A League of Their Own – Part 3: Max King and Kasie Enman Weigh In

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.”

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 18 comments

  1. CJ

    Wish you could have delved a little more into the races/distances Max has struggled in and what he thinks would help him improve most. This has been a great series, thanks for putting it together

  2. Brian Todd

    This series has been interesting. The discussion is basically a parlor game, but an interesting one still. One of the virtues of running is the objectivity of results. There is an accepted answer to who is the best 10K runner ever: look at the clock. This is particularly true of track, and maybe decreasingly so of road races, and then even more so of trail ultras. Is there an accepted answer to who is the best 100 miler? Nope, because you immediately begin asking trail or road? Which trail? Etc. So, the best we can really say is who holds the CR in a given race.

    What makes this a parlor game is when the discussion turns toward who WOULD be best if they tried. An unnamed African runner? A certain elite marathoner? No one knows. In a sense, it's like debating who is better between an elite 800m runner and a 10K runner. Or even 10K and the marathon. Until someone toes the line and throws down, you'll never know. Maybe a decade from now, we'll look back to current course records and be astonished at how much faster people are running now. But that's the nature of all running distances. The only fact is that the people with the course records today are the current elites in the highly-varied sport of ultrarunning (or trail running, or whatever we're calling what we do). Is someone out there "better?" Maybe. The young age of our sport, relative to track, for example, makes the discussion a little more interesting. But it's still just an enjoyable parlor game.

    1. trail running

      My "parlor game" opinion is that a sub 2:10 elite marathoner, being that fast and talented over the marathon distance, is not physiologically prevented by that fact from achieving as expected at 50 or 100 miles contrary to the 800m elite runner versus 10K example. Of course a few statistically insignificant evidence one way or the other doesn't prove one way or the other. I could be wrong but I doubt it :)

      1. Brian Todd

        I don't think anyone here would dispute that the elites at any non-ultra distance are really good runners. Their skill would certainly serve as a good foundation for potential success at ultra events if they chose to run ultras. To me,the "parlor game" here seems to be debating whether particular runners could just jump from their current event into an ultra event and "clean house" or be "crushed" (as another commenter put it). To me, it gets to the issue of specificity of training. Your world champ 800m runner is most likely not going to quickly translate that very specific skill into a win at Hardrock, which takes a related, but different very specific skill. An Olympic marathoner? They'll most likely crush me, but whether they crush the current leaders or how much specific training it would take for them to be competitive at the front is where the parlor game is interesting.

        Interesting to a runnerd, at least.

  3. Sage Canaday

    Here's an interview I did with Max last weekend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw6X5VybVYE "Maximus" is probably the toughest runner I know (and those myths of his toughness were confirmed!). As far as fast road marathoners moving into ultras I think it comes down to a lot of individual variation in FT/ST muscle fiber ratios, Q-angles, foot-strike and quad/hamstring strength ratios. It seems like some technical aspects of trail running (and things like nutrition) are learned skills that can improved over time – however having a large aerobic engine and being mentally tough can get you pretty far. It is a rare athlete that has the range to compete at 3k to 50 miles (like Max does). It is the same reason that the list of sub 4:00 milers who can also go sub 2:10 is relatively short. You can't have it all (ultra long distance endurance, track speed, uphill running ability, downhill running ability, technical trail ability, etc.) although Max is pretty close!

  4. Drew

    And don't forget about Uli! He's getting older but still dominates on trail, when he does trail races, and still competes at a high level on road.

  5. Jason

    This is an interesting topic. Of course, we'll never really answer it. It seems quite clear that good runners posses lots of traits that help them in long mountain races. The sports are different, but quite related (unlike basketball and mountain running). Very long distances still has to even the field a bit, and give the underdogs a bit more of a chance. Max is an incredibly tough athlete. He's over a minute per mile faster than me at the marathon, and showed that to be exactly true at the 50k distance. At those distances the top group (even pretty far into the field) are able to run hard the majority of the distance. Trying that at a 100 won't save you a bit of time, so skills like leg turnover, and even ability on technical trails, diminishes in importance. Let's face it, it's great to be able to bomb rugged trails for a few hours, but when you're running slowly (in a 100), you need less of those coordination skills.

    Someone said that the transition was easy (from marathon to trail), and the adjustments to conditions were the same. I don't think so. Marathon you're never far from 'aid', a miscalculation on a mountain run could leave you without water for hours. Saving weight by not carrying some warmer clothes at night (in certain races) could leave you in serious danger. How does your body recover after throwing up? Can you stomach 300 calories an hour for 15-20 hours?

    The real top 'elites' would have a great chance to do very well. They come with a bunch of the qualities that are important, but it's no guarantee that those other qualities exist in them, so it would be on a case by case basis, and we won't know until we see them putting in the specific training on trails, and then trying it. There is absolutely no doubt at least some of them would clean house. There is no doubt that some of them would be crushed.

  6. Ben Nephew

    Dismissing this type of discussion as useless or a parlor game misses a very relevant point, especially with these specific interviews. Mountain runners were saying similar things about elite runners not too long ago. Two things have happened in the past decade. A greater number of faster men and women are competing at the US mountain team selection races, and the US is regularly adding to its collection of championship medals. I don't think this is a coincidence. A parallel development has taken place with the US World 100k teams.

    Whether they are professional runners or not, many members of the US mountain and 100k teams prepare for their races as if they were professionals. There preparations are highly specific for the championship race. I think the most interesting aspect of the success of the mountain teams has been the efforts to make the team selection race as similar as possible to the championship course. Whether or not it is organized, I think that type of process would result in an increase in US success at European trail ultras.

    1. mushmouph

      i am not sniping nor do i mean to be dismissive. honestly does anyone care about medals? the governing bodies of organized sport are mainly concerned with what is in it for them. unlike the majority of the rd's out there who operate races below break even before they are ever on the radar much less a lottery system.

      1. Ben Nephew

        Ask anyone who as been on a US team that has won medals. You could start with Max and Kasie. If you find no value in competition, than this article and discussion does not pertain to you. If you want to talk to some people who care, find your way to the top of Mount Washington on June 16th, and you can watch all the caring that goes on in the last quarter mile of the race.

        What is your opinion of the motives of the athletes that compete at the events organized by the governing bodies, or the majority of rd's? Are they doing it for charity, to make you happy, for peace on earth, or themselves? I think most would agree that the organizers of the IAU or WMRA events are less selfish than the runners. Have you even been to an IAU or WMRA event?

        1. mushmouph

          i didn't say competition was pointless. i have no problem with people who compete for medals. the end result of a medal is usually a better endorsement deal. the actual medal has little financial value.

          my point was the events that award them are just races. the winner of any given race was the best of those who started and finished. unless the race was open to all comers no additional statements can be made.

          i am happy to hear the iau and wmra are good groups. i don't think i have ever been to their races.

  7. Ed Poppiti

    I question whether an elite group of marathoners such as the "Kenyans/Ethiopians" would crush today's ultra elites. Some are saying that their genetic make-up will carry the day. For 4 consecutive marathons non-stop in the mountains? Where is the evidence anywhere to support this carryover. Now if, as it has been suggested, they train for specificity for 5 years and succeed is that even relevant to the discussion because at that point in time would they be elite marathoners or elite ultra runners. It seems to me that to support the argument then the "Kenyans/Ethiopians" would have to toe the line now, not after transforming themselves into that which they are not now. As a back of the pack runner no matter the distance, I find it amusing that some would bet on this carryover, more so I would be interested to know if any of the believers in the carryover have themselves ever run a 100 miler, or do they just know what it requires? Good thread with a lot more questions than answers.

    1. trail running

      I think the question is not necessarily training defining whether you are one or the other, its about your capacity and whether that means one iota for 100 miles. Kudos on being able to "carryover", it may very well end up that somehow 2:20-2:40 guys are in a sweet spot I would be totally surprised though. No question a kenyan or ethiopian have to do some really long runs over a year maybe to compete. The question is why do we assume being in the 2:20 range to 2:40 range marathoners (the ones that have put up the current times) are somehow designed to run faster 100's than anyone based on the admittedly small data sets we have today? What's keeping 2:10 to 2:15 guys from joining the party? what's detrimental about being a 2:08 guy? How about 3:xx marathoners not really even needing their speed for an ultra? Well with 3:xx marathoners the verdict is probably out since there's enough data points for them, they seem to get beaten more by faster marathon guys.

    2. Paul R

      Do you honestly think it would take 5 years of specific training to suceed. Athletes with top, top leg speed, big aerobic bases and who most of which train in the MOUNTAINS and on TRAILS most of the year anyway

  8. Andrew Guitarte

    I wonder why it's difficult for some readers to accept the possibility that some elite road marathoners can someday dominate the ultra races? Can somebody please enlighten me?

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