USATF 100k National Championship – Race Report

The Background:

On April 9th, I walked into the wild.  I made my debut at the 100k distance (62 miles), racing the USATF 100k National Championships in Madison, Wisconsin. This undertaking was no less than 50 kilometers further than I had ever run (having run a couple 50 km races, I had dipped my toes in the ultra running waters, but was by no means initiated).  Thrilling, brutal, and overarchingly long, the experience was singular.  Luckily, I walked out (or hobbled), and I walked out a champion.

This race had been a long time coming for me – I was pushed to start racing ultras last year by my running co-pilot and 50km national champ, Zach Ornelas; it was pretty apparent through all of high school, college, and beyond that I had an engine and recovery capacity that suited the longer and longer and longer training and racing.  So, going into the race, I had the confidence that this distance might capture my abilities in a way previous racing endeavors hadn’t.  

My primary goal was to qualify for the World Championship team, which would require either a victory or at a very good performance and time.  I figured if I at least came close to the course record, regardless of victory I might stand a chance to get a team selection.  That time was 6 hours and 44 minutes (6:29/mile).  Weeks leading out from the race, this pace had been on my mind quite a bit, and I had this sneaking suspicion that I could handle that pretty well.  I even had a little voice in my head suggesting I could scare the American record someday (6 hours and 27 minutes – 6:15/mile).  My rational, analytical side would brush these quiet ambitions off, as it seemed a little arrogant to think I could do something like that with literally no supporting data, no experience in anything even close to that race distance.  

In terms of potential failure mechanisms, my nervousness/apprehension/terror was two-fold. First, the fuel depletion – not knowing where this bankruptcy would occur (35 miles, 45 miles, 55 miles?) and for how many minutes or perhaps hours I’d still have to produce forward movement after going broke.  Second: the mechanical destruction – just the thought of running for 6 or 7 hours on hilly pavement will make most individuals cringe, and the effect it would have on my performance was totally unknown and not at all something I could prepare for.  What both of these boiled down to was the fact that, unlike all shorter running events (and most athletics in general) you really just cannot completely simulate these conditions before the competition.  Unknown territory, or simply, the wild.

The Course:

A ten-kilometer loop repeated ten times.  The symmetry would be beautiful if it weren’t for the fact that this 10 km loop was like a strip of bacon.  The first 3 miles rolled uphill, the next 1.5 rolled back down (so the descent was a little steeper), and then the last 1.5 were flat but garnished with a cheeky headwind.  Now, these aren’t elevation changes anywhere near the scale of what you see in trail ultramarathons (i.e. mountains), but constant ascent and descent over asphalt, not matter the grade, becomes pretty troublesome when the mileage totals are in the double digits.  Last year, I ran the 50k race at MadCity, so I had some familiarity with the course.  Last year, I bonked and broke down on the final downhill in the 50k race at MadCity, so I had some Pavlovian-esque terror associations with the course.  To round out the experience, the temperature was a über-brisk 22 degrees at the start, and barely broke above freezing by the race’s end.

The Competition:

I knew it was going to be a tough go with the other men in the race.  There were three characters I was expecting to contend: Mike Bialick, the reigning champ; Nick Accardo, a former champ; and Patrick Reagan, a debutante like myself who, unlike myself, boasted credentials of a 2:18 marathon and a 1:04-low half-marathon.  In the weeks leading up to the race, I figured it was going to be a ten-round title fight, and I thought I maybe had an outside chance to win, and if I did, it would come late in the game.

The Race, Part 1:

The things about which I had spent weeks fretting: fueling, the course, the competition, the temperature, etc. were all absent from my mind as I popped out of bed on the morning of the race.  I zipped over to the start, and decided to jog a mile to warm-up (I refrained from doing any strides or drills, deeming those warm-up staples relatively inconsequential for the task I was about to undertake).  After I started moving, I was pretty surprised at how easy I was running.  Normal runs take me quite a few miles to get rolling, let alone ones at 6 am, so to be moving so fluidly so easily felt kind of exciting.

The race started, and immediately the guys packed up with 6 or 8 of us bouncing along in the pre-dawn.  The pace felt pretty soft, but my plan was to stay really comfortable and un-taxed for the first loop or two and just work into it, planning on running even a few minutes slower than the goal pace of 40-41 minutes per lap.  Up the first hill, I was surprised to find myself drifting away from everybody despite trying to hold back, and by the first mile I was probably 50 meters clear of the group.  I really did not want to lead the race at this point, as I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew the rhythm I was on felt just about right, so I committed to what was going to be a potentially very long and very lonely day.

About a half mile into the race – right before the solo flight began. photo: Larry Iles

Keeping this pace going, I put a lot of ground on the field in the first loop, and coming into its finish, I couldn’t hear or sense them at all, as I think they were now several minutes behind.  Not having looked at my watch through the first loop at all, I was blown away when I saw 38:27 on the clock. This was what I had imagined, in an ideal world, trying to run over my final loop, after having run 9 of the of them significantly slower.  So, I backed off, and tried to keep a very relaxed rhythm.  I figured I might have an outside shot at running low 6:30s if I slowed a bit and maintained.  Wonderful realization! So, the next loop went by (again, trying to back off a little and stay relaxed) and it was 36:45. I really felt like I was holding back (which maybe is what it’s supposed to feel like and I was just ignorant to this key detail), but running any slower was going to feel uncomfortable.  At this point, I was kinda grinning for awhile while running, and all that was running my mind was, “Que sera sera… game on.”

So, I popped along and remained oblivious to splits (I hate checking splits in races, as my number-crunching mind starts to go crazy and turns vicious).  I actually had to stop on the third lap to download a brownload, but I figured it was a necessary evil of 6-7 hour race, and that earlier was favorable to later.  I must have been rolling pretty good, because even with that stop I still knocked out a 36:25.  By the time I came through 50k, I saw 3:04 on the clock.  Now, I had been refraining from calculating exactly what I was running, but the math couldn’t be ignored here.  The world record is 6:10, and it is the oldest world record in running. I literally laughed out loud (an actual lol) when I saw this.  My mind jumped to my friends, who I knew were following it back home.  I knew they saw it, and I knew they were probably staring at their freshly-refreshed web browsers with a big “What The Francis?” expression.

As I realized where I was at in the race and the context of what I was doing, the magnitude sunk in a little bit.  I didn’t want to be self-limiting, but it was admittedly pretty absurd.  And I, fortunately or unfortunately, told myself that.  However, I had no intention of making a conscious effort to back off (though perhaps my subconscious was plotting otherwise).  Going into the second half, my sentiment was, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m not backing off.”

First half 10k splits: 38:27 – 36:45 – 36:25 – 36:25 – 36:17
Course Record pace: 40:20 per 10k
American Record pace: 38:45 per 10k
World Record pace: 37:00 per 10k

photo: Wayne Gruhlke

The Race, Part 2:

The second half of the race is pretty hard to re-imagine, as much of it was spent in a pretty awful place mentally.  However, the sixth and seventh laps were still feeling very smooth, and I semi-merrily rolled along.  I could feel an augmentation in the effort required to move forward, and for the first time on the seventh lap, I could really feel my legs loose fluidity.  This was likely their way of requesting that I cease the ridiculous adventure that they were being forced to drive.  Also, I hadn’t warmed up yet, as my fingers had been rendered free of blood and nearly immobile from the first lap onward, and I still had goosebumps on the legs.  These factors started to frustrate me (as 4+ hours into a 6+ hour race, you apparently relish the opportunity to get mad at things, and probably understandably so), though retrospectively, being too cold is likely less disastrous in an ultra marathon than being too hot (but can’t we have it just right!). Literally from the first lap, I dreaded each time I came around the loop to grab a water bottle, as this meant exposing my crippled fingers to the cruel air in attempt to open and consume a gel that had taken on the viscosity of silly putty.  Not to mention the water that would inevitably spill on my hands and sleeve, which after a couple laps, had frozen into a nice ice-cuff.  

So, by the eighth lap (less than 20 miles to go!), all these factors, coupled with the increasingly difficult uphills and really painful downhills, and just the general fatigue brought on by running an absurd and arguably suicidal pace up to that point, really started to snowball.  On this eighth lap, I was thinking I could push through the discomfort and try and nab a good 50 mile time (I was on pace to run well under 5 hours, which until a few hours prior, had been a pipe dream of a goal).  However, gastric distress struck again, and I had to stop for the second time at about 75k to download another file.  While this brought relief, I had markedly less determination once I started again, and I settled into what felt like a protective pace.  Now, I honestly was not sure if I was going to crush the American record, run over 7 hours, or crush my body and not even finish.  I’d say until that point in the day, my racing and pacing was Golden State Warriors offense, and then after that for the last two loops, I was running gloves-up defense, just hoping to finish.

Through the ninth lap, it was all about just continuing forward progress.  I knew if I ran, no matter the pace, I’d still actually wind up with a respectable time (though I had no idea and no capacity or interest to figure out what that time might be).  On the tenth lap, I didn’t take my gel or water, as my stomach’s and head’s sentiment towards food and drink was pretty much exactly the same as it has been following an evening of too much merriment and ethanol.  Vomit would surely ensue.  So, the last lap became a farewell shuffle.  I actually blew kisses goodbye to several of the mile markers. Psychosis may have been setting in.  

As I rounded the final turn to the finish line and task completion became a feasible outcome and victory likely, I felt like someone hit me with fourteen epi-pens. It was the most potent stimulant I have ever felt in my life: an overwhelming and overflowing cocktail of pride for the work had I put in, relief for the suffering that was over, and joy for the success that came of it.  

Second half 50k splits: 36:54 – 38:21 – 41:57 – 44:54 – 44:07
Final Time: 6 hours 30 minutes 37 seconds
Championship Record and Course Record
3rd Fastest American Performance All-time (fastest on US soil)

Joy of joys! photo: Larry Iles

The Denouement:

After the race finished, I was bouncing around (or had the perception that I was bouncing around – I was probably disjointedly and semi-frighteningly stumbling), talking to the officials and volunteers.  Timo Yanachek, the race director, puts on such an incredible event and The MadCity Ultras are truly the best races I’ve ever run.  There are no big sponsors, no annoying coupons in your packets, and no nauseating expos.  It’s truly an ultra marathon for the passionate by the passionate.  And the excellent conversations and kind words from all the incredible individuals at the finish  line affirmed this.  

Movement functionality is operating on low-power mode

While I was buzzing with excitement, I was still freezing cold, so I bundled my body up, packed my equipment up, and took off for what would certainly be a shower to empty the water heater.  The stairs at my lodging were a formidable opponent, but I was not to be deterred.  Cleaned up, I went and capped the morning/early afternoon in the most proper of post-run fashions: massive brunch.  Despite still having some lingering food aversion, I made quick work of some eggs benedict (having had hollandaise on my mind for laps 4 through 6), and then some extra bacon, and then some extra bacon-and-cheddar grits.

Victory Feast, part 1
All still there!
Because the best trophies require white gloves to hold them

Reflecting back on the race, it was a surreal experience of the highest order.  I felt an electricity the whole way, even in the darker parts, generated from the realization that I found a calling.  Moreover, for the first time in my running career, I ran truly uninhibited and unrestrained; I was irrational.  Going out into the wild, into a physical state void of certainty or survival, was not something I ever do. I’m really glad I did.