Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Desert Solstice 24-hour Invitational - Part 1: the technical context

This has been an amazing experience, there is so much to tell about that I'm going to split my "race report" into 2 parts for once. Indeed, there are a few important facts to establish so you can better understand and appreciate the performances set that weekend, 2 weeks ago.

First, the Desert Solstice Invitational has been set up 4 years ago with the sole goal of creating an environment propitious to setting national and world records. For that, the founders of Aravaipa and race directors, the Coury Brothers, Nick and Jamil, first set an official 24-hour event on a track, a format which isn't commonly found especially in North America. Then they reach out to potential record setters and hand picked them to create a field limited to 30, a good balance between emulation and not getting the track too crowded which would mean a lot of passing in lane 2. With that, 26 US records and 6 World records have been set at this event in only 4 years, these numbers say a lot on the impact that the Courys have on our sport! Now, as we'll see later, there are many potential records which can be set so, beyond calling upon the usual suspects which for instance make the US Team for 100K or 24-hour (2 handfuls at max), the Courys can't know or call every candidate in each age group. To address this, they set up a process where you apply to the consideration of being invited based on having met certain minimums and your genuine will to go after an existing record. And that's how, after running my 2nd 24-hour event this year at the US Nationals in September, I applied and got... invited.

Now let's talk about the records. When you think about records in the running area, the first coming to mind is usually Usain Bolt's one on 100 meters dash. With the Olympics especially, this is one of the most watched event in Track and Field, short enough to not be interrupted with ads even in the US! If you pay attention, you will notice that the screen may actually display Olympic Records, in case the World Record has not been set during one of the Olympiads. You already have two records for the same distance, and same setup! From 100 meters, there is a bunch of other distances, like 200m, 400m, 800m, 1,500m, mile, 5,000m, 10,000m and you go on and on. So much that, at some point, you'll have to leave the stadium and introduce another family of records, the road ones. Starting introducing some variability in the terrain and even the cumulated elevation if the event isn't in super flat Netherlands. It is particularly true for the marathon were there isn't enough consistency between the different courses (e.g. New York, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin) to agree on the concept of a record, In this case, we talk about best performance. To recognize that another factor can also play a role and that not all the tracks are alike, there are Indoor and Outdoor Track records. And the Road ones as we mentioned above. Since 10,000 meters are part of the Olympics, it's very unlikely that someone would come to such a 24-hour event to try to improve it. But anything beyond that makes sense (e.g. 10 miles, 20K, 20 miles, 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, 200K).

We talked about the distance, but there is another dimension used to categorize records, time. We have the records for the most kilometers (or miles...) ran in 1 hour, 2 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours and, yes, so on... There are commonly 48-hour, 3-day and 6-day events every year, both on tracks or not (mix of road and trail). Of course, you then have the gender x2 multiplier but, more importantly, the number of age groups: Junior, Open (19-34) then 5-year age groups starting with 35-39 and typically up to 80-85 if not more!

Overall, for a 24-hour event, we are talking about at least 12 age group records times 5 time-based and 8-distance-based records, times 2 genders = 312! And that's just for outdoor track, otherwise you are talking 936! And then you multiply by every nation (~200), and that is 187,200!! Any taker? ;-) Bottom line, there is a lot of potential and actually way too much for the super elite in our sport to chase them all, leaving room and opportunities for those who are interested and willing to fit that into their calendar. And until all these records are set by the best of the best...

To give you an illustration, in my age group, which is still quite competitive in the long distance running field, here are the current national records for 50K and 50 miles (from USATF road records and track records):
- 50K road: 3:19:33 John L Sullivan (53) Washington, DC 1982-Mar-13
- 50K outdoor track: 3:47:09 Walter Connolly (54) Rochester, NY 1984-Nov-04
- 50 miles road: 5:35:03 Ted Corbitt (50) New York, NY 1970-Oct-18
- 50 miles outdoor track: 6:33:58 Jay Aldous (50) Phoenix, AZ 2018-Dec-11

As you can see, there is quite some discrepancy between these performances, it all comes down to who seriously chased the record at a particular distance or terrain. For instance, in the case of Jay, he "just" set this 50-mile as well as the 100K record and 12-hour on his way to set a world record for our age group for 100 miles on an outdoor track!

There are so many records to track, even at the world level that the IAAF delegates the task to another association, the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning).

At the US level, the task is owned by the USAT&F who not only distinguishes ultra and non ultra, but also publish listings for Master age groups versus Open and Junior. More people to contact, with different convoluted processes and processing speeds. Bottom line, it may take 1, 2 or even 3 years for records to be ratified! And one more opportunity to thank Nick Coury for his passion and support of our community in this record setting area! With all this paperwork, you may well be chasing a record which has always been improved by someone else...

Enough on the record topic or "theory", let me switch to another subject before I lose you with this long introduction to my race report...

This event is put by Aravaipa, and more precisely by their founders, owners and race directors (and brothers!), Nick and Jamil Coury. Aravaipa is a Phoenix-based business which puts 21 major running races up each year, including the famous Javelina Jundred (or should I say infamous as many get tricked by the apparent easiness of this 100-miler and its loop format). Another race which they organize is Across The Years, or ATY, which consists in a multi-day event. They started with up to 72 hours but are extending to 6 days this year. The Desert Solstice invitational was created as a by product of ATY to focus on "shorter" times and distances record settings as well as provide a late season opportunity for some to make Team USA. From the fastest runners, the Courys do also an amazing job to get new comers into trail and ultra running, creating a very close and friendly community in Arizona which felt family to me as soon as landed in Phoenix and throughout the weekend!

Let's now talk about a few other specifics of this track event/format:
  1. Track length. Most of the tracks have 8 lanes and a standard length of 400 meters in lane 1. One mile is 1.6093 kilometer so slightly more than 4 laps. (See a discussion about the differences of lengths of each lane which I included in one of my September posts.)
  2. Track surface. As I mentioned before, the rubberized surface of such tracks makes sprinting super efficient by preventing any slipping between the running shoes and the track. While this is good for a few minutes of hard racing, this is particularly unforgiving when running for hours: if you don't have a perfect stride and footing, every defect will be amplified as your shoe can't self-adjust when on the ground. See for instance the blister I got after a 70-lap training run on the track in August.
  3. Track facilities. When I first heard about Jon Olsen running more than 150 miles on a track, I was imagining that he was going in and out the track to go to the stadium's restrooms . But that would lead to losing many precious minutes and I read the advice that other Team USA members gave him to get his "own facility" to discreetly pee without having to leave the track. At least, at Desert Solstice, we had two porta-potties on the track, in lane 4 in order to minimize the distance and time for our pit stops, very convenient and efficient!
  4. Lap direction. Mind you, although we don't go that fast in a 24-hour event that centripetal or centrifugal forces are much of an issue in the curve of the track, getting into a turn every 100 meters creates quite an unbalance effort on the body and particularly the legs and its numerous joints. For this reason, the race directors got us to change direction every 4 hours, providing a good relief as well as some variety in the otherwise and overall boring scenery.
  5. Crews. For the non insiders, crews are the people who assist you in ultras, an essential help and component of success for many (when you don't get such support we talk about being "uncrewed" or even screwed!). In remote and mountainous races, some aid stations are not accessible to crews so you may not meet your team for 20 miles or a few hours. On a track, you see your crew every 2 to 3 minutes which means that they have to be constantly alert and available. I was amazed for instance to see our Bay Area ultra volunteer Dave Combs helping three runners (I learned later that he had come to just spectate the event but offered to help these three runners who, like me, didn't have a crew). Refilling a bottle, handing out a Gu or a S!Cap, some food, grabbing an extra layer, this can be an extremely busy job with the hundreds of laps!
  6. Stadium. Running on a stadium track, you may think that there is a crowd watching. There wasn't actually anyone at the track except for the crews, volunteers and organizers at Desert Solstice. Our ultra running sport isn't that popular and, to be honest, it would be quite boring to watch 2 dozen of runners do laps for 24 hours! ;-)
  7. Pacing. As I found out in my first 2 24-hour races this year (June and September), it is key to start really slow if you want to run for so many hours. The track format helps monitoring your cadence as it provides you with a split every 1/4 mile, not to mention the perfectly smooth and flat surface.
With this preamble and technical background, it is time to switch to my race report... And, since that was my first time racing on a track for so long, I also welcome comments from track veterans on points which I might have missed in this post.


Michael said...

Oh my, so much goes into the record keeping! I would say you encapsulated the running details very well. One thing I noticed from running 13 miles on the track a couple of weeks ago, when I run 3-6 days on the trails and have only hit the track 2 other times this year, is that it really breaks down the fascia in quite a different way and although you can have quite a nice turnover, it seems to take a bit more recovery when your body isn't used to the flat and hard track. Kudos to you guys for your long, fast, and continuous efforts.

Nick Coury said...

Jean, you did a great job capturing all that goes into the record keeping, and the intrigue of a track race (all the reasons we started it!) Can't wait to read part two with your report!