On a cold winter morning in Phoenix, Arizona, some of the fastest ultra runners in the country lined up on a track at Central High School. The year was 2013 and the event was the Desert Solstice Invitational Track Meet. One of the athletes was a little known high school teacher from Madison, Wisconsin, Zack Bitter.
As the day progressed, and the miles ticked away, there was one runner who seemed to be moving faster than all the others. It was Zack Bitter, who continued to move through 70, 80 and 90 miles on pace to set records. In the end, Zack delivered, setting a new American record by running 100 miles in 11:47:21 and a new world record by running 101.66 miles in 12 hours.
Zach is a believer in the OFM diet and Vespa, which was developed to maximize the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel. I caught up with Zach via email recently during his busy training schedule. Here is the conversation, unabridged.
Q: Zach, tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Were you competitive as a child? What sports did you compete in?
I guess I grew up in the Midwest. At a young age my family moved from Nebraska to Wisconsin while I was in elementary school. I have lived in Wisconsin ever since. I competed in any sport I could when I was young. I found out in middle school that I could either get my butt kicked in sprints or win/podium in distance races. In high school and college I wasn’t spectacular by any means. I did well as a D3 athlete in high school, and was what I would call an average runner amongst athletes in a top tier DIII collegiate conference (WIAC Conference) when running for the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.
Q: Looking back, how did these experiences shape you as a runner today?
It has taught me the power of setting goals and working hard for them. I wouldn’t say I am overly talented, so I’ve always put in the time to reach my full potential.
Q: How long have you been running and why did you get into it?
I got into distance running in middle school. I found out when doing the Presidential Physical Fitness challenge in PE class that I was much better at distance than sprints. Like most middle school age boys, I wanted to win, so I gravitated towards distance.
Q: I know you are a teacher. Do you have a family? How do you balance running with your career and family life?
I am single, but am pretty close to my parents and three sisters. Balance is key to any training plan, but I certainly make sacrifices to be able to put in upwards of 20 hours of training per week. I strongly believe that you need to pursue your passions in life regardless of what they are. For me, that is running and challenging myself through endurance. When you really respect your passions it’s much easier to make time to fully dedicate. I think lots of people forget how to rationally detach from their job or other “obligations” in life. That is something I’ve gotten really good at. With training and racing being my biggest passion hitting the roads, trails, track, etc. becomes easy even after a long day.
Q; Its been said runners, especially ultra runners, are a little nuts. Are you?
Haha, I suppose so. I think “being nuts” is somewhat of a relative term. Personally, I think it would be nuts not to chase your passion. I guess my passion is obscure enough yet that most people would consider it a bit crazy.
Q: I’ve heard you say you are better at longer distances, which is why you gravitated to ultras. How much of your talent is mental strength vs physical strength?
I think that people range significantly in their margin of depreciation over distance. Some of this is probably genetic, but also training the systems differently. I really love training my aerobic zone, so simply by doing what I love most probably would cause me to gravitate to longer races. Mental strength or keeping a positive attitude are key in ultras. Nutrition is huge as well. The ability to push through rough patches, and keep your digestive system from limiting you is very important in the latter stages of ultra-events. I guess I am not sure if one or the other is stronger than the other. I definitely spend lots of time working on both. I think there is something to be said about practicing positive self-talk in all areas of life. It makes a good habit to remain positive even through tough times.
Q: Can you explain your training philosophy?
It is based on feel. Obviously, there are key workouts that I research, try, and morph in a way that works for me, but ultimately it comes down to listening to your body. Training really hard does you no good if you can’t recover. This differs from person to person. It’s a growing process. As a person gets stronger and more adapted to the rigors of training there training regimen can also change. This makes it best to listen to your body. If you are dialed in nutritionally, with sleep, managing stress, respecting your easy days and going hard on hard days; your body will tell you what you can do.
Q: How many hours per week do you train? Can you (briefly) break this down by workout type (base, hills, intervals, long run, cross training etc)?
I do approximately 20 hours a week when I combine cross training activities; like strength training. I really couldn’t say that there is any specific routine I follow consistently. I base my training on my A races. This usually averages out to be between 100-150 miles per week; with a bit less on taper and recovery weeks.
Q: How do you stay motivated?
Motivation is easy, because it is my passion. Finding your passion in life is big. I’m blessed to have discovered mine. It kind of makes motivation a non-factor.
Q: Do you train mentally?
Indirectly, yes. I don’t do any really in-depth meditation or anything like that, but mental strategies develop themselves throughout the whole training process.
Q: What one or two things do you believe separate you from other runners, things that give you an added edge in competition?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t always know what makes everyone else tick, or if it is similar or different than me. I definitely follow a unique diet that would be considered amongst the minority.
Q: You’ve been an advocate of the Optimal Fat Metabolism (OFM) diet and Vespa. There is a lot of literature on OFM, but can you briefly explain what this is and how this and Vespa have impacted your running?
In its most basic sense, OFM is finding a way within your person specific lifestyle to train your body to recognize fat as its primary source of fuel. It can take patience to find what each person’s specific ratios are, and planning carb use strategically throughout varying training phases, but the end result is the same. A much greater ability to metabolize fat. Vespa is nature’s catalyst in promoting the metabolization of fat. It helps you with the process of making fat as your primary fuel. Vespa allows me to optimize my fat metabolism and minimizes the negative impacts of the few carbs I do eat.
Q: Does your training diet differ from your racing diet? Please explain.
It depends how you look at it. On paper it differs greatly. I go from eating mostly fat to mostly carbs. With that said, I am taking in a significantly lower amount of carbs on race day than I needed to when I followed a high carb approach. I follow the principal of “strategic carb use” whether I am racing or in training. Obviously, when I am running all day long, my caloric demand is much different than a typical day, so the strategy of carbs usage changes.
Q: Do you ever take time off from training and racing? For how long, and how does this fit into your overall plan?
I listen to my body completely. Because I don’t generate tons of inflammation and oxidative stress by metabolizing carbohydrates constantly; I am able to recover much quicker. Baring on 8 day stint where I had a bit of hamstring injury, I have not taken a full week off in years. If you respect your easy days you have much less need for long bouts of off time.
Q: Looking back, what has been your ultimate achievement as a runner?
I would say Desert Solstice 2013. Breaking an American and World Record was pretty exciting. It also really opened my eyes to the road and track ultra-world. Consistent environment gives you the opportunity to measure yourself against time and history.
Q, What would be your ultimate achievement looking ahead?
I definitely want to find my ultimate limit in the 100 mile distance. I would love to be able to say that I know for sure I went as fast as my body would allow at that distance.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Follow your passions in life. Forcing yourself into things you do not want to do; whether it be a job or activity is not worth it.
Q: Who do you draw your inspiration from? Why?
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