2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships Editorial

The TNF Championships got me thinking about prize money, the globalization of trail running, and the uniqueness of the Marin Headlands.

By on December 8, 2010 | Comments

The North Face Endurance Challenge 2010I have a tendency to go on ad infinitum in my articles here at iRunFar. My men’s and women’s previews for the 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Championships are great examples of this. While this year’s TNF Championship races call for such treatment, I’m taking a different approach. Why? Three reasons:

  1. iRunFar already provided a blow-by-blow of the event via Twitter on race day.
  2. We’ve already provided the race results with links to race reports and commentary, so you should already know that Anna Frost and Miguel Heras are the champions.
  3. I don’t have the time to write a 3,000 word novella about the race! :-)

Instead of my normal approach, I’ll get all editorial on you regarding prize money in ultras, the globalization of ultrarunning, and the uniqueness of racing in the Marin Headlands.

Money and Racing
I had some spirited conversations about money and racing while in San Francisco. In particular, a respected foreigner said that it changed the nature of the sport and implied it was not for the better. I would agree that prize money at least changes the nature of a particular race that offers it, but I don’t think that the money necessarily results in a change for the worse.

When a highly competitive trail ultra offers no prize money, it’s more common for a larger percentage of the elites to run more within themselves in the early miles. This is particularly true of runners who know they have little chance of a top three place. In contrast, a large cash purse leads to everyone and their mother going out with the lead pack and trying to hold on. I’d never seen anything in an ultra as crazy as the 30 guys who came through the mile 9 aid station within 10 seconds in the pre-dawn hours Saturday morning.

Personally, I prefer to race a conservative, well-paced effort, but there’s inherent excitement in everyone throwing down until all but one guy or gal blows up. Runners two through twenty might be far off their fastest possible time for the day, but you know with little doubt that at some point along their course they hit their limit. They failed, but in failing learned about themselves. For example, it was damn cool seeing young Dakota Jones racing side-by-side with Geoff Roes at mile 30 before seeing him spent and in fourth place at both mile 45 and the finish.

Dakota Jones TNF EC Championships 2010

An exhausted Dakota Jones getting a hug at the end of the TNF EC Championships.

The Globalization of  Ultrarunning
The most exciting development in ultrarunning in the past year or two might be the globalization of the sport. Though, perhaps, globalizaion is wrong word, as Europe and Japan seem to have been integrated for a while. No, the big thing is the integration of the International (and, particularly, the European) and American ultrarunning scenes.

In 2009, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki and Jez Bragg finished second and third at Western States. In 2010, three of the top eight men at Western States were foreign with Kilian Jornet of Spain second, Gary Robbins of Canada fifth, and Ian Sharman of the UK eighth. (There were actually four if you count Glen Redpath, a Canadian living in the US, who finished seventh.) The women’s Western States champ? Tracy Garneau of Canada. Don’t worry, this street goes both ways with Krissy Moehl winning the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the premier 100 miler outside the US, in 2009. This year, American Mike Wolfe finished second at the improvised UTMB, while he and Geoff Roes were running strong at the front of the canceled version of this year’s race.

Here at the end of 2010, two foreigners – Anna Frost of New Zealand and Miguel Heras – won the one of the most competitive trail ultras ever run on US soil. Foreign men also took sixth (Jez Bragg, UK), eighth (Thomas Lorblanchet, France), eleventh (Christophe Malarde, France), and twelfth… sort of (Uli Steidl, Germany became a US citizen this year). Behind Frost, foreign women took second (Lizzy Hawker, UK), eighth (Marlene Flores Paredes, Chile), ninth (Kasia Zajac, Poland), eleventh (Tamsin Anstey, Canada), and twelfth (Cristina Carvalho, Brazil). Injuries and travel problems took out other top foreigners, including Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Jonathan Wyatt, Sebastien Chaigneau, Ellie Greenwood, and Tracy Garneau.

Anna Frost Lizzy Hawker TNF Championships 2010

Anna Frost (NZ) and Lizzy Hawker (UK) after placing first and second at the 2010 TNF EC Championships. (Photo Stephan Gripmaster.)

The point of those long lists above is to show that ultrarunning is now a truly global sport. No, it’s not likely that the speedy Frenchman are going to destroy your local 50k course record next year. The mixing will be limited primarily to marquee events due to funding, but you can count on world-wide showdowns at future Western States, UTMBs, TNF EC Championships, and a few other races.

I think this globalization is fantastic. It’s great fun to watch the world’s best go head-to-head. From talking with the top runners from both sides of the Atlantic, I can tell you that most feel the same way. They want to race the very best runners in the world, regardless of where those competitors reside. On the flip side, I’ve seen nothing but respect, admiration, and cordiality between international competitors the past two years.

It’s yet to be seen how long this unification will last. At least here in America, many of the best ultrarunners have focused on athletic pursuits and/or the enjoyment of life rather than maximizing potential employment income. That’s what makes many of them such damn cool people. However, that leaves many dependent on sponsor support to attend distant races. It’s encouraging to see such support in these less than stellar economic times. I think the marked upswing in the popularity of trail running is partly responsible. Regardless of the cause, I hope sponsors continue to lend such support. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard rumblings of additional American sponsors sending top runners to UTMB in 2011.

Ahead at the Headlands
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands host numerous races every year with the Miwok 100k and TNF Championships being the most notable. The never flat, but rarely technical terrain appears to uniquely favor … or disfavor certain athletes.

Before the TNF Championships, Sean Meissner pointed out that Kami Semick had never lost in the Headlands. That streak ended when Anna Frost crossed the line ahead of her. Still, she ran a stellar race that was just three minutes slower than her win in 2008, which covered a faster course than the one run this past Saturday.

In contrast to Kami, Geoff Roes remains winless in five tries in the Headlands. Other than getting lost while leading Way Too Cool this year, Roes has never lost an ultra outside the Headlands. His second place finishes the past two years at the TNF Championships show that he’s no slouch in Marin, but others are able to run faster. Perhaps, the trails aren’t steep or technical enough to suit Roes’s strengths. Whatever the reason, we hope to see him give himself another shot or two for a Headlands victory in 2011.

Geoff Roes Dakota Jones TNF EC Championships 2010

Geoff Roes leads Dakota Jones during the 2010 TNF EC Championships. (Photo Stephan Gripmaster.)

Call for Comments
I’ve braced myself, so feel free to comment away.

  • What do you think about prize money in ultras?
  • Do you enjoy the globalization of ultrarunning? What are its upsides and downsides? Any matchups that you’re particularly interested in? (I can’t get the thought of Roes, Krupicka, Jornet and Heras at UTMB 2011 out of my head)
  • What makes the Headlands such a unique place with regard to racing?
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.