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RACE RECAP: HOKA ONE ONE PROJECT CARBON X 2

Meet Rajpaul Pannu, a member of the HOKA Aggies running club, 2:17 road marathon runner and Olympic Trials qualifier, first generation Indian-American and full-time high school math teacher. After having his big-break-run at the 2017 California International Marathon, he’s not slowed down and is now making space for himself in the ultra-running world.

Hoka Project Carbon X 2 - Raj Pannu
Photo: HOKA ONE ONE

HOKA ONE ONE PROJECT CARBON X 2: RACE RECAP

HOKA set out on a bold goal to launch the Carbon X 2 – their fast, carbon plated race shoe – Project Carbon X 2 was a race against time for HOKA athletes to try and break the 100K world record.

Below is the race recap from Rajpaul Pannu, who in his second ultra run, finished second in the men’s race and set an American 100K debut record.

RAJ IS…

I feel like there’s subtext whenever a BIPOC person toes the starting line in the endurance world. This act, for me, is an act of rebellion and against the status quo. It allows me to create a narrative that challenges any preconceived notions that people may have about me. It also allows me to bridge the gap between my community of people and something that is incredibly empowering: running really, really far.”

My full-name is Rajpaul Pannu, I was raised in Hercules, California (20 miles north of Oakland) and currently live and train in Denver, Colorado.

I am a first-generation Indian-American born to a single mother who has worked hard to give me the opportunities in which she herself did not have. 

JFK 50-MILER

Training for this event really began in August, when I was training to run my first ultra-marathon-The JFK 50 miler, which consists of a 15 mile run through the Appalachian trail, a marathon on a subtle incline, and caps off having you run a hilly and windy road for 8 or so miles. 

The methodology of my training consisted of three phases. I began phase one with general easy runs with a trail run typically performed every other day. I had no trail running background prior and running on something like gravel is considered “technical” for me. Knowing how green I was, I decided to explore it once I had (finally) understood the degree of the pandemic’s effect on large road races, how nothing was going to open up as a result of it. However, trail races, be it scarce were happening in certain parts of the country so I entertained the idea of completing one to see how I would respond to doing so. 

After several falls and a few ankle sprains, I began phase two, as I had eventually backed off on running trails and started to run exclusively on roads. The punishment received from the trails really made me appreciate running on smooth, flat surfaces. I had also noticed that my easy runs were a lot easier as a result of climbing/descending some of the toughest terrain that Colorado has to offer. I was now supplementing the trails with quicker, fast-paced fartleks, intervals, and long runs eventually building upwards to 115 miles-something that I had never done before. Phase two culminated with me placing 6th at the JFK 50 miler-my first ultra marathon. 

100K TRAINING FOR PROJECT CARBON X 2

I initially had in mind to take some time off from running after the JFK 50 miler, as I needed to recharge both physically and mentally. However, a day after, I had received an email from Mike McManus-global marketing director of HOKA ONE ONE. Mike was impressed with my run at the JFK 50 miler and had asked me to run Project Carbon X 2-a 100K/62.2-mile race where the best ultra-runners throughout the world have the mountainous task of breaking the 100K male and female world records.

I was initially scheduled to pace the runners anywhere between 40-50 kilometers, so the idea of doubling that may have sounded daunting, but I understood what an opportunity this was for me to showcase myself in the ultra running world in a time of uncertainty. As a result, any feeling of needing time off had diminished, as I was recharged within a day after running what I believe to be the toughest race of my life. 

Phase three was perhaps the most grueling, as my body was not fully recovered from the JFK 50 miler. I had a total of eight weeks to prepare for Project Carbon X 2, which really meant that I had six as the last couple of weeks are typically dedicated to tapering and having your body recovered. My mileage was planned: 90, 100, 110, 115, 125, 110. The staple workout for the first block was long runs performed at world record (WR) pace (5:56/mile) every other week. I performed 20 and 26.2 mile long runs but felt myself a bit gassed out doing so. It wasn’t until the 5th week where I felt I had truly hit my stride: a 50K long run at a similar pace. This time around, I felt amazing and could have kept going.

Just as important as the race-specific work, were 10K-half marathon workouts that had juxtaposed the mountainous mileage that I was completing. One workout that gave me the utter confidence that I can compete with the best was 6 x mile repeats where the last one was performed at 4:43 pace. 

Hoka Project Carbon X 2 - Raj mid race
Photo: HOKA ONE ONE

LIFE-WORK TRAINING BALANCE

The biggest advantage of moving to Colorado was that I have been able to keep my teaching job in California, as I work remotely.

As a result, I’m able to wake up, have breakfast, and hit the roads running, perform workouts, and adhere to a stretch routine all before my first class of the day which begins at 10:30 MST. Since I’m not running around like a headless chicken making copies, corralling students, pacing around the classroom to ensure that everyone is on task, that time is invested into doing light stretches to ease my body from sitting for long periods of time.

It’s also important to note that the result of the pandemic has forced me into becoming a homebody, something that I wasn’t keen on being in my early 20’s. It’s also allowed me to take care of myself on the weekends, which has enabled me to adapt to a higher volume of work since I’m actually recovering rather than nights out on the town. 

PROJECT CARBON X2 RACE DAY

The morning of the race was perfect. Almost a little too perfect. I had gotten close to six hours of sleep: which is plenty for me before a race. Woke up, immediately went to the restroom and felt a sense of relief that I had gotten “it” out of the way. I then ate breakfast two hours prior to my race: A peanut butter and agave sandwich with half an RX bar and an electrolyte drink diluted with water.

I proceeded to do my ritual of rope activation stretches and Theragun to activate the muscles. Before heading out to the lobby for the shuttle, I had to use the bathroom…again.

Unlike shorter racing events, you don’t necessarily need a grand warm-up routine for the 100k, especially if you’re gonna put your body on the line for over six hours. As a result, I was incredibly calm and ready to tackle on some initial easy miles. About 15 minutes before the race, I used the bathroom one last time. Something was off as I don’t have to go all that often typically, but had hopes that it would be the last pit stop for hours. I was wrong.

Moments before the race, I took a 100mg caffeinated Unived Gel and planned on ingesting one nutritional gel every thirty minutes vs. the traditional twenty as Unived offers 190 calories per gel pack, which I took every thirty minutes along with water and electrolytes in intervals. 

Right before the gun went off, I looked out into the abyss of the sky and threw up a prayer asking my ancestors for protection and well-being. I then looked around the starting line to see who I was surrounded by. I’d already known that Fernando Cabada and Brandon Johnson were the only two other POC runners racing the event. I quickly referred back to the shifting narrative of the importance of adequate representation in the outdoors and how participating in big marquee events such as Project Carbon X 2 was the right step in the direction for me to support that notion.

I quickly diverted my attention to my watch, activated the GPS, and then: Pow! The gun went off and as we acclimated ourselves into our pace groups. 

OFF TO THE RACE

There were five runners who were chasing after the world record. I had bumped into Jim (Walmsley) at the hotel a couple of nights prior and he suggested an article that summed up the history of the 100K and had prophesied at least two runners dropping out in their pursuit of the attempt.

I had headed his warning and stirred on the side of caution by leading the chase pack with my pacer Ben Robinson guiding me through 6 flat miles for a solid attempt at the American Record. The first 8-9 miles were seamless, as Ben, Joacim (Lantz), and I worked together behind the WR pack. Joacim and I had to take our first bathroom break, as we decided to pee into the bushes and away from any cameras that might have been capturing us. We got back on track running 6-minute miles.

At this time, I had come to a realization that a 6:15 100K was more of a realistic attempt given the emergency stops that I may need to take. Unfortunately, the next one was within 30 minutes. This time around, I encouraged Ben and Joacim to carry on without me as I had to use the restroom to discard “it”, ultimately tacking on additional 30-45 seconds or so off of my attempt, but I immediately got back on track.

Within the first 22 miles, I had used the bathroom three times, but felt great physiologically. Several miles had past and Ben eventually dropped out as he had performed a stellar job pacing. I hit the 50k mark just a shade under 6:20 pace. I initially thought I was going 3-4 minutes quicker, but then realized how important it was to run the tangents properly, which I hadn’t done well for the first part of the race. 

I stopped at the first restroom after the 50K mark and had realized that my nightmare had come true: diarrhea. It was from the 50K mark and beyond where I was now forced to take a bathroom break every 30 minutes or so. This began to chop down my time in hopes of breaking the American Record, but I was hopeful as I still felt great and was able to hit the ground running at 6-minute pace after my restroom intervals.

Sometime around the 70K mark, three out of the five runners attempting to break the world record had dropped out. All but Jim and Craig Hunt, who had previously run the marathon project and looked strong despite a short notice to run the race. The 70K to 95K portion of the race was a huge war of attrition between my mind and my body. I really don’t remember much of it to be honest, but I kept an upbeat attitude knowing that I just had a standard weekly 18-mile long run to complete (perhaps this is where I had begun to become a bit disillusioned).

Also, by this time, I had worked my way up to second place as Craig had fallen back. 

Hoka Project Carbon X 2 - Finish line
Photo: HOKA ONE ONE

THE FINAL STRETCH

Around the 95K mark, I looked at my watch and calculated that I was right on American Record pace with not a moment to spare. My stomach, unfortunately, had other plans as I was faced with a decision I now regret: using the bathroom one last time. As I stepped out of the restroom one last time, I knew I had some work to do.

I began to pick up the pace, running sub six for the first time since the second mile of the race. By now, I was visibly in pain as the right side of my body was slowly shutting down. Regardless, it was the fastest I had been running.

I made one final turn and into the homestretch into the race track, which was about half a mile: the longest half mile of my life. From there, I was wincing, hoping that I had some miracle of breaking the previous American Record of 6:27.44. Unfortunately, the third digit of the clock had hit “8”, signaling that I was not going to dip in. Still, with the encouragement of the HOKA crew and pacers, I held on to my pace as I kicked it into the finish. 6:28.31. A debut record. 

FUTURE PLANS

As an athlete, I really see myself running this race in the 6:0?’s, making future USA teams and representing HOKA at international events such as Comrades Marathon.