Running Rhetoric

I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which language is used to express things. As individuals, we all have unique ways of communicating with others, and we all communicate in different ways depending on who we are talking to. Everyone in the world could tell the same story in their own words and there would be nearly as many variations as there are people.

Collectively, though, things seem to move in the other direction. As communities and cultures develop their narratives, they tend to take the unique words of the masses and combine them into one rhetorical voice that comes to represent dozens, hundreds, thousands, or sometimes even millions of people. As members of these communities and cultures, we adhere to these words, oftentimes without even thinking about what we are saying. In this sense, entire countries develop notions, phrases, expressions, and ways of using language that are completely different than other countries who speak the same language. Within countries, you end up with dozens of cultural groups who are all technically speaking the same language, but who essentially have no idea what is being said by other groups.

Ultrarunning culture is certainly not immune to this trend. Spend a day hanging out at a 100-mile race and pay attention to how language is used for all these runners to communicate with each other. Then imagine yourself having never run a step in your life, and thus having never talked to other runners. These crazy endurance freaks may as well be speaking an entirely different language. As with any subset of society, we as runners, and even specifically ultrarunners, have developed entire notions and phrases that we take as fact. In many cases we’re not even sure why we subscribe to these things, or what they mean exactly, but again, this is the way in which language is often used within societal groups.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve thought a bit more than usual about these rhetorical notions and phrases within the running community. I think this has been the case because these things really shine through on the sport’s brightest stages, and it certainly doesn’t get any brighter than Western States and Hardrock within 13 days of each other (rhetoric intended). In following online discussions of these two races, it was fascinating to hear some of the things which seemed to come not just from the voice of one or two individuals, but from the culture as a whole. Often these notions are spoken by one individual, but they are presented in a way that makes them sound like indisputable facts.

Some of my “favorite” running related rhetorical notions that have come up these past few weeks include the following:

A rookie will never win Western States and/or Hardrock, or that rookies are at severe disadvantage in these and other big races.

As with most rhetorical notions, there is some value in this statement. Certainly course experience and knowledge can be of some benefit, but there are so many historical examples of rookies winning and doing very well at big races all over the world that it should come as no surprise to anyone that a race rookie just won Hardrock two weeks after one took second at Western States. This is something that happens all the time, and should make it obvious to anyone who pays much attention to these kinds of things that race experience actually plays a fairly small role in the outcome of a race. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some effect on the race, but I think history has shown that it’s much less than our rhetoric makes it out to be.

In Western States this year, Rob Krar even did a lot to disprove the idea that a rookie at the 100-mile distance has little or no chance of winning a high-level 100-mile race. I think this notion does, however, have a lot more historical weight to it, and is in fact more of a reality. Almost everyone who runs their first hundred walks away feeling like they learned things in the experience that would make doing that distance again much easier, and potentially much faster. The higher level of accuracy to this rhetorical notion makes Krar’s performance even more remarkable, but it also shows that this notion isn’t quite the guaranteed truth that it is so often made out to be. It is also worth remembering here that Krar did not win Western States. Had he run a few hundreds previously, would he have won? It’s hard to say, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt his chances.

Another one of my favorites is: the race begins at _____ (fill in a location to fit the specific race).

Geoff Roes - Foresthill - 2013 Western States 100

Geoff Roes running out of Foresthill with pacer Dave Mackey during his 2010 win. Photo: Bob MacGillivray

To use Western States as an example, you so often hear people talk about how the race begins at Foresthill or the river crossing. Honestly, this one is probably the most amusing example of ultrarunning rhetoric that I can come up with. I’m actually not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but I hear people say it all the time. I guess the idea is that certain races tend to have a lead change at least once more after these points in the race. But to then assume that the physical, strategic, and tactical aspects of racing haven’t yet begun until that point couldn’t be further from the truth. I guess the idea is to touch on the importance of not going out too hard, but this then also implies that the real racing within a race occurs mostly when we are nearing the end and are scratching and clawing our way to get the finish as quick as possible, despite the fact that we are completely spent and hurting with every step.

I think the thing that is overlooked by this idea is the reality that it is the subtle racing leading up to these points that has the most influence on how effectively we are able to scratch and claw our way to the finish. Being able to run seven-minute miles on the smooth trails after the river crossing at WS has a lot more to do with what we’ve done to race wisely and effectively up to that point than it does with what we’re doing at that moment.

One last one that I’ve heard these past weeks is: the person who has the most ability to run a few miles the fastest when fresh is almost certainly going to be able to run the fastest at the end of a long race.

You hear this notion a lot in the form of people talking about how they think a certain runner will run with the field for most of the race and then pull away just before the end because they have the most speed in the field. This is another one of these notions that sounds great in theory, but has almost no historical evidence to back it up. It’s just not a speed game at that point. The last few miles of a 100-mile race has nearly nothing to do with leg speed. The runners who win Western States tend to run the last mile in seven or eight minutes, not exactly a blistering pace. This is a game of strength and endurance, not speed. You see this reality come up time and time again in ultras around the world. It happens dozens of times a year that someone gets dropped in the last few miles of an ultra by someone with significantly slower shorter-distance speed.

Personally, I have a hard time thinking of more than just one or two examples of a faster shorter-distance runner out kicking a slower shorter-distance runner in the final few miles of an ultra. Instead the reality seems to generally be the opposite: if you have the fastest 5k time in the entire field in an ultra you better try to build a solid lead before the last few miles, because you are likely to get out kicked by the “slower” runner who has gotten themselves to that point in the race less on speed and more on strength and endurance, a dynamic that more often than not seems to give them an advantage in the closing miles.

I’ve touched on a few of the big ones here. What else am I missing? Are there more rhetorical notions out there within the language of ultrarunning that you question or find interesting/odd?

There are 53 comments

  1. Cheryl Lloyd

    "This too shall pass, including the good stuff."

    Learning to wait it out and get through it is part of the game. Experience tells us that ultra running is like life – this too shall pass.

  2. Charlie M.

    Here are my favorite running-related jumbles of rhetoric: (1) "This is a training race for me"; and (2) "I'm going to run my own race".

    1. Mike H

      Yeah, I get what a training race is…but to say that you are racing but not giving it full effort is kind of like saying I am going swimming, but I only intend on doggy paddling.

      As for "running your own race" of course we run our own races…trying to stick with someone elses gameplan will never work in an ultra.

      1. Adam

        All of my past and future races have been training races, unless some day I miraculously hit an overall pace faster than a brisk walk. Then it was my "A race," and it's a good thing I ran all my other races "in training mode, so as not to injure myself." On ultrasignup I might look slow, but I'm actually just being really smart.

    2. Anonymous

      Yea, love these. Here's more: "I'm better at the longer distances" (read-no speed, not really very athletic, most anyone runs as fast as this person) "I'm coming off of an injury." (might be true, but most likely an excuse for a poor result)

  3. Peter Andersson

    I'm currently reading Tim Noakes new book "Waterlogged". He's kinda into the same language ponderings, especially about how the sports drinks industry managed to get the meme "you should drink before you're thirsty" going/becoming a household runners truth for several generations without no verifiable science behind it whatsoever.

    1. Mike H

      100 miles is far, I dont care what the Speedgoat says. It is far in my Car, on my motorcycle on my bicycle and on my feet. 100 miles is a long freaking way…if it werent what would be the point of it all?

  4. Rebecca V.

    I was just thinking of Charlie M.'s statement of "This is a training race for me." during my run this morning! I'm not sure if it's running rhetoric or just something really annoying that people say before races.

  5. Greg

    Maybe these are fallacies?

    Rookies who have won their first 100 milers: The author of this article, Kyle Skaggs, Timothy Olson.

    The race begins at _________ (Foresthill): 2011, 2012, and 2013 Western States races indicate this is not necessarily true. All three years the leader at Foresthill was the first runner on the track in Auburn. Apparently the race (for first anyway) was not just beginning.

    Whoever has the best raw leg speed will be able to close best (I re-phrased this one): 2012 Run Rabbit Run saw Mr. Meltzer close faster than anyone else on the course. I think it is fair to say that he does not have the best leg speed. This is true in almost any event in running. In track it is common for guys without a strong kick to try to run the kick out of those who do have one. Getting outside of ultra running, this is what makes (made?) Geb and Bekele such great runners; the fact that they could win every type of race (sit-and-kick, rabbitted, championship races, etc.) regardless of the tactics made them the two distance GOATs.

    Before this gets entirely too long, one saying I find amusing is when someone says "I'm just getting warmed up" five hours into a race. Really? I usually feel like doing nothing but taking a nap five hours into a race!

      1. Lucy

        And let's not forget the Ladies – the lovely Miss Greenwood won in 2011 as a 100 mile rookie (wherever the race began for her thatb year ) :) And I think the same is true for a few other womem.

  6. Ryan

    –It never always gets worse.

    –"Race strategy." It's a rare day when I execute a preplanned race strategy at a long ultra. More often my strategy involves staying upright as long as I can.

  7. Anonymous

    Two ultra notions I question:

    1. Is a 50M / 100k speedster like Sage less impressive than a 100 miler? I disagree with this line of thought. They are equally impressive just in different events (no one disses Usain Bolt versus a 400 meter runner for not going as far).

    2. WWKD? After every big event, someone seems to question what would have happened if Killian had run it. Too hypothetical, and IMO an irrelevant tangent.

    1. Jay

      I could not agree more with your first point. They are equally impressive.

      Point #2 is just fun to think about, but you are correct, it is irrelevant.

  8. Schlarb

    Thank you Geoff, I too don't like hearing the "race starts at…" While there is a LOT to learn from the past, there certainly is a lot to learn from the present and future and I think a lot of the rhetoric comes from the "old school". Staying open to change and what is reality now, which not everyone (or every race) likes to do, can really help one from falling into "rhetoric" like mindset.

  9. Michael Owen

    Geoff, I find your last rhetoric to even be noticeable in shorter races. I remember one of my teammates out-kicking a 1:51 800 runner at the end of an 8k cross country race and my teammate had never broke 2:00 in an 800. People with raw speed do not have raw speed after racing 5 miles, 50 miles, or 100 miles. Just not the way the body works. Same goes with a fast road marathoner doing well at a mountain 50k, and such.

    1. Tahoe Pete

      well that is a rhetoric in its own right. Max King is a extremely fast road marathoner and has thrown down some great times at mountain 50ks. Aka speedgoat last year.

    2. Greg

      This is relative, and I hit on it in my above post. A runner with a strong kick will usually have the advantage if the race doesn't take it out of him. This is why Bernard Lagat is so dangerous in a slow, championship-style 5,000 -he has the leg speed to close faster than almost all the other racers. It probably hasn't ever really happened in a 100 miler, but imagine for a minute this scenario:

      At this past Western States, no one pushes the pace due to the heat. They split the river, with a group of 10 runners all together, at 14:00. You have Rob Krar, Cam Clayton, Tim Olson, Karl Meltzer, and whoever else you want (that was actually in the race). Would you still put your money on Tim? Krar has 2:25 marathon and 1:05 half speed. Clayton ran collegiately at CU. In THAT race, I'd put my money on one of those two guys.

      1. Tahoe Pete

        Still it is an not an accurate statement. ROb Krar even proves you wrong. He ran an incredible 100 in his first mountain 100. He got second and was closing on TIm. More rhetoric from you as well greg. Some of your points are correct but a fast marathoner can also be a strong ultra finisher. It has simply been proven.

        1. Greg

          I think I was arguing (or at least attempting to!) the same thing, Pete. My point was that someone with leg speed CAN be a strong finisher in longer races.

  10. Eric Coppock

    I hate to even pick at this scab, but there's a whole 'nother basket full of rhetoric that gets thrown around repeatedly (not specific to ultrarunning) even though an actual definition for any of these terms can't be pinned down:

    "minimalist"

    "natural"

    etc…

    I could think of definitions for these that actually have technical meaning, but I'd probably be shouted out of the room for suggesting them.

  11. StephenJ

    "It's a death march"

    No, it's not. Bataan was a death march. If you feel like slowing down, nobody's going to shoot you. In fact, if really can't go any farther, somebody will come carry you. And when you get to the finish line, there will be plenty of food. And maybe even showers.

    "Sufferfest"

    Who are you trying to impress or get pity from? Running an ultra is impressive enough. You don't need to dwell in your self-inflicted pain. And really, is it fair to call it suffering if it is something you chose to do, and something that you can quit at anytime? Cancer patients suffer. My great-grandmother DNF'd in one of Brother Brighams' 1300 mile ultras because she gave her food rations to her daughter so that she might live. That was a sufferfest. You may be in pain, but you are far from suffering. Most people who run through the mountains at night do so to stay alive or escape a horrible life. You run though the night because your life is so easy that you can afford the time and energy for such a frivolous activity.

    1. Swimmons

      Well yes, and as i remind my children, my parents and i walked to and from school uphill both ways in the snow. C'mon, because greater instances of suffering and woe exist in our world does not negate the importance or worthiness of applause when a person pursues accomplishment in sport that results in taking, for instance, a header into the Hardrock.

    2. Adam

      Very well said. I think running ultras is really fun. It is not, however, a spiritual or moral achievement. It does not benefit anyone, nor was it forced upon you by circumstances beyond your control. It's just another one of the ways those of us who are lucky enough to have the luxury of being bored relieve our boredom.

    3. adinator

      I agree that fellow ultra runners need to CAN IT with the overly verbal negative expressions of their "suffer-fest", "death march", or whatever kind of experience they've decided the race they are participating in has become. However, the absurd debate that has developed about who deserves more …honor? …respect? …pity? Those who are running to survive or those who are surviving to run? I'm not even sure. The point is, you are BLESSED if you are lucky enough to have someone chasing you, or are forced to trek far and wide just to stay alive. You either find purpose and dedication to persevere, or you die.

      If, on the other hand, your life is so easy that you can afford the time and energy for "frivolous activity", then may you be COMMENDED and your example be studied and followed for being so disciplined and able to focus your time and energies upon an enlightening and character building endeavor such as distance running. The voluntary runners must find and force a reason to have purpose upon themselves. The involuntary runners are given a much greater and more immediate pressure to find purpose and survive. This is a great fortune to them and they should not be pitied. By the very circumstances of being in a life or death situation, they are spoon-fed a good chance at gaining real insight and enlightenment. The rest of those who seek purpose and discipline must attempt to simulate life and death circumstances through their practice of running and racing.

      1. Lucy

        Couldn't agree more. Once at a race, the director announced: "Let the suffering begin!" before the start – it was really unpleasant. I mean, yes, it's hard, and we'll all go through some discomfort, but we do it for the joy and for accomplishment too, we don't do it "to suffer" like there's something deeply wrong with us psychologically (well, OK). I agree wholehertedly that all the "suffering" related terminology it's a very poor choice of words.

    4. Aaron K.

      I think the terms "death march" and "sufferfest" are more "cliche" than truly rhetorical. But really, aren't terms like that just colorful hyperbole and entirely appropriate in the context of entertaining storytelling about our running experiences? I think the vast majority of runners are mature enough to recognize we run crazy distances voluntarily and our suffering has nothing to do with the type of suffering incurred during horrible diseases, war, hunger, etc. That said, language does matter, and I think it is important not to be too grandiloquent when speaking of sport.

      Some rhetoric (using the meaning "language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous")I notice in ultrarunning: RDs and race websites using superlatives and phrases like "one of the most difficult races in (insert nation, continent, planet, or county here)" Also, the phrase "post-graduate run" comes to mind as a bit rhetorical. It doesn't really have a precise meaning. But I get the point. . .no rookies allowed.

  12. Astroyam

    Geoff, somewhat related, the use of the word 'strength', as you used it here. Are you actually referring to the ability to produce a large force?

  13. CJ

    "The race begins at_______________" rhetoric is definitely valid in a race like the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon where you often hear "The race begins at A-frame." The reason being the altitude and who's been putting in time above treeline leading up to the race. So many people have blown their race at this point because they failed to train much at higher altitude.

  14. Melanie

    "He's a big guy," or "She's a solid girl," when people talk about body types of runners who don't have lithe, wiry bodies, implying that *despite* their body type they still do well. This is irritating on many levels, but mostly my point is that body type may not be a reliable predictor for ultra success. Fitness, talent and experience yes, body type, maybe not.

    1. Joe

      Of course, our sense of size and distance in the ultrarunning world is so skewed that I wouldn't necessarily take that as much of a disparagement. ;)

  15. Franc Karpo

    "A rookie will never win Western States and/or Hardrock, or that rookies are at severe disadvantage in these and other big races."

    I agree with Geoff that the above is pure BS. Sure it is unlikely, but it has happened.

    Salazar was an ultra rookie when he won Comrades.

  16. Duane VanderGriend

    I was running a marathon the other day and caught a group of four young guys from my town who were running their first. They were congratulating eachother boisterously at the halfway point for the "really respectable half marathon time" they had just achieved. I chuckled to myself knowing that it didn't mean what they thought it meant. And in that moment, I knew the meaning of "a marathon doesn't start till 20 miles.":)

  17. Anonymous

    Anyone who is healthy enough and fortunate enough to run ultras knows they are blessed. Who cares what silly phrases come out of our mouths when we are tired and fatigued? Have I said I was suffering before, yep. Do I really believe I know anything about true suffering, no way. It's just stuff we say after our bodies have been moving for 20+ hours (well slow people like me anyway)….and I take comfort in thinking that the race doesn't start for some people until mile 60 (gets me past the early slump) or that someone out there thinks "100 miles is not that far". This is such a great sport and regardless what is said during a low point in a race I'm thankful everyday for running!

  18. Cory

    How amusing when people or products claim "its all natural"… what a crock! So is the arsenic in the APL treatment drug Trisenox as well as paclitaxol in Bristol Meyer Squibb's breastcancer treatment drug, Taxol. And the list could go on and on. Natural doesn't mean "healthier" or "good for us." Some tobacco products are "all natural," so does that mean they are just fine to swallow?

    Very amusing marketing tactic.

  19. Ben Nephew

    Point number 1 is a fascinatingly unique aspect of ultrarunning. It goes even further than that, in that a win on a mountainous course at 30k feet is much more impressive than a faster time on an easier course for any two races of equal distance (unless we are talking about WS).

  20. Kotrail

    The day you are content never racing again and just enjoying your daily runs in the woods, is the day you become a true ultra runner.

  21. Matt

    I have always understood this statement to refer to a good 100 miler for a first-timer. Here in the Midwest, we have the Kettle Moraine 100, which is the race that most often comes up when this statement comes up. It is in stark contrast to the Superior/Sawtooth 100, which has 40K of gain/loss, rocks and roots galore, and is a qualifier for Hardrock.

    And it really is absolutely absurd, but the comparison is relative.

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