Trail running and trail-based ultramarathons keep producing elite athletes who didn’t excel on the roads or the track. For many runners, the rough terrain itself is an advantage – just ask World Mountain-Running champions Max King and Kasie Enman.
[FYI, this three-part series kicked off with an introductory article and an article focused on Anton Krupicka, Ellie Greenwood, and Geoff Roes.]
31-year-old Max King, of Bend, Oregon, is no slouch – he competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials steeplechase and placed 19th in the Olympic Marathon Trials in January – but he’s not a world champion on the roads or the track.
That changes in the mountains. King claimed top individual honors while leading the U.S. Men’s Mountain Running Team to a fourth place finish at the 2011 IAAF World Mountain Running Championship in Tirana, Albania. It was a feat matched by 31-year-old Kasie Enman, who claimed first place while also leading the U.S. women to a fourth-place team finish.
Like King, Enman, of Huntington, Vermont, is accomplished on tamer surfaces. She placed 11th in the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon and 53rd in January’s Trials; but the former cross-country All-American from Middlebury College was unable to boast the title “world champion” until she took to the mountains.
Are King and Enman simply the most talented runners to have made the transition off-road? Or do they have a distinct advantage on the steep, technical terrain found in mountain running?
“I started noticing in college that I had better results in cross country than track,” Enman said. “My first post-collegiate season was cross country and I found myself placing well against these women who had much faster PRs than I did. This would get me pumped up every year because I thought it was an indication I would be right with those same ladies in the spring, running big PRs, but every spring I was just fighting against myself on the track.”
“The longer I’ve been in this sport, the more I recognize that people have their strengths and weaknesses,” she continued. “I believe it is important to work on your weaknesses, so I do the speed work, the road runs, the flat paved races. However, I feel most in my element on technical trails with hills and roots and rocks. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a developed thing.”
She may have developed a trail aptitude after moving to Vermont and making trail running a regular part of her training. “My husband would take me on these trail runs and I would get so frustrated because it didn’t even feel like running to me, it felt like bushwhacking,” she said. “Now, that’s the kind of run I seek out. I have tried to go on trail runs with road racing friends of mine who I am right in step with on the roads and we end up having to turn around early or slow way down. My theory is that their stabilizer muscles just aren’t developed in the same way.”
As King put it, “just being fast” on roads or the track doesn’t necessarily translate to winning mountain or trail races. “I’ve raced Ben Bruce, 8:19 steeplechaser and IAAF World Champs qualifier, several times on trails at Xterra Championships and usually come out ahead by about 3 minutes over a half marathon. Same with Ryan Bak, as soon as it gets more technical I pull away from both pretty easily,” he said. “Most of the good road and track runners will run XC as well and I can always hold my own on an XC course against the same guys that would dust me on the track. And most all runners will run trails in training and I’ve always had an easier time getting through a technical section, faster and more relaxed, than other runners that are comparable on the roads or track.”
But King noted the comparison is difficult. “You just don’t get a lot of guys coming over to the trails that are good on the track,” he said. “I’m working on that though.”
Complicating the equation further is the extent to which successful ultrarunners’ talent lies in the extended distance of ultras, rather than the terrain typically found in them. Scott Jurek demonstrated prowess on both trails and roads – given that the race was at least 100 miles long – with his Western States/Badwater double victory in 2005, and Michael Wardian was runner up in both the 2011 IAU World (road) 100k Championships and the UROC (trail) 100k only weeks apart. [Editor’s Note: Wardian was leading late in UROC before getting lost.] Still others are suited to both extreme distance and extreme terrain – Diana Finkel places high in any ultra she enters, but becomes unbeatable on a course like Hardrock, where she’s won the last four years.
“Do I need terrain that allows for some speed? I think it all depends on who I’m competing against,” Enman said. “In mountain running, I found out this past year that I am better at the uphill/downhill courses that require both strength, in the ups, and speed, on the downs. But you have to keep in mind that I’m racing primarily against mountain racing specialists at the mountain races…If I was running against a bunch of track racers, I would much rather be on a completely technical ‘slow’ course.”
King also acknowledged that his strength on technical terrain was still complemented by his speed. “My feeling is that I need runnable terrain,” he said. “I’ve been running so long, I just like to run. Hiking’s too slow.”
“You need a good balance of speed, technical skill, and grit,” he continued. “Jonathan Wyatt is one of the most proficient mountain runners around but he also has a marathon PR of 2:12. He’s shown that being good on the road can translate to the mountain, and possibly that good road runners can also be at the top of the mountain running world as well if they choose that path.”
Yet for all the speculation, the only way to know whether top-level track and road talent is transferable to the mountains is for more runners with that talent to make the transition off-road – something King expects to happen soon. “We’re getting more exposure in the U.S. now that we’ve seen some success,” he says. “People are looking for that next challenge.”