Over the last several years, the Desert Solstice 24 Hour and 100 Mile has seen a number of superhuman performances—among the most impressive feats of ultra endurance in the country and world. This year’s event was no exception, as the relatively unknown Gina Slaby circled the 400-meter Central High School track in Phoenix, AZ, for 100 miles in a new world record time of 13:45:49. Her performance broke a 25-year old record, held by ultrarunning legend Ann Trason (Trason’s previous mark was 13:47:41). In the following interview, Slaby discusses her record run, her background in marathon running, and her undefeated record in ultramarathons. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Quick & Dirty: Let’s start with your incredible 100-mile world record at Desert Solstice. You ran 13:45:49, which is 8:15/mile. How did that special day play out for you?
Gina Slaby: I went out, as planned, around 8:00 to 8:15 per mile pace, and felt great from the start, like I really was just jogging. Probably mid-way, it was getting a bit tougher, but still I was maintaining pace. At 60 or 70 miles, I was well ahead of world record pace, so I decided at that point that I was going to try to maintain an 8:15 per mile pace, or near that. So yeah, around 70 miles, I made the decision to try to get the world record instead of running the 24-hour race.
Q&D: And your initial plan was to try to run a qualifying mark for the 24-hour World Championships Team?
GS: Yeah, that was the primary goal. I knew I was going out fast for a 24-hour race, but I figured I’d scale back any time I had an increase in perceive effort. And like I said, around 70 miles, I decided to try for the 100-mile record instead of the 24-hour.
Q&D: So that was that purely a game time decision? Or was that in the back of your mind at all going in—like, “OK, maybe if I’m having a great day, I’ll chase that”?
GS: I never even thought about it. Before the race, I was aware of how fast the [100-mile record] time and pace were, but I really had no plan on aiming for the 100 mile. It wasn’t until late in the race that I changed the game plan.
Q&D: Your husband, Steve Slaby—also a competitive runner—was on-site, helping with splits, nutrition, etc., right?
GS: Yeah, he was great, providing me all the support I needed and keeping me aware of where I stood in relation to the 100-mile world record.
Q&D: I imagine it’s a unique challenge and experience to switch your goal so significantly mid-race. To not even approach the race with the 100-mile in mind. I don’t know if that would be better or worse from a mental perspective. How was the readjusting after mile 70? Was it a positive thing, thinking, “now I only have to run 30 miles,” as opposed to another 12-plus hours?
GS: Well it was definitely more nerve-wracking once I got into that final 30 miles. My big concern was that I would fade and not be able to get the world record time. Then I would have wasted my legs for a 100-miler and wouldn’t have been able to keep going for the 24-hour race. So deep down, I was thinking, I really better be able to keep the pace or it’s going to be a bad day.
Q&D: You took a calculated risk at mile 70, knowing there was a chance it wouldn’t pay off and you wouldn’t accomplish either goal.
Q&D: Do you think a 24-hour race is still something you want to pursue in the near future, trying to qualify for the World Championships next summer in Belfast, Ireland?
GS: Yeah, they pick the team the first week in April. So first I’ve got to see how I recover from this and how my legs are responding. But I’m looking right now at what 24-hour races are scheduled in February and March; so that’s the plan right now.
Q&D: You also come from a competitive marathon background, having qualified for the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, with a personal best of 2:39:35. In recent years, mainly since 2014, you’ve started running ultramarathons and trail races as well. Has your focus fully shifted at this point—do you still consider yourself a marathoner, or is it all just running to you? How do view your trajectory and focus in the sport?
GS: My first 12 years of running were focused on road races, mainly the marathon. My goal was to finish well in the Los Angeles Olympic Trials race in 2016. I had a decent race [finishing 31st in 2:43:53], but it was 90 degrees and pretty awful. I planned at that point to just move over to the trails after that race. But now, I’m thinking I may try a training cycle at some point to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials and still compete there, but the main focus will be ultramarathons from now on.
Q&D:I imagine maintaining that marathon speed will help, especially with races like you just ran. Being able to feel so relaxed at 8-minute pace must have been helpful.
GS: Yeah, that’s really key, feeling relaxed at faster speeds.
Q&D: I was struck by your past ultramarathon results as I learned a little more about you. With about a dozen or so ultramarathons under your belt, you haven’t lost an ultra yet, right?
GS: Right. I haven’t lost anything on the trails, marathon distance or longer.
Q&D: And you’ve even won a number of races outright, including the Lumberjack 100 Mile this year. Also, it seems you stepped up to the 100-mile distance pretty quickly. Aside from a brief foray into ultra distances in 2009 with a 50k and a 54 miler, you jumped straight to 100 miles with the H.U.R.T. 100 Mile in 2014, which you won. Did you just think you’d be well suited to the 100-mile distance, or did the distance itself hold a special allure? What motivated that jump from the marathon to 100 miles?
GS: It was all my husband. He loves the long distance stuff, the 100 milers. I remember after running the H.U.R.T. 100, my first 100-mile, I said I’ll never do that again. But he really likes the longer races and I like to tag along, and we’ve now done quite a few together.
Q&D: And you’re both in the Navy, right?
GS: I’m active duty and he’s in the reserves.
Q&D: Does that make training difficult at times, or is it a good fit with your running?
GS: My last duty station, I deployed overseas, and that definitely impacted my training. But right now I’m on a shore command, and everyone in the chain of command is really supportive of my running. So I’ve lucked out in the last year and a half with very little travel and enough time to do some serious training.
Q&D: Well thanks so much for taking the time to chat and congratulations again on the world record for 100 miles. And best of luck keeping that undefeated streak alive in the ultras!
GS: Thanks, I appreciate it.
Gina Slaby is based in Washington state, where she is a Lieutenant Commander stationed at Fleet Logistics Center Puget Sound. She is supported in her running by Brooks and credits her coach, Jim Felty, and husband, Steve Slaby, as being instrumental to her success.