Dion Finocchiaro is no stranger to running far. And fast.
In late November 2020, the Melbourne-based athlete set the Australian 50 km record at the Box Hill Athletics Club.
It happened at a World Athletics-certified event — one Finocchiaro organised and self-promoted on the Run Culture podcast with three of his mates (Dane Verwey, Craig Appleby and John Dutton).
They called it the 50 KM Lockdown Challenge, and they used it as a way to stay motivated during Victoria’s period of coronavirus restrictions.
With officials 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.
It was a remarkable performance, in which Finocchiaro held an average pace of 3:25/km (that’s equivalent to running 17:05 for parkrun — 10 times in a row, without stopping).
But he didn’t have long to bask in the glory or let his body recover. He was already thinking about notching another Australian crown: the 100 km record.
An unexpected invitation
Two weeks before his 50 km race, Finocchiaro took a phone call from his sponsor, HOKA One One.
The voice on the line posed a question: How would you like to represent Australia at Project Carbon x 2?
Project Carbon X 2 is a 100 km race being held near Phoenix, Arizona (with a coinciding sister-race in Japan). It’s been organised by HOKA to promote the second iteration of its carbon-fibre-plated ‘super’ shoe.
Forty HOKA athletes, including some of the world’s best ultra marathoners, will attempt to break the male and female 100 km world records (6:09:14 and 6:33:11, respectively).
It’s the sequel to the original Project Carbon X, which was held in May 2019 — a race in which American ultra runner Jim Walmsley set the 50-mile world record.
An opportunity and a risk
Between March 2019 and February 2020 (before an emergent coronavirus became a pandemic), Finocchiaro ran eight marathons. EIGHT.
That’s a number that would make most distance runners cringe with worry, but the durable Finocchiaro absolutely loves to race.
And in a year when traditional running events have been virtually non-existent, here was an opportunity.
He could be the sole Australian representative in a real race. And not just any race — a world-record attempt.
There was another sweetener: he’d have a pacemaker running at the equivalent of 6:27:00 pace — more than two minutes clear of the Australian 100 km record (6:29:26).
If Finocchiaro agreed, he’d be lining-up against global superstars of ultra-marathoning, such as Walmsley, Sage Canaday and Camille Herron.
But he’d also be travelling to the United States — a country still being devastated by the coronavirus. According to data from John Hopkins University (from 15 January), more than one-quarter of all reported infections globally, and nearly one-fifth of all reported deaths, have occurred in the U.S.
A green light from the girlfriend
“My first thought was, ‘It’s a bit risky,’” recalls Finocchiaro.
“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.’”
With his partner’s blessing, Finocchiaro made his decision: HOKA could count him in.
Race day and a 100 km record attempt
Dion Finocchiaro — who is currently in a hotel ‘bubble’ environment near Phoenix — will compete in the Project Carbon X 2 this weekend.
The race begins 1:00 am Australian Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday 24 January (7:00 am Saturday 23 January local time in Arizona).
It will take place on an 11.2 km track at an undisclosed location.
Finocchiaro won’t be going out with the front-running men, some of whom will be attempting to run faster than six hours.
He will, however, be looking to improve on the Australian record of 6:29:26, which was set by Tim Sloan in 1995. (The current men’s rankings are here.)
In 10 attempts at the century distance, Finocchiaro has never run faster than seven hours. But after setting the 50 km record, he’s hoping his fitness will carry him to a big-time result.
“I’m confident I will be in that range if I have a good day,” Finocchiaro tells RunCreature. “It’s definitely within striking distance to go under the record.”
Q&A with Dion Finocchiaro
RunCreature spoke to Dion Finocchiaro as he was in Sydney airport awaiting his flight to California. We discussed his concerns about travelling to the U.S. during the coronavirus, his approach to training, and his goals for what he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime race. *This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RunCreature (RC): When did you first learn about the opportunity to race in the Carbon x 2 Project?
Dion: It was mid-November, a couple of weeks before my 50km record attempt. I got a call from Roger Hanney, the Australian HOKA rep. I remember hearing him say, “Do you want to have a crack at the 100 km record in the US with a bunch of the top HOKA athletes?”
RC: What was your immediate reaction?
Dion: I definitely wasn’t keen initially, but Jacquie talked me into it. She basically told me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And she has the better judgement out of the two of us, so once she said that, I decided I should definitely go.
I’m in shape, so I thought, well, I should have a crack and strike while the iron is hot. The only risk is getting sick and not making the race.
RC: Given the situation in the US, that seems like it could be a considerable risk. What precautions are you taking?
Dion: I’m trying to be safe. I’m at the airport now and I’m wearing gloves, a mask and a shield. And I’m carrying hand sanitiser in my pockets everywhere I go. I feel like a bit of a clown, but I don’t really care. I just want to get to the start and lay it on the line. There’s certainly a few risks involved, but also a lot of positives, if everything goes well.
RC: Before we go any further, I want to congratulate you on the 50 km Australian record. That was a tremendous run and it was very cool to follow your training on the Run Culture podcast with Dane Verwey. You found out about the Carbon X 2 race as you were training for that record attempt. Did that change your approach?
Dion: When I found out, I had literally just finished my longest training run, so it didn’t really change my preparation. There was nothing else I could do without possibly interfering with the taper for the 50 km record attempt.
The main change was really the recovery. We have an AlterG (anti-gravity treadmill) at my workplace, so I jumped on that for a few of my recovery runs. It meant I could off-load my legs but keep on ticking over aerobically.
But I felt really average after the 50 km run. It’s probably the worst I’ve pulled-up from a race that I can remember.
RC: Why do you think that was?
Dion: Possibly because of the surface. It was on a track, so the terrain was the same the whole way. So whatever got tired never got a break. Or it could have been the fact that I was unable to do any hilly runs and really smash my legs up during the lockdown in Melbourne. I could only run in a 5 km radius from home and that definitely affected my ability to get any quality hills in.
RC: How are you feeling now? Are you well-enough recovered and ready to have a solid race in the U.S.?
Dion: An 8 week turnaround between the 50 km effort and this 100 km race is not an ideal prep, but I ended up getting some solid training runs in. There was a 50 km run in the hills, a couple of 40km runs, and then a 60 km run at race pace. I feel like I’ve done all I can in this short prep and hopefully I have the legs to carry me through on race day.
RC: That’s a huge training run. Do you take a lot of confidence away from a 60km run at race pace?
Dion: I went to a bike criterium circuit about an hour from home… I knew I could just walk in, no traffic, put up a picnic table with all my drinks and pretty much race it. I averaged 3:50s basically the whole way and picked it up in my last 5km. My final K was the fasted. I ran at at about 3:30, so I knew I could have kept running if I needed to.
The most pleasing aspect was that I pulled-up really well. I was relatively un-phased from that 60km run, and had a couple of good sessions afterwards, another long run, and I hit about 180km for the week.
In the race, I don’t expect to run 3:50s the whole way; I expect to have a slight positive split. But if I can average 3:53/km that will still get me the [Australian] record. The way I’m placed at the moment, I’m confident I will be in that range if I have a good day. It’s definitely within striking distance to go under the record. But you haven’t got it until you’ve done it! So I’ll just give it a shot. If I don’t get it in Phoenix, I know I will someday. It’s a bit like running a 2:20 marathon. I know I’m going to do one, it’s just a matter of what race.
RC: Can you talk to me a bit about the logistics of travelling to the U.S. and entering the pre-race ‘bubble’ environment?
Dion: Yesterday I flew from Melbourne to Sydney. Today I’m flying to San Francisco and then I catch a connecting flight to Phoenix, where HOKA will pick me up and then I just stay at the race hotel and bunker down for about 10 days until the race. It’s all relatively seamless as long as the flights go ahead.
RC: How is the hotel set-up designed to allow you to continue training and running the necessary volume?
Dion: We don’t technically have to quarantine in the U.S. but there’s quite a big private area of land at the hotel. There’s a motor sport Monza loop and a recreational reserve area with roads and paths, so I’ll be able to do the official course and do my training runs. But otherwise, I won’t be leaving the confines of the hotel. In terms of food, all your meals get delivered to your room.
It will certainly be interesting. There are no spectators, and no family or friends. And no other guests staying at the hotel, it’s just the athletes. It is what it is. This is the environment that we find ourselves in. The fact that we have a race with all the stuff going on in the US, with covid and all the politics, it’s kind of a miracle.
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. Hopefully I get to say hi and meet a few athletes who I really look up to.
RC: It’s a pretty awesome event to be a part of. What’s the most exciting thing about this opportunity?
Dion: There are a few things. Definitely meeting some of the athletes. And to potentially be in a race where the world record gets broken is pretty cool, and where I could break the Australian record myself and get a PB. It’s such a unique opportunity and so many exciting things could happen.
RC: Are you going into the race with a goal time? If yes, can you share?
Dion: The goal is to go after the Australian record: 6:29:00 or below would be awesome, and there will be a pacemaker running [6:27:00 pace] until about 50km.
In my 60 km training run, I went through in about 3:12:00. That’s 6:24:00 pace. I obviously don’t expect to run that the whole way, but it definitely gives me confidence that I’m capable of going under the record. If I can’t get it done, then I’d like to run under 6:40:00, which is 4:00/km… If I don’t run under 7 hours I’d be pretty disappointed.
RC: You’ve already mentioned that there will be a pacer. Do you anticipate that as you’re all HOKA athletes, there will be some camaraderie in the group? Will you try to talk with some of the other athletes beforehand to see if there’s scope to work in a pack?
Dion: I’ll have to wait until a bunch of the athletes get into the bubble. There are going to be some [male] athletes going at the world record pace (6:09) and a few who are planning to go faster than six hours. I’m not sure how many that leaves going at 6:27 pace. So I don’t know.
There will also be people who get excited and go out too quickly. It’s tempting, because this is a pace (3:53/km) that feels like a fast jog for us, but because it’s such a long way, you really have to be conservative and measure your effort across the whole distance. Going out too fast can cost you big-time — 10 minutes a km if you end walking.
Regardless of what other athletes do, I’m going to stick to the 6:27 pace group. But I also don’t want to be running at 6:28 pace because that’s cutting it too fine. Just one second per kilometre slower than my target is equivalent to 1 minute 40 seconds over the race.
RC: Presumably you’re wearing a watch. How do you avoid looking down at your wrist too much to make sure you’re tracking well?
Dion: That’s right. I don’t want to be checking out the watch too much. I’ll put it on to get 5km splits. And then, based on that, I’ll just have to roll with how I’m feeling if they’re going too slow, or run my own race and back-off somewhat if the pace is too quick. One of my strengths is that I can run a certain pace, just on feel, and not fluctuate too much so that should serve me well.
RC: 100km. It’s a massive undertaking. Can you talk to me a bit about the mindset going in. How do you mentally prepare for a race that is so long and gruelling, and that requires so much concentration?
Dion: 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. I think it’s about keeping your mind focused and having a goal throughout those hard stages.
I’ve spoken to some specialists and we’ve worked on having goals I can focus on around the 50 and 60 km marks, which is 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.
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?
RC: How does that manifest itself during the race? Do you have mantras that you repeat, or strategies for staying focused?
Dion: I’m going to break the race down into 5km goals. I have my 5km splits [19:10-25] that I’ll be aiming to hit. And 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.
Rather than focusing on the result from the start, my goal is to follow this process. If I break the race into stages, I think the result will happen.
RC: Do you have a fueling and hydration plan?
Dion: It’s mostly liquid fuel. I have my Hammer Nutrition gels and they usually cover the journey. I’ll dilute it by pouring it into my water, so I can take it more regularly — every 5km or so. There are two personal aid stations and a general water station on the 11.2km loop, so that’s possible. Other than that, I’m prepared to take on some lollies, or maybe a small bit of banana, or some salty chips, which go well if you get tired of sweet stuff.
RC: You’ve developed a reputation for stringing together some pretty epic, high-mileage training blocks, routinely running close to 200 km/week during marathon and ultra builds. Can you walk me through your training philosophy for an event like this?
Dion: It really depends what the goal is. For ultras, like this one, I have been focusing more on volume and less on the quality of the workouts, so to speak, because my [target] race pace [3:53/km] is relatively slow. So it’s not about hitting top speeds in sessions. I’ll make the maximum speed a marathon or 50km-race pace [between 3:15-3:25/km]. And then the focus becomes the recovery; making that feel like [100km] race pace. That way, when you’re actually racing, it feels like a jog. And then it’s just about getting good long runs in the legs, time on feet, getting some hills. That gives you back-end endurance. If you can back-up after those long, hilly runs with sessions, that means your legs are responding to fatigue.
Dion Finocchiaro’s Career Achievements
5000 m — 14:54 (Melbourne, 2017)
10,000 m — 30:49 (Geelong, 2018)
Half Marathon — 1:08:03 (Burnley, 2019)
Marathon — 2:21:06 (Oita, Japan, 2020)
50 KM — 2:50:49 (Melbourne, 2020)
100 KM — 7:03:30 (Wangaratta, Victoria, 2019)
Australian 50 km record
Represented Australia at the 2016 100 km World Championships
Selected to represent Australian again in 2018
2nd Place at the Australian Marathon Championships (Sydney, 2019)
1st Place in the Canberra Marathon (2018)
1st Place in the Hobart Marathon (2019)
RC: I’m curious, who are some of the athletes in Australia, or abroad, that you look up to and take some inspiration from?
Dion: In terms of people in the race, I definitely look up to people like Jim Walmsley, Tyler Andrews — who is in great shape at the moment — and Sage Canaday. There’s also a guy named Elov Olsson (from Sweden) who I raced in the 100km World Champs. And in the female race, Camille Herron is a huge name. These are some of the athletes I’m really excited to meet.
I also follow a number of athletes in Australia, but one who I really look up to — just for his work ethic — is Liam Adams. He’s Australia’s best marathon runner, but he works a full-time job. I just don’t know how he does what he does, to train at such a high level.
I’m also inspired by a bunch of the athletes I coach. They’re all doing the daily grind. They work, they have kids. It’s awesome seeing a whole spectrum of athletes who are working on their goals. 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.
RC: What other goals do you have in running, in 2021 and beyond?
Dion: The number one ticket item is a sub-2:20 marathon. If Gold Coast goes ahead I’m going to be giving that a red hot crack. Another big goal is to be competitive at the 100km world championships. I feel like I’m at a level now where I can mix-it-up and throw my hat in the ring. I’d also love to run and do well — top 5 or top 10 — at the Comrades Marathon [in South Africa].
RC: You mentioned you get inspired by your athletes. You recently launched your own coaching company called Evolve Run Club. Can you tell me about this venture?
We have a couple of other coaches and we focus on run training, but we also do some triathlon, cycling and trail running activities. I’ve been coaching people for years, but to launch the business last year was pretty cool. And it’s been very humbling that so many people have reached out and have wanted to be a part of it.
RC: Last questions. HOKA is putting on this race, to coincide with the launch of their Carbon X 2 shoe, and it’s doing some pretty exciting things in the running world more broadly. What has your relationship with HOKA been like? And have you run in the Carbon X 2?
Dion: I’ve been on team HOKA since September 2019. I think my style of running, on any surface or terrain, and across a range of distances, really aligns well with HOKA, and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. They’ve been amazing with their generosity and support. Flying me to the U.S. to do this ludicrous race and goal, it’s a perfect example. I think they deserve major kudos for putting the event on and for investing so much in their athletes and the sport.
As for the shoes, I haven’t yet raced in them, but I’ve been running in them since October. I’ve done a bunch of sessions and long runs in the shoe. They’re definitely a level up on the original Carbon X. Whether it’s this shoe, or the shape I’m in, I’m going to give my all in this race. I’d love to do HOKA and Australia proudly with my best effort on the day.