2012: A Year in Review

As this will be my last column on this website for 2012 I’ve decided to be entirely predictable and do a “year in review” piece. Some of what I have to say will be the typical looking back on the year that was, and the runners and performances that most defined 2012, but I will also try to put a personal and in some ways unusual twist on this common theme. So, without further ado, here is what trail running looked like through my eyes in 2012:

From a personal standpoint this was the most difficult, but also predictable year of running I have ever had. I began the year feeling quite rundown from several years of nearly non-stop training and racing. I am ending the year even more rundown. So much so that I have run less than 10 total miles since August. Not because I’m simply choosing to take rest, but because up until a few weeks ago I couldn’t run without setting off a wave of severe symptoms.

In looking back on 2012, it’s pretty easy to determine how things went from bad to worse for me. The running highlight of my year, and probably the most satisfying event I have ever taken part in was the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Despite the fact that this 350-mile race pushed me from moderately overtrained to severely overtrained, I wouldn’t trade in the experience for anything in the world. Racing through the Alaskan wilderness for a week in the middle of winter is something I will never forget, and something I most definitely intend to do again at some point.

I was able to keep my head above the surface through an incredible summer of mountain adventures in Juneau, Alaska until everything eventually came crumbling down. Since then it has been a struggle simply to get through each day. Running has taken a very necessary backseat. Advice I give to anyone feeling like they might be going through a bit of overtraining/adrenal fatigue/burnout/or whatever you want to call it: Don’t just talk about the need to cut back (as I did for over a year), but actually do it. Don’t just assume that everything will work itself out. There are resources and methods out there to help you know if you are overtrained. Seek them out. Get in touch with me if you are worried about this, but don’t know where to begin. I’ve learned a lot having gone through this. Better yet, seek out a good sports doctor who has worked with overtrained endurance athletes.

At any rate, beyond my wild and unusual personal journey that was 2012 there was an entire wild and unusual season of ultra trail running around the world. I won’t go into too many specifics about top performances and top runners of 2012 (Ultrarunning magazine will do a much more detailed job of this next month than I could ever do.), but, rather, I want to point out a few trends and dynamics that I think were significant in the past year.

First on the women’s side of things, I think 2012 was the year that women’s ultrarunning made it clear that it’s not going to take a backseat to the men’s side of things any longer. Women have been accomplishing amazing things in this sport for decades, but the depth of competition on the men’s side has always been several times greater than that on the women’s side. Not so much the case in 2012. There is certainly still a disparity, but it wasn’t uncommon to have big-time races this year in which the women’s field was as deep with runners who could potentially win the race as was the men’s field. There are still a few women who are a few strides ahead of the rest in terms of what kind of performances they are putting up (For whatever reason they are all native English speakers, but not of the American version.), but this year dozens of other women emerged who seem determined to pull closer and closer onto the heels of Ellie, Lizzy, and Anna. This is despite the fact that these three are performing at a level beyond that of any women in the competitive history of trail ultrarunning who are not named Ann Trason. Women’s trail ultrarunning is on the really steep part of the curve right now. So much so that nearly all of the fastest 20 or so women to ever race trail ultras are racing currently. 2013 (and beyond) is going to be really exciting in the world of women’s trail racing.

Men’s ultrarunning in 2012 was different, but no less exciting than things on the women’s side. A few years ago men’s ultrarunning went through the phase that the women are going through now. There were a handful of runners who were consistently putting up performances that were jaw dropping, and a whole herd of runners a stride or two behind that. The sport was growing rapidly, and course records were being set nearly every weekend, but there were a half dozen (or fewer) runners who were doing most of the more significant bar raising. The most competitive races were 10 or 20 runners deep in terms of folks who could podium, but in terms of folks who could win these big races, you could almost always narrow that number down to five or less. JB Benna was very fortunate that 2010 Western States played out the way it did, but it didn’t exactly come as a surprise to anyone that 3 of the 4 runners he chose to focus on for the making of Unbreakable were ultimately the top three finishers. With each passing month though, more and more people joined the herd, and this year the herd seems to have more or less caught up with the once small group of true front runners. Someone out there hoping to capture a behind-the-scenes look at the top three finishers in next year’s Western States might need to pick 10 or 15 runners to key in on, rather than the four that it took JB just a few years ago.

What did this shift look like in 2012? Instead of two or three runners putting up winning results race after race, and clearly distinguishing themselves as “ultrarunner of the year” contenders, we saw dozens of runners put up a few (or less) jaw-dropping performances each. The bar was raised higher than ever in 2012, but instead of this being done by the same few folks over and over, it was done by numerous runners from around the world, and from vastly different backgrounds. Certainly there still are a few runners who seem to be a stride ahead of everyone else, but the difference between whoever will ultimately be awarded UROY next month, and say, the person to receive 5th place in that voting is but a sliver of what it was a few years ago. This shift is even more obvious when you consider the distinction of “performance of the year.” There were so many impressive performances this year that there will certainly be some that don’t finish in the top three of the voting that would have won the award in many of the past 10 years.

In short, 2012 was a terribly exciting year in the world of ultrarunning, but also a year that seems to have laid yet another foundation for even more exciting things to come. On a personal level, I certainly missed being as much a part of the racing aspect of the sport as I had grown accustomed to, but I learned a lot about myself and about running this year, and by all measures it seems as though things are only going to continue to get more exciting in this sport for years to come. There were a lot of races and a lot of dynamics in the sport in 2012 that it would have been nice to be more a part of, but certainly the excitement isn’t fleeting, but instead is maybe just beginning to come into a sustained bloom.

There are 10 comments

  1. Flandria

    Nice summary! A simple full panel blood test can also give you overtraining indications as a more objective look compared to the subjective symptoms.

  2. Shelby

    First of all, I'm happy to hear that you feel you've got some answers to the problems you've been experiencing all year. I hope that your experience will help many others who are in the midst of over training.

    Secondly, this was the first year I really followed the UR scene closely, after casually following Killian's "quests" for years. I thought it was a very exciting year from the drama of Transvulcania to TNF 50. I thought "Damn, there are so many top runners its hard to predict who might actually win." That keeps things exciting and unpredictable (and therefore, more interesting!).

    Thanks for the historical perspective that confirmed that things have indeed changed in the past couple of years. I'm glad to have jumped on the bandwagon when I did. I'm looking forward to an equally exciting 2013!

  3. Matthew C Bryant

    I would think Ellie Greenwood has to be ultrarunner of the year, based on her Western States run. Plus, she was first woman in every race she ran in 2012.

    1. Shelby

      She actually got 2nd at Comrades, then crushed it at WS weeks later without running in between. I agree she had an amazing year and is certainly my pick in 2013.

  4. stack

    i know you are too humble to even think this (let alone say it) but I have to think something is to be said for the fact that 2 of the top 3 you mention in WS2010 were basically missing this year. Not to take away anything from the pack that seems to have closed the gap but just thought I'd point it out. It would be like removing you and Tony from the ultra scene that year or two and looking at how the rest would have been grouped together and fighting for wins.

    glad you're getting things figured and more importantly able to get back into nature more!

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