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,
  • Topher Gaylord — elite runner (MD)
  • Lisa Henson — RD, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
  • Meghan Hicks — Senior Editor,
  • Erika Hoagland — Contributing Editor, UltraRunning magazine
  • Karl Hoagland — Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • David Horton — RD, Hellgate 100k and Promise Land 50k
  • Andy Jones-Wilkins — columnist,
  • 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,
  • Bryon Powell — Editor-in-Chief,
  • Glen Redpath — elite runner (NY)
  • Brett Rivers — elite runner (CA)
  • Amy Rusiecki — RD, Vermont 100 Mile
  • Eric Schranz — owner,
  • 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,
  • 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.

There are 38 comments

  1. Luke

    Interesting, and I agree that the debate is a big part of the appeal.

    Around all this discussion no one mentioned Cody Reed as a potential top 10, which surprises me a bit given some of the other names I see. Are Miwok and UROC really so noncompetitive that wins there don’t get you in the conversation along with guys who are finishing top 5-10 in other races?

    1. bob

      I agree, the debate is a big part of any ‘Top 10’ list, whether it be movies, albums, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. 2017 should give all of those listed (and left off) a chance to show us all what they can do – barring injury, illness, etc. Honestly though, I don’t think any of these people race to win the UROY award. Just nice to get that recognition.

    2. Ben

      Yes, I think so. Top 5 at races like Western, Sonoma, Way Too Cool, North Face, and about 5-10 key international races is a lot more impressive than winning Miwok or UROC. Those fields are just not deep at all comparatively speaking.

  2. ChrisB

    I think the list of competitive races talked about in the voting too heavily favors California and International events since there are no other events from other regions mentioned (Western, Lake Sonoma, NF50, UTMB, 100k Worlds). These events should be taken into account, but I think every Golden Ticket race should be included in the “competitive” race list, along with the races that make up the Grand Slam (Wasatch, Leadville, Vermont) and other highly competitive races like Run Rabbit Run and any exceptional performances on courses like Hardrock or shorter races like Speedgoat or the Rut. I know these races play into people’s votes, but having those competitive races listed amongst the “majors” would make it an even more interesting debate. Of course, no changes would have taken the awards away from Jim and Kaci in 2016.

    1. SageCanaday

      Why not determine “competitive races” by their top 10 (or top 20) finisher density? For example, just take the time spread between 1st and 10th in a race like TNF50 or Transvulcania…compare that to other races (100-milers and something like Comrades), scaled with the duration of the event. A high finisher density of the top 10 = a more competitive race.

      For example, Ultra runner Mag. had the Gorge Waterfalls 100km listed as “more competitive” than the TNF50 for the women’s field for 2016. There were 15 women within 60-min of each other at TNF50 this year (granted it was a shorter race in duration than Gorge…10hrs v. 7 hrs., but the top finisher density was higher I believe).

      1. Mark

        That could actually backfire a bit, Sage. If the winner runs a particularly fast time, it would decrease the finisher density metric and thus hurt them more than if they had just barely beaten the second place runner.

        Though it would be funny to see a race winner turn around and go pace the tenth runner to a faster finish.

        1. SageCanaday

          If someone is blowing out the field in a race by that much and winning by a huge margin with nobody else behind them…then the field simply wasn’t super competitive. The more I think about it, it could just be top 5 density even. Unlike many track or road marathon races where the lead pack “sits and kicks” (and it is very close to the wire/finish), that rarely happens in ultras…most races are run more like time trials and the top 5-to 10 get blown apart with fairly significant time gaps.

          If someone runs a super fast time on a standard course and wins by a lot…of course that is a very good individual performance (or even a historical performance)…but it doesn’t mean that the competitive depth of that race was strong.

          1. Burnsy

            A good depth metric might be the non-podium top-ten spread (i.e. 4-10).

            However, I think a top-10th spread would be just as robust, as the margins of a great performance on the front end are inevitably much smaller than a drop-off to non-competitive performances on the back end

      2. Tropical John

        Yeah, Sage, that’d be a good way to do it also. Lots of ways to approach this. (Though I suppose it’s at least possible to have high top 10 finisher density without any of the runners being elite. Some races might have an awesome top 5 then a big drop off after that. And the size of the field might play into this as well, not quite sure how one would adjust for that. You can geek out on it all day trying to come up with a perfect formula.)

        1. SageCanaday

          You’re right John. Good points. The actual density would’ve be the “end all” number. I’m thinking Top 5 might actually be a better approach….we could look at the names in certain races (given their history, size, etc. …as well as individual Ultra Sign up ranking) and then see if it was a “pack run”….with the top guys/gals….

          …But at the top level it rarely is a “pack run” though (also see my comment above)…the most competitive races are usually run more like a time trial…at top competitive ultra races (save for Comrades), there is almost never a “pack of 5 or more” together late in the race.

      3. Michael Owen

        Sage, this could also backfire in the way that some races may have a highest top 10-20, or even 5 finishers density, but times are slow — a new 50K that happens to have 5 individuals within 5 minutes may not necessarily be the most competitive even though it was super competitive between those 5 individuals. I think we need to have some form of basis to put “competitive” races in a category based on some other form of runner ranking, rather than just top finisher density. AJW selects his version of “major races” and UR Mag. selects races with top rated ultra runners from their rankings…..

      1. SageCanaday

        As I mentioned in my first post (regarding Ultra Running Mag):

        “For example, Ultra runner Mag. had the Gorge Waterfalls 100km listed as “more competitive” than the TNF50 for the women’s field for 2016. There were 15 women within 60-min of each other at TNF50 this year (granted it was a shorter race in duration than Gorge…10hrs v. 7 hrs., but the top finisher density was higher I believe).”

        So you guys used a rather qualitative method (based on which runners got votes for UROY by the panel) to order these races according to those particular runner’s participation in this events?

      2. ChrisB

        Thanks for the response. I was basing it on AJW’s previous article on his voting where he has the same races + Comrades listed as his majors and I just feel that a set list of races mentioned twice for US UROY without a single race in the USA outside of Northern California is a bit odd, especially if some voters (sorry to pick on AJW) let it be known that any runner without a top result from that same list of Northern California or International “majors” is not eligible.

        I also think that top results in less competitive “majors” like the Grand Slams and Golden Ticket races would be easily taken into account by voters but would add some geographical and distance diversity into the mix.

      3. Bob Hearn

        To me there is a bit of a circularity here. Those races have the most competitive fields, because they have the most total UROY points. But then how are UROY votes determined? By performance at the most competitive races, obviously.

        It’s hard to miss that every race on that list is American, and all but Desert Solstice are trail.

        Just yesterday one of this year’s UROYs told me they couldn’t justify running Spartathlon, because it wasn’t a qualifier for the “top races” they wanted to get into. This is a bad dynamic to have in place. We are underrepresented on the (highly competitive) international scene, totally gazing into our own navels.

  3. Tropical John

    Cody did get votes on many ballots, ultimately placed 19th. Miwok has not had a deep elite field for several years, and UROC was thinner than usual for the men this year. They are solid wins, but maybe not of the quality of his Tamalpa Headlands 50K win. His 16th place at The North Face 50 obviously hurt him a bit. Probably, too, the fact that he is new to the ultra scene. But watch out for him in 2017! On a good day he can run with anybody.

  4. John Onate

    Thanks John for the transparency! I agree with the comment that NorCal/BayArea may be over represented. However I would add some more members instead of pruning. I would add the RD from UTMB and Jason’s Coop or other coach who has experience with ultrarunners. Nikki Kimball would be a great addition as well.

    1. Tropical John

      Good comments, John. There are a lot of NorCal voters on the panel, but I didn’t see a regional bias in their voting. (Of course NorCal is also a hotbed of activity, with a lot of large races and the three most competitive ultras in the country located here.)

      Some have complained that we had coaches on the panel, fearing they would favor their athletes. I didn’t see that, either.

      There are even some elite runners on the panel who are in a position to vote for themselves. Interestingly, most of them placed themselves a bit lower in the rankings than the ‘group think’ total.

  5. Pete

    It’s a little disturbing to see races so quickly dismissed for lack of competitiveness and subsequently discounting individual results because of this. Does this mean that UROY-seeking elites should ignore the classics like Wasatch, Vermont 100, The Rut 50K, Leadville 100, Speedgoat 50K, Cascade Crest 100, Miwok 100K, Run Rabbit Run, Angeles Crest 100, etc. just because they don’t have a stacked field lacing ’em up at the start line? This could be solved and the voter panel could be eliminated by instituting an annual Grand Prix of ~50 geographically distributed races, spread across all distances with top-10 points weighted toward the longer races and perhaps the tougher courses. By varying the Grand Prix race lineup every year, you’d encourage elites to race a variety of courses in different parts of the country vs. the same old tired Sonoma + WS100 + TNF50 routine (yawn). This would also create more incremental interest throughout the year because the standings would be public and updated weekly. I know I’m missing an important component here, cash, which is why TNF50 will always be popular.

    1. Tropical John

      Some very good ideas here, but implementing it would be very complicated due to conflicting sponsorships, timing, etc. I don’t think voters discount the classic races. Yeah, Ian Sharman won Leadville by two hours (very thin field this year) but the voters know that his 16:22 is one of the best times ever there. So, he gets props for a great time. He can’t control quality of the field.

      Runners have a wide variety of reasons for picking the races they run, but most really like to compete against the best and so tend to show up in bigger numbers at the top tier races. I expect that UROY votes might quietly be in the back of a few top runner’s heads, but I also don’t think the UROY voting drives very many runners to pick a particular race.

    2. SageCanaday

      Some thoughts on this (biased as I may be). I think all runners want to do races that inspire them….races that they can afford to get to….and races that they can actually get into!

      In most years races like Speedgoat have been quite stacked (IMO), same with the RUT (heck Killian even ran there once when it was the SkyRunning world final)…others fade with the “competitive flow” and who shows up year to year…. The first time I did White River 50 I was surprised to hear that it had been the USATF National Champs for years…looking at the results over the years you see a lot of history and names.

      Some key things that TNF50 has going on that a lot of other races don’t have (and this is coming from my biased perspective of course):

      1. It isn’t a 100-miler (scary for a lot or road marathoners stepping up in distance).
      2. It is a “runnable” trail without any crazy techy parts (also welcoming to a variety of distance runners)…it is a “fair course” with decent climbing, but not at high altitude.
      3. There is $10,000 on the line to win (also a big incentive for a lot of guys)
      4. The timing is such that there aren’t a whole lot of other races to choose from in the US in Dec.
      5. If you are fast and have some good results up to 50km…you can get into the race and get a “top 100 start”…everyone still pays the $120 entry fee, but you don’t have to worry about a “lottery draw” or having to earn a golden ticket to get in.

      In the end though, don’t we run races that inspire us? Like John said, we run for different reasons. For me the challenge is the competition (with myself of course, but also with others). It’s not the distance….if WS or UTMB happened to be 80 or 90 miles I’d still be chomping at the bit to race them. Nice scenery and history and ease of access to be able to enter also helps (as well as prize money, I’ll admit), but we are all motivated by different things when it comes down to the details. I don’t think a lot of top runners make their schedule with UROY voting in mind at all…they want to do well in big events to please their sponsors for exposure and support…they want to race other top ranked runners…and they want to see cool places and run on trails with interesting history and ultimately just have fun.

      Subjectively we can probably mostly agree that does a great job at covering “the most competitive events” as a whole anyway. Look at a race preview on this site and you already know it’s going to be a “barn burner of a race” before the gun even goes off! I know coverage is based on a lot of factors (and is really hard work), but looking at the events covered on this website is also a reflection of where a lot of top runners want to go….and (IMO) where there is going to be a lot of “competitive depth.”

  6. Ian Sharman

    I’m pretty sure none of the runners who got any votes planned their season based on which races get more kudos from the voting panel :) But the reason a lot of faster runners are drawn to the competitive races (which seem to have been well identified overall by the panel, with each likely to also consider some other races as relatively important in their calculation too) is simply that it’s generally more fun to race fast guys or fast course records as a challenge. Western States always has this appeal – even if the field is a little less competitive there’re still the benchmarks of Timmy and Ellie’s record to compare to.

    1. Patrick Reagan

      Well said Ian. Choosing a race because it is highly competitive is important, while choosing a race to run fast is important as well. The balance between finding competitive races and fast courses sometimes go hand in hand. An intrinsic desire to run a race, that emotional drive to challenge one’s self, is an intergral piece of the puzzle.

      I’m just as impressed with Geoff Burns running 6:30.37 for 100K solo off the front at Mad City as I am seeing a course record go down at a super competitive trail race that’s 25 women deep. As long as the racer has the fire in their eyes, runs an impressive time versus course record, and/or run’s intelligently to tally a ton of head to head’s…the performance is impressive.

      This could be my Bromance with Burnsy talking :)

      1. SteelTownRunner

        To be fair, we have a lot more context for how Geoff’s race stacks up historically than we do for many other races.

  7. Bob Hearn

    Did I miss an announcement of UPOY? The winners are mentioned here in passing. But then what does this mean?

    “Ultimately, 51-year-old Rich Hanna’s 3:17:41 50k at Jed Smith won the honors by a mere two votes.”

    Is that a masters UPOY?

    1. Tropical John

      Right you are, Bob. For whatever reason we didn’t discuss the Performances of the Year. The UPOYs were Walmsley’s JFK50 course record and Slaby’s Desert Solstice 100 mile world record.

  8. Pete Kostelnick

    I appreciate seeing this article. However, since I don’t talk to the broader elite ultrarunning crowd often, wanted to just clarify two points.

    1) Western States: It’s true I’m not a great trail runner. I fall all the time. However, I also only did two total trail runs (15-20 miles each) in April as my total trail miles in getting ready for Western States. I also ran 156 training miles the week before the race. I don’t back off any race intentionally, but my priorities were Badwater three weeks later and the run across America (also on road) less than three months later. My legs were pretty much shot from the downhills by mile 50, so I’m just happy I broke 20 hours.

    2) Run Across America: To say that there have not been ANY serious attempts for the run across America record in 30 years seems a bit of a stretch. I do recall Marshall Ulrich and Charlie Engle giving a go at it in 2008. Also, Adam Kimble had gone for the record earlier this year, and many others have with less attention. I think the reason it seems that no one has gone for the record in 30 years is no one has been in serious contention late in the run. So much has to go right for a run like that to succeed. And for many, that one thing has gone wrong. It’s not a sexy trail race or trail FKT, but the need for surviving on road that long should still be appreciated as a different skill set. Also, to run from San Diego to Jacksonville would not fulfill Guinness World Record requirements. While I think a record should be broken in the same general sense that the person that holds it, it is widely known that LA to NYC would also suffice for GWR. However, that is the shortest route recognized.

    1. kevin

      Kostelnik is the asterisk of ultrarunning at the moment. Crushes Badwater CR, gets a nighttime start asterisk. Crushes Run Across America FKT, gets a non-competitive asterisk.

      Keep crushing! The ultra community will eventually catch on!

      1. Boston Chris

        Totally agree.
        Plus, I think FKTs get a short-shrift anyway. To say Walmsley’s and Pete K’s FKTs are not worthy is short-sighted. Those were nothing sort of awe-inspiring. Non-competitive? C’mon.

        1. speedgoat Karl

          It’s simply because they are not “races” or competition. My AT is the same thing. All three of these FKT’s are fat, very fat, but when it comes to runner of the year, voted by a magazine, we as voters have to have some criteria to go by. I mentioned at first it has to be races only. For Pete and I, we get screwed, but honestly, it doesn’t matter who gets runner of the year, all that much. It’s about us doing what we love and desire to do. Pete has a special gift of running super long days on road, others have other gifts, and it’s fair to say, excercising the gift is the best of all.

  9. Michael Jimenez

    Just a note on Badwater, the night start isn’t easy. It has a set of challenges all it’s own. The fact is that you start late in the evening on little to no sleep during the day and although the sun isn’t blazing the temps were still around 90 at start time. Then after running through the night you hit the first big climb up Towns Pass as the sun is out so the course is now heating up as you climb 5k rather than where it used to begin cooling down. Then the descent into Panamint Valley begins where you have your traditional DV heat that can reach 110 -130 degrees at which point you find yourself only half way through the race just before the second 5k ft climb over Panamint Pass. Then after beating your legs and feet to death on the highway from Darwin into Lonepine your tasked with a half marathon up to the Mt Whitney Portal a gain of about 5k where you finish at an altitude over 8k. So I just wanted to clarify from someone who’s crewed and raced Badwater that it didn’t get easier the timing of the challenges just changed, perhaps with an added layer of challenges too, i.e. Added sleep deprivation, smaller crews(max of 4), only one crew vehicle allowed now, so not easier by any stretch. Pete’s CR was real and legit, and run against some fast and tough individuals, that CR should be shown more respect it did belong to the venerable Valmir Nunez.

  10. Most Competitive

    The issue with stage races (i.e., Mark Dorion’s example) is that they are the least competitive of any of the 50K, 50M, 100K, 100M race we list. So, with that in mind, the performance has to be considered because there is no depth. Most competitors are well over the age of 40 and are past their primes. It’s very difficult to assess a great performance since there is such a small sample size. That’s why TNF 50 and Western States are exciting – an established history and the most competitive of fields. TNF 50 in 2016 was the most competitive ultra we have ever seen in the USA. Many of you are not realizing the amount of talent that DNF’d in that race.

  11. SteelTownRunner

    One quick note before hopefully a longer post if/ when I get around to it – I feel it important to know context of performances. Of course a runner could just be sandbagging, but I cannot count the number of times Kouros’ WS time has been quoted as an indication of his alleged poor ability on trails while the very people quoting that result seemed to be unaware of his staggering 1000mi run (in a bonafide race on certified course) a week prior to WS. Clearly that wasn’t a goal race of his. Similarly, Pete K wasn’t racing WS – he neither dropped in his mega-mileage training to taper nor to recover from his WS run. He was open about this beforehand and BW and his upcoming transcon were clearly his focus. Putting aside the FKT nature of his transcon (of which I do agree with Mr Medinger), of course JFK has been contested a lot more seriously than the transcon record, but we do have some sort of idea of what constitutes a great run from past 6 day, 10 day, 1000mi, and 3100mi races.

    Then there is the matter of records – not trail ‘records’ (excluding JFK) – actual records on a road or track. We have a fairly good history of quality runners racing 100mi to know what constitutes a quality performance, outside factors (weather, competition, etc) aside. Ken Young’s (AARS) chart is also helpful for an objective perspective

    Gina Slaby’s 100 new WR seemed to me (coupled with her other wins – ie, every time she raced, on both road and trail) to be perhaps the biggest oversight in the voting. I can’t say whether I’d pick her over Kaci, but she should have placed higher in the voting.

  12. SteelTownRunner

    I will note that I do agree with Mr Medinger about Badwater. Pete had a phenomenal run but ultimately, it’s hard to compare the night vs day start. In my book, I call it a race record, not a course record. The entire point of calling anything a record is to enable objective comparing results to one another. If conditions aren’t similar enough, then the entire exercise is futile. Should the time be improved in the future with a night or day start – either way – it would come with an asterisk indicating either Valmir Nunes’ or Pete’s time. That certainly is not to take credit away from anyone, merely to indicate that further analysis is necessary before coronating a “record-setting” performance.

  13. John Onate

    John, I was looking at the top 100KM results and I noticed Quicksilver was not mentioned. I have run SoB100 and know the Miwok course well, Quicksilver is easily as difficult and at least in the women’s race in 2016 a competitive race.

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