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. 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

  2. Plow

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

  3. 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!


  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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..

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!


  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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

  21. 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!


  22. 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.

  23. 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."

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

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