Deconstructing The 2016 Ultrarunner Of The Year Voting

Aloha, TJ

[Editor’s Note: On January 1, Kaci Lickteig and Jim Walmsley were named 2016 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 decade I’ve had the honor of organizing the Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY) balloting for UltraRunning magazine. A panel of 39 veteran observers of the sport–many of them race directors–cast ballots. They vote for the annual top-10 male and female runners who reside in North America, as well as the top-five individual performances and top-five age-group performances.

Voters are given a lot of leeway in casting their ballots, with only very general instructions to focus first on excellence in the top-tier events. There are relatively few races where there is a significant depth of competition for North American ultrarunners, most notably Western States, UTMB, The North Face Challenge 50 Mile Championships, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, and the IAU 100k World Championships. Beyond that, voters have to discern the relative quality of a wide variety of distances and terrain, comparing rugged mountain races, flat and fast road races, and multi-day events. There is a lot of joking about fruit: comparing apples to oranges, sure, but also bananas, kumquats, watermelons, and cantaloupes.

The increasing tendency of top runners to race internationally–eight of the top-12 men ran at least one race overseas–makes voting more difficult. Not only does it spread out the head-to-head competition, but voters also need to understand what constitutes a good performance at Lavaredo Ultra Trail or Les Templiers, not just the more familiar U.S. races.

There’s a lot to consider, and most voters report taking many hours to complete their ballot. Looking at individual ballots, it’s clear that some voters have a bias toward mountain courses, some favor roads, and some favor multi-day efforts. 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. One-hundred-mile races still seem to be the gold standard; doing well at that distance seems to enhance a runner’s ranking. Some might also argue that there’s an overall 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, added all together, I always come away impressed with how good the ‘group think’ is with this panel.

This year the top of the ballot was relatively easy. Both Jim Walmsley and Kaci Lickteig had truly dominant years and both were nearly unanimous top picks with Lickteig receiving 38 of 39 first-place votes, and Walmsley 37.

But, after that, it got harder. Much harder. It was a very tight race for second place on both the men’s and women’s side, with several runners all bunched up in the balloting. Jeff Browning edged out Zach Miller by a mere five votes (first place is worth 15 votes, second place 12, then 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 for the remaining spots), with Ian Sharman and Zach Bitter very close behind them.

Walmsley’s spectacular course record at the venerable JFK 50 Mile garnered Ultra Performance of the Year (UPOY), with Bitter’s 100-mile American record in second. Since Bitter’s run was 51 weeks old at the time of the balloting, it could be argued that his vote total suffered a bit as a result, a little like how a movie released early in the year does at the Oscars.

On the women’s side, last year’s UROY Magdalena Boulet placed second with the rapidly improving Courtney Dauwalter third. One of the most interesting features this year was the fact that two of the top-three women’s performances came on the very last weekend before ballots were due. Gina Slaby’s new 100-mile world record was voted top UPOY, and Caroline Boller’s Brazos Bend 50 Mile win–the fastest ever 50 miler run on trails–was third.

Age-group rankings add another degree of complexity, as voters have to compare a 50 year old who competes with the big dogs against an 80-something runner who is still getting it done. On the men’s side, there was virtually no consensus at all, with five performances receiving nearly equal support. Ultimately, 51-year-old Rich Hanna’s 3:17:41 50k at Jed Smith won the honors by a mere two votes.

Like a lot of years recently, the top women’s age-group vote is as simple as seeing what Meghan Arbogast did in the past year. The difficult part is deciding which of her races to vote for. This year her 7:58:21 at the IAU 100k World Championships in Spain won the honor, with her Western States run taking second.

One of the interesting internal debates among the voting panel was whether to consider fastest known times (FKTs) as part of the voting process. One can make reasonable arguments either way. The argument in favor is essentially that there were several impressive FKT performances this year, and that with GPS technology they are verifiable. The argument against is that FKTs are essentially solo time trials, and that conditions and even routes will vary among FKT efforts. And what constitutes an actual FKT? Some trails have records both northbound and southbound; some have FKTs for ‘unsupported,’ ‘self-supported,’ and ‘supported.’ It’s a slippery slope: we could easily devolve into voting on Strava segments. And while some FKT attempts and routes garner a lot of publicity, most routes are rarely attempted.

Consider, for instance, Pete Kostelnick’s extraordinary–and there is no debate about this, it was extraordinary – transcontinental run. As impressive as it is, it was also noted that there hasn’t been a single serious attempt at this FKT in the past 30 years, so it is difficult to measure exactly how impressive. To his credit, Kostelnick chose the same start and finish points (the city halls of San Francisco and New York City, respectively) as the previous record holder. But undoubtedly, over the course of nearly 3,000 road miles, some of the route was different. And of course, the route itself is arbitrary. If you really wanted the fastest transcontinental run, you would likely choose San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida as your terminals; the route is 600 miles shorter and the mountain crossings involve much less elevation gain.

Ultimately, it was decided by the voting panel for this year’s voting that we have races for a reason. Everyone shows up on the same day and runs the same course under the same conditions. The JFK course has been essentially unchanged for 54 years; this makes it possible to compare the relative worth of Walmsley’s 2016 course record to, say, Eric Clifton’s win 25 years earlier.

So, Kostelnick’s UROY ranking comes in at ninth, on the strength of his win at Badwater and his 163-plus miles for 24 hours at Desert Solstice, but tempered by a 29th-place finish at Western States. [Author’s Note: I’m reluctant to call Kostelnick’s Badwater run a course record, since Badwater now starts at night. While it is indeed technically a course record, there is undeniably an enormous difference between running across Death Valley in the daytime, with a 120-degree Fahrenheit sun beating down on the runners, versus crossing Death Valley in the relative cool of darkness.] Clearly, had his transcon run been part of the voting, Kostelnick would have risen in the ranks significantly. It is simply that this run is outside the boundaries of the voting.

Not everyone will agree with this decision, of course–or necessarily any of the voting for that matter–but arguing over a couple of beers whether the rankings are right or not is a large part of the fun.

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
  • Buzz Burrell — Brand Vice President, Ultimate Direction
  • 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
  • Tim Fitzpatrick — RD, Tamalpa Headlands 50k
  • Jay Friedman — super analyst, gunksrunner.blogspot.com
  • Topher Gaylord — elite runner (MD)
  • Lisa Henson — RD, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
  • Meghan Hicks — Senior Editor, iRunFar.com
  • Erika Hoagland — Contributing Editor, UltraRunning magazine
  • Karl Hoagland — Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • David Horton — RD, Hellgate 100k and Promise Land 50k
  • Andy Jones-Wilkins — columnist, iRunFar.com
  • Sarah Lavender Smith — Contributing Editor, Trail Runner 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
  • Bryon Powell — Editor-in-Chief, iRunFar.com
  • Glen Redpath — elite runner (NY)
  • Brett Rivers — elite runner (CA)
  • Amy Rusiecki — RD, Vermont 100 Mile
  • Eric Schranz — owner, UltraRunnerPodcast.com
  • Jason Schlarb — elite runner (CO)
  • 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

Thoughts from the Voting Panel

[Editor’s Note: We polled five members of the voting panel and asked them to share their thoughts on how their votes compared with the panel’s group-think results, if any group-think results surprised them, and what the process of voting was like for them including organizing/comparing/ranking diverse results. The goal of this was to provide an inside look at how a few people voted, show the challenges of casting these votes, and demonstrate how intelligent, informed people can ultimately look at the same pieces of data and with different eyes.]

From Mark Dorion:

I do compare thoughts and notes with some of the other ‘old timer’ voters. (I have been helping with the rankings since 1997 or so, some friends longer.) I have felt for several years that both international performances of any kind as well as road/track ultras get neglected by some voters. Read the blogs of some of these ‘trail specialists’–they are quite open about their lack of knowledge about or respect for great road efforts. Funnily enough, I have raced (and won) trail ultras, and have directed over 60 different trail and mountain races (most with an ultra option). As for directing road races–only a few shorter ones!

I also feel the voting committee is a bit top heavy with folks from the San Francisco Bay Area. Again, I have raced many ultras there and count some of these voters as good friends. I know for sure that other voters from the South and East find a ‘conflict of interest’ with people who are agents/representatives for certain ultrarunners and also part of the voting panel. I mean, there are voters trumpeting ad nauseam the accomplishments of their friends or runners all over Facebook and the internet. If anything this has the reverse effect–it may sour some voters on ‘runner x’ or ‘performance y.’

I struggle with how to weigh DNFs in the voting. To me if a runner wins UTMB but drops out of Western States, they should not be ranked right near the top unless they had several other magnificent performances. I also struggle with multi-day races. If someone has one great six-day race, I feel that is equivalent to a string of good shorter ultras in the 50k to 100-mile range. But other voters see a six-day race as ‘just one race,’ no more nor less significant than a 50 miler or 100 miler. If one has not run in or helped at a multi-day race, it can be hard to grasp its unique difficulty.

Sometimes I wish races under 40 miles or 70k or so would not even be included. Sure they are ultras, but they really have more in common with a standard marathon. My 3:09:24 50k was run off of a lot of 10k training and long runs around 17 miles. My better 100ks, 24-hour races, and six-day events involved many more long runs.

From Topher Gaylord:

I always find the voting process fascinating and inspiring. Each year the ultrarunning performances continue to deliver world-best performances, a sign our sport continues to evolve and inspire new runners to find the edges of their potential in ultrarunning. I found my voting for the first-place male and female UROY lined up exactly with the overall. The next three to four were the same names, but in different order. The next five were quite different than the final results, with some names not making my final list, but making the top-10 overall for UROY.

I prioritize:

  1. Head-to-head competition.
  2. Most competitive races at all distances and surfaces, e.g. Western States, UTMB, Comrades Marathon, Hardrock 100 (this year), TNF 50, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, Way Too Cool 50k, JFK 50 Mile, etc.
  3. Full body of work across the entire year.

The diversity of the terrain, distances, and surfaces makes the voting highly subjective and it’s why I really prioritize head-to-head performances on the most competitive events. I also think the large and diverse panel serves to ensure a balanced and quality overall top 10. There are few runners in the East who race and win a lot in smaller races with minimal competition. I prioritize them lower than highly competitive races that are typically found internationally and in the West. To get my vote for first place, I consider a 100-mile finish necessary.

From Justin Mock:

On the men’s side, I had Hayden Hawks and Patrick Reagan in my top 10, whereas the voters instead put Tim Tollefson and Brian Rusiecki in. Reagan had three strong races–Mad City 100kUltravasan, and IAU 100k World Championships. Mad City is non-competitive, but his time there was top-10 all-time for North America. Ultravasan was competitive, just not on a course we get excited about. And then IAU 100k had all of the South Africans in it. So Reagan had only three ultras, but they were all good results. I thought he should have had some recognition for that, but can understand how the voters don’t get excited about his race selection.

Hawks, just thinking about head-to-head competition, he beat Alex Nichols and Chris Vargo at Speedgoat 50k, and then beat almost everyone at TNF 50. He had one other low-key ultra win. Obviously he was penalized for lack of race volume, but it’s hard to say that he wouldn’t beat most of the others on the men’s list at least up to 50 miles.

For the women, I was further off and some of that is due to a poor ballot on my end. Courtney Dauwalter and Gina Slaby I left out and that’s probably just me not giving their late end-of-year results enough consideration when the deadline was coming near. I was really surprised that Hillary Allen didn’t warrant top-10 recognition though. She had a lot of ultra races and was generally on the podium. She met both any volume and quality hurdles that I considered. Sarah Bard’s fourth place at Comrades Marathon (plus her Ultravasan and Chuckanut 50k races) was also enough to gain a top-10 spot for me. And then YiOu Wang was the only person to beat Kaci Lickteig all year, but yet Wang didn’t make the top-10 list.

From Sarah Lavender Smith:

Hayden Hawks eked out a spot toward the bottom of my ballot, even though he’s relatively new and only ran three ultras, because he won Speedgoat 50k and placed second in that epic duel at TNF 50. I’m sorry he didn’t make the top-10 cut.

One head-scratching thing for me is how certain events seem more influential than perhaps they should be; for example, placing high at Western States seems significantly more prestigious or important in terms of UROY ranking than winning the 153-mile Spartathlon. It becomes so difficult—such an apples-and-oranges comparison—to judge the relative merit of performances at different events.

Then you look at UTMB and wonder, should a strong performance there count for more than a Western States performance? Magda’s performance at UTMB (fifth female and top American woman) clearly played a big role in her getting #2 UROY, compensating for her DNF at Western States. But Tim Tollefson also ran a stunning, smart UTMB, finishing third, but got the #7 spot for UROY. Of course, each had other races affecting their ultimate UROY rankings, but it’s an interesting note.

The process for voting began in early December and was complicated by the influx of significant results over the weekend of December 11, with Desert Solstice, Brazos Bend 50 Mile, and Hellgate 100k. Our ballots were due only a couple of days following that, and I felt I needed more time to digest that weekend’s results. For example, how do you compare the impressive 24-hour performances against the 100-mile performances at Desert Solstice; plus, we were supposed to carry over the 2015 Desert Solstice results into this year’s consideration due to that race’s timing in relation to 2015 voting, which also was confusing.

From Blake Wood:

First, I go through the list and mark each runner I think is a candidate with a 1, 2 or 3–the general group I think they fall into. At this point it is fairly subjective, but I look for ‘enough’ (typically at least three) competitive races, participation in big races, and good times at races I’m familiar with or things like course records or wins in large fields. I try to err on the side of inclusiveness at this stage, so this list is typically 15 to 20 long.

Second, within each 1, 2, 3 grouping I compare the runners head-to-head until I have ordered each group. Then I compare the top of one group with the bottom of the one above, and adjust as necessary. I pick out a few runners and move them up or down the list, comparing one-to-one, until I think they are in the correct spot.

Finally, I sort the spreadsheet by event and note who has beaten whom in head-to-head competition, and adjust my ranking accordingly. If I’ve done the previous two steps well, this is usually just a confirmation that I haven’t made any serious mistakes.

While I do this process, I also highlight individual performances that are candidates for UPOY. Then I go back through that list and pick out the eight to 10 I think are the most impressive, then do a final ranking on those. To make that list, I look for wins (or better, course records) in very high-profile races (Western States, UTMB, JFK 50 Mile, etc.), or very impressive times or distances (e.g. less than 14/16 hours for 100 miles for men/women, greater than 155/140 miles for men/women), or high places in world championships. For the women, my yardstick is typically, “Would it have been an exceptional race for me in my prime?” (My 100-mile PR is 14:51–a woman running that fast impresses me.)

The calculation for age-group performance of the year is more complicated, since age is a big issue. I typically try to get a mix of performances that are impressive because the runner is old (for instance, Bill Dodson) or because they are just impressive for anyone (most races by Meghan Arbogast).

My picks were pretty close to the ultimate ranking for both men and women, at least down through #8. By close, I mean typically within plus or minus two spots. I picked Jim Walmsley and Kaci Lickteig for the top spots, but thought these were pretty obvious choices this year (and they were nearly unanimous). I haven’t seen the UPOY results, so I can’t comment on those.

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?
  • What subjective biases would you bring in your personal voting? How do you think you might do with the challenge of identifying your biases and separating enough from them to make as objective a vote as possible?
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.