The Fastest Ever? My 50km journey inside my parents' living room.

March 5, 2021

Tyler recaps his attempt to run under the overall 50km world record in the first ever Chaski Challenge. As the organizer and a competitor in the event, Ty had a lot on his plate, but was able to pull off an incredibly successful day.

Note: Photos are by Ian MacLellan from Ty's 2015 Half Marathon Treadmill World Record attempt since we didn't have the luxury of a pro photographer for this one. Last photo is courtesy of Vermont City Marathon.

This was probably the craziest race day of my life. I woke up early to shake out and then spent most of the day putting out fires to get the Chaski Challenge up and running. We had some pretty serious problems with the stream as my computer decided not to work at all despite working perfectly yesterday morning. Fantastic.

But, we got things settled, got the stream up and running on Mr. C’s machine, and already had a few hundred viewers watching well before the start of the official broadcast.

Thus, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I headed out to warm up - less of the pre-race anxiety about my own performance and more a still gnawing worry that something would go wrong on the broadcast, that our sponsors wouldn’t be satisfied, that people wouldn’t enjoy the stream, etc., etc.

But I did a pretty good job of shutting that down. It was a beautiful afternoon as I jogged the same little loop around the neighborhood and circled back to the house. Everything was ready to go and I had plenty of time to use the bathroom again, answer some last minute logistical questions, and get myself ready.

I read a brief statement about the event in the context of the events of the week (the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder) and then it was time to go.

I set the treadmill at 11.2 mph (about 5’20/M pace) and we were off. (Actually, I think I set it at 12 mph (5’00/M) for the first couple minutes to allow the machine to “catch up” to the lag of starting from 0).

I had ambitious goals for this race, as with the event as a whole. I wanted to blow these treadmill records out of the water (both me, personally, and all of us as a group). The marks I was targeting (2h20 for the marathon and 2h56 for 50km) were both fairly quite soft and I knew it’d be no problem to hit them unless I was really having a bad day or went out too hard and blew up.

To me, the question was how far under them I could get and whether I’d be able to hold off the much more experienced (and super fit) Max King.

Partly to create buzz and partly to give myself some extra motivation, I had very publicly stated my goal was to run faster than the overall 50km world record (2’43’38). I’d told a bunch of reporters and friends I thought I could run 2h42.

It’s worth taking a second to talk about the difference between treadmill running and racing outdoors. Running at a high speed on a treadmill is - from a pure physics perspective - easier than running outside.

This is NOT because you simply have to “lift your feet up” on a treadmill. That doesn’t pass the sniff test and doesn’t make sense from a Newtonian physics perspective (look up frames of reference if you’re curious).

The actual reason is because of air resistance. When you run outside, you have to move through the air vs. running on a treadmill where you’re relatively still and only the belt is moving through the air.

One way to think about this is that when you run with a tail-wind blowing behind you, it’s the same effect. If your tailwind happens to be the exact speed you’re running (say 12 mph or 5’00/mile), the aerodynamics are almost the same as running on a treadmill, since you’re not so much moving through the air as you’re moving along with it (again, relative to the air, you’re not moving at all).

Thus, running on a treadmill is aerodynamically equivalent to running with a tail-wind behind you of the speed at which you’re running. So, the faster you go, the greater the impact. At relatively high speeds (~12mph), you can do the math and it comes out to about 6 seconds per kilometer or 9 seconds per mile benefit that you get from the treadmill vs. running outdoors (all other things held equal).

With that in mind, I set 2h42 as my goal. I knew that the best way for me to run would be a negative split (i.e. running the second half of the race faster than the first). I’ve always run my best races this way and physiologically, there’s a lot of reasons it makes sense.

My plan was to be patient. I wanted to run the first 10km a bit slower than WR pace, run from there until after the half-way point right around WR pace, and then finish quicker than WR pace. If I did this well, I knew I’d be close to that 2h42.

I passed the first two 5Ks in 16’24 and 16’31 (32’55 at 10K) and had by then settled in at 11.4 mph (about 3’16/km, right at overall WR pace). This was the “set it and forget it” part of the race.

I actually had the Chaski Challenge broadcast up on the TV screen in front of the treadmill and it was great to be able to track the others and also see my own projected pace (as well as updates from the others) as my father entered in the splits for each mile. I was on pace to run 2h45-46 for a while and then with each quicker mile, the projected pace would drop by a few seconds. I enjoyed this first 10 or 15 miles, though I was surprised it didn’t feel easier. My workouts had told me that this pace was doable for 50km and I knew from other 50K races what that first 20-30% of the race needed to feel like. I was mildly concerned.

But I had the Hamilton soundtrack going and was pretty amped up so all was well. I passed the half marathon point around 69’ and started to feel a bit of GI distress. I’d felt like I had to pee early in the race (which has never been an issue before), but tried to just stay relaxed and ignore it. Now, though, the issue was becoming more pressing and it wasn’t just an urge to pee.

Without going into too much detail, the 30 minutes or so between about the half-way point (25km in 1’22’00, 2’44’00 pace) and the 20 mile mark (32km), were pretty ugly. If it had been a road race, I honestly would have stopped and used the bathroom quickly, but the thing with the treadmill is that stopping and starting takes way longer since you have to let the belt come to a full stop and then start again from a standstill. I knew Max King was right behind me, so I made the best of the situation and somehow managed to get through it without even slowing down.

And once that was “dealt with”, I honestly felt way better. By the time I got to 35km (~22 miles) , I had pushed the pace up a notch (running that 5K in 16’12, the fastest so far) and was now running under overall WR pace. I had a great stretch from about 35 to 45 km where my stomach felt better and I was cruising, passing the marathon in 2’17’56 and getting the first WR of the day. I also saw I was putting some distance on Max, so as long as I held it together for another 25 minutes or so, I’d at least have the two WRs and maybe my coveted 2h42.

I got to 45km in 2’26’50 (that 5K in 16’06). This was huge for me as it meant I didn’t even have to speed up anymore to break 2h43. But something changed in that last 5K.

I started to feel extremely hot. I think I must have passed some critical threshold of heat generation as all of a sudden I could feel myself overheating and my heart-rate skyrocketed. Just hold it together for 15 more minutes, body!

I shouted to my dad to grab me a cold towel and some ice and that helped, but I couldn’t get my HR down. I seriously went from 100% sure I’d break 2h43 to unsure I’d be able to finish in a matter of minutes.

It wasn’t until I got a very, very cold squeeze bottle of ice water and was able to douse my head, soak my long, curly jewfro that I finally started to calm down. I was counting down the 400m laps that my treadmill displayed (125 total), then the minutes.

As I passed 30 miles, I knew I’d be able to make it. I even kicked up the speed a couple more notches but I was still struggling to keep my body temperature down and my muscles from cramping.

Finally, the display passed 124 laps and then it was one more 400m; I knew I could tolerate anything for 400m. I counted down the seconds and it was all over.

The final time: 2’42’51.

AFTERWARDThis event was much bigger than me and my performance. And this is really the first time since the race (8 days ago now), that I’ve thought that much about my own experience. Most my memories have to do with last minute installation of streaming software and trying to figure out why people couldn’t join the broadcast Zoom call.Still, I wanted to write this because it was a special night for me. I know that my 2’42’51 isn’t worth 2’42’51 outdoors. But It was still an outlandish goal that I proclaimed very publicly ahead of time, one that I wasn’t sure I’d hit and one where I knew I’d face a lot of very public ridicule if I missed.Nailing our goals always feels good. And that’s why my race was special to me and why this entire event was so meaningful. Not only did I hit my personal goal, but we hit every single record we went after as a group: 8 for 8. My run has been called the “fastest 50K ever run”. Will I call myself a 2h42 50K runner? Do I agree w/ that label?It deserves a huge asterisk for sure. I think of it kind of like the 2011 Boston Marathon when the runners were aided by a 20-30mph tailwind and Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop ran 2h03 (under the then-world record). It was the fastest marathon ever run, but everyone who followed the sport understand that it was a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison.Mostly, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to push myself on a big stage and come out on top. I’ve had some rough races under pretty bright spotlights over the years. And while those fuel the fire for next time, there’s nothing sweeter, no reward more satisfying, than redemption.

— Tyler Andrews

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