There must have been a special kind of magic in the air across America last weekend, because in the span of a few hours between Saturday and Sunday, ultrarunning women kicked an unusual amount of butt. Gina Slaby set the new 100-mile World Record on the track at Desert Solstice, breaking Ann Trason’s 1991 mark. Maggie Guterl, Courtney Dauwalter, and presumed Ultra Runner Of the Year Kaci Lickteig all clocked overall wins in their races, with Maggie setting the overall course record to boot.
I felt it too. As dawn broke on Saturday in Needville, Texas, I relished the snap of cold in the December air. A quiet confidence whispered to me that of all the racing days that had gone before it, this was going to be my day. The Grinch sent me off and I felt the weight of a responsibility to bring my very best. I had told RD Rob Goyen and my crew John Stasulli (aka The Grinch) along with his son AJ that I was trying to break Ann Trason’s 50 Mile trail record. On Rob’s course, I thought I could even break 6 hours.
Brazos Bend is a swamp. A full-on, lime green, moss-covered swamp. The Grinch warned me that even in winter, mosquitos might be a problem. Then there were the alligators. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see an alligator on the course (alligators? really?), but everyone told me I probably would. My friend Myles Smythe, there to film the race, had seen one just the day before. In the end, neither the bugs nor the alligators made an appearance. Instead, of all things, it was flying pigs.
Only a couple of miles into the race and a disturbing ruckus of snorting and stampeding feet erupted from the brush to my right. What the…? For a few seconds, there was only the noise, coming closer and closer with each passing moment. I looked at the oncoming runners on this out and back section. They looked back at me, wide-eyed. Right in between us and just a few feet away, a dozen or so wild pigs came streaking across the trail at a full gallop. I paused, pretty sure I could still hear more snorting in the thicket from the ones left behind. Here goes nothing, I thought as I braved my way through, waiting to be taken out by a charging, squealing swine eager to catch up to the group.
Once clear – phew! – I got back into my rhythm, paranoid now about the continued sounds I could hear coming from the scrub. Fast as I was going, I couldn’t seem to outrun them. At the first aid station, 40 Acre, 4.10 miles in, The Grinch awaited. “Two minutes ahead [of pace]” he informed me, rather sternly. I shot him a big smile, “Oh, but I’m feeling so gooooood” I shouted back as we made the seamless transition. At each aid station, I grabbed a 10oz bottle filled with one or two VFuel gels mixed with water — shaken, not stirred – and continued on my way.
The plan had been to go out on 7:10 pace and stick there like glue. This would have resulted in a 5:58:24 finish, with a smidge of cushioning if I was flagging at the end. I was determined to try to break 6 hours. By the end of the first 16.67 mile loop, I was well under. Six minutes under. The course was as fast as promised, with only a few short sections of clay mud and deeper crushed gravel footing that weren’t quite as speedy as the rest of the essentially flat course. At home, my husband, Robert, and coach, Mario Fraioli, exchanged texts. Robert was ecstatic, of she’s-crushing-it mentality. Mario was a touch more reticent, knowing that at this pace the last 10-15 miles could turn into a one-way trip to ugly town.
Mile after mile, my pace remained consistent in the low to mid-6:50s. On a flat surface, I can usually lock into a comfortable, fixed pace and just go, go, go. Still, with each passing mile, I braced for the inevitable crushing burden of fatigue. On a 50-mile course, I knew it was coming, the only question was when. It slowly seeped in, starting around mile 37. The danger is always the pitfall of giving back all of those beautiful splits, losing them to the overriding slow miles towards the end. Thirteen miles of 7:30s, for example, could quickly erase all that I had accomplished up to that point. I held myself to stay on task, knowing that the pain was only temporary, willing myself to get to most I could squeeze out of each passing mile.
Towards the end, I was grimacing with the effort, alternating between growling out loud to self-motivate and wimpering with suffering. Oncoming runners looked duly concerned. My slowest mile was at mile 45, a 7:30 something, as I came upon the lead runner, Michael Daigeaun. A few days before, Michael had decided to drop down to the 50-mile race from the 100-mile because of an impending cold. He had been ahead the whole time, often just out of sight. We would exchange encouraging words to each other as we crossed at the out-and-backs. He’d been running strong all morning and at mile 45 I naturally fell into step just behind him, thankful at the thought of having some company in my decline. I soon realized that I needed to pick up the pace to stay on track though, and passed by. It helped, knowing he was back there. I imagined him closing in on me, spurring me to try to stay a few steps ahead.
In my mind, there was another runner leading the way. I knew that I was well ahead of Ann Trason’s historic 1994 run in Hunstville, TX at this point. Yet I still imagined her there, her ghost if you will, always slightly ahead of me and leading the way.* In that race, Ann ran 6:14:51 for 50 miles. I’m told this was the fastest women’s 50-mile time recorded for a race where the surface is entirely trail. The race no longer exists, but extrapolating from what little I know about the area, the course probably had somewhat more elevation gain, and was undoubtedly more technical with some root-laden course sections. I believe this is where the Rocky Racoon race is run, a course that is also known as generally fast and fairly flat — although it’s always hard to compare times run on any two trail races.
In the end, I came across the line in 5:48:01 (avg 6:58 pace), absolutely spent and raw with emotion. I’m so grateful to those who were there to capture some beautiful images of the moment. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the new overall course record, inching past Ford Smith’s 2014 time by 9 seconds, albeit on a slightly adjusted course. It’s also the third fastest 50-mile time ever run by a North American resident woman on any surface (Camille Herron holds the “world’s best” of 5:38:41, run on the road, with Ann Trason’s road time a close second, at 5:40:18).**
Saturday marked my 42nd Birthday. On that day something very unlikely happened to someone who still thinks of herself as a rank amateur among giants. The take home, I suppose, is to keep plugging away, take risks, and hold yourself to the task at hand.
Because you just never know when the pigs are gonna fly.
* Don’t worry, Ann Trason is very much alive, and thank goodness for that. She’s my hero, and she should be yours too. Whether or not you’re familiar with her accomplishments, they’re worthy of discussion, being nothing short of spectacular. Ann won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run a whopping 14 times. She was voted Ultra Runner Of the Year for more than a decade. Ann set 20 World Records in the course of her career, at distances from 40 miles to 100 miles, and numerous course records, many of which still stand today. Stop for a moment and absorb that. It’s only in recent years, as the popularity of ultrarunning continues to grow and women’s participation in it surges, that Ann’s records have begun to be challenged. Ann set the bar so very high, at a time when her only real competition was often the men (whom she regularly beat, winning races outright).
** The Brazos Bend 100 Mile course is USA Track & Field (USATF) sanctioned. The Brazos Bend 50 Mile course I ran on Saturday is exactly 50.01 miles. Each 16.67-mile loop is part of the six-loop, 100-mile course and the 50-mile course is simply three of those same loops. The difference between certified and sanctioned is this: a certified course has been measured as accurate for the distance. However, a course cannot be certified–is not officially record-eligible–if it does not meet the USATF criteria for setting records. For reasons unknown to the author, USATF does not certify trail races. Additionally, Camille Herron’s 50-mile time is officially a ‘world’s best’ rather than a world record because it was set at a point-to-point race, which is another type of course that USATF does not officially certify. Essentially, Camille holds the fastest 50-mile road time ever recorded and I now hold the fastest 50-mile trail time ever recorded, at least by a North American resident, and possibly anywhere (since 50-mile races are very much a North American distance). Just don’t call them American records or world records because some people get really bent out of shape about stuff like this. As Traci Falbo put it: tomato/tomato.