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Friday, July 10, 2020

Treadmill world champion: Ultra marathoner Zach Bitter breaks 100-mile record

With all outdoor events postponed, American ultra marathoner Zach Bitter took to the fitness machine to break 100-mile record.

Written by Nihal Koshie | New Delhi | Updated: May 29, 2020 1:41:45 pm
zach bitter, ultra marathon, ultra runner, 100-mile record, athletics records, sports coronavirus, athletics coronavirus Ultra runner Zach Bitter during his successful attempt to break the 100-mile treadmill record.

An air-conditioner humming non-stop, a fan whirling for over half a day, two treadmills placed side-by-side with one running constantly at any given time, two cameras for streaming, many litres of hydrating fluid, a bag of potato chips for a quick snack, classic rock playing almost continuously. Zach Bitter needed all this and loads of willpower and endurance to break a ‘world record’ in his living room when sporting activity around the world had come to a standstill.

A fortnight ago, ultra marathon runner Zach, 34, was on a treadmill for 12 hours, 9 minutes and 15 seconds – the fastest any human being has covered 100 miles on the fitness machine – to set one of the lesser-known, but gruelling, marks in endurance running.

When tracks and trails around the world cancelled ultra running competitions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Zach decided to go for an unconventional distance record.

At the ‘finish line’, he touched a ‘tape’ made out of toilet paper by wife Nicole, the only bit of improvisation in an otherwise exhausting day on which he started running at 7 am. He had woken up two hours earlier, drank a cup of coffee and had a protein bar before jumping onto the treadmill.

Like most others around the world, Zach was stuck at home for a few months. Mid-March’s Ultra London, an event he had set his sights on, was postponed, but Zach was in the shape of his life. Rather than letting the hard work fritter away, he decided to make the best of his predicament.

“My events that I originally started training for were cancelled. The ultra event was on a 400 metre track and the treadmill didn’t feel too far away from a mechanical standpoint. In terms of the treadmill record being on my mind, I was kind of aware of it but I just didn’t have a really good spot to put it in my schedule. There are so many events nowadays, it almost seems contrived to do a treadmill event. But the Covid-19 pandemic made it a little more palatable I would say,” Zach told The Indian Express from Phoenix, Arizona.

He has completed over 50 ultra events, yet going long distances on the treadmill was uncharted territory for the experienced endurance athlete. The most he had clocked on the belt was 30 miles and in the build-up to the attempt, he ran 22 miles one evening and 21 miles the next morning.

He drew confidence from being the holder of the ratified world record for the 100-miles, which he achieved in August last year on a 442-metre track in Milwaukee where he completed 363 laps around an ice-hockey rink. It took him 11 hours 19 minutes and 13 seconds. The average temperature there was 15 degree Celsius. Zach expected it to be as cool in his room at home when he attempted to break the treadmill record. But he was in for a surprise.

Rising temperature

An unexpected rise in temperature meant Zach needed more fluids when running on the treadmill than when on the track, something he didn’t foresee.

“I basically underestimated how much water I was going to need relative to what I have in other events. In August, I was taking about 25 ounces (730 ml) an hour whereas on the treadmill I was going through 40 to 50 ounces per hour (1.1 litres to 1.4),” Zach says.

For someone who never ran on a treadmill regularly or for too long, there were many hurdles.

“It (heat) was a product of running in a stationary motion and not creating a little bit of breeze like when you are running around the track. So, I was kind of running with the body heat stagnant around me. There was also heat coming off the motor of the treadmill. So it created a micro-climate around you, which is warmer than the rest of the room.”

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At one point, the air-conditioner stopped working and the display on the treadmill blanked out briefly because the room was drawing too much power with multiple appliances and devices running – treadmills, fan, AC, camera set-up. Fortunately, using an extension chord to connect to another room solved the issue.

Zach took 50 minutes more to complete 100 miles on the machine than he took on the track. He feels it was down to the number of breaks and the miscalculation when it came to fluid requirements. “In this event, I made a mistake early on with hydration and I had to catch up on that and I spend quite a bit… like hours three and four catching up on a lot of water and electrolytes.”

On May 16, he switched treadmills 10 times, each change costing him 20 seconds, to ensure the machines didn’t burn out. In addition to this, he took five bathroom breaks, including one at 87 miles during which he ate potato chips for energy. In August last year, when he broke the record on track, Zach took just three breaks for a total of four minutes.

Monotony of a machine

Being on a machine for hours can be mentally exhausting, Zach says. Switching treadmills helped him take micro-breaks and allowed his mind to switch off and on.

“For a lot of people who are doing more ultra marathons on the trails, the lack of scenery and change will be a huge challenge to get over. But I have done six events on a track now, and the lack of visual changing wasn’t a big hurdle. But the hardest part mentally was that on the treadmill, you are kind of responding on a machine and it is following a pace. When you are running on a track, you have slight changes in pace and you seem a little more in control, whereas on a treadmill you feel a little less in control, and that kind of eats away at you after a while,” Zach explains.

To set a rhythm of his own, the endurance runner altered the speed on the treadmill unlike on a track where he runs almost consistently at one pace. “I tried to go back and forth so that there was change in the pace. It gave me a little more of a sense of control. The fastest I went was 9.5 miles per hour and the slowest was 8 miles per hour. The average speed was 8.2 miles per hour.”

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What kept him going, apart from his reserves of mental strength and endurance, was the ‘live streaming’ hosted by 30 different people. At times when he wasn’t tuned into the live streaming, Zach listened to classic rock to keep the tediousness and fatigue at bay.

By the end of the successful attempt, Zach kicked off his shoes to reveal the physical toll. “The balls of my feet were bruised completely. I don’t get that when I run on a trail or a track.”

Zach is now waiting for the world to open up and races to start around the world. He wants to have a go at lowering his own 100-mile record on the track sometime. Will he attempt to break his own treadmill record?

“The psychology of being able to stay on the machine for long periods was the hardest part. I feel if I could do it a few more times, I would get better at that but it seems to me that I needed to have breaks in order to make it feasible from a mental standpoint. I don’t think I will get back on a treadmill again anytime soon, but I think it will be useful in future events for getting a little tougher mentally. And thankfully, it is going to make the next race I do (on track or trail) a little more palatable.”

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Is 100 miles an official record?

The 100-mile treadmill record is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, while the 100-mile track record which Zach Bitter broke last August is ratified by USA Track and Field (USATF), the governing body for the sport in the country. World Athletics recognises the 100-kilometre world championship winners and records.

Longer distances well over a marathon course (42.195 km) falls in the ultra-running category. Ultra-running is held either over a particular distance, like 50 miles or 100 miles or 100 kilometres, or for a pre-set time like 12 hours or 24 hours or even multi-day events. These races are organised either on the track, most of the time 400 metres ones, where athletes go round and round, or over trails through forest tracks or even on the road. Some events combine the courses – track and road or trail and road – and also conduct the event over stages.

The International Association of Ultra Runners was recognised by the IAAF (old name of World Athletics) in 1988.

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