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On December 10, Caroline Boller of Solvang, California, set a new national trail 50-mile best time at the Brazos Bend 50-miler in Needville Texas. The 42-year-old ran the course in 5 hours 48 minutes, besting previous record holder Ann Trason’s time (6:14:51) by more than 25 minutes. Trason, an ultra running legend famous for winning first female at Western States 14 times, still holds course records at many of the country’s most prestigious ultras. Her national 50-mile best time had remained untouched since 1994.
Over the last two years, Boller has racked up top-10 finishes at races like Western States, Way To Cool 50K and the JFK 50-miler. Last March she won the USATF 50K Championships, earning the title of Masters American 50K Record in the 40-44 age group. But many people have probably never heard her name.
Finding the Trails
Boller started running just four years ago, at the age of 38. A stay-at-home mother of two then-toddler boys, she “had never run more than a few miles.” But when her husband started venturing onto the trails behind their northern California home, she got intrigued.
“He would come back so happy and refreshed,” says Boller. Craving an outlet of her own, Boller started running on a treadmill in the garage. She kept a baby monitor in the cup holder so she could hear when her two sons woke from their nap.
“I felt like dying after half a mile,” she says. “But I continued to build up.”
With the encouragement of her husband, she eventually switched from the treadmill to the trails and, soon enough, began trail racing.
From Spectator to Competitor
The turning point came in April 2013, when Boller took a field trip to the finish line of California’s competitive Lake Sonoma 50-miler.
“I hadn’t even run a marathon yet,” she says. “Fifty miles seemed impossible.”
But as she watched runners pass through the finish arch, she was shocked to discover that they all looked … fine.
“No one looked like they were going to keel over and die,” she says. Realizing that 50 miles was an attainable distance, Boller immediately turned her thoughts to running a 50-miler of her own.
“I really enjoyed my time on the trails,” she says. “I figured, the longer you go, the more time you get on the trails, the more enjoyment you get.”
That December she ran San Francisco’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50K. In February 2014, she ran the Sean O’Brien 50-miler. In April 2014 she returned to the Lake Sonoma 50, this time as a competitor. She placed 10th female.
“When I started to have good results at races it made me want to come back and see if I could do better next time,” she says. “I’m pretty much never satisfied and always think I can do better!”
In search of her physical limits, Boller put together a string of top-10 finishes at ultras around the country: fifth female at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 in San Francisco, third female at Texas’ Bandera 100K, first female at Arizona’s Black Canyon Ultras 100K.
In March 2016 she won the USATF 50K Championships at New York’s Caumsett 50K, earning a Masters American 50K Record.
Eye on the prize
The idea to break Ann Trason’s best national 50-mile trail time came relatively last minute. Boller had just returned from 50K World Championships in Doha, Qatar. The race hadn’t gone as planned.
Fifteen kilometers in, she felt her pace flag. “My legs were strong,” she says. “I just couldn’t catch my breath. My lungs felt small.”
She knew she was having an asthma attack. She’d had had one once before, four years earlier. She continued to race, against the advice of her coaches.
“I was there at the World Championship, all the way in Qatar,” she says. “I wanted to finish.”
Finish she did, in 3 hours 52 minutes, roughly a half-hour behind her goal pace.
“I was audibly wheezing,” she says. “My fingers turned blue.”
Since she hadn’t run at race pace, Boller returned home feeling like she had a surplus of fitness. She didn’t want to waste it.
Eight days after returning from Qatar, she toed the line for Maryland’s JFK 50-miler. On a relatively flat section towards the middle of the race, Boller found herself sinking into a brisk, comfortable rhythm.
“That got me thinking: if the whole trail was this flat, how would I do?” she says.
Searching for flat 50-mile races, she came across the Brazos Bend 50, a race run on a 16.8-mile loop of crushed gravel and packed dirt. If she maintained a 7-minute-10-second pace, she could break six hours.
Boller started the race strong, running the first several miles at sub-seven-minute pace. But “can I sustain [that pace] for 50 miles?” she wondered. Indeed, between mile 37 and mile 40 her pace began to flag.
“Luckily, I had a good cushion from the beginning,” she says. All she had to do was push hard to stay at goal pace.
Boller was “pleasantly surprised” when she crossed the finish line in 5:48:01, 12 minutes faster than her goal time, 26 minutes under Trason’s record and with a nine-second course record. [Editor’s note: the course had been changed slightly since 2014, when Ford Smith set the previous course record].
“The course only changed to re-route around some areas with standing water due to heavy rains the week prior,” says Edward Sanchez, of the organizing group Trail Racing Over Texas. “The changes didn’t make [the course] any faster or slower than prior years. The truth of the matter is that Caroline Boller is super fast and came out determined to kick ass, and she did just that.”
Next on Boller’s bucket list: besting her own Masters American 50K road record.
“I’d like to run under 3 hours 20 minutes,” she says. “I’m still progressing and learning and improving. I think my best races are still to come.”