Fact or Fiction? The Ultrarunning Boom And Burnout

AJW's TaproomFor the past several years, as we’ve experienced the trail and ultrarunning boom, there’s been a common mythology among observers of the sport that, with the growth of ultrarunning and the impact of money pouring into the sport, elite competitors have been pushed to do too much too soon and have quickly burned out. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as I’ve observed the sport and I thought I’d look back a bit to see if there was any truth to the mythology that we are seeing a shortened career trend.

As this is the time of year that prognosticators begin thinking about UltraRunning Magazine’s annual (North American) Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY) voting, I thought I would look back five years to the 2012 voting. I am choosing 2012 as a sample because it was a time when we were a few years into the current ultra boom, North American runners were beginning to compete more frequently on the international stage, and several notable records were set.

That year, the women’s UROY top five looked like this:

  1. Ellie Greenwood
  2. Connie Gardner
  3. Darcy Piceu
  4. Amy Sproston
  5. Rory Bosio

Ellie Greenwood’s year, that year, was perhaps one of the greatest year of any female ultraunner ever as she won and set the course record at Western States and also won the JFK 50 Mile and took second at the Comrades Marathon. While Ellie has dealt with some bouts of injury since then, she remains active in the sport and is truly one of the great champions of our time, including winning UROY in 2014. [Editor’s note: This statement has been revised.]

Connie Gardner was 49 years old in 2012 and ran an extraordinary 149 miles at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships. Five years later, at the ripe old age of 54, Connie is still going strong, posting a 17:52 100 miler at the Canal Corridor 100 Mile in July as well as logging 110 miles at the North Coast 24 Hour this past September.

Darcy Piceu continues to excel in the mountains over long distances, as exemplified by her impressive string of top-three finishes at the Hardrock 100 and her recent fastest known time on the John Muir Trail earlier this fall.

Amy Sproston, whose win at the IAU 100k World Championships was the second-best performance of 2012 after Greenwood’s Western States, has maintained a string of impressive sub-20-hour finishes at Western States since 2012 and over the past few months she won the Silver State 50 Mile and finished eighth at the highly competitive UTMB.

Rory Bosio, rounding out 2012’s top five, is also still competing as her top-10 finish at the Broken Arrow Skyrace and win at the Tahoe Rim 50 Mile can attest.

All told, with the exception of Ellie who is clearly struggling with injury rather than anything one might call burnout, there is no slowing down among the women’s top five from 2012.

On the men’s side, the top-five vote getters for Ultrarunner of the Year were:

  1. Mike Morton
  2. Timothy Olson
  3. Max King
  4. Hal Koerner
  5. Dakota Jones

During 2012, Mike Morton staged what has to be one of the most extraordinary comebacks in ultra history. After years away from the sport battling injury and serving in the armed forces, Morton, the 1997 Western States winner and then-course-record holder, returned to notch wins at the Long Haul 100 Mile, Umstead 100 Mile, Keys Ultra 100 Mile, and the Badwater Ultramarathon. Then a month after Badwater, Mike covered an astounding 172 miles at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Poland which was that year’s male performance of the year beating, believe it or not, Timothy Olson’s course-record 2012 run at Western States. Morton followed up that extraordinary year with a third-place finish at the 2013 Western States in a time of 15:45, just five minutes slower than his time 16 years earlier! That 15:45 still stands today as the masters course record. Alas, Western States 2013 was Morton’s last ultra to date and just this past August he underwent major back surgery in an attempt to resolve an issue that has been nagging him for years. Time will tell if Mike will be able to stage yet another comeback but I, for one, wouldn’t put it past him.

Timothy Olson, since his record-breaking 2012 season, has admittedly battled a bit of burnout and overtraining. However, he remains active in the sport and over the past two years has raced less frequently and achieved some solid results. While perhaps a notch below such things as course records at Western States, his top-10 finish at the 2016 Hardrock 100 and his fourth-place finish at this past September’s Bear 100 Mile suggest that Olson is still very much in the thick of it.

Max King, after his then-JFK course record in 2012, has certainly continued to excel at ultras five years after with wins this year at Chuckanut and Broken Arrow as well as a gutsy eighth place at the highly competitive The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships last weekend in San Francisco.

Hal Koerner has, since his excellent 2012 season, been incredibly busy raising a family and running a successful business and yet he continues to run and this past year finished his first 100 miler in over two years at the Vermont 100 Mile and last weekend ran a solid 8:15 at TNF 50. Additionally, I saw firsthand in November of 2016 that Hal’s still got it when he needs it when he busted out a 6:40 to take second in the masters division at the JFK 50 Mile.

Finally, there’s Dakota Jones, a guy who’s always picked his spots. In fact, in 2012 when he was fifth in the UROY voting, he ran a grand total of three races, 1st at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, third at Hardrock, and first at Transvulcania. This past year at Lake Sonoma, Jones notched an impressive second place just three minutes slower than his 2012 winning time.

As with the women, from my point of view, I am not seeing signs of rampant burnout.

Indeed, the picture I’ve provided above is just one snapshot of 10 people over a five-year period and there are certainly other places in the sport where we might see a different picture. However, I suggest we continue pay attention to reality rather than mythology before quickly blaming money and growth for shortening careers and jeopardizing the sport. It’s the least we could do for this thing we love so much.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Funky Buddha Brewery Early Summer Blonde AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Mike Morton’s adopted home state of Florida in honor of his incredible accomplishment of two sub-16-hour finishes at Western States 16 years apart from one another. Since we’re closing in on winter, my mind is drifting to warmer climes and the Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park, Florida. Funky Buddha’s Eternal Summer Blonde Ale is a classic summer ale with a hoppy twist. While it may not make the cut for your Thanksgiving table this week, it is well worth quaffing post-run just about any time, not just summertime.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts on the relationship–or lack thereof–between the ultrarunning boom and ultrarunner burnout? Okay, well, what are your fact-based thoughts, that is? :)
  • Can you share anecdotes of your own journey with ultrarunning and burnout problems (or not) that you’ve experienced over time?

There are 110 comments

  1. Ellie Greenwood

    AJW – please could you fact check before writing about others. I did not win Comrades in 2012 (I placed 2nd, albeit 10 mins faster than the year I won). You also quote ‘since that time (2012) Ellie has struggled with injuries’. Sure I have had some injuries but since 2012 I have also won Comrades (2014), IAU World 100k (2014), won Templiers (2015), 2nd at TNF50 (2015), won Chuckanut (2016). Please do not write off 5 years of my running with one sentence of having struggled with injuries – injuries are a part but not a sum of the story. You are writing about people here, it’s important to respect that.

    1. AJW

      My apologies Ellie! Admittedly, this article was written in a bit of a hurry as the holiday weekend put pressure on my deadline. As soon as Meghan gets back from her trip we will edit accordingly. Again, my apologies!

      1. Klee

        When you have students sent to your office for turning in a paper with factual errors and sloppy research, they should be allowed to show you this thead as their reprieve.

  2. Ellie Greenwood

    No need to edit – please leave as I appreciate it is an article of personal views and you are entitled to those. But if I have been injured since 2012 I do wonder how I won UROY in 2014. I don’t feel that a holiday weekend is a reason to hurry an article when writing about other people.

  3. Michael Miller

    So are you arguing that runner “burnout” is not a problem in the sport? That seems like a short-sighted and rosy view. I think the ultra-running scene for the past 7 or 8 years is full of young folks who come in on fire and set down some amazing times and then after 2 years, they simply can’t compete at the same level any more. This includes several names that you talked about.

    Coming in top 10 at a second tier 50k is a far cry from setting course records at the really competitive races. I’m not trying to take anything away from anyone’s accomplishments. I am thrilled that those folks are still able to go out and enjoy a good run in the mountains, and glad that some of those former world-class runners are still involved in the sport. But I also think that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that over-training syndrome is a very real thing and it shouldn’t be pushed under the rug so cavalierly.

    I’m sure we could all thing of a dozen examples among elites and for every one of those we could probably think of a dozen more non-elites who we used to know who got real serious, made big improvements, and then sorted of faded away from the scene. It merits serious discussion in this sport because peoples long-term health and quality of life is being affected.

    1. David Jeker

      The analysis of Heart rate variability (HRV) could help us understand fatigue. With a frequency-domain analysis (which is bit more complex than the time-domain analysis used by the available Apps on the market) you can distinguish 4 types of fatigue, the fourth one being actual “overtraining”. You can also determine if you (or one of your athlete) are in a state of functional overreaching or non-functional overreaching and adjust the training before it’s too late…

      Here’s a quick read on the subject with many interesting references:
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4652221/

  4. Aaron

    Irresponsible article and demeaning to those who have candidly related their experiences with burnout/OTS.

    The “myth” and “fiction” of OTS is certainly real to those who have experienced it. While it may not be “rampant” it is a facet of the sport and to blithely dismiss it as inconsequential does a disservice to the ultra community. I do think you are correct in that the growth and influx of money into the sport are not solely to blame. However, in a sport defined by the ethos of going further and pushing limits, dismissing an increasingly competitive environment as a component of the burnout/OTS phenomenon is just plain foolish.

  5. Markus

    Andy,
    You picked the whole wrong set of runners to talk about burn out.

    Geoff Roes, Anton Krupicka, Skaggs were mentioned already. There are more, Rob Krar comes to mind and Jim Walmsley might be the next one. I am sure there are plenty more I can’t think of right now. The funny thing is, only men.

    This article also forgets that athletes peak. You can perform on the highest level on so long and at one point you will be slower and some injuries are catching up but that is something different than real burn out.

    But there is not only burn out on the highest level in ultrarunning. In forums you can read of runners who did too many races in too short of a time and wonder why they got injured.

    The truth is,
    that you can do 1 or 2 top performances per year and a couple build up races much more over a couple of years is asking for trouble. There also have to be down years with not too much going on. I watched plenty of top and normal ultrarunners doing that over more than 3 decades and it actually works.

  6. Fitzgerald

    Wow, you lot must have spent too much time with the inlaws yesterday. Take a second and calm down. AJW writes a simple opinion piece, written from his own perspective, and you guys stick the coals to him. Chill out.

    1. Michael Miller

      AJW has a right to express his opinion as do you. The rest of us also have a right to express our opinions that it is dangerous and borderline negligent when somebody who for some reason has status in the community tells everyone that this isn’t really an issue that anyone should be concerned about.

      That’s the way internet forums work. They are for everyone to express their opinions.

    2. Emerson Thoreau

      I agree with Fitzgerald. Chill out folks. The visceral reaction to AJW’s piece confirms there is a problem, and people are sensitive to it. I have been running ultras for many years and the carnage is rampant — from elites down to mid-packers. The cognitive dissonance is epic, as runners think injuries are some random occurrence rather than from their overtraining, under-nutrition, or other poor choices. The injured folks then look to doctors, instead of to the mirror, to solve their problems. They are treating symptoms, not causes…

  7. Albert

    I’ve been around the ultra world for almost 18 years. The concept of ultrarunners getting injured or burning out because they did too much racing and training is nothing new, whether it’s your average runner or top level runner. I’ve seen a ton of runners come and go over the years, both folks like me who are dots in the crowd and also talented and well known runners running at the front of the pack. The fact is that more people run ultras than before, therefore more people get injured and burned out than before, and so it probably seems like it’s happening more often. In the “old days” we’d find out info about a runner because we’d ask something like “Hey why isn’t Bob running the race? Oh, I heard from so and so he’s injured and can’t run.” Most of what we knew was word of mouth. Now the explosion of social media and blogging the last 10 years or so has made it easy to know about almost anyone because the information on runners is out there for everyone to see. Pick any of the runners mentioned in this article, and you can probably find a blog post, a Strava feed, a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram post, an online article or god forbid if they’re unlucky enough a Letsrun thread about their injuries.

    1. Fitzgerald

      Great comment Albert. The social media impact is huge and can be a double edged sword to some. While it increases notoriety and can increase an athletes potential earnings, it also opens up athletes to more attention and scrutiny. But, some attention which they may not want.

    2. Michael Miller

      Definitely some truth here, but I think it also overlooks the fact that people are running way faster than they used to and that creates more issues with OTS. Scott Jurek could win 7 Western States when 16:30 or so could win. Is anybody going to win 7 when they have to run sub 15 every time just to podium? I’d love for someone to prove me wrong but I don’t think its humanly possible.

      It is a tough position to be in. I mean ultra-running is supposed to be about pushing the limits of what is humanly possible right? But what happens when pushing those limits has long-term health implications. I think the sport is in the same position as the NFL was a few years ago and we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I’m just glad I’m not a young fast kid who has to make that decision.

      1. AJW

        Obviously, we’re all entitled to our opinions, and you’ve certainly expressed yours multiple times. Let me just point out that the 2017 WS champ Ryan Sandes won in 16:19. That’s most certainly not sub-15. And two out of the last three women’s winners have gone over 19. No disrespect to them rather I suggest you look at the data before stating that “everyone’s running faster”.

        1. Michael Miller

          Are you being serious? You are going to argue that people aren’t running faster based on one year’s cherry picked anecdote and then tell ME to look at the data????

          Hahaha. Ok, man you win. Your one year’s data point trumps all those other years…..

          But I will admit that other than Ellie’s to phenomenal winning years the women do not seem to be pushing themselves as hard as the men and their winning times do not appear to be trending down as steeply as the men’s.

          1. AJW

            Last 10 men’s winning times at WS100:

            2007 16:12
            2009 16:24
            2010 15:07
            2011 15:34
            2012 14:46
            2013 15:17
            2014 14:53
            2015 14:48
            2016 15:39
            2017 16:19

            1. Michael Miller

              Hey I can use the googles too. I’m not sure what your point is but here’s some summary analysis that you might be interested in.

              In the 90’s the average men’s winning time was 17:05. In the 00’s it was 16:36. In this decade so far it has been 15:18 (and we know what would have happened if Jim didn’t get lost at mile 93. Yeah, you have to cross the finish line but still….)

              It’s not an opinion that the winning times are getting faster, it is an objective, verifiable, fact. In fact the rate at which they are increasing seems to be accelerating. The ladies are also getting faster but not nearly as much as the men, for whatever reason.

              You know far better than I do what it would take to knock 1:18 of your time at WS. You can have an opinion that such an increase is not related to OTS, I don’t think there is data to say definitively one way or another although I think there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that OTS is an increasing problem in the sport and that it warrants actual research. I would like to see that research get done and its certainly not helpful to downplay the issue as something that doesn’t even exist.

              Given your new employer, however, I can see why you might want to use your status to make that case.

  8. Anonymous

    I completely disagree with the methodology used in this article, which is uncharacteristically bad for a writer like AJW, who usually posts really well-written pieces. For starters, I have concerns about picking one year (2012) and then drawing some pretty sweeping conclusions from it. The fact is, we are still learning a lot about OTS and it’s a bit irresponsible to pick one year and then infer the impact OTS has had on elite runners who have raced too much is a myth. By the way, I think OTS has impacted a lot of mid-packers, too (their disappearance just isn’t that public–they go without fanfare). When I look at the past 8 or 9 years, I see a lot of runners who achieved incredible heights and then ran themselves into the ground: Jamie Donaldson, Rob Krar, Kyle Skaggs, Tim Olson, Mike Morton, Anton Krupicka and the list goes on. There’s a runner now, Courtney Dauwalter, who is also making the same mistakes and it pains me to watch her make them. This article was sloppy in its research, in its methodology, and in its conclusions. I feel iRunFar should retract it.

    1. AJW

      @anonymous You raise some excellent points all of which are worth our collective consideration. But, demanding a retraction? On an anonymous comment? Please feel free to email me directly if you wish to discuss this further [email protected]

  9. Patrick

    As far as AJW’s writing is concerned, I don’t really expect thoroughly researched or scientific. It’s called the Tap Room for a reason. It’s more like what you’d get talking about UltraRunning over a beer at a bar.

    1. Anonymous

      Patrick, it’s a different thing altogether when in the Taproom AJW calls out certain runners and makes assumptions about a few of them. That’s not cool. And he should make sure he has his facts straight before he does it.

      1. Patrick

        I don’t think I would say he “called out” anyone. His tone was generous and positive throughout. He should have mentioned some more of Ellie’s accomplishments, but he’s not completely wrong to say that she’s dealt with some injuries and had somewhat less success in the last couple years.
        His argument is basically that burnout is not a major problem and he’s using these 10 runners as evidence of that.

  10. Dave M

    I feel for Ellie as the facts weren’t correct. It does seem like a thrown together article intended to generate discussion and should have been vetted. That said, yes there is burnout in some but also a lot of injuries which sideline ultrarunners vs burnout. I doubt the rate of sidelined ultrarunners is higher than that of non ultra-runners, elite or otherwise but I have no data to back that up.

  11. Albert

    This is an opinion piece, not a research article, so we can agree or disagree with Andy. I also get why any of the mentioned names would get a bit bent out of shape, especially since I assume that some of them have running as a livelihood. Ellie deleted one of my comments off one of her blogs on her injury because I made a suggestion that was contrary to what she believed in. Though my suggestion had no malintent, I understood why she did it, and I understand why she would get a bit upset at this article. But once again it’s just an opinion, and we should talk about it.

  12. Patrick

    I haven’t studied burnout in ultrarunning and it certainly seems like it may be real, but you don’t have to think all that hard to come up with athletes in other sports who have come on strong for a year or two and then burned out. Derrick Rose is in the news today as he tries to decide if he should call it quits. In 2011 he was the youngest ever NBA MVP at 22.

  13. Oscar

    Great to see so many comments – the Ultra World is alive!!! I like AJW. Yes, there are some facts that were incorrect, but to his defense, he’s human and mistakes happen on occasion. Surely every writer was guilty of that at some point in their lives. Also, while maybe not impossible, I suspect even in this day and age it would be quite challenging to track down all results of the 5 men and women that he selected over a 5 year period. Perhaps understandable if he missed some. Our sport doesn’t have a one-stop source to find previous results, the way Football or Baseball may have. Further, AJW acknowledges that this is just a snapshot of 10 athletes and it may not tell the whole story. Lastly, while there is clearly a concern with overtraining affecting elite athletes, others continue to astound me. Take Kilian for example – he’s been at the top for 10+ years, and putting in massive amounts of running/skimo training. It would be interesting to know what’s prevented burnout in him (I’m not quite sold on the fact it’s because he’s a dual sport athlete, ultimately your body/mind is never resting).

  14. DJ

    You might want to check out the rather incredible Britsh runner Ken Fancett. Now 68 years old and doing ‘many’ hundred milers and other assorted ultra’s per year – and finishing in the top 15% in practically every race.

    What’s his secret? Check out James Elson’s (Centurion Running) podcast: http://www.britishultrarunningpodcast.com

    …wish I had half the talent…

  15. Denver

    Seems to be very little longevity at the top end for North American elite male athletes compared to their European counterparts.

    Krar, Olson and others seem to burn out after only 2/3 seasons at elite level whereas Killian Francois, Xavier etc have been at the top for more than 5 seasons and rarely have the breakdowns that the North Americans have.

    My gut is that the Europeans train less but train smarter like Bronco Billy.

    1. Albert

      Denver, I think that the Euros seem to dedicate time in different disciplines that don’t produce so much pounding in the off season, such as cycling and skimo. AND in between races they don’t do huge amounts of training. Compare Kilian and Jim Walmsley. Between races this year Kilian didn’t do huge amounts of training. Rather, he recovered well enough to do the next race and dominated. He maybe did one big outing in between, or maybe none. And he does this year in and year out, and only seems to get better. Jim, on the other hand, has gone three straight years training and doing ultras with virtually no big rest period and break away from the sport. In between each race he did lots and lots of big training and only paid lip service to rest after each race. It’s probably why he crashes at mile 70 in each 100 mile race and has digestive issues. It seems that he takes a page from the book of American cross country running, which is train train train with little recovery and high burnout for short term gains and little thought to good nutrition and recovery. That’s not how the Euros approach it and it seems to serve them well for many years in their careers.

      1. Markus

        Good points Albert,

        I think the main difference between European runners and Americans is that almost all of them have a day job in Europe. Kilian is on of the exceptions.

        In the US some runners try to make a living out of it. And because of that pressure they train and race too hard.

        (Walmsley’s digestive issues are caused by his wrong nutrition in races longer than 50 miles. But that should be a different thread.)

  16. Paul

    Running is an individual sport and runners are free to choose whatever training regimen they wish, whether it is shooting for the stars and risking burnout or something more sustainable. I find it very hard to believe that a professional runner would not know about overtraining. If a professional runner takes that risk then it is a conscious decision.

    1. Patrick

      Great point. These are grown ups making their own decisions and if all the blogs, social media posts, irunfar columns, interviews,etc are any indication, ultrarunners seem quite capable of self analysis and weighing the pros and cons of their own approaches. This goes for both training and pacing within races. If a runner thinks training hard and going out fast will get him what he wants, it’s his call. He may even be right if what he wants has more to do with reaching his personal best times rather than staying near the top for a long time.

    2. Emerson Thoreau

      You shouldn’t find it hard to believe “that a professional runner would not know about overtraining.” Cognitive dissonance is a huge part of human behavior.

  17. Brady

    So I think we agree (mostly) that a data driven approach is needed to answer the burnout question. Perhaps a more interesting conversation topic (than the current dogpile) is, how would we answer this question properly. Anyone have any ideas?

    One thought, could you mine Ultrasignup data for burnout patterns? It would only work for trail events, but you could presumably mine for athlete profiles that match a “too much too soon” burnout pattern (rapid rise and fall or rise and drop out) and then use targeted surveys via the associated email address. Using that approach, combined with GPS-tracking data, plus some control groups you might be able to identify patterns and their correlates.

    1. Tim Tollefson

      This is a fascinating idea. Would be interesting at the very least to track trends of frequency, performance, and longevity using the singular platform.

    2. Stephanie Jamrog

      I like this idea of mining data for burnout patterns, which could be very useful. However, a lot of races are not on Ultrasignup. My page only shows three races in 2015 & 2016 when in fact I did 8 – some of the exceptions included ultra distances completed in quick succession which I think would be an important trend to see (especially since I spent the second half of 2016 recovering from a bout of OTS as a result). Maybe we could use surveys to build a more solid data base. That would also give us the chance to ask runners about their other life stressors (work, family, etc.) would also plays a huge role in developing OTS.

  18. Graniterunner

    So over the years I followed the carreer of Tony, Geoff and Timothy. Also Kilians, Xaviers and Francois carreer. I was sad as I recognized, that the first three never came back so strong, especially Timothy; Everone has to know what he is able to manage with his body and also with his mind. I went through OTS very badly and it was my fault. I am in the middle and in the back of the field mostly. But there was such a hype of running trails and ultras. And the commercials: Buff, Salomon, Suunto….all the videos with lucky laughing people who run and run and run…As I said my OTS was only my fault, but commercials and money (for the Elite) is not the best.
    The worlds best marathon runners are running a marathon in spring and the other in autumn, two races. If I look how many races some (elite or not) are running, i do not know how long they will run. I wish them all: Long may you run…
    For me the only real thing what matters; I am back again, back from the dead and that is no joke; but OTS and burnout is a fact and no myth!!!!

  19. Run GMD

    “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.”

    Speaking from experience, there’s a certain allure Neil Young’s words hold for the young. Some take the concept too literally, too far. But when you’re young the prospect of a future, much less longevity, can be intimidating. Best to wipe away the fear and live in the now. Revel in your time. Go for it.

    Until one day you wake up and find yourself on the other side. Then what? For some it’s only after you’ve already fallen into a certain measure of longevity that the concept begins to have relevance.

    Who, other than the runner herself, is to say what is (and what is not) burnout? Injury is a physical reality that can be identified objectively. Burnout is a mental construct. One runner’s burnout is another’s change of priorities. We can mine Ultrasignup data for signs and signifiers of burnout, but perhaps that “burnout” would very much like to race but he is enrolled in medical school, or cares for an aging relative, or enjoys Olympic weighlifting, or something else? Perhaps she is taking a conscious break but will race again after a time away.

    So I question the idea of addressing this other than individually, case by case. Take good care of yourself and those runners close you, and OTS will resolve itself. Look for signs of OTS in yourself. When those close to you express concerns, listen. If a family member or friend is showing signs of OTS have a talk with her.

    Speedgoat’s got it right after all; it’s only running. Probably why he’s so young at heart. Turns out I didn’t burn out, and I won’t fade away. When the sun comes up tomorrow I just want to be ready, willing, and able for my run.

    1. AJW

      Well said, as usual @runGMD. Can’t believe nobody commented on the Florida beer. Next week, I’m back to my runcave. Maybe a good time for a piece on “Running and the Value of Active Listening”

  20. Nathan Toben

    At the core of AJW’s article and every single comment here, there is a shared inclination to enjoy, protect and perceive ultrarunning with greater clarity.

  21. Amy

    Life is short, and ultrarunning is a major time suck. Plus there are so many other hobbies out there, or things to explore. Yes, some people want to run ultras forever. Others, perhaps, have more varied interest, and perhaps don’t burn out, so much, as just find other life interests? Rock climbing, knitting, cat herding, swimming, kid raising, home building, career building, cat breeding, culinary school, cruise ship captaining, cat boarding, cat psychology, etc. Why must we assume that people leave the sport because they did too much or got injured? Especially as younger runners get into ultrarunning, I think we’ll see a lot of people flit in and flit out. Something checked off a list, perhaps, or just a change of heart. I don’t see this as a bad thing.

  22. Brettro

    Clearly people spent too much time with their families prior to reading this article.

    I think it is an interesting devil’s advocate perspective from the current philosophy that everyone who runs (faster than me/more miles than me) is an idiot that is over-training and will get their comeuppance.

  23. Mwith

    I don’t know AJW personally but have seen interviews and read his articles. It is one thing to disagree with someone and be passionate about it, another thing to mischaracterize a persons intent. I doubt AJW had any ill intent. Let’s be gracious to one another in our corrections and disagreements

  24. AJW

    Hello everyone, pasted below is a very interesting statistical analysis that Cam MacRae pulled together. He attempted to comment herein but for some reason was unable to hence I am sharing his comment:

    “Hey AJW,

    I tried to leave this comment on your Taproom piece, but it was rejected for some reason — possibly too long. You might find it interesting…

    cheers,

    Cam

    /****/

    Despite his unjustified raging (get that dude a Funky Buddha Eternal Summer Blonde Ale), Michael Miller does have a point, men’s times are decreasing over time, and if one was in the business of forecasting one might be tempted to use quadratic trend. Pretty unsatisfying as there is obviously more to it than mere time, so I’ll go a step further and build a linear model using the data anyone can pull off the WSER site.

    We can only start with ’85 as prior it ain’t the same race. We need to omit 2008 because there wasn’t race.

    Let’s start with a variable t where t=1 is 1985 and t=33 is 2017, and a variable m_time_s which is the winning men’s time in seconds. The resultant linear model tells us that t explains about 25% of the variance in men’s wining time.

    Fast forward past a lot of analysis, and let’s be honest, trial and error, and we arrive at a model that explains about 82% of the variance in men’s winning time. Included in the model is:

    t: explained above.

    high_F: the maximum temperature in freedom units

    low_F: the minimum temperature in freedom units

    snow: a binary variable denoting that either the snow route was used, or snow cover was recorded as ‘moderate’

    p_sub_24_all: the proportion of *starters* who finish in 24 hours or less.

    Notes:

    1: The use of boats to cross the river is perfectly correlated with the variable snow.

    2: p_sub_24_all is surprisingly not strongly correlated with t, and gives a slightly nicer result than the proportion of finishers who finish in 24 hours or less. You could make the case that it’s a measure of depth of field in a given year (up to you, I have no interest in duking that point out here).

    The model is (sorry for the formatting but I have no idea if I can use a monospace font here):

    Predictor Coef SE Coef T P

    Constant 68197 4078 16.72 0.000

    t_new -143.06 30.47 -4.70 0.000

    high_F 117.32 52.37 2.24 0.034

    low_F -187.45 55.80 -3.36 0.002

    snow 1990.5 704.7 2.82 0.009

    p_sub_24_all -27021 5852 -4.62 0.000

    S = 1503.56 R-Sq = 85.2% R-Sq(adj) = 82.3%

    The model broadly meets all the assumptions required for multiple linear regression.

    So what does it all mean? Well, for every one unit increase in t i.e a year, we can knock a couple of minutes (143 seconds) off the mens finishing time. For every 1 unit increase in maximum temperature, we can add them back. For every 1 unit increase in minimum temperature, we can take 3 minutes off the winning time. If there is a lot of snow, add half an hour. You can deduct about 45 minutes for each for 10% increment of starters who finish sub 24.

    The proportion of starters finishing sub 24 is trending upwards, so actually the whole field appears to be getting quicker over time, not just the pointiest end.

    Of course, the model is an approximation. There’s still a good 18% of the variance in the mens finishing time that can be explained by something not included here.

    None of this can be extrapolated to the women’s winning time (I looked and it’s fascinating as heck, but don’t have time today to investigate further).”

    1. Markus

      Great idea to put the winners times in correlation with snow and temperature.
      The only thing I see missing is, that the WS course was not 100 miles in the first 10 years or so. In the first year it was just around 88 miles and it was lengthened of the next couple of years. But it is only accurately 100 miles since 85 or 86.
      It’s mentioned on the historic part of the WS website.

    2. Mike H

      Just wanted to say, Cam’s analysis is pretty statistically sound — the assumptions and conclusions are well-stated and the results are insightful. Often, statistical conclusions are discussed with flawed understanding — this analysis here is refreshing. Thanks for doing it and sharing!

  25. Chris

    On the one hand, this is the Tap Room and a place for opinions. On the other hand, it sounded from the start of the article that AJW had a bit of an axe to grind against the notion of overtraining, and was cherry picking examples and skewing others.
    It sounds like a bit of denial of reality. Ultrarunning does place huge training stress on the body. Runners are faster now than ten years ago, in ultra running specifically.
    Endorphins might be making AJW a tad over optimistic ;-)

    It is very interesting to see that women, in the last 5 years at least, seem less affected by overtraining. (Could be wrong here…) Is this due to smarter training, less competition, better genes for the long stuff, too small a data set so far? I have no idea.

    1. Markus

      Ultrarunners are not faster than 10 or 20 years ago. Only some trail ultras are way more competitive than they used to be. There is just more a lot of uneducated hype about some ultrarunners that’s all.

      I think what AJW was trying to say that overtraining is not as much of an issue as people say it is. And that is probably true. Runners have overtraining injuries and since there are more runners you hear about more injuries.

      The extreme burnout from overtraining is probably a rare thing statistic wise but since these runners are often very active on social media you hear about it.

  26. Brian

    Good discussion, the article and all the comments to me are very interesting. One thing though that I don’t really got touched on all that much which I think could be a factor here, is that some runners who have been battling injuries or are suffering from OTS don’t even need to race to apparently make a living from running. As far as I last heard Krar had quite his pharmacist job, which happened after his best races, and now he does guest appearances, training camps etc… I mean he’s making a living without actually winning big races. This is just one example and while I won’t presume to know his personal issues with injury etc… or what prevents him from entering and winning big races anymore, what I think is clear is that it is no longer necessary for some of these guys to actually continue winning races after they ‘make it’. So to me, does that mean people are burned out? Or are they just living the life? Timothy Olsen is another example. He’s had a bit of a comeback but mostly from what I can glean from social media etc.. is that this dude is having a great time traveling the world with his family and spending a ton of time in the mountains. Same with Anton. Perhaps what is holding these guys back is not OTS but the fear of becoming permanently injured and having to give up such a lifestyle? I know if I got to quit my day job, travel the world with my family and spend a ton of time in the mountains and I didn’t even have to win big races, just post stuff on social media, I’d be trying to hold onto that as long as I could too. Just some food for thought I guess.

  27. PAPA LAZAROU

    Brian you hit the nail. Anton to be fair hasn’t really changed but Timmy and Rob are positioning themselves as zen life coaches. If you read their social media they are flogging gear, run camps and “mindfulness” rather than being competitive anymore.

    1. Brian

      To be clear, I wasn’t so much mentioning to suggest it in a negative way, that there is something wrong with being sponsored and putting on camps etc… Just that I think its worth considering alternatives for what might be holding some back. We are talking about putting the body at the brink of what is physically possible for years at a time with very little downtime. There are a lot of variables in there and each individual is different. Putting everyone who has won big events and then ‘faded away’ in the same box of ‘doing too much too soon’ I think is a narrow view.

  28. Logan Brooks

    Just a quick thought as it had crossed my mind seeing his name sporadically throughout this message board. Tony(Anton)Krupicka, in my mind and reasoning, did not and has not hit the OTS(over training syndrome) wall. There is a HUGE, drastic difference between the signs and resulting symptoms of OTS and just plainly being injured. Mr. Krupicka’s drive and appetite for elite athletic pursuits in the wild(ie; climbing, biking, skiing, skimo, scrambling, etc) is nearly unparalleled, or close to it, in the outdoor sporting world. He has a inhuman appetite it seems for the sport and its elite realm. Then again, because of his physical injuries(yes, most likely caused by aforementioned drive) he has been unable to essentially even make it to a starting line of some of the more competitive races in and around the world which in turn yields NO results and which unfortunately causes some to claim that he was overtrained. That is ludicrous if you ask me. Two TOTALLY different things.

    Alright y’all, back to your bickering.

    Logan

    1. Ellie Greenwood

      Logan – great comment. I recently listened to Billy Yang Podcast with Anton (really enjoyable listen) and it certainly seems like Anton is not slowing down in terms of physical activity, simply changing tack and diversifying his training/ pursuits as his body seems to get injured with running recently but not with climbing, skimo, cycling etc. I certainly got no indication that he was over trained, tired etc.

    2. Markus

      Logan, your right Anton didn’t hit the OTS wall and burnout but he was and is right now, injured a lot. In my opinion a lack of focus of what matters most, to get fit to the start line.
      Injures are caused by something, one reason could be overtraining.

      1. Emerson Thoreau

        The suggestion that these runners’ ongoing injuries are not related to chronic overtraining is specious. Injuries are not acts of God, they are the result of choices. Repeated injuries invoke the following: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

        1. Logan Brooks

          Emerson. I believe that in this thread at least the argument, or at least one of the arguments, is the difference between a physical/injurious connection to the runners fall from grace, and the mental fall, like the burnout and after effects of OTS. It seems in runners like Olsen, Roes, Krar, etc., that their gap in consistent results is not because of physical injury but more so because of the mental/psychological imprint on their health. Now nearly all of those I mentioned have preached from the start that these traits existed well before they took to running as a profession, I would know as I suffer from some of these issues. So everyone has to be careful to separate and be clear since OTS(in its fragile definition) and its symptoms is not defined wholly by a physical standpoint, but probably more so by a mental.

          1. Brian

            I am not so sure it is good to define OTS as a mental state. OTS is a collection of symptoms such as hormonal problems, fatigue, chronic injury etc… Also, as far as Krar goes I am pretty sure I have read he has had issues with back that have bothered him since before started winning ultras. I know he has also been open about his depression but I don’t think that is the sole thing keeping him from toeing the line at big races.

            But this just speaks to my initial comment, the point that there are more reasons than just ‘too much too soon’ why some runners stop racing or struggle to get back to the same level they were at previously. I think in some ways that was AJW’s point as well.

            1. Emerson Thoreau

              I hear a lot of talk about running being a panacea, or at least helpful, to battle depression. While that may be true, excessive training can exacerbate or even cause depression. You take an elite guy with a history of depression, and you train him massively and run him in a bunch of 50s and 100s, and you have a recipe for more depression; this is especially so when injuries increase, downtime rises, and fan boys’ adulation wanes. Yet another reason not to overcook one’s training.

    3. Brian

      So overuse injuries are not from overtraining? I get what you are saying, that there is a difference between OTS and other injuries but generally running injuries (aside from falling or some other accident) are from overuse. Isn’t that along the same lines as ‘too much too soon’? Still, I don’t see how they are ‘two totally different things’, they are different symptoms or results from the same root cause, training too much.

      1. Logan Brooks

        Brian- You obviously read into my reply incorrectly. I was simply saying that OTS has multiple symptoms which can and maybe should be divided differently and diagnosed differently. I stated that in terms of OTS, and its loosely based definition, there are multiple affects of it, both physical/muscoloskeletal, etc., and ALSO the psychological/mental side affects of the diagnosis. So, that is how there are “two totally different” aspects of the diagnosis. If someone is going to label someone as having OTS then they must have OTS. You cannot only exhibit a small aspect of the symptoms of OTS, not the full gamut, yet be labeled as having “OTS”. That is not fair, or logical. That is all I was saying.

  29. Logan Brooks

    Ellie-Thanks. The above argument on OTS is not black and white, as most of us know. But yeah, I honestly cannot tell you how many times over the past few years that dude(TK) single-handedly got my lazy butt off of the couch or out of the house, when I felt like $#%^, and into the mountains solely on seeing that insatiable desire to simply be moving freely in the peaks and valleys of the world.

    And on a side note: I was literally just thinking to myself recently “Why have I not heard much about Ellie Greenwood lately?” My assumption was that you were injured. Now, had I picked up this article I definitely would have assumed that the facts and opinion’s expressed were absolutely true and valid, as any article should be held to, as AJW is a noted veteran and historian in many respects in the sport. Luckily I did not get sidetracked(to an extent) from the facts and now realize that the results definitely WERE there, just maybe not in those more consistently dominant years from a few years back. I think in a lot of cases we base our theories such a small sample we fail to realize that very few people can ever sustain that type of dominance over a 4, 5, or 6 year span. It is just not reasonable.

    In closing. It’s a good thing you are STILL young! ;-)

  30. Mike Morton

    AJW,
    I appreciate your intent. Capture a trend and break it down to distill some facts. I enjoy your way of getting right to the point. I will excuse any inaccuracies, I think your intent was still met.
    I can tell you that I suffered from burn out after 2013. I channeled all my anger and frustration from war into my running, the mind controlled the body but the body broke. I’ve seen humans do amazing things, at war and in the arena of competition.
    Everyone will come to a point and have to decide, is the suffering worth the reward? When I say suffering I mean the sum of it all, family, friends, pets and general selfish ways. After years of trying to deal with anger and depression through running I reached a point where it was less painful to deal its the root cause and stop trying to “run” through it.
    I tainted the one thing I loved most in life, running. I brought my baggage into it and set up camp. I still can’t run, my back is healing and my soul is in purgatory. I hope one day I wake up and want to go for a run and feel like I did when I was 25, not physically but mentally. The purity of running one of your best “races” at 5:30 am before a work day and no one even knows. Feeling the calmness of confidence build inside with each passing day, week…decades. It becomes spiritual.
    The only time I’ve felt the same emotions of a huge running accomplishment is in war. When I’ve felt the odds were not good and the battle was going the wrong way I would have a demoralizing cloud come over me. Then after fighting through it an amazing high. A euphoric rush. It drove me to chase it through running. Even if it was an hour of euphoria because I ran a couple 5:15 miles at the end of a 20 mile “training” run. Honestly no run I went on after 2007 in my mind was training, it was how much pain will I go through to get my high. Sometimes I’d even tip the tax man with a little extra pain just to spite him, or myself.
    My point is, if you are running just to win races you are diluting the purity of your relationship with running. Once that happens, the pain becomes a much stronger currency than the motivation fueling the machine. When the field is full of pain crushing runners the period of peak performance should and will shorten. If you only have to outrun one person it will require less pain than outrunning 15 like minded capable folks.
    This is also true for everyone running ultras. If it is just a campaign of do more faster it becomes circular. A level of satisfaction has to be balanced with a pure love of running in the dark, alone. No goals on the mind, just the love of chasing street lights like a little kid playing in the rain.

    I have a 12 year education, grade my grammar and all accordingly please. Also I refrained from using the F word, after 27 years in the military that’s a big fuc$ing accomplishment.

    1. Joe Uhan

      Really insightful and honest, Mike, and very appreciated. Based on what you wrote, I might possibly edit your quote to say. more generally:

      “If you are running just to [medicate wounds, by X, Y, Z], you are diluting the purity of your relationship with running.”

      This was at the root of “The Two Questions”, I posed, the previous week: http://www.irunfar.com/2017/11/the-two-questions-needs-and-motivations-affecting-running-health-and-success.html

      Ironically, Mike Morton’s performance at the 2013 Western States is my example of the stark contrast to me frenetic, panicked race. His execution was, seemingly, as it was supposed to be: “dispassionate” in execution, yet joyful and present-centered. Perhaps his training might’ve been too aggressive, but when it came to race-day, few others could execute better.

      That honest execution and true joy is the purity of running. When we use/abuse it, that’s where it gets dangerous.

      Mike, I’m sorry again to hear of your struggles, but your contributions to the sport – both in performance and as a person – most certainly live on.

      Lastly: Please e-mail me!! I’d love your help. :-) [email protected]

    2. AJW

      Dear Mike, Thank you for your heartfelt comment. I think I speak for many in our community when I tell you how much you’ve motivated and inspired us over the years. Here’s hoping that, over time, your healing continues such that you are once again able to do what you love out on the trails. And, until such time, know that I, at least, will be here chasing those streetlights.

      Godspeed!

  31. Joe Uhan

    When I wrote my pieces on OTS back in 2013, what stands out amongst my case studies (Roes, and Neal Gorman): within the first 1-2 years of running ultras, they ran 4 *hard* 100-milers in a single year, at least once.

    A cursory analysis of race results gives you a nice correlation, but it’s certainly not the whole picture. But that plus Strava would be pretty data-rich!

    1. Anonymous

      And yet some runners like Karl M. can withstand it, including 4 hard 100s. In 2006, KM won six 100s and today he’s still going strong. I guess there are exceptions.

      1. Markus

        Karl Meltzer is a really good example how you can train a reasonable amount and create stellar results over decades. As far as I know Karl’s training never exceeded 80 miles per week.
        The secret is to know what you are able to best and go for just that.
        He has won 39 100 milers. (Including 6 times Wasatch and 5 times Hardrock) The last one was just last month the Pinhoti 100.

        Karl is the man when it comes to smart training and racing.

        1. Anonymous

          I think what we need to realize about Karl is that in almost every analysis and set of conclusions is an outlier or a few outliers. Karl is an outlier. But, yes, he trains very intelligently and he knows what he’s good at (which is a lot) and he stays in the lanes where he does his best running. For my money, he’s on the short list of GOATs if for no other reason than his longevity is incredibly unusual.

          1. Markus

            I don’t think Karl is such an outlier. There are plenty of ultrarunners who train smart and have a life long running career. All of them didn’t win as many 100 milers but they are running ultras over decades.

      2. Emerson Thoreau

        In a sense, saying “look at Karl” is analogous to saying “look at my Uncle Joe, he smoked two packs of Camels a day and a fifth of whiskey and is going strong at 90.” Karl is an outlier. And a kick-ass dude to boot.

        1. Nick

          Yes, and AJW is only relying on outliers—both ways. Drawing sweeping conclusions confirming his own prior beliefs from anecdotal evidence.

  32. Nick

    “there’s been a common mythology among observers of the sport that, with the growth of ultrarunning and the impact of money pouring into the sport, elite competitors have been pushed to do too much too soon and have quickly burned out.”

    Is there any evidence of this? That sounds a lot like strawmaning. It’d be nice to see some sources because I haven’t read a lot of people blaming burnout on money or even the ultrarunning boom. In fact, lots of the examples we usually think of came prior to the recent boom and surely had little to do with money.

  33. Brett

    Do you guys remember that guy “Cloud” who used to post on Geoff Roes’ blog, warning him he was overtraining and it would end his career? I think one of the commenters here sounds just like that person. Interesting.

    Some elite athletes are elite because they are hyper competitive. You can see that here too – some people will have a breakdown over punctuation.

    1. Emerson Thoreau

      Cloud was loud, brash, and brutal, but his main point, that you accurately characterize, was true: “overtraining… would end his career.” If you really want to think, carefully read the fan boys’ RESPONSES to Cloud, where they criticize his overtraining thesis and encourage Mr. Roes to “keep it up.” THOSE comments speak volumes.

      1. Brett

        Yep, I agree. His main points seemed spot on to me, he just was real abrasive with how he communicated, so many people ignored him. But I think he was proven right a long time ago.

    2. Albert

      Cloud was a jerk, and whether or not he really was a coach was irrelevant. His comments were spot on, and the fanboys would have none of it. This exact scenario plays out each and every time a heavy hitter runs him/herself into the ground. Someone calls the athlete out for being dumb, athlete says “I do what I want when I want”, fanboys say “you can do it!” and totally flame the person who criticizes saying “how dare you!”, and athlete’s career is over quickly. Yeah, it’s a free universe and an athlete can “shoot for the stars” and do whatever he/she wants and all that crap, but as followers of the sport we are allowed to analyze and comment, too.

      1. AJW

        Someone needs to start a couple new twitter handles. “Cloud” and “Ultra Fanboy”. Trail Troll and Blowuparch are having all the fun:)

      2. Emerson Thoreau

        Nice post. The Ultra game can be a Faustian bargain. Many fail to understand this until they are burning in injury hell; then they fail to recognize what put them there. Seemingly no amount of OTS and related articles can stop the crazy train (shout out to Ozzy).

      3. Markus

        Yep, people think you are a jerk when you are commenting the obvious. Social media has created these fanboys and it’s fascinating to watch their cluelessness.

        But it all comes down to the myth that you have to train more miles for ultrarunning than for a marathon.

  34. Branden Bollweg

    Hi all!

    Sorry I am late to comment here.

    I find the comments and the article fascinating. I personally love reading AJW’s posts.

    With this one, it seems to have hit a subject that has still yet to be researched thoroughly and I think it is very important that we have discussions like this one.

    I personally think that OTS is real, that being said it’s bit like the “Nature vs. Nurture” argument. I think at this point OTS could be caused by a variety of issues, but how many of them actually are from overtraining?

    Sometimes life happens, you’re unmotivated, etc… it’s hard to pinpoint burnout and making blanket statements about what causes burnout seems to be premature.

    One thing I will point out though is the pressure on the athlete to perform from the sponsors. I have noticed a trend on athletes sponsored by huge brands and their performance. I particularly remember talking to Nikki Kimball about it during a race in 2015 when she was switching teams. She would be a great person to ask about this.

    That being said, I don’t know who is to blame for that because I’ve seen runners go nuts when they get a sponsor and sign up for everything even though the sponsor didn’t pressure them to. They were just excited to be supported and soon burnt themselves out. On the flip side, to Nikki’s point, some sponsors put tremendous pressure on the athletes to perform. I won’t say any names about the sponsor (and you might be able to read between the lines) but after speaking to Nikki about a certain sponsor, I looked at their roster and almost 100% of the roster is or has dealt with OTS…and yes some of the names are mentioned in AJW’s post.

    I think using a new function from Ultrasignup would be a great idea to measure this stuff. I wish there was more research going into what causes OTS but maybe it’s just too broad of an issue.

Post Your Thoughts