On 24 January at 1:00 am (AEDT), Dion Finocchiaro will toe the line at HOKA’s Project Carbon X 2 — an elite 100 km ultra-marathon near Phoenix, Arizona.
The 32-year-old athlete will be looking to break the Australian 100 km record of six hours 29 minutes and 26 seconds (6:29:26).
National records don’t come easily, at any distance. And this is certainly an ambitious target for Finocchiaro, who has never run faster than seven hours (in several attempts).
But there are factors working in his favour: Finocchiaro is in phenomenal shape, having set the Australian 50 km record in late November.
The yet-to-be-revealed 11.2 km course should be fast and relatively flat. And furthermore, HOKA has arranged a pacemaker for Finocchiaro, who will take him through 50 km at a 6:27:00-equivalent pace.
If everything goes to plan, and the wintry, desert conditions are good on the morning, Finocchiaro could make Australian running history. For the second time in two months.
We spoke to Finocchiaro as he was in transit. We talked about his decision to travel to the United States during the coronavirus pandemic; what he’s done to prepare both physically and mentally for the race; and about his goals in the sport and athletes he admires.
It was an insightful conversation with a humble-yet-gifted runner; someone who has cultivated a reputation for pushing his body to extremes in training, racing heaps, and being incredibly resilient in the process.
Here are 5 lessons from the always-determined Dion Finocchiaro ahead of his Australian 100 km record attempt.
1. Acknowledge the non-runners in your life who support the journey
When Dion Finocchiaro was first invited to compete at Project Carbon X 2 he was humbled, and excited. And he was also non-committal.
“My first thought was, ‘It’s a bit risky,’” Finocchiaro told me over the phone. “I definitely wasn’t keen to go to the States for any recreational purposes, but as I talked about it with my girlfriend [Jacquie Aronowicz] I came around to the idea.”
“She’s quite safety-minded and precautious, and she’s not a runner, but she told me, ‘You have to go and have a crack. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”
Had Aronowicz raised a red-flag, it’s very likely Finocchiaro would have stayed home in Melbourne. But with her blessing, he made a decision to travel to the United States.
It’s often been said, running is a selfish pursuit. Huge sacrifices in time, money and energy (mental and physical) are often made in the pursuit of personal goals. Chasing goals — and in Finocchiario’s case, records, requires the support of partners and family members,
Finocchiaro says it’s important to acknowledge the people who make sacrifices alongside you: “I don’t think too many other partners would be willing to give me this kind of leash and let me chase all these crazy runs,” he laughs.
“Jacquie came to the 50 km record attempt and kept time for the entire race. And it was raining, and windy, and it started at 6:30 am. She definitely goes above and beyond to help me out with everything, and I’m a very lucky person to have such a great supporter, both personally and with my running.”
2. No races? Take matters into your own hands
Many runners got creative during 2020, when races were being cancelled. I banded together with friends — when possible — to tackle some time trials, and for some impromptu races. These were low-stakes affairs. Sure, they were good for motivation, and they were fun, but there was nothing on the line except bragging rights.
Dion Finocchiaro also banded together with mates, but not to plan a small-scale, around-the-block style race. No. This group of friends was thinking much bigger. Finocchiaro along with Dane Verwey, Craig Appleby and John Dutton were behind the 50 KM Lockdown Challenge.
With Melbourne in the midst of tight social restrictions due to the coronavirus, the challenge gave the friends a shared goal, and they documented their training journeys on the Run Culture podcast.
They wanted to have a crack at the Australian 50 km record, but they couldn’t just run around the track and ask a mate to count laps. In order for any record to count, they needed to make the challenge official.
That meant getting it certified by World Athletics. That means a) being organised and b) fulfilling all kinds of specific criteria. “We had to make it a bronze label event,” says Finocchiaro.
The extra effort was worth it. With race officials — including one World Athletics delegate — on hand, Finocchiaro ran 125 laps of the track in 2 hours 50 minutes and 49 seconds (2:50:49), surpassing Mark Tucker’s previous record by nearly three minutes.
Finocchiaro is now the Australian 50km record holder.
3. Find strategies to stop your mind from wandering in long-distance races
Slow and steady might seem like sound advice for someone embarking on a gruelling 100 km race. Dion Finocchiaro, however, isn’t planning on running slowly. He wants to break the Australian record (6:29:26), which means maintaining an average pace of around 3:53/km.
It’s an ambitious goal, and it will mean running a personal best of more than 30 minutes. To do so, Finocchiario knows he needs to stay mentally locked-in from start to finish.
“Aside from being physically fit, and having a big bank of endurance, headspace is probably one of the biggest aspects of competing over this distance,” he told me. “I think it’s about keeping your mind focused and having a goal throughout those hard stages.”
In previous 100 km races, Dion has lost focus around the midway and 60 km marks. “It’s generally where I have lost some focus in the past, and where I have found it hard to keep the pace consistent. In some cases, I have ended up walking.”
He says he’s worked with specialists to tackle this concentration issue, and to make sure his overarching goals remain front-of-mind when he enters these challenging periods in the race.
“In those moments, you have to ask yourself questions and maintain that concentration. ‘What does it mean to get to the finish? What is it that you’re fighting for, and that you’ve worked so hard to achieve?'”
Rather than repeating mantras, Finocchiaro says his strategy is to break the race down into 5 km sections, with a corresponding time goal or target split.
“I’ll just work on getting through each little block, getting some nice deep breaths to relax myself, and also catching my mind from drifting, when that happens,” he says. “If I break the race into stages, I think the result will happen.”
4. Seize opportunities when they arise
There were a lot of factors working against Dion Finocchiaro taking part in Project Carbon X 2. For starters, there’s the ongoing coronavirus situation in the U.S., where Arizona is now considered the national hot spot.
There’s also the fact Finocchiaro will need to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival back in Australia. And that’s if all his travel arrangements proceed as planned.
Then there’s the timing issue. Finocchiario is only 8-weeks removed from running his Australian 50 km record. It’s hardly enough time for his body to have recovered, let alone complete a thorough block of 100 km-race-specific-training.
Finocchiario was well aware of the risks of travelling to the U.S. and admitted to me in our interview that an 8-week turnaround between these mammoth efforts was far from ideal.
The easy, safe option would have been to decline the invite. But Finocchiario has taken his chances. In his mind, this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to race alongside legends of the ultra-marathoning world, and to have a pacemaker help him target the Australian 100 km crown. It was too compelling to pass up.
“I just want to get to the start and lay it on the line,” he told me. “Regardless of the result, I’m definitely going to learn a thing or two from this experience. Just being around these world class athletes, who I’ll be racing against. It’s not something I ever thought I’d get the opportunity to do in such a small, intimate environment.”
5. Find inspiration from ALL the runners around you
When I asked Dion Finocchiaro who he looks up to in the running community, he quickly rattled off the names of several famous ultra runners — a few who are taking part in the race in Arizona.
Then he spoke about Australia’s top-ranked marathoner, Liam Adams, and his awe-inspiring work ethic. And finally, Finocchiaro mentioned the people who inspire him most: the athletes he coaches.
“They’re all doing the daily grind. They work, they have kids. Some working shift hours. It’s awesome seeing a whole spectrum of athletes who are working on their goals… I find that really inspiring.”
“Coming from a recreational running background, I can really relate to that feeling of just getting your run done, making time in a busy schedule.”
This was one of the coolest takeaways from our interview. Every runner, no matter what their level, age, or accomplishments, is putting in work in the pursuit of a personal goal and is worthy of admiration for their efforts.
Finocchiario is a high-performing, semi-professional athlete and an Australian record-holder, and yet he still draws inspiration from recreational athletes and his local running community.