Running alongside big names like Jim Walmsley, Camille Herron, Carla Molinaro, Audrey Tanguy, Hayden Hawks, Tyler Andrews sounds great doesn’t it?
Well, Hoka provided an invitational only event as part of the new launch for the Carbon X 2. That’s where this journey takes me, where Jim Walmsley eclipsed the American 100km record of 6:27.43 by running 6:09.26 and narrowly missing the world record by 12 seconds.
So where did it all start?
For me, I received the phone call from Roger Hanney, inviting me to the event back in mid-November. At the time I was actually training for an attempt at the Australian 50km record and was 2 weeks out from that race. After the successful 50km record attempt at a wet and windy Box Hill athletics track where I ran 2 hours 50 minutes and 49 seconds (3:24/km), beating the previous Australian record set by Mark Tucker of 2:53:47 back in 2008, I knew I would be a good chance to have a crack at the Aussie 100km record.
The record set by Tim Sloan back in 1995 has stood the test of time at 6:29:26 (3:54/km) and hasn’t been challenged in the slightest. Was I a chance to challenge it? Who knows but I was going to find out one way or another.
After the 50km my training didn’t have to change all that much. The main difference was my recovery after the 50km. Usually, I’d jog around to feel for a few weeks, but with the PCX2 being 8 weeks after, time was of the essence. I actually pulled up quite rough from the 50km, so I jogged around most of the week and did a couple runs at work on the Alter G (Anti Gravity) treadmill to offload the impact on my recovering legs. This helped quite a bit for 2 weeks and I was back to running at my normal capacity running up to 200km per week again. My intentions were to take away a small amount of my quality runs and increase my volume and especially my long runs. I managed to scrape together a 40, 50, 60km runs in my lead up and actually hit some really promising runs where I thought I might actually have a good chance in beating the 100km Aussie record. My 60km long run that was 3 weeks out from the PCX2 was on a bike circuit of 2.2km and I averaged 3:50/km in wet and windy conditions again (thanks to David Eadie pacing me on the bike). OK, I’m on for this record is where my head was at.
When I chatted with Roger earlier, I was nervously sold on the idea of traveling to the US given the crisis of Covid-19 and the US election debacle. However, Hoka were determined to provide a safe environment in the Covid epicentre of the world – Arizona.
Racing some of the best ultra-runners from around the world was definitely a huge motivation of mine to give nothing but my best. There was a pace group of 6:08 (WR pace), 6:22 (Swedish NR pace), 6:27 (US NR pace) and I stuck with the third group which should give me a buffer to positive split the 100km and hopefully still be a chance for the Aus record.
The weather conditions in Phoenix, Arizona were excellent. Winter time in the desert definitely provides fast running conditions. We had little wind, a cool morning and we were blessed with an overcast morning. The course was super flat and was closed to all traffic with 3 aid stations on each 11.2km loop. It’s hard to get any better than that and Hoka definitely poured a lot of cash into the event.
After having to provide 3 negative Covid tests before the race, we eventually get to race morning day. All athletes are shuttled to the race start in socially distanced shuttle buses and taken to an athlete only change room. This is a completely new environment compared to anything else before. After a while of stretching and a few toilet stops, we finally start warming up alongside the main dragstrip of the race course. If you saw the event, you’ll know it was the longest finishing straight ever! After 5 minutes of slow jogging and some run thrus, we’re all ready to start.
At the race start we all have marks on the ground with our names on it so we have a socially distance start line while wearing masks for the first 100 metres of the race too. And after a short countdown, we’re off! The pace groups soon settle into formation and besides talking with the other guys in our pack and nearly all of us having toilet stops along the way while still running. There’s not a lot that usually happens in the first 25km of a run like this. We hit each 5km in around 19:10 (3:51/km) and this goes on until at least 50km. The pace feels comfortable, but I know it’s so difficult to actually hold that pace for 6 and a half hours. Patience is definitely your friend in 100km. It’s certainly doesn’t feel easy, not like my 60km training run. My heart rate is higher – more like 160 beats per minute (bpm) when it should be more like 150-155. My focus and energy levels are good, I hit all of my fueling spot on having no issues with my drinks besides missing my first one at 9km.
By 50km our 3 pace markers finish their duties and the pack of 4 settle at 3:54/km which is slightly slower than what we were doing. Soon after 60km, we hit a couple of 4 minutes kms and it’s clear that our projected finishing time is slipping. Even still, I wanted to break 6 hours 40 or at least a sub 7 hour 100km. All realistic goals given our pace and the training behind me to get here. Once we go past the start/finish area at 65km, I realised that I was going to be the first of our pack to fall behind and start running more like 4:20/km. I’m OK with this and just want to finish. At 69km, there was one of our aid stations and I walked through to collect my fuel and an extra water bottle. This was a mistake, after I stopped running, I was unable to get going again. Even walking was an almighty task. My hip flexors ceased up and my hamstrings are aching. Even though the rest of me felt more or less OK, I cant go on. I pulled out and felt so ashamed. This was such an amazing opportunity to run fast in an amazing field with everything set up to do it.
I signal to the volunteers for a ride from the golf buggy back to the race precinct. I take some comfort in knowing that a few of the other males put their races on the line too, and I wasn’t alone in coming up short with a DNF. Not the result Hoka wanted for their shoe launch, but with such ambitious targets, its inevitable that there will be some casualties. Eventually 7 of the 13 male starters DNF, so to those who finished, kudos to you all for being so brave and strong minded on behalf of myself and everyone watching.
Being at the finish line for the next couple of hours was nothing short of inspiring. Although my race is over, my heart aching, I can still learn a lot from those who didn’t finish and those who are inspiring me by soldiering on and running some fast times. Especially now that the sun is out and although its not hot, the sun after a while makes a difference.
I’ll never forget watching Jim Walmsley running his last lap of the race ahead or WR pace and still looking so bouncy while bleeding from his shoulder after running into a fence – adding even more epic style to his ultra-performance. Jim was running down the incredibly long finish straight and what felt like forever, time going so slowly, we all watched Jim’s face as he ran towards the finishing line and seeing that clock tick over the record he was chasing. My heart broke for him. It was a nail-biting finish and would have been amazing to watch if you haven’t seen it already! Jim looked completely broken physically at the end of it all, and who wouldn’t? Running 100km at 3:41/km is mind boggling! But somehow, he still seemed to have his mind in focus after over 6 hours of running. Is he even human?
Watching the others come through, Rajpaul Pannu rocking in 2nd place (6:28.31) and Kris Brown, 3rd in (6:39.14). As for the women, Audrey Tanguy ran a consistent race for 7:40.36 for 1st, Nicole Monette 2nd in 7:43.18 and Courtney Olsen 3rd in 7:55.11.
Although I didn’t have the result I was after, I’ve learned a lot about mental capacity and have a new appreciation and motivation for the international quality of ultra-runners out there. Be sure to look out for more ultras in the future, I might just be at the start line of your next ultra.