By Morgan Mader
Last July, having just set a new 100-mile course record at Cry Me a River, James Solomon was killing time waiting for me to finish my own race. Sitting with some friends at the aid tent, he was being casually interviewed by Runners of the Corn podcast host, Jen Heller. Banter bounced around James’ race resume and settled on his successful finish of the Potawatomi 150 earlier in the year. Jen noted that the 150’s current record holder was David Goggins, arguably one of the most recognizable figures in the sport and no stranger to testing his limits.
Without hesitation, James said :“Yeah, until I have it.”
The gauntlet had been thrown.
What followed was a year of training designed specifically to deliver on what he promised.
It takes a very specific mentality to speak with such brazenness. Goggins’ course record was over 7 hours faster than what James had run in 2022. He knew he had work to do. Added pressure mounted as the local ultrarunning community started debating whether James would ultimately accomplish it or eat his words. Runners of the Corn even went so far as to establish a wagering system in which people could donate to Goggins’ favorite charity, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, if James broke the record. Money was now on the line.
For several months, James’ pursuit was a hot topic of discussion. Trail friends, race acquaintances, and social media all chimed in on James’ training plan. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on what it would take to get this done.
If talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words, then the lead-in to this year’s Potawatomi was all action.
James chose to race more often prior to Pot, executing an extremely successful series of timed races over the winter. In January, he set a new course record at Chill Billy, followed a month later with another course record at the Bald Unyielding Twilight Trail Trail (affectionately known as B.U.T.T.T). He often trained in freezing temperatures with eye-watering wind chills. One weekend he ran 64 miles around Lake Geneva, suffering through shin-deep snow and 25-mph winds.
And I watched him through all of this.
I was there at 2:45am when he woke for his morning run. I was there at the gym working through the push-pull sled and burpee sessions. I was there in the sauna with him 5-6 days a week for 30-minute dehydration bouts. I was there getting lapped by him as we ran hill repeats up Mt Hoy. And I was also there when we discussed race strategy, hydration and nutrition plans, and recovery techniques. We’re a team. This goal was as important to me as it was to him. I was the unwavering voice of support; the drive behind what we were going to accomplish.
Race weekend always seems eons away until it's suddenly upon you; however, we were prepared. James was in amazing shape come race day, certainly ready to make a play for the record.
I typically miss the start of James’ race as I’m out running the 50-miler. I finished just before James completed his fortieth mile. Looking to maximize my available trail time, my transition from runner to crew was nearly instantaneous. James is fully capable of handling himself, but I knew my time would come.
At the start of the weekend, the weather was some of the best that Potawatomi had ever had. It was notably hot, with temperatures in the 80’s during the afternoon, and the trail was dry and runnable. Even the creek crossings were of no consequence. Race execution was going as planned, if not better. People kept asking me about James’ pace, which was distinctly fast, and whether I believed he could maintain that for the duration. If he kept it up, he would break Goggins’ record with ease.
We had pacers lined up for the final 50 miles. James didn’t anticipate needing anyone before then. Around mile 70, he experienced his first low. With his pace being so systematic and fast, we were afforded some time to troubleshoot and focus on rehydrating. It was at this time that Daniel Williams arrived. He had finished the 200-miler the year prior and was interested in pacing. He didn’t know that he was about to be recruited to run 30 miles with James.
The night flew by as fast as the miles. After that brief low, James started to tighten his pace again, growing faster with each loop. As he transitioned from pacer to pacer, all of whom were excellent at executing what I had advised, James approached his goal with more and more drive. We were like a machine, addressing nutrition and hydration needs with precision. I would only have a few minutes with James during the transitions—only a few minutes to evaluate his mood, and what he needed, and deliver some sharp and focused words of motivation and support.
“James, you didn’t train the way you did for the last year to not get this done,” I told him. “Everything has been for this moment, these last miles.”
Saturday morning was clear and crisp, transitioning into another warm afternoon. As I tracked James’ loops, the anticipation began mounting in my chest. He wasn’t just going to break the record; he was going to break it with authority.
Watching him take off down the trail for his last loop late Saturday afternoon, I glanced down at my watch. Only 24 hours ago, I’d finished my own 50-miler. Since then, I added an additional seven miles to my step total. That’s how much running around it takes to crew a champion.
With James’ entrance song picked out for his arrival at the finish line, I grabbed a walkie-talkie and headed out to find him on the course. Race Director Mike Kelsey had asked that I radio him when James was drawing near. By now, everyone knew that the record would be broken. What wasn’t known, however, was by how much?
Sitting on a log, cheering on passing runners, I had the walkie primed and ready. Mike checked in several times, and each time I reported back a negative sighting.
“You’re killing me, Morgan.” He chuckled.
“HE’S killing ME.” I smiled and shook my head.
When I say that those 30 minutes spent sitting on that log were the tensest minutes I have ever spent doing nothing, believe me.
Then, in a blink, he was there, coming up around a tree. I let out a relieved and triumphant cheer for James and immediately reported that he’s in sight. Now on my feet, I bolted up through the trail to the open field of tents that line the course up to the finish.
“HE’S COMING! EVERYBODY GET READY, JAMES IS COMING IN!”
Moments later, James was within sight. He rang the large cowbell posted for racers finishing their last loop. Wild cheering mixed with the Metallica booming through the trees. With a warm and victorious welcome, Mike Kelsey announced, “JAMES SOLOMON! The new 150-mile record holder, a record held since 2008 by a guy named David Goggins. Welcome back JAMES!”
My body was riddled with goosebumps. I ran alongside James, pulling back just enough to allow him the finish he deserved, all the while savoring the stunning view of spectators cheering and clapping and high-fiving James as he ran past. It was a hero’s welcome and my heart warmed at the sight of it.
James finished in 31 hours and 27 minutes. He cut more than 10 hours off of his time from the previous year and smashed the course record by more than 2 hours. At that pace, he might’ve lapped Goggins.
While much of the hype and publicity was around beating David Goggins’ record, it was never really about that. Goggins is an authority on discipline, toughness, and goal-setting, all of which makes James’ victory undoubtedly richer, but, in the end, it was always just about James beating his old time. James just wanted to do better than he did before. He’s simply grateful that Goggins set the bar so high.
It's just that now, that bar is higher.
A special note is due to the individuals who donated their time and legs to pacing James during this event. We appreciate you: Daniel Williams, Lily Medina, Matt Hussung, Taggart VanEtten, and Chris Allen.
Photos provided by Ralph Deene Milam (Featured Image) and Morgan Mader.