No Need for Speed?

A comparative look at the top American performance in trail and road ultras.

By on January 31, 2012 | Comments

[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
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.