100 mile Canadian Record - Desert Solstice 2021
The last race of the year brought great success, my third national record of 2021 and an unexpectedly fast time.
It was a memorable race. I learned so much from seeing all the world class athletes and how they race. Imagine a race where a sub-15-hour 100-mile finish time doesn't get you on the women's 100-mile podium! That's how bad ass this field was. A time that put me in 21st on the all-time list for the World... but 3 of those other 20 women happened to be at this race!
Nick Coury broke the American 24-hour record in this race and Camille Herron broke the 100-mile American and World Track Record! A big number of age group records also fell.
Desert Solstice is an invitation only event. They allow maximum 30 runners so that the track doesn't get congested and you don't need to run in lane 2 too much - that can add unwanted distance. They have 'A' and 'B' standards for entry and this year only people with the 'A' standard were admitted. It is run in Phoenix, AZ on a 400-meter (1/4 mile) track that is lit at night.
I certainly picked up new ideas in terms of how to maximize performance and perfect the logistics of looped races. Everything is set up for best results at Desert Solstice, so I decided immediately after the race that I would be back the following year for the 24-hour event and try to put up a good number. I've only ever done one 24-hour race, my first ever ultra on a hilly loop so I have no idea what I can do now that I have some sort of an idea about what I'm doing (back then I didn't!).
There are a few important rules about these events. Unlike trail ultras or some point to point road ultras, pacing is not allowed. You can't even run together with someone who is in the race unless they are on the same lap. Very surprisingly a lot of people were running together, because they were on the same lap, sometimes even big groups and that is within the rules. It was just insane to see all these people running (and lapping us) head to head for hours (yes, I did it too).
My plan was to go out around a 8:30-8:45 min/mile (5:15-5:25 min/km) pace and no faster. I wasn't going to worry about it if it is slower a bit, but I needed 9:10 min/mi (5:42 min/km) avg pace for the 15 hours and change to break the record, so I had to stay under that.
The old Canadian record was set by Michelle LeDuc at this race in 2017. She ran 15:19:45.
I was thinking 2:08 laps to start which would have translated to 8:37 min/mi (5:20 min/km). However, after the initial 30 mins, I found myself behind Nick Coury and knowing his pacing and strategy, I knew that he was going to keep his pace like a metronome, ticking the same lap time one after the other. This happened to be 2:06 (8:30 min/mi, 5:15 min/km). So I just took advantage of the opportunity and stayed with him, knowing I don't need to look at my watch just look at his heels.
I felt that the pace was just a tiny bit too fast for me, funny how you can absolutely feel the difference of those 2 seconds. It DOES matter if it is 2:06 or 2:08. Incredible. Anyway, it was just too convenient to follow his steps even if I was well aware that it is a tad too fast for me. I knew that if I let go of him, I can't pick it up with him later - that is the part that's not allowed.
I lasted about 2.5 hours with him. Then I just had to admit that if I keep pushing it like this, that will do more harm than good so I let go of him. A pee break came handy to not be tempted, so I stopped for a 30-sec pit stop and continued on my own from there at that 2:08-2:09 pace where I should have been from the start.
Later it dropped to 2:10 and then 2:12-2:14 which was very comfortable and I could keep it until 13 hours in when my asthma just didn't want to co-operate any more. Every race you learn something and I did this time too. The main take-away was to not make the stupid mistake of not even bringing my rescue inhaler to the race. I have no idea what I was thinking...
Here is what happened with my asthma. I was diagnosed with chronic asthma about a year ago. Most likely I've had it all my life because I remember issues when I was a kid. My respirologist has the challenging task of keeping me from getting asthma attacks during these long ultras while staying within WADA regulations. I'd rather not get into trying to get a WADA exception so we are just doing everything the rules allow as is. Most of my medications are quantity controlled and some are freely allowed. After taking them daily for a year by now, I can feel the difference but we haven't managed to get to a point where I don't get an asthma attack in a race longer than 12 hours.
This will be one of my big challenges for 2022, especially if I want to get to those really high numbers in multi-day races. I can get a decent performance in even with having an asthma attack during the race (like at Desert Solstice or during my 48h and 72h records) but I can't break the 6-day World Record if I can't breathe for 5 days out of 6. That record is just a very high mark by an incredible athlete and there is a reason it's been standing for the past 32 years.
I tried to keep going after 100 miles but I couldn't breathe enough to continue
So why didn't I bring the rescue inhaler? I don't even really know. We changed the inhaler I use during the race from powder based to a puffer. With the powder I tried to use the rescue inhaler but still couldn't get the powder down. And I just assumed that with the puffer, I won't need the rescue inhaler and this worked fine at a backyard ultra where I went 30 hours deep. But here the pace was faster and I guess I just learned that one of the triggers of my asthma attacks is pace. Because at the Dome where I broke the Canadian 72-hour record, my asthma only kicked in after 36-hours. But this time, after 13-hours. And the main difference was the faster pace.
My doctor also casually mentioned that the rescue inhaler can raise my heart rate and I obviously didn't want that. But 13 hours into a race I'm only running at the bottom of my zone 2 so even if it raises my HR a bit, no big deal. Anyway, lesson learned. I will need my rescue inhaler.
Back to the race. My original plan was to settle into a 9-min/mile (5:35 min/km) pace eventually which I did, and hold it for as long as I can. That is still under the average pace I need to hit, so even if I can just get to 10 hours where I'm still clicking away under record pace, it should give me a good chance of making it.
From about hour 7 to hour 13 I was able to hold it. Having learned from my previous 100-miler (I've only run one before, at Alexander County in 2021 and finished in 15:24), I knew that the last two hours would be the hard part. But I also knew that in my previous race I started slowing at 8 hours. But here, 8 hours came and gone and I was still feeling strong. Then 10 hours came and gone and I was still happy and keeping that 9-min/mile (5:35 min/km) pace. When 12 hours came and I was still at that pace and happy, I was really surprised and at that point it was pretty much in the bag. I was over the moon. The only question was - can I come in under 15 hours.
This was when it first occurred to me that I could potentially break 15 hours. Previously I didn't even dare to dream about it. I expected that I would barely break the record and be super happy with that knowing this is the best that I can do. But my breathing started to get harder. And from about 13 hours my pace slowed significantly, that's when I knew I was in trouble with my asthma.
But at that point I was so close to the finish that I wasn't going to let go. I asked my crew, Brian, what the average pace is for a 15-hour 100-miler. I asked this because I had the average pace of my run on my watch so I knew I could compare those numbers. Somewhat luckily he misunderstood the question and thought I was asking what pace I had to run for the last 2 hours on average.
My crew chief, Brian DeSalvo
He told me 9:28 min/mi (5:53 min/km). I knew I could do that even with the slow down from the asthma! I didn't ask him this question because I had no way of tracking myself compared to his answer. There is no setting on my watch to say "average pace from now on to finish". But when he told me that number, I realized that I didn't need to track it, I just knew I could do it.
The surprising part was that I kept expecting bad patches or turning points where things start to get really hard or where it all turns into a struggle and they never came. I kept being mindful of the 8-hour mark, the 10-hour mark where I had issues last time, but no, nothing. It was just all very smooth mentally and physically.
The last 2 hours weren't easy with the breathing issues, but for one thing, I was really close to the end, for another, I knew I would break the record and almost certainly even 15 hours, so I just accepted it for what it was - oh well, breathing is going to be harder from now on and let's just push to the end regardless. There is only a half marathon left!
Photo: Brian DeSalvo
Crossing the finish line was as fulfilling as it can be. I did something that I wasn't sure I could do and exceeded my (and everyone else's) expectations at a distance that is not really my strength. 100 miles in 14 hours 57 minutes and 13 seconds. New Canadian Women's Record. With 3 of us chasing this record in 2021 and me getting there first made this record very sweet even if one of the other two girls break it in 2022. They are both faster runners than me so this is a very real possibility and I honestly don't mind. It inspires me that the Canadian ultrarunning scene is getting some great talent lately in the women's field and we can push each other to achieve more.
My original plan was to continue in the race to 24 hours and after a short 20-minute break (not really short in a race like this) I stood up and started going around. I only lasted half a lap before I realized that my breathing will certainly not allow me to keep going. I slowed to a walk and at the end of the lap handed in my timing chip meaning I finished the race. When I got to Brian he tried to tell me not to quit on a whim like that but I had already handed in the timing chip so that was that. But also, there was no way around the asthma issues so there would have been no point in hanging in there.
And now onto those really big and ambitious goals for 2022! (check back for details in the next few weeks!)