Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Sika Henry, the first Black female professional triathlete, continued to turn heads in the endurance world when she set the 100K (62.1 miles) Virginia state record this past weekend at the Dismal Swamp 100K in Chesapeake, Virginia with a time of 8:34:20.
Not only did Henry set the state record, she also zoomed into the current USA women’s top 10 road 100K leaderboard alongside the likes of superstars Camille Herron and Courtney Olsen.
While this may seem like a carefully crafted fairytale for Henry, these results came as a surprise to the professional triathlete, who only wanted to take a break from tri and see what she could do at the ultra-distance in running.
Just an Idea
After a self-described frustrating inaugural season as a professional triathlete, Henry was feeling burnt out.
“I struggled this triathlon season,” Henry said. “It wasn’t entirely what I expected – the [professional] women are at the top of their game, they’re doing the sport full-time and are 100 percent focused on triathlon.”
For Henry, who balances athletics alongside a full-time corporate job, it was time to take a step back and regroup in the autumn of 2022.
Henry gravitates toward running – “It’s when I can zone out,” she said – and has always been intrigued by ultra-distance races.
“I got my first taste of [ultrarunning] when I paced the Hoka Project Carbon when the women were trying to set a new American record in the 100K,” Henry said. “I’ve also found through my training that I can hold a run pace for a really long time and not falter.”
Henry began researching an ultra road race with her coach, Jonathan Caron, and making a plan to deprioritize swimming and biking and focus on running for the fall.
Ultimately, Henry settled on the Dismal Swamp 100K because it was similar to the terrain near Henry’s stomping grounds in Newport News, Virginia and allowed her to sleep in her own bed before the race – a luxury we can all get behind.
Unlike her finish at the JFK 50-mile trail run last year, which Henry described as “brutal” from her lack of race-specific training, the professional triathlete wanted to be “all in” for the Dismal Swamp 100K and nail her build to the big dance.
Even still, Henry called her program the “most non-traditional 100K training ever,” noting that she and her coach worked in a couple of swim and bike sessions each week to keep her feel for the water and tucked aerodynamic position one must hold on a triathlon-specific bike.
Coach Caron gradually ramped up Henry’s run mileage to the point where she would do up to 26 miles as her longest run of the week. Other days, Henry could be found doing workouts such as a 13-mile tempo run, hydration vest in tow.
Henry cautioned that everyone needs to approach ultra training differently.
“I know other people who have done up to 35 miles [of running] in one training day,” Henry said. “But for me, running more than 26 miles in a day would destroy me and it would be tough for me to keep up that kind of volume.”
Early on in her training, Henry’s only goal was to be fit enough to finish the race without stopping. As she progressed through her build, however, she thought that she “might be pretty decent at this” (we’ll say!) and set a goal of finishing in about eight hours and 20 minutes, which is right around an eight-minute pace.
Time to Dance
It rained the entire day of the Dismal Swamp 100K.
“I went out too fast,” Henry said. “I wasn’t used to running in the dark and the race started at six a.m. I didn’t bring a headlamp, it was pouring rain… that whole first hour was me trying to settle in for the day.”
Despite an aggressive start, Henry found her stride in the continuous downpour. Around mile 33, doubt crept in.
“At mile 33 [the reality of the length of the race] hit me and I wanted to cry,” Henry said. “I saw my family around this time and my dad told me I was on pace to break the state record and break into the top 10 [USA women’s 100K times]. From that point on, I broke up the race into little sections because I wanted to achieve those goals.”
Henry noted that her mental strategy was to break down the race into digestible bites. The course was eight laps, and Henry knew she would get the dopamine rush of seeing her family at the finish of each lap.
In between the relief of seeing her supporters, Henry focused on what was right in front of her: the next aid station, a tree up ahead, her upcoming fuel intake.
The biggest key to Henry’s success: not sitting down.
“I made a conscious decision before the race that I would not sit down, not even to change my socks or put on dry clothes,” Henry said. “I knew if I stopped or sat down, my day would be done.”
In the end, the newly-minted state record holder’s fortitude and sheer grit paid off: she finished just over her goal time in 8:34:20.
“I was in disbelief,” Henry said. “To not even begin chasing certain records or accolades and then to achieve them… I was not expecting that.”
View this post on Instagram
Henry is scheduled to run the Houston Marathon in January 2023, but other than that, she is leaving the door open to possibility.
“This is the first time my next year’s race schedule isn’t already totally planned out,” Henry said. “I plan to do whatever makes me happy.”
Regardless of what races she decides to toe the line at, Henry has one driving goal in mind: to foster representation of women of color in endurance sports.
“Representation in sport has always been one of the biggest driving factors for me,” the 100K female overall champion said. “I’m curious when I show up to races or watch live sports and don’t see someone who looks like me, I wonder, ‘why is that?’” That curiosity makes me want to try things where a woman of color may not be typically represented.”
Henry continues to break new ground when it comes to achievement in the endurance sports world. Although her schedule may be up in the air for 2023, she is sure to continue to impress in whatever discipline brings her joy.