November 13, 2002


Alex Tilson of Burlingame, California, running mostly alone in ideal conditions on November 2, finally brought the U.S. men's 50km national road record out of the shadow under which it had been sitting for over 20 years.

The thirty-two year old Tilson, a 2:22 marathoner with his eyes on a national record, searched the country for a 50km road race with the right conditions for a record attempt.  When he couldn't fine one, he created his own, the Silicon Valley Speedster Ultra Classic, on the campus of Stanford University.  When the starting horn sounded, Tilson went to work to rectify one of the most bizarre "official record" histories in American distance running.  Two hours, fifty one minutes, and forty eight seconds later he had achieved his goal, and in the process made himself the most promising world-class American ultrarunner since the now-retired Dan Held in 1999.

Jeff Wall's 3:00:00 had stood for over 20 years as the official 50km American Road Record, despite the fact that nearly a dozen Americans had run as much as 10 minutes faster, in bona fide competition on courses that were most likely accurate.  However, for one technical reason or another, none of those marks were supported by the necessary documentation for official American record ratification (for a detailed history, link here).

Throughout the 70's and early 80's, American men dominated the world 50km lists, led by such luminaries as Chuck Smead, Don Paul, and Barney Klecker.  But then American 50km performances dropped off as alarmingly as American marathon times, trail ultrarunning became the next rage, and the 50km event almost disappeared from the American scene.

In 1999 the 50km was revived as a USA National Championship distance, breathing new life into the event.  Last year Dave Dunham broke Wall's official record by over two minutes in a race in Chicago, only to have the performance nullified when a validation measurement found the course
to be short.

One month later Alex Tilson made his ultra debut at a 50km event in Sacramento, where he came up 95 seconds short of Wall's mark.  It was then that he determined to find a venue with ideal conditions and establish his own race.

That he did, and last week's new American record 2:51:48 was the result. Tilson ran a picture-perfect race, splitting almost dead-even 5:31 miles throughout, clocking 2:24:41 at the marathon, with a slight slowdown in the last 5 miles.

A refreshingly astute observer of his own abilities as well as the American distance and ultra scene, Tilson summarized his perspective following the event:

"The race was designed to fill a void in the American ultra-running scene. There are some astounding trail runs, and plenty of solid road-runs. There are some great track runs, but we could find no road race that would allow me to run to my potential. When we analyzed existing road races, we found twenty-three different variables that could compromise a finish time goal. This race was then engineered to minimize the negative impact of virtually all of those variables. In that regard, it is a very unique race. It was designed to be an extremely focused product aimed at a very narrow potential customer base, those with eyes on the national record. Because that was our goal, how we spent our energies was very different than that of most races. I know it's un-American, but the race offers no t-shirts and no prizes," said Tilson. "America doesn't need more prizes and t-shirts, but I do believe that it is lacking for the rebirth of fast ultramarathons, properly and officially run. Record setting is always good for sport. I hope that this reinvigorates American speed-based ultrarunning. I hope that someone now rises up to trounce that pesky unofficial 50k road record [ed: Chuck Smead ran 2:50:46 in 1976 and Don Paul ran 2:50:55 in 1982, both marks unvalidatable and unratifiable] and then moves on to run in the mid-to-low 2:40s. With the right people, the right focus, and the right race, it can happen."

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