Open Season (Or Is It The Endless Season?)

AJWs TaproomBack when I lived in California I made the annual pilgrimage to Cool, California to run the Way Too Cool 50k every March. I remember one year, I think around 2004, I was hanging around the finish line with Tim Tweitmeyer and talking about the race. For us, at least those of us for whom the Western States 100 was the annual focus race, Way Too Cool (or Cool Canyon Crawl as the real old-timers called it) was always the “season opener.” It gave us the opportunity to run on some of our favorite trails in pretty nice weather and, best of all, to re-connect with all the people who we had missed hanging out with during the long, dark, lonely winter months.

Last weekend the annual season-opener took place once again. This time, under ideal conditions, Gary Gellin and Tyler Stewart, two Northern Californians, set new Way Too Cool course records and hundreds of people enjoyed the splendor and beauty of some of America’s most storied trails. In addition, Northern California legend Rich Hanna made a comeback of sorts finishing second in a blazing time over his backyard trails. By all accounts, it was another great day at Way Too Cool. But was it, truly, the season opener? Is there, in fact, an off-season any more? And, if there is, does Cool still represent the early pre-season tune-up of choice?

When you think about it, the ultrarunning season really hasn’t stopped. Ever since The North Face targeted the first week of December as their Championship date and Bandera 100k became the premier winter Western States qualifier in January, runners have simply kept going. Add to that the HURT 100 in January and the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February and there really is no rest for the weary. Or is there? Is the key to ultrarunning success these days not what races you run but rather, what races you don’t run? And, if this is the case, how do racers choose?

Clearly, come the Ides of March, regardless of what you’ve done (or not done) all winter, it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and pin on a number. And now, in addition to Way Too Cool, the best runners in the country are finding their way to an ever-growing list of outstanding 50k races to test their early-season mettle and to get after it.

At the top of that list this year is Krissy Moehl’s showcase event, the Chuckanut 50k. This coming weekend, all eyes turn to Bellingham, Washington for what will certainly be the biggest and most competitive 50k race this country has ever seen. Krissy’s impeccable attention to detail combined with an expanded field and a general friskiness in the ultramarathon ranks has set this up to be a special one and Bryon will be there, of course, to give us the play-by-play. In addition, coming out of the race we’ll have a pretty good bead on who is in form going into the longer events of April and May.

But, back to the endless season. What is the ultimate takeaway from having so many events with so many runners taking people to so many places across the country for so many months? To be honest, I am of two minds on this one. On the one hand, it is wonderful that there are so many opportunities for people to enjoy beautiful trails in beautiful places doing what they love. On the other end, I worry that the competitive aspect of the sport and the shared camaraderie of competition may be watered down in the process. The Cool/Chuckanut situation is a good example. This year, clearly, the more competitive field is assembled at Chuckanut. Does that mean it’s a better race? I’m not sure. But, what it does mean is that, over the course of an eight-day period in the middle of March, more than 1,600 people will toe the line at trail 50k’s in the western United States. From wherever you stand, that has to be a good thing. The rest, I suppose, will take care of itself.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Russian River Pliny the ElderThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from the renowned Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa, California. I was originally intending on making the trip there this past weekend while in California for Way Too Cool but was distracted with knee surgery. Fortunately, my good friend and pacer Scott Wolfe (aka MonkeyBoy) from Bend, Oregon was going to be there so I sent him the following text:

“MonkeyBoy, you HAVE to head over to Russian River Brewing. I’d love a review of Pliny the Elder.”

The resulting review is contained herein, enjoy!

I think FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) drives a lot of the popularity of this California IPA. Much celebrated by mostly East Coast-biased beer reviewers, Pliny the Elder serves notice that you can have a very smooth, drinkable experience with a very popular California Double IPA and still feel like you have satisfied your Kraft Beer jones. Fairly light for a Double IPA, especially when compared with Ninkasi Tricerahops Double IPA. Pliny has a very lemony, almost piney, smell to it during the pour. Small head and good color. This beer is intended to be enjoyed soon after distribution is made available. I sampled Pliny from the tap brewed on March 2nd and Pliny bottled on February 16th versions of the Elder and could tell little difference in the taste or presentation. Carbonation, pour, and color was consistent with both.

Overall, a decent IPA. I have a 3-tap kegerator at the house and this wouldn’t make my Top 5 IPA’s in Bend, much less the rest of Oregon. The Imperial IPA’s from Hopworks, Bend Brewing, Boneyard and Ninkasi tend to lend shape to most of my kraft-beer epiphanies. Overall, I’d say Pliny the Elder is pretty mediocre compared to Oregon IPA’s. I guess if you have to buy beer in California, though, this is not a bad choice. If you really want to talk about IPA, give Hopworks Ace of Spades, Ninkasi Tricerahops or BBC’s Hophead a try and see if you are still as enamored with Pliny the Elder as you were before your Oregon IPA experience.

– Scott Wolfe

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What are your thoughts on the now seemingly endless competitive ultrarunning season? Does it keep you excited about the sport through the winter? Are there negative repercussions?
  • If you take a break, what race traditionally kicks off your new season?
  • If there’ s a break on the big calendar, has Chuckanut supplanted Way Too Cool as the season opener?

There are 12 comments

  1. art

    one of the "few" benefits of not being a front runner, is that this issue doesn't mean much to me.

    I can simply pick and choose which races might be the most fun or most interesting.

    So in that regard, I suppose more is better.

  2. james arnold

    I don't know about the running part of the article, but open season it will be with that beer review.

    Referring to Pliny the Elder, "I guess if you have to…"?


  3. Patrick McKenna


    Ate at The Bird House in Roseville the night before WTC. Happy to report that they have Green Flash IPA on tap. Just an FYI if you happen to be passing thru in June.


  4. Matt

    Good stuff, Andy. That endless season ought to keep the orthopedics community busy. Maybe a column paralleling the concerns the NFL now has (very serious in terms of the viability of its "culture) with the 100 miler.

    The beer review, on the other hand, is a weak attempt at plugging Oregon IPA. Those of us that enjoy DIPA regularly know PtE is an esteemed stalwart; that's just the worldly view. Here in San Diego we have equally ballsy hopped-up brews that satisfy any real IPA fan. Oregon? Sure.

    1. MonkeyBoy

      Thanks for your thoughts, InsideTrail Matt. While I disagree with your impression that I'm "weakly" plugging Oregon IPA, I do agree with your opinion that you have equally ballsy hopped-up IPA's down in San Diego. Living where I live, perhaps my impression's tend to be more pseudo-oregoncentric ;-)

      All in Good Fun.

      I'm a huge fan of Green Flash, love that West Coast IPA. If your ever in Bend, I'll be glad to show you around.

  5. boisean

    Can't let that 'dis' of 'Pliny the Elder' go without a response. While I do agree that Oregon and specifically, Bend, does have some great stuff, 'Pliny' would make my 'Top 5' on the IPA list for sure. I have not had the chance to sample 'Boneyard,' but here that it is awesome. I had my one and only 'Pliny the Elder,' and 'Pliny the Younger' while visiting San Diego a few years back at 'Toronado's.' Good stuff! I also agree with some of the 'pro Cali' comments here about the 'plug' for Oregon beers, although I do LOVE Oregon beers as well. Let's face it, there are many great brewers out there these days, and we should consider ourselves lucky as beer drinkers that there are! Let us revel in the abundance!

  6. Dominic

    I'm all for more races as long as competitive runners have themselves primed for the big ones, and race with zero excuses. I mean, if you win 5 races in the spring and then show up at Squaw and run slow and blame it on all the other races you've been busy winning, then… well.. You're kinda lame.

    And seriously, Oregonians, please try some Stone Ruination IPA before you espouse any more silly ideas. It's easy to figure out, just look up the word ruination in a dictionary (or read the label on the back).

    1. MonkeyBoy

      Dom, I've enjoyed Ruination IPA. Stone Brewing does a nice job with this one. They did a nice collaboration with Ninkasi on a "More Brown than Black" that was outstanding. VT, Cali and Oregon all in one.

      I don't think our silliness with cease anytime soon, however.

  7. John

    Interesting post. The defacto competitive races are being challenged for sure given the increase in quality events. I would argue that, for the elites anyway, the sheer volume of quality events that are trying to establish themselves as "the" championship is more of a hindrance. It would be nice if a front runner could decide what to race based solely on the country they want to run in. Want to run a competitive 100 miler in the summer in the US, pick western. Europe, UTMB. Unfortunately it's not that easy in the US anymore. There needs to be some sort of synergy developed between all of the races. Until that's done, each race will try to attract front runners with promises of an awesome course or prize money.

    On the topic of the endless season, I just had this conversation with my wife a week or so ago. With Ultras it seems like there is a time to peak (Summer) but not really that extended period of hibernation. I have friends who do cyclocross and they definitely have a season. Sometimes I'm envious but most of the time I'm just happy that I can pretty much run an event whenever I want.

  8. MonkeyBoy

    You were right, Jizzle Wizzle.

    Here, let me repeat the part of the review that some of you seemed to have missed: "Overall, a decent IPA." Make no mistake, Pliney left a favorable impression on me. However, I do live in Oregon. I live in a town with 80,000 folks, and 10 breweries. Each of these 10 breweries boast multiple IPA options, year round, plus seasonal offerings. Add to that, the Eugene, Portland and Ashland breweries, and their close proximity and you have my personal version of Beervana.

    Imagine the greatest place you have ever found for trail running. Numerous Trails, great scenic variety, awesome single track, double track, climbs and descents, a wide range of weather. It's a place where you plan on visiting and revisiting. It has so much variety, that you can actually choose to run the trails you prefer, because they have characteristics that appeal to you the most. Well, I have the Beer version of that here in Oregon.

    The beautiful thing is, we have all have our preferences and taste's. One of the best parts about traveling to races is getting a chance to enjoy a local brewery apres' when the running is all done. I have had several good Cali IPA's that are far less esteemed than Pliney the Elder, but merit more attention. I'm glad to see some of you folks are proud of your California IPA's.

    Hey, I did think enough of Pliney to leave with a Case. We are talking about Beer.

    1. James Arnold

      Well, imagine the most mediocre place you ever found for trail running. Numerous trails. Most about a mile long. You want climbs, we got all kinds… 100 AND 200 foot. Most people who live here don't know of the trails so you will have them all to yourself. When you string them together by running equally as much on paved roads you can make an 8-10 mile loop. You want choice, you can start by going left OR right. A community of trailrunners? Well, I've heard there was another trailrunner in town.

      I have the beer version of this in town. Not bad….better than most towns around these parts.

      1. Rocky

        James and I have the same view. But James forgot the long drives (an hour or so) to the nearest trailhead. I, as a flat Midwesterner, live vicariously through this blog reading about amazing trails that you guys have, dreaming about mountains and streams and the next chance I can afford to trail run on my travels.

  9. boisean

    More on the beer comments. It's too bad that we don't have better distribution of some of the great beers that are out there. I hate to be greedy, but I'd like to have access to beers from some of the brewers talked about here. We DO have a hell of a lot of options and great beers, don't get me wrong, but can't get the likes of Russian River, DogFish Head, etc here in Boise. Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing is also noteworthy for their IPA, 'Double-Wide,' referring to the double wide trailer! Funny as hell label too "don't worry, it's twister proof."

  10. AJW

    Interesting aspect of the racing season discussion it that of the four standard ultra trail distances only the 50K has a limited competitive "season." Examples: If you're a 50 mile "specialist" looking for deep competition you can run in several different races in many different parts of the country throughout the calendar year (AR, JFK, NFSF to name three). For 100k's you can start with Bandera in January, move on to Miwok in May, skip over to Waldo in August and wrap up a great "grand slam" with UROC in September. For 100 milers, in addition to the five majors spread across the summer you can tune up with some competition at HURT or Rocky in the Winter and wrap-up with Run Rabbit Run, Javelina, and Grindstone in the fall. But, for some reason, even with over 250 50K races to choose from, the three most competitive 50k's are all packed into the month of March (Caumsett, Way Too Cool, and Chuckanut). I wonder if there are some enterprising 50k race directors out there with an eye on the calendar?

    1. James Arnold

      With Rock/Creek StumpJump in October and being the 4th biggest ultra of 2011 and won by 2011's top graded 50k performer David Riddle, I would say they might be worthy of a look.

    2. Speedgoatkarl

      Oh, don't you worry AJW, the Speedgoat 50k is rapidly becoming the big daddy of "mountain" 50k's. And the competition is gonna get big quick with a 10k purse, and it being an international event, alongside the Skyrunning Federation :-) . Chuckanut and Cool are great races, as well as Caumsett too, not taking away anything from them. :-) It's wierd how competitive races are during springtime, but on the other hand, for guys that like running far, these are merely tune-ups and a way to check our conditioning.

      The Speedgoat 50k will never be a "championship", it'll always be the Speedgoat 50k, "take it as it comes" Besides, what championship race would have PBR and Pizza at the finish line? Not those other three, they'd be drinking something good.

      Bottoms up alright, I'm thirsty, it's almost 5pm….

  11. Jared F

    I agree Art. With the big races filling up fast it is nice to have more selection of lesser known races to run and perhaps try and qualify for a big race in a less competitive field.

    Remember too in Alaska there is the Susitna 100 / Little Su 50k in the second week of February and then the White Mountain 100 in March. Even up here the season goes strong in the winter!

  12. NickP

    AJW – As someone with a relatively long, generally injury free, and competitive career as an ultrarunner, would you consider part of your success/longevity to be the result of taking some downtime in the winter months? I have always felt that taking some downtime is good to recharge mentally and physically for the upcoming year. It also seems like (with a few exceptions) most people cannot sustain a high level of training or racing for extended time periods without some sort of break. Would be curious what you have to say about this. Thanks.

  13. Phil Jeremy

    May I jusy say that Iam thrilled that a discussion is taking place about a race that I have actually ran in. I travelled 6000 miles from France (though I'm a Brit),just to run. It was a great experience. Most 50k races in France( other than UTMB)have about 100 runners. When I stepped onto part of the Western States course, it was very emotional.

    My point is this. Lets not forget that ultra's, for the back of the pack guys like me, is just as much about simply 'being there' and taking part, no matter what time of year it is.

  14. Matt

    Given the number of comments about beer on here (compared to the high proportion of running-related comments velow many of your summer posts) I'd say the concept of an off-season is still very much alive and well. Now, where did I park my bottle of Hobgoblin…

    1. Steve Pero

      Meant to also add, pertaining to the subject….I don't race all winter, just slow miles. All races for me lead to Hardrock, so all the Spring races are just stepping stones to the big one in July. I agree that the sport gets watered down a bit, but with all the lotteries and such, maybe it's good to have several seasons for those who can handle them. Just remember to recover!

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