2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships Editorial

The North Face Endurance Challenge 2010I have a tendency to go on ad infinitum in my articles here at iRunFar. My men’s and women’s previews for the 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Championships are great examples of this. While this year’s TNF Championship races call for such treatment, I’m taking a different approach. Why? Three reasons:

  1. iRunFar already provided a blow-by-blow of the event via Twitter on race day.
  2. We’ve already provided the race results with links to race reports and commentary, so you should already know that Anna Frost and Miguel Heras are the champions.
  3. I don’t have the time to write a 3,000 word novella about the race! :-)

Instead of my normal approach, I’ll get all editorial on you regarding prize money in ultras, the globalization of ultrarunning, and the uniqueness of racing in the Marin Headlands.

Money and Racing
I had some spirited conversations about money and racing while in San Francisco. In particular, a respected foreigner said that it changed the nature of the sport and implied it was not for the better. I would agree that prize money at least changes the nature of a particular race that offers it, but I don’t think that the money necessarily results in a change for the worse.

When a highly competitive trail ultra offers no prize money, it’s more common for a larger percentage of the elites to run more within themselves in the early miles. This is particularly true of runners who know they have little chance of a top three place. In contrast, a large cash purse leads to everyone and their mother going out with the lead pack and trying to hold on. I’d never seen anything in an ultra as crazy as the 30 guys who came through the mile 9 aid station within 10 seconds in the pre-dawn hours Saturday morning.

Personally, I prefer to race a conservative, well-paced effort, but there’s inherent excitement in everyone throwing down until all but one guy or gal blows up. Runners two through twenty might be far off their fastest possible time for the day, but you know with little doubt that at some point along their course they hit their limit. They failed, but in failing learned about themselves. For example, it was damn cool seeing young Dakota Jones racing side-by-side with Geoff Roes at mile 30 before seeing him spent and in fourth place at both mile 45 and the finish.

Dakota Jones TNF EC Championships 2010

An exhausted Dakota Jones getting a hug at the end of the TNF EC Championships.

The Globalization of  Ultrarunning
The most exciting development in ultrarunning in the past year or two might be the globalization of the sport. Though, perhaps, globalizaion is wrong word, as Europe and Japan seem to have been integrated for a while. No, the big thing is the integration of the International (and, particularly, the European) and American ultrarunning scenes.

In 2009, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki and Jez Bragg finished second and third at Western States. In 2010, three of the top eight men at Western States were foreign with Kilian Jornet of Spain second, Gary Robbins of Canada fifth, and Ian Sharman of the UK eighth. (There were actually four if you count Glen Redpath, a Canadian living in the US, who finished seventh.) The women’s Western States champ? Tracy Garneau of Canada. Don’t worry, this street goes both ways with Krissy Moehl winning the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the premier 100 miler outside the US, in 2009. This year, American Mike Wolfe finished second at the improvised UTMB, while he and Geoff Roes were running strong at the front of the canceled version of this year’s race.

Here at the end of 2010, two foreigners – Anna Frost of New Zealand and Miguel Heras – won the one of the most competitive trail ultras ever run on US soil. Foreign men also took sixth (Jez Bragg, UK), eighth (Thomas Lorblanchet, France), eleventh (Christophe Malarde, France), and twelfth… sort of (Uli Steidl, Germany became a US citizen this year). Behind Frost, foreign women took second (Lizzy Hawker, UK), eighth (Marlene Flores Paredes, Chile), ninth (Kasia Zajac, Poland), eleventh (Tamsin Anstey, Canada), and twelfth (Cristina Carvalho, Brazil). Injuries and travel problems took out other top foreigners, including Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Jonathan Wyatt, Sebastien Chaigneau, Ellie Greenwood, and Tracy Garneau.

Anna Frost Lizzy Hawker TNF Championships 2010

Anna Frost (NZ) and Lizzy Hawker (UK) after placing first and second at the 2010 TNF EC Championships. (Photo Stephan Gripmaster. http://www.gripmastertrails.com/)

The point of those long lists above is to show that ultrarunning is now a truly global sport. No, it’s not likely that the speedy Frenchman are going to destroy your local 50k course record next year. The mixing will be limited primarily to marquee events due to funding, but you can count on world-wide showdowns at future Western States, UTMBs, TNF EC Championships, and a few other races.

I think this globalization is fantastic. It’s great fun to watch the world’s best go head-to-head. From talking with the top runners from both sides of the Atlantic, I can tell you that most feel the same way. They want to race the very best runners in the world, regardless of where those competitors reside. On the flip side, I’ve seen nothing but respect, admiration, and cordiality between international competitors the past two years.

It’s yet to be seen how long this unification will last. At least here in America, many of the best ultrarunners have focused on athletic pursuits and/or the enjoyment of life rather than maximizing potential employment income. That’s what makes many of them such damn cool people. However, that leaves many dependent on sponsor support to attend distant races. It’s encouraging to see such support in these less than stellar economic times. I think the marked upswing in the popularity of trail running is partly responsible. Regardless of the cause, I hope sponsors continue to lend such support. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard rumblings of additional American sponsors sending top runners to UTMB in 2011.

Ahead at the Headlands
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands host numerous races every year with the Miwok 100k and TNF Championships being the most notable. The never flat, but rarely technical terrain appears to uniquely favor … or disfavor certain athletes.

Before the TNF Championships, Sean Meissner pointed out that Kami Semick had never lost in the Headlands. That streak ended when Anna Frost crossed the line ahead of her. Still, she ran a stellar race that was just three minutes slower than her win in 2008, which covered a faster course than the one run this past Saturday.

In contrast to Kami, Geoff Roes remains winless in five tries in the Headlands. Other than getting lost while leading Way Too Cool this year, Roes has never lost an ultra outside the Headlands. His second place finishes the past two years at the TNF Championships show that he’s no slouch in Marin, but others are able to run faster. Perhaps, the trails aren’t steep or technical enough to suit Roes’s strengths. Whatever the reason, we hope to see him give himself another shot or two for a Headlands victory in 2011.

Geoff Roes Dakota Jones TNF EC Championships 2010

Geoff Roes leads Dakota Jones during the 2010 TNF EC Championships. (Photo Stephan Gripmaster. http://www.gripmastertrails.com/)

Call for Comments
I’ve braced myself, so feel free to comment away.

  • What do you think about prize money in ultras?
  • Do you enjoy the globalization of ultrarunning? What are its upsides and downsides? Any matchups that you’re particularly interested in? (I can’t get the thought of Roes, Krupicka, Jornet and Heras at UTMB 2011 out of my head)
  • What makes the Headlands such a unique place with regard to racing?

There are 129 comments

  1. LMyles

    PCTR puts on the Headlands 100M, which is in the Marin area. But I don't think that race is anything as competitive as other 100M events.

  2. Bryon Powell


    Even some who are undoubtedly out there for the love of the trails and competing contemplated the money aspect. The following is a comment Anton Krupicka left on George Zack's blog last week:

    Excellent comment, Nick [Clark]. You've voiced exactly what almost all of the current top dudes think about the sport. I think/know we all "get it" wrt the grassroots nature of ultras and the inherent value in that sort of experience–and I think all of us still love running for running's sake–but it's just a little bit absurd when a race like WS enjoys the hype and astronomical entry fees that come with every fast dude in the country/world wanting to be in the race and doesn't reward the resultant performances in any way. Especially when the folks making that decision (about prize money) are taking home a not insubstantial paycheck.

    Two other things in a similar vein:

    1) Why the hell hasn't TNF ponied up serious prize money at UTMB yet? All this talk about a need for a 100 mile championship…well, UTMB seems like the perfect already-existing event. It's at a moderate altitude, the course is classic, the competition is there and the organization and hype is off the charts.

    2) I would very much like to see TNF (or anyone who awards a bunch of prize money) pay the extra money to require drug-testing for the top three finishers. I'm not accusing anyone, because I honestly believe the top-3 finishers on Saturday were clean, but $10K is a lot of money and someone will always be tempted at some point in the future.

  3. Bryon Powell

    Pablo, I hate to burst your bubble, but Tony, Geoff, and Nick certainly consider the money in addition to honour and glory. Tony and Nick spoke out about the lack of prize money just last week http://georgezack.blogspot.com/2010/12/monday-120610.html and I'm fairly certain that Geoff has considered the money in entering the TNF Championships the past three years and in racing two TNF regional races this year.

    I hope you get a chance to race against a top international ultra trail field in the near future.

    While I think doping controls may be necessary at some point, it'd be a close call right now with the quite limited yearly potential winnings. I don't think doping controls are needed at an ultra offering a $1,000 purse. Unless local runners want to dope for $1,000, I can imagine folks would travel very fair and race 50-100 miles for a couple $100 after travel expenses.

    Many thanks for your kind words, Pablo. I am doing my best to promote the sport… and to do so globally. I want to see the top runners from Boulder, USA; Mardid, Spain; Tokyo, Japan; or wherever squaring off against one another.

  4. Ben Nephew


    I agree with the comment on the race strategy and prize money, but you are selling JFK short. While it can be hard to compare times from year to year at many races, everyone knows that sub 6 at JFK is fast, no matter who is there. It's obviously ideal if you can also beat a strong field, but the history at JFK allows for fast times to receive considerable recognition.

    The argument for fast marathoners effectively transitioning to fast ultras is more likely to hold for road events than trails. There are dozens of stories of fast marathoners getting beat at trail ultras by guys they would destroy on the roads.

    Back in the 70's and 80's, fast road guys ran ultras much more frequently, and those ultra times were much faster than the times being run today (with the exception of 50k's which weren't really popular back then). The few fast marathoners that have gotten into trail ultras haven't run as fast as I would have guessed. I don't know if faster times will come from road marathoners moving to trails as a result of more prize money.

  5. Bryon Powell


    Thanks for offering up a parallel example with triathlons. I have no perspective there, but I've certainly seen prize money create interest in the trail community. Prize money has consolidated competition, which creates marquee events for the public and the media to focus on. If it weren't for the competition, I wouldn't be writing a story about the race for Trail Runner Mag for the second year in a row.

    Glad you are liking the site and my work. I'll be doing more of the same in 2011. … Oh, and returning to racing, too. Thanks for the well wishes! :-)

  6. Bryon Powell

    Mayayo, I'm unfamiliar with the Leadville 100 info. I've never heard of folks taking salt, anti-inflammatories, or maybe caffeine, but only on the scale of a cup of coffee or two, which is well inside international competition criteria. The caffeine folks are just trying to stay awake, not boost their endurance capabilities.

    I'm not sure WS100 will "learn" anything from UTMB. The race has an entirely different ethos. Having such a small race field and the desire to let the common man have his or her chance to run, they simply don't and won't let all the top talents, foreign or domestic, into the race.

  7. Bryon Powell

    I wouldn't hold my breathe looking for the USATF to provide significant championship funding for ultra prize purses. The USATF hasn't even provided the 100k national team with sufficient funds to travel to the world championships. They might be onto Mountain Running, but not ultras. I won't speculate as to the how or why, but I don't see ultras' inclusion in the USATF as a positive at the moment.

  8. Bryon Powell

    KenZ, great comments and perspective. The one thing I'll respond with is that the growth of the sport and the interaction of companies and their elite sponsored athletes will result in some ridiculously light and high performing products in the coming years.

  9. Bryon Powell

    Will, I agree that TNF might have been a watershed event… even having watch WS and UTMB this year. There were four possible winners at WS and more than that at TNF, not to mention a much more international field.

  10. Bryon Powell

    Ed, I agree that WS and UTMB will not have prize money, but think it's more because of the philosophies of the organizers than the lack of a "need" of prize money to draw top runners. The TNF Championships are the best example of your "new race" comment. They wanted an exciting race and built one very quickly with the sport's biggest prize purse, at least in the US.

  11. mayayo

    Bryon, I am surprised you are not familiar with the Leadville 100 annual postrace medical survey and research.

    Happy to fill in: According to the 2009 communication, 40% of the runners reported having taken NSAIDS prior to or during the race. Those pills (mostly ibuprofen) are fully lega, yet…draw your own conclusions on pill taking and ultrarunning.

    Check the full data for 2008, 2009 and 2010 at my blog documents section: http://carrerasdemontana.wordpress.com/informes/

    As for WS100 learning from UTMB: In terms of % of runners abroad the difference is outstanding, and sure has helped to consider the Mont Blanc as the trail running world summit.I mean about popular runners, not elite ones.

    Bright future will no doubt come if both sides of the Atlantic share the best of their traditions. In my experience, both have unique features that add magic to the trails. May the perfect blend come through.

  12. Jim A

    Been following this conversation for the past week or so…my $0.02

    Prize Money:

    I think its good that events have prize money in the sport. A quick caveat, I used to work for the group that helped TNF/create the Endurance Challenge, so there may be a little bias on my end. Initially the goal was to have more of a team challenge/format, however with the current flux of teams at that time cutting their rosters, etc creating an event that would draw the top athletes made more sense both then and for the years to come.

    The best runners deserve a chance to earn some money in respect of their talents. Yes the top prize at the Endurance Challenge draws a quality field and has led to some great battles so far with Matt, Uli, Geoff, Heras et.al. Not sure about today's world, however when I was @ hawkeye TNF sponsored more than 50 events on a grassroots level as well, with prizing (footwear, clothing, etc) to help support a wide variety of people.

    However, I'm not sure to what extent an race has to get the athletes to the event. I'd like to see a set number of entries set aside for other sponsors athletes for top men/women. After that everyone is on their own. There is little to no budget for flying people in, hotel costs, etc in such as race. Remember its part of an overall series and in the end, companies such as TNF, et have a very fixed budget. Even a strong local or regional road race will provide entries but other than that its up to the competitors to pay their way.

    Ultrarunning is also in a spot where its really only the endemics that are supporting the sport on any level, whether it be in-kind or actual cash support. Bryon, when you are talking about the WS100 entry fee, the overall cash for the budget in that event comes from entries. There may be limited cash from current partners, however for many of them its easier to dump that ton of swag because it is a lasting takeway from one of the world's premier ultra events.

    I liken it to one of my other loves, which is rollerhockey. An event I work with has a pro division, however oftentimes the players still have to pay their own way as the sponsors are very similar to those in the ultra world with a limited budget, outside of picking up the cost of a hotel room.

    In 20-30 years ultra/trail may still be in the same point, it could be the equivalent of road racing with larger purses and entrants or perhaps all the trails/forests will be gone and replaced by a SuperTarget. Did we ever think that marathoners would be getting 6 figure appearance fees or that they would be filling up 25,000 + events in a matter of hours.

    One quick note on the drug testing thoughts: Just because you have testing doesn't mean you are either going to 1. discourage cheating or 2. catch them. We only need to look at any pro sport in today's world to see that be the case.

  13. Marisol Perry

    Ed, I agree that WS and UTMB will not have prize money, but think it's more because of the philosophies of the organizers than the lack of a "need" of prize money to draw top runners. The TNF Championships are the best example of your "new race" comment. They wanted an exciting race and built one very quickly with the sport's biggest prize purse, at least in the US.

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