Ultrarunner Zach bitter creates ‘a work of art’
Wisconsinite sets U.S. 100-mile and world 12-hour records
Sunday, February 02, 2014 6:38 AM
Zach Bitter’s run at the Desert Solstice Invitation Track Meet in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 14-15, 2013:
An American flag and a U.S. record - as well as a world record - await Zach Bitter at the end of his 100-plus-mile run at the Desert Solstice Track Invitational in Phoeniz, Arizona, in December. PHOTO BY ARAVAIPA RUNNING
• One hundred one miles.
• Seven minutes, four seconds per mile.
• Four hundred ten laps around a 400-meter track.
• Each lap within seconds of the Madison, Wisconsin, resident’s goal pace.
• A new American record for 100 miles (11 hours, 48 minutes, 27 seconds) and a new World Record for 12 hours of running (101.66 miles); the latter surpassing a standard that stood for three decades and set by a running legend.
In the days after Bitter raced that ultra “work of art” on the Central High School Track in Phoenix, the 27-year-old school teacher from Middleton, Wisconsin, struggled to put his achievement into perspective. The numbers boggled the mind.
Then came this statement, from one of his students in the Middleton-Cross Plains School district, which struck home: “There are seven billion people in the world and you did it the best of all of them.”
“It was one of those things, it clicked for me,” Bitter said. “In the sense of all the people who have tried this throughout history .... There’s a sense of awe to it.”
True to his humble and thoughtful nature, Bitter quickly added the caveat that only a small number of people throughout history have pursued records for running 100 miles or running for 12 hours. He may be the best in the world in a unique niche of his sport.
“I wouldn’t compare myself to LeBron James,” he said.
Steve Prefontaine might be a better comparison, especially given his oft-quoted philosophy: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Bitter’s version of that mantra offers a glimpse of what compels him to run 150 miles a week, to get up at 4 a.m. to run 10 to 12 miles on Madison’s bike trails before heading to work, to research and follow an unusual diet, to sacrifice time fishing or socializing in order to train and commit himself to being the best, not necessarily in the world but in his own mind. In the past three years, he estimates he has logged 17,000 miles.
“If it’s something I find important or fascinating, I don’t want to look back and say, ‘What if?’” he said. “If I try my hardest or do my best and I’m the fifth fastest or the 10th fastest; if I know I did everything I could to get there, I can accept that. Even if I was the fastest, but only gave 90 percent, I would ask how much faster I could have gone.”
And Bitter is confident he can 100 miles faster.
He’s still something of a newcomer to the sport, having run his first ultra in the fall of 2010. His victory at the North Face Midwest Regional 50 mile race on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail planted the idea in his mind that he could be good, that he could compete at the highest level of the sport. A victory the following year at the Door County Fall 50, in a time of 5:26:52, further fueled and sharpened his ambitions.
“The Door County Fall 50 happened to be the fastest 50 miler in 2011,” he noted. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m good enough that I think I can compete with the best. I can do six of these a year and win a couple of them. I can be relatively competitive at the top end.”
A deliberate approach
Compelled by his success, Bitter immersed himself in the sport and a diet that would make his body a fat-burning machine. He listened to podcasts, researched scientific papers and committed to filling his caloric needs with fat, protein and small amounts of carbohydrates. Fats make up roughly 50 percent of his daily calorie intake while training.
That dietary approach reduced inflammation and recovery time and prepared him for a sublime run of success.
Over the last three months of 2013, Bitter raced to the highest level of ultra running. He finished second in the USATF 50-mile Road Championship at Tussey Mountainback on October 20, came back 13 days later and posted a record 5:12:36 at the Chicago Lakefront 50 mile – the fastest American time over that distance in 33 years.
Fit and confident, Bitter decided to sharpen his training in order to challenge the 100-mile record at the Desert Solstice, an invitation-only track event created to produce record-setting performances.
On November 23, he completed a 17-mile training run on the outdoor track at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He ran each of those miles in under six minutes, 40 seconds and finished with mile splits of 6:02.50, 5:43.88, 5:49.61 and 5:16.02.
In the zone
Bitter took to the start line in Phoenix with 21 other runners, a plan and confidence.
“When I got on that line, I fully anticipated to have in 12 hours that American record, barring some big thing happening. I started out watching my splits.”
He targeted a pace of 1:44 per lap, knowing that would put him in position to break Jon Olsen’s U.S. record for 100 miles (11:59:28, set just last September).
“I was under record pace all day,” he said. He kept reminding himself to “keep going, keep going. You can handle this pace all day. It might get monotonous or boring, but you can do it.”
Rich McKnight, a financial planner and veteran of 31 ultra marathons, hosted Bitter in Phoenix and crewed for him on the track. He had a close-up view of Bitter’s run, which he called “a work of art.”
“I cannot wrap my mind around how Zach and Jon Olsen and some of these people run like they do,” McKnight said. “His time for each lap was almost dead on for nearly 102 miles. It is staggering, as mind-boggling as the distance itself. It is borderline unbelievable and it would be unbelievable if it wasn’t strictly documented.”
McKnight continued: “It did not look like he was pushing his maximum ability, and I’ve witnessed other record-breaking runs. This was different. His running form was the same from the first lap to the very last one. He was super focused the whole race. He was in a zone and he just stayed in that zone.
“He was digging deep from miles 85 to 92, and you could see it on his face. His stride and his pace were the same, but a little bit of a grimace on his face went away when he learned that if he doesn’t blow up he could break a world record. There was no facial expression. It was almost like he crawled back in his mind. ‘Here’s what I have to do and I’m going to do it.’”
In awe, McKnight added, “His ability to be so focused every single lap and make it look effortless is ... I don’t want to say superhuman, but an anomaly in today’s running. You can go back 30 or 40 years. It’s not supposed to happen.”
Fuel and focus
McKnight described Bitter’s fueling on the run as equally stunning. He ate only banana chips and potato chips from small cups, augmented with Vespa Ultra Concentrate and Vespa Junior, two liters of Mountain Dew and 100 ounces of Gatorade and, around mile 98, handfuls of M&Ms.
That was his only wobble: a few moments of light-headedness that signaled his body desperately needed sugar.
“He just ran by the main aid station, swooped his hand down and grabbed what he could get,” McKnight described. “Whatever his hand hit the first pass is what he was going to eat.”
Bitter said he broke the run into small segments, with an unwavering focus on that pace. He described it like shooting a free throw to win a game, blocking out everything else, concentrating only on the task at hand.
Around mile 50, he flipped on his iPod and listened to a mix that included AC/DC, Eric Church and Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. He said he didn’t think about all the miles to go, but instead counted down four-lap increments. When his miles reached the 90s, with the American record within comfortable reach, race officials told him the World Record, one that had stood since 1984, was within his grasp.
“I tried telling myself, ‘I do this all the time,’” Bitter recounted. “I asked myself, ‘When has a seven-minute mile hurt me?’”
He slowed to a walk with 45 seconds left to 12 hours. Wrapped himself in a U.S. flag and took in his achievement: 101.66 miles to surpass the legendary Greek ultramarathoner Yiannis Kouros’ record of 100.68 miles. (For perspective, Kouros has held every men’s outdoor road world record from 100 to 1,000 miles and every road and track record from 12 hours to 6 days.)
“I was ecstatic,” Bitter said. “It felt like the first time I could actually stop and let my brain stop thinking. Before that it was constant processing, processing, processing. I could flip this switch off.”
In an interview in 2012, a few weeks before he won the Ice Age 50, Bitter told me his long-term goal was “to become a highly-ranked 100-mile runner.”
Bitter has clearly achieved that status. And he has new goals. He wants to break five hours for 50 miles, to win theU.S. 100K Championship and to compete for the U.S. 100K World Championship Team and to break his 100-mile record.
“I think I felt good on that day and got everything out of my body on that day. But I could show up for that race in better race-specific shape; Do a lot more track simulations type things,” he said.
Just as important to Bitter is to secure his place, not among the seven billion people in the world, but among the people in his sport. More than being known as the best 12-hour runner, “I’d like people to think that I’m a good ambassador for the sport.”
Tom Held, a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, blogs at TheActivePursuit.com.