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Calum Neff on his newly minted Canadian 50K record

Last month, Canadian runner Calum Neff accomplished a goal that was years in the making. At a race in Houston, Texas, near where he is now based, Neff set a new Canadian record for a 50K run at 2:51:27 beating the previous record of Andy Jones by nearly two minutes. 

Get Out There spoke to Neff about his record-setting run. 

What did it take to finally get this done? 

There's a lot that went into breaking this long-standing record, both in the short-term of training and also creating the event from the ground up due to no other events happening, as well as the long-term of over 32 years of running myself.

When did you first start working towards this?

This was my fourteenth 50k race, which started at the Creemore Vertical Challenge in Ontario in 2013. When I debuted there at my longest run ever, my first time running over 32 kilometres, I broke the course record in 4:01. They said sub4 could never be done and I returned the next year running 3:25. I edged closer to that three-hour mark over the next few years while my marathon time also went from 2:35 down to 2:22, then finally in 2019 I went under three at a trail race and later that year a 2:57 at the World Championships in Romania while competing for Team Canada coming 16th in the world. That's when I thought it was possible. Then my last two marathons have been a hard 2:20 at the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon Canadian Olympic Trial, followed by a very controlled 2:20 at The Marathon Project pacing Sara Hall just four weeks ago. In short, I've slowly figured out little improvements and chipped away at the seconds for a number of years now.

How long have you been eyeing this record?

My first attempt was while in Romania at the World Championships but the course was deceptively hard and had a very hot and humid day. Houston was perfect with cold weather, no wind, and a flat fast course.

Tell me about how the day went. 

I was also playing race director so my mind was completely focused on the other athletes, 17 total, having a great day and fully engaging the volunteers that came to help — all during a pandemic that required an extra level of attention. About 400 meters into the race the lead pack of my three friends and I pulled away and I told them, "I feel like I was just dropped in here.” 

What do you mean?

I had not warmed up due to final details and media interviews for the live event coverage - the Houston Marathon and city latched on to us as the race this year with the annual event going virtual. I had just run 2:20 in Arizona on Dec. 20, 2020, but knew that would be a risky place to attempt, however, a few kilometres in I had those feelings and confidence that everything was on today, just like the stroller world records, I've become really dialled into knowing its the right day and told the other runners to bring it down four more seconds. One by one my friends dropped at 16km, 21 (splitting half marathon in 1:11), and just after we split 2:22 in the marathon the final runner dropped leaving me solo for the remaining 7km. A slight wind was picking up on one portion of these figure-eight style loops we were doing but I was so far under record pace I just tried to hold together as much as possible and not induce and muscle cramps or take any bad steps on the corners. It was a total of 10 big loops, just under 5km each, followed by a 1200m mini-loop to kick it in, which was great for breaking the race down into parts and having nutrition every 16 minutes.

You mentioned you have a few stroller records, how does this compare to those milestones?

I cherish those moments I shared with my three daughters, each of them with their own distance in the order of age, oldest with the 2:31 marathon, middle with the 1:11 half, and youngest with the 31:47 10k. While I know what those mean in relative terms — truly incredible performances, in some ways I've always felt like there's an asterisk on them for being "Guinness" which is typically associated with fairly obscure novelty performances. This one felt legitimate. Of course, the 50k is not as common a distance, so the message boards tell me but personally, I feel accomplished.

 What's your athletic background and how did you come to concentrate on the 50K distance?

In addition to the 14 50Ks, I've done 14 marathons, and 12 other ultra events up to 125km at the Canadian Death Race and two Comrades Marathons (87km and 91km road event). Despite all the long distance I still consider myself a fairly low mileage runner, closer to training like a 1500-metre specialist with good leg speed session. This last training buildup did have some big weeks at 165km with very specific pace work, long tempos or intervals, just a little faster than my goal pace.

Tell me about the event and the location. 

Fortunately, the park was only 15 minutes from my house as we've been living down here since moving from Canada in 2013. I scouted for the flattest, smoothest, fastest course I could find, had it certified, and brought the athletes, nine of them I coach, and the volunteers (more of my athletes and friends) together to make a safe in-person micro-event happen that would meet all the requirements for both being Canadian record eligible and for the women to make Team USA —  four of which ended up running under their qualifying mark of 3:33 running 3:19, 3:19, 3:24, and 3:25 (for reference the women record for Canada is 3:28 by Catrin Jones). So it was a very successful event for everyone.

What's next for you now that you have this one done?

For performance goals: under 2:20 in the marathon and under 2:50 in the 50k. I've had days that were possible but just not the right opportunities to make it happen yet. I would love to return to Comrades in South Africa, but I think it will be another year yet before that is a safe and respectful thing to do. I will likely stay domestic and do marathons and other events as possible, or continue on with creating my own micro-events after this was such a huge success. The other Canadian ultra running records, beyond 50k, are appealing to me.

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