A Midlothian mother of two ran more than 130 miles in 24 hours to qualify for the 2021 IAU 24 Hour World Championship in May.
Whitney Richman, 40, qualified in the Desert Solstice 24 Hour and 100 Mile Track Invitational, held in Phoenix, Ariz., from 8 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, to 8 a.m. the following Sunday. Her distance, 139.69 miles, puts her in the sixth and final qualifying spot on the women’s United States 24 Hour National Team.
The goal of 24-hour racing is simple — run as far as you can in a day around a flat track, optimally, without stopping.
Making the team has been a dream of Richman’s for years. She’s long excelled in what’s called ultra running — extreme long-distance running — and in 2016 ran her first 24-hour race about a year after having her first child.
It takes a great deal of mental fortitude to run virtually non-stop around a flat track for 24 consecutive hours, Richman said. It’s that psychological battle which drew her to the format.
“It’s interesting to see what you can push yourself through, and how deep of a mental hole you can get into, and then get out of, and then get back into and get out of,” Richman said.
“Because I think almost everybody has to get into and out of a couple of them in these races.”
The world championship is May 22-23 in Timisoara, Romania. Richman has qualified for the team before, but only as an alternate — she met the 130-mile threshold in 2019, but too many runners had longer distances, so she was bumped off the team. That could still happen this year, she noted — the qualifying window is open until Jan. 20.
But this late in the game, it’s not likely another runner exceeds Richman’s mark. The 2021 championship would be the first time she’s actually made the trip, and Richman is eager to finally live out a dream years in the making.
She’s also particularly grateful to attain a major goal in a sport which she said has been a foundational component of her mental health amid a trying year. Richman has dealt with panic attacks and increased anxiety during the pandemic, but the goal-oriented routine of being an elite runner helps focus and calm her.
“I’ve definitely had a lot more stress, a lot more anxiety,” she said. “It’s a lot, but the running, along with therapy, is something that has really gotten me through. It did so before, but so much this year.”
Richman has a 2-year-old, Arley, and a 6-year-old, Cole. The latter is doing virtual kindergarten, and Richman’s husband stayed home with their children so she could fly to Phoenix for the weekend.
Her husband wasn’t crazy about Richman flying during the pandemic, she said, but he and her children knew how much the opportunity meant to her. There are only so many USA Track & Field certified events at which to qualify for the national team, and the qualifying window was closing fast.
So Richman’s children watched her race on a live feed, and her husband sent her videos of them cheering her on before and during the event. Additional family and friends surprised Richman with their virtual support as well.
“I almost cried, but I was like, ‘I can’t cry, I have to go run,’” Richman said. “That was really special that they watched. So many people were watching that I didn’t know were watching and told me afterward. It meant a lot to me.”
Runners in 24-hour races occasionally take walk breaks, during which they might eat something easily palatable with salt to replenish electrolytes — Richman likes mashed potatoes, ramen noodles, smoothies or chicken broth.
“You have to force yourself to eat, it’s really hard to do,” she said. “You think about all these things that sound good before you run these races, and then when you’re running them, you don’t want them at all.”
Some people struggle with staying awake at night, but Richman doesn’t. The challenge of the nighttime portion for her was the cold and wind. And, particularly around the 18-hour mark, the constant protestations of her body became an obstacle.
“You get to a point where your body just hurts all over and it’s hard to describe. You just have to will yourself forward because you know that if you stop, you’re not going to get to your goal,” Richman said.
The allure of scoreboard watching, too, is a challenge. There’s a big board with everyone’s names, distance traveled and pace on it. Richman said it’s difficult not to look over after every 2-minute lap and see your distance and pace fluctuate, checking if you’re still on track to meet your goal.
But amid the arduous trek, Richman’s children provided some comedic relief. Her daughter is still toilet training and, around 2-3 hours into the race, one of Richman’s crew members relayed a message to her: “I’m supposed to tell you your daughter pooped in the potty,” they shouted to her as she rounded the track.
“I thought, ‘I should go out of town more often, maybe she’ll be fully potty trained by the time I get back,’” Richman said, laughing.
Her two-person crew, which Richman had never met before the race, was crucial to her success, she said. A crew’s job is to keep a competitor motivated and on track, providing emotional support in addition to handing them food, drinks and clothing. Because of COVID regulations, Richman couldn’t bring along her own crew, which is typically led by her husband.
“A runner’s race can fall apart or be made by the crew,” Richman said. “It’s a team effort, a runner cannot do it themselves.”
The recovery process after a race is quite painful, Richman said. Her entire body is sore for days on end, and her feet are swollen for a time. It takes days for her sleep to normalize as well — upon returning home to Midlothian, she couldn’t exactly take a day to sleep and recover.
No, after flying across the country to run nearly 140 miles in 24 hours, it was “right back to being Cole and Arley’s mom,” she said.
The balance of being a mother and world-class athlete can be overwhelming at times, Richman said. But it’s also a cherished aspect of her life.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Even if you have children, you still need to take care of yourself,” she said. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you take care of them, right?”