No Need for Speed?

[The following is Ben Nephew’s take on top men’s American performance in trail and road ultras. Look for future editorial content from Ben under the column Wide Angle Lens.]

Wide Angle LensYou can run, and you can also hide, but neither will prevent the return of speed into US ultrarunning. This is not a new development, and we still aren’t at the level of performance from the 70’s and 80’s on the men’s side. I’m not going to go into detail on the incredible performances of the past as they are documented by the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame and on Ultrarunning’s All-Time North American list.

Although women have had a somewhat consistent progression of faster times over the past 30-40 years, on the road US ultra men have gotten slower over the years with a few notable exceptions. Recent results suggest that this trend may be reversing. In terms of general participation, trail ultras are growing while road ultras are not as popular as they were in the past. Some would claim that this trend is also seen in competitive ultrarunning, but it is hard to ignore the recent successes of the US men’s and women’s 100k teams as well as the pile of recent remarkable road performances. It is interesting to note that female ultrarunners have consistently excelled on both roads and trails over the years, while the men have been more likely to specialize in one discipline. The strangest gender difference in trail ultra running is with speed. Ann Trason, Ellie Greenwood, Kami Semick, Devon Crosby-Helms, Lizzie Hawker, Nikki Kimball, and Anne Lundblad all have exhibited exceptional talent at shorter distances. With the men, the top road and trail runners are still mostly segregated.

It is possible that male ultrarunning may continue to be segregated, but we will still see times dropping on trails and roads. There have been numerous CR’s in trail races over the past 2-3 years, and it is becoming common to see 50 milers at 6 hours or faster and 100’s with CR’s under 15 hours. On the roads, there were a pile of sub 5:40 50 milers in 2011, and you now have to run a sub 7-hour 100k to make the US national team. Not surprisingly, many of these runners are quite fast at sub-ultra distances, and are likely to include a decent amount of speedwork in their training. The exclamation point to all this was JFK, where the 17-year-old course record was soundly beaten by both David Riddle and Michael Wardian, and the women’s record survived a major scare from Cassie Scallon.  There is no reason to believe that the fastest road men can’t be the fastest trail runners, as with the women.  However, we may only see evidence of this introduction of speed into trail ultras at trail races if trail athletes improve their speed but have no interest in road events. The performances by Mike Wolfe and Dakota Jones in the Marin Headlands were impressive, and in their post-race interviews they both implied that they specifically focused on shorter distance workouts in preparation for the race.

While there are certain skills that are needed to do well at trail races, the importance of the abilities to run technical trails or climb and descend are often exaggerated. By definition, 50 milers with course records under 7 hours and 100 milers with course records under 16 hours are not on “difficult” terrain with the terrain or hills probably not presenting much of a challenge to someone with a fast marathon time. Fueling is a significant factor; especially with 100’s, but runners that excel at road 50’s are likely to do well at trail events of a similar distance. If you have never run a road 50 and think that road runners don’t have the leg strength for a hilly trail 50 miler, you are probably wrong. You need legs of steel to maintain a decent pace (as in not walking) over the last 10 miles of a road 50, and I have no idea how you survive another 12 miles on asphalt. In addition, technical trail running, climbing, and descending are certainly skills that can be improved with practice. Many of the major US trail ultras are run relatively easy terrain or at least on terrain that not difficult enough to keep a fast road runner behind a strong trail runner.

There is hope for those not gifted with speed and/or unwilling to train at a faster pace once in a while, however. Focus on races with extreme amounts of climbing, maybe at altitude, or on ridiculously technical trails, and don’t tell your fast friends about those races. Definitely stick to 100 milers. Racing through deserts, or underwater would probably work, sometimes.

Many have wondered what would happen if faster runners started running ultras. Look around and see the course’s dropping like flies? It’s already happening, and it’s only going to get worse, I mean better, I think.

Call for Comments
Let’s use Ben’s commentary as the basis for a civil discussion of the current state of ultrarunning. Some of the relevant topics have been discussed, but in a scattered fashion under random topics. Here, we bring them together under one roof. Again, keep it civil and above the belt… in appropriate comments will not be tolerated.

  • A decent proportion of America’s (and the world’s) top women ultrarunners on the trail have made the US 100k team, while very few trail/mountain specialists from the men’s ranks have done the same despite many having excelled at races like the American River 50. Is this mostly due to lack of interest or is there that much more specialization required to make the men’s 100k team? Could the likes of Dave Mackey, Geoff Roes, and Anton Krupicka make the team if they focused on it?
  • What’s the most difficult (terrain/footing-wise) 100 miler that a road/flat ultra specialist is likely to excel (go top 3?) at?
  • What accounts for the general decline in interest and broader performance level in American road ultrarunning over the past 30 years?
Ben Nephew

is an 11 time winner and course record holder at the Escarpment Trail Race. He has PR's of 3:10 for 50k and 5:47 for 50 miles and holds the fastest known times for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse, the Devil's Path in the Catskills, and the Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains. He has been running in INOV-8's since 2004, and is also sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

There are 38 comments

  1. KenZ

    Ben, what do you think about the applicability of the VDOT prediction tables for at least road ultras, if not (relative) performance for trails? Yes, a 5k is definitely different than, say, a marathon, and the training involved is different, but I've been surprised at how well the VDOT method can predict one's performance at vastly different distances, under the assumption that one then trains properly for each of them.

    Now, I totally get that in a 50 miler or greater, there are other factors to be considered, such as a larger focus on nutrition, electrolytes, etc, but… once those are learned and trained for, wouldn't someone who's super fast in a 5k, who then performs similarly well/fast in a marathon, be able to perform in a commensurate fashion in a 50 miler? And would that translate to the 100 miler? I'm talking about running speed/talent capability here, and trying to avoid insertion of AJW's grit discussion, which should be left in that column's comments.

    What I'm getting at is, if you think there's some validity to the VDOT-ish extrapolation of finishing times over wider distances than the current VDOT metric includes. If so, that would indicate to me at least that ultra times will continue to get faster as the field continues to broaden over the next few decades.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I think that VDOT, or times a shorter distances, will predict times up to 100k for most courses, but it's hard to say if that will hold true with longer races due to variations in courses a lack of research. Just look at Comrades too see how predictive shorter performances are.

      The assumption that one trains properly is key here, and I think a lot of the discussions on this topic are confounded by that assumption not being met. In general, with trail ultras, a combination of course variability and lack of data make it hard to identify trends, so people end up talking about anecdotes.

  2. adamiata


    I have to question you on the value of hill climbing strength and technical trail running ability. I've tried and failed to go sub-3:00 in a road marathon, and sub-4:00 in a flat trail 50k, yet I'm within 20 minutes of your 6:26 Pemi Loop time. Jan Wellford is another good example. I'm sure your marathon and 50k PRs are substantially faster than anything I could hold a candle to, so how could mountain runners from a hiking/mountaineering background compete without the benefit of any significant track and field or road running training?


    Adma Wilcox

    1. Ben Nephew

      Hi Adam,

      Based on what I wrote at the end, we agree. I think my argument holds true for dozens of ultras, but there exceptions to everything. I can't think of two more extreme outliers than the Pemi Loop and the Great Range. We both know that people who are considered great trail runners have serious issues on those trails. Those are two trails where the hills and technical footing will likely be more important than speed. I think you and Jan are great examples of runners who have found events that suit their strengths perfectly.

      This also brings up the issue of effort put towards faster events. Can you say that you've spent as much time trying to run a fast flat time as you have spent hiking and trail running? Maybe you have, but it is very possible for someone to have a good deal of talent to run fast, but they may rarely run road races. I've been training with a guy who is focused on 100 milers this year, and he just told me he ran an 8 mile tempo run at under 6:00 pace with three miles at about 5:30. On separate day, he ran a 400 in 64. He also has one of the most ridiculous course records I've ever seen on a very technical route.

      Similar to some of the comments below, I think part of the answer to your question is related to the young nature of those types of challenges. With several 3 hour races and FKT's I have dropped 10-15 minutes off my time with a second solo run. On something like the Pemi Loop, though, the risk involved is probably a big factor as well. As the records for very difficult routes get faster, it is going to get increasingly dangerous. Maybe not big wall solo dangerous, but getting a helicopter ride off the Pemi isn't as cheap as it used to be!

  3. Ed

    I do agree.

    I want to see what would happen if some Kenyans trained for ultras. I think its likely us normal/non-Kenyan/non-Ethiopian folk would struggle to keep up.

    Then again in long 100milers and even 50milers there's more to it than just being physically fit, there's a huge mental side to it.

    Thank god there's no money in the sport eh?


  4. Alex from New Haven

    Good provocative article.

    Social Data: Every ultra runner I know (mostly No. CA and CT) does speed work (even if grudgingly) with their club.

    I think that a part (certainly not all) of this gender effect is the difference in depth at the "Elite" level. I think there is enough additional depth in international Elite male ultra events that "specializing" your training and racing is the difference between medaling and not.

    Take someone with a track/marathon/World XC CV like Max King; he doesn't just walk away with WTC50k or AR50. Wardian does spectacular things on road and while his UROC and JFK show he's got range, he's still not a threat to win HR100, UTMB, WS etc. Maybe he could be, but perhaps not while simultaneously maintaining solid shape for the marathon. There's no shortage of men's VO2max and marathon pedigree at the starting line of any "name" ultra these days. I don't know how many times someone has said "My friend from Stanford etc who ran 28:50 for 10k is doing Miwok and he's going to crush EVERYONE." Guess what? No he didn't.

    I think this slight difference in depth allows (with huge training, great commitment, iron will, and overall badassery) some women to take top honors in both road and trail in the same season.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I don't think that it is depth issue, I think it is more related to personal choices as to which events to focus on. If there were more top men who actually trained and raced several trail and road ultras, we would see something similar to women. If you just look at US men, there seems to be support for the argument that men need to specialize at the elite level, but many of the European runners that do well at the 100's are very fast at races of 20-30 miles or shorter.

      No one would argue that speed is going to get you a win in a 100 without proper training. The argument is that given two runners with equal training, the runner that is faster at shorter distances is more likely to win. With 100's trying to correlate mile times and 100 mile times probably won't work out, but more reasonable comparisons are likely.

      Max King is a perfect example of the importance of training for an ultra. He has improved greatly at the 50k, and I doubt he would tell you he did the appropriate training for AR50. Max trained specifically for mountain running this year, and it worked out well. There are no guarantees, though, as Paul Low was the best US mountain runner for several years, but did not have much luck with ultra length runs.

      It just seems to me like there are so many more women who are interested in both trail 100's and the 100k team. The male equivalent of Nikki Kimball would be Anton or Geoff making the 100k team.

  5. Reid L.

    Admittedly, this comment is not directly relevant to speed, but regards the following statement.

    "By definition, …100 milers with course records under 16 hours are not on 'difficult' terrain with the terrain or hills probably not presenting much of a challenge to someone with a fast marathon time."

    Consider the

    Leadville 100: CR=15:42, vertical gain=15,600 ft (at +9000 ft altitude)

    Western States 100: CR=15:07, vertical gain=18,100 ft.

    Are the paths on which these two 100s are run pretty smooth? Thereby lowering their difficulty (despite elevation gain and/or overall average elevation)?

    I'm thinking of some lowland 100s with CRs at 16+ and elevation gain comparable to above (e.g., Massanutten & the relatively new Pinhoti). Are the trails on these that much more technical? Is that what slows the "fasties" down?



    1. AJW


      LT and WS are relatively smooth trails (compared to HRH, MMT, etc…) but not as tame as JJ or RR (IMO). My view is that those two CR's are truly amazing and stand, at least at this point (along with the HRH and AC CR's), as the stoutest CR's in Ultrarunning.

    2. speedgoatkarl

      MMT is very technical, and yes it slows us down,so the record there being sub 18 is very fast, that I can assure you. The record at Pinhoti, now 1640 ish could go lower, under 16. What slows us down there is not the technicality, but it's twisty and turny most of the time, it's hard to get in a rythym for many parts of it. WS also has 22000' of drop, so it's a downhill course, and it's very smooth most of the way, especially the end. Leadville is also smooth.

    3. Bryon Powell

      Both the Western States and Leadville courses are run on minimally technical trail… at their hardest. I'm pretty sure I've worn road shoes for both races (I have at WS and am pretty sure I did at LT in '06) and am considering wearing road racing flats at Leadville this year despite never having worn racing flats in even a marathon. (I'll grant that 10 of the first 15 miles of WS last year were "technical" due to shear ice, but I'd not heard of that before.)

      As for Massanutten, it's stupid technical. I've enjoyed some short runs in the Massanuttens, including some pacing gigs at the 100, but it's technical enough that I've got zero interest in ever running the 100. As they say, Massanutten rocks!


    4. Brad Koenig


      You ask if the trails at MMT are that much more technical, and if that is what slows the “fasties” down?

      Take a look at this pic of Neal Gorman just past Edinburg Gap on the MMT course (mile 12ish)…

      Petty much the entire MMT course is like that picture (except for a few miles, here and there). I'm not exaggerating.

      1. Brad Koenig

        Actually, Neal Gorman is a great person to look at in comparing race times at those courses, as he ran both Leadville (acclimated!) and MMT last year. 17:48 (3rd) vs 19:40 (2nd)

  6. Matt Smith

    Ian Sharman's RR100 was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what 'fast' road runners can do in a trail ultra. Ryan Hall's upcoming attempt at the R2R2R should be another eye opener.

    It seems that some people are drawn to trail running because of a perceived lack of a serious competitive atmosphere. That is certainly changing for some races, but statements by some of the top US trail runners leave room for interpretation…

    While this could easily turn into a discussion about DNFs and 'pushing the limits of performance', it's hard to ignore the 'just enjoy the day in the mountains' attitude of many trail ultra runners.

    The issue of prize money must also play into the relative speed between road marathons and ultras. For $200,000, many Kenyans are willing to lay it on the line and run a 2:04 road marathon – I doubt they'd put in as much effort in a trail ultra for a nifty t-shirt, shiny plaque and post-race meal. Competition for its own sake will only take the sport so far.

  7. Jason Bryant

    Interesting discussion. It will also be interesting to see how our sport changes over the next 10 years with the increased participation and introduction of greater prize purses. Personally, I think there are certain variations of skills for sub-ultra versus ultra distances as well as road versus trail. It is not all a matter of "faster" guys moving to ultras or trails. I do believe speed is an asset. I keep some speed workouts in my personal training. But my personal skills are in climbing and technical. Whether the race is short mountain or ultra, I can race with guys I couldn't touch on the road. That difference was immediately evident at my first mountain race and my first ultra. I am a far better trail ultra person versus road ultra. Some have seemed to think I haven't tried or trained to run faster 5K to marathon times, but that's not true. Privately, I always wonder why guys slow down so much on technical trails. For example in a discussion with a sub-14 5K friend, he described a certain pace on a trail as 5:30 pace effort. I have only broke 17 for 5K twice and I described the same pace on that trail as 6:30 pace effort. In addition, my personal best of 1:06:13 at Mt. Washington Road Race doesn't fit with my 5K PR or 1:18 half-marathon when compared to other runners who have run around that time. I believe there is a difference in running talents beside pure speed. That said, I assume some runners should have a high mix of both speed and technical trail ability or climbing ability (Example: Jonathan Wyatt). Maybe as more runners with speed try the ultra distances and technical trails, some will have a high combination of speed and endurance/technical ability. Time will tell.

    1. Anonymous


      I bet you could run your 5k – marathon PR's all on hilly, technical trail and throw down some very fast times! I've witnessed first hand your prowessness in the woods. I do agree with you, not every fast road runner can run fast on technical trails and vice versa. Personally I'm a jack of all ultra trades, master of none.


      No truer words have been written than when you said, "You need legs of steel to maintain a decent pace (as in not walking) over the last 10 miles of a road 50, and I have no idea how you survive another 12 miles on asphalt."I muttered this many times after I finished the Chicago 50 Miler…. thinking how in the heck my wife could have done all those road 100k's and now she is doing all the 24 hr racing.


      1. Hone


        Funny you mentioned the Lakefront 50. That is the most painful race I have ever run. I ran that race in 2006 or 2007. I flew in to Chicago from Alaska for the race. All of my training was 100 percent mountains. I cruised through the marathon feeling awesome and at mile 35 I sat down on the curb and prayed for death (not really). My legs were done and I had to pretty much walk it in to the finish. I have huge respect for road ultras. The pain I suffered that day still haunts my dreams. HA!

        Ben- great post.

    2. Ben Nephew

      Hi Jason,

      A Dave Dunham analysis of Washington times vs. road PR's would probably reveal that you are a human outlier. Gates is not a 59 half guy, and I don't remember Wyatt laying down a 56 anywhere! Your spread is more impressive, though. Sandbagger.

      Washington is actually a bad example for the value of climbing strength being more of a factor than road PR. The last 3-4 US mountain teams, which have been so successful, have incredibly fast PR's.

      The trails where you excel don't seem to be common in many major ultras, and it will be interesting to see if the CR's from some of the faster courses drop in the near future.

  8. Roland

    Given the emergent nature of the complexion of trail ultramarathon distance competitions, it is to be expected that specialists will dominate…. for a while. As more and more fast ultramarathon roadies train for and enter trail events it seems clear that finishing times will decline and course records will be challenged as these athletes have established their abilities in holding very fast pace for the longer distances. Adding significant and superior technical competence on the trails will be straight forward for some and, with focus (for these accomplished athletes), at least competitive ability should be attainable for most.

    Perhaps a good analogy here is to the beginnings of competitive mountain biking in the late 80's and early 90's. The specialists dominated in the early competitions (through the 1990 worlds in Durango) but as the bike roadie crowd took notice of the sport (and the attendant sponsorships available) and began competing, they essentially took over in the course of about 3 years. The erstwhile "specialists" stood amazed at how fast one could actually race on "technical" courses and suddenly road bike workouts (and road races in the off season) became an integral part of any competitive cross country mountain bike training program. It is not too big a stretch to assert that something similar could happen in trail ultras and that we might just be witnessing the beginnings of a transition. I hope so.

    1. MikeC

      I would agree with this. The fastest guys in the future(not too far off) will train hard on the roads/track and also be technically proficient like Mt. bikers. Good analogy.

      Tailoring the ratio of track/road/tempo work with technical trail miles to a specific race I think is where this is heading.

  9. Jay

    As for point 3, this doesn't answer the question, but I think it broadens the discussion. I was recently reading Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run (aka Racing the Antelope) and he quotes Kevin Setnes on the state of marathon racing (book was published in 2001):

    "…runners today are way behind their predecessors 15 years ago. Boston's tenth American finisher today would have been hundredth in the mid-80s. In 1983 I was the 51st American in the Duluth marathon, in 2:25. This past weekend an eleven minute slower time got tenth place."

    Obviously the recent Olympic marathon trials show that this is changing.

    My point is simply that perhaps the trend you describe Ben, is a broader one in American men's running in general and not just ultras.

  10. tinog

    Very interesting discussion,

    In brief, I cannot help but thinking that the golden days of us "slow asses" is coming to an end.

    I agree with most (or some) comments that the main factors determining the trend in current CR improvements in trail ultras is the increasing depth of the field. True that some CR's are getting old, but mostly on races in which either the race is unable to naturally accommodate a deep field, either for entry requirements (HR) or because the race is not "fashionable" enough. It would not surprise me at all that CR of main races (WS, RR, TNF50, JFK50, UROC, etc…) will keep falling one year after the other.

    Besides, I don't really think that the "technical" aspects of ultra-running are gonna keep the fast guys from winning most races (especially considering that most trail races here in the US are not that technical at all). These "technical" aspects are just a matter of practice. It wouldn't take much time to a willing runner to overcome any limitations he/she may have. I am sure that according to your own experiences you would agree on that.

    At the end of the day, time will tell. Time for the fast guys to adapt their training regimens and race schedules to the special requirements of ultras (here I mean 100 milers and beyond); and time for the new generations to come to hit the scene. I'm not talking only about Kenyan pearls misled by some sponsor to neglect the money in road races and turn into ultras; nor about Dakota Jones and some other talented athletes who just happened to run races every now and then; but mostly about the unknown youngsters that are still in their teens and have been on the trails for 4,5,6 or more years, making their bodies as economical as we ever dreamed…When these "natural-born"(= trained from childhood) bastards hit their trails in their twenties, it will be time for most of us to step over and clap….I firmly believe that the anchor effect of people like Kilian is populate our trail scene with natural ultra-runners who are going to take the sport to another level. In the Andorra Ultra-trail weekend in Europe a couple of years ago, I was stunned to see 11-12 year old kids running 21 km / 2000 mt elevation in really technical trail (I mean REALLY technical trail) in less than 2 hours!!!! 2 hours!!! I am talking here of not 1, but at least 4 (one of them a girl) kids, none of them with any hair in their chins….

    Good luck in case you're over 21 right now….

  11. Ben Nephew

    It's much broader than that. There seems to be a consensus that all the crazy marathon times are due to the lack of money in track, resulting in faster guys moving up to the marathon sooner and in greater numbers. For those who only follow ultra running, 4 guys broke 2:05 in a single race recently. I was getting a bit excited about US marathoning, before I read about the Dubai race.

    Bernd is a very smart runner, and scientist. His story of drinking diet cranberry juice as his only fuel at an ultra by mistake is hilarious.

    1. Jay

      Interesting. I hadn't heard that about track. Follow the money.

      And yes, the Dubai race and other recent marathons have been stunning.

  12. Ben Nephew

    I run much faster at the end of mountainous 6 hr runs than I do at the end of a road 50, and I don't want to cut my legs off at the end of a trail run, either. For the Chicago race, you are actually on concrete, right?

    I am unable to comprehend how Wardian does 2:20 and 2:30 marathons back to back.

    1. Ryne

      The Chicago spring edition is a mix of gravel path and paved path. Probably about 50/50 split. I believe the fall edition that has both the 50 miler and 50k is mostly all pavement.


  13. Alex from New Haven

    Ben, thanks for writing back:

    I guess my axiomatic argument is: talent is multidimensional. Usain bolt isn't going to win the mile. David Rudisha isn't going to win a 10k ever. Wardian and Ian Sharman might just be 2% better at flat stuff. This is why RR100 blew everyone's mind; how could a 10th place WS guy run 12:44? Or conversely, why didn't Tony run 12-flat.

    I'm not confident that AK or GR or Kilian J COULD medal at WC100k even if they tried. Are either capable of running <2:19 marathon? Could they beat Wardian at 50k road in like <2:50 or 100k <6:40? And thus, from their point of view, working backwards, why would they invest many months of training away from their beloved mountains and the enormous sponsor/public interest that goes along with doing what they're already doing?

    My claim is that the top American ultra women are SO talented relative to the next standard deviation down that they can they can 1. make and 2. podium at both trail and road events and -so- are interested in them BECAUSE they have the potential to do well. Would Devon, Aborgast etc have trained so much for the marathon if the OT-qual was 2:35 and totally out of reach?

    We do what we love and what we are praised/rewarded for doing. There is just so little social incentive or them to do it.

    1. Ben Nephew

      There seems to be very little data on the potential success of trail men at road events and vice versa. Did the women that came from trail backgrounds really know they would do well at the road 100k, or were they just more willing to try? Using your rationale of why do it if you have no shot of medaling, why bother with UTMB?

      RR is a road race compared to WS,despite the fact that Kilian thinks that WS is like a road race. Ian is a pretty fast road guy that ran fast on 100 mile course that is very road like. Tony runs up and down mountains, and doesn't train specifically for flat races.

      The women's trials standard is softer than the mens, but I think that is separate issue than the women doing trail and road 100k. Would the men really be interested in the 100k team if they thought they could medal? The more likely scenario seems to be road men racing more trail events.

      How would the top trail men know they couldn't podium? Some of the men have certainly run fast at White River, American River, etc. The fact that some may have no interest in road events is insignificant in many respects. It is obvious that running a 50 miler with 10k feet of climbing in 6:20 is going to involve quite a few very fast miles.

      I'm just not convinced the women do it just because they know they will do well. Many of the top women are sponsored by companies that have little interest in roads.

      1. Alex from New Haven

        Thanks again for writing back. Good discussion.

        You bring up a good point about women doing the races in spite of little sponsor or (American) public interest.

        This all got me poking around in the history books.

        The Japanese man who ran 6:13 100k was a 2:10 Marathoner

        The Japanese woman who ran 6:30 100k was a 2:26 and had a bronze medal at the WC marathon.

        So basically the WR at 100k came from the equivalent of top of current US Pro marathoning.

        Don Ritchie was a 2:19 marathoner, 2:50 50k, ~4:50 50miler, and 11:30 100 mile.

        1. Ben Nephew

          That women's WR is unreal, even for a 2:26 marathoner. I found this random ultrarunning website that listed runners PR's and also had links to frequent competitors for a specific runner. I started searching for a couple Comrades runners, and every single linked runner had impressive PR's for shorter distances.

          Maybe peer pressure comes into play with the women? They all seem to convince each other to give road running a shot.

          Women not only do it in spite of the lack of interest or sponsorship, they do things like give up Salomon sponsorship before the have anything else lined up. I'm trying to think of a male who would give up a Salomon team spot because they wanted to focus more on roads. Personally, I'd just run some local trail races and give Salomon the impression that they were major championships! I'm sure Devon will do great with North Face, and it's exciting that she is heading over to do Two Oceans and Comrades.

  14. Ryne


    A few do. At the recent Commonwealth Championships in Wales last fall a few runners from Zambia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Zimbabwe were there for the 55km trail event. Results won't yield anything spectacular as a challenging day led to many DNF's but in chatting with a few of them and their training they run sub 3 hours for 50km on a training run and really don't think too much of that at all.

    I guess another example is looking at results from Comrades. Last year Ellie went through Polly Shotts (the uphill year) which is right around the 50 mile mark in 5:59 and was in 82nd place overall in the race. Very few races in North America where 10 people crack the 6 hour 50 mile barrier let alone 82!


  15. Joel Aaron

    'In brief, I cannot help but thinking that the golden days of us “slow asses” is coming to an end.'

    No! Just move on to longer distances! Isn't that how the slow-asses ended up in 100s in the first place? :)

    1. Ben Nephew

      This brings up a good point, differentiating trails from roads. While I do think that leg speed will be a significant factor as trail ultrarunner progresses on almost all courses, it is important to have championship trail races be distinct enough so that trail running strengths actually make a difference. There isn't much point in having major trail championships be similar to road races.

  16. Kristian

    Very interesting discussion. Several comments mention that the way you train obviously is different depending wether you are training for a trail 110 miler or a road marathon. This blurs the initial question a little in mind. There should be no doubt, that neither Anton Krupicka, Geof Roes, Kilian Jornet or any other long distance trail runner would stand a chance in any large road marathon. To me the intriguing question is (and I hope this doesn't sound childish):

    If he decided to skip the olympic marathon this year – How would Haile Gebreselassi do in Western States?

    Any thoughts?

  17. Peter Bronski

    I don't know the immediate answer to this question, but I wonder what lessons we might learn from the triathlon community. Before getting into trail ultras, I competed in Xterra off-road triathlons, and had several friends who competed in "conventional" triathlons. In my experience and by observation, especially at the elite amateur and pro level, there is very little overlap of athletes. They tend to specialize in either the off-road or on-road version of the sport. But what if we pitted Xterra triathletes against on-road athletes in an Olympic distance tri (roughly the same distance as a standard Xterra), and vice versa? Obviously, mountain bike handling, climbing, and trail technicality skills would come into play, but how would on-road athletes "hang" with off-road athletes in the mountains? And how would off-road athletes "hang" at faster road speeds…on both the bike and on foot?

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