Aloha, TJI recently had the good fortune–ultra junkie that I am–to attend the Western States 100, Hardrock 100, and Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in the space of four weeks. There were far more similarities than differences–I came away impressed with all three events for their superb organization and the obvious good care they dole out to the runners, and even more impressed with the ineffable tenacity of the runners themselves.

I also came away with some mental notes about the dramatic differences in the courses and what they require of runners. And just how different mountain races are from normal trail races.

Western States has long been the gold standard of 100 milers–the race by which other events are measured. The Western States course offers a variety of challenges–some altitude, some rough trail, some big climbs, and usually some heat–but also has miles of pretty well-groomed trails and lengthy sections that are mildly rolling to flat and quite runnable. The main problem of the Western States course is that the runnable miles are mostly late in the game, and most of us mere mortals are pretty shot by the time that the easy sections are underfoot. Using the analogy of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Western States course is not too hard, and not too easy. It’s just about right.

Continuing with the Goldilocks analogy, there are several races that are ‘Mama Bear’ 100s–Umstead, Rocky Raccoon, maybe Javelina among them. (Here the analogy breaks down a bit, because we all know that there’s no such thing a 100 miler that’s too soft. I don’t care what Karl Meltzer says, 100 miles is, in fact, pretty damn far.) Flat-ish courses that are multiple loops are about as user-friendly as 100 miles can be made to be.

Hardrock, on the other hand, easily qualifies as a ‘Papa Bear’ race. It has severe altitude, very technical footing, exposure, several hours between aid stations, and takes many runners all day, all night, all the next day, and part of the second night to get to the finish. For most, the very high altitude is the principle challenge. It’s little wonder that nearly three quarters of the field is comprised of runners that live at high elevation. But the often-treacherous nature of the trail, the changeable weather, and the lengthy stretches between aid make the race anything but user-friendly. It does, however, offer adventure in spades and jaw-dropping scenery at every turn.

Consider my friend Andy Black. Andy has completed 18 100-mile runs without a DNF, has done the Grand Slam, and has run Western States in 21 hours–by any measure he’s an excellent ultrarunner. But he lives at sea level and, like most of us, has a job that doesn’t permit him to acclimate at high altitude for several weeks prior to a mountain run. By his own admission he’s not very good on highly technical terrain. He claims to have a weak sense of balance, and he doesn’t get a lot of practice as the trails he regularly runs on near his Oakland home are relatively well groomed. So, despite his lengthy resume, when he got into Hardrock after three years of lottery losses he was a bit intimidated.

But he was game. Andy admitted to being scared to death several times during the course of his run at Hardrock. Especially late in the race, when his coordination skills were reduced by fatigue, darkness, and sleep deprivation. He made it to the finish in 45:24–well further back in the field than his typical finish–but nonetheless counts that finish as his greatest running accomplishment.

The popularity of ‘Papa Bear’ races seems to be on the rise. It might be the simple escalation of what is considered worthy–in some minds, events need to be increasingly gnarly and epic (okay, two immensely overused words) to be meritorious. Some of that popularity is attributable to our European friends, where it seems that nearly all the significant races are difficult mountain runs. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in densely populated Europe, most of the few remaining spots with a bit of a wilderness feel are in the Alps and the Pyrenees, both very vertical places. Some of the popularity of Euro mountain races may also be attributable to the tradition (especially among the Germans and Austrians) of ‘volksmarching’–non-competitive distance walking which, carried to a somewhat illogical extreme, incorporates nicely into events like UTMB.

The skills required to do well at mountain runs are somewhat different from a more typical trail run. As you might expect, there are some runners who excel at mountain running that do less well on more runnable courses. And vice versa. Of course, speed is a good thing to have on either, but mountain running requires more dexterity and agility, and much more fearlessness. More runnable courses require fast continuous running, uninterrupted by the break of walking up a steep grade, or coasting down a long hill. Fast continuous running all sounds simple enough, but executing it is exceedingly difficult.

At the moment, Kilian Jornet stands alone at the top of the mountain-running class. He is clearly highly competitive on more runnable courses, too–witness his first- and third-place finishes at Western States–but on those courses he is not unbeatable. The Hardrock course is perfectly suited to his many skills. Like anyone he might lose if he fails to execute a good race plan, wrenches a knee, or rolls an ankle. But it’s hard to picture any other runner simply outrunning him on this kind of terrain.

With two wins and a course record at Western States, a World 100k Championship, and her recent win at Comrades, Ellie Greenwood certainly deserves to be considered the top woman in the world in the runnable-course category. But in the recent Speedgoat 50k–a mountain run in every sense of the word–she finished third behind Anna Frost and Kasie Enman, two women who specialize in mountain runs. Ellie would seem to have the skill set to excel at both types of runs but, like my friend Andy Black, she lives at sea level and has been training for speed, not for vertical.

With wins over highly competitive fields at the mountainous Speedgoat and runnable Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, Sage Canaday might be the runner most adept at both right now. In the past, Scott Jurek showed that it is possible to excel at both types of running, though perhaps not both at the same time.

Mountain runs, of course, take place in the mountains. If you live in Delaware or Florida, you’re going to have some difficulty properly preparing for Speedgoat or Jemez Mountain. (Please don’t share this notion with Billy Simpson. He lives in Memphis and somehow seems to kill it at Hardrock every year. Perhaps he is unaware that this is not possible?) That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try one. Back in my competitive days (such as they were), I was objectively much better at more runnable courses. But I liked the mountain runs. Maybe it was the scenery, maybe it was the extra challenge or the heightened sense of adventure. And, if I’m going to be honest with you, likely some of it was because I knew my mountain-running skills were weak and so my expectations were low–and I didn’t suffer (much) from the typical pre-race performance anxiety. I wasn’t going to kid myself about trying to be competitive. Mostly, I just wanted a challenge and an adventure. And a finish.

I’m not buying into the theory that gnarlier is better, because then everything would end with Barkley. (I have nothing but respect for the hardy folks who give Barkley a go, but when the winner can’t make two miles an hour, I can’t call it running either.) From a competitive standpoint, following the ‘just right’ events like Western States and Lake Sonoma is as exciting as it gets.

What I do suggest is that if you haven’t tried a real mountain race, you should consider doing so. And if you’re a mountain-goat type, try one of the many more runnable courses now and again. The experience is completely different, and it’s good to get out of your comfort zone now and again–if only to experience some true humility.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think of Tropical John’s Goldilocks analogy? What 100 milers have you run that fit into the ‘Papa Bear,’ ‘Mama Bear,’ and ‘just right’ categories?
  • And what you do you think about TJ’s analysis of certain runners’ abilities to specialize in certain race types or be able to compete across a diversity of racing conditions?
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 20 comments

  1. @WilliamsRunning

    Great article and I like the challenge at the end. We can embrace that which we are comfortable with and never truly enjoy other aspects of running. I say mix it up and have fun. My next 2 races are the Telluride Mountain Run (mini Hardrock) and 24 Hours of Boulder. Couldn't be more opposite which only adds to the intrigue.

  2. kjz

    I'm with John. I do mountain running courses because I LIKE and even LOVE them despite the fact it's killing my ultrasignup score (tongue in cheek here). I am more competitive w runnable rollers on smooth ribbons of dirt but bring on the alpine! It does take the pressure off as I'm a terrible technical downhiller but ahhh, the climbs! Yay climbing! More up hills please!

  3. @SpotZack

    Curious where he sees (and others see) Rob Krar fitting into things. WSER, UROC, R2R2R. Maybe this is just my desire to see Rob at UTMB, Speedgoat, and/or some of the other steep Euro events because in my mind he hasn't given us any reason to doubt his ability to hang with the best "mountain" runners. Personally I don't see Sage beating an in-form Rob on a medium or hard course.

  4. @DemorestCom

    Provocative, well articulated article and fun generalization, but I think the old psychology axiom applies here: "desires influence perception" in that the "just about right" for an ultra depends on a personal interpretation for what one is looking… Speed? Beauty? Difficulty? and so on. Each and every race not only carries with it the challenges of the course, but also conditions of that day like weather, injuries, psychology, and so on. I've got to go Zen here and say each individual race is what it is. Only each individual participant of each individual run can judge what "bear by the tail" one is gripping. Let the hardest, best, most perfect, most difficult, discussions and banter continue. It's all good.

  5. ertauda

    Great article. I wonder whether the same distinctions can be made with regards to the varying lengths of ultras?
    I ask because as much as someone like Sage may be able to do fast and mountainous races with great skill, he has had struggles (which he has admitted to himself, I believe) at the 100km and above distances. Whereas you have someone like Timothy Olson and Mike Foote, who seem to excel at the 100 milers, regardless of the terrain, but are not as competitive at a 50k or 50 miler.
    Interested in people's thoughts…

    1. TropicalJohn

      There's no question that different runners excel at different distances. Some of the 100 mile specialists (Scott Jurek is a good example) haven't done relatively as well at shorter ultras. Some of the speedier 50K/50 mile guys haven't done relatively as well at 100K/100 miles. While there are many similarities – being fast always helps! – there are also many differences. Fueling, for instance, is much more of an issue in the longer races.

      As for 100 miles, the jury's still out on guys like Sage and Zach Miller (and even Max King, despite his excellent 100 mile debut at WS100). They just haven't done many of the longer races. Not yet, anyway.

    2. RunningStupid

      Great point! Using John's Ellie Greenwood example, you'll see that her specialty is shorter ultras! Sure, she's smoked the 2, 100's she's run but she definitely prefers sub 100!! The reality is that it doesn't make sense for Ellie to run a race like Hardrock (I dream of seeing her on the HURT course one day but I would be upset if it happens in the next 10 years!!)! It's a different skill set between 50's and 100's!! Ellie's very good at what she does and should train for her specialties!! The same applies to Sage Canaday!!

      What I'm really interested in seeing is what an elite field will look like for longer ultras!! A few years back there were 1 or 2, 200 mile races in the US. Now, I know of at least 6!! Is it a matter of time until the speedsters start rocking multi-day runs or will a new set of longer distance elites come out of the woodwork?!? I would love to see what Timothy Olson would do at a longer event!! I'm sure Karl Meltzer would be suited for it!!

      All Day!

  6. nevtrik

    Last year top two ladies at Speedgoat (Stephanie and Jodee) were both from the sea level and they killed the course. Anna wasn't even close to their time this year. This year's course was probably 15 minutes slower and it was hotter too, but still a huge difference between winning times of 2013 and 2014. I guess reaction to the altitude is very different for each person, and Ellie clearly struggles a lot and needs more time for acclimation, but she has all skills and abilities to win it.

      1. nevtrik

        I live at.. 1000 feet probably and I don't feel 7000. I start feeling altitude at 8000, I slow down significantly and hyperventilate at 9000 . Not sure if living at 3600 is anyhow different from living at 1000 or at the sea level.

        1. rob_up40

          3600' is almost three quarters of a mile above sea level. It's not as good as front range Colorado, but much closer to that then sea level. I notice a real difference going to 12,000' from 3600' compared to when I do it from Seattle.

  7. @MelRunsUltras

    Love the analogy! Definitely agree that WS is just right in terms of variation. Got 1 poppa bear, and 1 momma bear 100 on tap for this fall (cactus rose / brazos bend) both will challenge in entirely unique an different ways.

  8. Davegmcmillan

    Great summary John. One of the best parts of trail/ultra running is the diversity of what is available to each of us as racers. I love how the likes of Sage, Mike Wardian, Ian Sharman, Max King, Krar etc. still embrace a huge range of distances, and terrain from Olympic trial road marathon qualification and Comrades to some of the gnarliest trail races. It is after all still running, whether 1 mile or 100 :-)

  9. sharmanian

    The more variety, the better, in my opinion if it's just plain running that you like. However, it's just not possible to be the best at everything at the same time, despite how much talent across the spectrum you see in guys like Rob Krar, Max King and Sage Canaday. I always admire competitive runners willing to step out their comfort zone and do races they might be as fast at, relatively – Mike Wardian's the best example of this as he'll lay down a race on any terrain or distance at the drop of a hat and do his best to win.

  10. mbonoa

    Great article! I think the person who best excels in different distances and different kinds of races is Kilian Jornet .In my humble opinion I think he is the best [ultra]trail runner of all times.

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