Zach Bitter is the latest American ultrarunner to burst on the scene with a big performance.
OK, so most runners will never run 50 miles in one fell swoop, let alone think about running 100. That said, ultrarunning — a running discipline that accounts for any distance longer than a standard marathon — is growing rapidly, both in the U.S. and worldwide. While most participants catch the bug for uber-long races as their next bucket list goal in life, at the sharp end of the sport, it’s all about performance and new stars are emerging almost on a monthly basis. Throughout the year, Rob Krar turned in monumental performances, ranging from a new record across the Grand Canyon and back, winning the UROC 100K and winning The North Face 50-Mile Championships. In November, unheralded Zach Miller won the JFK 50-miler in Washington D.C. in a near-record time. This month it’s Zach Bitter, a 27-year-old high school teacher from Madison, Wis., who last weekend at the Desert Solstice 24 Hour race in Phoenix, set a new American record for 100 miles (11:47:21) on the track — averaging 7:04 per-mile pace the entire way — and a new world record for the furthest distance ever run in 12 hours (101.66 miles). [Also of note, Pam Smith set the female U.S. and world 100-mile track records — 14:11:26 — at the same event.] Bitter has several solid performances under his belt already, including a win at the Nov. 2 Chicago Lakefront 50, where he ran 5:12:36—the sixth-fastest 50-mile time in U.S. history.
We caught up with Bitter, a self-professed “mediocre to average” collegiate 10K runner for NCAA Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, to see how this bearded, 5-foot-9, 140-pound guy with a good-but-not-great 2:31 marathon PR could set the record books on fire while running 400 laps around a track.
How can running 400 laps on a track not be anything but an overwhelmingly monotonous task?
It was a new experience to me. I have raced on the track, but never an ultramarathon. I did a training run once on the track that was 17 miles, but 17 miles — that’s 68 laps — is not nearly as big as a mental or physical distance as 100. I was just trying to stay in the moment. I didn’t want to think too far ahead. If you start thinking 400 laps or 100 miles, you kind of get a bit overwhelmed by it. I had an idea what I thought I could do and part of that was a goal of breaking the American record. I did some math before, and figured out that if I hit about 1:44 per lap, that would be about 5-hour, 50-minute pace for 50 miles, so that was the range I was aiming for.
I started going around the track at about 1:44 per lap and in the beginning it kind of felt like I was holding back and I didn’t want to feel like I holding back, so I did speed up a little bit. But I was conscious not to dip too far below 1:40 per lap, knowing I had a long day ahead of me. Once I got into a rhythm of what it was like to run between 1:40 and 1:44, I kind of stopped paying attention to my splits for a few laps, just so I wouldn’t overwhelm myself with too much information. I would spot check every once in awhile to see if I was still on pace.
How did you stay focused for 12 hours and also stay on pace?
I was always trying to look for something new to think about or to shoot for because for me it wasn’t necessarily the fatigue in my legs as much as it was the mental aspect of the event. Once you get far enough into the race, the harder it becomes to hit the split you want to hit. If you don’t consciously focus on hitting that, you’ll slip back a little bit. I ran with an iPod after mile 50 and listened to music off and on for the rest of the race. I had pretty much everything on there from AC/DC to Air Church to the Beastie Boys. It was a pretty diverse collection of music.
When did you know you were on world-record pace?
Yeah, it was interesting how that played out. I knew I was on American record pace all day. After I got to mile 60, 70 and 80, I would do math in my head to kind of kill the time. I would always try to think, “The worst-case scenario is that I can finish this amount of distance in this time and in the best-case scenario, I can finish this amount in this time.” I was pretty sure I was going to get under the American record unless I really started to fall apart.
The race organization (Aravaipa Running) plugs in all the records for various distances, so if a runner is on pace for that record, it will pop up on their screen. They knew I was on pace for the American record all day and then the 12-hour record popped up when I was around mile 80 or so, but they didn’t know how soon they wanted to tell me because they didn’t want to get me too excited too early and have me start running too aggressive.
But when I got to mile 91-ish, the race director, Nick Coury, came up to me and said, “If you keep this pace, you’re going to finish well under the U.S. record for 100 miles and if you keep going for at least one mile after that, you’re going to get the world record for the furthest distance traveled in 12 hours.” That was assuming I’d move at a pace faster than something like a 12-minute mile for that last mile. So that was a huge mental boost, because at the time, my splits were actually kind of creeping up for a while—into the 1:50-1:51 range. But when he told me that, it was kind of a huge mental boost because it gave me a new goal, something new to focus on. Immediately after that, my splits went back down to 1:42-1:44 per lap just from the news he told me. That’s what helped me finish so strong.
After I finished 100 miles, I kept running to set the world record for 12 hours. I think I eventually stopped at 11:59:15. I don’t know why I did that. I thought it was at 12:00. Had I known, I certainly would have kept going for 45 more seconds. But I guess in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal.
You follow a unique diet protocol called Optimized Fat Metabolization or OFM. Explain how that works and how it plays into your training and racing.
I’ve been following OFM for about two years. It’s a program started by Peter Defty. It really revolves around the concept of when you’re training, you eat a high-fat, lower-carb, moderate-protein diet and you try to use carbohydrates strategically. If I’m training a ton, I’ll eat a lot of carbs, but still lower than what you would traditionally expect from a distance runner and then you really key in on the fats as the primary source of fuel. Then when I’m racing, like I did last week, if I bring back the carbohydrates, my insulin receptors are incredibly sharp and responsive to it. The day before a race, I’ll tend to eat a fairly big breakfast and lunch and then go a little lighter in the afternoon or evening. For example, the night before this race, I had some steak chili and a sweet potato and cottage cheese.
What was your fueling strategy? Did you ever have any struggles out there?
I came through mile 97 or 98 and started getting a little lightheaded, and I think it’s because I hadn’t been fueling quite as aggressively in the previous 10 miles because I was getting kind of close. I just took in some simple sugars really quick and it went away and then it was smooth-sailing for the last few miles. Usually I’ll use gels during ultras, but this was actually the first ultra where I didn’t take a single gel. With my higher fat diet, I will bring back the sugars on race day and take some gels, but I usually don’t need quite as many gels as most runners because my system is really good at metabolizing fat. Some of the stuff I did focus on were banana chips — a good mix of a simple sugars and coconut oil, which is a medium-chain triglyceride that’s a pretty good metabolizing fat. And for the real simple sugar simple sugars, I drank Gatorade and even Mountain Dew at times. I had a few handfuls of potato chips to get a little bit of salt in my system, and then at the very end, I had a handful of M&Ms to give myself a bit of a sugar boost.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
I have a lot of double-run days. I get up in the morning and run and then usually run again in the afternoon. When I hit peak training, I’ll hit in the 150-mile per-week range. I’ve reached 190 before, but I typically average between 120 and 150. I also do a lot of plyometric exercises and core strength work. I’m not afraid of the weight room either. I’ll do Russian dead lifts and squats. Typically I don’t do huge weight, but I do a fair amount of strength training.
You set your records running in a pair of Skora Form minimalist running shoes and ran the Chicago Lakefront 50 in a pair of Skora Base. Talk about why you like minimalist shoes so much?
For me, my general rule of thumb is that I want the shoe that is relatively low to the ground and one that has less than a 10mm heel-toe difference. Typically, I like a shoe that gives a little more feel for the ground, at least on the roads. I like shoes that will allow my foot to flex and allow my foot muscles get a good workout so they stay nice and strong and don’t get weak from too much support, and that’s why I like Skora shoes.
How did you catch the ultra bug?
In college, I noticed that I got a little better as the distance got longer. I kind of had a thought about doing an ultramarathon some day, but when I got out of college I did some marathon training. My marathon debut was a 2:36, which was exciting for me. I thought I’d focus on that for a while, but I had some bad luck with the marathon. For instance, I ran a marathon in Illinois where I ran 2:31 but had to run into 30-mile per-hour headwinds and ran an extra one-third of a mile. After that, I did my first ultra and did well and I just kind of fell in love with it and started doing more.
What are some of the biggest differences between training for a marathon and for an ultra-distance event?
It’s definitely a different mindset. It’s hard to compare. It’s almost like comparing 100-meter dash to a 5K run. But it’s more than that. There’s no telling if you can run an awesome marathon that it will translate well to running ultras. There are so many things that come into play. Fueling is a huge part of it. Your gut becomes really important, just as much as your legs are. You have to be able to fuel properly or you can fall apart really quickly. The mental aspect is also huge and so is your physique. Some of elite marathoners who are really light are walking a fine line with their power-to-weight ratio just to be as fast as possible. But in ultrarunning, that really changes. You have to be a lot stronger and sturdier than what you need for a 5K or 26.2 miles, especially if you’re running on the trails or in the mountains.
What’s your view about the fast growth of ultrarunning?
It’s definitely been an interesting sport to be a part of in the last few years because it’s been growing so fast. The thing is that you have the trail ultras, mountain ultras, road ultras and track ultras. They tend to get combined into one sport, but I think that’s kind of goofy. If you look at a sport like cycling, you have road cycling and mountain biking and you wouldn’t ever compare those two things. That’s kind of how I compare a mountain and a road ultra. They’re totally different and not many runners can compete at the highest level in more than one area. It’s getting competitive enough now that you have to pick one or the other. For me, living in Wisconsin, we don’t have big mountains, so it’s really easier for me to train for the flatter road races now.
So what’s next?
I did two 50-milers within eight weeks of the race. I can’t say for sure whether I was 100 percent for this track event. It definitely wasn’t my “A” race for the year. I’ll be excited to take another swing at it and see if I can go faster somewhere down the road. The 2014 Mad City 100K in Madison on April 12 is the U.S. national championship for 100K next year, and that’s the main qualifier to get on the U.S. team that will compete at the IAU 100K World Championships next October. The course for that is really right in my back yard, so I’m hoping to do well in that race and make it on that team. That’s my main goal. I’ll also do the Ice Age 50-mile race here in Wisconsin, which is the last race of the Montrail Ultra Cup and if I do well there, I could earn an entry to the Western States 100. [Bitter was 15th at Western States in 2012.] Not in 2014, but some year I’d like to do the Comrades Marathon in South Africa because I think 56 miles on roads would play to my strengths. And then I’d like to do the Badwater Ultramarathon some year, but that’s unbearably hot and it has a lot of climbing in it, so I won’t be doing that this year.
What would you recommend to runners who’d like to try their hand at ultrarunning?
It’s really dependent on the course you want to do. I would have them get a gauge on what their ability levels are and what their goals are, including how much time they have to train. But my biggest question would be about what kind of course and distance they want to run. Definitely longer long runs or at least back-to-back long runs are big staples for training for ultras. So if you want to get into ultrarunning, you’ll have to commit to that kind of training. I do advocate for speed work while training for ultras. Sometimes that gets neglected, but I think it’s something that can really help you improve performance.