Reflections on the Women’s Ultra Performance of the Year

The publication last week of Ultrarunning magazine’s 2011 Ultrarunners of the Year awards was exciting and thought provoking. From the overwhelming victory of Ellie Greenwood in the Women’s Ultrarunner of the Year category to the closest vote ever in the Men’s Ultrarunner of the Year category the results spurred conversations across the country about what an amazing year in ultrarunning 2011 truly was.

From my perspective, I found one category this year to be particularly intriguing, the women’s Performance of the Year. To me, it was fascinating to see that three very different runners, in three very different events, with three different styles took home the top-3 honors. In that context, this category deserves a deeper dive:

In third place was Meghan Arbogast’s IAU 100K World Championships run. In that race Meghan powered to a 5th place finish in a time of 7:46 and in the process broke the women’s 50 and over World Record for the 100K. You read that right, world record! Additionally, in that race she was the top-American women’s runner of any age. The fact that the voters selected Meghan’s World 100K race for this honor, suggests that not all of the panel are “trail-centric” as some have suggested. In fact, one could have easily selected Meghan’s Western States run, for example, where she came just six minutes shy of breaking the storied men’s 50 and over record set by Doug Latimer way back in 1989. Instead, the panel looked to a highly competitive road race on the international stage and thought Meghan’s run there deserved the nod.

Meghan Arbogast (sunglasses) running the 2011 IAU 100k World Championships.

Speaking of Western States, Ellie Greenwood’s win at that event took second in the Performance of the Year category. Only the second woman ever to run under 18 hours, Ellie distinguished herself this year as on of the fastest women ever to tackle the storied course from Squaw Valley to Auburn. In addition, it is interesting to note, that the voters chose Ellie’s Western States run over her 4th place finish at Comrades which would seem to suggest a contrary tendency than was seen in the Arbogast vote. Perhaps the Western States competition tipped the balance in Greenwood’s favor or perhaps this is just a coincidence. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to know what Ellie and Meghan think their best runs of the year were. :)

Perhaps most interestingly, the #1 performance was not in a formal competitive event at all. Rather, the Ultrarunning magazine panel was obviously impressed with a very long, very fast hike and gave the #1 spot to Jennifer Pharr-Davis who set a new standard on the 2,100 mile long Appalachian Trail hiking it in an astounding 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. This transcendent performance, which knocked about 20 hours off Andrew Thompson’s previous record – JPD not only became the fastest woman to hike the AT she became the fastest person ever, male or female! – took the ultrarunning world by storm in June and July as thousands sat by their computers riveted by the story as it was unfolding and was documented by Brew Davis, Jenn’s husband and crew who also happens to be an outstanding writer. The consistency and persistence that Pharr-Davis showed during this extraordinary hike was, to me, the most compelling and inspirational aspect of it.

JPD on the AT. Photo: Melissa Dobbins

There is no doubt about the fact that these three performance were deserving of their places at the top of the sport. In addition, these three runs show both the breadth and depth of women’s ultrarunning at the moment. Furthermore, while there has been some concern raised in the ultrarunning community that perhaps the Ultrarunner of the Year voting is biased toward certain events and certain surfaces, these rankings seem to suggest otherwise. It’s also interesting to note that the 4th place performance was Connie Gardner’s 24 hour run and 5th place was Kami Semick’s third place finish at the Comrades Marathon, the largest ultramarathon in the world, and a road race.

One can only imagine what these five extraordinary women have in store for all of us in 2012.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week is my wife Shelly’s favorite. This is the second beer I’ve selected for the Taproom from Boneyard Beer in Bend, OR but it is certainly appropriate for this week’s column. So, next time you’re in Bend, stop by Boneyard and fill up your growler with their Girl Beer (aka “Beermosa”) you won’t be sorry!

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Which women’s ultrarunning performances from 2011 stand out in your mind?
  • What do you think of the mix of performances the Ultrarunning panel chose?

* Note: As a North American publication, the Ultrarunning mag panel considers only North American-based athletes for its year-end awards.

Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (59)

  • I just finished reading JPD's book about her first thru-hike of the AT - before she ever went for any kind of record. It really puts in to perspective just how difficult an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is and makes her record all the more impressive.

    I also wonder if Karl will be coming back east sometime soon to take another shot ath the trail!

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    • According to his bio on Ultraspire.net, "For 2012, Karl’s main goal is the AT and nothing else."

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      • AWESOME!

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      • i would imagine there are always multiple but I know of another ultra runner giving the AT a shot as well... would be cool if they could coordinate to start at the same time and make a race of it. maybe even have one go NoBo and one SoBo and pass halfway.

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      • not running it in 2012, I have other plans this year.

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  • Strange that Scott Williamson gets no votes for setting yet another unsupported record on the PCT.

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    • Nor Dakota for his R2R2R.

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      • And nor Bethany's R2R2R, for that matter.

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        • I consider myself a thru-hiker first and an ultrarunner second. I've been lucky enough to complete successful thru-hikes of the AT, LT, PCT, and CT over the years. And I've been fortunate enough to have met Scott Williamson and JPD briefly during some of my hikes. They struck me as incredibly friendly, down-to-earth folks. I have nothing but respect for their amazing feats of endurance-- especially given my familiarity with the trails involved. However, I find myself having some reservations about formally awarding these kinds of non-races. It's a slippery slope and I'm not sure where you draw the line... Certainly the focus on the AT record without a single vote being cast for other impressive FKTs seems odd to me. Sure, I think you can make the argument that JPD's accomplishment is the most impressive this year, but where are the votes for the other FKTs listed above? Surely they deserve a few votes even if they come up short? Yes, of course, the panel can decide to do whatever they'd like, but I'd maybe suggest having a separate category of awards for FKTs to draw attention to all the possible candidates. If Ultrarunning is going to start recognizing FKTs then go all in. JPD's record is incredibly impressive, but I'd like to see other athletes in the category in the mix as well.

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          • Andrew, I asked the same question. I, too, followed JPD religiously every day on the blog by her hubby and wished her kick-ass finish, which she delivered, but I thought that UROY and other UR awards are for a runner/performance at the official race amongst a present-time competition. Perhaps, the FKT's need to be assumed into a different category as there are more and more people going after them, or at least taking onto a task of doing the route.

            BTW, your resume of Long Trails is mighty impressive.

            On girls' performance, I'd give my vote to Meghan. Ellie's time was impressive, but there will be "but" due to re-routing, and not as much as Meghan's runs at WR for over 50 at 100k (or almost catching guy's WS record for AG). And that was not just "some" guy either!

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    • Bear in mind that this is a woman beating the men's record.

      Also I think there is something special about the AT when it comes to long-trail hiking in the US. Kind of like Western States among 100-mile races.

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      • the mens record was soft. Although Andrew's time is decent, he didn't go the stealth route, so it can easily be beaten (JPD"s record) by A few days, as long as no issues arise. I do see the AT record going to 43 days soon enough. Maybe not by me, but someone will take her itinerary and learn from it. Her last day was short, and she stopped the night before, thus meaning the record is already beatable.I ran-hiked 81 miles my last day, why didn't Jenn?

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        • The AT record soft? The AT record going to 43 days soon? Why didn't Jen do 81 miles her last day?

          The first two statements show me the difference between Jen and Karl. Jen learned from each of her previous two AT-thru-hikes while Karl didn't. Perhaps, the main reason Jen didn't do 81 miles a day her last day, is because she didn't have to; and, she wasn't motivated to be "chicked out" (your words not mine).

          The scorecard for Jen's AT record attempts stands at 2-0

          Karl's record for his AT record attempts stands at 0-1 and will continue in the loss column if he continues his unhealthy relationship with, and approach to, the AT endurance record.

          And what, pray tell, is the stealth route? Seems like a misuse of the word to me, as well as others. Continued use of such vocabulary will not enhance your already shaken credibility in the subculture of AT endurance record hiking.

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          • Jenns record stands at 1-2. I believe she's done it 3 times. Not sure where you get 2-0. Breaking the "old" womens record was very soft indeed,but only the women's record,not overall. 1-2.

            Warren, I learned alot more from my "own" approach then getting advice from someone I don't know, "(that would be you who is simply offended that I did not contact you before my run at itin 2008). and someone who believes he's the "master of the AT" you've done it a bunch, big deal, I"m sure it was great, but it doesn't make you an authority.

            Jenn not doing more miles her last day only means the record can be broken by say 8 hour-ish. (the time she roughly slept) She didn't have to go big to break the record, but she could have so.....it's breakable already. It's like saying I could have run Hardrock faster if I hadn't taken a nap, but I was so far ahead it didn't matter.

            Shaken credibility?...I have nothing to prove Warren, I do this stuff for fun, breaking records or not. I personally don't care much about my credibility as far as hiking goes.

            Stealth means with a smaller crew, camping overnight in the woods, that kind of stuff. I would take that approach next time for sure.

            "pray tell"? what does that mean, save the lord?

            Bryon, sorry, but I had to reply to Warren, he's the guy who did all he could to discredit my AT run in 2008, simply because I denied his "knowledge and help".

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  • are you following the Beast of Burden Ultra in NY this weekend?

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    • Sorry, no.

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  • No mention of female performances in sanctioned "Beer Mile" events. Those are some of the most impressive performances out there. Several beers + 1 fast mile is WAY more difficult than 100K without beer. :)

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  • Great article Andy! I too would be interested in finding out what Ellie and Meghan felt was their best performance of the year. Any chance you could inquire and let us know what they said?

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  • As sort of a mentor/coach for JPD over the last 7 years, and part of her 'pit crew' in ME/NH and part of VT this summer, she is deserving of this award. What she accomplished this past summer is extraordinary in the long-distance endurance hiking subculture. She is the first 'walker/hiker' to hold the AT endurance record since 1973.

    I appreciate Ultrarunning Magazine having an open mind on this. It will be intriguing to see if, and when, an ultrarunner will shorten the FKT (w/support) on the AT. There are several variables, besides the main subject, to consider such as the support crew (knowledge, wisdom, logistics, strategy)and the weather encountered in New England and the temperature in the mid-Atlantic states.

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  • I thought the fact that a time-trial was recognized as an Ultrarunning performance of the year wasn't as interesting as the fact that a non-running effort received the title. As Warren Doyle pointed out, Jenn approached her FKT effort as a walker/hiker, logging longer days on the trail at a slower pace. Personally, I fully support this recognition. In my opinion, speed hiking is a smart approach to FKT's on ultra-distance trails, and it's great to see someone who perfected this approach come out successful — especially a woman. But I do think it's an interesting choice for a magazine called "Ultrarunning."

    From this mindset, I personally would have nominated Tim Hewitt for a POY recognition, or at least a couple of points. Tim Hewitt is an accomplished ultrarunner who walked the ~1,100 miles from Knik, Alaska, to Nome in 20 days, 7 hours, and 17 minutes during the 2011 Iditarod Trail Invitational. That's 50+ miles a day — nearly a record AT pace — almost completely self-supported, dragging a sled on snow. But of course performances such as this are extremely unlikely to be recognized because, frankly, too few people would ever want to attempt something like this. It's too "out there" to ever be recognized as the impressive accomplishment that a few of us think it is.

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    • the AT is harder than Iditarod, hate to say it, but it is....

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  • HAHA. This year's UROY discussion reminds me of last year's in many ways. And if I had been following it in previous years, I bet I'd say the same of those years.

    I feel the crux of the issue is simple: there are no (or very few) clear definitions or standards for UROY awards. I'm not saying that there should be or need to be such standards. But as long as it's undefined, there will be questions about what should or shouldn't qualify. And there will be controversy about what or who is chosen.

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  • sorry Ultrarunning you blew it on this one, A FKT hike on a trail , should in know way be The Ultrarunning performance of the year, not to take away from the accomplishment , But hiking a trail in a NON-Race situation ,should be in a whole differnt conversation that UROY, just my 2 cents

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  • well, I was gonna keep my mouth shut, since these are, after all, simply the opinions of a magazine.

    but Maggie, maybe you are the one who got it wrong.

    the category was "Performance of the Year" not "Race of the Year".

    Maybe Ultrarunning Mag is just trying to broaden the general view of what an ultra is. Believe it or not, some of us "racers" actually started from a nonracing ultra background.

    Whether the categories need to be expanded or redefined may be a discussion worth having, but I'm fine with the Jen Davis pick.

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  • I feel the need to clarify the POY procedures on behalf of Ultrarunning Magazine. I am not associated with the magazine nor have I talked about this with John, Tia or Lisa but I have been a UROY voter for the past few years and I know the folks who own the magazine quite well.

    When we receive our ballots in early January it is made absolutely clear to us that the magazine acknowledges that comparing FKT's to Trail races, to road races, to 50k's to 100 milers, to 6 days, to Grand Slams is really, really difficult. In fact, each year Tropical John reminds us that this is not about comparing apples to oranges but rather comparing apples, to oranges, to grapefruits, to kiwis, to papayas, to bananas, apples again, to another type of grapefruit, to...you get my drift. Then, seeing as how we represent a wide range of ultra experiences ourselves (I don't know everyone on the panel but I assume they represent a vast cross-section of the sport) we obviously insert our individual biases into the discussion. For now, that's just the way it is.

    Look, nobody in this community wants to place more stringent regulations and rules on anything. It goes against the ethos of the sport and it's one of the reasons we're all here in the first place.

    And, I must admit, that was the original point of my column. The fact that an FKT, a Trail 100 and a road 100K were the top-3 performances says something truly admirable, and egalitarian, about our sport. In an age of specialization and hyper-focus, this poll, at least, celebrates breadth and depth. I, for one, think that's a good thing.

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    • I think the main complaint is the confusion brought-on by the FKT. Fine if it's egalitarian and/or trend-bucking, but it's odd and seems to open a can of worms, if you ask me. I think a lot of mountain trail ultra has a genuine connection to the whole FKT concept. It's a race sure, but these days there's a lot of attention paid to CRs, which are more or less FKTs. In other words, FKTs are actually, one could argue, part of the ethos of the sport.

      Either way, it's the magazine's call, like you say.

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  • Several people have already commented on the inconsistencies in the POTY rankings, but there are several more that could be mentioned. I think the inclusion of FKT's is odd. I race ultras and attempt FKT's, and my perspective on FKT's is that the recognition is the time. In road marathons, there is sometimes discussion about runs that are argued to be superior to the world record due to the difficult conditions they were run in, but at the end of the day the holder of the world record is the holder of the world record (well, unless IAAF wants to decide what a legal pacer is). I'm not sure that any sort of additional recognition for a FKT is needed.

    The fact that the AT record was hiked is ironic considering that lack of recognition for the event at the other end of the spectrum, the 50k. I am actually shocked that Cox's record got as much credit as it did, although one could easily argue that it could be ranked higher. I wonder if Wardian would rather have an American record that is 7 seconds off the World Best, or his 2nd at the IAU 100k? It's a tough comparison, but Josh's run puts him well ahead of the PR's of Chuck Smead, Don Paul, Barney Klecker, and Andy Jones. Call me crazy, but I think Mike would be running faster than 6:42 if he dropped his 50k PR by 12 minutes. While Ian's run was very fast, he was 12 minutes off the the World Best.

    With the women's POTY, imagine if a woman had run sub 7 hours for 100k, or 13:46 for 100 miles and wasn't even mentioned in the voting. Jodie Schoppman ran faster over 50k in 2011 than Ann Trason ever did. The only current runners that can say they have faster PR's than Ann are Connie Gardner (24hrs in 2007)and Jodie.

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    • Josh Cox's record was a great run and time, but the world best is actually within the 56k Two Oceans Ultra, and the 50k point of that course finishes at the top of the 2nd big climb. Josh had a flat course followed by 5 miles of track, so he was realistically much doing a much easier race. Trail races are even less comparable for times.

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      • I'm aware that the world best was set at Two Oceans, but plenty of other talented ultrarunners have run slower 50k's on flat courses over the past 40 years. One reason for getting road courses certified is so that times can be compared. Ultrarunning has ranked lists of times on the website, and the ranking is by finish time without any correction for course difficulty. That seems to suggest that Ultrarunning thinks you can compare races. You don't get extra credit for running fast times on hard courses.

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  • Jen's AT record is astounding and deserves immense recognition. That said, the magazine and associated award is called ultra-"running", and the heart and soul of the magazine has always been about races.. not walking or FKT's. One could argue that most people "walk" in mountain ultras, but the difference is that these walkers are endeavoring to run every chance they get and the event is a formalized event.

    I think the National Geographic adventurer award is more appropriate recognition for AT or FKT. The same distinction goes for Dakota's R2R2R. R2R2R is a fast adventure, not a race. In addition, no more than one individual lined up on the Rim or at Baxter St Park in maine; he/she was only racing him/herself and the clock.

    (BTW.. the men's voting was not the closest in UR history: Jurek only won by three votes in 2005.)

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    • Dave, good catch on the 2005 vote. I should have said this year's voting was the closest three-way vote.

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      • Jenn's National Geographic award, (if she won it) is primarily a popularity vote. I saw a message on FB daily. "vote for me", you can all vote every day till the voting is over. Isn't that a popularity vote?

        I also feel that in 2005, the UROY was a popularity vote. I think I recall Jurek winning the previous two years. He won WS and Badwater. WS was impressive,but BW was just a win with NO competition and the record is way faster. He beat me by 3 votes, I won 5 100s that year, all fast, and with comp.

        I"m a voter too,for those that don't know. I voted JPD's AT hike as 5th best.

        It's ultrarunning, that's how it works.

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  • AJW, your beer description was, like this beer, a bit light. I've had Girl Beer off the tap- Excellent brew. Many fruit beers are sweet (and off-putting). Girl Beer is a refreshing light ale with a tart flavor! I recommend it as a great "change-of-pace beer" even for serious hop-heads!

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  • Perhaps a dedicated FKT and/or non traditional event award would be the answer for the future. Jen did an awesome job. It was also heavily reported on. No problem with that, but I think it reflects a growing issue. Is media attention, whether event or athlete centric affecting the awards. Scott's PCT has to be an equal accomplishment, but with zero crew, support, and his nature most will never know it happened. Either way, part of the ultra allure is mind blowing feats on feet. Jen is a worthy recipient.

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  • It seems there are lots of people confused or just too sensitive about this issue. Confused because Jen won a category that has historically always been awarded to an individual performance in a race (and should remain so)! Too sensitive because no one is trying to diminish what she accomplished on the AT. Everyone who has suggested there be a separate category has pretty much nailed it. This would clarify the whole issue.... most impressive FKT for 2011 goes to Jen Davis.... lets move on!

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  • The thing that really confuses me is the inclusion criteria. Ian Sharman is British but he lives in the US so i kind of get it but Ellie Greenwood is British and lives in Canada isn't she? I don't understand why she's included at all - is it because the performance is I. such an important US race?

    I'm a Brit in Britain and from my vantage point the whole UROY thing seems kind of flawed. It seems a bit introspective to the point of being ignorant of the rest of the world but this seems to be a trend in a

    the US scene in general.

    I would suggest that the UROY ought to get more strict about being US only ie: be open to US runners running on US soil only, or really open up and get international.

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    • matt, The award is specifically: "North American Ultra Runner of the Year"... and has consistently recognized runners living in North America, regardless of where they are from originally. At last check Canada was still part of North America.

      ultrarunning magazine is a North American based publication that almost exclusively covers the sport as it pertains to North America. Yeah, it would be cool if there was some publication that had more focus on ultrarunning as a worldwide sport, but that's not what Ultrarunning Magazine is. It's not being ignorant of the rest of the world, it's simply sticking with the focus and the market that it has always had.

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  • Why is it astounding that JPD trumped the guys on the AT? If any of y'all thru-hiked the AT (or any other very long distance trail), you would see for yourselves how much better the women hold up over the long haul, generally speaking.

    I, for one, was not surprised that she did it. My reaction was more like "Finally!" This is not to take anything away from her. Male or female, to go under 50 days (or 60 or 70) is pretty impressive. And I was very happy for her (and the female gender!) that she did it. Having done the Trail twice before, she'd obviously done her homework.

    As for the UROY awards, they have always been controversial. In the end, the voting HAS to be subjective. And the secrecy of the panel has always been annoying... Why not publish the names of the voters? Beating a dead horse here...

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  • So, if Karl Meltzer attempts an AT record in 2013 and is successful,is POY a shoe-in? All other things being equal of course and no other long trail attempts made and successful? I bet not! Precedent??

    Question is, would he accept it? I bet not!

    FKT for 2011 goes to Jen Davis. I agree

    POY: RR-100- Hands down......... MHO

    2012 will be exciting!!!

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    • If I were to do it in 2013, I would have to do it in 43 days or lower to really think it would be worthy. I really feel if I do it stealth, the way Jenn did it, I could do it in 43 days. She walked, I will jog a little and make more miles daily. 3 miles daily would make 43 days, not really that much.....but it all has to click. And it would certainly be in the FKT category. I think will talk to Tropical John and create a new category, that would only be fair. My two cents.

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  • The question of ultrarunning performances will find its answers when the egocentric community that calls itself “ultrarunners” chooses to distinguish running from other forms of movement. First, we seem loathe to admit to the non-running pedestrian world that the sport of going beyond 26.2 miles usually constitutes a noticeable percentage of walking/hiking. “Yeah, I did a 50 miler last weekend” coming from the “runner” as communicated to the non-ultra pedestrian elicits oooh’s and aaaah’s of admiration and disbelief, further inflating the ego of the ultra dude/ette.

    Yet, second, as we in the ultra community all recognize but don’t overly clarify to the pedestrian world, most ultras involve a great deal of walking/hiking, certainly a higher percentage the deeper one looks in the field of results. Yet we all relate to each other as ultrarunners. Championship road ultras prove the exception, as the terrain rarely strains the body enough to force the walk; and how embarrassing is THAT for a "champion" to walk. But how many miles are hiked/walked among the top ten in HardRock; then add the fact that for those in the back, close to the full distance is an aggravated walk?

    So that, as an example, when Horton set a new PCT record, and his performance was nominated for recognition by UR, the community too easily assumed (nor did Horton profess differently) that Horton “ran” enough of the distance to call it a “running” record. Not long afterward, two hikers, with full packs, wiped Horton’s record from the books, and they never set foot in a car (for resupply purposes). Yet their performance didn’t invite a peep of recognition from UR because they expressly termed themselves hikers. Similarly, the time it takes to complete one loop of Barkley would suggest a pace that defies definition as “running” and more closely aligns with orienteering. The variations from our assumed norm are almost endless.

    For ultrarunning, if UR and its panel of “secret voters” serve as the definers of what ultrarunning is, then have that group establish criteria that, for example, define a running experience as containing X% of obvious running (sidebar: does a quick shuffle qualify?), and leave all other categories of movement to other forms of recognition. “Ultra” won’t lose its distinction, but perhaps “running” may secure its rightful position in the lexicon. Refusing that distinction, every year’s selection of “stars” will only self-perpetuate the intrigue and useless debate.

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    • awesome Chris!

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