Endless loops and broken records: “It’s pure ultrarunning”


Aleksandr Sorokin sprinted the first loop of the race in 5 minutes and 40 seconds. It was January in Tel Aviv, and Sorokin – who is widely regarded as one of the best ultrarunners in the world – was just getting started. Over the next 12 hours, Sorokin would circle that 0.9-mile road loop again…and again…and again. He didn’t stop until he had completed 120 laps and broken two world records.

Along the way, as he gazed at the same skyscrapers, passed through the same pit stations, and rode the same competitors over and over again, he felt the same boredom and frustration that often accompanies such mind-numbing races. and the body. He’s heard of other runners who claim to achieve a meditative state on these runs, but he’s never found it. Instead, he practices what he calls “radical acceptance.”

“There is only one word to describe the last hours of a race: torture,” he said. “Time seems to go slower. The laps seem to get longer.

In return for his suffering that day, he broke his own 100-mile world record, cutting his time to 10 hours 51 minutes 39 seconds from 11:14:56 a.m., and extended his distance record by 12 hours at 110.23 miles from 105.82. Sorokin averaged a blistering — and hamstring-tightening — pace of 6:31 per mile for those 110 laps. That equates to over 32 5Ks under 21 minutes and almost four marathons under 3 hours.

And he thinks he can run even faster and further.

“I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been,” Sorokin said in a video call from his home in Lithuania in January. (His brother, Maksim, translated from his home in Denmark.) “Being the world record holder is very important to me, but my main motivation is that my results keep improving. I want to see all the more I can accomplish.

Sorokin’s results are part of a recent revival of road and track ultrarunning. With world records falling almost every year, more and more people are paying attention to these extreme endurance events.

In 2018, Camille Herron, an American runner, lapped a 400-meter track at Central High School in Phoenix 650 times in 24 hours, breaking the women’s records in the 100-mile (13:25) and 24-mile races. hours (162.9 miles). . In February, she broke her own 100-mile road record with a time of 12:41:11. In 2019, another American, Zach Bitter, circled a 442-meter track 363 times at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee to break the men’s 100-mile world record that had stood for nearly two decades. Later this year, he will return to the same course to try to break Sorokin’s new world record.

“It’s a really exciting time right now,” Herron said. “The focus was on the trail, but my heroes were all road runners. This group of people who are breaking records right now, we are bringing them back to the fore. It’s pure ultrarunning.

Although most people associate ultrarunning with trail races like the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the sport.

“The Original Western States were established in 1977, and their marketing led many people to believe they started the sport,” said Davy Crockett, an ultrarunner and historian who runs the Ultrarunning History website. “But racing on roads and tracks has a much longer history, and recently there’s been a resurgence. On the trails, all you can really do is set course records. But on the roads and tracks, you can set national and world records, which is attractive to many elite racers.

The history of the 100 miles goes back at least to the 18th century. In the 19th century, endurance competitions between “pedestrians”, as they were called, were extremely popular. PT Barnum, the famous circus promoter, used competitions to keep spectators at his famous racetrack at night, after the day’s shows had ended. In 1882, a crowd of 10,000 gathered at the original Madison Square Garden for an event and saw Charles Rowell set a 100 mile record of 1:26:30 p.m., which would stand for over 50 years.

When Sorokin started ultrarunning, he never imagined breaking world records. His father, Sergej, who coached Lithuanian Olympians, raised him to be a competitive canoeist, and Sorokin stuck to the sport until he suffered a shoulder injury at age 18. years. A decade later, he was 30 pounds overweight, smoked and drank.

He started running in the summer of 2013 to improve his health and signed up for a marathon. But he struggled with training. He wanted something more, something bigger, or maybe something longer. One day, while walking in a park near his home in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, he saw a flyer for the Baltic Cup 100 kilometer race.

Two months later, Sorokin crossed the finish line of the race in ninth place. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t walk for a week. He covered the 100 kilometers – about 62 miles, or about two and a half marathons – in 8 hours, 37 minutes and 4 seconds. The runner in first place that day, Gediminas Grinius, had set a Lithuanian record with a time of 7:07:19. When Sorokin saw this result, he wondered how anyone could run so fast. Then he wondered, “Why couldn’t I?

For runners chasing records, road and track racing offer big advantages. Surfaces are flat and predictable, and athletes can wear so-called super shoes, which are plated with carbon and have been shown to improve marathon times. Official clocks are always in sight and refueling stations are never more than a turn away.

“On a trail, you are in nature and you feel a lot of stimuli. On the track, those barriers are removed, which opens your mind,” Bitter said. “I liken it to doing a sensory deprivation tank. You can achieve an almost meditative state because you don’t have to worry about tripping or taking a wrong turn. You are just locked in your body.

Removing these barriers allows runners to pursue record times that some in the sport never thought possible. But there are compromises. If everything is under your control, then you can interpret anything wrong as your fault – and if you’ve been running non-stop for 10 hours or more, something is wrong. “If you’re going up a hill slowly,” Bitter said, “you just blame the hill. If it’s a trail, who’s to blame? He’s noticed it’s harder to get out of a thought loop negative when stuck on the literal loop of the track.

And while the clock’s constant presence allows for precise cadence calculations, it can be as much a workhorse as it is a tool. “The flats and the rapids are a lot more mentally taxing,” Herron said. “On a trail, you immerse yourself in nature. It’s funny. On a track, it feels like a mouse on a steering wheel. It’s like you’re in an experiment with that clock right there. The clock can be your friend, but it can also be your enemy. You can instantly see how much each mistake is costing you.

These runners go to great lengths to minimize their mistakes and breaks. During her world record run in 2019, Bitter took just three bathroom breaks, in a portable toilet just off the track, for a total of 120 seconds. In his last races, Sorokin went even further. Rather than stop, he grabbed an empty water bottle and peed as he continued running. (“It’s actually pretty hard to relax enough to pee,” he said.) Herron’s approach is even more drastic: Before a run, she rubs herself with an anti-chafing cream . During a race, she pees freely.

Herron – who holds a world record for the fastest female marathon in a superhero costume – handles the boredom of ultramarathons by focusing on the fun of running. And it’s enriching its experience by expanding its nutritional options beyond energy bars and sports gels. On 100-mile runs, she drinks cola, ginger beer and even regular beer – though she’s discovered that anything over 6% alcohol volume can be problematic. During 24-hour runs, she likes to eat Taco Bell around 6 p.m. Bitter, meanwhile, tries to keep everything on a predictable schedule so he can find himself in that meditative state for long periods of time and forget about the pain.

When Sorokin suffers during these final stretches of a race, he tries to reflect on how far he’s come – literally and metaphorically. Less than ten years ago, he had never run a competitive race. And now he’s poised to become one of the best ultrarunners in history. He likes to imagine the faces of the people who have supported him along his path – his wife, his brother and even his compatriots. He wants to give them something to be happy about. And he wants to give his fellow road and trail ultrarunners something to chase, even as they run in circles.

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