Monday, 17 December 2012

Desert Solstice 100-mile/24-hr

I just got back from the Aravaipa Running Desert Solstice 100-mile/24-hr track race in Phoenix, AZ, and it was another great event with fantastic performances and excellent organization. Again I was blown away by the fun atmosphere and truly good people involved in the sport, especially the Coury brothers who directed the race - Nick even ran 139.7 miles to get into the US 24-hr team). However, for me it was a learning experience and things were going almost perfectly then very abruptly went to hell at 70 miles.

The allure of a track ultra was the chance to go for fast times and records so I made sure I had suitable races in the build up to help with that (road marathons and ultras like JFK50 that are mainly about maintaining an even speed without much in the way of hills). So I was well prepared, albeit with a blip two weeks earlier from a brief knee injury that stopped me racing the TNFEC 50 in San Francisco.

The aim was to run hard for 100 miles (or 12 hours) then decide whether it was worth continuing for the 24-hr challenge. So I had several targets to aim for and knew the rough splits required for each:

  • 12-hr World Record: 101.02 miles by Yiannis Kouros of Greece at New York on 11/7/84 (for some reason this doesn't count as an American All-Comers Record too, possibly due to lack of documentation provided to USATF) 
  • 100 miles: 12 hrs 
  • 100 miles North American All-Comers Record: 12:05:43 by Andy Jones of Canada at Sylvania, OH on 9/27/97 
  • 100 miles American Record (not that I'm eligible but it's a good target): 12:12:19 by Rae Clark at Queens, NY on 4/1/89 

Failing those, I still had the back-up of a 100-mile PR to aim for at 12:44:33.

So I started at a reasonable pace that felt fine and got a few PRs for new distances along the way with splits of:

  • 2:58 Marathon 
  • 3:32 50k 
  • 5:47 50 Miles 
  • 7:19 100k 
  • 8:20 70 Miles 

Realistically I was then heading for the 12:12 American Record as my pace had dropped slightly but I felt good running with Jon Olson who finished the 100-mile in 12:29:37 for one of the fastest US 100-mile times ever. At that point I had a 7-lap lead over Jon (1.74 miles) but I made a fatal mistake and let the elements get to me.

Phoenix has a desert climate and it doesn't rain much, but it also doesn't get very cold in winter. I'd raced there twice for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon each year in January and had an idea of what to expect, but the forecast of showers and temps in the 50s during the day seemed ideal for fast times. So I made the mistake that some people made at Western States this year (which had 40 miles of cold, wintery weather up high) and planned to run race conditions that are typical rather than what actually happened on the day.

When a nasty rain-storm got going and the wind picked up, I assumed it'd blow over and kept running for a couple of miles in shorts and T-shirt while everyone else put on layers. Eventually I put on a light rain jacket but was already cold, so that reduced my appetite and I probably ate nothing for roughly an hour while over 100k into the race. The predictable bonk led to walking through the aid station on the track and taking on more food, but when I slowed down for just a few minutes my body temperature plummeted and I started shivering uncontrollably. I walked a lap but only got worse and had to go inside to get warm as I was close to hypothermia and it took a couple of hours to stop shivering.

It was frustrating to have made such a simple error but I had only turned up to chase records so a 2-hr minimum stoppage put those out the window and it wasn't worth continuing for the sake of grinding out either 100 miles or 24 hours. I know others would have got out there again but I wasn't there to see if I could keep going for the distance, but to do it as well as possible. At least I learned something about track racing and also got a reminder to stay on top of all the things that can cause an ultra to go bad mid-race.

The one thing I'd expected was to find the experience mind-numbing, but it was enjoyable to see people again and again along the track and to run the first 20 miles with Dave James then later on with Jon. It's much more exciting than expected to watch it, too, especially as we got close to the 100-mile finishes and runners pushed to their maximum to shave minutes off their times. The most incredible thing to see was a topless Mike 'The Fruitarian' Arnstein negative splitting his 100 miles to break 13 hours and to unlap himself numerous times from Jon (the weather improved again after it got dark).

Mike lapped consistently around 6:20-6:40 mile pace for hours at the end and his final marathon must have been in the low 2:50s! I'm pretty sure even Yiannis Kouros at his peak would have struggled to match that pace for that long after 10 hours of running. Jon was still running around a 7:30/mile pace for much of the final hours and that was also amazing but I couldn't believe Mike didn't blow up. His emotional collapse at the finish line was something we all could understand after such a hard push and his success at breaking 13 hours.

One other person mention is Pam Smith ran an amazing 100-mile race too, with a 15:01 finish despite losing her timing chip when changing clothes and spending many minutes trying to find it.

If track ultras sound boring, try one and see if you still think that. There's something positive about seeing the entire field at the same time rather than just those running at the same speed as yourself. I'm not going to make these my main focus but will be back again to run hard and see what's possible in terms of speed in the fastest style of ultrarunning possible.

Results are here plus will be on the race website in more detail soon.


  1. Great write up. Although a bit tricky to read (the black letters on dark blue bg in the second half of the post).
    Pity you ran into that hypothermia trap. Hope you'll be back for some more and even have a go at a 100k.

  2. I loved watching you run-you were inspiring. Bummer that the conditions weren't better for you. I hope to see you again next year!

  3. Thomas, thanks for pointing out the weird formatting - I've fixed it now. I'll definitely be back for more at some point and a flat 100k too when it fits in with other races.