As I cross the Watt Ave. Bridge for what will end up being the last time, my quads screaming as I descend the short steep stretch into the finish area, I realize that this isn’t just a rough patch. This is how today is going to end up.
My coach, Jon, and I had discussed rough patches. With a race this long, it’s impossible to feel good, confident for the entire time. One of the things I’d learned from doing a handful of fairly long training runs was that feeling sluggish for the first 10km, or having a rough second hour of a 3.5 hour run didn’t necessarily mean I was having a bad day; in fact, my very best workouts featured exactly those indicators.
Backing up — I’d been approached about being part of HOKA’s Project Carbon X more than a year ago, shortly after I set the World Record for 50km on the track and became the 2nd fastest American ever at the distance. At the time, I felt like I wanted to focus on the marathon, use the huge strength I’d developed for the 50K and apply it to the shorter and faster 42.2km race.
But, Mike McManus, my boss at HOKA, saw my future going in a different direction. He had a clear vision of me battling it out with HOKA’s ultra super-star, Jim Walmsley, and both of us trying to set a world record for 100km and even try to run under 6-hours (a time 9+ minutes under the current world record and a pace of 5’48/M, 3’36/km).
At first, I just smiled and nodded, tried to deflect — how about another attempt at the 50K record instead? — and thought maybe I’d just end up as a pacer if this event ever came to fruition. But over the coming months, Mike, my agent Josh Cox, and a slew of other “real” ultra-runners kept bringing it up, encouraging me to give it a shot, and assured me I’d do great.
The distance spurred my hesitance. When I ran my first 50K, I’d already run a half-dozen marathons and had run as far as 45km in training. But before this block, I’d never run for more than 50km or about three hours. I distinctly remember in the 50K record attempt last year getting to about 40km and thinking, “Damn, I really wish this were just a marathon.” The idea of doubling the total distance, having 60km remaining when I had that thought, was impossible to comprehend.
But, people have done it, people I know well. I talked with Josh (who made a jump from only the half marathon to the 50-mile back in the day), Geoff Burns (who’d run very well over 100km without much in between), Camille Heron (currently the — arguably — best female ultra-runner in the world), Jim Walmsley and Patrick Reagan (who’d be my teammates), and others. They all had slightly different supporting details, but their overall theses were similar: training for a road 100K is not so different from training for a marathon or 50K; you should go for it.
Thus, sometime in late 2018, I committed my entire spring build-up to this experiment. After losing most of that season to a bout of achilles tendonitis, I was excited to get back to training with a big goal on the horizon.
I spent the beginning of my block avoiding Boston’s winter in Quito, Ecuador at 9,300 ft above sea level (2850m), putting in two months of some of the best high mileage training I’d ever done, including a 3-week block that averaged 160 miles per week. I ran my longest run ever (53km) but still worked out on the track w/ the team and was able to run — for me — a solid indoor 5K when I returned to Boston (14’21).
Back at sea level in March, I continued to experiment with longer training sessions. I learned very quickly that the recovery from a hard 60km+ day does not scale linearly with shorter hard days. I spent a lot of the month feeling like I was just barely hanging on, but eventually found the balance between volume and recovery that brought me through April feeling great.
All of my longer workouts were pointing to a pace right around 3’30/km. This seemed to be my sweet spot, a pace that felt slow enough where, if I was having a good day, it was hard to hold myself back and run, and if I was having a bad day, it still felt manageable. I had a handful of great long runs, often accompanied by my coach and mentor, Jon Waldron, on the Charles river, covering 25 to 64km, with lots of running right around that pace.
In my last big workout we ran 52km at an average pace of 3’29/km. This was one of those magical days where I felt like I had to hold back — I ran way too fast from 30-40km — and Jon cut me short (stopping at 52 instead of the planned 55km) since I was running so well and we were only 3 weeks out from race day. I was sure I was ready.
And so but now let’s fly across the country, away from the cool, grey March and April of New England and step out of Sacramento Airport into the blazing desert sun of Northern California. I’d seen the forecast but it still feels warmer than I expect.
The next morning, Patrick, Mike Wardian, Mike McManus, the Japanese contingent, and I head out to run “the loop” (the 7.5km section of the course which will make up the last ~70km of the race). It’s about 10:00am when we start jogging and — in the sun — feels warm. The car thermometer reads 77F, though the weather app on my phone reads 10 or 12 degrees cooler.
I realize a few things after this run.
First, running a negative split will not be possible. I’d already assumed that the best way to run 100km is with a slight positive split (if you look at previous WRs or other fast times in 100km, everyone slows down somewhat after 60km). This will be exacerbated by the heat, making the second half of the race much more challenging.
Second, I have a much better shot of running the 50 mile WR than the 100K WR. The distance is obviously shorter, closer to what I’ve run before, and it means less time in the mid-day sun.
After talking with Jon, we decide on a plan to run the first 10-30km at a pace slower than my sweet-spot-3’30/km, probably about 3’36/km as that’s what Jim (Walmsley) has requested, but gradually speeding up such that I arrive at 50K somewhere between 2h55 and 3h00. This should set me up well with a few minutes of wiggle room for the 30km between the halfway point and the 50M (80.5km) mark. Beyond that, it’s just about hanging on and finishing.
I am distinctly more nervous than I’ve been in a while as race morning approaches. Luckily, HOKA keeps us busy and the extraordinarily friendly group of athletes keeps me distracted and happy. The California sunshine is honestly pretty great as well, despite the fact that I know I’ll be cursing it a couple hours into our run on Saturday morning.
I keep myself calm with routine. Pre-race day — shakeout, strides, 1 quicker mile in race shoes, ice bath, relax, big dinner, keep up with hydration, and then early to bed.
I set my alarm for 02:30am for the 06:00am start and somehow wake up naturally just before it. I’ve basically stayed on east-coast time, falling asleep well before sunset and waking up around 03:00 each day.
The morning feels like any other race, though there’s a nervous tightness in my stomach that reminds me every once in a while that today’s a bit different. Not only will I be running into truly uncharted territory (both for me and historically for ultra-running), but I’ll be doing it with a dozen cameras tracking my every move and thousands of people following along online.
The chatter between Patrick, Wardian, Sabrina, Yamauchi, Takada, and me and Mariana brightens the dark hotel lobby and before we know it, it’s time to load up the giant HOKA rental (dubbed the Pimp-mobile) and make our way to the start.
Dawn is just peeping out over the horizon as we arrive and disembark. It’s cool; I’m wearing track pants and a jacket and gloves, but I know it won’t last. I joke to Patrick that we should have started the race at 03:00am.
After sitting, meditating, and going to the bathroom, I’m back in my routine — just another race — light drills and two short and slow strides just to open up the legs. That’s all. I pop 100mg of caffeine and take a pre-race gel and then it’s time.
We all line up — a bigger crowd than I’d expected with all the pacers and a surprising number of spectators at this hour — and the clock counts down.
The route starts out along the wide streets of Folsom and I’m having fun. I tuck in behind Jim and our 5 pacers and force myself to hold back less I clip the Carbon Xs in front of me. Jon had told me to think of this first 30km — the point-to-point section of the race — as “the warm-up”. My plan is to run as relaxed as possible and get to “the loop” ready for the start of the real work.
But I also know that Jim and I are likely to separate at some point during this warm-up. He’d told me he didn’t want to go faster than 3’36/km pace (6h00 100K pace or almost exactly even with the 50M WR pace). With my eyes on the 50M record, I was nervous about leaving so little wiggle room for the slow-down I imagined later in the race. Moreover, having run so many great training sessions in that 3’30/km zone, I knew that was the pace that was going to feel mechanically most natural to me.
At 5km (right about 18’00) we’re still together and by 10km (right around 36’00), we’re still very close, but my pacers and I have started to pull away. I’m feeling comfortable and relaxed and I know that this is the decision point. Do I wait, run a bit slower, and stay with Jim and keep our rabbits together? Or do I start to pull ahead, run into the unknown, and hopefully leave myself more margin for error in the second half?
You probably already know what happens. We do pull away and run the next 10km right around 35’00, bringing us to 20K around 71’00. Jim and his 3 pacers are well behind and I’m still feeling comfortable, though I’m alarmed at how warm I already feel.
Really, as soon as the sun starts to sneak through the trees, I can tell it’s going to be way too warm. The ambient air temperature is still only in the 50s, but I can feel the powerful California sun heating things up quickly. The grey and cool March and April in Boston has not prepared me for this. Even in the first hour, I’m pouring my bottle on my head, neck, and shoulders, trying to delay the inevitable creep upward of body temperature and heart rate that I know is coming.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have held back here. The fact that I was already feeling warm should have warned me that I needed to be more conservative. I should have listened to my body, tucked back in behind a big group with Jim and 5 other runners, and been patient. But, I wasn’t. Back to the story.
I honestly don’t have that many strong memories from that first 30km, other than it felt a bit longer than I expect. I remember a lot of quiet and lovely miles along the gently rolling bike path. I remember coming through the aid stations and having them all be crowded, loud, their support carrying me on. But I feel like I do a very good job of mostly letting it be fairly boring.
Still, I know that it doesn’t feel quite right. Somewhere in the 20s (of kilometers), I notice that my legs feel a bit more sore than they should this early, the impact of each step doesn’t feel as effortless as it should. For whatever reason, whether it’s the heat, the slightly rolling course, or just the day, today doesn’t feel as good as I expect.
But as we approach the 30km point and the beginning of the loop, I’m not worried. This is one of those patches you’re going to go through where things don’t feel great, but — hey — it’s a 6 hour race! What’s a half hour or so of feeling a little off? I’m planning to take a caffeine pill at 40km, and surely that will help pull me back up. Another 10km is nothing!
We pass 30km around 1h46 minutes (having run very even 3’30s since 10km) and are still clicking them off no problem. We hair-pin up a short but steep incline onto the levee and make our one half-loop around the extremely sharp turn onto the Watt Ave Bridge and then down the small hill to the finish area, which is packed, loud, and raucous.
We’re just about at 20 miles now and both my rabbits think they should be able to go through the marathon point — another lap and a bit. I grab my bottle and am now squeezing more and more onto my head, tucking ice cubes into my head-band, etc. It’s only 08:00; I’m beginning to get mildly concerned.
But the Ks keep clicking off. We pass 40km right around 2h21 (still on 3’30s) and things are still feeling fine. I think at this point Jameson might have dropped out, but Swarn is still doing a great job and says he’s got one more lap, which will take him a few km past the marathon.
This lap is tough, though, and I suddenly notice that it’s taking more effort to stay right on Swarn’s heels; I’m letting him gap me by a meter or two and am having to focus much harder to continue with the same pace.
At some point on this lap, I realize I’m going to need to use the port-a-john and shout this out to Swarn as we come down the steep descent on the levee side. We stop as I run in, clear things out, and leave in less than a minute, feeling much better. I hope this is the end of my rough patch and I really do feel quite good for the next couple km.
I notice, however, as we run down the hill into the finish, that what had felt like a nice smooth descent on the first go-round now felt brutal. I didn’t feel like I was gliding downhill, but rather pounding the ground up into my feet, my quads and ITBs nearly seizing up. And this was only lap two — still seven to go!
I try to stay positive. As Swarn runs off the course, he shouts “You’ve got this! That record is yours!” and I want to believe him, but part of me knows this probably isn’t going to be my day.
I’m running alone on the more undulating part of the loop, still clicking off 3’30s, when all of a sudden, I look over my shoulder and see the slack face of Jim Walmsley. He sits behind me for a second and then motors past, quickly creating a gap that grows to several seconds within that kilometer. He’s taken me completely by surprise, but I guess with my bathroom-break, he was probably only a minute or so behind me.
My watch buzzes and I see that I’d still run 3’31 for that km, so, despite my initial reaction at getting dropped so hard, I calm myself down; still running fine. Don’t worry. It’s a long race.
Jim is off ahead and we both pass the 50km point — halfway done — in ~2h57.
I run maybe one or two more good kilometers, but then the slow-down begins. I run a 3’48. Okay, reset, take a minute to regroup and find a new rhythm. It’s okay. But my legs are starting to seize up; my quads feel like they’re barely holding my bodyweight anymore. I run a 3’58. Then a 4’05.
And so, now we’re back to the beginning, coming down that minimal incline and my body completely rejecting the idea of continuing this any longer. The idea of running another 40km+ is impossible. All I want is to stop but I tell myself to just hang on a little longer. Even 4’00/km pace to the end would be a decent 100K.
But the tiny ups and downs on the start of the loop are now insurmountable, forcing my muscles into one giant seething charlie-horse. I’m barely shuffling along now and just waiting to navigate this quiet section of the course until I can find someone who can help me, make it all stop.
I barely remember what happens next, but somehow I’m getting helped into a van by Sage Canaday and then I’m back at the start and in the medical tent and I can’t catch my breath and I can’t stop shaking and every time I move something new begins to cramp.
Theresa is there; then Mariana is there. It takes a long time, but they’re able to wrap me up like a to-go burrito until the shaking subsides.
I eventually am able to take an enormous amount of fluids and hobble my way over to the NormaTec pants which — on their lowest setting — are pretty much exactly what I needed.
I hear the good news that Jim had just barely snagged the 50M record and am psyched for him while also being extremely sad and not a small amount jealous.
The rest of the morning is a blur. I spent a long time sitting, watching the (incredibly high quality) live stream, hobbling out to cheer on Jim, Hideaki, Patrick, Wardian, Yoshiki, Sabrina. It’s hot; even just standing out in the sun is brutal.
“Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!”
Or something like that.
Yes, I shot for the moon. Jim and my 50K splits are (I think — someone fact-check me) the fastest anyone’s ever gone out in a 100K. And I had the hubris to go out ahead of the best ultra-runner in the country in my debut at a race twice as long as anything I’d ever done before.
One could easily argue that I was simply arrogant and naive. And surely there is some truth to that.
But this was an opportunity to do something extraordinary. And I knew just as well as all the armchair-coaches that there were many more paths to failure — to me writhing in the medical tent — than there were to my triumphant success. But that was a gamble I was willing to take.
You’ve gotta risk it for the biscuit.
But unfortunately, in real life, you often don’t land among the stars when you miss your moon-shot. You don’t get anything for running three-quarters of a world record. You don’t get the “assist” when you act as the final rabbit for the eventual record setter. No, instead, you come crashing back down to Earth at tremendous speed.
What have I learned?
I’ve learned that I need to listen to my body, give myself more flexibility on race day, and be patient. I’ve learned that 100km still feels like a very long distance, indeed. I’ve learned that ultra running has a very high and unforgiving learning curve. I’ve learned that Jim Walmsley is the real deal. I’ve learned that great people make great friends make a great weekend, even if your race goes poorly. I’ve learned that the people who understand and care about you will be there to lift you up whether you arrive victorious or down-trodden. And I’ve learned that I’m going to have to take another crack at this at some point.
Stay with us.
I owe tremendous thanks to the great many people that made this weekend so special, including but not limited to my amazing partner Mariana who flew 7000 miles to be a part of this craziness despite being in the middle of finals, my unreasonably supportive coach Jon Waldron who was the first person I wanted to call once I could talk in the med tent, my teammates and pacers who made the entire trip so memorable and joyous, everyone at HOKA but especially Theresa, Mike, and Christian who took such good care of all of us, my parents who have been there since the very beginning, and all of the friends and fans both out on the course and all over the world who have said hi, encouraged me, or shared a run over the years; it all means the world to me.