American Records Quietly Broken in Raleigh

By: Justine Knight

On Thursday, April 1st, Raleigh Distance Project runners Nikki Long, Caity Ashley and Gabi Séjourné set new American Records on the track for the 20,000, 25,000 and 30,000 meter distances.

The attempt was kept quiet until two days prior, but even then it was announced with little information. “The event will be held at an undisclosed location…” Those of us watching from Instagram Live saw that there were only a handful of people in attendance, and just these three athletes and a few of their teammates as pacers on the track.

Based in Raleigh, NC, the Raleigh Distance Project is an elite developmental team of middle/long distance runners. The record-breaking event was organized by Sir Walter Running and deemed the Inaugural Sir Walter Twilight.

We spoke to Pat Price, co-founder of Sir Walter Running, who said “The idea came about when I was looking up national 20k records… I noticed the 20k track record was surprisingly soft.”

The previous records were set by Maxine Johnson on October 3, 1982, where she ran 1:22:24 for 20k en route to 1:44:06 for 25k, and by Teri Gerber, who ran 2:09:23 for 30k on July 13, 1986.

Price got Raleigh Distance Project Coach Stephen Furst on board and they brought the idea to the athletes.

On the Raleigh Distance Project blog, Gabi Sejourne shares “When Coach Stephen proposed this idea, I think I laughed and asked, ‘How many laps is that?’ But somehow here we are, on the other side of all 75 of those laps. And with 3 American records to show for it. I don’t think I fully believed it until I crossed that line.”

To make this a sanctioned event, the Sir Walter Running crew worked with USATF to make sure all requirements were met. They were supported by Meredith College, where the event took place. Price said “As a predominantly women’s college, they were into the idea and set the parameters for the event to happen (25 max people, negative covid tests, etc).”

With their playlist blasting, the race began. The excitement picked up when Nikki Long, who was going for the 20k record that night, stepped up her pace at the 15k mark. We asked Long about her experience, who said “We not only wanted to break the records, but we wanted to lower them by as much as we could. It wasn't a secret amongst the team that I'd be going hard for the 20k. I don't think I surprised anyone by making the first move.”

After 75 laps, we watched Nikki Long run the 20,000m in 1:18:33, Caity Ashley run the 25,000m in 1:37:07 and Gabi Séjourné run the 30,000m in 1:59:08. All three women needed to complete the 30,000m distance to be eligible for the earlier records, so Long and Ashley ran in the last 5k together as they watched Gabi finish strong. (More on this is explained in the blog post mentioned above.)

We had to ask Long… how did you stay sane during so many laps?

“Caity made a killer playlist, taking requests from all of us, and we were fortunate that Meredith College let us play it over the loudspeaker. We were able to laugh and talk about the music for the first 5-10k.” The later miles had a different vibe… “A few times, I had to regain composure to make sure I could finish the dang thing!... Luckily, we had a fluids table set up that I could grab a bottle from every lap and that got me through - as did all the fun cheering from the small crew on the infield.”

This attempt was kept quiet until the week of the race to avoid copycats. When asked about anyone coming to take on Raleigh’s records, Price says “Records were made to be broken. So good luck.”

photo credit: Lauren LaPlante

(Photo credit: Lauren LaPlante)