Last December at the Desert Solstice Invitational in Phoenix, Ariz., ultramarathoner Pam Smith of Salem, Ore. set a women's world record of 14:11:26 for 100 miles run on a track. Clocking an average 8:31 pace, Smith, 39, cut 14 minutes from Hungarian ultra-running great Edit Bérces' 11-year old record and sliced 18 minutes off Ann Trason's U.S. record set in 1989. Smith answered 15 of our questions about the whys and hows of running long—really long.
The Active Times: What is the allure of ultras, and how did you get into running them?
Pam Smith: I accidentally ran my first ultra in 2002 by showing up at a 5-hour timed race to do a training run for the Boston marathon, but ended up running 32 miles! But I don't consider my real ultra-beginning until 2008, when I was getting back into serious running after having kids. I heard about a local trail 50k and thought it sounded like a good challenge. At the time I was putting so much emphasis on trying to PR at the marathon. I really liked the ultra because I had no time goal and the running and trails were so different than marathon running. Once you get into ultras, I think there is a drive to go longer because you want to see what else you are capable of doing.
How far in advance did you start to plan for your record-breaking 100-miler at Desert Solstice?
I had Desert Solstice on my calendar all year last year, but I didn't think I could run 100 miles faster than 14:25 [the previous world record] so I wasn't concentrating on that. I was aiming for the 200 kms [125 miles] U.S. record, because it gave me a new distance goal. I knew that distance would also be a U.S. 24-hour team qualifier.
How do you train for an assault on a world record?
I did lots of slow, long runs on the road. No matter what I am training for, I try to do long runs that simulate race day conditions. My goal was to keep these runs around 8:45 pace, but that is such a struggle for me, so most of them ended up averaging around 8:30-8:35 pace, which actually was the perfect slow pace to train for the 100-mile world record. I didn't ever train on a track, other than my usual Monday morning speed workout; road training is similar enough. I did cut my weight training back some to be a little speedier. I have a training schedule I follow, but I do not hesitate to change it or take a day off, if I need it. If I feel miserable or get to a point where I am not enjoying anything about a run, I skip it and rest instead. I think this helps me avoid injury and I have been fortunate that I haven't had to deal with anything serious. When I do get niggles, I figure out what is bothering me and then work in some exercises to correct or prevent those issues.
How about nutrition?
I changed my daily nutrition at the beginning of the year to cut out a lot of processed carbs and to limit most of my carb intake to the evenings. I also started eating meat again after being vegetarian for 17 years. My regular diet includes a lot of eggs — we have 13 chickens — and lots of vegetables at every meal. I eat a lot of white rice at dinner time.
What sort of race plan do you take into a 14-hour race?
I was planning to run for 19 hours or so and I wanted to start at [an] 8:45 pace and do that for at least 12 hours before slowing down. But I only did the 8:45 pace for one lap! I had a hard time going slower than 8:30 pace, so I just tried to hold myself to that pace.
What sort of back-up crew did you have?
My husband was there to crew. I would tell him what I wanted on one lap and then get it the next so that I never had to stop to get things I needed.
How did you psych up for the race and then keep yourself motivated during the run?
Once I decide a race is a goal race, I usually don't need to do anything to get myself psyched up. Running a race on a track is, strangely, more mentally engaging than on a trail. You have constant feedback and are getting pace data every quarter mile. At a race like Western States, I had an idea of what time I wanted to run, but I never looked at my pace or thought about how fast I was running. Around six hours in at Desert Solstice, I knew I was on world record pace for the 100 mile and a 12-hour age group world record, and that knowledge was motivating.
When did you realize you were going to break the record?
The Desert Solstice race directors, the Coury brothers, do a great job of notifying people way in advance if they are close to any national or world records. Around six hours in I learned that my pace was on track for both a 12-hour age group world record and the 100-mile world record. I felt like I was running really conservatively at that point because I was supposed to be running the 24-hour event. Even though I still had about eight hours to go, I told my husband I was certain I could get those records and I wanted to change my goals.
How do you fuel during an event of that distance?
Normally I use drink mixes and try to consume a half bottle every 30 minutes. My husband is the best crew ever, but we had a bit of a mix-up on the concentration of the drink mix that I wanted so I had stomach trouble really early on. I ran the last 10 hours on the bare minimum calories and they all came from orange soda! Though I decided to change to the 100-mile world record goal, I still had the intention of staying on the track for all 24 hours, but by the time I finished 100 miles I was in such a deficit that I just didn't have anything left to keep going. I took three quickie pit stops in the first half and none in the second half (the real reason I was able to negative split by a little more than a minute!). I also slowed to a walk a few times to get some soda down, but I didn't take any real breaks.
Anything particular you wear for a 100-mile run that you wouldn't for, say, a marathon? Any dress race rituals?
I might wear a singlet for a marathon, but due to chafing and increased sun exposure, I always wear a shirt with sleeves for ultras. For the same reason, I use A LOT of body glide and Vaseline. I don't really have any rituals, but I did choose to run in my Western States shirt to remind me of the strong race I had there and to give me a shot of confidence.
What did you wear on your feet?
I am embarrassed to answer this one. Last year I ran in Scott T2c's but I really felt the foot pounding after such a long distance. Since I was planning to run for 24 hours, I figured I just wanted the shoes I was most comfortable in. Scott shoes gave the U.S. 100-km team a few pairs of shoes last year, but since I use La Sportiva shoes for trail running, I had been using the Scott trail shoes for road training and felt comfortable in them, so I ran the track race in trail shoes! Afterwards, the shoes were destroyed! The soles had worn through two layers of rubber. Other than my big toenails, my feet felt great, but still, they are not a good choice for a track race.
What is your recovery routine after a race of that distance?
A lot of people talk about active recovery. I favor inactive recovery! I usually take one day off for every ten miles of racing. I am not a person to sit around and do nothing during those days, but I don't do any running and I don't have any set plans for anything else, like walking or biking. I just do what I feel like I want to do. I also try to eat a bit more during that period.
What's next? Will you go after Ann Transon's record 13.47.42 record for 100 miles on the road?
This summer I am going back to Western States. In December I will go back to Desert Solstice for my third track 100 miler. This time the focus from the beginning will be on 100 miles to see just how fast I can do it. I think I can do better than 14:11, especially with better nutrition and shoes! 13:47 is still a long way off for me. I don't know if I can do it or not, but I'll regret it if I don't at least try.
Any iconic runs you still yearn to do?
The Pacific Northwest has several iconic runs and I have only done the Mt. St. Helens circumnavigation. I'd love to be able to do some of the other ones like Mt. Hood, the Wonderland trail, the Sisters circumnavigation and the Rogue River trail. I've done Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon, but I'd like to do a "non-iconic" route there, spending more time running along the floor of the canyon and seeing some of the falls.
What's the biggest joy running gives you?
The sense of freedom. Even when I am just running around Salem, it is cool to think I can go where ever I want and I don't have anything else I have to attend to at that moment.