Taggart VanEtten’s goal: Be the best 100-mile runner ever
By Henry Howard
Taggart VanEtten “never expected to be a runner.”
Now, his goal is to be the “best 100-miler” ever. He broke Zach Bitter’s 100-mile world record on the treadmill in May with a 11:32:05. That’s a 6:55 pace. At 25, VanEtten is focused on rewriting history, tomorrow be damned.
“I'm at a point right now, where I really don't care about longevity,” he says. “I'm here to break world records for as little or as long as I can. I want to be the first person to go under 11 (hours).”
While his previous two races — Six Days at the Dome and Badger Trail 100 – did not fulfill his goals, he is pushing himself for blazing times at notoriously fast races later this year.
After doing the 50-miler at Hennepin Hundred in early October, VanEtten is targeting the Tunnel Hill 100-miler in November and the 24-hour race at Desert Solstice a month later.
“I've heard countless times everywhere that Yiannis Kouros' 24-hour world record is the be-all, end-all world record for ultra marathons, and that it's superhuman,” he says. “I’m going to Desert Solstice and try to get as far as possible in one turn of the earth, in 24 hours. I'm looking to be the fastest at 100 miles in 24 hours. And Spartathlon really interests me too right now. But you can only burn so many matches a year.”
From wrestler to runner
VanEtten focused on wrestling, as well as baseball and basketball, when he was growing up. In high school, he would run a couple of miles on the treadmill before school.
“Eventually my love for wrestling changed into running,” he recalls. “It was very strange how it all happened because I never expected myself to be a runner. And then my senior year came around in high school and I chose to just do cross country and track.”
He attended Lincoln College, which was ranked top 10 in the nation. But VanEtten was sidelined.
“I didn't have a great experience running,” he recalls, noting a series of calf injuries related to over training. “I actually got injured pretty quickly my freshman year. I had never experienced an injury before that. I transferred to a school back home and I got injured again when I was 20. I thought my running career was over with.”
Instead, VanEtten did his first triathlon “and loved it.” He was a competitive age-grouper in the Half Ironman distance for several years before his final race last October.
“I had probably my best race ever, honestly,” he says. “I was able to win after my chain fell off my bike. And I came back and passed the leader at mile 10 or 11 of the 13-mile run. That's pretty late in the game, but I was able to prevail there.”
Six weeks later, he ran his debut marathon in 2:37 at the Indianapolis Monumental. What is most impressive about his finishing time is that VanEtten did not train for the marathon. He only averaged 22 miles a week in 2019 for running since the bulk of his training was focused on the other triathlon disciplines.
“I figured on my worst day, I'd run 2:39, and on my best day, I'd run 2:36. And I split 2:37:32 or something like that,” he says. “I kind of wish, looking back, I would have celebrated it more because I didn't that much. I was just like, ‘Oh, I can probably run faster.’"
VanEtten placed his focus in 2020 on getting an Olympic Qualifying Time of 2:19.
“That’s a long way from my 2:37, but I knew if I had three years to really put in the work of running 100- or 120-mile weeks, that I was confident I could get there.”
In March 2020, he ran a half marathon in 1:10 and was ready for his shot at a OQT in six weeks. But COVID canceled his marathon.
He then decided to train for the Indy marathon in the fall. But in July it was also canceled. Without a marathon to train for, VanEtten ramped up his mileage from 100- to 150-mile weeks as training for Tunnel Hill.
“I really had no idea what I was doing, training for 100 miles,” he admits. “Honestly, I just kind of figured that if I held about 150 a week, just very easy mileage, it would probably get me there. I added a little more, a little more every week and I just kept getting more and more fit.”
At Tunnel Hill last year, he ran a 12:19.
“That was something I never expected,” VanEtten says. “I just kind of figured I would do this one 100 and never do an ultra again and just get back into marathon focus because there wasn't anything to do this time last year. I was trying to decide what I really wanted to do — go back into ultra or go into marathon again. But I didn't really have anywhere I could race in the spring. So I decided to set up my own race. That's when I chose to go after the 100-mile treadmill world record.”
‘It was awesome’
In early January, VanEtten once again increased his mileage from the 150 to 170 weekly miles before Tunnel Hill to 200 and then 230 to 250 during the last four or five weeks before the treadmill world record attempt. On May 1, inside a pub in Morton, Ill., he ran 11:32. “It was awesome.”
Like VanEtten, I also wrestled in high school. He recalls intense wrestling practices that went for nearly three hours.
“I would much rather go out for a 40- or 50-mile run than go through one of those wrestling practices because they harden you up, you know?” he says. “You warm up then you exercise on the mat, and then you practice, then you do full go wrestling, and then you work hard again, then you're sprinting. Oh, I can just remember leaving that gym at the end of the day exhausted. You're working every sort of muscle, the heat's on in there and you're just trying to become a tough athlete. If it wasn't for my high school wrestling coach, I don't know if I would be where I am right now. He did a lot for me. And being on that team was everything I needed at that time in my life.”
In addition to the increased benefits like strength and stamina, wrestling helps athletes build a "don't quit" mentality. That certainly pays dividends for ultra runners whether they are ascending a relentless climb, circling a track once again or cranking out the miles on a treadmill.
“When you step on the mat, you are looking down the eyes of another guy who wants to hold you to the ground,” he says. “That's very intimidating. It's something that is more intimidating than any type of run, to be honest with you. I remember my freshman and sophomore years, being scared to go out there to wrestle a guy who looked bigger than me and stronger than me. That's where the mental part in that sport and running comes along. If you don't walk up with confidence in yourself, you're already beaten before you get there.”
So far this year, VanEtten has hit the highest of highs — the treadmill world record – and the low point of a very public Did Not Finish (DNF) at Six Days at the Dome. So which did he learn more from?
“I learned different lessons at both of them,” he says. “What really sucks is the day that I ran on the treadmill. I was in shape to run 11:14, but I came in with the mindset that I was going to run between 11:30 and 11:40 as a tune-up for six weeks later. The treadmill world record showed me that I'm able to put in the work and I'm able to run the times with the top guys. It just kind of boosted my confidence a lot to show that I could do that as a tune-up for something bigger. It just proved to me that if I really learned how to train like an ultra runner, that I could find the results. When I fell short Six Days at the Dome, it was heartbreaking at the time.”
Even though the Six Days event has a small field, the fact that it is run on a track presented a different challenge than a solo run on a treadmill.
“I wasn't used to the bobbing and weaving in and out of people,” he says. “It took more mental energy and physical energy out of me than what I thought it would. And I was trying to do everything to stay alive that day. And I was pretty crushed afterwards, but I've had so many people reach out to me and tell me that the greatest ultra runners have all DNF’d.
“This was the first time in my life when I physically could not finish it.”
But VanEtten is not spending time looking backward, he’s locked in on the immediate future.
That can be seen in his approach to training. He’s pushing hard-core mileage, with rarely a day off. He’s throwing his chips on the table now.
“Thankfully, my body can handle an absurd amount of mileage,” he says. “I say this because I think I have more slow-twitch muscle fiber in my body than most of the people on the planet. I don't think it's because I have a high VO2 max, or because I'm extremely talented or anything like that. I just think because I'm able to run very easy day in and day out, just like I said, with the slow-twitch muscle fibers. And I just see it as the outlook as, at 24 I ran 12:19, then six months later, I come back and I run 11:32 at 25. You know, when you're fit, you have to go after these things and not really think about how you're going to feel in five years from now. Because maybe let's say I do hold back, but five years from now I'm not near as fit or as confident as what I am now. I just see it as tomorrow isn't guaranteed. So I'm going to give my best to try to break these world records in ultra and become the fastest flat guy in the sport.”
Maximum mileage, maximalist shoes
To get to the 200-plus mile weeks, VanEtten uses a combination of treadmill, roads and trails.
In the summer, he’ll run on roads in the morning then the treadmill later. On Saturdays and Sundays, normally one run is on the treadmill and the other run is either on the track or a dirt road trail. And the winter time is flip-flopped because it's colder in the mornings.
Even with audacious weekly miles VanEtten keeps the health of his feet in mind.
“If I ever feel anything in my legs that's funky, I banish myself to the treadmill for seven days,” he says. “When I'm outside running on the road and the concrete, I primarily wear maximalist shoes. When I'm on the treadmill, I wear a little bit of a faster shoe, like a Nike Pegasus or Hoka Clifton or something like that. When I'm outside, I wear either the Hoka Bondi or the Saucony Shift, which are both pretty maximal shoes. I do my best to protect my feet.”
VanEtten also emphasized he focuses on an easy pace. Which begs the question, “What is an easy pace for you, a world record holder, right now?”
He explained that it varies by day. The previous day, his 18-mile morning run was at a 7:12 pace. On the day we talked, his early run was a 7:38 pace.
“I don't try to force any miles during the week when I'm letting my body recover from the weekends,” he says. “I just kind of go with a groove and I just try to hold back. And I like to finish every run thinking, ‘I could have gone four or five more.’ I think a lot of people overthink as far as easy mileage goes and that you need to run specific times on your easy days or your slower days, but I just kind of go out there. I could feel really good for a couple of days where I'm running 7:00 pace for my morning runs and my afternoon runs and then I run 8:00 pace for the next few days. I just kind of go with it.”
VanEttten has heard plenty of unsolicited advice about his approach, including the idea that if he backed off 10 percent, it would give his body more time to recover and likely improve his performance.
“My take on that is I don't think anyone's been in the same position as me,” he says. “I don't go Googling for ultra marathon advice like I was when I was a young triathlete or a young marathoner. I'm in a position now where if I can handle 200 miles a week, my fitness just goes through the roof. I get faster. As long as I'm able to do my 40- to 50-mile runs on the weekends at the pace that I'm shooting for, I don't really see a problem as long as I don't feel a niggle or anything like that in my legs to run that extra mileage.”
He’s focused on hitting his workouts at his chosen specific distance and pace.
“I don't think people really understand how low of a heart rate I run these long miles at, these morning runs these afternoon runs,” he says, estimating his HR is around 125 to 130. “I get it. It's long. It's longer on the body, but in the afternoons when I'm on the treadmill, it flexes every time I hit it. So it is absorbing much of the shock. I'm running a low heart rate that is pretty much the same effort as if I were to go out on my bike for 40 miles.”
For others, VanEtten advises, be realistic and focus on easy days easy, hard days hard.
“My biggest piece of advice is to run slow and at an easy pace,” he says. “Do I think everyone should be running 200 miles a week, 100 miles a week? No, because you'll get hurt. But I think there's so much benefit and learning how to run at an aerobic endurance pace. And it's just going to pay off and you need to keep your easy days easy and your hard days hard. It's not about being consistent for one training block. It's about being consistent for four or five training blocks is when you start to see your results.”
Desert Solstice goals
When we conducted the interview VanEtten was planning on running the 100-miler at the Hennepin Hundred. Since then he has decided to do Tunnel Hill instead and the 50 at Hennepin. But his big goal for the year still appears to be Desert Solstice.
“I'm going to try to get as close to 188.7 as possible,” he says of the world record. “If I end up at 180, am I going to be upset? Heck no. I'm going to be jumping for joy if I get that far. In Yiannis's first effort, he ran 177 for 24 hours. So that's kind of my measuring stick, is to see how truly tough I am compared to how tough he was. I think on a good day I can run 180 and I think if absolutely everything goes right and nothing comes up, I can run whatever 188.7.”
He plans to knock out 100 miles in the first 12 hours. Then change shorts, shoes and socks while eating. Then he’ll adjust his pace as he aims for 89 miles.
“I will physically slow down on purpose then,” he says. “And we'll see what I can do. I know Yiannis split 11:57 for his 100-mile split on that day. We'll just see what will happen. It'll be fun until it's not fun.”
While VanEtten is motivated by Korous, he finds inspiration within.
“I hate to say this, but I always look to myself for inspiration. I don't look for other athletes to inspire me to work harder. I'm able to find the fire within myself,” he says. “As far as the overall community though, I didn't think much about it until Six Days in the Dome. Every racer was coming up to me, offering me food, nutrition, water and all that when I'm walking around the track for four or five miles. I can't thank those people enough who are there just to try and help me to get through it. Everyone there knew I was going after the sub 11 that day. And I have these people who I've never met before, and some who I'll probably never meet again, offer me words of advice as I'm puking and falling on the track. It was amazing.”
Name: Taggart VanEtten
Hometown: Manito, Ill.
Number of years running: “I started running in 2013. I switched to triathlon from 2015 to 2019. 2020 changed the focus back to running, specifically I have been training for ultra for one year. Eight years all together!”
How many miles a week do you typically run: “For the past year I’ve averaged 156 miles per week, I like 200-plus miles per week for ultra-marathon training.”
Point of pride: “I’m able to work a full time job and train like a professional runner.”
Favorite race distance: 100 miles.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Water and salt stick chews and GU gels.
Favorite piece of gear: Treadmill
Who inspires you: Myself
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Another Level by On The Larceny
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “The only pace worth running is a suicide pace.” — Steve Prefontaine. And, “whatever It takes.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
Strava: Taggart VanEtten
Facebook: Taggart VanEtten
Tik Tok: @taggart_vanetten