The buzz among ultra-nerds this week has been all about Mike Morton and his jaw-dropping, American record-breaking 172.458-mile performance at last weekend's International Association of Ultrarunners World 24-Hour Championships in Katowice, Poland.
Morton, a master sergeant in the Army, won the gold less than eight weeks after a scorching win at the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif.
[Also sporting a Team USA uniform this month: Air Force Tech. Sgt. David Perez competed Sept. 2 in the duathlon world championships, finishing 11th in his age group and 134th overall.]
A field of 248 competitors started at noon Poland time on Sept. 8 to run as many loops of a 1,554-meter course as possible in 24 hours. Morton's 172.458-mile distance — about 8 and a half minutes per mile — earned him the win and crushed Scott Jurek's 2010 American 24-hour record in the process. Morton finished nearly ten miles ahead of second place Florian Reus of Germany.
Update: Greek runner Yiannis Kouros holds the World 24-hour road record with 290,221 meters (180.33 miles), according to the IAU. Kouros also holds the 24-hour track record with 303,506 meters (188.59 miles).
Morton's win in Poland tops off of a banner year for the 40-year-old. Besides winning Badwater, he's also won -- and set course records at -- the Long Haul 100-miler (13:18:58), the Umstead 100-miler (13:11:40) and the Keys 100-miler (13:42:52).
I called Mike this morning to
completely geek out talk about the race. He credits a lot of his success to an injury-free year of good conditions and well-planned training.
"Everything along the way has been maxed out," Morton said. "I mean, in my mind when I was planning it I was like, alright, well I'll do these 100s as long training runs. Winning wasn't the goal, it was just go there and make the most of it. I'm elated that not only did the plan work -- I was able to get the American record -- I set some other records along the way. I think it would be tough to have a better year, to have something that would top it."
In 2011, Morton posted 163.9 miles at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour in North Carolina, where he ran virtually unchallenged -- second place Joe Fejes finished over 30 miles behind him. But last weekend in Poland, Morton was running against an elite field, which helped push him.
"The atmosphere was totally different," he said. "It was all about competition."
"An Italian runner was only two laps behind me and started to gain on me during the night; he was looking strong," Morton wrote in an earlier email. "Mike Spinnler, the JFK 50 [race director], was my crew and coach. He fed me numbers the whole time. The Italian guy started to get in my head because he was right there for so long. Eventually Mike told me that he came in looking rough and stopped for a while. I knew I had to put him down and made an effort to look strong and upbeat every time I came through the aid station. The Italian was unable to continue and he faded away, then I had a solid five- to six-lap cushion. Mike kept the focus on the American record and fed me the numbers. I ran based off of how I felt but I felt better hearing him tell me where I was!"
Morton said he's been focused on the 24-hour championships for over two years, and now that he's won the race and bagged the American record, he can set his sites on a 100-miler personal record.
"Right now, I think I'm at peak fitness, and I attribute it to the the series of races and the distances. So, I think if I go into recovery mode for a couple weeks or a month, and then go into a maintenence mode, I think I could have a good 100," he said. "In the other 100s -- and even Badwater -- in the back of my mind there was always a little bit of hesitation to push it at times, because I knew the goal was Sept. 8. I think now I could take a no-holds-barred approach and be a little risky toward the end."
How risky? Morton set a new 100-miler PR last weekend -- with a 13:10 split -- and then ran 72 miles more.
"If I go in with the mindset of, 'Hey, get the first 50 under the belt in the normal time, and then push it,' I think I can shave some time off that."
Does Morton think he can break 13 hours?
"That's my goal," he says.