Time for a True Championship 100 Mile Trail Race?

Another Western States lottery has come and gone and many a top ultrarunner’s name is not to be found on […]

By on December 3, 2007 | Comments

Another Western States lottery has come and gone and many a top ultrarunner’s name is not to be found on next year’s entrants list. A number of top runners who applied for WS ’08 have expressed their disappointment in those who have not been given the opportunity to toe the line in Squaw Valley next June. Those expressing these sentiments include those who are in the race (Andy Jones -Wilkins’ thoughts on entrants) as well as those who did not make the cut (Anton Krupicka’s rant and Wynn Davis’ discussion). For better or worse, it seems the WSER Board is no longer admitting runners on the basis that they would “greatly enhance the competitive aspect of the race.” Otherwise, runners the likes of like Krupicka and Meltzer would not have been left out of the race. In light of the this, it appears time for a different 100 mile race to become the North American 100 mile trail ultra championship event. [Please note that I am no way finding fault with the WSER Board, as I’ve previously written, they quite understandably can’t please everyone at this point.]

So there’s a call for a championship 100 mile trail race. Let’s get it on. Oh wait, first lets consider what would make for a great championship. Here’s are some of my preliminary thoughts on what would make for the ultimate trail 100 championship:

  • A course consisting primarily of single track trail. That said, I don’t think an otherwise fabulous course should be discounted if it has less than 15 miles or 20 miles of double track and up to 5 miles of pavement interspersed.
  • A point-to-point, out and back, or nor more than two loop course.
  • Roughly between 15,000′ and 20,000′ of climb. Any less and it’s a speed burners course, but any more and it to heavily favors a mountain specialist.
  • An average elevation of a mile or less with little time spent above 10,000′. While I thoroughly enjoy races with some altitude, it’s not feasible for some very talented runners to adequately acclimatize for a race like Leadville or even Wasatch. Let people spend their time training for the race, not worrying about taking two weeks vacation in order to adjust to the altitude. (says the man who wants to run Hardrock next year!).
  • The trail should only be moderately technical – in other words, not H.U.R.T. or Massanutten.
  • The race should be an official race with aid stations and the like. Best to leave the competition to the racers rather than being based on an expert crew. (I am not advocating no crew. While crewing is difficult, it is a wonderful way to include loved ones in an event that means so much to the runner.)
  • Guaranteed entry spots for at least 50 top men and 30 top women. [How these folks are determined is best left to another post.] Maybe a few extra spots for dark horses such as cross over marathoners, triathletes, or adventure racers with fewer or no ultrarunning credentials.
  • Inclusion of non-elites in the race. Make this race part of the ultra community at large.
  • Accordingly, space for at least 300 entrants, but preferably 500.

Here’s a quick wish list items if I were pulling together this 100 mile championship:

  • Cash money. The recent North Face 50 mile championship showed that big money can bring out big guns who race ultras less frequently. I want to see the top talent whatever their motivation. Big money for the winner and while I’m dreaming cash 10 deep. Give runners not interested in the cash the option to donate it to a designated trail foundation or conservation cause. Most of my beliefs are quite mutable and that is particularly true regarding my initial take on what would make a great 100 mile trail championship. On the issue of prize money, a wise doctor of mountainology has steered me in the right direction. No prize money at the championship. I decided to write on this topic after hearing that the top ultra talents want to face off against one another and with the additional knowledge that many who finish behind these studs and studettes would love for there to be such a race. I suppose I was tainted by the recent 50 mile showdown between Uli and Carpenter that cold hard cash made possible. Forget that. What is obvious with the history of North American ultrarunning is that cash is not king. The top ultra dogs, whether road or trail centric, show up year after year at the most competitive races while foregoing some others that do have prize money. Clearly, many would jump at the chance to see how they can do against most or all of the nation’s (and maybe world’s) best. From what I can tell, the vast majority of top competitors at the recent $10,000 North Face race have showed up to other competitive ultras for nothing more than the fulfillment gained from racing their asses off. More road focused marathoners and ultrarunners have also stepped up to the challenge offered by the likes of Western States to see if they could accept the challenge of the trail. That, not money, is the right motivation. (I am, however, willing to concede a free entry to the winner into the following year’s race. ;-) )
  • Easy access to a major airport or two. Lets make this as easy as possible for competitors. The start and finish should be within roughly two hours of at least one major airport. A surprisingly large number of major 100s fit this criteria. Instantly, I can think of Angeles Crest, Cascade Crest, Leadville, Massanutten, San Diego, and Wasatch.
  • Don’t interfere with tradition. With the caveat that slots will be reserved for top runners, I think it would be a mistake to permanently designate a long-standing race which already fills up as the championship. Why step on the toes of an existing ultrarunning subcommunity when there are so many other options out there either at a newer race or at a start up.
  • Likewise, don’t directly conflict with what I consider the big three 100s – Western States, Hardrock, and Wasatch. Schedule the championship so that a top runner could race the championship as well as any of these three races. That most likely means the championship would be in May, August, or early-October. I would be most willing to conflict with Hardrock only because it is so different and allows so few runners.
  • A long lead time. If such a race were to take place in 2008, it should pop up on the radar now. There are too many other 2008 races for which entry will soon close and, accordingly, for which top runners are already entering. Western States is already on some calendars. As of later today, so will Massanutten. Not far down the road are Wasatch and Hardrock. If this race doesn’t immediately make itself known for 2008, it should schedule itself for 2009.
  • [Edit: Added 12/4 9 am] Official, non exclusive sanctioning of the event. It would be great to unite the championship title. Get the Road Runners Club of America (yeah, the RRCA sanctions a 100 mile ultra championship) and USATF on board… though the USATF needs to change their policy and remove membership as a requirement for official placing at its events. I won’t digress re USATF membership issues – though such issues exist. Include the race as a championship in some sponsored trail series. Unify the title. Make the race THE championship.

In pondering what would make a great 100 mile trail championship race, I found myself looking back at Western States and thinking about how many of its aspects make it a great championship race including reasonable elevation, climb, and footing; a large
field; good crew access; and it’s an easy travel destination. It also has the benefits of being steeped in tradition and the self-perpetuating promise of a good field with automatic reentry to the Top 10 finishers.

Out of existing races, I think Tahoe Rim would make a great championship race. Although I haven’t run it, I believe it’s a double out and back with reasonable climb at a decent elevation with only moderately technical trails. There is good airport access via Reno. It’s an established race, so most of the kinks should be worked out, but new enough that there’s not a huge community of runners in the 100 that the championship would be intruding upon. [Edit – remainded of paragraph added 12/4 9 am] Oh, and as reminded by Sean Meissner (it was late when I finished posting), Tahoe Rim 100 is already the 2008 Road Runners Club of America 100 mile championship and is also still in the running to be the 2008 USATF 100 mile championship, which it was in 2007.

What aspects do you think would make for an idea 100 mile trail championship race? Have a particular race in mind?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.