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Gina Slaby has won every single trail race she’s ever entered. Except for one. On December 10, 2016, she came in eighth place at the Desert Solstice 24-hour race.
The reason she came in eighth is not because she bonked, nor because she was too slow. It’s because halfway through the race she decided to switch to the 100-mile event, and break ultrarunning legend Ann Trason’s 100-mile World Record.
Slaby, now 35, was 10 years old when Trason set her record of 13:47:41 at a road race in 1991. Slaby broke that record by a mere two minutes, with a finishing time of 13:45:49.
A runner by accident
Slaby’s path to the sport began in 2005, when she joined the Navy after college. The Navy requires all officers to take a Physical Readiness Test (PRT), one stage of which is a 1.5-mile run. To pass, participants have to run the mile and a half in a minimum of 15 minutes. Nervous she might fail Slaby started training.
To her surprise, she enjoyed it. The PRT came and went, and Slaby kept running, gradually increasing from one mile to 10.
When a new officer arrived at the station, Slaby began tagging along on his training runs (spoiler alert: that officer is now her husband). Steve Slaby was an experienced runner, with a marathon PR of 2:29 and a second place finish at the 2006 Hellgate 100K to his name. Within weeks, Slaby’s mileage increased to half-marathon distances.
She and Steve were stationed on an island off the coast of Africa. “It was a tropical climate: hot, sunny, humid,” she says. “I had never trained before, so I had no idea that those were awful training conditions.”
The island measured 36 miles long, and on their longest run they covered it tip-to-tip. “I guess that was my first ultra,” she says.
A competitive streak
Intrigued by the challenge of distance racing, Slaby joined the Navy running team for the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon. “I didn’t even know what a good marathon time was,” she says. She finished in 2 hours 55 minutes, earning first-place female in the military division and fourth-place female overall.
In between postings in Hawaii, Ethiopia, Africa, The Philippines and in the United States, Slaby continued to race marathons whenever she was able, ultimately setting her sights on the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2012. When she was able to, she trained on a track. Other times she had to get more creative, as when, assigned to off-shore duty on a boat on the coast of Hawaii, she made do by running laps around the deck.
“It was all about finding my personal best,” she says. “I wanted to know just how fast I could be.”
Slaby’s husband was still an avid trail runner, and so in her spare time she mixed in a few trail races, including the 2009 Tantalus Tripple Trek 50K and Peacock 54 miler in Hawaii, the 2014 H.U.R.T 100 and the 2015 Capitol Reef 100-miler. Unlike with road racing, Slaby treated these trail races as fun experiments, with little hope other than just to finish.
She won first female at all of them.
Road to trails
After the 2016 Olympic Trials, which took place in Los Angeles last February, Slaby decided she was ready to move to trail running full time. “Marathons can be frustrating, because if some variable—like weather—turns bad, you’re going to suffer and have a bad time,” she says. “With trail running, every course is different, so it’s more about the head-to-head competition. Time doesn’t matter. What matters is who shows up.”
That spring, she went on to win first female at the Lumberjack 100, Orcas Island 50-miler and the Vermont 100.
“That was a tough day,” she says, regarding the Vermont 100. “I only had four months to train. I went out too hard and my quads got beat up at around mile 60 or 70.”
Breaking the record
The Desert Solstice is essentially an ultra-distance track meet hosted by the trail-racing organization Aravaipa Running on a 400-meter track in Phoenix, Arizona. It is a course known for records, at both the national and international level.
But a 100-mile women’s world record was nowhere on Slaby’s mind when she showed up on race day, registered for the 24-hour event. “I wanted to make the 24-hour national team,” she says. She started at an eight-minute pace, with the plan to scale back as her body started to hurt in the later stages of the race. But things never really started to hurt.
“There were some low points, where I worried if I had gone out too fast,” she says. “I worried that my quads were going to lock up, or that nutrition was going to be an issue.” The worst it got, she says, was a set of very tight calf muscles.
Around mile 70, her husband started yelling to her that she was ahead of world-record pace. So, mid-run, she decided to switch from the 24-hour race to the 100-mile race, and go for the record.
“It was a great feeling,” she says, of the moment she stepped past the 100-mile mark. “I didn’t expect to [break the national record] that morning. Ann Trason is a legend, and to even be talked about in the same sentence is a true honor.”
Slaby still has her sights on qualifying for the 24-hour national team, and making it to world championships, which will be hosted in Belfast, Ireland, in July. “I want to feel like I’ve contributed [to our country],” she says.