A League of Their Own – Part 1: Who Rules the Trails?

Elite runners on the track and roads tend to stay there. This begs the question: are elite ultrarunners and trail runners the best at their events, or just the best of the few who have tried them? And in a sport that doesn’t allow for big money or Olympic dreams, why do they do what they do?

Check in over the next few days to hear the opinions of some of the world’s best trail and ultra runners in this very open-ended discussion of their sport, its meaning, and its place in athletics.

Ultrarunning is a hard sport to nail down. It’s weird. It’s tough. The people who do it are weird, and tough. It has an element of mystery, but not like Mount Everest, because it’s accessible. Lots of people run – you just have to run further.

But more than that, ultrarunning is a difficult endeavor to quantify. Races come in standardized distances – 100 miles, 100k, 50 miles, 50k – yet they’re run on such wildly different courses that two times from a comparable distance can’t be compared without a heaping of data on how runners who have completed both courses compare from race to race, all assuming their performances were consistent enough to merit accurate comparison. Ultrarunning is so new, given its scope and potential reach, that it has yet to generate a significant dataset from which performances, records, and development can be accurately and confidently analyzed.

But we’ll start with what we know. And that is that ultrarunning makes elite athletes out of plenty of runners we didn’t see coming. By now, Scott Jurek’s foray into ultrarunning lore is a well-known story:

“I only ran to stay in shape for skiing” the seven-time Western States champion said of his early running days, when he would traverse the northern Minnesota trails with training partner Dusty Olson. “Dusty convinced me to do [the Voyageur 50-miler] and a month later…  I was on the starting line.”

Jurek placed second in that race, and the college runner with an 8k time “in the high 28s – nothing to write home about,” went on to win the Western States 100-miler seven consecutive times.

Jurek is not the only elite trail runner who burst onto the scene without an outstanding running resume. Anton Krupicka, whose PRs of 16:31 (5k) and 27:32 (8k) in high school and college hardly put him in elite company, bettered Jurek’s course record at the Western States by over 22 minutes in 2010; Krupicka was beaten that day by Geoff Roes, who has claimed a string of course records and 100-mile victories since 2006, after an injury had limited him to one cross-country season at Syracuse and launched a decade-long hiatus from competitive running. Darcy Africa, who in 2006 claimed the fastest combined time for men and women in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning that year, did not run competitively until after college. Jenn Shelton, who owns four major trail course records, played college rugby.

How is it that trail running’s professional ranks can be so dominated by athletes without elite running backgrounds?

Jurek emphasizes that, though running is a familiar element, trail running is a sport of its own. “The playing field gets a little more level when you throw in the terrain, the distance, the fact that you have to eat and drink on the run,” he said. “You have to have the right psyche. You have to be adaptable to the conditions.”

Nancy Hobbs, chair of the USA Track & Field Mountain, Ultra and Trail-running (MUT) Council, says it’s a matter not of who pursues ultras, but who does not find some other niche first.

“The number of post-collegiate runners is small, and most of them are road runners,” Hobbs said. “Consider the size of the pool.”

MUT Council Vice Chair Roy Pirrung says it is not a coincidence that some people go into ultras.

“It’s become a trend especially for non-elite athletes because they don’t have a niche and they’re looking for a niche,” he said.

Meanwhile, those with a niche on the track, on the roads, or in cross country have a reliable means of assessing their talent early. The United States’ 10k contingent in Beijing collectively boasted 14 1st and 2nd-place finishes in NCAA Division-I championship races, and two of three runners on the 2008 Olympic marathon team placed top three at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in 2000 (and would later finish first and second in the 2003 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship). Brian Sell, who was heralded as an unknown underdog when he qualified for the 2008 marathon team, was a Division-I All American in cross country and the 10k. “Those who are elite runners at the 10k and the marathon wouldn’t even think to move up,” Pirrung said.

Hobbs points out that even the most successful ultra and trail runners are dominating what remains a fringe athletic pursuit.

“There aren’t as many people in the sport, not as much money, not as much notoriety,” she said.

***

It was becoming clear that success in the ultra-distances was shaping up to be a classic chicken-vs.-egg paradox. Did elite ultrarunners truly succeed compared to the entire athletic pool (and especially the 5k – marathon crowd) at their magnitude of distance, the way elite middle distance runners succeed at the 1500m compared to 100-meter sprinters? Is ultrarunning its own classification that was dominated by a special breed, and if so, what’s the next step up? Is it 200 miles? 1,000? Or is it that elite ultramarathoners are simply the most talented distance runners to have made the leap, and that those who have do not comprise an elite crowd given the financial incentives to compete at Olympic-sanctioned distances?

Given the lack of data – and the dearth of elite road and track stars who have made the leap to ultras – the best thing I could do was ponder it, and ask some people with more experience to ponder it, too. I asked Krupicka, 2011 WS100 winner Ellie Greenwood, and Roes what they thought of ultrarunning’s place as a sport, and their own places in the competitive running world. I also asked world mountain running champions Max King and Kasie Enman what they thought about the different athletic requirements it takes to succeed on the trails and the mountains versus the road or the track. Check in over the next few days to read what they had to say.

Alex Kurt

doesn’t live near the mountains, but he makes the most of the trails around the Twin Cities when the weather allows. He is a grad student and writer in Minnesota, and he is pretty sure he doesn’t sound like a character from the movie Fargo. You can read more by Alex at ultramn.com/.

There are 71 comments

  1. hp

    Very interesting, Alex. I'm looking forward to what Ellie and Max have to say, as both are elites on both road and trail.

  2. halkoerner

    "Just the best of the few who have tried them. "

    "the people are weird"

    Lame intro.

    Never heard this comparison before.

    Next up, all those soccer players that Alberto never got to.

    1. Yeti

      Ditto. This "what-if" speculation about elite road and track stars "making the leap" to ultra distance and dominating is played out, unproductive, and better suited to letsrun.com. The tone of this article seems to diminish the accomplishments of some pretty spectacular athletes by reducing their successes to being merely the best of a small pool of niche runners. We'll simply never know how these "elites" would perform at these distances until they do, so until then, who cares.

  3. Alex from New Haven

    It seems like every other article asks the questions "What does it all mean?" "What should be call ourselves?" "What's the best/correct distance/surface to run?" "How should I feel about ultarunning?"

    While there are a lot of changes going on in the sport (explosion in participation, internationalization, professionalization) I don't think most trail runners around the country are experiencing this existential crisis.

    Obviously, if you offer large financial incentives and promote a culture of running, competition will improve. See Comrades. Maybe rather than (or in addition to) UROC/Run Rabbit, the US needs its own Comrades.

    Accessibility/Promotion is also a huge issue: Create/transform a big city ultra (50 mile? Double Marathon?). Get Nike, NYRRs and Runners World involved. What NFEC is doing for trail, do it for road. Offer decent prize money. Make it the qualifier for the US100k Team. Tagline: "Ready for the next challenge?" It will be tacky, it will offend almost every ultrarunner but it would give us our own Comrades and the access to talent that everyone seems so worried about.

  4. Brad

    It's easy to ponder all the "what ifs?", but why don't we just appreciate the fact that the elite ultra runners are the best at what they do, period. What if Dick Butkus had been a boxer…should we diminish the accomplishments of boxers of that era because someone else might have been better? Each distance and specialty takes a different physical and mental skill set. Lets not have an inferiority complex about ultra / trail runners because the elites are not former 2:10 / 2:30 marathoners. Course records will continue to be broken as the best athletes continue to push the envelope with training and racing.

  5. Nick

    I feel like the difference between elite road racers and ultra trail runners is largely mental. It takes a totally different mentality (and lifestyle) to successfully run Leadville, or Western States, or Hardrock than it does to successfully run the New York or Boston (or Olympic) marathons.

    Perhaps (and this is my opinion), elite ultra runners weren't/aren't elite road runners because they don't possess the 'road running' mentality at the level that would have enabled them to be elite. The same way it would be extremely difficult for an elite road marathoner to jump up and be extremely successful at ultra trail running (at least without some significant transition time). It's two totally different mentalities.

  6. Brad Koenig

    Hi Alex,

    "Darcy Africa, who in 2006 claimed the fastest combined time (for men and women) in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning…"

    I am pretty sure that Joe Kulak held the record from 2003 to 2010, at which time Neal Gorman took it over. Right?

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Brad,

      In 2006, 10 folks finished the Slam, Darcy being one of them (and the only woman). She slammed in 91:42:18, the lowest cumulative time among all the 2006 slammers.

      You're absolutely right that she didn't hold/set the overall Slam Record, that it was held from 2003 to 2010 by Joe Kulak, but she was the speediest slammer in calendar year 2006.

      I edited the text to make what Alex has written a little more clear.

      Thanks for the note,

      Meghan

  7. Joel

    As a fit, but not-at-all exceptional marathoner (3:35), I want to share a bit of perspective on this.

    I just ran my first 50k trail ultramarathon Saturday, and won the race. Second place was 35 minutes behind me. This is the only race I've ever won–and going into it, nothing could have been farther from my mind than winning.

    What really surprised me was the fact that many of the others walked (hiked) most–and in some cases, perhaps nearly all–of the course. Almost naively, I ran as fast as I could the whole way, except during the 25% grade climbs and the uphill at the end when it was super hot.

    But aside from naivete, I think running fast in shorter distances like half and full marathons gets people used to running at speed for non-trivial distances, and that translates over to ultras.

    1. Andy

      Congrats on your win Joel. As a fit but far from exceptional marathoner (like you), I'd like to know where your running your 50ks! I'm usually happy if I'm in the top 50%!

      1. Joel

        Thanks, Andy! I'm told the field was small, even for a small, local trail ultra. The race is called the Auburn Trail Run.

        @Anonymous, I agree 100%. I do want to get into one of those more competitive races next time, just purely for the experience.

    2. Anonymous

      You must not have run a very competitive 50K. Go a competitive 50K like Way to Cool or Chuckanut and you'll see a different story altogether.

  8. Rob

    From a statistical viewpoint, the ultra "records" are certainly soft compared to a marathon or 10,000m record. Drawing from such a small sample, the ultra outliers are sure to be much closer to the mean than if the sample size were 10x or 100x larger.

    Look at rock climbing. 20 years ago, the sport was very small, perhaps comparable to the ultra world today. Now with hundreds of thousands of kids exposed to climbing through gyms, we have literally several thousand climbing at levels only the top 5 or 10 in the world could reach 15 years ago.

  9. mushmouph

    ultras are fun because the people who do them are fun. ultras are fun because the people who organize them are fun. ultras are fun because the aid station volunteers are fun.

    i don't care if the winner is the fastest in the world on a given day. they showed up and threw down.

  10. dogrunner

    I'm curious to hear this discussion. Much respect to elite ultrarunners (or anyone who can run an ultra, for that matter, because I think it is a lot harder than a marathon!!), but this is not a new question, it IS a difficult one to answer with meaningful data, and I, for one, am curious about it. No need for anyone to get defensive. In the end, I think it is very difficult to make comparisons across events and nobody would say that elite, sub 2:05 marathoners are less accomplished runners even though they are NOT as fast as Usain Bolt at 100-200 m!!! So no foregone conclusions one way or another about Ultra vs standard distance runners!

    1. David T

      My thoughts exactly! ultra/trail/mountain running is a relatively new, and continues to be a relatively small, sport so these questions are natural. As long as we don't get defensive and keep things light it should be a fun and interesting discussion.

  11. hp

    Let's see: Ellie just came in second at Comrades, recently won the Vancouver Marathon, American River 50 miler and Chuckanut 50. Max ran in the Olympic Trails Marathon, runs a 3000m steeplechase in 8:31, won the 2011 Xterra Trail Running World Championship, the USATF Mtn Running Championship and the Half Marathon Trail Championship.

    So I really don't think my definition of 'elite' is loose when it comes to either of these two.

    1. Anonymous

      Elite on roads would be athletes who are talented enough to support a professional road running career (e.g. place well at major marathons). I don't imagine Max or Ellie would say they are good enough to place top 10 at New York/Chicago/London/Boston.

        1. Anonymous

          The goal of this article is seemingly to compare "road runners" to "trail runners" and there is no denying that Max is certainly not going to be mentioned by many as an elite road runner, although he has now met one of the Olympic A standard. Similarily Ellie is hardly an elite road runner. At the end of the day this argument is pointless as road running and trail running are different, as the author has already alluded to. Could Ryan Hall beat Geoff/Killian/Anton at WS100? Maybe, but then again maybe not. We'll never know but it is not really worth debating. You might as well try to compare the tastes of apples to oranges…

      1. Ben Nephew

        You should let Bobby Curtis know that he is not an elite runner. You also might want to look at what time would get into the top 10 at all the marathons you list, or email Max. By your definition, there are about 4-5 elite US men marathoners. If you are going to be that selective, you should just list them all by name.

  12. Wyatt Hornsby

    What a crappy article. I'm sick of this over-analyzation of the sport. Last time I checked we run ultras because we love to run long distances. It's not about money, fame or fortune. It's about love and a lifestyle.

    Wyatt

    1. Bryon Powell

      Wyatt,
      First off, it's inconsiderate and unproductive to call anything"crappy," let alone someone from the community of which you are a part. Second, if you don't enjoy articles analyzing trail running or ultrarunning, that's totally fine. Fortunately, there's absolutely nothing making you read such articles. There are plenty of folks who don't want to read another gear review, race report, or elite interview, but like pondering the sport more broadly. Different strokes for different folks.

      Cheers,
      Bryon

      1. Yeti

        Yeah! don't comment unless you agree with the author, ok! Seriously though, "crappy" was generous of Wyatt. Even the title is lame yet strangely perfect, "Who Rules the Trails". That's macho, cheesy, elitist and perfectly illustrates what a load of garbage this hyper-speculative, d!*k measuring contest should be called. And Wyatt, for future reference, the author is the only one who's allowed to be negative, ok?

        1. Bryon Powell

          Yeti, until this comment your comments were useful and constructive in their disagreement. Now, not so much.

          As for the author being negative, I don't think that's the intent or even the reality of the article.

          1. Yeti

            I respectfully disagree and I stand by my opinions. This article hit a nerve but in the interest of keeping it civil, maybe it's best I move on down the road. Apologies and no hard feelings, a Yeti's blood can run pretty hot past dark.

  13. StumpWater

    I think that this is an interesting and fun topic to discuss and I thank the author of the article for writing it.

    So:

    Would *all* or even *many* elite level 10k or marathon runners rise to the top or near-top in ultra running if they were to move up in distance? Of course not. Is it likely that *some* would? I would argue that the answer is very likely to be "yes", but that that "yes" becomes less and less clear as you move from, say, 50-mile races up the chain to 100-milers and 24-hour races. By being elite 10k runners or marathoners: they've shown that their bodies can handle a lot of running (less than some ultra runners routinely train, but probably more than some, too), so therefore many of them could do the required training; they've built a serious base to work from as they start the training that's specific to ultras; they're used to pain in training and racing (not to say the same kind/duration of pain as ultras must offer, but pain nonetheless). I imagine that there are other points like the ones I'm making that would support the argument that runners that have excelled at 10ks and marathons would be generally predisposed to success in ultras.

    And what of the young (mostly) Kenyans that are now dominating the marathon? 10 years ago, they would've been the ones dominating the track circuit in Europe (5,000 and 10,000 most likely).

    And besides, didn't some guy named Salazar run Comrades? How'd he do?

    Fun discussion! Looking forward to reading more of it.

    StumpWater

  14. ChrisB.

    When you lay it all out on the table the math starts to get really tricky. You can't simply say that far more people run on the road there for it means more for stand at the top of the heap. In truth it doesn't really work that way. It's like saying that it means more to win the World Series than it does to win the Tour de France, because far more people play baseball than race bicycles. Or a better example is that local bicycle races are more "competitive" than local 5Ks (at least speaking in terms of performance) – for instance I have a strong day in a local bike race and only manage to finish in the top 50%, while the few local 5Ks I've done, I've been able to finish in the top 20-10% with regularity.

    Road bicycle racing is probably as close a companion to trail running as road running is. Perhaps more so because it attracts sort of "niche seeking" athlets who perhaps didn't find great success elsewhere. Sports, particularly endurance sports are not merely the result of physical ability, as they require mental abilities different from other sports. f

    I'm not knocking road running even a little bit, but trail is a lot like bicycle racing in that it requires a different kind of focus and an attention to the ever changing conditions and the environment.

    Still, trail running is perhaps a lot like American bicycle racing was in the 1970s, a blossoming sport with a number of gifted athletes existing on the fringe of mainstream sport.

  15. Rob

    As someone who ran a sub 31 minute 10,000m and got lapped by a handful unknown collegians who themselves never managed to progress to elite distance runner status, I think folks here a a bit unfamiliar or naive about how strong elite runners are.

    Elite runners do not compete in trail races because they are busy being elite distance runners and there is no room in their life for it. It is not because of some lack of ability to run on a rocky trail or climb a hill. (They climb hills jaw droppingly well, believe me.) They are not lacking in any mental focus or toughness either.

    As others have said above, enjoy the ultra world for what it is. If it ever blows up and becomes big and important like NYC marathon, it will be a lot less fun for almost everyone now involved. (And the course records will drop by hours.)

    1. Ben Nephew

      They all climb as well as Jeff Eggleston and Luke Watson? All hills are not equal.

      http://www.coolrunning.com/results/10/nh/Jun19_50

      Max can certainly climb well, but worked on improving his climbing, and he has not had as much success at ultras as at shorter trail races. I'm a strong supporter of the importance of physiological conditioning, but the equation for translating elite road racing to trail ultras is more complicated than you imply. If you want to qualify your statement by making it specific to road ultras, you would have some sort of a point. I'm not sure what distance the hours comment refers to, though.

    2. Darthrunner

      I agree and disagree.

      If an elite 10k runner and a mid pack 50k runner line up for a 50k road race I'd definitely bet on the "elite". But there's a huge difference between a 50k road race and a 100 mile mountain race.

      I find it amusing how often road marathoners or track runners will show up at a shorter mountain ultra with plans of dominating the field only to be humbled and lucky to finish. Move up to a 100 mile mountain ultra and the difference is all the more pronounced, requiring a skill set beyond navigating left turns rapidly.

      The ability to climb a hill "jaw droppingly well" is certainly an asset. However, I don't think Ive ever witnessed a 10k in which the competitors navigate snow fields at 13,000 feet in the dark, perform minor foot surgery on themselves with a pocket knife and duct tape or fend off wild animals.

      Just curious Rob, what mountain ultras have you run?

  16. J.xander

    Interesting points but, at the end of the day, at the end of every day, you only race against who bothered to show up. Who is elite today might not be tomorrow.

    There is an Alaskan quote floating around in regards to one of our races:

    "Cowards won't show and the weak will die!" – I think it sums it up.

  17. Iflyxc

    Given Kilian's biological stats, a vo2 max of 85-90, a lactate threshold of 190 bpm and some fairly impressive race results (both in skiing and running), I would say he definitely fits into the "elite athlete" category. His vo2 max is one of the highest ever measured. I would guess (and of course, guess is all we can do) that if he had wanted to become a professional cyclist we would be seeing his name near the top of the Grand Tour standings. And given that some of the above mentioned names have beaten him in a few races but have not publicized there own bio stats, they probably have some elite numbers of there own.

    1. Alex

      It's worth noting that, as a predictor of race success, VO2 leaves a lot to be desired. Frank Shorter measured a 71.3, and clearly, he ran just fine. Not to say that Killian wouldn't be a force in any endurance event he chose to focus on, just that predicting any of this is difficult.

      1. David T

        Definetly agree, but for the fun of it:

        V02 Max comparisons:

        Five time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain – 88

        Cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie – 96

        Lance Armstrong – 85

        Kilian Jornet -92

        Matt Carpenter – 90.2

        Steve Prefontaine – 84.4

        Frank Shorter – 71.3

        Interesting to see Kilian and Matt so high on the list.

          1. Girona

            I love this Meltzer!! Truly a ULTRA runner. He has show it over and over and over. My definition of utrarunner would be: a runners who runs/races mainly ultra distances over a loooong period of time. I think run/racing over a period of time is what identifies the runner, not his results. The more time the more ultra genuine, good examples would be Ian Torrence, AJW, JK, HK, TT, DK, Miguel Heras, Gary and keith, Dr. DH…

            Results are fun but for me do not make the final product in this case. Only if they are accompanied by a consistent running over the years…life style.

  18. Jason

    It seems that elite road runners would/are near the from of the 50k type race. But you still see the likes of Yassine mixing it up with 2:14 marathoers at 50k trail races, so the comparison there isn't exact.. Just that they could expect to do very well. Same probably goes for the 50 mile distance.
    I'm guessing the type of events that last over 12 hours throw more. Variables into the mix. Enough that a six minute miler could beat a four minute miler. You still have to be a good runner though, and I wouldn't think an eight min guy or gal would stand a chance.
    The pain comparisons are also difficult. Slow all day hurts, but so does a well run 5k. That hurts much more intensely, and certainly tests the willpower of the runner to a great degree.

    1. KenZ

      Agreed. My gut tells me that up to 50m, blazing fast road runners/marathoners would probably make blazing fast ultra runners after they've done the specificity training for a few years (e.g. longer distance training, eating while running, aid station changes). Slightly more variable is the rough trail issue, as though while that is certainly trainable, there is a gutsy balance and coordination issue that is not a given just because someone's a fast runner (refer to any of the videos of Killian on a descent; it's not that anyone can't go balls out like that for their given ability, just that it is a very specific type of skill/balance that is not necessarily a 1:1 transition from fast running. But it is still trainable!)

      Remember, blazing fast road runners/marathoners have a running efficiency that is truly amazing. That efficiency needs to be tweaked for the trails, but I find it hard to believe that once the trail specific nature is trained for that they wouldn't continue to rock out accordingly.

      Also agree that after 50m/12h it becomes a bit of a different game, and, as Karl refers to, the longer you go, the less things like VO2max count.

  19. Andrew Guitarte

    When I recently cross trained to ultra trail running from long distance road racing, I noticed the following. Pain management, same. Adjustments to race day weather, same. Hydration & nutrition planning, same. Cheerful RDs & volunteers, same. Gear & attire mix-&-match, same. Pace management, same. Mental training, same. What was not the same for me was the terrain. Specifically technical downhill terrain. Single track loose gravel trail switchbacks on a 35% decline will make any road racer think twice about bombing it, elite status or midpacker. Broken limbs were never a threat on the road. With enough techniques, I can master this terrain, then nothing else can stop me. The possibility of elite road runners dominating the podium of ultra races is 100%, I'm absolutely sure. It's just a matter of time.

  20. Chris

    It's also a matter of just liking different things. When I started running again after a long hiatus it was because I felt drawn to the 'novel' concept of combining my love for hiking/seeing nature with running. Like many, I ran track in high school and it was strictly a chore or something to be done for competition. Actually using running to have fun and travel to cool places was a new concept. That is why trail running was a great discovery for me. After a while on the trails you start fantasizing about more and more places to go, so you start building your stamina. For example right now one of my possible projects is to run to a mountain hut which is about 20 miles from the trailhead, spend a night there and then run back. So trail running quite naturally leads to distance because you actually want to get to and see places. It's a form of transport. That's a big concept for some of us and it couldn't be farther from the concept of competitive track or road running where it isn't really about 'transport' or 'seeing places' its more about competition. That's why I see many of the ultra/trail runners as outdoorspeople as well as athletes. That outdoors mentality may be one difference. If you listen to any of the top ultra competitors you mentioned, nature, the mountains and where they are running is probably as important to them as competition.

    1. Yeti

      Right on Chris, totally agree with the idea of movement and the beautiful environments in which we choose to do it being paramount. The fantasy overnight trip you described sounds like a great idea and the kind of thing that distance running is ideally and intrinsically about for most trail runners. Races are cool and certainly have their place but personally I'd rather do something like you just described 99 times out of 100 and I know many trail/ultra runners would do the same. I realize the article is about competition(and I'm getting off track) but it's trips like Chris just described that separates someone who is just crossing over from track/road just so they can win or something and most of us that have always done it for the mountains and forests and lonely, beautiful places that we love to play.

  21. Alex from New Haven

    This whole conversation is just a more polite version of 20 different threads on Letsrun.com.

    It's not that the answers and opinions are right or wrong it's that the question/topic itself is pointless, insecure and crazy-making. It breeds division and defensiveness. Do other sports sit around fretting about "Are we actually crap because the Africans don't know about our sport?"

    How about "How does ultra keep its community values and ethics in the face of exponential growth?"

    How about "Debate the best Hidden Gem ultras in the US"

    How about "Debate how RDs and clubs can work with USFS to increase access/runner limits for races"

    Apologies, just a little frustrated.

    1. Bryon Powell

      The thing is it IS a more polite conversation. This a place where folks can discuss topics in the civil manner whereas similar conversations tend not to run their course elsewhere. The topic is relevant as there seems to have been a trend for runners further out on the talent's long tail enter the sport. Moreover, the second two articles offer interesting takes from from those within our sport that come from different running pedigrees.

      There always have been conversations such as you describe on iRunFar and will continue to be, but that doesn't preclude articles like this one. I'm sorry that this ones frustrates you. I guess it's good to know folks want more general "on the trail" type discussion points that I have trended away from them somewhat. I guess I thought they were a bit too soft and fuzzy… or at least too easy on my end to be worthwhile. ;-)

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. Please don't let an article on iRunFar lead to crazy-making!

  22. fredpendergrast

    Great article! It sees patently obvious that if elite runners moved up to ultras they would dominate! Elite marathoners already train more miles per week than almost all ultra runners except Krupicka. Judging by the number of defensive/hostile responses, you really touched a nerve. The truth hurts!

    1. Girona

      42 Km is a lot differente than 160 Km. Your Marathon time does not predict at all your 160 km time, only many previous 160 K will predict your performance in 160k distances. It is not the same to run for 2h 30 min in a flat asphalt course that to be moving through mountains for 24 hours (up, down, day, night, head lamps, eating, moving, different temperatures…) Way different my friend!

      ;-)

      1. Girona

        Also,

        -I do think that they could be some good marathoners that perform well at Ultra distances, as well as triathletes, skiers, cyclist…but it is because they have the qualities to perform well in ultra events, not because they perform well in marathons, triathlons, ski, cycling…

        -High mileage in training and ultra distance racing might not be compatible, look Krupicka. There is a difference in how you quantify your training load, time or mileage. High volume in time for ultra running, great. High mileage (100+ mi) for ultra running, not so great. The stress imposed in racing ultra distances might not be compatible with high mileage training. It is important to show up at the starting line fit and in good form but most important is to show healthy and strong (physically and mentally).

        My two euro cents!

  23. Darian

    By the way, above average articles are usually controversial. Cheers to the author! I am noticing there are strong opinions on the sport of trail running turning commercial. That is the real issue here I think. Not road vs trail. Most trail runners would agree that trail running is in many respects a way to escape the modern twist on running. It requires more balance, coordination, and in most cases (excluding Badwater) endurance than 99% of road races. It is difficult to compare. I agree with the author perhaps we, in the present are a different breed. We are not only athletes but also explorers, naturalists, trekkers, and mountaineers. I think this is why many are offended or confused by the analysis of our sport. Whether you like it or not, the new found popularity and prize money has made it inevitable that the distances will become attainable by more, thus making the sport more competitive. So what if we get Olympic marathoners trying 50 milers and perhaps 100s! I welcome this crowd! I think the influx of more runners has many of the elite on edge and some of our bloggers having identity crises. Just remember there will always be the likes of the Hard Rock 100, the multi-day desert races, or for the trail hermits FKTs.

  24. Wyatt Hornsby

    Hi Yeti:

    I have apologized privately to Bryon and, via this post, to Alex. Bryon very graciously accepted my apology and I hope Alex will, too. Constructive feedback is a great thing, but using nasty words like I did with "crappy" is unproductive and not at all in the spirit of ultrarunning (and it also didn't reflect who I really am). I was just in a foul mood yesterday, as I had a bad race on Saturday, and should NEVER have posted those thoughts on here, as once they're posted they're out there. Here's to all those out there who are stirring the pot and making us think.

    Wyatt

  25. fredpendergrast

    Well, of course running a 2:30 marathon doesn't mean you can enter a 100 miler and dominate. It means that you have the habits and the capability to do the necessary training to dominate in 100 milers. No training, no domination, Know training, Know domination.

    1. Anonymous

      Running sub 2:30 means nothing when talking about 100 mile races in mountains. It only means you are fast on the asphalt.

  26. Todd

    I think your road cycling analogy is just plain wrong. Road cycling attracts the top endurance athletes in the world because of the money and the popularity in Europe. Show me another endurance sport where the top dozen or so athletes in the world make a base salary of over $1M per year? Do the top marathoners/triathletes make this much? All ProTour rides (and there are hundreds of them) make a minimum of $75K per year. And that is just salary, prize money (that is usually shared across the team) is on top of that. Total prize money for just the Tour de France is about $5M.

    1. ChrisB.

      My analogy wasn't in reference to the financial aspects of the two sports, but rather to the sort of wayward path that brings athletes to the their respective sports. This is even more amplified in North America where despite the international success of a number of American cyclists, cycling in general still lags far behind running as a participatory sport.

      Also, from an oratorical standpoint, starting a response with the notion that the another person's argument is "just plain wrong" is kind of over the top, unless of course you are participating in a televised political debate.

  27. Paul Rutemiller

    I love the fact that the "elite" ultrarunners consistently cite their love for the mountains, trails, and simplicity of running in general. They also happen to be talented and fast runners. I don't really see road runners citing their love for roads? It seems, to me, a new (2 yrs now) ultrarunner, that road runners run to check it off a list or to say they ran a marathon. Same for triathletes, in general of course. I am a big fan of the Ryan Hall and Meb

  28. Paul Rutemiller

    (wups didn't mean to press publish)

    …I'm a big fan of the elite marathoners, they are great people, but I think the lifestyle argument trumps this conversation. Apples and Oranges. The group of ultrarunners that I hang out with run to be on the trails and in the mountains. Races are celebrations, not suffer-fests. I think most ultra folks would agree. As for road-folks, I don't necessarily see the same love. Just my observations over the past couple years, no disrespect, I like the roads too! Just the quiet of the trails better :P

  29. Rasmus Hoeg

    Interesting discussion.

    The big question is "could the track/road elites crush the ultra course records, if they cared?"

    In my mind, it's incredible how few track/road elites have tried their hand at ultras. This includes the East Africans, but also Europeans/Americans. It's hard to answer the question with such few runners having crossed over.

    Alberto Salazar won Comrades, so that would argue for an easy cross-over.

    Max King's problems with 50+ mile races would argue for a difficult cross-over.

    Chris Lundstrom (2:17 marathon) has been a little disappointing. He has placed well, but is soundly beaten by specialists (and almost by Ellie Greenwood at American River 2012).

    Sage Canaday will be interesting to follow.

    Melanie Peters is an Olympic Trials qualifier, who took second at Ice Age and earned a WS spot, so she will be interesting to follow.

    Personally, I think trails/ultras require more specific skill and talent than most people realize. However, if Western States suddenly had a $500K prize purse, the top 10 would be unrecognizable and would include lots of East Africans.

  30. Josh White

    Spot on mush. I run trails because it's fun. I get bored on the roads in about 30 seconds. Before I discovered trail running, I wasn't a runner. Ultras mean more trails, so I run ultras. I'm slow. I'm terrible at it (from a competitive perspective). But it's fun. I get to travel around and see some of the most incredible places this country has to offer. I get to test myself against the course. I get to meet some incredibly cool people.

    And I think that's really the message here. In any given sport we engage in, we do it because it's fun. I'm not counting the people who "run" on occasion because they feel the need to counteract that bag of Cheetos. I'm also not counting people who participate in a sport at the olympic level, as the training and such at that level seems quite likely to remove any fun from the equation. But yeah … there's no mystery. It's just fun. Read the "elite" blogs … Tony's, Joe's, Geoff's … they all do it because it's fun.

  31. trail running

    I don't think cycling is a good analogy either. First its a really different muscle set than running. A lot of the arguments trying to seperate ultraguys from road marathoners from an apples and oranges perspective would better fit the comparison between cycling and running. Back to running, I can see maybe a hypothetical multi-stage racing like the tour de france for running if that ever gets popular, where some people just recover better quick, be the domain of a different breed of runners. I just don't see physiologically why an elite marathoner would be so magically different a breed from the 100 mile breed such that they somehow really can't break any 100 mile record.

  32. Charlie

    One of our better ultra runners in Australia has some amazing short distace times;

    1500m 3.49

    3000m 7.59

    5000m 13.52

    10,000m 29.06

    But that speed hasn't translated into nearly as good longer distance performances even though he has focussed on longer stuff for the last 6 years:

    Marathon 2.31

    50k 3.24

    100k 7.34

    Western States 21hours

    I find it very interesting that there are 38 minute 10k runners who can beat him over 100k+

  33. trail running

    I believe that's right to a good degree, and big time on the course. One could say barkley's time and elevation change would even make the fast 12-16 hours 100 milers time irrelevant and that slower guys would run the course record because they've focused on that type training. After all if you take away the fast guy's ability to speed all he's got is this big lung and big heart or big whatever. But even then I believe, that has to mean seconds minutes hours or something in the total run time, and the fast 100 miler would eventually take down barkley's records by lots, just the same as I believe "inclined" speedy marathoners could take down the faster 100 mile race records by lots. I like how they are both similar too in not attracting more faster people so we can get these fun questions answered.

  34. cam

    I'm not a fast marathoner ( 3:06 ) but after finishing dead last in a 50 miler and not finishing a 100… I was severely humbled, after having cruised through the Boston marathon a couple times…

    its totally different.

  35. trail running

    Ooh multi-day desert races. Ah well I'd settle for a two week stage trail race of all the western states if that was ever possible. Maybe Roes and Krupicka would dominate for obvious reasons if they ever trained for it, but then maybe some of middle of the packers would have a super recovery gene so as to wipe out the speed advantage, just like stage racers and classics riders in cycling. It's a cool thought though that everyone of some talent has got the potential to swing it with the big dogs given more and more legit endurance type "hurdles".

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