Demystifying The Ultrarunner Of The Year Selection Process

Aloha, TJ[Editor’s Note: On January 1, Ellie Greenwood and Rob Krar were named 2014 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.]

Last year, Karl Hoagland bought UltraRunning, but asked me to continue to organize the magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY) voting effort. He wanted the process to be transparent and, for the first time, the list of voters was published on ultrarunning.com. But it was published without any fanfare, so I’m not sure how many people noticed.

Thirty-two people cast ballots this year (see below). By my rough calculation, this group has nearly 1,000 years of combined ultra experience! One could possibly argue that there’s someone on the list that doesn’t belong there, but as a group the collective wisdom is undeniable.

Voters are asked to complete a ballot listing (in order) their top-10 male and female runners of the year. Any runner who resides in North America is eligible to be considered. The reason for this is simple: we don’t always know the actual citizenship status of people who have emigrated, and in some cases even if we did it would be ambiguous. Ellie Greenwood, for example, now has dual citizenship in Canada and Great Britain. (The magazine has always treated Canada as a logical extension of its U.S. readership base. Many Canadians race frequently in the U.S., and vice versa. In fact, Canadian women have rather dominated things in recent years, winning UROY four of the past five years.)

Voters are given instructions, but a lot of the ranking is still a judgment call. How do you compare performances over such a wide variety of events? Consider the men’s voting this year. You have Max King setting an American record in a flat, road 100k. You have Rob Krar, on a hot day, running the second-fastest time ever at Western States–a hilly, trail 100 miler. And you have Joe Fejes running 580 miles in a six-day track race. Talk about apples and oranges!

We ask voters to focus first on the most competitive races, as there are relatively few events where there are a lot of top runners competing. Western States, Lake Sonoma, and The North Face EC 50 Mile Championships comprise the deepest elite fields in North America. (A statistical analysis of the most competitive fields will be part of the data published in the January/February issue of UltraRunning.) Add in the IAU World 100k Championships, and highly competitive foreign events like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Comrades. What we are saying is that we are more impressed with strong performances in elite competitions than in a fast time at a low-key race.

We ask voters to look at the entire body of work for the year. One outstanding race can be acknowledged in the separate voting for Performance of the Year. It’s not uncommon for top runners to have a bad race or a DNF here and there, especially if they race frequently. Rob Krar had a sub-par performance at The North Face in December, no doubt running on weary legs after his three 100-mile win summer. Max King came a bit unglued in the later stages of Lake Sonoma in April. It happens, even to the best of runners. So you have to factor that in, too.

We also ask voters to focus on head-to-head results where they exist. If Runner A beats Runner B every time, it’s pretty hard to put Runner B ahead of Runner A in the rankings.

Voters submit ballots with their top-10 runners. Votes are tallied on a 15-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis, acknowledging the fact that often the top runners are fairly obvious, but when you get down to sixth or seventh in the balloting, it’s almost impossible to differentiate.

Ballots are also submitted for the top-five Performances of the Year–meaning the best single race–and also for top-five Age Group (>50 years old) Performances of the Year. These ballots are tallied on a 7-5-3-2-1 basis.

Voters take it seriously. Many tell me that they spend several hours pouring over the results and agonizing over their rankings. “Completing this ballot was harder than any race I ran all year,” Karl Meltzer said a couple of years back, and it’s worth nothing that he ran six 100 milers that year!

The ultimate goal is to have rankings that are as objectively derived as possible, and will stand up to the scrutiny they certainly will receive.

Voters casting ballots for 2014 were:

  • Don Allison — former Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • Meghan Arbogast — RD, Waldo 100k
  • Gary Cantrell — RD, Barkley and Strolling Jim
  • John Catts — RD, Quad Dipsea
  • Ed Demoney — founder, Old Dominion 100
  • Mark Dorion — elite runner (TX)
  • Chrissy Ferguson — RD, Arkansas Traveler 100
  • Julie Fingar — RD, American River 50 Mile, Way Too Cool 50k
  • Tim Fitzpatrick — RD, Tamalpa Headlands 50k
  • Topher Gaylord — President, Mountain Hardwear
  • Meghan Hicks — elite runner (UT); Senior Editor, iRunFar.com
  • Karl Hoagland — Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • David Horton — RD, Hellgate and Promise Land
  • Andy Jones-Wilkins — RD, Thomas Jefferson 100k; elite runner (VA)
  • Erika Lindland — Contributing Editor, UltraRunning magazine
  • Don Lundell — Zombie Runner
  • Dave Mackey — elite runner (CO)
  • John Medinger — RD, Lake Sonoma 50 Mile; former Publisher, UltraRunning magazine
  • Karl Meltzer — RD, Speedgoat 50k; elite runner (UT)
  • Scott Mills — RD, San Diego 100
  • Bryon Powell — Editor-in-Chief, iRunFar.com
  • Joe Prusaitis — RD, Bandera 100k and other Tejas Trails events
  • Glen Redpath — elite runner (NY)
  • Brett Rivers — elite runner (CA)
  • Meredith Terranova — elite runner (TX)
  • Craig Thornley — RD, Western States 100
  • Ian Torrence — elite runner (AZ)
  • Ann Trason — elite runner (CA); RD, Overlook 100k
  • John Trent — RD, Silver State 50 Mile; President, Western States Board of Trustees
  • Joe Uhan — elite runner (OR)
  • Gary Wang — Managing Editor, realendurance.com
  • Blake Wood — Hardrock 100 Board of Directors

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

What are your thoughts on the selection process for UltraRunning magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year?

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.