In December 2016, female ultra-running in the USA hit a purple patch. Two Ann Trason records fell, Gina Slaby set a new outright 100-mile record lowering Trason’s 13:47:41 to 13:45:49 at Deserts Solstice Invitational and Caroline Boller lowered the USA 50-mile trail record to 5:48:01 at Brazos Bend. Caroline, aged 42-years is a Brit living in the USA and has only been running ultra’s for 4-years. I caught up with her to find out about this stunning run.
Ian: I’m joined by Caroline Boller and she’s Americas 50-mile fastest runner on the trails. How are you doing Caroline?
Caroline Boller: I’m doing very well thank you Ian.
Ian: So how does it feel running 50 miles super-fast and breaking a record that was set by Ann Trason, I mean come on, that pretty damn good isn’t it?
Caroline: Well it was a very good day, I was determined to have fun, it was my birthday so that helped to keep a positive mind-set, it was better day than I expected.
Ian: Yes, I mean what was Ann’s record 6:14 and change and you run 5:48:01, now, we have got a say that this is not on the same course and of course there’s many variables that come in with a trail record because the elevation gain, the type of surface that you’re running on but still it’s 50-miles and you’ve got to run it damn quick. What’s the thought process going in to a race like this, did you ever have a record at the back of your mind?
Caroline: The set up was more of a mark to see could if I go as fast as that and possibly faster on this course which is quite a fast course. I did have the record in mind, at the same time it was more of a personal challenge to me to try and see if I could get out there and just see how fast could I run on a trail surface; on a course that’s conducive to fast times. I thought I could probably run it sub-six on a good day, the trail was as described and then I got out there and was just having a fantastic day.
Whenever you go that fast in a 50-mile race or a long race like that you know there’s always a danger that it’s going to catch back up to you and I was willing to take that gamble and it paid off, and it doesn’t always work out like that but on this day, it did and it turned in to a great day because of it.
Ian: There’s so many things that come in into this type of performance and I’ve mentioned it before on my podcast and I’m going to go back to Ian Sherman’s win at Rocky Raccoon. Where the stars align, the weather’s perfect, the course is perfect, the person is perfect and it results in a perfect performance and arguably one can say that is how world records, course records, life time performance bests come. Do you feel that for you it was one of those days where everything just aligned?
Caroline: Well it definitely was a good day the conditions were amazing, the conditions can be quite difficult down there because it is essentially a swamp and even in the winter you can have– quite aside from the wild life there’s alligators and mosquitoes and things like that, which if you don’t like that sort of thing can throw you of a bit, but the weather was really good. It can be very humid there and we didn’t have a tone humidity in the air or at least I didn’t feel it, and the weather was quite cool.
It can also be quite warm even in December, so having an over cast day, a day that was very cool and was cool throughout. There was a little bit of wind for the second and the third loop course, three loops and second and the third loop we were buffeted a little bit by wind in some of the exposed sections of the course, but those sections were limited; I would say it was a total of maybe four or five miles throughout the whole race.
And so, I don’t think it affected me too much and I just enjoyed it and it’s one of those days where I just went in with a positive attitude. Like I said that helped me to overcome when it became tough, because it did get tough and I’m just thankful that it came together as it did because it’s very easy to give back all those early fast miles at the end and the fact that, that didn’t happen too much, I think I lost a couple of minutes from that last loop and that’s it. And other than that, my splits were very consistent throughout and yes it just came together well on the day.
Ian: Tell me about the pigs?
Caroline: The pigs were completely unexpected. I was running, it was in the first couple of miles and we’d just done a turn back and there quite a lot of runners at that point because we’d only just come out at the start right, and so I wasn’t the only one who was intimidated by these pigs but I could hear this noise in the brush and it was very loud, multiple animals snorting and you just don’t know what’s going to come out of the bushes. I was sort of thinking, no what could this be, I’m expecting it to be wild boar which is quite a bit bigger and has horns, they are much more aggressive and instead it was these pigs, they were wild pigs but they came out and they were maybe a dozen or so of them.
They came out right in front of me on the trail, just a few feet away and they streamed across the trail – stunning! If I had been there or if anyone had been there they would have completely been wiped out by this stampeding heard, but at the same time there’s part of me going, “They are so cute.” There were little baby piglets in there too, so cute. It could have been quite a different story from my racing day because you could still hear them in the brush even after the main group had passed and I thought no, I’m just going to have to chance it and go for it and I did and I was lucky enough that I did not get taken out by the pigs, I don’t think anybody did which is excellent news.
Ian: Brilliant! I was reading your report about the race and one of the things that interested me was in the latter stages of the report, you said that you felt as though there was always another runner in front of you and that you were running in second and chasing that runner, and that other runner may very well have been Ann Trason. Does visualization and mind games play a big part of getting a good performance out of yourself.
Caroline: It definitely does! The races where I am very mindful of keeping a positive attitude and of reinforcing that, in my mind I keep saying things to encourage myself and to tell myself that it’s going well – just keep at it! I sat to myself. ‘just stay there you don’t want to lose all that ground.’ Having that visualization of weather, a real runner or not, so, in this scenario I was just visualizing Ann Trason in front of me, and just following her lead which was quite fun.
In the end of the race I had a runner behind me, I passed him at about mile 45 and I was imagining that he was close on my heels and going to pass and I thought it would be quite fun to finish the race first overall, that was definitely motivating for me as well.
Ian: That must have been Michael? If I remember correctly, he was running the 100-mile race but dropped down to the 50?
Caroline: He had dropped down a couple of days before the race as he had come down with a cold, on the day he raced the 50.
Ian: On a course like this where you’re coming across other runners, how helpful is that in terms of motivation as well?
Caroline: Well the nice thing about a loop style course is that you do of course see a great deal of people. There are quite a lot of out and back sections from the course as well and you would see a lot of the same runners as you’re going around and they were all very encouraging, it makes it much more interesting! Instead of sort of just having a flat expansive road or trail, there was always something to be anticipating, I’ve got an aid station coming up here, I’m going to see my crew here, look I’ve seen that person again and they are having a strong day it’s good for them, try and encourage them on and there was always something to look at, always something to keep my mind engaged which was great.
Ian: What I find interesting is you consider yourself a rank amateur but you just set this time and that would indicate the opposite. How does that fit in your mind set?
Caroline: Well it is very hard for me to reconcile it too because I came to running later in life. I didn’t start until I was about 38, so for me it’s just been four years of plugging away. I feel that I’m only just sort of getting a handle on how to do it properly and I still don’t think I have a lot of it figured out. I mean I have yet to have a successful 100-mile race. I’m always optimistic that there’s a lot of better races still in me and I can perform better. Maybe it’s more of a personal view of myself that I’m never quite satisfied and I always want to be pushing for more.
I also see so many of these amazing women out there and of course the men too. Sometimes they make it look so effortless. Sometimes they get it right all the time and I don’t. I mean, I have races where I’ll have a good race and then I’ll have a bad race. I don’t have a ton of consistency. I do still think of myself as somebody who’s working out. I’m not quite there yet.
Ian: But in running terms you’re still in primary school, aren’t you? Because you’re only running for four years.
Caroline: Yes, that’s the hope [laughter], because I’m also 42, so you never know. At some point age catches up with you but then you see runners that are running well into their late 40s, early 50s, mid 50s and beyond. They’re so inspirational, so I know there’s more life in the legs yet.
Ian: I think age is just a number. There’s a point where you do go over a certain point and then you will get slower, but I don’t think at 42 that you’re not past the opportunities of achieving better results. You’re coached by Mario Fraioli, what does that bring to the package and how much do you learn from him?
Caroline: Well, Mario has a wealth of experience at all distances. He’s traditionally been someone who has focused on marathon and below distances with his athletes, but he also coaches ultra-runners.
The thing that appeals to me about that is that I’m keen to continue my progression on the speed end of things as well as on the endurance end of things. Mario is good at making sure that both of those aspects are covered going into any race. I feel like I don’t lose a ton of speed even when I’m training for something like a 50-mile, or 100K, or beyond that – the speed is there and it just takes a little bit of another thing if I want to then run a marathon or a 50K or something that requires quite a bit more speed and turnover.
Ian: In terms of the training that he gives you, does it look very much like a marathon training plan or do you feel as though it’s an ultra-training plan?
Caroline: Well it depends what I’m training for because I do still run marathons. When I’m training for a marathon, it is a very classic training cycle for a marathon, although I’m not very good I have to say at timing my marathons. I rarely take the opportunity to fully get me dialled in for a marathon. I tend to sort of jump into these things, and he goes, “Well, you’ve only got six weeks, so there’s not that much we can really do but we can try.” I think he’d probably love to see if I could plan it out a bit more. I am impulsive sometimes and just feel like racing.
Mario does work with me on that. But then when I’m training for an ultra, like when he was training me for Western States, the training is completely different. I mean I’m out there doing almost exclusively doing hilly, or trail runs, and lots and lots more elevation. Just even an emphasis on hill repeats climbing power, that kind of thing. Just very different, it looks very different than a marathon training cycle.
Ian: A good proportion of speed work and endurance work?
Caroline: Yes, definitely! I always keep the speed work in there. Even when we’re training for something like Western States, the speed work is always in there. It just looks a little bit different. For a marathon, if it’s a flat marathon that I’m training for, then he wants me to try and get the maximum leg turnover and speed that I can, so I’m going out and try to find the fastest surface that I can do it on. Whereas if I’m training for something like Western States, that’s not going to help me that much, so I need to do that type of work on the trail or on a hilly road, something that pushes me to maintain leg turnover at the same time as packing climbs and combining those two aspects.
Ian: When we talk about an endurance side of your training, what’s a longer run for you?
Caroline: If I’m training for something like 100-mile, usually I’ll try and get a 30-mile (ish) training run in there but I’ll also probably jump into a 50K and possibly 100K as well in advance to sort of get those miles in my legs. It’s not like I’m going out every weekend and cranking out 28, 30 miles. That’s just too much. We must pick the right times to do that in the cycle that is going to help me to progress. But if I’m training for something that is shorter, I mean, I didn’t anticipate doing Brazos Bend the 50-miler, or JFK 50-miler which I just did three weeks apart… I did these only on the back of the fact that I had a disappointing World Champs for the 50K road in Doha.
I knew the fitness was there. I sort of just had a long run in Doha… I had an asthma attack and it was awful. I believe in that fitness and I knew it was there, but even that training I wouldn’t say was ideal for what I tried to do both at JFK and at Brazos Bend. Again, probably if I plan these things out a little bit better maybe I could possibly improve. I don’t know. We’ll see!
Ian: You are being very modest because you were second at JFK, running 6:32. Like you say, you were at the 50K World Championships. It may have not gone the way that you wanted it to, but the point is you were there and you were representing your country. I think your best result at Western States was eighth, is that right?
Ian: Eighth at western states. A lot of people would be going, “I was eighth at Western States,” and, “I’m eighth at Western States.” I would probably be more impressed with your eighth at Western States than maybe your 50-mile run, but that maybe is just the geek side of me.
Ian: Western States being Western States. Where does that fit into the big picture? Because it’s fantastic to run a fast 50-miler and to beat a legend like Ann Trason. Of course, that moment in time is now documented and you will be remembered for history of running as being the person to the set that time. But also, the geeky ultra-running side of me and the ultra-running world would be impressed with a WSER 8th.
Caroline: Well yes. For me personally, and I am thrilled to have been in the top 10 because every year that race is incredibly competitive. I mean, the women who run that I have the utmost respect for, and at the same time I am always wanting to get the best performance out of myself and I don’t feel that I’ve had that on that course yet. I feel like I’ve had a very disappointing last 20, 25 miles both times that I ran it.
Particularly this year, it was a very difficult pill to swallow because I felt good. I ran a slightly more aggressive race than I had the year before. I came in well ahead of where I had been the year before at Forest Hill. I mean basically I passed a lot of the ladies’ in the Canyons and I was in third place… for something like 40-miles of Western States.
I thought this is coming together for me and then it just all fell apart. I just found that I didn’t have anything left. I don’t know if that’s physical, mental or a combination of both but I’m not satisfied with the way that those last miles went for me and I’d like to go back and do it better.
Caroline: That’s something to me personally, that I’m not happy with. It’s nothing about the other ladies, you know?
Ian: Where do you go from here because you finished 12th at Western States this year. Your automatic qualification is not there; you’re going to have to go to a golden ticket race and get an entry. So how does that work? Is that a priority for you to pinpoint one of these golden ticket races and get a place?
Caroline: It is, but probably not for 2017.
Caroline: I have realized that I am trying to do it all in a year and every year that comes around, I race everything from half marathons on the road, to 100-milers.
Caroline: Maybe I would be best served by focusing and spending one year, being a bit more specific about what I’m doing, and then come back to the trail so I feel that I can probably have a better performance. I’ve never done a 100k on the road so I’d like to do a 100k on the road. I’m mulling over whether I jump into Comrades because I think that’s always been a bucket list to me and I think it would be fantastic and suit my skill set fairly well, and then also I’ve got this bee in my bonnet about trying to run a sub 2:40 marathon. I think I can but I think I can only do that if it hasn’t been a year working focused on trail running. I don’t know what my 2017 calendar looks like for sure, because as I said I’m always one who jumps into something based on how the last race went. I’m bad at planning these things.
Caroline: But I sort of feel like 2017 would be a great year for me to focus on a little bit more similar type of races and then focus back on the trail maybe for 2018 and see if I can have a fast race.
Ian: You’ve been 3rd at Bandera before, so that’s obviously gone well. I think what you’re saying makes sense to me and I used the term before that you’re primary school runner in terms of running. What I mean by that is you’ve only got four-years of running and of course to run well, and to run in the way that you want to run for a 100-miler takes a little bit of time and even though you’ve placed well at States maybe the transition to go into top five does mean you need more running of different types before you can nail Western States?
So, with 2016 at an end it certainly sounds as though you’re not quite sure what your targets are for this year so what happens now in this period? Is it just about recovery, speaking with your coach? Maybe looking at the calendar and deciding how to bring your training together and setting those A-races for next year?
Caroline: Yes. I will talk with Mario and we’ll go through some ideas. I’m sure he’s got some ideas as well but I know he always sort of wants to hear what excites me and what gets me fired up. Then he’ll tell me if he thinks that if I do certain races maybe they’re a bit too close together or maybe I should pick 2 out of those 3 to do, or something like that and sort of help to shape it for me. He also knows that I quite like doing races close together in a block. Like three close races together in a row.
Usually by the time the third one comes around my body is ready for it and that’s often where I have my best performance so that’s something that I like. It’s a bit unusual, some people focus on one or two big races a year and they want to make sure there’s plenty of recovery in between, but that’s something that works for me. For the time being, I’m taking it very easy now but I’m quite keen to get back to it because I’m feeling alright, you know. My body’s recovering quite well.
Ian: Yes. Well you have good weather in California?
Caroline: Yes. California, we’re very lucky it’s always lovely here. I don’t mind running in the rain though, the rainy days I find it very refreshing. So, I’ll probably still be out there doing reasonable number of miles and maintaining fitness. But maybe, maybe not as focused as it has been the last two months.
Ian: Okay, so I’m going to finish off with a question. I’m glad you’re not sitting opposite me so you can’t throw anything at me. [laughs]
You’ve just broken an Ann Trason record and Ann Trason won the Western States 14 times. Any chance of you going to Western States and getting 14 victories?
Caroline: No, I don’t. No! No! I have so much respect for Ann. I honestly don’t think that anybody is ever going to repeat that. It’s just an outstanding accomplishment. And I don’t even think there’s a chance. If I ever was lucky enough to have a strong podium finish at Western States I think I’d have to hang up my hat and say, “thank you very much. That was lovely.” I’m onto new things now. Love the race. Absolutely love it. I will always want to get there and support runners, volunteers whatever it takes to be part of it but boy! The dedication to win fourteen times. Oh! Wow! Just absolutely awestruck by that.
Ian: Caroline it’s been excellent speaking to you. Many, many congratulations on this record. I hope you manage to sit down with your coach, sort your year out and I hope to see you back to Western States and see you move up the ranking.
Caroline: Thank you very much for having me Ian.
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