“Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end… And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Evel Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?’
Abiding again between heartbeats; [he] tries to imagine what kind of impossible leap it would take to live that way all the time, by choice, straight: in the second, the Now, walled and contained between slow heartbeats. … Sarge, says it all the time: It’s a gift, the Now: it’s no accident they call it The Present.” – Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace.
Before we get started I need to thank the people without whom this event, the records, even the attempt, wouldn’t have been impossible. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge my parents: Tim “Mr. C” Andrews and Valerie Cummings (and my Aunt, Ceil, and my other anonymous relative – who doesn’t like to be named on the internet and definitely wasn’t flying a drone around without permission during the race – who were there in person). Not only did Mr. C handle the live splits on twitter like a boss, but he and my mother have been rooting for me, well, literally, longer than anyone. Thanks as well to my #1 partner in life, running, cat-parenting, and everything, Mariana, without whom I would be a sad, lonely, shadow of a man; I’m sorry you couldn’t be there in person for this one, but you’re in my heart always. I also can’t forget my coach, Jon Waldron, who’s been with me for more than a decade (!) since our first meeting at CA in fall of 2007; thank you for always being there and pushing me to be the best that I can be. HUGE thanks to Rajpaul Pannu and Chris Frias who provided the best pace-making I could ask for and went well above and beyond what I’d hoped for. Thanks to everyone at HOKA for the amazing hospitality and truly world-class event, especially Mike, Christian, Craig, Cory, Sunny, Sam, everyone from USATF, Leo, and all the NJNY crew (particularly Tommy for getting my legs working after the race), and the myriad others I met over the course of the week. To my Ecuadorian running crew – Franklin Tenorio, Miguel Almachi, Jose Luis, Jean, Erik, Isra, Edi, Angie, Anita – ustedes son parte de mi familia; gracias para recibirme como un chasqui del grupo y para empujarme cada día en el entrenamiento. Thanks to my partners at STRIVE, Nic and Rob, who’ve been there for so long, and for all my students and interns who keep in touch and have sent kind words along the way. Thanks to the good folks at nuun for keeping me hydrated (and cooled – yes, it’s all the same bottle and some of it just goes on my head). To Alta Andina – y’all have become family to me over the past months; I love you and I run with the AA spirit in my heart; thanks for inspiring me with your incredible hard work and dedication to making the world a better place. Lastly, to all my other friends, family, fans, anyone who’s ever said hello to me at the airport or wished me luck on Reddit – it really means something; thank you.
6:50am: Here we go!
I wake up around 2:30am and doze fitfully for another two hours or so until my alarm finally wakes me three hours before the gun. The wind has been howling all night and as I get out of bed and peek outside, I see that the hotel’s pool umbrellas lay helter skelter and the palm fronds still whip in the pre-dawn dark.
I swipe open my phone and see that wunderground still predicts the wind to die down around dawn. Fingers crossed.
This part I’ve done before – the waiting. I make coffee, snack on some animal crackers, check my email and reddit, and make my way through a few lessons of DuoLingo Japanese. Before I know it, it’s 6:20am; the sun still rests behind the horizon but HOKA’s star intern, Craig Lutz, waits in the parking lot to drive me the two miles to the Santa Barbara City College Track.
We arrive and, as if on cue, the wind halts, the flags fall still, and the white caps on the beach across Cabrillo St. settle into the ocean. With no direct sunlight yet, the air is cool and crisp: perfect for a long-distance race.
Mindlessly, I go through the usual pre-race routine. Getting the lay of the land: where are the important landmarks? The bathrooms? The start, finish, bag-check, etc.? But, this race is a bit different. Today, the powers that be have arranged this morning essentially for me. So, I leave my backpack on the infield, I tell Christian where I’d like the bottle table placed, and I sit and wait.
I meet Chris and Raj – our pace-setters for the day – as they arrive and we discuss the plan for the race: starting a bit behind world-record pace, accelerating slowly over the first 5-8km, and then settling right around 3’14-15/km for as long as they (and I) can hang on. With the business out of the way, we jog a few laps and talk about everything except the upcoming 125 laps – their day jobs, upcoming race plans, where they stayed in town last night.
After 2km, I pull off and let the liebres continue. Even a 2km warmup seems garish with 50 more coming up shortly.
I continue to run through the motions: changing into my racing shoes (from an old beat-up pair of Clifton 4s to a brand-new, fresh pair). I take off a few layers as the sun begins to warm the track. I run through the normal series of drills and a few light strides. My legs feel great. My feet pop off the track like golf balls on a concrete sidewalk. We’re ready.
As the clock ticks past 7:30am, the sun climbing higher with every passing second, we line up behind the starting line (facing “backwards”, down the home stretch) and our USATF Official Mr. Bill Handley calls “take your marks”, and, with a crack and a puff of smoke, we’re off.
We begin running clockwise (i.e. the opposite of the normal direction you’d run on a track) for the first 8km of the race.
(Aside for those who are interested in why we ran 8km in the opposite direction to start – skip this paragraph if you don’t care. Originally, we’d thought that we’d have to run the entire race counter-clockwise. It wasn’t until about 10 days before the race that I was told that we could switch directions if we wanted, but we could only do it once and had to tell the officials before the race exactly when the switch would occur. Since we’d thought we’d have to run the race in one direction, I’d done essentially all my track training in one direction up to that point and so it seemed like a big risk to split the race in half, even though that might seem the most logical, half CW and half CCW, because if it felt, like, weird to run in the other direction because of not being used to turning right all the time, it’d be a long time to be stuck with said weird feeling. So, 8km seemed like a decent amount of time in that it’d give my left-turning muscles and bones a bit of relief but wasn’t so long that it’d be an issue if it felt awful, especially since I’d be running it at the start. Plus, after 8km, you’ve got a marathon left, which is a nice natural dililenation in and of itself).
We’re off the line and I tuck in behind Raj and Chris who run more or less two abreast in Lane 1. We cover the first lap in 80 – exactly what I’d asked for: a few 80s, a few more 79s, before settling in at 78s (3’15/km – a second under WR pace) for as long as we could. There’s a clock at both the finish and at 200m, so as much as I’d like to ignore the splits and focus on the tiny piece of synthetic (epidemic) fabric between Raj’s shoulders, it’s hard not to glance at the blinking numbers that we pass every 40 seconds or so.
Someone had asked me before the race what I was going to think about while I was running. I replied that for the first two hours or so (two hours!), I’d mostly try not to think at all. And so, that’s what I do. I focus my gaze on the nape of Raj’s neck and try to revert my brain to its most reptilian form.
And so, we run some 80s, and at some point, maybe around 2km, I’m starting to think that this feels really slow and we should pick it up to 79s. And so they do that and we pass 5km, probably around 16’3x, and before I know it the officials are putting the cone out and we’ve got do our little U-turn and now we’ve run 8km and we’re running the so called normal direction and we have less than a marathon to go. How hard could that be?
We’re running 78s now and while I’m not keeping track of the exact pace, I have told Raj and Chris at this point to settle into 3’15 pace and just get into a rhythm. Mike McManus is on the sideline and calling out our splits relative to each 1600m (so, each 400m, 800m, 1200m, etc.). I’m not hearing too much as I’m very much “in the zone” but a few splits sound quick. At 10km, I decide to split my watch just so I can get a sense of how fast we’re going.
Our 11th km is a 3’11 and I let Raj and Chris know.
“Hey. We just ran a 3’11. I don’t want to go any faster than 3’15, so let’s settle in there.”
The pace slows and yo-yos a bit as Raj and Chris find the perfect rhythm but it feels much more comfortable. This is often the part of the race where I feel the best – between the 10 and 30km point. I’m truly enjoying myself. I’m smiling as I actively avoid looking at the clocks and instead focus on the beautiful mountains above the stadium, the clip-clop of our feet, the knowledge that we’re sneaking up on WR pace exactly as planned, the thought – for the first time – that I really think I’m going to do this.
Chris had told me beforehand that he figured he’d make it to 10 miles and Raj would make it to 15 miles. The 10 mile mark (just over 16km) sneaks up on me and we pass it around 52’30 (now under world record pace). Chris and Raj are talking between the two of them, but I can’t really hear and just continue staring at Raj’s bouncing shoulder-blades.
I keep expecting Chris to drop off at any moment and so it’s an immense positive feedback loop every lap, every kilometer, that goes by where he’s still pulling us along. We pass 11 miles, 12 miles, and then the half marathon mark (about 1’09’10). We pass 15 miles and then I think it’s right around the halfway mark (25km), more than 5 miles beyond what he’d committed, that he pulls off and wishes us luck. Thank you, Chris.
Our 25km split is 1’21’47 (2’43’34 pace – 4 seconds under the overall world record). I’d expected to be slightly further ahead of this and so I know that we’ll have to put in some work for however long Raj is planning to keep running in order to build a bit of a buffer for the inevitably brutal last 10km.
In a normal, ideal race – say, a marathon on a cool day – I’d always hope to negative split, i.e. run the second half faster than the first. But today, I was almost certain, before we even started, that if I wanted to set the overall world record, I’d have to be under pace going into the last 10km. Between the temperature (which would rise along with the sun over the course of the race), the pounding my feet would take from the 210 consecutive left turns, and the long solo final stage of the race, I knew it’d be extremely difficult to accelerate in the later stages. Looking at both my own and others’ 50K results, I’d hoped to have about a minute on the record at the 40km point.
And so, in seeing that we’re just about exactly on WR pace at 25km, I’m already a bit nervous. I’m feeling good, strong, but I know that, from an effort perspective, there’s still significantly more than halfway to go. I keep my fingers crossed that Raj will stick around for at least a few more miles.
He does. Like Chris, Raj absolutely earns his MVP status as the kilometers tick by and Mike continues to call “76-77, 2’33-2’34, etc.” We’re perfectly on pace and every lap we’re building a bigger cushion on the record. We pass 30km in 1’37’58 (16’10 for that 5K) and are now about 30 seconds under pace. But things are starting to feel hard now. We’re running consistently, but I’ve lost the feeling that I’m just on a comfortable run around the park. No, now, this feels distinctly uncomfortable, and it’s taking an exponentially increasing amount of focus to stick with Raj.
As we come up to the 20 mile mark, I can tell we’re going to be just off the 20-Mile American Record. With a few laps to go, I briefly consider surging ahead for the bonus that comes along with the mark, but since we’re still under overall WR pace and shit is starting to get extremely real, I decide against it. We pass just over 1h45 – only 10 seconds off.
But still, Raj is dragging me around and around. I’m going through a dark phase where the logical side of my brain is begging Raj to just slow down a bit, to maybe ask Mike if we can, like, change this race to just be a marathon or even 35km; gosh, that sounds nice. But I’m thinking of Joelle Van Dyne and Don Gately and trying not to think of all those buses lined up. I’m taking this one step at a time, one lap at a time.
I don’t remember exactly when Raj steps off, but I think it might have been at 35km (1’54’19). We’re still under WR pace at this point, but I already know it’s going to take a miracle to hang on. It’s one thing to chase Raj but entirely another to try to judge pace and effort on my own all of a sudden. Within just a couple of laps, I can see that I’ve already slowed down despite the fact that the effort feels the same. The overall record is slipping away second by second.
At 40km (2’11’16, a 16’57 solo 5k, 20 second OVER world record pace now), I know I’m not going to get it. It’s not defeatist but simply realistic. The solo running under the blazing Californian sun is simply too hard; I’m not going to do it today.
But, instead of feeling sorry for myself and jogging it in, I simply re-adjust. I try to stay positive; what’s the next mental check-point? I’ve got the marathon mark coming up and unless I really baby out, I’m going to snag an Olympic Trials Qualifier. That’s pretty sweet.
We pass the marathon in 2’18’42 and that’s a hugely positive datum. I’ve already gotten something great out of the day. And now, while I’m not thinking about the finish yet, I’m trying – with great strain – to do some mental math and think about the track WR of 2h48. I know I’d been 2h11 at 40km, which makes me think the track mark should be in the cards (again, barring some monster implosion), and every kilometer and lap that go by, I’m reassured of that again.
Finally, a switch in my brain clicks and instead of thinking of what kilometer I’m running, I’m thinking of how much is left. 45km goes by in 2h28 and I know I’m not going to run a 15 minute 5K and set the overall record. But that’s okay, because there are only 12 laps to go and that just seems so reasonable. Plus, I only have to run 19 minutes to hit the track WR mark, which, as well, seems entirely reasonable. I know I’ve slowed down; I’m running over 80 seconds per lap. The previous 5K had been just over 17 minutes. But I’m not thinking about that. I’m just running one lap at a time. Good job. That one’s done. One more.
I think it’s at 10 laps to go that the officials actually start flashing lap counters at me. Up to that point, I hadn’t heard a single lap count (thankfully, because who wants to hear lap, like, 75 of 125 when you’re 30km deep?); but, now as with so many workouts, I’m counting down from 10, 9, 8. The math is getting harder, everything fuzzier and more abstract, less real, but I’m almost certain I’ll get the track WR unless my mind is leading my astray.
I can feel the outside of my foot screaming every 20 seconds as I take another left hand turn. I can feel my form disintegrating as I awkwardly drive my arms in a state of near-complete exhaustion, an early Boston-Dynamics robot struggling for linear motion. I can feel the sun beating down on me, the cool water from my bottle that Mike hands off every few minutes seeming to accomplish nothing except blurring my already foggy vision. Still, I’m putting one foot in front of the other.
With 1km to go, I really try to push. I know I’m not beautiful and I know I’m falling apart, but I’m turning my legs over faster, driving my arms higher. I’m counting down the seconds.
And then Mr. Handley is ringing the bell. One more 400. One more 200. 30, 29, 28. And finally it’s all over.
I cross the line and collapse in a heap. My muscle spasm; my whole body throbs. Everything hurts but the pain is so omnidirectional that it somehow seems to dull the effect. I just want to be here and breathe and not move. I roll from my knees onto my ass and promptly throw up all over the track (a moment forever immortalized by Kyle Merber and Erik Boal from Dyestat). Mike is there; NJNY’s Tommy is there and the two of them help me off my feet, literally lifting me up as my muscles have decided enough is enough for today, and they heft me onto the infield where I’m deposited onto a hard plastic chair.
2’46’06 is the final time. A new World and American Record for 50km run on a track. 2 minutes and 28 seconds off the overall 50K World Record, making me the second fastest American in history at the distance.
I’d lost just under two and a half minutes during those last, lonely 15 kilometers. And as much as I’d like to say I just had an off day, the truth is that if we ran this race 100 times under the same conditions, I’m not sure we would have gotten a better result. HOKA put on one of the most professional and well-supported events I’ve been a part of. Chris and Raj both went well above and beyond the call of duty. But when it came time to drop the hammer in the last 10km, I simply didn’t have it. Maybe if it were 30 degrees cooler (the temperature was over 70F for the last hour of the race), the overall fatigue wouldn’t have taken so much out of me. But, I know, today, on this track, in these conditions, I squeezed every last drop out of the orange. I left everything out there.
As Jon had said to me before the race, “You can do this; you can run this pace; but everything needs to go perfectly.” There’s a reason this record is 30 years old (and it’s not just that it’s easy and no one cares about it, as much as the Let’s-Run trolls will, I’m sure, insist); it’s because it’s hard. 50km is almost 20% longer than a marathon and that 20% correlates to an extremely nonlinear exertion of effort.
Is it on par with an Olympic distance record (marathon, 10,000m, etc.)? Of course not. I’ve never claimed to be Eliud Kipchoge and – even if I had smashed the record – I never would. That’s never been my claim nor my goal when it comes to running. I’ve always sought to push my own limits, to find my own personal ceiling.
I discovered where my limits lie for today, on this track: 2’46’06. 3’19 per km for 50km. 5’20 per mile for 31.1 miles.
Yet – like so many distance runners – I’m not satisfied. I don’t feel that I’ve found my absolute limit. I think on a cool, windless day, that 2’43’38 mark could go down, even with my current fitness. I don’t know that I’ll ever do it; but, I do know that I’ll try again. I’ll continue striving to find the best version of myself. I’ll keep training and pushing myself for those extra 3 seconds per kilometer. And I’ll hope that the teenager who reads this who might think of himself as an uncoordinated, unathletic, music-nerd will find a new passion in self-improvement that will take him literally around the world, will teach him the science of training and greetings in a dozen languages, will introduce him to hundreds of people – from chemical engineers to Olympians to flight attendants – and will leave him in moments of agony so beautiful he can’t help but weep. That’s all I can hope for.