2021 Desert Solstice Race Report - American 24 Hour Record
Holy ****. I still can’t quite believe I did it. I believed it was possible because I had to, but I didn’t really think I could do it.
For my 20 years of running and 16 years of ultras, I knew I was not the worst, but far from the best. I was 3rd on a not very competitive high school cross country team, later on could win local races if there wasn’t competition, and in the last couple years even started to push my way up at more prominent ultra races.
But I’ve never had any illusions about where I stood against the best. I like competing at big races to remind myself just how far off I am. I can go head to head with Zach Bitter, Jim Walmsley, Aleksandr Sorokin, or a hundred others and will not even be a footnote compared to their typical performances. I love running because it’s something where hard work gets you far and smart work gets you farther, but after two decades of improvement it was clear there was only so far I could go. The best runners in the world show clear potential early on, and if they’re going to make it big they do it in a couple years. I’d already pushed my limits for well over a decade and was plateauing far away from anything notable. Or so I thought.
My 2018 Desert Solstice was a work of art. I trained harder than ever before, executed a perfect race, and negative split to hit a 16 mile PR with 155 miles. After that race and ultimately missing the US 24 hour team by 120 meters, I worried that I had picked all the low hanging fruit and may never have a shot at the team again the way the qualifying distances have gotten higher year over year. I went back to the drawing board to look for new ideas. I hired Peter Defty and dove into OFM and high fat metabolism. I learned how to handle 50+ mile training runs regularly in training. I adopted super shoes and trained to handle them for long ultras. By the time I ran the 2020 Desert Solstice, I dialed in every detail of the race down to peeing in Gatorade bottles to avoid 15 second stops at porta potties.
I went out that year and was on pace for 167 miles and another negative split at 19 hours. But from there I started to decline and by hour 22 had a swift and legendary blowup that left me completely stopped for over half an hour and a finish only 0.4 miles more than my 2018 run. I told myself 167 was possible, but the truth was that I felt increasingly on edge starting at 8 hours. If my quads hadn’t given out late in the race, something else would have. Looking back, I believe my upper potential that year was ~164, or 9 mile further than 2018 from two years of solid focus and preparation.
After the 2020 race, I couldn’t get out of my head that I had been on pace for 167, if I could only get to 19 hours in better shape and then hold on for another 5 hours. And if I could add another 5 miles on top of that, I’d be at 172. And if I summon a kick at the end, I could make another half mile, and that would put me exactly at the American Record. Was I crazy? I thought so. Getting another ~9 miles of improvement in just a year after already optimizing so much at this point in my career was unrealistic. I analyze more than almost anyone, and nothing indicated I could do it. Yet like most of us, once the idea was in my head I couldn't think of anything else. And also like most of us, I believe ultrarunning is a lot more than numbers on a spreadsheet.
On the crisp, cool morning of December 11th at 8 AM, I lined up on the bright red track of Central High School with some of the best ultrarunners in the country. The first lap of a 24 hours is always the hardest to pace for me, the combination of energy and tightly packed runners making it easy to start off too fast. At the 200 meter mark I glanced at my watch and saw 0:53, a 7:30 pace. Yikes! I pulled tight to the center of the track and tried to get half of the field to pass me without causing any traffic jams.
My plan for the race was simple. 2:06 for the first 8 hours, then 1 second per lap faster every 4 hours to the finish. Over the years I’ve gone from struggling with raw boredom of a looped 24 hours to embracing it, using the repetitiveness as a rhythm and mantra to keep myself focused and engaged. This has evolved to a simple approach - put a single “Lap Time” data field large on my watch, click a lap every time I cross the timing mat, and check the time every 100 or 200 meters. This quickly becomes an automatic instinct, and lets me dial in my pace within a second or two automatically without having to stress about or question my pacing.
With that, I had planned for the first 8 hours to mostly be on autopilot, knowing the pace would not be challenging and wanting to save my mental energy for much later in the race. I made comments several times that the real race wasn’t going to start until 16 hours, which makes hours 8-16 the “pre-race” and the first 8 hours the “pre-pre-race”. My entire focus early on was self-preservation. Though Phoenix is wonderful in December, the direct sun and dry air can still take an unexpected toll that doesn’t show up until much later in the race. I used many of my common heat mitigation techniques, especially cooling sleeves soaked with ice water every few minutes. I also employed a new technique that seemed to work well - I brought two Rabbit perforated tees and had my crew freeze one of them at a time in a cooler of ice, then would swap every 30 minutes or so for a weightless ice vest. I also focused on cooling my quads and hamstrings by splashing water on them in hopes they would hold together better than last year.
6 hours into the race, I noticed that I was in 13th place overall. Knowing I was just a hair slower than American Record pace, I chuckled to myself at the prospect of how many runners were on pace for 170+ miles. Up to that point, nothing was going particularly wrong but I also noted I wasn’t quite smooth. A little niggle here, a bit of tightness there, mostly in my legs. That the sensations shifted around now and then gave me confidence - these kinds of feelings are normal early in a race and often go away on their own. Though there’s always the worry that they grow into something race-ending. A couple times an hour I would use my fingers to dig into the muscles I could reach, massaging them as I ran.
Other than that, the daylight of the race was rather unremarkable for me. At 8 hours I picked up the average pace to 2:05 per lap, not having any struggle yet but wondering how much harder the future speed ups would feel. I kept my energy steady with a Vespa every 2 hours, plus a constant trickle of fruit smoothies, pita+hummus+avocado pockets, granola bars, and gummy worms. Fruit smoothies have become my go-to for ultras, balancing clean and easy to digest calories with something a little more hardy than gels and simple sugars. I also mix in a bit of protein and BCAAs for good measure. Unfortunately, they would become my biggest challenge in the entire race.
I’ve had issues with fruit smoothies before, including at Desert Solstice the year before and at 6 Days in the Dome. Usually I get a bit gassy for a few hours and need a couple extra porta-potty stops, then things clear up and are fine the rest of the race. It’s always seemed like a fair tradeoff for rock solid nutrition otherwise. And like clockwork, I needed my first stop just as the sun set leading into hour 10. But unlike previous years, things got worse from here on out. The gas was just untrustworthy enough that I had to stop at the bathrooms every time, and waiting too long between stops brought painful cramps. They got worse and worse until at 18 hours I "missed" the porta potty by 30 meters requiring a cleanup and two of my three longest laps. My crew worked steadily finding new things for me to try that eventually helped the last few hours, but in all I stopped over 20 times and lost close to 10 minutes throughout the race, three times what I broke the record by.
The night time at a 24 hour track race is my favorite. I actually prefer 24 hour races on a track to more scenic courses on a 1-2 mile loop because of the night. While those scenic courses end up dark and lonely, dimly lit and devoid of life, a track stays vibrant with stadium lighting and constant connection with the other runners and crew. The other night benefit for me this year was the planned speed up every 4 hours, just enough to give me milestones to focus on.
The start of night was also the inflection point of the race competition wise. At 10 hours in, I was fourth among those planning to go the full 24. Arlen was 5 miles ahead and looking strong. Jacob Moss wasn't far behind but was stopping frequently and was showing all the precursors of a precipitous drop. Jake Jackson was a bit ahead but already slower than me. Scott Traer had been on my shoulder all day but was also starting to slow. All this was only a mild curiosity to me. My race didn't depend on anyone else in the race, and caring at all about anyone else posed a risk of me deviating from plan.
From dusk to midnight was still part of the "pre-race". This meant I didn't want to be deploying anything special to keep me focused, mentally, physically, or otherwise. I wanted to save music, caffeine, and similar until the last 8 or ideally last 4 hours. Instead, I doubled down on one of the main aspects of my negative split strategy - self-preservation. If I ever found myself feeling a bit heavy, getting sloppy on form, noticing stress inch up, or even noticing excitement inch up, I would stop myself and re-center. I would take a deep breath. Then smile. Then slowly look around side to side and take in the green grass, the red track, the smiling crews, and the remaining runners. I would think about what a privilege it is to just be out there with such a great group of people. I would light up inside and become completely content. That my run was going to plan and I was somehow feeling more smooth rather than less furthered this feeling. And with that, I would drop into a deep state of calm. Bottoming out cortisol, endocrine stress, and all the other things that generally accumulate over a race. I was minimizing it to an extreme level, just as I knew I needed to in order to have enough left at the end.
Surprising to me, the second 8 hours was just as uneventful as the first 8 other than the smoothie issue. At 12 hours, I dropped to 2:04 laps, which was now faster than American Record pace. I was worried I would be feeling the strain, but it didn't feel any different than before.
Arlen started to have significant difficulties. He asked me a couple times about issues he was having and I had my crew try to help where they could. But from here he started the irreversible decline. Jacob Moss had been falling off and stopped completely about the same time. Jake Jackson slowly came back to me, and I caught him at mile 99. Normally you can't run with someone else in a record-setting 24 hour race because they are on a different lap, which is considered pacing. But for a brief few minutes, I got to enjoy chatting with Jake being at the same point in the race, and we ran together through 100 miles. I think we confused the timers as they tried to figure out which of us actually got 3rd in the 100 mile race.
Arlen continued to come back to me. His moving pace was not too different from mine, but he was taking longer and more frequent stops to work on things. Over the next three hours, he came back mile by mile. I was careful not to get too excited about it, but during this period tried to use it a bit to keep my mental state high and form peppy. There are few things more satisfying than knowing you're going to take the lead in a race. At the same time it was bittersweet to watch Arlen struggle. This was my first time meeting him and I can only say great things about him - such a nice guy. I imagine he learned a lot in the process, and know he will come back to nail the 24 hour at some point. He's got the right balance of joyful running, patience, and humility to do well at it.
Just before I took the lead, I crossed the 16 hour mark and hit my "start of the race". My coach James Bonnett picked up crewing duties. He'd been there in 2020 at the same time, right as I started my decline. Instead when he showed up, I just kind of shrugged my shoulders and said everything was going fine. He tweaked my nutrition due to the GI issues, feeding me dry toast and other solid foods. But otherwise when he asked if I needed an extra boost like music, I just shrugged again and kept running. Everything was not only going to plan, it was going better than expected as I assumed I would be struggling much more at this point.
I entered 2:03 laps with mixed feelings. On the one hand, my stride suddenly felt buttery smooth more than any point earlier in the race. All the little niggles I'd felt before had gone away. On the other hand, I had 115 miles on my legs and could also feel that. Everything usually feels fine in a 24 hour until it doesn't, and I understand that better than almost anyone. It's extremely common for late stage fatigue to kick in and slow someone's pace by ~5 seconds a lap at the same effort, and that time never comes back. If that happened, my attempt would be toast. Not only that, I still had an additional speed increase to make, and I needed even more time back due to the bathroom breaks. I not only had no room for error, I had to be inching back additional seconds wherever I could.
And so I did. I largely throw out my 2:03 and 2:02 targets at this point. I used them as an upper bound, but tried to sneak in 2:00 and 2:01 laps, knowing I'd be spending them once or twice an hour on stops. I could feel the fatigue building, though slower than expected. It seemed to be offset by the finish being a close enough distance to actually think about.
I had spent much of this year simulating parts of the 24 hour race. Whiskey Basin 91k on tired legs. Man Against Horse 50 after a hard speed work and cycling workout to trash my quads. A 100k time trial on the track followed by the Pass Mountain 50 mile 6 days later. All of these were aimed at keeping my energy steady, negative splitting, and staying positive even as my body waned. And as I entered this part of the race, I called back to each of those experiences both mentally and physically. I thought "only a Whiskey Basin left" or "I know what it feels like to do 7 more hours with heavy legs". This really helped me to get from the no-mans-land past 100 miles and into the final hours.
As I approached hour 20, the "halfway point" of the race, it suddenly occurred to me: I still have all of my gears left. If I had to sprint, I absolutely could. It reminded me of the end of 6 days in the Dome where I progressively dropped my pace until I was doing sub-6 pace the last few miles. At the same time, I knew the other side of this - that exercising those gears would likely lead to my inevitable demise. I was feeling just as smooth as 16 hours in, but slowly more and more likely that I could rattle apart at any moment if a single thing went wrong. So I did what I'd done the whole race, and went back to staying steady.
It was also at this point that I first allowed myself to think about the record. Up until this point I was 100% focused on the plan and strategy I'd devised, and refused to think about the end of the race. It wasn't about trying to break a record, it was about sticking to my average paces. But with 50k to go, I finally let myself briefly take it in and got hit with a "holy s**t" moment. I made a quiet comment to James as I ran by that I was only 50k away, as if it was a secret only known to me. Then quickly caught myself knowing the last 4 hours is where things are most likely to go wrong. In hindsight, it's laughable that it felt like no one else knew what I was on pace to do. Looking at the live stream, it's all that was being talked about. But to me, in that moment, it was still a far off dream. It still felt like an illusion in my head that no one else knew about. 4 hours seemed like an eternity where anything could and should go wrong. My good fortune up to this point meant nothing for the remainder of the race, other than that I'd delayed the inevitable problems to the end like usual. In the majority of 24 hours I've done, blowups don't happen until after hour 20. Even in 2018, I faded from 20-22 hours and had to summon everything I had just to stay on pace from there on out. The big problems always come somewhere between 19 and 23 hours, and I was certain this wouldn't be any different.
But those problems never came. I kept running, sticking to plan. If something popped up, I would troubleshoot with my crew immediately. My legs started to feel stiff, so I stopped for 5 seconds as James applied cream to loosen them up. I continued my many tricks to keep myself calm, centered, joyous, and enjoying being out there. I had planned to have Tylenol as one of the "whatever it takes" measures, something I hadn't done since my first 100 mile trail race at Angeles Crest in 2007. I took one with 3 hours to go and another at 1.5 hours and it did seem to take the edge off.
Each of the last four hours was a slightly heightened version of the hour before it. My body was slowly feeling more and more on edge. Somehow my stride felt a little more smooth and the 2:00 laps felt easier despite the fatigue. I kept doing the math on the record, finding I had a 1-2 minute buffer at best. I contemplated picking it up, but knew that all it would take to miss the record was 5 seconds a lap which is a rounding error that late in the race. I continually reminded myself that getting the record by 1 minute instead of 5 minutes would be a lot better than missing it by 3.
The sun started rising and Jamil showed up at the edge of the track. Another "holy s***" moment as I yell to him, energy rising. I enter the last hour as more and more spectators arrive to cheer. I note how few runners are left on the track at this point. For the first time all race I stop caring about hugging the inner curve, passing other runners as tight as possible, and optimizing every detail. I know for the first time all race, this will no longer make or break the record. I continue to focus on staying smooth and relaxed, but I'm letting the adrenaline increase and the excitement take me. I'm flying higher and higher. Half an hour to go, I start dreaming about my finishing kick. I want to do it now, but know it is still to early. Instead I simply enjoy the present and how remarkable the entire experience has been.
Had I really run 170 miles at this point? How am I not suffering or barely hanging on? Am I dreaming? I'm suddenly back at home, looping around my neighborhood on an easy 3 mile shake out. That's all that is between me and an American Record. "Holy s***" again, I'm about to set an American Record. I never could have imagined it, yet it's inevitable at this point. My mind starts contriving situations under which I can miss it. A sudden muscle spasm cripples me to a hobble. I trip and fall. I settle on starting my kick on the record lap, knowing even if I break my leg I will still force my way around the track in time.
I enter the lap and start pumping, hammering with everything I have. Bringing myself back to the days of high school track and all the agony and ecstasy it entails. I pass the record mark with 3 minutes to go and keep driving at 6:00 pace. Two more laps and Bob Hearn meets me to mark the partial lap that pushes me over 173. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed with emotion, and too numb to experience the emotion. I fall into James' arms and celebrate, then look around to see all the others in our great ultra community there to celebrate with me.
Photo courtesy Melissa Ruse
I brace for the crash as others rush in with a chair to make sure I don't collapse. But I feel fine, strangely. I guess this whole negative splitting thing is for real, even at 24 hours. What an enjoyable way to finish. I give a few interviews, chat with old friends, attend the small award ceremony, then pee in a cup for the drug test.
If this ending sounds too good to be true, it turns out it was. The aftermath wasn't so pretty. 6 hours after the race when I woke up from a nap, I needed crutches to get around as my leg refused to take any weight. In the 6 months since I have been up and down with a number of chronic and acute issues both from the race and from the 5 years of continuous pushing leading up to it. I expect that this whole year might be a wash and involve a lot of ups and downs, DNSes, and focused recovery to pay back the damage I did.
I was immediately tempted to focus on "what's next" and what races or records I could go try to smash. But I've stopped myself long enough to appreciate this accomplishment that was way too big to ever be a realistic goal. I've been deliberate about not jumping on the hedonic treadmill and normalizing it. If I never do anything this big again, and even if I never reach the same level of fitness, it will be enough. What's important now is getting healthy so that I can continue to enjoy a lifetime of running.
Photo courtesy Melissa Ruse