Why Jon Olsen Might Not Win Ultrarunning Performance Of The Year

There have been a handful of performances in the past few years (most recognizably Mike Morton’s 24-hour American Record, Sabrina Little’s 24-Hour American Record, and Jon Olsen’s 100-Mile North American Record) that have brought the changing dynamics in ultrarunning very much to the forefront of many conversations. These types of performances would have once been hands down the most recognized and respected performances of their time in the sport. Now, though, with the shift in popularity to trail and mountain ultras that has occurred in the past 20 years (and even quicker in the last five to 10), these road and track performances receive less attention, and in some cases, perhaps even less respect than they once would have. Whether it’s fair or not, performances like Olsen’s 100-mile record now compete for attention and recognition with performances at upstart mountain races like UROC that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Olsen’s run was almost certainly the most difficult-to-achieve performance in North America so far this year, but with the way the sport has shifted, it is quite likely not the most recognized or the most highly regarded by the masses.

The interesting question then becomes: is this fair? Do we just turn our backs on the past and recognize that the trail and mountain ultras are now more competitive and far more popular (at least in North America and Europe) than road and track races, and thus deserve more attention and more respect? Or does the legacy of the past mean we should be giving more of our attention and respect to the road/track/multi-day races that were once far more popular than mountain and trail races?

In my mind, the answer to this question lies somewhere in the middle. Most important is the reality that this isn’t something we can control just by talking about which races should receive more attention. At the end of the day, we live in a free-market society and the races that get the most attention are the races which people are most intrigued by. As trail running has gained popularity in general, trail races (at least at the ultra distance) have become infinitely more popular than their road counterparts. This isn’t the place to dig deep into the reasons why this has occurred, but I believe this is a change that is here to stay for decades. Trails races are simply (on average) more scenic, more varied, less contrived, and more challenging (in terms of terrain). For these reasons, people are going to continue to flock to the trails for the majority of their races. Those that don’t recognize and believe this are not in touch with the reality of the sport today.

This said, though, I do believe there is a mini-revival going on within the road/track/multi-day ultrarunning community (probably as a bit of a backlash response to the exponential growth of trail races). Or perhaps it is just that those who do prefer these types of races are becoming more vocal about their preference as the community at large has become less and less interested in these races.

Whatever the reasons behind these trends, I feel like things have settled into a ‘fair’ and reasonable place in terms of the amount of attention given to various types of races. There certainly seem to be some people out there who feel that road and track races should be getting more attention than they are because of the amount of attention they garnered a couple decades ago, and because of the legacy that was developed at that time. I can understand why people would feel this way, but it’s just not realistic. Yes, the past always has some effect on the present, but when you have dozens of people running ultras on trails in the mountains for every person that is running an ultra on the road/track, you just aren’t going to have equal emphasis and attention, no matter how things were in the past. In the end, though, I think this dynamic actually leads to the road/track/multi-day races getting more attention and respect than they would otherwise, and I think this is a good thing.

The legacy and past popularity of these races gives them a level of attention today that they would not otherwise have. This combined with the backlash effect that I mentioned earlier has allowed these events to have a level of attention and respect that I think is actually greater than you might expect based solely on the raw number of runners consistently participating in these events. Again, I think this is a good thing because I think they do deserve extra attention and respect because of the past legacy in these events. I don’t think we can or should just walk away from the past and not hold what Jon Olsen did on the track in Canada this fall in higher regard than we otherwise would if it weren’t for the decades-long legacy that he was running ‘against’ that day. This said, though, this only goes so far. There is still the reality that the vast majority of the fastest ultrarunners in this country are competing primarily on trails, and that there are dozens of trail ultras in this country each year with deeper fields than all but the most competitive one or two road and/or track races. Does this mean that it’s fair that these mountain/trail events now seem to get the vast majority of the attention and respect from fans and other competitors in the sport? Um? Well? Yeah, actually it does. And over the next several years, I think we will see things shift even further in this direction.

I think this is all a good thing as long as we are sure, in the midst of this shift, not to forget the past legacy of road and track ultras. In this way, it will always be highly recognized when someone does something on the roads like what Morton, Little, and Olsen have done recently. This said, though, these types of events are simply not going to be as widely recognized as something like Western States or Hardrock anytime soon (if ever again). With the way the sport has shifted over the last several years, this seems to me to be exactly as it should be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think that the level of attention that an ultra-distance performance gets should reflect the relative interest in that type of performance by the trail and ultrarunning community? Or, do you think that highest-level trail and ultra performances should be equally addressed?
  • And, what about respect? Do you think that the respect an ultra-distance performance is given by the community should reflect the community’s relative interest in that type of performance? Or, should we respect the inherent quality of a performance regardless of our personal interest in running the type of race from which the performance came?

A Call for Civility (from Meghan)

We all have our preferred means of trail and ultrarunning. Some of us like trails when they are super-technical, while others of us like to let ‘er rip on the roads. And, our personal preferences inform our sporting beliefs and ethic. Please feel welcome to share your thoughts and participate in this discussion. It is natural that some of us will agree and disagree with each other, and that’s great. We do require civility in our discussion, however. Please treat this conversation similarly to a discussion you’d have with a group of people on a 20-mile run (whatever the surface). Similar and differing opinions will always be present, but between them is always room for respect and friendship. Thank you!

There are 45 comments

  1. Matt Smith

    The ultra-running journalists follow the sponsors to the money – this is why UROC and other high profile races (WS100, NF50) will be consider for the UPOY and Jon will be passed over despite his amazing performance.

    Sponsored runners create their own buzz using blogs and other social media to create a sense of celebrity around their personas. If and when they win a race, it is considered news-worthy because ultra-running sites make their money from advertising by the sponsoring corporations. Even sponsored runners with a thin resume get press (e.g. the recent profile on Catrin Jones.)

    Expecting objective voting for UROY or UPOY is becoming less likely in the face of the increasing monetization of the sport. I'm all for runners making their living from the sport, but let's not pretend that these awards are anything but an exclusive club of trail/mountain/100 runners who favor their own in the voting (AJWs picks are a perfect example of this narrow focus.)

    The only way this will change is if there is increased competition in ultra journalism to provide a more balanced perspective on these events and competitors.

    1. olga

      That was well and very politely stated. Bias exists. "P" is more of a "Popular", and Geoff, himself, stated it. "At the end of the day, we live in a free-market society and the races that get the most attention are the races which people are most intrigued by." One of those "vote with your pocket" thing. Soft drinks and fast food are bad for us, yet it prospers because there are buyers on the market, many more so than farmer's market vegetable stand ever gets.

  2. Vern L

    I used to only run the roads – the pavement, something hard. That was until recently when I took up running again because it seemed like fun, even as much fun as climbing stairs up a mountain close to my house. Tonight I ran on the concrete around the park for 80 minutes. It wasn't bad, but it sure wasn't anything like the fun I had running up and down another mountain trail close to my home that takes 80 minutes to get up and down. I even do it twice and I have a blast on it. Running for 160 minutes on the trail is about the equivalent to running 80 minutes on the concrete – as far as effort. I really feel it too much on the hard stuff.

    Running 20 miles on the roads just doesn't get me excited at all. I've done triathlons for years in my twenties and early thirties. I never ran more than maybe 15 miles on the roads. It was just never that much fun… it always seems like effort. It hurts.

    I'm looking forward to running a marathon on the trails, and possibly an ultra if it all goes well.

    Just never had the urge to run on the road very far.

    To each his own – the sport is divided for a reason. It's two sports. Ultra-trail vs. Ultra-roads. Like road racing bicycles and racing mountain bikes through forest. Totally different.

    Anyway, I think I'm stating the obvious. Let me duck out of here while I still can.

  3. astroyam

    How do we accurately gauge that running on a 100% flat surface at 7:12 pace is more difficult-to-achieve than running UROC, 64 miles and 10k (or something) vert in 9h30m?

    Without delving into the physics of it in detail, it's pretty hard to say.

    Personally, I would guess that it'd be harder keeping up with the lead group for one hour at UROC than running 7:12 pace for 1.25 hours. On the other hand the track is so constant, that maybe that's not a fair test.

    Point is, for most of us who run trails it's really hard to comprehend and appreciate how hard it is to run on a track for 12 hours. I'd have as good accuracy gauging how hard it is to ride a bike at 18 mph for 12 hours.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Your comparison between the first hour of Jon's race vs. UROC is interesting. Jon ran an incredibly consistent pace all day long. This does not happen in ultra trail races, where the start of the race if often much faster than the rest of the race. I've won races where I would have had a very hard time keeping up the guys who were in front for the first 1-2 hours. UTMB goes out at 6 minute pace, and what is the average pace of the winner? I bet Jon could go out at pace that would be hard for you to keep up with, but he wouldn't have run sub 12 if he had done that. I'm not sure if you were referencing pace or the surface in terms of the track being constant, but the difference between how Jon ran and the average trail race is massive.

      1. steeltownrunner

        Further – Jon's "come hell or highwater" goal was to break 12 hours, not to run the 100mi as fast as he possibly could. At that point, no North American had ever broken 12 hours. If he felt good, his plan was to continue for 24 hours once hitting the sub 12 100mi split. In fact, he did a shoe change to head back out but decided to quit within a few miles. Bottom line, Jon was not going out for the fastest 100mi time he thought possible.

  4. Rob Y

    I think you answered your own question: "Olsen’s run was almost certainly the most difficult-to-achieve performance in North America so far this year…"

    Road, Track or Trail shouldn't the metric for POY be "the most difficult-to-achieve"?

  5. Alex

    Maybe Olsen will win, maybe not. But the thing about running is that we have races, and these races have winners, decided by the most unambiguous of metrics possible: Who ran the most/fastest. This isn't boxing; there isn't and should not be "judging controversy", concerning the outcomes. I guess what I'm saying is that, maybe Olsen won't get the votes, but maybe that doesn't matter at all. Olsen has his records, his wins, and more races to target in the future. Those are the things that matter.

  6. Cody C

    Great article Geoff. However, I would argue that most people that hold Olson/Morton/Little's performances in such high regard do so not because of the past luster/history of road/track events but because they simply see them as the best performances.

  7. Steve

    I wonder how much of this impression that trail races are "infinitely" more popular than road/multidays is a Western USA thing. Here in the East, it's a bit more balanced, both in terms of number of races and number of participants.

  8. Anonymous

    It almost seems like we're coming to a fork in the road here, where certain people/events/feats will perhaps get far more attention and recognition than they seem to merit while others, arguably of equal or greater merit, will be almost invisible…some this will bother, and others, it seems to me, will be increasingly content to go about their business, do what they do, and live happily ever after…just one example of many: I'm still surprised Liz Bauer's record-setting 36 100's in a calendar year didn't receive more attention and applause than it did, but assume she's more than happy to just be out there running and doing what she does?

    JV in SD

  9. Jamie

    Personally I cannot imagine the mental toughness it would take to run 100 miles on an indoor track in under 12 hours. Every lap looks the same, and every lap you have the opportunity to say "f this" and drop out. I don't think I would last.

    Which is why I'm a trail runner. I like to get somewhere, see something new in my races.

    Whether or not it was the most popular feat this year, I think it's the most impressive I've heard of. Give it to the track runner this year, there will be many more inspiring efforts on the trail in the coming years.

  10. Joey

    I think some of it has to do with the fact that the trail ultras are races and the track events are timed events. Yeah I guess there are places when the track event is done, but it's not really a race. Each person is doing their own thing really.

  11. Steve

    Ignoring the fact that in both trail ultras and timed events the vast majority of the field is "doing their own thing":

    Normally – believe me – in timed events there are real races going on up front.

    Olsen was specifically going for the record so his case is an exception.

    1. Joey

      What I meant by doing their own thing, was that a lot people go to the timed events with the intention of not going for the whole time. I'm not discrediting Jon's performance at all and the people that do race these events. Actually I believe there needs to be way more timed and road ultras, in my opinion. And I think his performance trumps any 100 victory this year. His pace was incredible for such a long time

      1. Steve

        Oh, I see what you're saying.

        FWIW, Most of the performances worth talking about are indeed done by people going the whole time against a competitive field. Olsen was an exception in the 100-mile record, but was not in the world championship.

  12. Tropical John

    Geoff makes valid points here. The huge swing to trail and mountain running events over the past couple of decades (more than 90% of ultras are now on dirt) has led voters toward a higher consideration of those performances. Virtually all of the events where a large number of elite runners compete head to head are on trails.

    Inevitably UPOY asks the voters to compare apples and oranges. And bananas and grapefruit. You have amazing performances at differing distances, on track, road, trail and mountains. Jon Olsen's 100 mile vs. Timmy Olson's 15:17 WS100 on a 100+ degree day vs. Sage Canaday's Lake Sonoma vs. Dakota Jones' SJS50 vs. Rob Krar's R2R2R FKT vs. a bunch more.

    In my estimation, the voters have mostly gotten it right over the years. Certainly closer to right than, say, the Academy Awards or the BCS. Ultimately, it's a subjective decision and the discussion of what impresses you more is a large part of the fun.

  13. Ian Sharman

    Being a road and trail runner (unlike many who focus on just one of those), it is difficult to compare the two but not impossible. There are several people in the world who have run much faster/longer than the American records for 100 miles, 24hrs etc (and are directly comparable) while I'd argue that something like Timmy's 15:17 at WS100 was nearer the peak of that style of running ever, allowing for the ridiculous weather.

    That's what I think should be important in measuring a performance, plus the competitive element versus time trials. All the runs which have been mentioned are certainly incredible and the sport is reaching new levels in trail running, but on roads and tracks the best global (not US) performances were almost all more than a decade ago, often much more than that. We're not hitting those same highs in the flat running.

    I'd argue that Mike Morton's 3rd place at WS100 this year was about as good a run as his AR at 24hrs – it was very close to the top level ever achieved and was against deep competition, while his impressive 24hr run was a solo effort with no real competition near to him and was 16 miles off the world best performance (Kouros ran almost 10% farther!).

    1. Sz_Peter

      Only Kouros -who is not from this planet- and Denis Zhalybin (282k)has ran better 24hrs than Mike Morton ever, as far as I know…so i guess his ran from last year is on the history book of ultrarunning.

    2. Ben_Nephew

      Context is important for comparisons. The 100 mile and 24hr records have a much longer international history, and the comment about the Beamon-like 24hr record makes the difference between the AR and WR insignificant in terms of a comparison to WS. The record at WS is more comparable to an AR than a WR. While there are international runners at WS, it is not an international championship. Tim's run was near the peak of WS and American trail 100's. Jon ran an AR in adverse conditions, Tim ran close to the WS course record in adverse conditions.

      If you want to try to put that in an international context, you can't just look at the handful of top international runners that run WS, you need to also look at how US males do when they race internationally. Compared to the incredible success of the international runners that come to race in the US, American men are more likely to DNF or finish far from the front at international trail ultras. If WS was the peak of international trail 100's, then US runners would do better at UTMB.

  14. Peter Andersson

    So why not have different categories for road and off-road? The sport is growing – time to branch out!

    In the 80s Nordic Skiing split into "classic" and "free" style and the sport didn't suffer from that at all, if anything it grew more popular in the southern parts of Europe where conditions are less suitable for the classic style.

  15. dejan e

    why do anyone need to be recognize as the best, trail running is all about self acomplisment, any other ultra race(6, 12, 24hr.) is timed, so as amazing they are they are track runners and should be considered to be super athletes in what they are doing. Trail or mountain running is considered to be enjoyment, satisfaction……….

  16. Fejes

    I completely agree with Geoff’s acknowledgment that Jon Olsen’s performance was certainly the most difficult to achieve performance in North America this year.

    I disagree that the winner of a hotly contested race should be given more weight than a faster performance by a runner who has no competition. In fact I would argue that it is much much tougher to run a record without competition.

    Geoff, I would love to see what you could do in a road or track ultra or in a 24 hour or multiday event. I’m having a 6 Day event on the indoor track at the Alaska Dome next August. Free entry for you to want to try it.

    Looking at your Ultrasignup results it doesn’t look like you have ever tried a road or track ultra or a 24 hour. Come try it–maybe we can bring you over to the dark side. Lol

    1. MexiFast

      "I disagree that the winner of a hotly contested race should be given more weight than a faster performance by a runner who has no competition. In fact I would argue that it is much much tougher to run a record without competition. "

      If this is how you feel then why wouldn't you consider a -well documented- FKT as UPOY?

      1. steeltownrunner

        an FKT is just that – they are rarely contested by legitimate contenders and the context is hard to know in objective terms. There is a rich history of highly competitive 24 hour races. To know how impressive some times are, are to know many past performances from notable runners and see how they've faired. There have been many 2:2X runners who weren't able to hit 130mi in 24hours. There are only a handful in the world ever to top 150mi, fewer still to top 160, 170 + is near the top – basically like a 2:08 marathon. Can win on a given day unless Kouros shows up who's dominance for 24hours (188+) would be like a 2:03 marathoner going against a 2:09 guy. They're both world class, but one of them is still not even close to the other.

        An FKT can have, what, frequently no more than 10 truly competitive attempts for the hotly contested ones. 24hrs has seen hundreds of more hotly contested actual races.

  17. G_r_e_g

    Interesting article Geoff.

    However, I feel like we are comparing apples and oranges here. Yes, these races are the same distance but, as it is so clear to see, they are entirely different events. We would never compare impressive performances in a road marathon to an impressive performance in a trail marathon.

    It just so happens that 100 mile running events are eclectic happenings. Because we are a relatively small subculture, I think we feel the need to group track and trail ultras together. The trail aspect of our sport is growing and naturally, the popularity/respect (or whatever you want to call it) of the people that run trail 100s is growing as well. I believe that if ultras in generally were as popular as the marathon we wouldn't even bother with comparing track and trail performances and naming one decided winner between the two disciplines.

    TLDR: Why even try to compare track and trail ultras? They are as different as road and trail marathons or track and road 5ks.

  18. Jon Olsen

    Ian,

    I agree his performance at WS was more impressive than that of his AR performance at the World 24 hour, but not for the reasons you might think. He had only two months of mountain training going into WS. Remember, he was injured for over a month in March/April. he lives in a flat area and has trained solely for flat races. That is what was impressive. He ran toe to toe with mountain/trail specialists and still almost beat them. I think he validated his Ultra Runner of the Year award from last year. We need to be careful to compare any runner to Kouros….he is the greatest of all time. His 172.5 ….will be tough to beat.

    1. hthe3rd

      Jon,

      I agree whole heartedly. Kouros is a complete outlier. It is like Paula Radcliffe and the women's marathon. If a woman runs sub-2:20 in the marathon it is likely to be in the running for woman's marathon performance of the year despite the fact that it is 4mins off of Paula's record. Why? Because Paula's 2:15 is such an incredible outlier.

  19. nbskis

    Being new to the sport and having entered purely from a mountain loving standpoint, with little formal running background, I certainly may be quite biased. I do believe the spirit of our crazy sort of running lies much more deeply in nature than on a track though. Like Dakota recently discussed, the track has it's place and is certainly a performance enhancing tool, but I for one cannot even imagine running 100 miles, 100k, or honestly even more than 10k solely on a track. I also think it's extremely unfair to call this unequivocally the defining performance of the year, because while from a fitness standpoint it may have been incredibly difficult to achieve, it's such a mind numbing task that I think, while many high caliber runners could achieve it, they choose to skip it because of the utter boredom of running around a track for that long. It seems to me there's much more skill that goes into an ultra trail race as well, for one gauging your competitors and not just running countless miles off the clock, while also factoring pace up and down hills, and avoiding nature's obstacles. I know some will have an issue with this, that's fine, but to me this falls so far out of range of the sport that I participate in that I would hate to see it win against the likes of Rory's UTMB and such.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Most people that run both roads and trails would strongly disagree with your comment about how easy it would be for high caliber runners to beat Jon's time. You should research the backgrounds of the men who Jon surpassed with his run.

      Road ultra runners could make an argument that UTMB is not running given the average pace, but you don't often hear that from road ultra runners, they are more likely to respect trail performances. The lack of respect for road and track events from trail ultra runners is sometimes due to ignorance, but even then it is not acceptable.

      There are skills involved in running both road/track and trail ultras. Having different skills than someone else doesn't make you better.

  20. ToTheTrails

    With the "of the year" awards soon to be out it got me thinking of a couple other possible awards especially with the ultra scene growing.
    1. UGOY(Ultra Gear of the Year) What piece of gear made the most impact? Ultraspire cups? A pack or handheld?
    2. UCOY(Ultra Community of the Year) This would go out to someone or something that did good for the ultra community. My vote is for the scholarships Geoff Roes started for the Alaska Mtn Ultrarunning Camps or the Boulder Volunteers after those crazy rain storms hit to help open trails there.
    3. UVOY(Ultra Video of the Year) Straight forward here. Could be short, long form. In the High Country? Salomon Running Video?
    Ok, ok…this could be overkill but who knows, we would then be prepared for when the Travel Channel offers this ultra community our own award show!

  21. @WilliamsRunning

    I guess what ultimately impresses me is that which I can't do. Not that I claim to be able to hang with the top trail guys but I guess to a degree I can wrap my head around what they do. Olsen, mind blown. I can't fathom running that pace, for that long, on unchanging terrain.

    If I had a vote I'd vote for Olsen.

  22. CharlieDalziell

    I was amazed to discover Ann Transon holds the women's world records for road and track 100 miles. Was there anything she didn't do in ultras? Maybe some modern day trail runners could follow her example. Who knows what they may achieve!

    Tim Olsen's run at WS beats John Olsen's run IMO given he ran up and down mountains in extreme heat and only ran 3:17 slower. John's run was excellent however he is still over 30 mins short of the world record.

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