Fact or Fiction? The Ultrarunning Boom And Burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

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

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

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

There are 110 comments

  1. Branden Bollweg

    Hi all!

    Sorry I am late to comment here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Your Thoughts