Elite: An Uncomfortable Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are 112 comments

  1. Ashley Moyer

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

  2. Andre Cruz

    It´s good to hear you GR.

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

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

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

    bye.

  3. Drew

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

  4. Martin from Italy

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

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

  5. Charlie M.

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

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

  6. Jim

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

  7. Brad Williams

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

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

  8. Andy

    e·lite

    /iˈlēt/

    Noun

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

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

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

  9. gontxal

    I see two kind of runners:

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

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

  10. Andy

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

  11. Jim Skaggs

    Hey Geoff,

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

  12. Ellie

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

  13. Michael

    Hi Geoff,

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

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

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

  14. AV1611-Ben

    How about something along the lines of Olympic terminology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  15. Ethan

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

    1. Geoff roes

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

  16. Guy C.

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

    sub-2:15

    sub-2:30

    sub-3:00

    sub-4:00…..

    etc….

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

  17. Chris P.

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

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

  18. Bitterroot

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

    1. Geoff roes

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

  19. Sylvere Valentin

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

  20. olga

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

  21. Jake

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

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

  22. Just a joke...

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

    Hope to see you back in the saddle soon Geoff!

  23. SerialRacer

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

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

  24. Greg Veltkamp

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

  25. Keith

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

  26. Sam

    Geoff,

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

  27. Paul Kirsch

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

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

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

  28. Peter Rabover

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

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

  29. Carey

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

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

  30. Guy Marx

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

  31. Bryan

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

  32. Chris Cwiklinski

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

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

  33. Fernando N. Baeza

    Mr. Roes,

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

    Fernando N. Baeza

    San Antonio, TX

  34. Plow

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

  35. ken michal

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

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

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

    All Day!

    ~Ken

  36. Paul

    I think "elite" works well. Elite from dictionary.com: persons of the highest class. Races and other competitions are held to see who is the best/fastest that day. The winner would then be classed as an "elite" and you could also say the people who finished shortly after would be seen as elite as well. For other sports, such as track, basketball, cycling, football, soccer, tennis, golf etc we call these people professionals. THey are paid for being the best. They are picked out of the crowd by teams, or professional organizations (for tennis and golf) and given contracts because they are seen as the elite of their sport. We are starting to see a small trend of runners going "professional." But until there is an organized professional league of runners then I believe "elite" describes and separates them the best. We as humans like having something/someone to aspire to. For many the professionals/elites are the only reason we participate in the activites/sports we do. The pros/elites even have people the aspire to and that got them into what they do. Running is no different than any other profession out there in that aspect. Many of us flock to websites and publications such as irunfar, runners world etc to read about the best of the best. And currently as running stands there isn't much of a professional league, and therefore "elite" makes the separation for us.

  37. Paul

    I like this system as well. Cycling uses this system very effectively. Yet with cycling they actually have different races so that there is a better chance to finish in the points places. A certain amount of points moves you up a category. With running we all start together. So I would see it as if you finish within a certain time then you earn said amount of points, and once you reach an amount then you move up to the next category. This way consistency proves your worth, not just one race.

  38. Eric

    This is a really thoughtful article, Geoff, but the problem, I think, is that any word used in place of "elite" is going to eventually have the same connotation as "elite," even if its denotation is different. As a back of the pack runner, I appreciate the low-key and friendly attitude of runners at the front of the pack who run ultras at a faster pace than I can manage in a 5k. That's one of the great things about this sport. But it is always going to be hard to find a way to distinguish the front of the pack runners from everyone else without using a term that either has a similar meaning to "elite" or acquires that meaning over time when used in place of "elite." Whatever term is used, how that term is understood and what is meant when a person is referenced as "elite" will depend on the context within the sport. So long as the sport retains its very friendly, open, and encouraging character, I don't think the word itself should have a negative impact.

  39. Marcus

    I've never really given the term "elite" a second thought. As long as the "elite" runners realize that their outstanding accomplishments as runners alone do not make them "elite" humans, then I think we're all good…

  40. Nick Goodall

    Personally I do like using that term here and there, I mean, could you not call Usain Bolt an elite sprinter? After all, I consider him the best (at this moment in time, anyway). And if someone wins a race out of 300, I'd still call them elite at what they just won, simply because they were the best at that point in time. Although I somewhat agree with the condescending part, I don't think it should be used in a malicious way at all, the same way the gold medal will be placed around that persons neck. If someone has made such an effort to come first, I think that they deserve the extra honour of that word being used to describe them, but it's not just first place that should get it, I think anyway. For instance, in the Tour de France, I consider all those cyclists elite, as they are all simply phenomenal at what they do, and even if you come last, I'll still call you an elite athlete..

  41. Josh

    Just my 2 cents. I think the term "elite" will start to become a problem in ultrarunning when elite ultrarunners start behaving like the elite from other sports. I'm a slow, inexperienced ultrarunner, but have hit up guys like Karl Meltzer on FB for advice. I get responses. I don't think that happens in the NFL or the NBA.

  42. Jim S.

    This term has been around in sports since….well, a long time. And…it's fine and accepted. No one, other than I suppose you, really thinks that deeply about it. In Triahlon, you have pro/elite/AGers (age groupers)..you even have "Clydesdale and Athena" for big people (or should I say, fat people, overweight people, plumpy, thick, curvy, larger mass?) Usually Elite waves give you a better position to contend for an overall win. That doesn't mean an AGer can't post a fast time. You can call it tortoise/hare elite/penguin boopbop/beep…but, you know…why not just call it what it is? Elite.

  43. fred p

    Frankly, I am offended by being called a tortoise by the likes of you, Geoff. It's okay if another tortoise wants to call me a tortoise, but an elite like you shlouldn't be using the 't' word until you've walked (slowly) in my shoes.

  44. Ultrageek

    Good article and timely. Was at TNF 50 mile "championship" and when looking up the list of "elite" runners was surprised that some had not run many if any ultras. Not sure how you get elite status when you're never raced the distance before.

    1. Bryon Powell

      First of all, the elite list was completely self-selected. I could have placed myself in the elite field at the TNF 50.

      However, as to your broader point, to a certain degree ability (a combo of talent and training) is transferable between various endurance running disciplines. A 1,500m/3,000m guy might crush a 12k cross country field. Mountain runners have shown the ability to win super competitive ultras at distances double (or more) than they've ever gone before. The 2012 US Olympics Trials Marathon allowed folks to qualify with a 10k time! Sure, folks get better with experience, but they don't need experience at a particular distance to be presumptively elite.

  45. Shelby

    I personally have no issue with the term elite, since it means that person runs faster than most. But UR is so different than most other sports where running smart or with perseverance is hailed, regardless of the time it takes to cross the finish line. So I can see why those who get titled "elite" would feel uncomfortable with it since they well know slower runners are running for a hell of a lot longer to complete the same distance. As others have said, if they're not acting elitist, then the rest of us slow-pokes aren't really bothered by it.

    I never even considered the possibility that it would be an issue for anyone until I saw this article… :-)

    What I can't figure out is when someone becomes "elite" in the UR world. Is it once they've gotten a top 5 / 10 / 15 finish in a 50k / 50M / 100M race that's considered a "major" race? Are they averaging sub 7:30 miles? Just curious if there's any consistent metric as to when someone goes from being fast to elite.

  46. Z

    Hey Geoff, if it matters, I have never thought of you as Geoff Roes the 'Elite', nah more like Geoff 'the great!'. I hope to personally shake your hand one day, you are truly a great person and I REALLY REALLY hope you are able to compete again! I've gotta say that the road world has nothing on us dirt lovers. I do ultra races because of the environment… I have had the most positive experiences in my life because of these races and ALL of the people involved, from the rabbits to the hounds to the RD's and the volunteers!

    Cheers!

  47. Ben Nephew

    I wonder if ultrarunners are less likely to have an issue with the use of elite if they have more experience with other forms of running? I don't find top ultrarunners any more humble than top track runners (distance events) or marathoners. If anything, I think ultrarunners might be less humble.

    I have no problem with use of elite to refer to top runners with respect to running and many other traits. I think that it is incredibly common to find elite runners who could also be considered the best runners in many other aspects. I've spoken with Khalid Khannouchi after a local 10k, randomly ended up on a cool down with Alan Webb, and been too stupid to take advantage of Bill Rodgers doing weekly long runs with his old team. All are runners who not only have talent, but also incredible levels of persistence, dedication, respect, and generosity. Then you have tons of other examples like Geb, Meb, Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Paul Tergat, etc., who have done great things on and off the track and roads.

  48. Jason S

    Language choice always matters (which is why politicians have speech writers) and I applaud Geoff for grappling with the suitability of this label that most people would yearn for. I do find it puzzling that so many people want to stop Geoff from wasting time thinking about it. The arguments against him analyzing the appropriateness of the term: 1) it is what it is, (just a mere word), so just deal with it or forget about it; 2) other sports have similar and even more complicated labeling/categorizing, so therefore this must be an invalid concern; 3) just be proud of your accomplishments and this complementary label people foist upon you. But why shouldn’t he question this label? Nobody can deny that the word “elite” connotes wealth, prestige, and power, and many people don’t want to be associated with or defined by such values and traits. And I suppose that maybe elite is now an appropriate term in the land of world class track & field and marathoning–where upwards of millions of dollars can be at stake, and where global corporations that represent the truly elite world are sponsors–but in the world of trail races where there is often no prize money? I don't think so. And even though most people probably think of elite as overwhelmingly positive (unless we’re talking about politicians, then we hate them elites!), if an individual runner doesn't like it, he or she ought to say so, and we ought to respect them. From what I’ve seen in person and in the limited press that ultramarathoning gets, these so-called elites don’t try to be anything but regular folks, and do appreciate the hard work, support, and interest of all the runners and fans. Do elite athletes in most professional sports typically behave this way? Do elites on Wall Street and in Ivy League schools behave this way? Those elites very much want a separation and a distinction. But the fastest and slowest ultrarunners run the same course, suffer in similar ways, and enjoy every insane element of this kind of running in nearly the same way. We are a very small community of nut jobs. Why would the runners who are simply faster nut jobs want to be labeled as clearly superior? And why should we grant this inappropriate word permanent status simply because it’s been around for a while?

  49. francois

    Really feels like splitting hairs to me… Isn't really the fastest pack "the elite", etymologically speaking? It really sounds like a fact to me, as faster is easily measurable, and in general i do like facts. How do you define "the best" then (if that's what it takes to use the term "elite" appropriately)? How do you measure it? Will it be less condescending when you have?

    Running is just what it is, if you are able to be fast (genetically, by training, by years of experience and by mental tougheness) and most importantly if that's how you're having fun, just do it. If you lack one of the above (hint: genetics is the best excuse if you feel you need one :) ) then just be slower and have fun nonetheless!

  50. Michael Gildea

    Great discussion, it seems to me that elite is the excepted term for runners who meet a certain standard, i.e. if you run a 2:20 marathon you qualify for elite status at a race. One of the things that draws me to ultra running and trail running specifically is the ability to mingle pre and post race with the fastest runners in the field. Geoff, I think your camp is a great example of how egalitarian ultra trail running is. I can not think of any other athletic camp where one of the best runners in his selected field would cook the meals and offer to pick participants up at the airport. I think the semantics of elite are quite different in trail running than in road running. I think it was Trail Runner magazine who published a comparison of the income differences between road and trail "elite" runners. Very few trail runners using trail running as their sole means of support.

  51. grizz

    I don't understand why any of this matters. Geoff was smart to begin with the definition of the world a elite. The best people in their category are the elite. Let's not pretend otherwise, or act like it's a more useful value judgement than it is.

    Races are to see, on a given day, who is the fastest between Point A and Point B. This is true whether or not it's 100 meters or 135 miles. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that caring about, you know, the results of the RACE is somehow gauche or passe.

    Elite runners aren't gods, no are they better people than anyone by virtue of their speed- but let's stop this nonsense of not calling a spade a spade. The best athletes in the big races are elites. I'm not one of them, but I have no trouble calling an athlete what they are.

  52. Gary Gellin

    I also have a bad gut reaction to the loose usage of the word "elite". I think the word will disappear or change meaning some day as it has been applied to trail/ultra racing. The competitive aspect of trail and ultra running (despite there always being a score kept, even in "fatass" races), is in its infancy compared to other sports. In bicycle racing (not organized century which rarely have official finish times), you traditionally earn upgrade points to reach the "elite" category. Virtually ~every~ bike race, even small-town club races, has a separate start wave for qualified "elite" riders, sometimes lumped together with pros and with riders who have a minimum level of experience. Elite is a non-professional category with world class events like the Tour de France which are "Professional" only. With trail running, it is a rare exception to have an elite field. So the word "elite" or the commonly used "elites" (as if these individuals formed a cabal), in absence of any qualifying standard, is used loosely. It isn't even self-selecting. It is ~assigned~. I think that is why many readers here sense a divisive stereotype in its application.

    What we all are is "amateurs". That is a word which often has a negative connotation as it hints at non-professionalism and implies a lack of formal training. "Amateur" comes from the French word which means to be a lover of something. In that respect, I think we all should be considered "amateurs" in the competitive arena. I, for one, apply for amateur status. The other term I ascribe to myself, half in jest, is "faux pro" – perhaps a flippant response to being labeled "elite" on rare occasion.

    It is interesting that Ellie G quotes Max King as being a self-described "runner". I like it. As an aside, I just learned that the word "run" has more definitions – 650 – than any other of the now 1 million words in the English Language. Time to click on "sumbit comment".

    -Gary Gellin

  53. Jason H

    I agree, the term kinda stinks. Makes me cringe. But I also hate the modern PC world where we have to worry about what we say.

    My wife hates the term 'technical' when applied to a trail. I think she has a point. It's a 'tough' trail, a 'rough' trail etc, but the term 'technical' seems to imply more than what it actually is. It's just running up a rough trail, and that makes it slower going than a smooth trail! She also hates the term 'bonk'.

    'Elite' is really the same thing. Assigning an artificial level of significance to people that really don't rate (or want) it. Ryan Hall is an elite runner. There are VERY few ultra runners who really rate that. Our training is hard (if not as scientific), but so much success in the longer ultras can be ascribed to 'guts' and toughness. A guy who runs CR on a 50k may not hold it together as well as a slower runner on a 100. I'm NO elite, but typically finish near the front. After finishing a recent 100 (in the appropriate level of pain and suffering), I hung around the finish in the cold for a while until I was so cold I couldn't stand it. Then I went to my room, showered, ate, slept 8 hours, and then went back to the finish. The toughest runners were finishing 12 hours after me, with a smile on their face. I respect them every bit as much as those that finish with or ahead of me.

    I don't mind a list of folks who could be in contention for the W, but I don't like the term elite. By the same tolken, I doesn't bother me enough to care beyond writing this!

    Thanks Geoff. C'mon out to Washington and run the Cascade Crest 100 some day. I think you'd enjoy that one. Actually, I'm moving to HI, so come back and run HURT again!

    J

  54. Jason S

    This is a tough question/issue, which is probably why Geoff wanted to discuss it in the first place. How do you know it’s tough? Because everyone keeps complicating it more, even when they try to give it a quick, one sentence answer. Look at how much further discussion/explanation comes after the dismissive, simple (sometimes angryish) answers.

    Labels and phrases are never simple. If you just say it’s so simple that there are winners and everybody else, well, then every runner who has never won a race should accept the label of loser. “We have a field of 3 winners, and 297 losers today.” People would be outraged, even though that label would be perfectly accurate, much more accurate than elite. I once offended a bunch of runners on a running board by saying, in a brief summary of the weekend ultraraces, that “there were no strong women today.” I said this as a quick conclusion of my post, after first describing the three course records that men had destroyed that day. The language did matter, of course, and it was a careless mistake on my part, because I essentially told 150 or more ultramarathoners that they were weak. So I reject the notion that the actual word elite (or any other replacement word) “means nothing.” Do the “non-elites” want to be called plebes? Zeroes? Insignificants? People certainly didn’t like to be called low class. On the other hand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a person who makes $250,000/year who will accept the label of rich. They may own a couple of Lexus and a vacation home, they may dine at the country club every weekend, but by golly, that rich label is just too loaded for them. Why wouldn’t a similar term, elite, give working class trail runners the willies?

    Being politically correct is being purposefully calculating, making language decisions to minimize potential offense to the masses. I don’t think that rejecting or struggling with a label that others have applied to you has anything to do with political correctness or oversensitivity.

  55. Aaron K

    I'm less interested in the definition and use of the term 'elite', and more interested in the implications of the statement Mr. Roes makes in his second paragraph, "When 300 people line up and run a race whoever is the fastest runner over the distance on that particular day wins the race, but that doesn’t automatically make them a better runner than anyone else in the field, just faster."

    I love this philosophy, even if I don't always wholeheartedly agree with it. As I've gotten older, (and much less competitive) I find that maturing as a runner and a person has much to do with understanding and abiding the complexities and paradoxes that we encounter in the world. It's taken me a long time to understand and accept that the quality of a runner has as much to do with less knowable, less measure-able factors (level of effort, suffering, intestinal and mental fortitude, grace, humility) as it does with his/her final pace or time. That said, in ultras its appears to me that the fastest runners also usually possess the more intangible traits that make them great runners and excellent people. (In my experience, I don't think the same can necessarily be said of the fastest track athletes). And this, I think, hints at some of the ultimate reasons people are attracted to long-distance racing. . .the people and the community. I hope ultrarunning never reaches that super-competitive level where we don't feel some level of discomfort using the sometimes necessary word "elite" to separate the fastest runners from the rest of the pack, that, by the way, also just ran 100 miles through the mountains and attained levels of suffering on par with the "best."

  56. Lucia

    Thank you, Geoff, for a very interesting discussion! While the term might be slightly off-putting to some, I find it more weird when "non-elite" :) runners start splitting hairs. I recently ran with somebody who kept asking me if I was more of a front of the midpack runner or middle of the mid pack runner or back of the front pack. I don't know! And really who cares! I got so bored with that conversation that I used all my newly found :)"elite" climbing skills to get away.

    And what is even sadder, another runner told me she avoids big races because then she finishes lower. So she only runs small local races not frequented by "elite" runners so she can be at the top of the pack. Really? Do people really take their Ultra Signup rankings and status so seriously? That to me seems more "elitist" in a negative sense of the word than fast runners being called elite.

  57. Ben Lewis

    I must say I find this discussion not just mystifying but incoherent. 1) Whatever you decide to call the upper echelon of athletes in any given sport IS simply a matter of semantics- it’s hard to see how ‘hares’/'tortoises’ would be any less of a distinction in this regard. Etymological hesitation here opens up a rabbit hole that I’m not sure rewards exploration. 2) I’m not sure what motivates the misplaced egalitarianism in being reluctant to apply these distinctions / identify ‘the best runner’ in a given athletic contest other than ambivalence about the nature of competition itself. It strikes me that the aesthetic appeal of running as a sport is the absolute clarity in this regard: we don’t make a practice, per figure skating, of having a panel of judges to determine what ‘the best’ means. There is a finish line and- barring carbon fiber limbs or simultaneous finishes down to the 1/1000th of a second – the best runner (on that given day, in those conditions, at that distance) is a self-evident and intrinsically uncontroversial truth: it’s the dude who crossed the line first. (I’ll patiently await an explanation as to how this is in any way an interesting or provocative state of affairs.) Why else would we go to great lengths to have ‘races’? There are likely a host of categories where various competitors might be ‘better’ in any given race: ‘tawniest hamstrings’, ‘looks the best in short-shorts’ (unlikely that I would win this contest), ‘most courage’ (whatever that would mean and however we might measure such a quality), clydesdale categories, ‘fastest dental hygienist from Ohio’… To what extent we decide to reward these various categories is simply a matter of collective interest and practicality. And as it turns out (unsurprisingly), in the many thousand year history that hominids have seen fit to race each other on foot over specified distances a majority of folks seem to be interested in who finishes first.

    1. Jason S

      The discussion of the word IS semantics, but how can the study of the meaning of words be simple? I don't think Geoff is saying there are no winners in a race, just that he doesn't personally like the label of elite. You may like and embrace the label. That's fine. I don't think Geoff or anyone else is being critical of accomplished runners who like it. Why not just say, "I consider myself an elite runner and I like the label." Or, if you don't care at all about it, why respond at all?

      Instead, you write a long paragraph poking fun at those who want to discuss the meaning of the word. Then you say some things that really do suggest an elitist stance. Do you really believe that people only run ultramarathons because there is so much clarity in the end result, that they only care about "who crossed the line first"? Why then do runners (who didn't win) write long blow-by-blow reports of how their races went? And why do other runners read such long race reports if it only matters who won? And do you really believe that most runners only run these grueling races in hopes that they will win that day? Most ultrarunners, some of them very accomplished in my mind, know they have no realistic shot to win a particular race. Surely there must be for them some other "aesthetic appeal of running" besides winning. If the primary reason "we go to great lengths to have 'races'" is to find out the winner, why do these dang race directors invite all us hopelessly slow runners? I buy your argument about the simplicity of the footrace for a schoolyard 30-yard dash, but for ultramarathoning? That to me is incoherent.

  58. Ultrageek

    Fair enough. I was hoping to be in the elite field (just a small ego :)) but looking at the results that would have meant alot of running alone. Had much more fun with the back and forth of the runners in the 2nd wave start.

  59. Patrick Krott

    It doesn't matter, it's just a word used to describe their running ability. It is indeed "elite" in that it is better than the slower runners. I disagree that elites are not better. We are always trying to get faster. No one trains to get slower. I don't think anyone wants to come in last. And I bet that if the "tortoises" could become "hares" with the snap of their fingers, they would. But elites are elite because they are the best at what they do, and they have dedicated themselves to doing the required work and preparation to become the best.

  60. Trailrutger

    Why shouldn't we measure it in how much fun we had.

    It makes it less awkward.

    Because the elites don't have to apologize for being fast and the midpackers and backpackers don't have to apologize for being slow.

    We can just share the experience.

  61. Brian K

    Nations often go to war over semantics, however, so while debating word choice might seem like 'nitpicking,' pre-existing words that already have definitions, be they right or wrong, when used inaccurately, tend to end up shaping the definition of the new thing they’re being assigned to… rather than the other way around.

    Do we even have official definitions for what constitutes “Elite” in trail running at the various distances and disciplines? Is it a time thing? Is it a sponsorship thing? Track and road running organizations have “standards” for these things.

  62. Candice

    You know you are an elite runner when you feel the need to redefine the term elite, or when you find yourself disliking the term "elite". How many runners will ever be called elite? I say take it as a compliment.

  63. philosophy 101 on th

    I would fathom to guess this is the same type of analogical sentiment when one girl gets uncomfortable when someone else says this other girl is so pretty :) I swear its a word look it up, I have my elite mental moments.

  64. peter w

    I like the elite moniker (I like to be able to see those who train better, run faster).

    One of the nicest thing about ultras is that everyone is so nice – even to slow newbies. It's great to feel included in the same field with some seriously splendid athletes (and start about ten places behind them in small races :)- most inspiring

    Perhaps the uncomfortable feeling with the word is out of the common confusion with 'elitist'- something I've never encountered at an ultra (here in the uk – or online).

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