Desert Solstice 24-hour Invitation Elite Track Race

Desert Solstice 24-hour Invitation Elite Track Race

I absolutely love this race. Everything is set up for best performance. There are only 25 elite runners on the track. It is a standard 400m track, making it very accurate to track distance on your watch in track mode so you are not relying on checking the official splits every lap. The organizers give you a tent, table and chair. Cooler if you ask for it. They try to accommodate every request so that you can concentrate on your race and do your best. If you want to break a record or set a PR, this is the place to do it. The 100-mile mark is certified and they will measure partial laps for records. 

You can also meet the best fixed time runners of North-America here, people who are trying to make the national teams for World Championships.

Last year I broke the 100-mile Canadian record here, being the first Canadian woman to run 100 miles under 15 hours. Over the summer my friend and fiercest opponent, Amanda Nelson took that record from me and she also broke the 12-hour Canadian record.

Both of us went into this race chasing the 24-hour Canadian National Record, which I believe is the strongest mark of all the Canadian ultrarunning records of 12 hours or more. She came in holding the records under 24 hours (12-hour and 100-mile) and I came in holding the marks over 24 hours (48-hour, 72-hour and 6-day). Between us we pretty much have a lock on the most contested distances/times over 12 hours - except the 24-hour. That still belongs to Bernadette Benson, who was very recently elected to be the president of the Canadian Ultrarunnning Association (ACU100).

It was going to be a lot of fun to race against Amanda. I have no idea if I am good enough to even be close to that 238 km / 148 mi record, but I wanted to try and even if I failed, I wanted to just do my best and see how far I could go. I hadn't run a 24-hour race since my first ever ultra in 2020 where I did 213 km / 132 mi on a hilly course, without having much idea of what I was getting into. 

Fun fact: that was Amanda's first ever ultra too, and to date, the only race where I was able to beat her.

Amanda was also after that 24-hour record, but she was aiming to maybe break her own 12-hour and 100-mile records as well. For either of us to get the record, we also had to beat the other person. I wasn't going to worry about her until the last few hours, because she was going to start out way faster than me. But a 24-hour race is about the last 6-8 hours, that is what makes or breaks it.

The field was absolutely stacked as usual, with male and female 24-hour World Championship participants, national and world record holders and generally just extremely strong ultrarunners. I wasn't going to worry about how I place in the race, I only cared about potentially breaking the record or putting up a good performance, something I can be proud of, even if it is short of the record.

My crew was Brian DeSalvo, who crewed me for many races before including the Six Days In The Dome this and last year. He flew in from Portland, OR and Rachel Belmont who is a local ultrarunner, a badass in her own right and a fantastic person joined Brian later.

Rachel Belmont and Viktoria BrownWith Rachel

We had a good plan going into the race. I was going to start out not much faster than the goal average pace of 6 min/km (9:40 min/mi) and just try to hold that for as long as possible and when it starts to drop then put in some effort to still keep it up and just see how far I can get that way.

I was prepared to push hard for the last 6-8 hours, that is when I expected things to start getting hard, since last year I was able to keep the pace under that target for the 15 hours of the 100 miles and that time I started out much faster. But the problems started as soon as we got going at 8 am.

I was just feeling off physically and mentally as well. Even the first hour felt much harder than it should have and it completely threw me off. If I felt this way in hour 16, I would have told myself that this was the way I was supposed to feel at this point in the race, just suck it up and keep going.

I was hitting the starting planned pace, even if only the low end of it at 5:45 min/km (9:15 min/mi). So all was not lost. But I was feeling my left hip because we were running left. I knew though that we switched after 4 hours, and then the next 4 hours would be hip-pain free. And I would only need to do 3 of these 4-hour segments with the hip pain. You have a lot of time to play with numbers and make convincing "only"s in 4 hours.

I knew my heart rate was also much higher than it should have been for this pace. I was in the high 150s and even over 160 a lot for the first 8 hours. I had a strap on, so it was an accurate number and it perfectly corresponded to the feel. It just didn't correspond to the pace. This is basically my tempo heart rate, something I would expect to see around an 8 min/mi (5 min/km) pace, the start of a marathon race. I only found out after the race why this might have been and it makes sense (see later).

My hamstring was also painful, but this had happened in multi-day races before, where my hamstring was painful for the first 4 hours and then I never felt it again. This was my hope this time too, but unfortunately that's not what happened, it kept bothering me, although neither of these injuries hurt bad enough to alter my stride or stop me from continuing. I think because I had been doing physio exercises for my hamstring for the last 3 weeks every day to finally get it to heal, for now it made the pain worse since the whole process is putting stress on the hamstrings to strengthen them.

I taped everything pre-race preventatively, my hamstrings, my ankles, my knees even though nothing was hurting pre-race but I didn't want to spend time during the race to deal with these problems if they came up. I wasn't happy to find out that these issues still popped up and my hamstring, my hip and my shin was hurting. The shin splits were caused by the ankle even though it was taped. I felt it after the race on the ankle.

For the first 4 hours I was just rolling and waiting for things to start to feel better and waiting for the direction change for my hip pain to ease up. I ran the first marathon in about 4 hours and then we switched.

It felt like I was in last place. I certainly started out as last for the first lap, I was going to let the fast guys go and since I knew that most of them would plan to have a bigger drop in pace later and would start out faster than their goal average pace, I expected to be far back, even potentially in last place. 

Desert Solstice 2022 startI positioned myself at the very back for the start. Photo: Rachel Belmont

The only one starting noticeably slower than me was Bob Hearn. Since I knew he would aim for even or negative split, and I was targeting 150 miles (well, 149mi/240km, but let's call it 150) with a slight positive split, and I was only going marginally faster than him, my guess was that he was aiming for 150 miles too. I was going to ask him if his plan was to negative split it, but I didn't. I don't talk in races. I just kept to myself, proud of my observation of his goal mileage which later I found out was correct.

The only communication that I had during the race with any runner other than walking around a bit with Micah when we were both quitting was when I accidentally pretty much fully hit one of the tall guys with a snot rocket... oooops... I think it was Matthew Urbanski but I'm not really sure. I apologized profusely and then in one of the following laps when he got behind me he said "don't do it" . Haha... nope, I didn't hit him again! Because of my asthma I have a runny nose for the whole time I run and the medication doesn't help much unfortunately. 

I was perfectly content with being in second last place at this point (this was just a guess, I had no idea where I was in reality, and I never checked for the whole 11 hours - I would have started checking in the last few hours if I got there), I had a plan and I was following it, and I really didn't care about what anyone else was doing. Looking at the splits after the fact, I was indeed the second last one hitting the 50 km mark in 4:48, only Bob was slower at 4:55. Even splitting for my planned 240 km would have been 5 hours for 50km. 

After the first 3 hours I took a caffeine pill hoping that would lift my spirits. The first 12 hours were planned very freely for taking caffeine whenever I wanted/needed that boost, knowing that it would be the last 12 hours when my limits would be maxed out so those hours were planned out precisely, but before 4pm I was free to take whatever whenever.

The caffeine didn't help much. I waited 15 minutes and expected to start to feel better - that is when it should have started to kick in, and about 1 hour after taking it the effects should be the strongest. Well, things didn't really get any better so I guess this trick didn't work.

Desert Solstice 2022 Viktoria BrownI was feeling miserable and nothing seemed to help. Photo: Bill Schultz

I was about 5 hours into the race when I finally told Brian that I had been feeling horrible since the start, he said "keep going". That's what he is there to tell me, perfect reaction. I was hitting all the splits I had to, who cares if it doesn't feel great. It is supposed to be hard (although not this hard this early in the race, but that's my problem, not his).

I got my first blister around 6 hours in. The plan was to simply change into bigger shoes and not treat the blisters unless they got so painful that I couldn't tolerate them, in which case I was going to just drain them and put a Compede patch on them - I find that is the fastest even if not the best option.

When I stopped to change my shoes, I said to Brian that I had been telling myself that it would get better once we hit 6 hours - not sure why I had believed that, but I guess you need to make up something to try to get yourself out of the hole. Also told him that he needed to do something to get me out of this head space. "Give me a photo or something."

I prepared a bunch of tiny little photographs of people who are or were important to me and printed them. They were meant to be used in the last 6-8 hours when things generally get hard. Not in hour 6! But there was no choice, we had to pull out all the weapons if I was going to get out of all the negativity and how hard it was already feeling as opposed to how hard it was supposed to feel at this point.

He pulled out the big gun: a picture of my 3 daughters. That was the only time in the race when I was feeling mentally fine - for about 90 minutes while this high of seeing my daughters' picture lasted. I was smiling, feeling very emotional and just going round and round kind of happy. 90 minutes. Out of 11 hours. Not much.

Viktoria Brown Desert Solstice90 minutes of happiness. The picture of my girls. Photo: Chris Neil

6.5 hours into the race I already started to fall behind on the average pace I was supposed to bring in. It was way too early for that. After 8 hours of struggling I finally said to Brian that we needed to adjust the expectations. I didn't think I would be able to hit Amanda's best of 141 miles/227 kms to take over the No. 1 selection spot on the National Team - plus, what does it really matter which position I'm in? Top 6 go to the World Championship. The only meaningful mark was the international A standard of 220km/137 mi. With my 213km/132mi I only have the B standard.

I tried another mind trick. I asked for a sharpie and wrote "It Hurts More To Lose" on my hand. The quote is from triathlon Olympic and World Champion, Kristian Blummenfelt. I had to ask the guys at the timing tent "how do you spell 'lose'? one L or two?" haha... Oh well, my lack of English spelling knowledge got exposed I guess. I would like to think that when I'm not in the middle of struggling for 8 hours in a 24-hour race, then I know the answer myself.

This attempt was even shorter lived. It lasted for a few laps and then that was it. My pictures didn't last much longer any more either. I didn't really have any weapons left. I sat down in my chair, Brian was gone but there was Kati Nagy and her husband and we chatted. 10 hours in I was ready to call it a day.

Kati is a 24-hour individual and team World Champion, a Hungarian lady living in the US and a legend in this sport. It was the first time I met her, she introduced herself, but of course I knew and heard a lot about her. She is one of my big inspirations. She was there crewing Allyson Allen who ended up coming 2nd in the race.

Her and her husband convinced me to keep going. The conclusion was to at least get to 12 hours. I don't remember what they said. I know I only sat there for 3 minutes and then I was back out again. She had magic that's my only explanation. (Kati tells me when her husband, Felix mentioned that I hold several Canadian records and this is a "baby distance" for me, that's when I stood up and got going again.)

Rachel Belmont and Viktoria BrownI came in several times saying I was done. Brian, Rachel, Kati, Pam and other crew members sent me back out a few more times

I had noticed that Amanda was also struggling. I saw her stop and restart. I smelled Tiger Balm on her, a cream used to mask pain. She also slowed significantly. I didn't know that she was battling health issues, I only learned that later. She was still going faster than me, but not much faster any more. I knew she didn't deal well with the heat, while I don't mind the heat at all. It got up to 67F / 19C which is really not that hot, but in the direct sun for a whole day it is hotter than ideal. Everyone was icing themselves. I had my cooling headband, long sleeve cooling shirt and cooling bandana on from about 10:30 am. The heat lasted until about 4 pm then the sun started to set. I think it is more the direct sun that makes it feel so hot, not even the temperature. I was pretty sure she would stop after 100 miles. 

Meanwhile, to keep my mind occupied, I re-wrote next year's race plan. Recognizing how hard it is to handle racing these mentally very demanding events so close to each other, I decided to pull the German Masters Backyard Ultra from my race calendar for 2023. I will participate in the GOMU 6-day World Championship in Italy in March and this very prestigious invitation-only backyard ultra will be in May. Both of these formats are extremely demanding mentally. Nothing like a 24-hour race, much more brutal. Being out there feeling off for so long made me realize that most likely I wouldn't be able to handle those two races so close together and for the sake of my family and my longevity in the sport, it is better to take a pass this time. There will be a year in the future when it fits my plans better. 

At one point I said something to Brian in Hungarian. He thought I was going crazy from the effort... not far from the truth. What happened was that Kati wanted to look at the picture of my daughters that I was holding. I told her that I would only let go of it for 1 lap so I gave it to her then the next lap she gave it back to me. So I was talking to her in Hungarian but then the following lap I tried to talk to Brian and forgot to switch the language. Brian didn't know Kati was Hungarian and that I was talking to her in Hungarian so it came to him as a complete surprise, without the context, that I was talking to him in a foreign language, I didn't even do that after 6 days of running! - oh, wait, I had Bela helping me after 6 days of running and he is Hungarian...

The last straw was when I started coughing. I was about 10.5 hours in. This was something I really didn't expect. I had thought I had my asthma under control with my Darth Vader mask 100%. I was really confused and very concerned why this was happening. I realized after the race that the only change I made compared to the Dome race was that I didn't take cough syrup pre-emptively pre-race and throughout the race. I only asked for it once I started coughing. That might have been the mistake that caused it, at least I hope that is the case and it won't be a problem in March in the 6-day World Championship if I take the cough meds from the get go. Or, it is a possibility that the cough was another sign of getting sick.

I knew that the cough was going to keep getting worse, but in isolation, it wasn't bad enough to stop me from continuing. However, given how bad I was feeling anyway, how big a struggle the whole 10.5 hours had been, I really didn't see the point of knocking myself out for a week or potentially two by keeping going and making this cough really bad. There were also other physical issues popping up that were time wasters making it pointless to be able to keep my pace while running if then I had to keep stopping to take care of things.

I was sharing a table with Micah Morgan who just finished Spartathlon, an iconic 245km/152mi race in Greece in September as 3rd female. She was feeling mentally fine but physically her legs have just not recovered to do a similar distance again so soon. So she was on the verge of dropping out. Our crews sent us out walking and chatting, which we did, it was fun, but there was really no point. Her crew was trying to get her to 100 miles but then downgraded to 12 hours. I really don't see the point of that other than giving you the opportunity to change your mind if you start feeling better in that time. I don't know about Micah, but it wasn't going to happen in my case so I finally sat down and said sorry, this was it for me. 

Micah Morgan and Viktoria Brown

Walking with Micah. We were both done. Photo: Brian DeSalvo

I don't remember exactly but I think it was Pam Smith, a member of the US World Champion team in 2019 and 4th place individual, previous Western States champion and 3rd this year at Badwater who was crewing Bob Hearn who came to speak to me and asked if it meant anything to me to get to a certain time or distance. 12 hours for example. To get a belt buckle for reaching 100 miles. Honestly, no, it doesn't. I finished 7 races in the last 12 months of 100 miles or more. My "ultra" medal rack will be sad, but that is not a good enough reason to keep going when there is no point.

The only one question that was valid in the situation was about Amanda, but Pam didn't know that. Since I was convinced that she would stop after 100 miles, do I care enough whether I beat her or not to keep going for the full 24 hours? Then I would finish in front of her even though I wouldn't really achieve anything else. The answer was a very strong "NO". In a competitive set-up I very much care about beating her. In this case, when the result won't be even remotely competitive, just for the sake of beating her there was no way I was staying out there for another 13 hours, potentially making my recovery way longer with a much worse cough and much more stress on my hamstrings and hips.

Viktoria Brown ultrarunning medalsMy "ultra rack" is the only one unhappy with my decision to drop out

So I had my answer and Bill Schultz of the timing team happened to be standing right across my table. Last year Brian was mad that I handed my chip in without consulting him, rightly so. That time I came to the table saying I was quitting, he started talking to me trying to convince me to keep going and I just said "sorry, I already handed the chip in". I wasn't going to do that this time, so I waited for Brian to return (I believe he was doing 1-mile runs between handing me my bottles) and then put my chip in Bill's hands in Brian's presence. At which time someone arrived from the aid station with some chili for me - things are getting a bit blurry there, not sure who that was, maybe Rachel? Maybe an aid station volunteer? It wouldn't have been Brian... Anyway, Pam said "sorry, those are for runners only"... haha... that was so mean!

I took my chip back from Bill. Took the chili. Handed the chip back to Bill. All was good, we were all laughing.

There were some remarkable performances at this race. Camille Herron broke the American 50-mile, 100k overall and 100-mile track record, Amanda Nelson broke her own 12-hour Canadian record and Marisa Lizak won outright with 156 miles / 251 km in 24 hours. Congrats ladies!

After the race I immediately started to feel my throat hurt. I was wondering if I was coming down with a cold or flu or some other bug, even COVID, which would very much explain the high heart rate and the way I felt during the whole race. By Monday it was clear that this was happening. Somehow it made me feel better about dropping out. It all made sense now.

Now I will take an extended break, publish the already written Ironman Arizona race recap in the next few days, write a year recap and a year pre-view, re-focus for the year ahead and then jump into 2023 with big plans! Happy Holidays everyone!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published