performances in him.) I really enjoyed having Joe there to race against, and also Ed Ettinghausen (former holder of that 50+ record, with 144.623 miles). Ed also put up stiff competition for quite a while, despite having run 478.6 miles at a 6-day race just four weeks earlier. Unbelievable. And he stayed in it to finish third.

          3. Pete Kostelnick,the 24-hour winner, was incredible. He'd won Badwater 135 this year in under 24 hours, so he ought to do well, but he knocked it out of the park with 163.7 miles, the second-best performance in the world this year. He was smooth and steady all day and night. Yet — for the last several hours we were running at almost the same pace, as I held on to try to hold off Joe, then to try to hit 149. He was sticking right behind me for some of that stretch. With 20 minutes to go, he told me "Bob, I've seen a lot of crazy shit in the ultrarunning world. But I've never seen anything like the guts you've shown for the last 10 hours." That really made my day!

          Thanks again to Aravaipa Running for hosting such an incredible event, to Scott Holdaway for crewing and encouragement for the whole 24 hours, and to Connie Gardner, Traci Falbo, Pam Proffitt Smith, and Jen Aradi for invaluable training and racing advice.

          Full results are here:

    2. @zbitter

      Hey Ben, thanks for reading.

      The pacing can be trickly. Technically it is illegal to set it up like that. If it happens to be that way then, cool! But to go and pick someone to pace through say 100k and drop is technically not suppose to be done; although they do it all the time at sub-ultra ecvents.

      I think a lot of people would have stepped out as well. The problem is they don't always know I'm coming up behind them and they do have the right of inside lane, so for me to ask wouldn't be right. Plus, they are all chacing records/PRs, etc… of their own and deserve every advantage.

      My previous AR was more consistant in that my laps didn't vary as much. I think I came through 50 miles in 5:44 or 46.

      My whole posterior chain needs more work. My lower back was actually the biggest weakness as I was struggling to lean forward and picture showed I was leaning back even to elivate some of the stress on my lower back muscles. Definitely not ideal. I will do a lot more strength work and time it better for my next attmpt with my hamstings, glutes, lower back.

      The experts concluded that on folks follwoing a high or higher carb diet. The game is different when burning fat. One of the reaosns I only take the experts opnions with a grain of salt (pun entirely intended :). I do what works for me regardless of what the literature says. Everyone is an N=1 experiement.

      Wind was not event present for the most part. There was a bit of a breeze for a while, but didn't event think twice about it.

      Not entirely sure if it hurt or not. I definitely struggled to get moment back after the switch, which typically hasn't been the case for me in the past.

  3. rundavejames

    Zach, you ran an incredible race man! To break your own record with no one racing you but yourself and the ghost of the world record holder is an amazing accomplishment. We are looking forward to having you come race #BlackCanyonUltras 100K on February 13th and try to punch that Golden Ticket for Western States!

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