Breaking Down The 2015 Ultrarunner Of The Year Voting

Aloha, TJ

[Editor’s Note: On January 1, Magda Boulet and David Laney were named 2015 Ultrarunners of the Year by UltraRunning magazine. The full story on the men’s and women’s top-10 UROY is available at UltraRunning’s website.]

For the past nine years I’ve had the honor of organizing the Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY) balloting for UltraRunning magazine. A panel of 37 veteran observers of the sport, most of them race directors, casts ballots. It’s always interesting to watch the votes come in, and see who liked what performers and performances by our top runners.

Voters are asked to select their top-10 men and women, as well as top-five individual performances and top-five age-group performances. Instructions are pretty vague; voters are simply asked to consider the runner’s entire body of work for the year, with emphasis on important races.

The magazine rolls out the top-10 runners of the year during the last 10 days of December on UltraRunning.com, teasing us all by counting down the top 10 Casey Kasem style.

By any measure, figuring out a top-10 ranking is really hard. Some years it’s been pretty obvious who should be on top, but ranking places five through 10 is incredibly difficult. Voters have their own ideas of what constitutes excellence.

Obviously, wins at big-deal races like Western States, UTMB, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, and the IAU 100k World Championships are important. But some voters like multi-day performances more than others, and others have what appears to be a trail bias or a road bias. Analytically, it appears that there is an overall bias in favor of the 100-mile trail run, elevating runners who did well at that distance, and perhaps undervaluing the results of those runners who didn’t attempt a 100 miler (Zach Miller, Alex Nichols, Camille Herron, Bethany Patterson as examples this year).

It also appears that voters favored runners who raced well over multiple distances and over varied terrain; those who ran only on roads or only on mountain-goat courses were graded down a bit. Some might also argue that there’s a bias toward trails, but that argument can be countered with the fact that more than 90% of ultras are trail races, so maybe there should be a bias. Ultimately, it’s hard: voters are asked to compare a stellar 50k race to a multi-day, road versus trail, domestic and international. There are a lot of apples and oranges comparisons. And bananas, kumquats, and watermelons to boot. I often have a quibble or two, wondering how in the world runner X finished ahead of runner Y, when my ballot had them in reverse order. But at the end of the process, I am always impressed at just how good the consensus is.

This year, the men’s ballot was especially difficult. Four of the top-five men had a bad race or DNF. The fifth, Seth Swanson, was remarkably consistent–but he didn’t win any races. Could UROY be given to a runner who didn’t win a race all year? Six of the 37 voters thought so. David Laney eventually came out on top, based on the breadth of his résumé. He won major races at 50k (Chuckanut) and 100k (Bandera), and ran very well at both Western States and at UTMB, where he posted the fastest time ever for an American. It impressed voters that he did well over a variety of distances and terrains. Chuckanut is a course that is very runnable, UTMB is a mountain-goat course for sure, with Bandera and Western somewhere in between.

The balance of the top-five men were as closely bunched as perhaps they ever have been. Ian Sharman, Seth Swanson, Rob Krar, and Dylan Bowman were separated by a total of 19 votes, with each runner getting more than 200 in a scoring system where the top runner on a ballot gets 15 points, then 12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. Zach Miller was sixth, and perhaps a bit underappreciated after wins at TNF EC 50 Mile and CCC, the 101k sister race of UTMB. Like Rob Krar, Miller had only three ultra finishes and that might have influenced their vote totals a bit. (One of the recent trends seems to be that top runners race a bit less often than they did in the past. If this spreads, it will make future voting even more difficult.) In a sport where too much is sometimes not enough, sheer volume is appreciated. Top-10 runners Brian Rusiecki and Bob Shebest were clearly rewarded for having finished 10 and eight ultras during the year, respectively.

Impressively, 11 men received at least one vote for runner of the year. Not included in that group was Zach Bitter, whose 11:40:55 American track record for 100 miles came a week too late to be included in the voting for 2015.

[Author’s Note: The January/February issue of UltraRunning went to press two days before the Desert Solstice Invitational, which was held a week later than usual this year. As it was, UR’s editorial staff–huge kudos to Karl Hoagland, Erika Lindland, and Cory Smith for pulling it all together–was scrambling furiously to get all the year-end voting and statistical lists together in time for the printer. Such are the vagaries of the print-magazine business.]

The women’s vote was much more clear-cut. All but one voter had either Magda Boulet or Camille Herron on top. Boulet ended up as the winner, again aided by the variety of distance and terrain that she raced on. With wins at two 50k’s, three 100k’s and Western States, Boulet’s year was stellar. So, too, was Herron’s, with wins at the IAU 100k World Championships, Mad City 100k, and the IAU 50k World Championships, and also setting a world-best time at the Door County 50 Mile. It seems that voters discounted the IAU 50k World Championships win a bit, as the competition there was nowhere near as strong as it was in the 100k. And Herron’s 5:38:41 50-mile time at Door County, while officially the fastest ever recorded, weirdly wasn’t the fastest ever run, nor a record.

[Author’s Note: Herron’s Door County time isn’t eligible for record purposes, since the course is point-to-point. Herron’s 50-mile split time at the IAU 100k World Championships was about a minute faster than this, but since they only recorded lap times every 10k, all she got was a split at 80k, not 50 miles [80k is 49.71 miles]. And Ann Trason, who ran 7:00:48 on the same Winschoten, Netherlands course back in 1996, would’ve come through 50 miles in about 5:32. Tomoe Abe of Japan ran 6:33:11 at Lake Saroma 100k in Japan in 2000, setting the 100k world record. Her 50-mile split would likely have been about 5:13. Further confounding all of this is the fact that Lake Saroma is also a point-to-point course. IAAF rules then allowed for records on a point-to-point course as long as the start and finish were no more than 20% of the overall distance apart. After intense lobbying by the Japanese federation, the IAAF shamefully changed the rule–after the fact–to allow for records on point-to-point courses as long as they were no more than 40% of the overall distance apart. Lake Saroma’s start and finish are a bit more than 30% apart. One more note, Abe was aided by a 10- to 20-mile-per-hour tailwind for much of the record race. Having said all of that, it still appears to be an intrinsically superior mark to Trason’s 7:00:48, though certainly not as superior as it looks on paper. Okay, this is starting to read like a David Foster Wallace author’s note here, so I’ll move along.]

After Boulet and Herron, Stephanie Howe was a clear-cut choice for third. Fourth through seventh was virtually a four-way tie, with Kaci Lickteig, Katalin Nagy, Nicole Studer, and Aliza Lapierre all bunched up within a few votes of each other. Nagy’s case was particularly interesting, as she won all three races she competed in, including the IAU 24-Hour World Championships and Spartathlon, a complete departure from the type of racing that the other women at the top did. Voters clearly struggled with how to compare her year to the others; she received one first-place vote and was left off a couple of ballots altogether.

In the Performance of the Year category, Herron’s IAU 100k World Championships win was an easy winner, garnering two-thirds of the first-place votes. Her 7:08:35 clocking is the fourth fastest of any woman ever. Nagy’s IAU 24-Hour World Championships win (151.922 miles) was a distant second. Nicole Studer’s Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile–at 14:22:18 the fastest ever trail 100 miler recorded–was third, followed closely by Stephanie Howe’s course record at Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and Devon Yanko’s spectacular Javelina Jundred win.

The men’s Performance of the Year was another of those apples versus oranges comparisons. How do you compare Joe Fejes’s modern-day American record for six days against Rob Krar’s Western States win? Krar’s run was a mere three minutes outside the course record, and run on a day that was 20 degrees hotter than the day that Timothy Olson set the record. It was clearly the best performance in the 42-year history of the race. “A lot more top runners have run Western States over the years than have ever attempted a six-day race,” one voter commented in justifying his vote. But in the end, Fejes’s 606-plus miles in six days was just too good to ignore and he edged Krar by a mere two votes. What is really interesting to contemplate here is where Zach Bitter’s 11:40:55 100-mile time would have placed had the voting been done a week later. Certainly, it is on par with Fejes and Krar–interesting fodder for a conversation over a couple of beers.

Interestingly, Alex Varner had two of the top-five performances of the year, with his course-record wins at Quad Dipsea and Lake Sonoma. When Varner’s on top of his game, he’s pretty tough to beat. But, combined with a sub-par run at the IAU Trail World Championships in France and a DNF at Western States, Varner only managed to finish 11th in the overall voting.

The age-group awards are in many ways even tougher to vote on, since you have the 50k versus six-day thing in addition to a really fast 50-year-old versus a runner in his eighties.

Mark Richtman, who still competes with the big dogs at age 60, won best age-group performance with his 7:52:50 at Lake Sonoma. Bill Dodson’s 10:16:17 at the Ruth Anderson 50 Mile was a strong second. Dodson, who is 80, ran five ultras during the year and every one of his races received votes. Richtman also took third place in the category with his run at the Miwok 100k.

Gunhild Swanson’s Western States finish was the easy age-group winner for the women. Finishing just six seconds under the 30-hour time limit, Swanson became the oldest woman to ever complete the venerable race, and the first 70-year-old female. UltraRunning Publisher Karl Hoagland’s commentary bears repeating here: you gotta’ love a sport where the most exciting moment of the year is a last-place finish by a 70-year-old woman.

All of the vote totals and more details will be in the January/February issue of UltraRunning magazine, which hits the mail this week. Depending on the vagaries of the postal service, subscribers should see it in their mailbox around January 10. The magazine is also available at many specialty running stores and at most Barnes & Noble outlets.

The voting panel this year:

  • Don Allison — former Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • Meghan Arbogast — RD, Waldo 100k
  • Gary Cantrell — RD, Barkley Marathons and Strolling Jim 41 Mile
  • John Catts — RD, Quad Dipsea
  • Ed Demoney — founder, Old Dominion 100 Mile
  • Mark Dorion — elite runner (TX)
  • Chrissy Ferguson — RD, Arkansas Traveler 100 Mile
  • Julie Fingar — RD, NorCal Ultras (American River 50 Mile, Way Too Cool 50k, Rio del Lago 100 Mile)
  • Tim Fitzpatrick — RD, Tamalpa Headlands 50k
  • Jay Friedman — super analyst, gunksrunner.blogspot.com
  • Topher Gaylord — former President, Mountain Hardwear
  • Lisa Henson — RD, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
  • Meghan Hicks — Senior Editor, iRunFar.com
  • Karl Hoagland — Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • David Horton — RD, Hellgate 100k and Promise Land 50k
  • Andy Jones-Wilkins — RD, Thomas Jefferson 100k
  • Erika Lindland — Contributing Editor, UltraRunning magazine
  • Don Lundell — Owner, Zombie Runner
  • Dave Mackey — elite runner (CO)
  • John Medinger — RD, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
  • Karl Meltzer — RD, Speedgoat 50k
  • Scott Mills — RD, San Diego 100 Mile
  • Justin Mock — Columnist, iRunFar.com
  • Krissy Moehl — RD, Chuckanut 50k
  • Joe Prusaitis — former RD, Bandera 100k and other Tejas Trails events
  • Glen Redpath — elite runner (NY)
  • Brett Rivers — elite runner (CA)
  • Cory Smith — Operations Manager, UltraRunning magazine
  • Meredith Terranova — elite runner (TX)
  • Craig Thornley — RD, Western States 100 Mile
  • Ian Torrence — elite runner (AZ)
  • John Trent — RD, Silver State 50 Mile
  • Joe Uhan — elite runner (OR)
  • Ethan Veneklasen — CEO, He(a)rd Sports Marketing
  • Gary Wang — Managing Editor, realendurance.com
  • Blake Wood — Hardrock 100 Mile Board of Directors

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts on the selection process for UltraRunning magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year?
  • Who would you have chosen for Ultrarunner of the Year and Performance of the Year? Why?
John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.