TAMPA, Fla. -- Less than two months after winning the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif., Army Master Sgt. Mike Morton traveled to Europe where he not only won the 24-hour world championship, but also shattered the United States record.
Morton, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command liaison officer, placed first in the individual category at the International Association of Ultrarunners Ninth Annual 24-Hour World and 18th European Championships, Sept. 8-9, 2012, in Katowice, Poland. He led the entire 24 hours and broke the U.S. record by running 172.457 miles. The old record was 165.705 miles set by Scott Jurek in 2010.
Morton's record-breaking run helped the U.S. men's team place third in the team championship. The U.S. women's team placed first in the team competition, and American runner Connie Gardner took second place in the individual women's competition and also broke the U.S. women's 24-hour record by running 149.368 miles. A total of 254 athletes from 34 nations competed in this year's event.
The course route was a one-mile loop through a park and was designed to be a "good, fast course," according to Morton, whose goal for the last two years has been to break the U.S. record.
"Mike's performance was simply astounding," said Mike Spinnler, assistant U.S. team leader and Morton's "crew chief," in an email.
"I've been serving on the staffs of U.S. National Teams since 1992 and Mike's performance was, without a doubt, the individual greatest effort I have ever personally witnessed by a U.S. runner in international competition."
Before the race began, Morton shared his game-plan with Spinnler: hit 50 miles between 6 hours and 5 minutes and 6:15, 100 miles in 13:11 to 13:30, and then hit 150 miles by the 21-hour mark.
"Those are good solid times that gave me enough time to still set the American record three hours to run 16 miles," Morton said. "Barring an injury, I can cover 16 miles in 3 hours by sucking it up."
The first 50 miles were the worst, according to Morton, because he chose a pair of shoes he wouldn't normally wear since half of the route was on pavement and the other half was on paver stones.
"About two hours into it the ball of my foot started going numb," Morton said. "Since it was only a mile loop, on one lap I told (Spinnler) to get my other pair of shoes from my bag and I changed on the next lap."
It took Morton another 3 hours to feel like he was hitting his normal form.
"I didn't think I was going to hit my 50-mile mark because I felt like I was struggling," Morton said. "When I went through the 50-mile split, (Spinnler) said 'The good news is you made your 50-mile mark, bad news is you made it by about two seconds.'"
Spinnler said Morton's first 50-mile split time didn't mean much to him -- he wanted Morton to be conservative in the early parts of the race.
The second 50 miles were uneventful, according to Morton, and he sped up and was able to reach his 100-mile goal early, coming in at 13:10.
At about 2 a.m., Spinnler informed Morton that an Italian runner was making a move. He had passed Morton once already to gain a lap back, but was still two laps behind. Morton said the next time he saw the Italian, they chatted while running and his competitor was asking him questions just to gauge whether or not Morton was struggling.
A short while later, Spinnler told Morton he thought the Italian was cracking -- he had sat down the last time through the team area and wasn't looking good.
"When he told me that, I was like, 'OK, I'm going to try to put a nail in the coffin,' and I cranked out three laps. He was the only guy who ever made a charge," Morton said.
At the 20-hour mark, Spinnler told Morton he was running a pace that would break the U.S. record by six miles. When Morton hit the record, Spinnler urged him to keep pushing to make a statement and put the record so far out it would be safe for awhile.
Spinnler said both the individual first place and the U.S. record were in-hand in the last two hours, even if Morton had to walk, but Morton gave everything he had for the team.
"It was at that point he pushed himself into absolute agony to try and help the men's team win a team medal," Spinnler said. "The fact that he wrenched 172.45 miles out of his body was more an end result of his desire to help his teammates and country than seeking personal glory."
A late push by the German and French teams pushed them to first and second place, respectively, and the U.S. men's team finished in third.
While Morton broke the American record by nearly seven miles, he was just over 16 miles off the World Record of 188.590 miles set by Greek runner Yiannis Kouros in 1997. Morton said he doesn't think that record will ever be broken. Spinnler said the World Record was never in play, but he wouldn't rule out the possibility of Morton breaking it in the future.
With winning three 100-mile races, the Badwater Ultramarathon and now placing first in the World Championships and breaking the U.S. record, Morton describes 2012 as his dream year.
"The icing on the cake is that I made the U.S. team and I got to (break the U.S. record) on a world stage," he said.
Spinnler agreed this was a great year for Morton -- one like he's never seen.
"What he accomplished at the 100-mile-and-above distances in 2012 is nothing short of remarkable," Spinnler said. "I've never seen anything by an American 100-mile/24-hour runner equal to what he achieved in 2012. It almost defies logic, a real testament to this incredible spirit that exists inside of Mike Morton."
Now that he met his goal, Morton said he feels like he has a "blank canvas" in front of him, and can pick some 100-mile races and "have fun with it" for several months.
Up next for Morton: the Javelina Jundred 100 in Arizona in October, the Ancient Oaks 100 in Florida in December, and the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile trail race, where he hopes to break the American trail record of 12:44.