It’s a June morning in Rockland Lake State Park, just 45 minutes north of New York City, and Francisco Balagtas is finishing the first of a countless number of 2.95-mile flat-paved loops around Rockland Lake. He’s got 24 hours to circle the lake as many times as he can and his goal is to beat the distance he ran in last year’s race—117.89 miles—which garnered him a first place finish out of 17 ultrarunners.
Running an endless amount of loops around such a short distance, no matter how scenic Rockland Lake is, can get boring, Balagtas admits, but the high level of consistency allows him to be more meticulous about his pacing, timing, and nutrition. He knows that roughly every three miles, he’ll find himself back at the setup area where he can refuel, rest, and take stock of where he is in relation to the other competitors. It’s all built into his plans—he even put together a spreadsheet to project how his paces would fade over the course of 24 hours.
“If you have good mental toughness, you can push through the loops because you know where you start, where you finish, and what’s already in-between,” Balagtas says. “Sure, we’re always thinking about who’s running because you want to compete, but you’re actually just competing against yourself to survive. Once you get to a point where you’re just tired and you don’t want to do it anymore, that’s when the race actually starts.”
Most people associate ultrarunning with trail races, but ultras have a much longer history on roads and tracks, and in recent years, world records have been set on short-loop courses. In 2018, 36-year-old Camille Herron ran 162.9 miles in 24 hours on a high school track in Arizona, hitting the 100-mile mark at 13 hours and 25 minutes, obliterating the 100-mile and 24-hour records set by a woman. This January, Lithuanian Aleksandr Sorokin hit the 100-mile mark on a 0.91-mile loop in Tel Aviv in a time of 10:51:39—maintaining an impressive 6:31 pace to smash the world record he previously held.
Balagtas, 37, who spends his time coaching runners on how to run their best marathons, never dreamed of running ultras when he was younger. He grew up in northwestern New Jersey in a one-square mile town called Hamburg with a population of less than 2000 people. His older brother and sister both ran cross country in high school, so he followed in their footsteps. Despite being good enough to compete in state championships his sophomore year, he didn’t spend his high school years falling in love with the sport, preferring to play golf instead.
It would take another 10 years until he’d start running again. At the time, he was living in Vermont and his brother convinced him to run the New Jersey Marathon in 2012. Balagtas was out of shape, living the kind of Vermont lifestyle where all he did was drink, eat tons of food, and snowboard at resorts. He figured he’d use the marathon to get back into shape and, on race day, nearly broke the four-hour barrier, running a 4:01:41. Balagtas was determined to train better and run faster and immediately signed up for another marathon. He was hooked.
“I pretty much went from actually never running more than a 5k, taking a 10-year gap, and then jumping right into the marathon,” Balagtas muses.
In 2016, armed with experience, Balagtas broke the 3-hour marathon barrier and qualified for Boston. After reaching that goal, he was ready for something slightly more ambitious so he signed up to run a 50k—the OSR30—in 2020 before the pandemic hit and upended those plans. When everything shut down, he and a friend, As Is’s Ben Pratt, decided they would run the equivalent of a marathon distance every weekend for eight months because there was nothing else to do.
When 2021 rolled around and races resumed, Balagtas felt ready to take on a new challenge, so he signed up for the 24-hour race at Rockland Lake organized by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.
“I enjoy the small production atmosphere,” Balagtas says. “It’s more about your actual racing than the production, unlike Chicago or New York City. It’s racing at its purest.”
How you fuel
Running is usually a solo endeavor requiring self-discipline, drive, and mental strength. Ultrarunning on short-loop courses requires all those things, but more often than not, it also requires a team of people you can trust to make decisions for you when you’re too tired to make them for yourself.
“Have you ever seen those Harry Potter movies?” Balagtas asks. “I think it’s the sixth one and Dumbledore’s gotta try to drink all this shit to get a Horcrux. And he tells Harry, ‘Whatever you do, even if I tell you to stop, you gotta make me drink all of this.’ Seriously, that could be an ultrarunning meme! It’s like your crew just trying to force food on you, and you’re like, ‘no, no, no more!’ That’s a perfect example of how important a crew is.”
When it comes to fueling for long races, Balagtas has tried to keep it simple. Along with gels and shakes, he’s asked for a loaf of bread, a pound of turkey, and a pound of cheese to make sandwiches. Sugary, caffeinated sodas are also a relief after taking in the same nutritional drinks over and over again. Pizza is great because it’s something he already eats once a week and never grows tired of.
For the 24-hour race at Rockland Lake this year, Balagtas subsisted on mostly Maurten Solid energy bars, pizza, and in the middle of the night, when someone on his crew announced he was doing a McDonald’s run, Balagtas requested two McChicken sandwiches.
“When I ate them, they were still warm, and I was like, ‘aw, this is incredible!”
"...Past 70 miles, everything’s just a coin-flip."
Balagtas placed first again at the Rockland Lake race, running 38 loops and 112 miles—roughly five miles short of the distance he ran last year. To get through some of the boredom, he listened to six hours of podcasts about snowboarding and Formula 1, but the race ultimately got to him.
“Once you start getting past 70 miles, everything’s just a coin-flip,” he says. And maybe I was on the bad end of that coin-flip. But I was kind of close to where I was last year and I can be kind of happy with that.”
At the moment, in addition to coaching his marathoners, he’s helping his friend Ben Pratt achieve an official fastest known time (FKT) for running as many 1.7-mile lower loops in Central Park as possible in a day from when the park opens at 6 a.m. to when it closes at 1 a.m. They have a few days picked out around Labor Day weekend and Balagtas is planning on getting a single bib and official timing mat for Pratt’s challenge.
“I’m sure people are gonna be like, ‘this is stupid and crazy,’ but for us, it’s just kind of fun,” he says.