When he was a self-described decent distance runner at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Zach Bitter always approached his weekly long run with joy rather than trepidation.
To Bitter, longer equaled better. He savored the long run, never considered it a chore.
No surprise, then, that in his post-college running career, the 28-year-old high school teacher from Madison, Wisconsin, has discovered ultramarathoning best fits his talent and his taste.
"I knew I liked to go out and run a long time, because I love running,'' he said. "So it was intriguing to find a sport where that was the cornerstone – seeing how far you can go.
"It's definitely been exciting to find my niche.''
Bitter is one of about 70 or so runners who this week inside the Alaska Dome are racing for extended periods of time – for as much as 24 hours, or 48, or, reflecting the name of the event, for Six Days At The Dome.
Tuesday afternoon, as many of the 48-hour and six-day runners ran laps counterclockwise on the indoor track – every six hours, runners change direction on the track – Bitter recounted his strong performance in running 100 miles on Monday.
Bitter covered those 100 miles in 12 hours, 8 minutes, running from about 11 a.m. Monday to 11 p.m. He came up short of his own American record for that distance on the track – Bitter clocked 11:47:26 for 100 miles at the Desert Solstice in Phoenix in December. In that Arizona competition, he also set a world record, organizers said, for greatest distance run – 101.66 miles – in 12 hours.
Ultrarunning Magazine named Bitter's 100-mile performance in Arizona as its Outstanding Male Performance of the Year.
Bitter believed he had a strong shot at his 100-mile record here, but stomach problems derailed that, particularly in the final 30 miles.
"I think I stopped about 20 times to go to the bathroom, mostly after 70 miles,'' Bitter said. "Assuming everything went perfect, I think I could have gone in the low 11:20s.
"I was feeling good, my legs were feeling good. It was my gut, that's the frustrating thing. My legs were there, ready to cooperate, but my gut wasn't cooperating.''
Bitter said he doesn't have a history of stomach ailments in ultramarathons, so he believes complications likely stemmed from something he ate leading up to the race.
In any event, his performance here remained strong work in preparation for the world 100-kilometer road championships in Doha, Qatar, in late November. Bitter qualified for that race by winning the U.S. championship at the Mad City 100-K in Madison in April, when he covered the 62 miles in 6:44:03.
As a traditional track runner, Bittner was a 15-minute guy in the 5-K (3.1 miles) and covered 10-K (6.2 miles) in 31-plus minutes. He's run a 2:31 marathon, but distances longer than the 26.2-miler is where he has excelled.
Bittner has only been running ultras for four years, but he's already won 10 races of 50 kilometers (31 miles) or longer.
And although his stomach bothered him Monday, Bittner was encouraged his legs felt so good during his 12-hour race.
"That's the silver lining,'' he said.