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Zach Bitter — November, 2019
Zach Bitter is the World Record Holder for 100 miles with a 11:19:13 time set at the 2019 Six Days in the Dome in Milwaukee’s Pettit Center. He continued running to break the 12-hour World Record with a distance of 104.8 miles. Zach also has the FKN, Fastest Known Time, for a 100-mile trail run at the 2018 Tunnel Hill 100-miler in 12:08:36. He set his first American Record for 100 miles at Desert Solstice in 2013 with an 11:47:21 time. Bitter lowered it at Desert Solstice in 2015 to 11:40:55. Zach placed sixth at the 2014 IAU 100k World Championships in Doha, Qatar and was a member of the USA Gold Medal team. He won the 2012 Tussey Mountainback USATF 50-mile Road Championship. His over thirty ultramarathon victories include the 2011 and 2015 Fall Classic 50-mile, 2012 Ice Age Trail 50-mile, 2013 Chicago Lakefront 50-mile, 2016 Javelina Jundred 100-mile, 2018 and 2019 Whiskey Basin 88k trail run and 2019 San Diego 100-mile. He competed in the Western States 100-mile trail run twice with finishes of 15th and 11th place. Previous to his ultrarunning focus, Zach dabbled in the half marathon and marathon after college and ran 1:10:16 and 2:31:29. He competed collegiately at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and was a consistent 15:50 5k/33:00 10k/27:00 8k XC runner. Zach was a solid prep runner at Manitowoc (Wisconsin) Lutheran High School running a 5k cross country 17:08.4 PR at the Wisconsin State Championships for 24th place in leading his team to a ninth place State D3 finish. His best prep time on the track was a 4:43.84 for 1,600 meters. Personal bests include: half marathon – 1:10:16; marathon - 2:31:29; 50k - 3:03:10; 50 miles - 5:12:36; 100k - 6:48:53; 100 miles – 11:19:13; 12 hours – 104.8 miles; 200k – 16:23:33. Zach currently conducts individualized coaching, is available for public and corporate speaking engagements, and can be contacted at He spent nearly an hour and a half on the phone for this interview in the fall of 2019.
GCR: Zach, you set the American Record for 100 miles six years ago in 2013 with a time of in 11:40:55 and you've been training with the World Record in mind for six years until you recently broke the 2002 World Record of Russian Oleg Kharitonov of 11:28:03 with your clocking of 11:19:13. Has it sunk in that you’ve done something no one in the history of our planet has done and what does it mean?
ZB It’s a great question and an interesting one that I have kind of pondered. The way I kind of look at it is that back in 2013 when I ran an event of this sort, I was mainly chasing the American Record. I saw that John Loson had broken it and I thought the splits looked manageable enough to take a swing at it. I don’t think I even knew what the World Record was at that point. The next logical step was to find out about the World Record and that is when I came across Oleg’s time of 11:28:03. When I decided that part of my training was going to be chasing the World Record, it wasn’t that it would be the end all, be all, in my pursuits. It was just a logical target that was in range and gave me a little bit more focus on pacing and strategy. World Records always get broken eventually so, if you find yourself in a position to hold a World Record for any period, at the very least you become a stepping-stone to find out human capabilities in whatever endeavor that is. That part hasn’t been too hard to wrap my head around. The part that has taken the longest was the way I did it. I spent almost six years adjusting, learning from mistakes, learning what worked and what didn’t work and ultimately coming up with a plan and a race strategy that produced that eleven hours and nineteen minutes and thirteen seconds that I ran. The thing that is still kind of sinking in is that I negative split the last fifty miles. I was two minutes and three seconds faster in my second fifty miles than my first fifty miles.
GCR: You speak with many runners of varying ability, so let’s touch a bit on the 6:48 pace per mile you ran for one hundred miles. For a good recreational runner, a 21:08 5k is at 6:48 pace and, for a solid marathon runner, the one or two percent who break three hours, a 2:58:17 marathon is at 6:48 pace. Do you find that it is difficult for even very good runners to grasp what you are able to do for such a lengthy competition?
ZB What is interesting is that not too many people in the greater running community have a connection to the ultra-running scene. When they hear eleven hours and nineteen minutes for one hundred miles, they may think it’s fast, but when we break it down into 5k splits and marathon splits that is when people begin to understand what kind of effort it was. A joking thing I tell people is that to many if you tell them you ran the Boston Marathon, then you are a legend right off the bat. But, if you didn’t run Boston then you are not, regardless of what PR you may have. Sometimes putting it into the context of qualifying for the Boston Marathon four times in a row is easier for people to wrap their heads around.
GCR: Let’s look at your record attempt. First, do you segment you race sort of like a miler into four laps or a marathoner with two ten milers and a 10k?
ZB From my experience you must segment. In these long races it is impractical to be thinking about mile one hundred. It gets you into too much mental exhaustion before you get yourself to the point where you can realistically wrap your head around it. These races are both a physical and mental endeavor. We are pacing the mental part too. Just as it is important for me to not get too aggressive or to fall behind splits from a physical pacing standpoint, it is also important for me to pace how much I am exhausting myself mentally. That can be a bit of a challenge, especially in the environments where I’m doing many of these races on 400 meter or close to 400-meter tracks. There is such access to where I could see my splits every quarter mile if I wanted to. That can lead to over stressing where I’m at or hyper analyzing that this lap was a second too slow or a second too fast and then I’m mentally exhaused before I get anywhere near the finish. I don’t have an exact game plan where I’m going to take it ten miles at a time, but I have general benchmarks where I kind of know where I want to be. I kind of focus on those and then move forward to the next one.
GCR: You mentioned that you ran a very even race with a slight negative split of two minutes. Was it hard to resist putting a few minutes ‘in the bank’ the first half of the race?
ZB Yes, absolutely. Before this particular attempt my approach was that I was inevitably going to positive split to some degree. In those instances, it became a question of how much do I bank versus how much will I lose if I bank too much? I essentially used that approach in 2015 when I lowered my American Record to eleven hours and forty minutes. But I paid dearly for it when in the last twenty miles the wheels were getting awfully wobbly, if I can describe it that way. I had good experience of being too aggressive early from that attempt. Knowing that I didn’t want to have that same thing happen made it easier to go a little more conservatively early on. I left some time on the table in the early stages, if we want to look at it that way. But it is a very fine line. My splits weren’t drastically different. My 100-kilometer split was 6:58 at Desert Solstice in 2015 versus 7:03 at this one. When we talk about the mental part of the sport, given the way I’ve approached these in the past, when I came through about mile forty and started doing some quick math, I realized I was going to have about a five hour and forty minute 50-mile split. That was probably the biggest mental hurdle to get over all day, mainly because at mile forty I had enough miles in my legs that I was feeling it a bit, but there were so many miles left that it was hard to wrap my head around the rest of the race yet. Knowing that I was going to come through fifty miles in a position where, at worst, I could only slightly positive split to get the record, that was something I had to talk myself out of thinking too much and just stick to the plan.
GCR: Everything I’ve read in the past and, from my own experience, a runner can go out about two percent faster than the ultimate time for race distance without negative effects. Does this hold up in ultramarathons like it does in 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons? If so, doing the math in my head, since you were slightly under seven minute pace for the whole one hundred miles, this is only about eight seconds a mile, or maybe six minutes for the first fifty miles which means you could only go out in 5:32 or 5:33 which could be your fastest sweet spot. Did you do any post-race review of this?
ZB Yes, I did, and I think it’s something I’ll play around with when I do some more attempts like this or races like this. It gets interesting when you get in ultramarathons because we don’t have the math data like we do with the 5ks, the 10ks, the half marathons and marathons where these theories are tested repeatedly by the same person and multiple runners. When we get into 100-mile races, our effort is at a relatively low intensity, so it introduces that variable of the mental component possibly being a little more heavily weighted. For me, if I try to PR in a short distance like a 5k, there is a point where I fell like I can’t push any harder. Logically, I may be getting close to my max. But when I’m doing a one hundred miler, around mile 80 say I know that I must average a seven-minute mile pace the rest of the way, it’s much easier physiologically due to the lower intensity of the pace. Even though I have a lot of miles in my legs at that point, it becomes how much more can I push past that mental doubt and just keep churning out the splits where I want them. I’m not willing to say that negative splitting or even splitting are by far the best to do. There is probably some wiggle room in either direction. But there is a point where, if we go out much too fast, we are going to give back more later in the race than we gained. We’ve seen that historically too. If we look at one hundred-mile strategies used in the past, they are interesting. Don Ritchie split something like a sub-five hour first fifty miles and then somewhere around six hours and thirty minutes for the second half to end up at about eleven and a half hours. That is a massive positive split. At the time it was the World Record, so it was hard to tell him he was doing it wrong. But, at the same time, how much did he give back and what would Don have done if he went out fifteen minutes slower, which still was an aggressive positive split?
GCR: Based on my own track background, running around a track affects our legs differently. Does running over eleven hours on that 443-meter track while constantly turning to the left generate any extra soreness in your lower left leg that is running a slightly shorter stride or your right hip which is opening up a bit more?
ZB That is a great question that is something I focused on in training. I would do quite a few of my long runs and some specific workouts on a track to get some of those balances and mechanics dialed in to the specific event. For this race I didn’t notice any glaring differences. The interesting factor in this race is that they do switch directions every four hours so, when we look at a twelve-hour effort, it means we will be turning left for eight hours and right for four hours. Interestingly, after the race for the next three or four or five hours when my body was trashed, I could see nuances that weren’t typical or that were different from one leg to the other. It was obvious to me that my left foot and ankle were significantly swollen for several days after the race compared to my right one. That matches up quite nicely with your description of that lower left side taking more of a different impact than the ride leg. And I was on that side for almost four hours longer.
GCR: When any of us run the same pace for a lengthy period we tend to get some overuse fatigue. Do you vary your pace purposefully or do a few stride outs occasionally during the one hundred miles to combat the cumulative muscular fatigue caused by repetitive movement over such a long period of time or do you cruise along at your pace?
ZB I have a bit of wiggle room where some splits are slightly faster or slower than others. For twelve hours and below I don’t know if it’s that big of a deal. I think it would become more beneficial when you get into 24-hour races where I would purposely do a stride out on a straightaway to change up the mechanics a bit. Also, sometimes if my pace is falling a bit off, then doing a 100-meter stride makes the pace I’m trying to run significantly more manageable than when there is the slower depreciation towards that slower pace. For these twelve-hour efforts, I calculate the distance of the track and figure out what the fastest is I should run based on my current fitness without overreaching and the slowest I can go to achieve what I’m trying to hit for the day. Then I have a range of splits. When I do check how fast I’m going on a lap, I try to make sure that I’m in that range. Sometimes I’ll float inside and out of that range and be a bit faster without planning it. But it isn’t strategic to increase my pace five seconds faster than I want to so that I can change my stride mechanically. It tends to happen naturally. It could be timing of my fuel intake or passing someone or someone may say something encouraging that motivates me and I push a little harder.
GCR: Let’s talk about training so we can become acquainted with your program. I’ll throw out a few concepts and you can discuss what you would like to emphasize. What is your average mileage over the course of a training block of several months and cycle training through low, medium and high weeks? How long are your long runs and at what pace? Do you run multiple runs per day or back to back long run days?
ZB When I talk about training I try to highlight that oftentimes when someone hits a personal best time that we should take a step back and look at the whole approach from the beginning of when we started running endurance events because there are some athletes who are relatively injury-free during their career and who develop a massive base. If we look at any one training block and say, ‘that’s the ticket,’ we leave a bit on the table in my opinion, though it is interesting and valuable to look at what was specifically done in the months leading up to the race. I’ve been basically a high mileage guy since I finished college. In the last ten years or so I’ve averaged about a hundred miles a week, or between five thousand and fifty-five hundred miles per year. That is kind of where I end up when I do my training cycles and stay healthy and race however many times I target races during the year. It ebbs and flows with whether I’m in off-season or peak training. For this particular block, I did a build up to a four-week training cycle that had three build up weeks and a de-load week where I reduced volume and intensity and let everything kind of catch up. That four-week cycle was a 130-mile week, about a 150-mile week, a 75 or so mile de-load week and then another 150-mile week. I also skewed some of my mileage to the back end of the week with back-to-back long runs to get that specific race-day intensity and volume in place. What I found interesting in this particular cycle is, when I talk about training philosophy in general, I think it’s always wise to be skewing workouts that are most specific to your upcoming race intensity closer to the race itself. Where it gets interesting with ultraraces and 100-milers is that you can still follow a periodized approach to training within that philosophy, but it tends to be kind of backwards. If I were to train for a 5k, I would be doing some of those short interval sessions that are close to 5k pace as I get close to the race and I might be doing the slower runs earlier as I’m building my base. For a 100-miler, even my World Record pace is slow enough that I could be doing over speed training every day. That is sustainable, while over speed training for a 5k every day would fry you over time. I’ll l do some of those shorter intervals, tempo runs, and threshold runs earlier in my training plan. Then when I’m six to eight weeks before the race, I’ll skew my training much closer to race pace. If you looked at my training log, there is a lot of running at or just below 100-mile intensity or pace in the four to six weeks before the race. On days that I feel better than normal, I might throw a threshold run in there more or less as a fitness check.
GCR: For running form do you do the old reliable drills we all did when we were running on track and field teams and mix in some hills?
ZB I do to a degree. Since I moved out to Phoenix, I’ve had access to more types of terrain. What I’ve been doing out here for a couple years is dividing my year into two halves. One half of the year I train specifically for steeper, more technical trails. Then the second half of the year I train for more flat terrain that is faster and more runnable. Depending on how I position those phases, I lean on carryover from the hills when I’m doing the flatter training phase. But that is more unique to my personal approach. If I was only training for flat, fast ultramarathons, I’d go out of my way to find some short hill repeats to do what you mentioned.
GCR: How much ancillary training - like biking or swimming, resistance training, flexibility training and massage therapy are a part of your program?
ZB The two training modes that I have in a routine and structured manner are strength work and mobility. One thing I’ve learned in 2017 is that up until that point I had focused mainly on flat training based mostly on what was available to me where I lived. When I did try to circle the wagons and do something a bit more steep, uphill and downhill, I found that my ankle mobility and hips were tight. That made it more challenging to have good mechanics on undulating terrain versus flat surfaces. That was likely a product of all the flat, hard surface running I’d been doing over the years. T started focusing on ankle and hip flexibility over the last couple of years. On the strength side of things, it is getting more intriguing for endurance athletes. In the past, we saw a lot less of that because endurance athletes tended to think that if they went into the weight room, they would get too bulky and it would slow them down. The reality is, if we structure it properly, that’s not going to happen, especially when it’s someone like me who is running a hundred or a hundred fifty miles a week. Your body is not going to add a lot of bulk no matter what you do in that scenario. I stick to some of the more core lifts that help me keep balanced muscles. The other thing I learned at the Desert Solstice race in 2015 is that by the end of the race my form was really breaking down. If you see pictures of me in the last twenty miles, I almost look like I’m running forwards but running backwards. At that point, going forward in my training, I started focusing on posterior chain training and core strength work so I could be more precise on holding my form late in some of those longer events. I do dead lifts with a hex bar or traditional straight bar, kettle bell swings, lunges, and squats. I keep these in my training program throughout the year with some resistance core work. Lots of time endurance athletes think of weights like they do running – low weights with high repetition. To me that doesn’t make a lot of sense because you are already getting low weight and high repetitions from your running. If you are going to address something from a strength standpoint, it is probably better to do resistance when you are in the weight room. Even with core exercises, I’m not doing a hundred sit ups. In most cases I’m going to be doing something that’s a little more weighted resistance, whether that is a machine that lets me use my leg weight as resistance. Also, using a cable to perform a movement that will engage my core with more resistance is usually the direction I head.
GCR: Let’s talk about the nutritional regimen you follow for daily nutrition and race day. First, what do you do to ensure you are taking in adequate calories and the proper split between protein, carbs and fats in training?
ZB I take a little different approach to endurance nutrition than what is seen in more common endurance protocol. Some of it is individualized and some is specific to the event. When training for an event where the relative intensity is low, it opens the physiological window in terms of how to structure what we eat versus an Olympic distance where the intensity is higher. I’ve found that a higher fat approach works better for me. It can get confusing for people because, when they hear this, they may think of a zero carbs diet or ketogenic diet. That’s not the way I have it structured. I have it organized with the mindset that my lifestyle changes drastically from day to day. If someone picks a single day out of my calendar and it is the day after a race, I may be moving hardly at all. If a day is selected that is a peak training day for a race, I might be burning two to three times my resting metabolic rate. Or a race day could be at five times my resting metabolic rate. It doesn’t make sense for me to plug and play the same ratio of macronutrients day in and day out because my lifestyle doesn’t follow that direct of a path. The way to understand what I do is to first think of a standard American diet that is high in carbohydrates – around sixty to seventy percent with the remainder split 50-50 between fat and protein. I kind of flip the fat and carbohydrates. Depending on where I am in training affects how much I skew up the fat or flex up the carbohydrate a little bit. When I enter my peak phase of training, if you took that 150-mile week, those are times during the training where I’m going to flex my carbohydrates higher. For me that tends to be in the range of twenty percent. If you pick a de-load week, a recovery day or after a race when I’m doing little or no training, I flex my carbs down to their lowest level of the year. So, it ends up being a moving target. When looked at from an intensity standpoint in training for a hundred miler versus a 5k, and in the window of the varying intensities throughout my training cycle while adding in rest and recovery, it makes a bit more sense to people.
GCR: Following up with nutrition on race day, what is your action plan nutritionally, especially when you are running for eleven or twelve hours, before, during and after racing?
ZB I look at it through the window of what I have access to during the race itself. If we are looking at onboard fuel, we have our fat reserves and muscle glycogen. The factor that gets often misunderstood is that, if we took the leanest endurance athlete on the planet, they have enough body fat even at their very, very low percentages to get through the event. For me it doesn’t make a lot of sense to replenish that fuel tank during competition. That just invites more digestion and the potential issues that can come along when trying to digest foods while competing. I don’t take in much fat during the race itself. If I find myself in a position where I have burned off more fat than I would like to walk around with, I can always replace that after the event. That avoids any potential in-race digestion issues. That leaves the other side of nutrition, which is our muscle glycogen, which is that smaller fuel tank that we can exhaust during an event. What I’m doing is trying to make sure I’ve got that tank topped off during the race. I’ll use a product by a company, Xendurance, called Fuel Five. It’s basically five strains of fuel – one being lactate and four being various release carbohydrates. There are slower release to faster release carbs. I intake relatively lower amounts compared to an athlete who is following a higher carb diet. It tends to be usually between twenty to forty grams per hour during a peak race. For this race I had ideal settings as it was in the Pettit Center, which is the Olympic training facility for speed skating. The beauty is because it is a speed skating and hockey venue is that they keep the air temperature at fifty to fifty-five degrees. That works in our favor from a digestion standpoint. It tends to be more difficult to digest when running in heat versus the ideal temperatures that I had. Since I knew that I was going into an ideal temperature, climate-controlled environment, I was more willing to skew toward the higher end of fuel intake during the day. So, I was averaging about forty grams of carbohydrate per hour from that Fuel Five during the course of the day. The other interesting thing is that usually with events that long I don’t take the same fuel all day. I’ll get bored with it and introduce more variety. For whatever reason, this time I was very regimented and did twenty grams of Fuel Five every thirty minutes with eight to sixteen ounces of water, depending on thirst.
GCR: You mentioned earlier that the first four or five days after this most recent 100-mile race that you were trashed. What do you do in terms of physical recovery such as ice baths, massage and walking to move your legs? What are you doing to get your musculature back to normal within a week or two weeks or the appropriate time period?
ZB When we start to look at techniques like ice baths or soaking in baths with Epsom salts to try to speed up our ability to go on and perform again, these are very valuable tools. If I was doing a stage race where I had to push relatively hard one day and then be ready twelve hours later to do it again, I would be going through a lot of protocol to get myself ready to flush out some of that swelling and inflammation. When I don’t have a race right away afterward, I don’t look at that swelling necessarily as a negative. I look at it as my body trying to heal the damage I’ve done, and I want to let it do that. Other than turning to ibuprophen and ice baths, I tend to let that work its course. I also keep in mind that getting blood flow down to those areas is going to help with the recovery, so I’ll do walking, light stretching and mobility exercises so I’m not just sitting with blood pooling in my legs all day long. I try to be a little mindful of not forcing myself to do much more than my energy level dictates because I’m also trying to recoup and get motivated to train and get back into it when I feel ready. Letting that mind kind of relax and not force myself into too much activity is kind of that secondary approach to recovery.
GCR: Let’s go back to when you were a youth and then some highlights of your early running days in high school and college so we can understand where you’re coming form. First, were you an active youth who participated in lots of sporting activities and what are some of the highlights of your early running days?
ZB I was basically very open minded to sports as a kid. I was fortunate that my parents never forced me into one sport. They encouraged me to be active in a variety of activities. When I got interested in one, they supported me in any way they could. I did all the traditional sports of football, baseball, basketball, track and field, and cross country. I ultimately identified distance running as being something I was interested in at an early age. At my school they did the Presidential Physical Fitness challenge. The first year I did it was in sixth or seventh grade. I sucked at the sit and reach. I was no good at pull ups. All my classmates beat me in the one-hundred-meter dash. But I liked the mile and finished ahead of all my classmates. For a young boy, that pushed me in that direction. At that age I was trying to find what I was good at and where I should spend more time. That was my first glimpse into distance or endurance being one of my strengths. I didn’t take it too seriously until the end of high school. I had a cross country coach who had a good grasp of training methodology. He also was excited about the sport. That made it easier for me to get excited about running since the person who was guiding me was legitimately interested. On top of that, our team and me, individually, had the opportunity to make the State meet in cross country and track seasons. That was motivating to train in the off-season and to put in some work outside of the general practices.
GCR: Who was your coach, what did he prescribe for training mileage and what were some key workouts?
ZB My coach was Dave Ring. I went to a very small Division II school in Wisconsin called Manitowoc Lutheran High School. He introduced race specific training. Rather than just going out and running a few miles a day, we would have some longer runs, which at that time for us was maybe a seven-mile run. We would also do kilometer repeats and 400-meter repeats and threshold workouts. When I was in middle school my approach was to go to the track three or four times a week and to run 1,500 meters as fast as I could. In my mind you just would go all out at whatever you do and then, when you are ready you would do it again. Coach Ring highlighted that wasn’t the best way to go about things and there were different training methods. When I got to college that was when I got interested in why we were training a certain way versus just that we were doing it.
GCR: Let’s stick with high school where what’s fun is going to State with your team. Did running with teammates such as Zach Hackman, Justin Nickels, Jeremy Seeger, Jeremiah Drews, Jacob Ring and Matt Potthast en route to a ninth-place team finish at State make it fun?
ZB We had a good team dynamic. The names you listed were a combination of guys who were in my class and some who were younger than me. If we go back even further to when I was a sophomore, it was my first year of cross country and my first goal was just to see how I could do. After we did our first team time trial to determine who was on varsity and who was on JV, I found myself with one of my classmates, Matt Potthast that you mentioned, and we barely squeaked onto the varsity squad. This seemed cool that we were good enough to be on the varsity squad and then throughout that season I think I got up as far as third on the varsity on my best day. So, that was kind of intriguing to me because all the guys on the varsity squad were older than me and that, at some point, I was going to potentially be the fastest guy on the team. That would require me to be more of a leader than a follower. That camaraderie of learning from the older guys and creating friendships with the guys who were in my class spurred me on and helped me to enjoy the hard workouts. That created a road map to make the sport sustainable for me. Another interesting thing that I didn’t realize at the time but found out about when I got to college was that we didn’t do high mileage. We averaged maybe thirty miles a week in season and, when I got to college, it was eye-opening to me when I saw how much more mileage my teammates did in high school and what the trajectory was. It was a new concept to me. I think it might have made running more sustainable since I wasn’t hammering out sixty or seventy miles each week when I was in high school. I hadn’t learned the ins and outs of the sport yet and was able to use college as a learning experience. I gravitated toward running and today I love running high mileage. I wasn’t ever forced to do lots of miles, and it happened more naturally versus being a little more contrived.
GCR: One thing I find very interesting in cross country which I experienced is how so many runners finish in a short period of time in the big meets. When I looked at your 17:08.4 for 24th place at the 2003 Wisconsin State Cross Country Championships, I noted that if you were 10 seconds faster you would have moved up to 15th place, and 16 seconds faster would have catapulted you to tenth place. Was it amazing as you were racing just how many good, strong runners were around you the entire way?
ZB Absolutely, and it was even more eye-opening for me because I was at a small school with a Division 3 program. We had quite a few meets where I could slow down 30 seconds and get second place or speed up thirty seconds and get first place. The experience at State cross country was such that, if I turned to my left or my right, it was obvious that if I slowed down at all I was going to lose a couple spots. When I looked up in front of me, I thought, ‘Hey, if I can speed up, I can move up a few spots.’ That was a very good experience to be able to realize how much a little bit of extra willpower can do for you when you get in those bigger events. I got a better understanding of how good some of these other guys were. It’s easy to rationalize where you are within the context you’ve given yourself, but when you get into a bigger scope of the world at large you see how fast some people are and how talented some of these runners can be.
GCR: Let’s touch on one more high school race and that is at the Wisconsin State meet in track where you set your personal best time for 1,600 meters with a 4:43.84. How did you like running track versus cross country and was this race or were any other highlight races?
ZB When I look at my high school experience, I probably enjoyed cross country a bit better. This is partly because of what we talked about before – we get more of a team dynamic versus in track and field where you have your distance squad and other specialties. In a small school like mine the distance team is small whereas in college you can get ten or twenty runners on the squad. It was more motivating to have that team dynamic and, having got a taste of what it was like to qualify for the State cross country meet in high school my senior year, it was individually motivating during track season. The State track meet was exciting. I was ranked last based on my Sectional time going in and was able to outperform a little with my place at State. Just like in cross country, it highlighted for me how fast some of these other runners are. When I was moving up, I realized how much work it would take to continue to get better. It helped me to make that commitment to keep pushing my own limits and to find what is possible when I work more. It was an eye-opening, intriguing experience. A race in track that stands out is the Sectional meet where I qualified for State. For me that was kind of my goal that year. When I did it, there was a feeling that I accomplished that goal to a degree. And then experiencing State itself was the reward.
GCR: How did you decide where you were going to go to college and, when you were at UW-Stevens Point, what did Coach Rick Witt do to help you improve as an athlete and a competitor?
ZB I didn’t necessarily plan to run in college and, in fact, my first year I didn’t. I looked at college as deciding what I was going to do with the rest of my life and I never really looked at it as a career move to run. I went to Stevens Point as a sophomore and, after not running competitively my freshman year in college, taking that year off gave me an appreciation of what it was like to not have that structure. When I decided to go to Stevens Point as the area to focus on my education, I knew that they had a track and cross-country program. I thought if I was going to be there I may as well see what the program was like. I set up a meeting with Coach Witt and it was very eye-opening. That was my first exposure to a higher mileage training philosophy. I remember when he explained the process, he said that many of the incoming freshmen would be running about fifty miles a week of base mileage and training in the summer until they increased when they were juniors and seniors up to ninety or a hundred miles a week in the summer. I recall thinking at that point, ‘there is no way I will ever run a ninety or one-hundred-mile week in my life.’ I like sharing that story because it is so telling with the sport of running as well as ultra-running. I’ll talk to people and they will be interested in a specific race I ran and say something like, ‘How do you do this? How do you run so much? I could never do this.’ My thought is, ‘we all thought like that at one time, so don’t count yourself out.’ College, in general, was a huge learning experience for me. I didn’t use up all my eligibility. I did two years of indoor and outdoor track after being injured my first go-around my sophomore year. I ran three years of cross country. I learned how to adapt to a high mileage program. I don’t think it necessarily produced a lot of big results for me as an athlete that I would look back on and say, ‘I really nailed that one.’ I do look back at that experience as shaping my mindset of how to train. It taught me how to train. Even though my abbreviated collegiate career didn’t yield a bunch of fast times and records, it pushed me towards what I ended up doing with ultramarathons. It was every pivotal time in my life, and I can’t thank Coach Witt enough for giving me the exposure to that and introducing me to some of those training principles and the right mindset.
GCR: You mentioned that highlight race at Sectionals in high school. What were your highlight races in college either in cross country or track either individually or as a team?
ZB The structure is different in college where we are trying to hit standard qualifying times for Conference or NCAAs. It isn’t quite like high school where we would build ourselves up during the year and, at a specific event like Sectionals, we qualify for State or we don’t. In college we would pick a distance to try and qualify for the Conference meet or, if we were good enough, for Nationals. For me, Nationals was not necessarily a reality, so I was trying to run a fast enough 10k to qualify with the squad for the Conference meet. We had a race at Augustana College that was always a fun one to do the 10k on the track. I guess that’s probably where I learned that I did like the track. There is something about the relative ease of information and knowing exactly what is going on when everything is very specific and dialed in. When I’m doing a 10k on the track, just like when I do a 100-miler on a track, I know when I slow down a second and know that it isn’t the environment. It’s very transparent and I like that. If I look at a single event that sticks out, it would be my senior year in college, but my sophomore year of eligibility when I ran a fast enough time to qualify for the Conference meet in the 10k. That was a point that sticks out for me for what I learned about racing. My college experience also included my first 100-mile training week I ever ran. That was a big milestone in my mind because, when I explained the previous story about never thinking I would run a ninety-mile or 100-mile week, actually doing that was a good sign to me as a younger person that just because I thought something wasn’t doable at one point didn’t mean it wasn’t going to actually happen if I stuck to the process and the program and stayed consistent.
GCR: When you finished up your collegiate racing you transitioned to the marathon and then ultra-running. First, in the marathon from 2008 to 2011 you ran Fox Cities and Des Moines and Green Bay marathon with times in the upper 2:30s and low 2:40s and then you had a breakthrough in 2011 at the Illinois Marathon where you ran 2:31:45. Were you coaching yourself, what were you doing in training and how did you like the transition from 5k and 10k racing in college to the marathon?
ZB My experience with the marathon has been interesting because I haven’t done what I would consider to be a very good specific marathon buildup. What I learned most in college was that, when we did all the systems of training, if I had to pick a single workout that I enjoyed the most, it was always the long run on Sundays. Our coach would joke around and say, ‘Most of the guys who came to the Sunday long run are doing so because they have to in order to get better. Zach is coming because he wants to.’ To me that was kind of eye-opening because that was the part of the sport I truly enjoyed. When I got out of college, the structure was removed, and I was left to do my own thing for a few years. I was doing a lot of long runs. I started focusing on building up my volume and running longer runs almost every day. I didn’t pay too much attention to doing speedwork. My marathons were more of putting something on the calendar to work towards versus what I would consider a well-structured marathon training plan. I technically switched over to ultramarathons in 2010 and then waited a bit before my second one. I did my first full season of ultramarathons in 2011. At that point I did marathons sometimes in training to get a fitness check or to see where I was at after base training as I developed what to do to prepare for ultramarathons. The marathon is something I would like to do again while I’m still young enough to PR. I’d like to go through a good, solid cycle and see what I can ultimately do. It was kind of a nice way to fill a gap between my collegiate experience and my ultramarathoning running career to make sure I stuck with the sport and didn’t completely abandon it.
GCR: When you started the transition to ultramarathons, you ran the 2010 North Face 50-mile in 6:02:37 and then in 2011 did the Fall Classic 50-miler in 5:26:52. Were you starting to see yourself as a good 50-mile runner while also wondering how that would translate to races longer than 50 miles?
ZB When I started ultramarathons, it was sort of like my introduction to running years earlier as I knew very little about the discipline. My first 50-mile race was almost an accident. I was looking at a race calendar to find a race to do and, when I was looking, I was thinking more along the lines of running a marathon. Then I realized that the 50-mile race was relatively close to where I lived. It was kind of an ‘a-ha moment’ as I never had thought that I could run a 50-mile race close to home versus having to travel to get to a marathon. When I saw that race o line I thought, ‘maybe I’ll give this a shot and see what its like.’ I think I was 24 years old at the time. My thought process was, ‘I think I can do this and then I’ll probably do some ultramarathons on the road, but I most likely won’t focus on them until I’m about thirty years old.’ I figured I would do one to see what it was like and then, if I didn’t like it, I could revisit when I was older. But it was such a cool experience that I knew I was going to head in that direction sooner rather than later.
GCR: The Granddaddy of 100-mile races is the Western States 100-mile and you did a nice 16:53:28 for 15th place in 2012. What was your training like to get ready and how was the actual experience of running on that tough course?
ZB That was another big learning experience for me because that race was twice as far as I’d ever gone. Before Western States my longest race was fifty miles and, on top of that, it was a true mountain course. I lived in the Midwest and had access to some rolling trails and a lot of flat roads, but no real legit climbs and descents like there are on a course like at Western States. The race was hard to get into because, if you try to get into the lottery, your first year you have less than a three percent chance of being selected. It can take people three or four years and sometimes as long as seven or eight years to be selected. But there is a series of races called ‘Golden Ticket Races’ where, if you finish in the top two finishers, you will get an automatic entry into Western States. So, in 2012 I was targeting the Ice Age 50-miler in Wisconsin with zero interest at the time of going to Western States. I ended up winning the Ice Age 50-mile and getting a ‘Golden Ticket.’ I didn’t know enough about the sport to make an educated decision but was just smart enough to realize that when everyone told me I’d be an idiot not to do the Western States, I took my spot as opposed to passing it up. Then my thoughts were to see what it would be like to run one hundred miles and to see what it would be like to run through the canyon and to do real legit mountain climbs and descents and go from there. Western States in 2012 was a highlight of my career in introducing me to that distance and teaching me a little bit more about the sport itself. Kind of like with track and cross country at the State Meet and at college meets, I got a good look at how competitive some of the guys and gals are in this sport. At a race like Western States there is so much talent there so that was another big eye-opening experience for me too.
GCR: In 2013 you really hit your stride and highlights included winning the Chicago Lakefront 50-Mile in 5:12:36 and winning the Desert Solstice Track Meet 100-Mile in an American Record of 11:47:21. Had you made a mental and physical decision to transition to becoming primarily a 100-miler? And was it easier on flat course and the track after Western States?
ZB It’s almost a different sport when we get into timed events versus the mountain courses. When we look at specificity of training and how to dial in the environment during training, we are focusing on two very different things, even though they are in the same general intensity realm. The funny thing to me about the Chicago Lakefront Run is that I hadn’t intended on doing that race. I was peaking for the Tussey Mountainback 50-mile which is the road 50-mile championships that I had won the year before that. I went back there in better shape than I had the year before and ran a faster time. They had changed the course somewhat and it was even harder. The interesting thing was that I ran a better race, I had better training, but I finished in second place behind Matt Flarety who is a very good runner in his own right. For me it was kind of a mixed experienc3e because I had done more work in training and was more fit, but I got second place. I didn’t know what to do with the rest of the year at that point, so I got interested in how fast I could recover from one of these races. I looked at the race calendar and my initial plan was to see how it would feel to do a 50-miler each weekend for three weekends with Tussey, then Door County Fall Fifty and lastly the Chicago Lakefront. But when I got a few days into the week following Tussey Mountainback I realized I was recovering fast. I thought that if I didn’t do the Door County race and just did the Chicago Lakefront race that I could possibly do a 50-miler faster than I ever had before. So, I decided to pass on that middle one in Door County and to do the Chicago Lakefront 50-miler which was about thirteen days after Tussey. I went there without a ton of expectations, but to see where my fitness was and ended up running five hours and twelve minutes and thirty-six seconds. That was the biggest indication to me that racing on a terrain that is very specific to what you train on is a big piece of the puzzle. The Chicago Lakefront 50-miler was the first truly flat ultramarathon I had done. The Fall Fifty is a flat course, but it is not pancake flat like the Chicago Lakefront course. The interesting thing about my run at Lakefront is the time I ran got enough attention that the race directors, Mick and Jamil Curry, of Aerovito running reached out to me and told me they had this event in Phoenix in December every year called the Desert Solstice Track Invitational where people would come to target age group records and outright records. ‘We think you have a good shot at a record.’ I told them I would like to see how fast I could run for one hundred miles in an environment that was very conducive to fast times. Fortunately for me, John Olsen had just become the first American to ever break twelve hours for one hundred miles and that was a story that was kind of in my mind. I was thinking, ‘If I can run fifty miles in 5:12:36 only thirteen days after my ‘A race’ that I should be able to go out in 5:45 at Desert Solstice and then hold on for dear life and maybe squeak in 11:59 and maybe get the American Record. That event was one that burst me onto the scene when I ended up running eleven hours and forty-seven minutes at Desert Solstice that year.
GCR: You ran the IAU 100k World Championships several times and in 2014 in Doha, Qatar you raced the 100 kilometers in 6:48:53 for sixth place and were part of the Gold Medal Team. How nice was it to not only place high as an individual, but to win as a team, especially considering how much you liked the team aspect of cross country in high school and college?
ZB That race will always be one that I look back on as a great life experience as a whole - even outside of the running itself. It was the first time I had a team atmosphere in the sport of ultrarunning. I had team experiences in high school and college, but never at ultramarathon distances. I was super lucky to be on a team that had so much talent that year. It can be iffy as to whether the top-end talent decide to target the 100-kilometer road championships. Having Max King, Zach Miller, Michael Wardian and Matt Flarety on our squad that year gave us the talent on the team to take a swing at Gold. Being able to race with those guys, get a team Gold, a sixth overall and an automatic bid into the next year’s championships was kind of a breakthrough race for me for few reasons. One of them was that it taught me how much I could push past what I though I couldn’t in the past. What helped me is that I started out conservatively relative to most people which, in hindsight, wasn’t a surprise to me. In these 100k races every year a bunch of people go out way too aggressively for the most part and then they blow up. In the chase pack a couple people will pull up, have a great day and end up winning. I started out behind that chase pack. A good chunk of our team – Max King, and Zach Miller – were up in that chase pack. I was in something like 33rd place after the first loop. I slowly worked my race back up to the chase pack. Ultimately, I caught up with Zack Miller. Max King went on to push and break out of the chase pack. He ended up winning and breaking the American Record for 100k. When I caught up with Zach Miller, I thought he was done. He looked like he was suffering hard and I thought he was just going to fall back behind me like a lot of the guys I caught and passed at that point. But, if you ever look at Zach Miller’s racing and some of the races he’s done, the guy never is done. I talked to him and he latched on. We shared five or six of the 5k loops together passing people and we worked our way into the top ten. I ended up finishing a couple minutes ahead of him. He was ninth, Max was first, I was sixth and we got the team Gold Medal. There was so much I took away from that event in terms of learning and implementing strategies for future races.
GCR: You mentioned how you tried to break the 100-mile World Record multiple times. What was it like in 2015 at Desert Solstice where you gave it a good shot and broke your own American Record by seven minutes with your 11:40:55 time, but couldn’t quite break the World Record? Were there mixed emotions?
ZB It’s interesting and I think that mixed emotions are the best way to describe it. I broke the American Record that day and ran my personal best time so its hard to complain about running faster than I ever had before, But, in the same breath I had this goal to run 11:28 or faster and I let that slip away from me. I think the part that stuck in my mind the most between that race and the one I just did is that, when I got to mile 80 at the Desert Solstice in 2015, Jamil Curry, the Race Director, told me I had to average seven minutes flat in order to break the World Record. My average pace at the time was about 6:53 per mile, so I didn’t even need to match that. I needed to hold on to seven flats and I couldn’t do it. When he told me that, I knew I wasn’t going fast enough and would have to speed up. I tried to for a mile or two and had a few good laps in there but, ultimately, I just couldn’t push through and keep that pace. I had a host of 7:30 and 7:40 minute miles during the final fifteen miles of that race. I let the World Record slip away but hung on to improve my American Record. Having that experience and knowing I had that opportunity right in front of me every time I chose to think about it between that race and this last race was very motivating. It was something I used to keep the pedal down, so to speak, this year at the Pettit Center.
GCR: Another race which many Americans know little about that is huge in the sport of ultramarathons is the Comrades marathon in South Africa that is about 56 miles long. Alberto Salazar is the only American man to win while two American women, including Camille Herron in 2017, have been victorious. How was the experience of racing in 2016 at Comrades and finishing 32nd in 6:05:32 or about 6:30 per mile? What are your takeaways and was it a good race for you?
ZB I have so much appreciation for that event. For people who know very little about ultrarunning, if they want to identify the most competitive race in the sport, its tough to pin something down since it is apples to oranges when we’re talking about races up in the mountains to road races and everything in between. There are six-day races down to 50k, so it gets a little tough. I think Comrades produces the best body of actual talent. To be able to experience that – the best way to describe it is that it is like a big-city marathon. Now they get north of twenty thousand runners but, when I raced it, the field was capped at twenty thousand runners. The disappointment in that race was I had couple hiccups in my training that didn’t let me do the work I wanted to do to optimally prepare. But, being able to go there and experience it, see the way it rolled out before the race, the race itself and everything logistically about it was good. I do want to go back there and to take a swing at that race. I was happy with the experience and I got out what I could from the training that I did leading into it. But, ultimately, I think I can get there more fit and take a swing at a top ten finish at Comrades. I’ll go out on a limb here since you mentioned Alberto Salazar being the only American man to win Comrades and say that Jim Walmsley will be the next American man to win the Comrades. Sorry, Jim – I’m putting the pressure on you!
GCR: Amidst the ultramarathon racing, in 2017 you dipped down and ran the Des Moines IMS Marathon in 2:32:48 which was good for sixth place. Did you do any specific training for that race or was it a fast tempo run for your ultramarathons?
ZB That was a tune-up race for an ultramarathon. That year I had my only significant injury since I started ultrarunning and it was in early 2017 that I had a very minor stress fracture on my sacralilium that set me back with five to seven weeks of basically no running. So, I lost my first half of the season. I started building back up to prepare for a few races in the fall and winter and Des Moines was the final capstone workout before I started to taper. That was a fun experience because 2:32 as a fitness check was very motivating to tell me that I was fit enough to be where I needed to be. I just needed to get back into a one-hundred-mile race to see what I could do after about a year since I’d run one.
GCR: We’ve discussed some of your 100-mile races on the roads and the track, but in 2018 you ran the Tunnel Hill 100-mile in a 12:08 Course Record which is also an FKT, or Fastest Known Time) for 100 miles on trails. How do you like experiencing a trail run with much more variety of terrain and scenery than a road or track and how strong of an effort was it for you to run so fast on trails.
ZB The Tunnel Hill race was a great experience. I liked the way it was set up. It’s certainly fast. It is a little deceiving because when people hear a race is on trails, they think there are a lot of hurdles in their way and Tunnel Hill clears all of them. It’s a racetrack. I had a solid day there, but I do think that, knowing what I know now after running in the Pettit Center, I could pace better there and get a decent amount under twelve hours. It was cool to run 12:08 and it was a good, solid race for me that helped me catapult into some other races. I want to go back there and see how fast I can run on that course.
GCR: Over the years you’ve won around thirty ultraraces – how exciting is it in general to be approaching the finish line after hours of effort for another victory?
ZB It’s almost indescribable. When I look at it holistically and how much work I do in training to prepare, and then the lengthy duration of the event itself, it is a great relief to cross that finish line and to know I don’t have to keep pushing through the pain. When there is a win or a record to go along with it, that helps to motivate me for the next race. I like the feeling of having good races much better than bad races, but I also learn a lot from races that don’t go according to plan. That helps shape me for those races where I cross the finish line and know that I left it all out there.
GCR: Are there any other memorable races we haven’t discussed that stand out for fast times, or coming from behind to defeat a particularly strong foe or tough weather conditions or terrain?
ZB I learned a lot this year when the first half of my year was dedicated to trail racing. I was peaking for the San Diego 100-mile and, if I hadn’t run the race at the Pettit Center, that race would have been the best executed 100-mile race I had run just from a tactical standpoint. I ran it conservative enough in the beginning that I was able to take advantage of the cool temperatures that were presented near the end of the race when the sun set. I moved up from second place around twenty or twenty-one minutes behind Chris Haimes at mile 62 to 65 and took the lead at the last aid station at mile 91 before I won by a couple minutes. It’s always interesting because it’s hard to imagine in a 100-mile race that it comes down to minutes or the final aid station. Being able to work my place up after Chris took the lead at mile twenty and my focus on sticking to the plan and what I thought was sustainable for my own performance and then to take the lead and hold on was a great learning experience in how to pace the strategy and pacing of a 100-mile race. I used that experience at the Pettit Center to go about that race.
GCR: As you were racing, you inevitably had a handful of DNFs. How hard is it to abandon and is there just a point that competitors reach in some marathons, ironman triathlons and in ultramarathons where there is a decision to be made as it becomes unhealthy to continue and one’s health is more important than trying to finish?
ZB We always want to be thinking about our health and we want to be thinking about our longevity in the sport as well as our goals in the sport going forward. There is a time and place to take a ‘I’m finishing at all costs’ mentality and then there are times where it doesn’t make much sense. When we get into some where they are similar from year to year, like a structured, timed event on the track, to gut out a race for a finishing time or position that isn’t necessarily going to do you any favors is a situation where it is better from a professional standpoint to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to cut my losses now so I can train better and prepare for something down the road.’ Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and what their goals are for the future in the sport. I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer. You just have to be honest with yourself.
GCR: In training and in competition it often takes someone to bring out our best. Who are some of your favorite competitors or teammates from high school, college and now as an ultramarathoner for their toughness or ability to push you to another level?
ZB One that sticks out that is closer in my mind because it was this year was crewing and pacing my wife at the Western States 100. She was working hard and inspiring me. I was also inspired to follow the men’s race to see how that all shook out. I live relatively close to Jim Walmsley and Jerrod Hason who are two of the best ultrarunners in the world. Those guys put in a couple of massive training blocks leading into Western States. As it is, as a result they basically redefined what it is to run fast at Western States this year. Being able to be at that event and watch and to see their hard work pay off was a huge catapult for me in my build up to the Pettit Center race as far as my training plan and strategy going in and feeling it was time to execute it. Whenever I can have people showing me that it is a realistic approach or an approach worth considering, it helps me to feel I’m not out on an island.
GCR: You’ve been coaching online since 2012 and have also coached middle school and high school kids. How have you found coaching to be, do you feel you are growing as a coach and how tough is it to coach people of varying levels of talent, motivation and time to devote to achieve their goals?
ZB I like the variety I find in online coaching at the individual level because I’m exposed to people with very different likes, lifestyles and obligations. I coach people from those who can devote as much time as they want for their training program or event to people who are very busy with family obligations and who have a very finite number of hours or minutes each week to train. I like the puzzle solving aspect of working with a person, their particular likes, their specific goals and trying to find the best forward path. This removes the monotony of ‘here’s the plan that works the best, use it and get the results.’ Maybe a plan on paper may work the best, but I must adjust for someone’s lifestyle that doesn’t fit that plan. So, we must figure what gets someone as fast as they can given their goals and lifestyle that is the best move.
GCR: What do you do as a High School and Middle School Track and Cross-Country Coach to balance getting kids to enjoy running as a lifetime sport while also moving toward their potential as competitors?
ZB I love working with the teenage kids because I have an experience being in that situation. I kind of have an idea to a degree of their thinking. It’s kind of cool to see them introduced to the sport and learn and find success and experience some of these things for the first time. I was able to share my insights, what I learned and to tell them some of the mistakes I made in high school that they could capitalize upon. I also went over things I thought I did right that could help them to be sustainable in the sport and to enjoy it long term. So much of the online coaching involves a variety of desires as to what each person wants out of the sport whereas with the high school coaching, I get to see the teamwork and team atmosphere and the in-person experience. It is very neat to be there and to watch the athletes at their races.
GCR: As far as future goals, you mentioned a few, but what are some races you want to go to, some wins you are aiming for and times you wish to achieve?
ZB I want to see how fast I can do 100 miles on a fast course. I think I can get a little faster still. I may be picky about when and where I make an attempt. The biggest hurdle I couldn’t control at the Pettit Center is I was making my attempt in the presence of other events that were underway. There were 24-hour and 48-hour races going on. Since I was running the shortest distance, I found myself in lane two much of the time. I can save a few minutes without speeding up by racing in a venue where I’m in lane one the whole way. With some general improvements I will see if I can get down close to that eleven-hour time, which is interesting to me. The 24-hour race distance is also interesting to me and I want to solve that puzzle at some time. I think that is an event I will be quite good at when I can dedicate some structures training toward that specific event. As far as destination races, I’m heading to the Spartathlon, a 153-mile race in Greece that goes from Athens to Sparta. It’s a very historic race and one of the more stout course records by a guy named Yiannis Kouros who has most of the timed event records including the 24-hour record. I like to see how I stack up against some of his performances. That is always intriguing to me. On the trail side I would like to get a good trail buildup, get back to Western States at some point and see what I can do on a course like that when I feel like everything is clicking in training and I’m more accustomed to that environment.
GCR: You mentioned about possibly challenging the sub-11:00 time for 100-miles. Your record is 6:48 per mile and it would take about 6:36 pace per mile to break eleven hours. What do you think you need to do to increase your strength, speed and running efficiency to run three percent faster and make a strong run at eleven hours in the next couple years?
ZB The big question that comes up about times like these is, ‘what if guys who are running 2:05 marathons come into the ultrarunning scene?’ Obviously, we would redesign the sport at that point. I think the talent is in the sport currently to run well under eleven hours. Part of that would be getting some other guys interested in taking a swing at it so we would have people out on the course with me trying to run as fast as we possibly can versus chasing a time from a different event in a different era. That would be good for a little bit of an improvement. Like I said before, having a venue that was more conducive to staying in lane one the whole way would help a bit. Just having the confidence to structure a race pace strategy at that pace of 6:36 per mile. I was closer to normalizing that with my last 100-mile race so that is another step forward from a confidence standpoint. I know I’m closer to it than I was before which helps on the mental side of things.
GCR: What would you suggest for runners who are fairly successful at the marathon distance who would like to step up to 50-miles, 100-kilometers and 100-milers as far as training, nutrition and the number of months or years they should plan on investing to become an ultramarathoner?
ZB I don’t think there is anything unapproachable about ultramarathons, especially if you are someone who has put in a lot of work for the shorter distances. It’s just different. A runner may not get the fast, intense feeling that we get at the shorter, fast events. We are out there longer, but at a lower racing intensity. What it comes down to is when we are going to put in the amount of work required for any endurance event, we want to enjoy the process, because that is where we spend much of our time. I suggest picking an event where you think the training plan is something you will enjoy regardless of the result of the race. If the thought is to do a certain training block to produce a specific result, it can get contrived. With all the options we have, it doesn’t make sense to me to train for something unless you are excited and motivated. Let that be your compass, whether for a 50-miler, a 100k or a 100-miler. We welcome anyone who wants to come in.
GCR: What are the major lessons you have learned during your life from working to achieve academically and athletically, the discipline of running, the patience of training many years at this high level and having racing success that you would like to share with my readers as the ‘Zach Bitter Philosophy’ of becoming your best as an athlete and in life?
ZB Endurance is a patient person’s game. If you get in the mindset of ‘I trained hard for six months, therefore I should get this result,’ you are probably playing it too short. Six months can feel long but, when I look back at my own experience, if you were to ask me in 2013 what year I was going to break the 100-mile World Record, I probably would have told you, ‘2014.’ Don’t look at mistakes and failures as all negative. Look at them as learning experiences. If you want something bad enough, stick to the plan, be consistent, keep putting in the work and you’ll see the results at some point. Maybe it’ll be in a year. Maybe it will be in six years.
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