|Pic by Howie Stern|
Well, uh... wow. This is a race that will be remembered for a long time. Of course the highlight is Camille Herron's 24-hour World Record. But beyond that, the deepest field ever yielded the biggest 24-hour results ever on American soil.
For me personally, the day went close to perfectly, and represents the culmination of years of effort to run a good 24-hour. But others also had incredible days, and it's a little surreal to have run 154 and finished off the podium! A very disorienting mix of success and failure. This report will be heavy on analysis, in addition to the story of my own race. There is a lot to take in and learn from. If you don't know, Desert Solstice is an invitational 24-hour track race, put on by Aravaipa Running. You run as many laps as you can on a 400m track in 24 hours. It's limited to 30 runners (this year stretched to 33) who have put up big numbers at 24-hour or 100-mile races, and it was a big honor for me to be invited once again. My Background My primary running goal for the past four years has been to make the US national 24-hour team and represent the US at the World Championships. In 2017 I ran 152.155 miles, becoming the first American over 50 to break 150 miles, but came up just barely short of making the team. The next chance would be for the 2019 team. I had a disastrous Desert Solstice 2017, stopping early at 93 miles with a backwards lean I could not shake. For 2018 I decided I had to branch out and try different things; it was too unsatisfying perpetually banging my head against 24 hours. I had very successful runs at Snowdrop 55-hour and Spartathlon, with EMU 6-day and Badwater 135 going less well and representing learning experiences for next time. But all year long I had my eye on Desert Solstice as my one chance for the 2019 team. Especially, my PR at Spartathlon boded well and left me optimistic as I began my Desert Solstice-specific training. With only 10 weeks between the two races I didn't have a lot of high-mileage weeks, but what I had was solid, and Spartathlon itself represented excellent training. As well, I had focused all year on increased core work and form drills to combat the lean.
|2018 weekly mileage. Spikes are Snowdrop 55-hour, Umstead 100, |
EMU 6-day (2.5-day for me), Badwater, Spartathlon, Desert Solstice
The Lineup At Desert Solstice 2015, I finished second to Pete Kostelnick. In 2016 I won the men's race and finished second overall to Courtney Dauwalter. For 2018... I was ranked at the very bottom of the entrant list on Ultrasignup! This was the deepest field ever at an American 24-hour. The men's field was headlined by Zach Bitter, 100-mile American Record holder, going for his first full 24 since 2014; and Pat Reagan, who had taken Zach's course record at Javelina Jundred, stepping up to 24 for the first time. Pete Kostelnick, who has the course record with 163+, was returning – but likely not at 100% after a 5,000-mile self-supported run from Alaska to Florida. (Originally Jon Olsen, 2013 24-hour World Champion, was also entered, but he withdrew late, insufficiently recovered from Spartathlon.) One step down from these true elites was a plethora of runners any of whom could have a breakout race over 150. The usual suspects at 24-hour were Olaf Wasternack, Greg Soutiea, 2015 US team member Greg Armstrong, Andrew Snope, Desert Solstice 2017 winner Adrian Stanciu, James Elson (competing for a UK team spot), and myself. All of us had put up solid 24s in the past couple of years. In addition we had Badwater winners Zach Gingerich and Oswaldo Lopez, 2013 24-hour team member Nick Coury, and relative unknown Jake Jackson, who had won several races this year, with a 134-mile 24-hour. And then there were several more runners who were talented and could put up a surprise big number. Basically everyone here was a star, otherwise they would not have been invited. The women's side, at the very top, was even more exciting and competitive. The matchup between 24-hour American Record holder Courtney Dauwalter and 100-mile World Record holder Camille Herron had long been anticipated, and looked to provide the real drama of the race. Both would be going for Patrycja Bereznowska's 24-hour World Record of 161.55 miles. My money was that one or maybe both would beat all the men.
In addition we had Maggie Guterl, 2015 24-hour team member (and 4th at Worlds); former 24-hour American Record holder Connie Gardner; and Micah Morgan, running her first 24 but very accomplished at 100-mile, and fresh off a solid third-place finish at Badwater. Adela Salt, Stacey Costa, Chavet Breslin, Suzi Swinehart, and Emily Collins rounded out the likely podium contenders. Apart from the many World, American, and age-group records at stake, the main focus of the race would be the fight for national team spots. This is what the qualifying picture looked like heading in: MEN 1. Olivier Leblond (AUTO) 161.5698 miles 2. Steve Slaby 157.032 miles 3. Harvey Lewis 153.49 miles 4. Jon Olsen 152.993 miles 5. Greg Armstrong 151.2 miles 6. Adrian Stanciu 150.275 miles WOMEN 1. Katalin Nagy (AUTO) 155.729 miles 2. Megan Alvarado (AUTO) 140.569 miles (also 146.87 miles) 3. Courtney Dauwalter 159.327 miles (American Record) 4. Gina Slaby 154.271 miles 5. Pam Smith 151.372 miles 6. Whitney Richman 133.721 miles It appeared that 153.5 was the number for me and for the other men to beat to have a decent chance of holding a team spot through the end of qualifying in May (Zach and Pat would likely be shooting higher). In spite of the substantial competition, I was confident that if I could run my goal, that would certainly net a podium spot, and quite possibly the win. It's one thing to have the talent to put up a big number; it's quite another to actually do it. I liked my chances. If I could end the day in the #3 or #4 spot I would be happy. For the women the picture was a little more complicated. Courtney was essentially already on the team, but Camille was a legitimate threat to take a spot with a very big number. The remaining women were probably fighting for the soft #6 spot, though it was not impossible to have two or even three women (besides Courtney) over 151, bumping Pam. (Though Megan had only run 146.87 she was an auto for winning the National Championships, and could not be bumped.) Bear in mind, however, that until last year, the women's American Record at 24-hour was 152 miles. 151 is a really, really big number to beat; the level of talent now on the women's 24-hour team is nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, 150 is a big number for men or women. In all of 2016, not a single US runner of either gender broke 150. The Race
For all the preparation I'd put into this race, my day started frantically, as I made a last-minute decision to run in tried-and-true Clayton 2s instead of the lighter NB Beacons. It was only while I was changing shoes at the track that I realized I'd left my ankle timing band in my hotel room! Scott had just enough time to run back and get it, crisis averted.
|Pic by Chris Worden|
|Maggie and Courtney. Pic by Tracey Outlaw|
The first several hours of the race passed without incident, as I stuck to my slow-start splits, running 2:14s and walking one minute every six laps. As expected I quickly dropped to the back of the pack. As late as eight hours in I was 23rd overall (of 33), 15th male (of 20). Also as expected, Camille, Zach, and Pat went out fast, running 2ish-minute laps, Zach a bit faster. 2:00 laps is pace for 179 miles if they were to hold it! Most runners do not try to come anywhere close to even splits at 24-hour. We'll get back to this in some detail later in the analysis section. Less expected, Jake Jackson pretty much stuck with them through four hours. I wasn't paying that much attention to who was where at that point, but had I been, I'd have been pretty confident that Jake at least was going to have a short, painful day. Boy was I wrong.
|Jake Jackson showing us how it's done. Pic by Tracey Outlaw|
|Pic by Tracey Outlaw|
|Zach motoring. Pic by Jubilee Paige|
Courtney went out a little slower. She's very experienced at 24 and didn't feel the need to start that fast even to run a World Record. Unfortunately, she was the first of the headliners to fall. By around 100K it was clear that her legs were not going to cooperate, and I was very sad to see her step off the track. She'd had a huge year, most recently running for 67 hours at Big's Backyard Ultra just six weeks prior, and it seems this was just one race too many. Courtney being Courtney, she stuck around and cheered the rest of us on for the remainder of the race.
|Veteran Greg Armstrong and Andrew Snope, who broke his own barefoot 24-hour Guinness World Record|
Pic by Tracey Outlaw
|Metronome Nick Coury rocking his pink Nikes. Pic by Tracey Outlaw|
|Pic by Liz Hearn|
|With legends Oswaldo Lopez and Pete Kostelnick. Pic by Howie Stern|
|Pam wins the tights contest. Pic by Eric Schranz|
Half an hour later, out of the blue, I puked. And puked. And puked. For an entire lap. I walked two more laps to settle down and regroup. (Maybe my emotions had known best after all?) Well, here it was. At least it was a new phase of the race and I could move on; my brain was engaged in a different way. So much for Coke; back to my drink mix. I'd just drink a little less. But what was my plan now? I was "justified" in slowing down, but could I afford to? Scott was on crewing duty; I'd left him with my pacing spreadsheet that he could plug numbers into. Given where I am now, suppose I start running 6 laps in 14:00 instead of 13:50; where does that put me at the finish? Answer: 153.45. Ugh. Not good enough. But it would have to do for now. Maybe I could claw my way back over the all-important 153.5 later. Now I was truly running on a knife edge, with no margin for further error. However, it felt sustainable. The night cooled and I got into the mental groove of night-time running, which is actually a strength of mine once I survive the transition. Rather than try to nail average 14:00 sets of six laps, I contented myself with anything between 13:50 and 14:00, eating away slightly at that deficit on 153.5. Zach and Camille blazed through 100 miles. Camille split in 13:25, handily surpassing Gina Slaby's then-WR of 13:45:49 from 2016, which still stood as the American track record. And now, Zach began to have issues. In fact I found myself passing both Zach and Pat. This was not wholly unexpected: I think both of them can be top 24-hour runners, but there is a learning curve, and they had laid a lot on the line by going out that fast. As had Camille. Suddenly my mental picture of the rest of the race updated. If Zach and Pat faded, that would leave just Jake and Greg Armstrong ahead of me – so I thought. Actually I was confused about where Nick was. We were within a lap, but during my puking episode he had pulled ahead. Nick had run absolutely steady all day; I was very impressed. I hadn't seen him at all for hours after the start, then I think I must have gradually lapped him, running laps slightly faster but falling back on the walk breaks. But now I was a little behind and running at the same pace, having slowed slightly. (You can see this clearly in the colorful graph below. Apparently Nick was running 2:19 laps, which would put him at 13:54 per six laps, essentially identical to me now.) Jake and Greg were gradually slowing. Jake was so far ahead now that he would have to collapse for me to catch him. Actually I thought this not unlikely. He'd been about 7 miles ahead at 12 hours; that's huge, on pace for over 168 – with a PR coming in of 134. When I see that I think, that's a debt that has to be repaid; the second half is not going to be pretty. Meanwhile Greg was about a mile and a half ahead of me, and no longer faster than me. That could go either way. Greg was very experienced and came in with a recent PR of 151. Could he bust out mid-high 150s? Again I thought it more likely he would come tumbling back, but probably with a softer landing. Maybe I could catch him. The next milestone would be 100 miles; I looked ahead to that. And was confused when Nick split 100 miles first. I think this is a peculiarity of how the on-track display screen shows position. When we were on the same lap it showed us in the same position, even though Nick was actually ahead. As the night progressed I got more comfortable and continued to move well. Still, I didn't dare try to speed up. Logic dictated that the best policy would be to hold steady and wait for the guys ahead of me to come back. If nobody did, well, maybe I could kick closer to the end. I really, really wanted to run solidly to the end for once, which I had never done before. Speeding up now would be reckless. The next milestone to look forward to was 200K. Scott informed me that on current pacing I'd hit it at 19:22. Great, just what I wanted. I already had the age-group American Records for 200K both on road and track. The track record was soft, 19:37; I'd handily beat that. But I wanted to beat the road (and overall) mark as well; I'd just make it. When I did, that put me one minute ahead of where I'd been at 200K at Run4Water, when I had run 152 – after falling apart the last two hours. This time, things would be different. Liz was back on the track crewing from about 19 hours on; her smiling face helped pull me through.
|New 200K age-group record. Pic by Liz Hearn|
|Pushing hard for the final team spot. Pic by Tracey Outlaw|
|Camille Herron breaks the 24-hour World Record. Pic by Howie Stern|
|He'll live. I think. With Scott Holdaway, pic by Liz Hearn|
|Accidental renaissance. Pic by Liz Hearn|
|Bill Schultz and Scott helping me back for awards. Pic by Liz Hearn|
|With Pat Reagan post-race. Pic by Eric Schranz|
|Tracking graph by Mike Dobies|
Here you can clearly see the rough patch at 18 hours, the gradual recovery, and the pretty steady grind for the last five hours to hold onto the record. Is this smart pacing? Well she's the one with yet another World Record, so it's not for me to say. But I am massively impressed that she was able to pull this off. I remain partial to the view that more even pacing would net her more miles, maybe a lot more, but a lot of pieces of my world view kind of broke during this race, so who knows. My thought has always been that, unlike shorter races, you can't effectively run a 24-hour by feel. You peg your effort meter at the "easy" end while still running too fast. Your body doesn't really grok that you intend to hold this super-easy pace for 24 hours. Especially if you've never done it before! I've done it nine times, and I don't trust myself to pace by feel. I think this works well where it's a question of picking the right fraction of VO2Max effort to use for the race. But 24-hour is not a race that is limited by aerobic capacity, normally. Of course you are never going to run a huge number without the aerobic capacity to make your average pace feel very easy, but that is not the hard part. Plenty of world-class 100K and 100-mile runners have stepped up to 24-hour and fallen flat on their faces. It takes more than speed. Instead, 24-hour seems to me to be limited by cumulative muscle damage and mental fatigue. In particular, cumulative muscle damage is a very nonlinear thing. Once a fraction of your muscle fibers are no longer able to participate effectively, the burden on the remainder is greater, meaning the weakest remaining ones will fail that much faster. A faster pace creates higher forces at a faster rate, a double whammy on cumulative damage. You can see that even here, a little. It took all Camille had to run 2:35ish laps towards the end, while I, a mere 3-hour marathoner, was still running 2:15s and finally 2:00s. But usually the failure is more dramatic when someone starts that fast. Anyway, this is how I think of it. It's a different regime; you can't just jump from 100-mile to 24-hour and run by feel. So I've always said... yeah, well! In summary, Camille split 89.5 / 73.4, or about 55% / 45%. Actually, that's a pretty typical split for a winning 24-hour performance, though it still looks too positive to me, looking at the lap chart. Let's compare to Patrycja Bereznowska's WR performance at Belfast last summer (1.027-mile laps):
This looks a little smoother on the whole, though rougher during the final hour. Her splits were 86.3 / 75.3, or 53.4% / 46.6%. Closer to even, with more absolute miles in the second half than Herron. Moving on to Jake Jackson, we can see that he hit 12 hours on pace for 169. As I said above, that should not end well, unless he is an undiscovered new star. Which it appears he may be. He faded, but in a more controlled manner than Camille, running 157.6 miles, with an 84.5 / 73.1 split, or 53.6% / 46.4% – similar to Bereznowska, actually, though the first four hours were faster. I would say that with more even pacing he could be well over 160, which our team at Worlds could certainly use... but again I may be projecting my bias here. Not only is it not 100% clear what the physiologically optimal pacing strategy is, but psychology comes hugely into play. Camille broke the 100-mile track record by 20 minutes on her way to 24-hour; certainly that should have provided a boost. Runners can take comfort in banked miles. Personally, banked miles ahead of goal pace terrify me – I like to bank energy – but others are different. Even if it's a physiological negative it can be a net positive when the mind comes into play, because the mind is paramount in this kind of race. Finally, it's hard to really judge what Jake was capable of here even with the pacing he had, because he didn't have much to run for towards the end. His win and team spot were virtually assured. Actually, he took over the #2 team spot by beating Steve Slaby's 157 miles, which could theoretically matter, but I gather that he was not aware of this during the race. He did pick up the pace somewhat during the last hour. Next, Greg Armstrong. I think this is maybe what a "typical" well-paced 24-hour performance looks like: a 79.5 / 75.6 split, or 51.2% / 48.8%, with a pace curve smoother than Camille's or Jake's, and a strong finish. Yes they both beat him, but Greg has run 16 24-hours, and this is his PR, so that's what one should look at. And then there's Nick. I consider myself a pretty even pacer, but my GOD, I have never seen a prettier performance than Nick's. It's just absolutely smooth from start to finish, until the last hour, when he mustered a huge kick. Should it have been sooner? I'm sure Nick is torturing himself with this very question. Here's his pace chart.
Folks, this is as good as it gets. That's a 77.1 / 77.9 split, or 49.75% / 50.25%, the legendary true negative split at 24-hour. To execute something like this requires confidence, patience, mastery of the details, and accuracy in judgment. "But", you may say, "I don't have all those things; I don't dare start that slow." But what is the risk? If you start a little slow, the worst that can happen is you run a negative split with too much left in the tank. That might cost you a mile or two. If you start just a hair too fast, that can cost you the whole race. I can count on zero fingers the times I have finished a 24-hour thinking "gee, I wish I'd started faster". Coming back to Zach and Pat, I'm not sure what I can say, other than to highlight once more the risks of starting too fast. Both of them are very experienced and talented runners, and the paces they started at no doubt felt ridiculously easy. But they weren't easy enough. 24-hour can be a cruel mistress: one minute your race is going perfectly; the next it can be over. I do have high hopes for both of them on their next attempts; they can be very valuable additions to the US team, if not for 2019 (Pat has said he will now focus on Western States training), then next time. Finally, back to my own race. Here's my pace chart:
That's a 77.3 / 76.7 split, or 50.2% / 49.8%, as close to even as I have ever managed. You can see the long potty stops at 12 hours and 19:30, and the puking and consequences at 13:30 and 20:15. Looking at Mike Dobies's graph above, you can see that the puking cost me both in absolute distance and in slightly reduced pace, especially after the second time. Without that, it's a real three-way race at the end; who knows how it would have turned out. As it was, I thought I had a slim chance to catch them. If we zoom in on the final four hours of Mike Dobies's graph, assume Greg and Nick hold steady, and that I can hold 2:00 laps for an hour, it looks like this:
But kudos to Greg and Nick for instead stepping it up. Believe me, I know how hard that must have hurt! I have a pretty good handle on how to fix the GI issues, I think. Ironically, one of my biggest strengths at 24-hour is my relative immunity to GI issues: I train low-carb, so I can burn more fat, and need fewer in-race calories. This time, I tried to go a little higher on calories. 168 / hour is not a lot for most people, but I train with no fuel at all on long runs, so my gut is pretty untrained. And honestly that is more calories than I need. I did my first 24 on 100 / hour. Second, I'm pretty sure that the actual trigger for the puking was the caffeine pills. This time I didn't use NoDoz, which I think has some buffering, but gelatin capsules with 200mg of pure caffeine powder. I think the unbuffered hit on my stomach was just too much. I'd never experienced this before; now I know not to do that again. With this fixed I think I am at 155-156. That I think is about my ceiling, unless I change something more radically in my training. Now that I'm basically there, that's what I intend to do. It will take some thought. Certainly I'll need to do faster long runs, perhaps try harder to increase my volume, I'm not sure. There is also the issue of my mental game, and the strong desire to quit or slow around 12-13 hours. That I am less sure what to do about. In a sense I don't have to do anything; I fought through it, which is what counts in the end, right? But it was very unpleasant, and there was a real risk I would do something stupid. Also, the slight amounts that I slowed cost me, and might not have been necessary. The mind is just too complicated – you can't beat your own mind, because it's as strong as you are! I have been doing mindfulness meditation, and episodes of mindful running, focusing intensely on all my bodily and mental sensations; I think this may be a route to further improvement here. Looking forward to Worlds, I now sit in the sixth and last team spot, with five months left of qualifying (as does Pam Smith, thanks to Camille). Conditions here were nearly perfect, and I entered firing on all cylinders... it would be hard for me to try again and beat this. There are a handful of guys who can potentially run more than 154 and knock me out. But will they? It is not so easy. I'm crossing my fingers I can finally meet my long-term goal and represent the US at the World Championships next October in Albi, France. But of course I also want us to have the strongest team possible. We'll see what happens! Thank You
Huge thanks are due to my crew Liz Hearn, Scott Holdaway, and Pam Smith. Especially, Liz and Scott have now crewed me here three times (four for Scott), and it makes all the difference in the world. It's a team effort. Thank you to Hayley Pollock, Jamil Coury, and everyone at Aravaipa running for once again putting on the US's premiere 24-hour race, this time with live, full-time commentary. That did NOT look like an easy job. But it was appreciated by all. You're raising the level of the sport here enormously. Thank you to all my competitors for making Desert Solstice 2018 a race that will go down in history. Finally, to my readers – if you made it this far, I hope you found something useful to take away!