Elite: An Uncomfortable Term

Elite – Noun: A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category.

The term Elite seems to have crept more and more into the sport of trail running in the last few years. Several races have separate, elite start times, free entry for elite runners, we even have websites dedicated almost exclusively to news and race day results of these elite runners. This is, of course, something we see in every sport. Sports fans and participants always pay more attention to those who are most often in the position of winning whatever sport it is they are partaking in.

This dynamic all makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t think there ever will be (or should be) a time when top performers aren’t celebrated, respected, and highly discussed. This said though, I think the term elite is the wrong term to use here.

Admittedly, I have used this term a handful of times in the past, although always uncomfortably. The problem I have with it is that being fast is not the only way to be a good runner. When 300 people line up and run a race whoever is the fastest runner over the distance on that particular day wins the race, but that doesn’t automatically make them a better runner than anyone else in the field, just faster. I certainly do compete in the sport of running to see how fast I can run on a particular day, against a particular group of other like-minded runners, and I have been fortunate enough to have dozens of races in which I have been the fastest on that day, but I’m not sure if I have ever run a race in which I feel I was specifically the best runner on that given day. Being fast is only one part of being good (or elite) at running.

I think it’s fine to have distinctions between faster and slower runners. In many cases it can make race-day logistics a lot easier to have separate waves for the faster runners. Free entry to fast runners draws more of these runners to a race, and thus draws more overall attention to the race, something that most races are looking for. And, certainly, there is always going to be a larger audience for the battle at the front of the pack than there is for the runners battling it out for 168th place. I have no problems with any of this. It’s just the term “elite” that so many of us are using that I have a problem with. I think it can, and often does come across as arrogant, condescending, and most importantly inaccurate.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be another commonly used term to represent the runners who compete near the front of the pack in a particular race, and so, out of ease, people revert to the term elite because it has become, through its widespread usage, the most widely understood. The only problem with this is that it’s simply the wrong term.

I really liked the approach to this that the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler took this year. They had two separate fields: The Hares (faster runners) and The Tortoises (slower runners). Not the elites (best runners) and everyone else (something less than the best? the unbest?). I did hear of a few people who were also offended by the tortoise terminology.  Let’s be realistic though, some runners are simply faster than others, and there are situations where this needs to be acknowledged, but I think there are far more accurate ways to do this then we are currently doing with the term elite.

Maybe I’m just being too idealistic here, and I need to accept that words are improperly used like this all the time. The primary function of language is after all to communicate, and elite has become the word in running that is most commonly used to convey that someone is a fast runner. What do you all think? Does it make the most sense to just continue using it because it’s the most well understood at this point, or does it make more sense to use something else that is more accurate and doesn’t come with so much potential disregard for all the runners who aren’t defined as “elite?”

There are 112 comments

  1. Ashley Moyer

    I understand and agree with what you are saying, but then I just step back and think how ridiculous people get about words and are offended. Of course I am talking about the whole "Christmas" tree thing we hear a lot about right now… "Elite" isn't a derogatory term, if we started using another term instead, years down the road I'm sure we would be having the same discussion about that term…

  2. Andre Cruz

    It´s good to hear you GR.

    In some sports, as triathlon, they use to call these people as pro´s.

    Here in Brazil, we have problem about that, cause we have somes pro´s that don´t live only with triathlon, some are engineers or lawyers, but are fast enough to be in the front of the pack.

    In other way, some people that earn their money with triathon, and so are pro, run in the age group just to find a place to run in Haway.

    bye.

  3. Drew

    The idea of what you offers a great deal of info about the people in our sport. I have not met to many cocky and arrogant ultra runners. Typically, those with whom I train and race are laid back and minimize their running ability. In fact, they simply let their races speak for themselves. While running the Run Rabbit Run 100 this year, I was most impressed by all of the lead hares…. each of them took time to say hello as they passed me and the conversation was very supportive on both ends. I played football and college and you would never see that level of sincere encouragement, not even from your own coach and teammate. So, what I am saying is that in our sport we are happy to have others out with us… so long as they are willing to enjoy the mountains and support one another. And, I would consider some of the guys I have seen at these races "Elites." However, part of that is the way they conduct themselves. Thanks for your comment!!!

  4. Martin from Italy

    I was a little surprised when I saw the use of the terms tortoises and hares for the Run Rabbit Run. Wouldn't it have been better to call them rabbits in the early waves and hounds chasing after them. Both are pretty fast – hounds are just better at keeping up the pace (more endurance!).

    Good article by Geoff though. As the sport progresses and a lot of people who we call Elites today become pro or semi pro there maybe a change in this denomination.

  5. Charlie M.

    I really think "elite" smacks of aristocratic snobbery, so we need to have something much more modern…how about:

    "Top Dawgs" / "Mid-Packers" / "Slowmobiles"

  6. Jim

    Perhaps we separate it by those who get first choice of the good beer and slices of pizza vs those stuck with the light leftover beer and slices of pizza with cheese half torn off or flipped over in the box. In seriousness though I have no problem with the "elite" status as long as they embrace what it means to be on the trails and among other trail geeks.

  7. Brad Williams

    But Geoff, What you guys do is elite. Take it from a front of a middle of a pack guy. What you guys do is mind boggling to the rest of us. I have no issues at all calling you elite and me well.. slower, not so elite. It gives me something to shoot for although I know I'll never get there. You all set the bar so high that performances like that only happen in my dreams and I'm okay with that. But if all of that isn't elite I don't know what is. Also, we practice and love a sport in which greatness is measured by speed so I have to beg to differ that on any given day the fastest is the best. Maybe we can talk some other statistic in which me, middle of the pack, might actually be "better" at than someone upfront like consistency. Maybe I've run everyday for the last 6 years, not true, whereas we all know there are some injury prone elites but we don't really measure greatness by who's run the longest without taking a day off. At least not in the race arena.

    So my take… If you've earned a spot upfront you deserve to be called elite and as long as you've earned that spot justly you should have no hangups with calling yourself just that.

  8. Andy

    e·lite

    /iˈlēt/

    Noun

    1. A group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, esp. because of their power, talent, or wealth.

    2. A size of letter in typewriting, with 12 characters to the inch (about 4.7 to the centimeter).

    I suggest we go with the font definition. The fast folks can be "elite", the rest of us will be "comic sans".

  9. gontxal

    I see two kind of runners:

    Professionals,full-time runners with sponsors with enough incomes to live as a runner.They take part in conferences,write articles or books,give advices to other runners,They help to design new shoes,packs…sometimes They are trainers etc

    Amateurs,their passion in their free-time is running and they admire and try to imitate excellent runners like G Roes

  10. Andy

    Seems it's not only about speed but about the pro or sponsored versus non-sponsored distinction, i.e., if a total unknown but very fast runner shows up and smokes the field, he/she wouldn't be an elite — at least not until later if the performances keep up and the sponsors start trickling in. Perhaps there are a few "elites" who are unsponsored, but the term as it's being used seems to combine speed, presence and recognizability in the sport, and pro/sponsor status. It's all semantics anyway, but in the interest of parity how about "front-packers" to complement us "mid-packers" and "back-o'-the-packers?"

  11. Jim Skaggs

    Hey Geoff,

    You are elite, but as long as you elites are willing to hang out and drink a beer at the finish with the rest of us wannabes, I'm good with that. Just save us some of the good beer and a couple of pieces of somewhat whole pizza.

  12. Ellie

    I dislike the word 'elite' too and I think many of us towards the front of the pack dislike it, whether consciously or not, because it is linked to the word 'elitist', and of course ultra and trail runners tend to be anything but 'elitist'. Descriptive words like this are often contentious and different words which in essence are used to describe the same thing will fall in and out of fashion. In the meantime I'll just call myself a 'runner' ( a la max king). Oh, and the idea that the people who finish a run fast eat all the pizza and beer is incorrect, we are usually too busy being cornered by a certain Bryon for an interview ;)

  13. Michael

    Hi Geoff,

    Megan Laib, who based on her results is considered 'elite', registered via the normal registration for the NF Marin 50 miler a couple of weeks ago because she, like you, thought the word elite was 'stupid'. However, upon learning that there was going to be staggered start times she switched to the 'elite' category.

    She also ran in college and ran with very fast runners so her perception of 'elite' is a bit different. Maybe the college influence has something to do with it, where one is constantly surrounded by fast(er) runners.

    Where in college one was a mid-packer among very fast people and all of a sudden is in the front of the pack in the ultra world. And being called 'elite' just doesn't feel quite at home. Anyway, food for thought.

  14. AV1611-Ben

    How about something along the lines of Olympic terminology?

    What we currently call "elite" gets renamed to "A-Qualifier".

    Fast middle pack runners are called "B-Qualifier".

    Remaining runners with a couple of races under their belt are "C-Qualifier".

    New competitors to the sport get a different "title", one that doesn't belittle them, but also makes it clear that they are yet to establish credentials.

    It seems a good system – Bs can aspire to becoming As. As can be downgraded to Bs if they get injured or just plain slow(er). Cs can move up to Bs, uncredentialed runners string a few consistent results together, and get a title appropriate to what they've proven themselves to be.

    This type of system has lots of advantages, but I'm at work, and don't have the time to go into it all right now!

  15. Ethan

    Geoff – you mention several times that you don't think of the 'elites' as the 'best' runners. I wonder if you could elaborate on what you mean by 'best'? I understand you're making a distinction between 'good' and 'fast' but could you maybe give an example of 'good' but not 'fast'?

    1. Geoff roes

      Ethan,
      I think being fast is, for many runners a large part of being a good runner, but I don't know anyone who looks at this as the only part of being a good runner. I think there are dozens of other things which make someone a good runner. The thing I'd put at the top of this list would be the amount of enjoyement one has for the running they do. It's typically really fun to win a race, but not necessarily more fun than finishing 100th place in a race. Being a healthy runner (both physically and mentally) is also a huge part of being a good runner. Relationship with the sport and respect for other participants is another big one. Also having a good balance between running and everything else in life. I could go on but you probably get the point. I have a ton of pride for how fast ive been able to run in several races in the past, and a ton of respect for people who run really fast, but it's only when I (or others) have all these other things dialed in that I think of them as "good runners"

  16. Guy C.

    Could we use terms based on marathon times? (problematic, I know, for trail runners where not everyone has run a road marathon and/or not always a clear correlation between road marathon time and success on the trail….)

    sub-2:15

    sub-2:30

    sub-3:00

    sub-4:00…..

    etc….

    I think "elite" is here to stay…. Nothing wrong with the Tortoise, however: they just keep plugging along and they almost always get there….

  17. Chris P.

    If the sport of running were more like the sport of jousting there would be no need for such terms. The most successful runners would simply have criers announcing their family lineage and list of important accomplishments at every race starting line. That way honor could be given to those who are deserving without the need for silly sweeping categorizations like "elite" and "slow-arse".

    I'm guessing, Geoff, that if the term "elite" by itself bothers you, then you're probably really annoyed (as I am) about a certain gear manufacturer choosing to name their team of sponsored athletes the Elite Immortals.

  18. Bitterroot

    I've seen similar "elite" discussions a number of times, except the problem with this realtive term is the inability to define it-rather than egalitarian perspective of the field being full of accomplished runners. On the roads and track, time becomes the measurement of "elite" but that does little to clarify the term. Are elite marathoners, for example, only those running 2:08 and competing for a spot in the Olympics. Or are they the men or women running 2:30 or 2:50 and winning a regional race? Then there are the other common terms: "local elite" "regional elite" and "sub-elite." Trail running is different though. In my view, anyone who can run a hundred miles is pretty darn elite. Then there are the top runners like Geoff whose performances show us "citizen runners" what "elite" is.

    1. Geoff roes

      I agree completely but I think we would benefit from using language that doesn't imply that someone who wins a race is better than everyone else. Faster on that day, yes, but better? Maybe or maybe not. I just think being a better runner than everyone (or anyone) else depends on a lot more than just how fast you run.

  19. Sylvere Valentin

    I think the issue with using the term Elite in Ultra running is the fact that Ultras are not solely about who finish first or last. Other dimensions to the sport are present and does not get recognized/ rewarded to the same level. We have individuals who run as many races as possible through th year accumulating very high mileage, which in itself is an accomplishment deserving its own recognition (Elite in accumulated mileage??). We also have individuals who are running the same races for decades non stop and despite their old age still manage to finish those races, another accomplishment that deserves its own recognition (Elite in persistence?).

  20. olga

    Find it interesting this topic discussion always being started by an elite, and not by the "other" runner. May be it shows that in general, the "masses" of us don't think about it – or at least don't focus on the word. Sorry if what the media calls y'all guys makes you uncomfortable:) Don't think we suddenly going to change it. Besides, in a real life, at the end of the day, each runner is more concerned about their own race. Wherever far or close to the elite it might be.

  21. Jake

    I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of "the best runners not being the fastest." Isn't that the whole point of races – see who gets from point A to point B the fastest? To compete against others, and to compete against ourselves, or the clock, or the terrain? Those who do it better than everyone else are "elite". It may not be the best word, but for the most part people understand what it means across different types of running, and across different sports. Its not an insult to the middle of the packers, its an acknowledgement of respect for those up front.

    I actually think using terms to label people as fast or slow is far more "offensive" than using the word elite – b/c that's an even more relative and arbitrary spectrum.

  22. Just a joke...

    Sorry, but until you prove otherwise, you are stuck with the elite label. Not everyone can be a "back of the pack'er." We are inundated with applicatons from elite runners at the moment. Some even claiming to have PF. Silly goose, everyone knows elites don't get PF.

    Hope to see you back in the saddle soon Geoff!

  23. SerialRacer

    Running is a sport, a physical activity. But a race is a competitive event. Sure, not everyone is there to win or finish within a certain time or position, but it's still competition – that;s why there are finishing positions & times. It's how we judge runners.

    Also, technically speaking elite refers to the best – that would involve a qualitative judgement which will obviously vary from person to person & is simply not possible for the purpose of a race on a given day. So the best & the only curent way to judge a runner is quantitatively – by their performances.

  24. Greg Veltkamp

    Spot on – the (very) few times I've found myself off the front, it has been due to a gutsy attitude – a go for broke race mentality. Of note, as well, are the times that same attitude has wound up with me crippled alongside the trail with leg cramps!

  25. Keith

    As a back of the pack runner, I don't mind the term. I just ran my first ultra with an elite field. I got an early start and as they passed me I heard so many "way to go" and "good work". Being fast is one thing, but being a slower runner, I appreciate the acknowledgment. I have so much more respect for those guys than I had before. I'm sure not everyone is like that but I haven't seen this kind of mutual respect in shorter distances.

  26. Sam

    Geoff,

    A most excellent reply. This is why I consider you not only a great runner, who's earned his success, but a valuable ambassador for trail running. Thanks.

  27. Paul Kirsch

    I think the term "elitist" is overused in our society all the time to mean snobs or jerks who think they are better. Because of that, I think people get nervous about the term elite.

    For me, as a runner and a race director, I have no problem with the term elite and use it to offer free entries to my races. Some are professional athletes and some are people who hold down full time jobs so I don't think that the term "Pro" is more appropriate.

    Anyone who spends any time around trail, ultra or mountain runners will quickly learn that the "elites" are incredibly humble people who are down to earth but who also happen to be really good at racing. I wouldn't spend too much time on the word, Geoff. Your actions are much more important than the label.

  28. Peter Rabover

    Hi Geoff, thank you for the column, I appreciate it. As one of the slower/middle to back of the pack runners who has finished anywhere between top 1/3 to dead last in long ultras one of the biggest draws to the sport for me has been the lack of "elitism" (is that a word?) in this sport, especially relative to my short lived experience in the high intensity world of triathlons and road running. However, with the popularity of the sport, maybe with the introduction of money (a different discussion), I am sure we have started to see some separation from the rest of the field.

    I don't want to name the (very) elite runner who I like and respect but in a recent discussion of conditions of a 100 mile race he commented on a board that we as ultra runners should not complain. But it struck me that as a person who does not pay race fees, never has to experience running out of food/water at an aid station in the dark, or ride the stress of cut offs who wants to be an ambassador for the sport i.e. "elite" should probably be more careful when making comments like that. So maybe my two cents here that since this sport is a great mix of outdoor comradery, community and endurance, maybe in order to slow inevitable ego stratification between the elites and non elites, sometimes it would pay to maybe volunteer at a night aid station of a 100 mile race that you're not running, or just not race and hang out in the back with some of the coolest, older runners out there and experience the other side of the sport that you rarely get to see. Thank you again, – Peter

  29. Carey

    The reluctance of Geoff Roes, Ellie Greenwood, etc. to meekly accept the "elite" label is itself an enormously positive feature of the sport. No preening Alberto Contadors here (excepting Elite Pete), and that's great.

    As for what it means to be the "best" runner: I'm remembering a comment Dakota Jones made sometime around this year's UTMB, pointing out that it's hard(er) to run in the middle or back of the pack. When Dakota has finished, changed his clothes, had some food, goofed around a bit, and gone to bed, the slower runners are still out there in the rain/snow/heat, still suffering. The fast runners use their speed to trade out of more prolonged hurt. Who's "better? "

  30. Guy Marx

    It's quality ultrarunning competitors like Geoff that attract so many runners to the ultra community; the fact that a top competitor would initiate a spirited discussion such as this reflects the great integrity of our sport. If only comparable athletes participated in any given race, THEN we would have a truly elite event of exclusively elite competitors. As a 'tortoise' or 'back-of-the-pack' competitor, I'm thrilled to be able to compete in the same event as typically more experienced and faster runners. We're all competing for different reasons, but most of us appreciate and seek the exceptional community and individual support characteristic of this sport. Ultrarunning generously offers both along the entire continuum of competitors. That's all this runner needs ….

  31. Bryan

    I'm a newbie in the ultra world but own a gymnastics facility and have coached since the 80's. The highest level of gymnastics is called "Elite" these athletes train double the hours and have double the commitment. That is understood up front. It's not a negative it's another step you work towards to accomplish your ultimate goal. Elite athletes have physical abilities testing, compulsory skill testing and must compete on the biggest stages. No one in the sport looks at it as elitist but as recognition for going above and beyond in your dedication and commitment. I as a newbie would expect that runners who are considered elite would have gotten there in a parallel fashion but just in a different sport. Harder work than others and more dedication. I would never look at it in a negative context.

  32. Chris Cwiklinski

    I agree with Pauls K's last statement. I have never met an "elite" ultra, trail or mountain runner that didn't take the time give encouragement and advice.

    The term "elite" should encompass the all around runner, the person who is a great ambassadore for the sport. While I know i'll never run a 5:34 @ JFK (like Max) or Ellies amazing 6:12, i'm good with that. I'm elite in my own little running world and my kids eyes…Hey, i've made a lot of friendships being a mid to back in the pack runner.

  33. Fernando N. Baeza

    Mr. Roes,

    The label, i.e. "elite," "elitist," stands out on its own, making this discussion a very delicate discourse on psychological symptomatology. Thus making the term take on an "inclusive" connotation. What you stated was partly correct, in terms of what the term should mean and not imply. I understand exactly what you were trying to say but its obvious its a very sensitive discussion. But the simple fact is this…if only more "elites" prescribed to the simple philosophy that is Geoff Roes that term would not have such a negative implication of any sort. Im certain Im not the only one who feels as thus, thats a great sentiment to have and share with others. Keep inspiring others. :D

    Fernando N. Baeza

    San Antonio, TX

  34. Plow

    Sponsored opposed unsponsored running makes a huge difference in potentiality in overall placement standings by nature of increased support and opportunities.

  35. ken michal

    I dunno, I kind of like the elite label! It's really been giving me something to strive for recently!! Just wait til HURT!!! :P

    Sure, it may be easy to assume an "us and them" mentality with an elite title but true champions appreciate the struggles others go through out there! Being elite isn't just about being fast!! A true elite has a deep understanding and appreciation of the sport and realizes that we all grow together!! Any name we give shouldn't define the character of the front of the pack… Instead, it's up to the front to define by example what it is to be elite!! It's only a label and it doesn't have to have any negative connotation!! Elite is what we make it!

    It seems to me that the larger issue is separating elites from ambassadors… A lot of elites are also great ambassadors (Yourself, Ellie Greenwood, Gary Robbins all come to mind) but there are some that are not (not naming names!). There are also a lot of non-elite ambassadors who love this sport as much, if not more than, a lot of elites! Heck, as an RD there are certain mid/back runners that I give the same perks (if not better!) to than a lot of elite folks because I want them on my courses!!!

    All Day!

    ~Ken

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