A League of Their Own – Part 1: Who Rules the Trails?

Elite runners on the track and roads tend to stay there. This begs the question: are elite ultrarunners and trail runners the best at their events, or just the best of the few who have tried them? And in a sport that doesn’t allow for big money or Olympic dreams, why do they do what they do?

Check in over the next few days to hear the opinions of some of the world’s best trail and ultra runners in this very open-ended discussion of their sport, its meaning, and its place in athletics.

Ultrarunning is a hard sport to nail down. It’s weird. It’s tough. The people who do it are weird, and tough. It has an element of mystery, but not like Mount Everest, because it’s accessible. Lots of people run – you just have to run further.

But more than that, ultrarunning is a difficult endeavor to quantify. Races come in standardized distances – 100 miles, 100k, 50 miles, 50k – yet they’re run on such wildly different courses that two times from a comparable distance can’t be compared without a heaping of data on how runners who have completed both courses compare from race to race, all assuming their performances were consistent enough to merit accurate comparison. Ultrarunning is so new, given its scope and potential reach, that it has yet to generate a significant dataset from which performances, records, and development can be accurately and confidently analyzed.

But we’ll start with what we know. And that is that ultrarunning makes elite athletes out of plenty of runners we didn’t see coming. By now, Scott Jurek’s foray into ultrarunning lore is a well-known story:

“I only ran to stay in shape for skiing” the seven-time Western States champion said of his early running days, when he would traverse the northern Minnesota trails with training partner Dusty Olson. “Dusty convinced me to do [the Voyageur 50-miler] and a month later…  I was on the starting line.”

Jurek placed second in that race, and the college runner with an 8k time “in the high 28s – nothing to write home about,” went on to win the Western States 100-miler seven consecutive times.

Jurek is not the only elite trail runner who burst onto the scene without an outstanding running resume. Anton Krupicka, whose PRs of 16:31 (5k) and 27:32 (8k) in high school and college hardly put him in elite company, bettered Jurek’s course record at the Western States by over 22 minutes in 2010; Krupicka was beaten that day by Geoff Roes, who has claimed a string of course records and 100-mile victories since 2006, after an injury had limited him to one cross-country season at Syracuse and launched a decade-long hiatus from competitive running. Darcy Africa, who in 2006 claimed the fastest combined time for men and women in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning that year, did not run competitively until after college. Jenn Shelton, who owns four major trail course records, played college rugby.

How is it that trail running’s professional ranks can be so dominated by athletes without elite running backgrounds?

Jurek emphasizes that, though running is a familiar element, trail running is a sport of its own. “The playing field gets a little more level when you throw in the terrain, the distance, the fact that you have to eat and drink on the run,” he said. “You have to have the right psyche. You have to be adaptable to the conditions.”

Nancy Hobbs, chair of the USA Track & Field Mountain, Ultra and Trail-running (MUT) Council, says it’s a matter not of who pursues ultras, but who does not find some other niche first.

“The number of post-collegiate runners is small, and most of them are road runners,” Hobbs said. “Consider the size of the pool.”

MUT Council Vice Chair Roy Pirrung says it is not a coincidence that some people go into ultras.

“It’s become a trend especially for non-elite athletes because they don’t have a niche and they’re looking for a niche,” he said.

Meanwhile, those with a niche on the track, on the roads, or in cross country have a reliable means of assessing their talent early. The United States’ 10k contingent in Beijing collectively boasted 14 1st and 2nd-place finishes in NCAA Division-I championship races, and two of three runners on the 2008 Olympic marathon team placed top three at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in 2000 (and would later finish first and second in the 2003 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship). Brian Sell, who was heralded as an unknown underdog when he qualified for the 2008 marathon team, was a Division-I All American in cross country and the 10k. “Those who are elite runners at the 10k and the marathon wouldn’t even think to move up,” Pirrung said.

Hobbs points out that even the most successful ultra and trail runners are dominating what remains a fringe athletic pursuit.

“There aren’t as many people in the sport, not as much money, not as much notoriety,” she said.

***

It was becoming clear that success in the ultra-distances was shaping up to be a classic chicken-vs.-egg paradox. Did elite ultrarunners truly succeed compared to the entire athletic pool (and especially the 5k – marathon crowd) at their magnitude of distance, the way elite middle distance runners succeed at the 1500m compared to 100-meter sprinters? Is ultrarunning its own classification that was dominated by a special breed, and if so, what’s the next step up? Is it 200 miles? 1,000? Or is it that elite ultramarathoners are simply the most talented distance runners to have made the leap, and that those who have do not comprise an elite crowd given the financial incentives to compete at Olympic-sanctioned distances?

Given the lack of data – and the dearth of elite road and track stars who have made the leap to ultras – the best thing I could do was ponder it, and ask some people with more experience to ponder it, too. I asked Krupicka, 2011 WS100 winner Ellie Greenwood, and Roes what they thought of ultrarunning’s place as a sport, and their own places in the competitive running world. I also asked world mountain running champions Max King and Kasie Enman what they thought about the different athletic requirements it takes to succeed on the trails and the mountains versus the road or the track. Check in over the next few days to read what they had to say.

Alex Kurt

doesn't live near the mountains, but he makes the most of the trails around the Twin Cities when the weather allows. He is a grad student and writer in Minnesota, and he is pretty sure he doesn't sound like a character from the movie Fargo. You can read more by Alex at ultramn.com/.