The Mountain Wilderness Factor

I’ve thought often about why the fastest long distance trail runners don’t always seem to be the “fastest” flatter, shorter distance runners. Obviously, everyone is physically suited to be best at one particular distance or discipline of running, but time and time again I feel like I see runners who are much faster at trail ultrarunning than they “should” be based on their basic running ability.

This reality leads many people to make the assumption that ultrarunners aren’t real runners, and that if more “fast” runners were running ultras, the current front runners of the sport would have no chance of keeping up. If you’ve ever read any thread about ultrarunning on Letsrun then you know what I’m talking about. The problem with this argument is that more and more of these “fast” runners are taking a stab at trail ultrarunning, and none of them are solidifying themselves ahead of, or in most cases even all that close to the current crop of ultrarunning’s top dogs, most of whom have never run a sub-2:30 marathon. It’s no longer a valid question to ask, “will top marathon runners come to dominate ultrarunning?” Enough of them have tried and come up plenty short of domination. Sure, few if any of the very top marathon runners in the world have ever run an ultra, but there’s no logical reason to assume that sub-2:10 marathoners would inexplicably be able to run these trail ultras more than 5 or 10% faster than the several dozen 2:10-2:20 marathoners who have tried trail ultras. In almost all cases this 5 or 10% would not be enough to dominate major trail ultras. Compete near the front of the pack, yes; dominate, no.

The interesting question then becomes, why is this the case? Why does a runner’s basic running ability and their running background not seem to have a decisive link to their success in trail ultras? Why are there so many top level trail ultrarunners who are really not that fast at any other type of running, as well as so many runners who are really fast at all other types of distance running who can’t come close to competing at the front of the pack in trail ultras?

Obviously, there are many factors which influence this, but the most significant of these is one’s level of comfort and experience out in remote, wild, mountainous places. Initially, this might sound like a very small factor, but over time I have come to believe that this is the number one reason why there are certain runners who are inexplicably fast at trail ultras, while others are not nearly as fast as might be expected.

It’s no secret that confidence is a huge factor in being successful at just about anything in life, including running. The terrain that most trail ultras pass through is challenging enough that anyone who lacks mountain wilderness experience will likely lack confidence when it comes to dealing with all the factors the mountains can throw your way: severe weather, route finding, impossibly steep climbs, extreme solitude, and muddy, rocky, rooty trail. Add to this that virtually every 100-mile trail race requires several hours of running through this terrain in the dark. For anyone who lacks experience and capability in these kinds of settings, this can all seem downright terrifying.

The exciting thing about this phenomenon is that it in no way is specific to top level runners. I have people ask me all the time if I think they can be a strong ultrarunner even though they never ran in the past and have virtually no natural speed. My answer to them is that not only do I think they can be a strong ultrarunner, but if they take the time to become truly comfortable and capable in serious mountain conditions, they can use the confidence they will gain from this to run much closer to the front of the pack than their basic running ability should ever allow them to. The Hardrock Hundred (as well as other serious mountain 100’s) is a perfect example of this. Every year you have runners finishing in the top 10 at Hardrock who would have a hard time finishing in the top 20 or 30 if the same field were to compete in a road marathon.

What then does this all mean? To me what it means is that this is a terribly accessible and exciting sport. Even if you don’t have as much natural running ability as many of your competitors you can go out and spend time gaining this comfort and confidence in the mountains, and condition your body, via your mind’s confidence, to run much faster than you have any business running. Obviously, physical ability is a huge part of running for 50 or 100 miles through rugged mountains, but I think it’s a much smaller part than it is of running shorter, flatter distances. In this sense, the sport of trail ultrarunning becomes much more accessible to many more people than most other types of racing. It’s not simply the fastest runner out there who is going to finish first, but, instead, the runner who is able to combine their physical running ability with the highest level of comfort, confidence, and experience in the mountains.

For those of you who are new to the sport of trail ultrarunning, or veterans of the sport who feel like you still have room for improvement, yes, you need to train your butt off to come anywhere near your full potential in the sport, but running far and fast is only going to get you so far. At some point you need to call off your track workout or your 40-mile run and just go out in severe mountain conditions and spend the time you need to become comfortable. Go out and scramble up the steepest slopes you can find, spend nights out in the mountains with nothing more than what you can fit in your running pack, navigate along a socked-in mountain ridge with nothing more than a map and compass, get out in the wind, rain, snow, sleet, and darkness. In short, go out and learn not to fear these situations, but to thrive in them. Build this up in your arsenal and suddenly getting lost in a snowstorm at 2 am in your next 100-miler won’t have quite the same negative effect. Learn to remain comfortable and confident when the mountains are throwing challenge after challenge your way, and while everyone else is slowing down out of fear and inexperience you’ll just keep plugging along comfortable, confident, and passing runners you have no business keeping up with.

There are 67 comments

  1. KenZ

    Hi Goeff,

    A few of us were having this discussion on a run this morning. I agree with the latter part (that there is lots of specificity training besides running that needs to be trained), but not your earlier conclusion, where you note:

    "The problem with this argument is that more and more of these “fast” runners are taking a stab at trail ultrarunning, and none of them are solidifying themselves ahead of, or in most cases even all that close to the current crop of ultrarunning’s top dogs,…"

    Many of those fast marathon runners simply haven't taken the time to learn the different pace (learnable by anyone), technique on standard trails (learnable by anyone), eating and hydration issues (learnable by anyone), running in the dark (learnable by anyone) and running technical downhill fast (theoretically learnable, but generally limited by one's ability to let go of fear and attack/float at a terrifying speed).

    Moreover, I think this last weekend proved the point of how a fast marathoner/runner who has spent the time to learn the specificity can smoke the ultra course in mind boggling ways. I submit to everyone the White River 50 Mile 2012. I WILL get a few of these statements off a bit, but here's my understanding of the summary (someone interject when I mis-state): Sage Canaday. 2:14 marathoner. Took the time to learn trail running (up to 50k-ish). (I heard) White River was his first 50 miler EVER. Never raced the course before. And he smoked it for a new course record, a record that was already frickin' amazing set and reset by Anton Krupicka over several years of his phenomenal, ultra-leading racing. Oh, and this year the course has 200 more feet of climbing (albeit less crossing other runners).

    Although, I will note at the finish, he was as down to earth and friendly/fun as the next person, in typical ultra fashion.

    So, I'll agree that ultras pose a lot of stuff that is well outside of regular running, but when you take a super talented fast, flat runner, and train him/her on the specificity of ultras, it's a serious display of awesomeness to behold.

    1. David T

      I think that is a good point. Most of what Geoff suggests is learnable and once combined with raw speed might produce some pretty wicked MUT runners.

      One thing that might not be so learnable is a love of the wild places. It seems some people just don't get it, even after repeated exposures.

  2. Ron

    It is interesting that classic road runners like Max King and Sage Canaday are making inroads (sorry about the pun) in the mountain races, which is a good thing. Makes sense to me because a lot of road runners train on trails to reduce injury. Sure, their training trails are probably not as technical as the Speedgoat course and likely don't have the long and steep climbs either. Can Ryan Hall be far behind in trying a 50K or 50M? TK said last year (pre-injury) that he wanted to try a road marathon with a target finish of 2:30, I believe. It would be great to see more mountain runners (e.g. Mackey, Olson, Roes, Moehl, etc.) enter road half/full marathons occasionally, to see where they stack up.

  3. HP

    Geoff, thanks for this great article. Kilian, Anton, Anna, Ellie, you, and the list goes on and on, all love the wild places almost as much as they love running in those places. I think you're right on the money.

  4. Thomas

    Hi Geoff,

    first of all great article. Second, I hope to see you soon in the ultra circus, because all what you said is your advantage. Interessting would be to know what time for example Kilian could run in a flar marathon 2:10 or faster ? But he likes how we all the mountains, and I guess he would never run a flat marathon or 100 k run.

    Take care thomas

  5. Andy

    Nice article and thoughts, Geoff. Of course, comfort in the wilderness is critical to ultra success. So is "comfort" with a level of prolonged suffering that can never be experienced in a "short" race like a road marathon. It's somewhat humorous when you say "condition your body, via your mind’s confidence, to run much faster than you have any business running." Speed really is not the issue in ultrarunning which, IMHO, may account for a big portion of the issue. At Hardrock, a 15-min mile pace is *fast*, and even 10-min miles at a "short" race like Speedgoat is enough for a CR. The tougher — and stepper — the course gets, the more irrelevant speed becomes and the more room for confidence and endurance to take the lead.

  6. MikeC AK

    I would love to understand this as well. I was a marginally fast (4:20 mile) track guy in high school. Got back into trail running 10 years later. I currently run in the mountains a couple times a week and can smoke people who would likely beat me handily in a 5k.

    I find the same thing on a mountain bike, fast roadies can't hang.

    I attribute it to a weak core from flat roads, and the trails are so fun I just want to go as fast as I can for as long as I can.

  7. Jared F

    I ran a local 8 mile trail race a few years back just on the outskirts of Anchorage. This particular year the who's who of Alaska trail running showed up as is common for this race since it is one of the first trail runs of the year. There was also a local collegiate runner who was a sub 2:30 marathoner, he didn't even crack the top 10 even though on any other distance in flats he would have completely smoked the entire field.

    I agree a bit with both you and Goeff. I think people like Max King and Ellie Greenwood are showing how you can be competitive at roads and on the trails. However, both are constantly beaten on the trails.

    Ultimately, I don't see anyone winning the olympic trials and then turning around and winning Wasatch a year later.

    1. KenZ

      Yeah, I see your point, and it's a good one (Ellie withstanding, but I still get your intention). Still, there's specificity training that is definitely required. And I'd argue MOST of that is learnable by any motivated individual, with the one exception of technical downhills, which are learnable in technique, but there's a mental/fear factor and risk acceptance that I do not think some can overcome (arguably a bright thing).

      You can't take your average fast road runner and just throw them on the train and expect them to perform. But give them a good year to a year and a half of training on and for trails, and I think their physical talent will be overlaid on the rougher terrain. Hey, I could be wrong, but Sage's performance was totally over the top.

          1. CJ

            More specifically, Max has shown weakness on rugged, knarly terrain such as a couple European races he did in the last year. He was also beaten at Speedgoat last week by guys who wouldn't come close to hanging with him in flat distances of 10k to marathon

  8. Jared F

    I used to think guys like Killian could kill it on the road, but I don't really believe that without lots of road specific training. I have been doing almost all of my long runs this summer on trails training for my 50 miler. I ran a 3:55 marathon and was in pretty series pain. I ran a sub 9 hour 50 miler on trails and actually felt, for the most part, better. Running almost exclusively on trails this year has not trained my body for the hours of pounding pavement that are required in a road marathon. So I am not sure how well Killian's body would hold for 2 1/2 hours at a 5:00 pace on pavement without series training. Finish and get a sub 3 hour time no doubt, however I am not sure sub 2:30 would happen without training.

  9. Grizz

    Disclaimer: I have no experience with ultras of any kind. Never even raced further than 10mi.

    That being said, I would think that part of the answer to "why don't the faster flat guys dominate when they move up?" is that ultra-running is not "just" running. By that, I mean there are a host of other aspects that affect race performance. Nutrition/hydration is much more a factor over 13 hours than it is over 2hrs 30. A chafed thigh or a blister might be an irritant in a 10k, a problem in a marathon, but a disaster 50k into a 100k race.

    That's not to say these issues are insurmountable, but they are, for many runners, unprecedented. A miler moving up to the 10k has to improve his endurance, learn better pace judgement, sure- but well-trained miler should be able to pop a decent 10k without TOO much change in preparation, even though the distance is more than six times longer. A good but not quite world class road-racer/marathoner (say 64' half marathon/2:14 marathoner) might only be racing 2-4 times longer, but that's an entirely different WORLD.

    1. Jared F

      Grizz, I have run just about everything in between 1.5 mile sprint to 50 miles and I can say the jump to ultra's is very big. For starters most ultras are not on roads, so for instance going from a marathon on the road to a 50k does't just mean 8k of more running that is less than an hour and maybe a little more water in you. Rather, this could mean 2+ more hours of running and possibly eating solid foods and even stopping at an aid station, all things that are unheard of in a road race. With my experience I think the big difference is the change of pace, the stopping at aid stations, the climbing and descending, and nutrition are all the major factors

      I mean think of a guy like Ryan Hall, he trains to run a 4:45 mile for 26.2 miles on only taking water at a few stops, no hills of any kind, and maybe not even any calories for 2 hours. Running a trail 50k wouldn't just be 40 more minutes of running, rather it would be a complete change of mind set.

      Plus what you said, ANY little issue such as chaffing, blisters, hunger, can all be a disaster when you are out there for 10+ hours.

      1. dave

        "Running a trail 50k wouldn’t just be 40 more minutes of running, rather it would be a complete change of mind se"

        Exactly. My first ultra was the Santa Barabara 9 Trails. I thought "i've done a (road) marathon. whats another 9 miles?". Turns out the answer was about 5.5 hours longer. oof.

  10. Jared F

    Goeff, the best parts of this article are getting more familier with the mountains. I have been heading out here in the Chugach range this summer for climbing / running training runs a lot this summer, good weather or bad. 1 day I was lost in the fog on a steep snowfield at 4,000 feet and for about 20 minutes had no idea where I was. But knowing how to work my GPS watch, having a general understanding of the area I was in, and using some common sense navigation skills I was able to get back on trail. On another run I tagged a peak in high winds after scrambling on the back side of a ridge so I decided to descend over 1,000 ft to the trail below down a scree field completely off trail. This helped to get me very comfortable with all sorts of situations you find in the mountains, and as a result the intimidation is no longer slowing me down.

    I just did a 50 miler this weekend and was faster than people who have stronger road PR's than I do, an example that being fast on the road does not neccesarily translate into being fast on the trails, and vica versa.

  11. Claude Chew

    Geoff, as one of those runners with no natural running speed but a love of the mountains (well as big of mountains as you can get around the New York Area), I am most encouraged by this article!

    Thanks very much for posting your thoughts on this!

  12. Matt

    One thing that I completely disagree with is the ascertain that somehow,

    "the sport of trail ultrarunning becomes much more accessible to many more people than most other types of racing".

    This statement is followed up with the observation that it is necessary is to spend time in the mountains, or as any runner (road, mountain, track, or sprinter) knows is just the concept of specificity. I agree with the basic premise (as would most experienced runners) that training time and specificity is the key to being good at anything, whether its running, another sport, music, or any other endeavour. The practice at a specific skill gives you confidence without a doubt. However, to say that trail running is more accessible than other disciplines within running seems to based on personal experience rather than the daily realities that face most runners. Unfortunately a majority of the population does not live at altitude and/or have daily access to thousands of vertical training. This fact is the anti-thesis of accessible at least compared to flat road running, which is nearly ubiquinous even in places with great access to vertical trails such as Juneau or Boulder.

    Lastly, the comparison between 2:10-2:20 "elite" marathoners and the upper crust of trail runners as somehow representing equal positions in their specific running worlds is just simply not valid. For instance 2:10, is the 130th fastest time in the world this year, while 2:20 allows you to sneak into the top 1000 (928th) ( Max was ranked 460th). Essentially the comparison is between sub-elite marathoners to the very best (top 10-20) trail ultra runners, which is not exactly the same. When you take a sub-elite or elite marathon runners, give them limited training on the trails and then compare them to athletes that have been practising this type of basic running in the trails and hills it is not surprising that they fail to live up to "predicted" comparisons.

    The real interesting question is whether there is something that makes ultra trail runners "inherently" faster than their equals on the roads, which would require allowing a top marathoner the time necessary to become adapt at this new running discipline, or as Geoff would say, training that gives them the confidence that other trail runners have had the time and access to develop.

    1. Jason

      You are spot on with regard to the ability of the majority of the population to train specifically on trails. When you work all week and you're wife is at home with the kids, and a 20mile trail run (that includes 45min-1hour of commuting) takes four hours compared with 2+ for a road run, it's a pretty hard deal to make on the family life.

      Ability to compete near the top of trail races is more accessible to *some* people that can't do that on the road. I'd put myself in this catagory.

      The game is in the variables. There are few to run fast on the road: Fast legs and a cardio engine.. that's about it. TRAIL (specifically 50-100M and further) you need some of the above, but also a stomach that won't turn off, thigh muscles that can take a downhill pounding etc, ability to focus through sleep deprivation.

      Some people have a superior combination of these factors. Someone who has them all would be an elite roadie, and elite on the trails right?

      1. Matt

        This is actually a debate/discussion within the scientific community as to whether some physiological parameters are actually different for the two types of events.

        Sacrificing economy to improve running performance—a reality in the ultramarathon?

        G. Y. Millet, M. D. Hoffman, and J. B. Morin

        J Appl Physiol 2012;113 507-509

    2. geoff

      i meant simply that's it's more accessible because it doesn't require nearly as much raw physical ability to compete and compete quite well in the sport as other types of running. there are certain people that no matter how much they train they are never going to be competitive road marathon runners. this can also be said of trail ultrarunning, but in trail ultra i think this number is way lower. time and time again you see people in trail ultras who just don't seem like they should be able to run as competitively as they do (based purely on their physical ability). you do also see the same thing in other types of running, but not nearly as much. and this is what i menat by it being more accessible.

      1. Matt

        I think you are selling ultra runners short, or at least it really seems like you think others are.

        Running trails takes a raw physical ability, running for 4-24 hours takes a raw physical ability, just not the same raw physical ability that would lead to competitive marathon running.

        In addition to raw physical ability it takes practice and to expect any flat land runner to compete with the best ultra trail runners is asinine. Its like saying I expect you to compete with Ryan Hall in some road marathon….or below. Depending on if you call Max and Mike Wardian road or ultra trail guys, I'd press you have not seen a dominate performance by an ultra trail runner in a road marathon, nor would I or anyone else expect it. Elite ultra trail runners train to run fast on trails over ultra distances, just as elite road marathoners train to run fast on the roads….over marathon distance.

        I think we can all agree that elite athletes do the best for the events that they train for. You have pointed out one way of doing this by just spending time in the mountains in situations that challenge you mentally and physically. As such road marathoners that try to run trail ultras will not run to their maximum potential without training for it just as you won't run a road marathon to your maximum potential without training for it. In some ways I think it is easier for ultra and trail runners to learn to run fast on the roads for 2-3 hours versus road marathoners learning to run technical trails for 4-24 hours.

        One thing I am confused about is whether you think road marathoners ought to be expected to be able to? or are you offended by the idiots without ultra/trail running experience who expect them to dominate? While its fun to speculate this or that the comparison is just not equal and really not worth losing any sleep over. Its like comparing a 800m runner to a 5k runner, neither or whom would be scared of the other running their speciality.

  13. Jason

    Sage Canadays performance at White River was astounding. My first mile was 6:30ish, and he was way out infront already. By mile 14 I saw him coming back at me (already at 18 miles), and he was running with no apparent respect to the fact that he had big climbs and hours left on course. Over a 9 min CR on Tony.. amazing!

    I think *typically* ones marathon speed will come close to predicting the outcome against other competitors at ultra distance. Max King is 1:30 min/mile faster than me at the marathon, and he beat me at Gorge Waterfalls 50k by 45 min. Right on target… and I'm way more of a trail runner than roady.

    That being said, Jeff Browning isn't that much faster than me. We're within a few minutes at 50k trail races (him infront). My 20:22 at San Diego 100 was good for 5th, he ran 16:39 ftw. Darn near 4 hours faster. Well over 2 min/mile. He put 30 min on me in the last 4 miles by the splits! His ability to smartly push the pace during the heat of the day without blowing up, his ability on technical terrain, his abiity to run at night, his ability to take in calories, and his ability to FOCUS on running well for that long on that day were world class. That's an exhibition of the comfort that Geoff alludes to. Not that we can all do it, just that there is hope for those of us that can never achieve ellite road status. Even though 50 miles is a very long way, I think this has got to apply even more to the 100M and longer trail runs.

  14. Geoff

    I assumed that people would bring up Sage Canaday's amazing run from this past weekend. The important thing to keep in mind here is that this was quite possibly the best performance at a trail ultra EVER by a sub 2:20 marathoner. If these fast roadies were throwing down trail ultra results like this on a regular basis then I would have a very different opinion on this, but i think it's important to keep in mind that this kind of performance is just one of dozen's (or likely hundreds) of trail ultra races run by sub 2:20 marathoners in the past few years alone. There have been some great runs by these guys in this time, but this past weekend is probably the only one that you might call dominating, and even that might be a bit of a stretch. not to take anything at all away from Sage's performance, which is easily one of the top 3 or 4 in the sport so far this year, but 9 minutes in a race that takes over 6 hours isn't necessarily a game changing performance, but simply a really good day, and the type of performance that is happening at least a few times a year right now, almost entirely by runners who couldn't finish a marathon within 15 or 20 minutes of Mr. Canaday.

    1. go longer

      Thanks for the post Geoff. Great point for discussion.

      I agree that being a fast roadie guarantees nothing in a trail ultra but I think there are at least 4 other factors beyond wilderness adaptation that come into play:

      1) Simple length of the race. Ultras go well beyond 100's. Will the top 100 mile trail folks be the best 24 hour, 48 hour, 6-day or 3100 mile runners or does the race change at those distance in a way that is similar to the step up to 50's/100's for most marathon runners? Are most runners who run for 16-20 hours in the mountains equipped to run for 24, 48, or 144 hours or for 3100 miles on a loop? Some can step up (Jurek) and many can't just because of the distance.

      2) Technical aspects. How good is a runner at placing his or her feet on rocky, rooted, tough terrain perhaps for hours on end? Some float, some stumble. Wardian seems to not posess great technical ability just yet.

      3) Ability to climb. Canady can climb (as per his win at Mt. Washington). The ability to climb varies by runner and I am sure it can be worked on, but some seem to posess this skill and some do not.

      4) Ability to handle altitude. Definitely varies.

      So while I agree that those who become comfortable in the wilderness will have confidence and race better as a result, I do not believe this alone, without some favorable dispositions in these other 4 areas, allow a mediocre road runner to excel in the mountains.

      I also think it is a matter of numbers. Even though some fast folks are stepping up to ultras, in the big picture it is really not that many. How many sub 2:20 mary guys are in the ultra scene right now? 10-15? (I really do not know for sure). How many 2:30 – 2:45 guys are there?100-150? What percentage of these guys get beat over trail 50's by folks who are 3 hour mary runners?

      I think if there were 100 sub-2:20 guys to try a reasonbly rugged trail 50, you would get 5 who would totally dominate it (say ~6:00 at WR 50 for ex) and 15 more running 6:15-ish (as per Sage) and 50 more running 6:20 – 6:35 and 30 who are 6:45 or slower.

      I know you would love to see a bunch of those fast guys step up and give it a g in the ultras in the mountains, so you, I, and every other ultra fan can see what happens.

      I hope you get back to racing at full bore again soon.

    2. Brennen


      What percentage of these sub-2:20 marathoners have made a long-term commitment to ultra trailrunning as opposed to running a race or two and returning full-time to the roads? What might experience count for?

    3. a bit dismissive

      Sorry, the fact that a sub 2:20 guy has done with his short ultra experience at American river that no 2:30+ top guys have ever done despite MANY more tries speaks very well of sub 2:20 abilities. You could even make the reverse argument on your own logic FOR those guys based on others that have tried and failed what a sub 2:20 guy has done on their own turf.

      It's like a tiger surprisingly slaying a crocodile in the water. It wouldn't make sense unless you've got too low an estimation of a tiger's ability in the water. A stupid analogy but oh well you get the drift. But we shouldn't be so dismissive of Sage's performance.

  15. JR44

    I think Geoff is on the mark. One way to test his idea is to see if a similar pattern appears in other sports. And I think this past summer we saw an example in the sport of professional surfing. The ASP World Championship pro tour was in Fiji for the Volcom Fiji Pro this past June when a monster swell arrived. The contest was halted while this giant swell was rolling through because of a “devil wind” according to officials – wind conditions that didn’t promote good wave form. This was a bogus excuse to cover up what everyone new: the ASP pros were out of their league when it came to waves of this size. However, it was not too big for the big wave professionals and mavericks that thrive in giant mountainous surf. They were out there that day and loving it. Kelly Slater, 11-time World Champion, said himself on the webcast of this event that the tour pros simply weren’t capable of surfing waves this big (interestingly, Kelly Slater is – perhaps the Sage Canady of surfing if you will). Anyway, the analogy here goes beyond semantics … thanks Geoff!

  16. Grizz

    I think a good "bridge" to look for sub-2:20 guys and ultra performances is to look at ultra road races. I'd think a roadie looking to move up might be more likely to run a 100k road race than a trail race that's as much technical knowledge as physical ability (and I mean that as a compliment, not in a sneering way). Guys like Barney Klecker or Bernd Heinrech were fairly quick marathoners who ran really fast times at the 50mi and 100k distances–but they seemed to focus more on road ultras than trail ultras.

    The 100k road WR of 6:13:33 (~6:00per mile, or two marathons in ~2:38 plus another 10 or so miles, for our non-metric friends), for example, is held by Japanese athlete Takahiro Sunada, whose marathon PR is 2:10:07. How might Sunada fare against a Krupica on the mountains? To my knowledge, Sunada never attempted a major ultra-trail race. Same with Klecker or Bruce Fordyce- very fast ultra-marathoners who focused on the roads.

    I don't the sample size is particularly valid. Ultra-trail races have started to become much more popular the last few years, and many of the biggest races in the sport (your Western States, your Leadvilles, etc) have only existed a few decades. The sample sizes are small, the technical knowledge is still in its infancy, and a 2:15 marathoner who picks his races carefully can still make a living running marathons, as opposed to 100mi trail races. I think it's premature to draw conclusions about 2:10-2:20 marathoners and long trail racing when there simply haven't been many guys in that time range who have attempted moving up.

  17. Ben Nephew

    This argument seems to be gender biased. Many of the top women trail ultrarunners have run marathons in 2:40-3:00 range.

    Even with the men, I don't see Sage's run as an anomaly. Look at the first 3 pages of race results on the front page of

    Gates and King at Speedgoat

    Canaday wins White River

    Greenwood at WS

    Fuhr wins at Leona Divide

    Greenwood at American River

    Greenwood and Canaday at Chuckanut

    Stewart at Way Too Cool

    McDougal and Suszek at Neuces

    Loutitt at Hurt

    Wardian at UROC

    Steidl White River

    Arnstein at Vermont 100

    Then you have a pile of 50k results from Max King. While he has struggled at 50 miles, he was out there for 5:23 at Speedgoat.

    I used to make the same argument about flat runners vs. mountain runners with respect to the US mountain team. The trend of mostly mountain runners making the team, beating faster flat runners held up to some degree for a while while the sport was still young in the US. This is no longer true, most of the US mountain members now have very quick PR's at shorter flat distances. As more faster runners make the team, the team does better at Worlds. As many have commented, I too run short and ultra trail races faster than some of my friends who destroy me at the roads. However, some of those friends start training for trails and ultras, and then they crush me and course records.

    Most will agree that trail ultrarunning is still a young sport, it is a sport that requires experience, and that the number of variables makes it difficult to have consistently great races. Rather than seeing the number of poor performances from flatter faster runners as an indicator that there is something that separates road and trail ultra runners, I see it as part of the natural maturation of the sport. With any distance, there are only a certain percentage of runners that will excel. The dominance of Kilian is the result of a big engine with a lot of trail training. Sure, you can debate all day what he would run in a road marathon, but the guy is world class in vertical K's; he has a great deal of physical ability.

    After Speedgoat, the question I have is how far into the wilderness can you go in the lower 48, whether in a race or training run? Apparently, if you run off trail out west, you should be arrested, shot, and then sued. If wilderness experience at elevation is essential to competitive success in big mountain 100's, then success at those races are the definition of inaccessible for the vast majority of runners in this country.

    1. geoff


      i get a lot of your points, but what you see as this long list of examples of great performance at trail ultra from fast road runners I see as list of races in which the fast road runners you mention were pushed to their limit (and in many cases beaten by) runners who couldn't run a marathon within 15 or 20 minutes of them. i'm not at all saying that fast road runners can't (and don't) make fast ultra runners, but only that trail ultra has so many more variables than flatter road racing that you end up with so many more instances where it's not just about who is the "fastest" runner. running a marathon on the road is almost entirely about what kind of fitness/running ability you have whereas running a mountainous hundred miler is influenced to much a greater degree by numerous other factors.

      1. Ben Nephew

        As the sport matures, I am hoping that your perspective ends up being more accurate than my own, with the parallel to mountain running. As you note, the variables are there to create a sport that is very unique, but I think that is going to require making sure that the competitive race courses are adequately difficult. On the other hand, if the big races are restricted to very technical routes over 10k in elevation, it'll be hard to grow the sport. Look at the changes ISF has been making, supporting mountain races at lower elevations to increase participation.

  18. Jacob Puzey

    Great article Geoff! I agree wholeheartedly. By most standards I wouldn't consider myself a very accomplished runner on any surface or any distance (roads, track, XC, mountains, trails, marathons, ultras, etc). However, I have run a few sub 2:30 marathons on the roads. I've attempted to become a trail ultra runner over the last year and the transition has been anything but easy for me. I repeatedly find myself getting crushed by others who I know I would beat or have beaten on the roads, but what I find myself getting beaten by most are the terrain and conditions. For a rhythm runner who is accustomed to running even splits with relatively few spikes in heart rate the trails/mountains throw me for a loop. That said, I heartily accept the challenge and hope to gradually grow more acclimated to the sport and learn from those like you who have made it what it is. I'm loving every humbling minute of it. Thanks!

    1. Tony Mollica

      Great to hear your perspective Jacob! Thanks for contributing to the discussion. Do the technical downhills provide extra difficulty for you? When I see video of Killian, Tony or Geoff busting a technical downhill I am amazed. To me that is harder to imagine myself doing than a tough climb.

  19. William

    Great post Geoff! I think you've really touched on something, and I might guess that lack of experience in dealing with the mental and physical issues that arise in a long ultra could be a major stumbling block for fast road marathoners.

    However, I wonder to what extent this is just mainly an issue of training specificity?

    Most ultras or mountain races have substantial elevation gains, which often need to be hiked. I would posit that going up stairs (say, stair stepping, tower racing…etc) is fundamentally a different sport from flat running. Stair running uses the quads and glutes to a much higher extent than flat running. Granted, the two are very much linked, and there is a lot of overlap, perhaps similar to cycling and running.

    Besides including a strong element of stair-type climbing, for trail running you also need a much stronger core than you need for road running.

    In other words, a fit trail runner needs a stronger core, and more power in their glutes and quads. Besides these physical characteristics, which may be lacking in some elite road runners, one needs to gain experience and confidence in running in more technical terrain. I've noticed in myself that my HR over technical trails, which rolling hills, can be 20-30 beats higher than it would be running over flat terrain. I would bet that the best ultrarunners, through thousands of hours of specific training and conditioning of random core muscles, have probably narrowed down that HR gap to a much lower level, and would thus be able to run more economically over technical terrain than an otherwise fit road runner. (I'm sure these points are fairly obvious to everyone).

    Personally, I'd be inclined to believe that once fast road runners rectify these training weaknesses, they'll be able to compete very well in trail ultras.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion!

  20. Chris Cawley

    It's all about desire, and commitment in the medium-long term. Could some elite 100 mile trail runners spend a few years doing monster track workouts and high road mileage, and run ~2:15 marathons? I don't doubt it. Could Geoffrey Mutai move to Boulder and run up Green mountain every day for a couple years, do a couple practice 100's and then run 13 hours at Western States? Probably. In the end, commitment to fitness is the prerequisite, and specific training is the coursework required to earn the whichever degree.

  21. roadkill

    +1 on the $$$ factor comment by thomas…

    lack of incentive [read: prize money, major coporate sponsorship] = lack of serious competition.

    add the almighty dollar and coporate sponsorship into ultra events and you will a whole new class of elite trailrunners, which would include top roadrunners and other VO2max beasts that could careless about US "organic" trail comps.

    simple. it's all about the $$$.


    @Geoff for promoting off-trail use for training. Especially right after Killian gets shit-on by the majority of the US ultrarunning contingency for a mere infraction of what you're [geoff] promoting.

    1. geoff

      you are correct that more money will bring more competition into the sport, but this isn't something of the future that is waiting to happen. it is something that has been happening for a few years now, and the result of this should make it obvious to anyone paying attention that there isn't suddenly going to come a point when you have to have world class leg speed to be competitive in mountain ultras (especially 100 milers). races like the NF endurance challenge, UROC, and now Run Rabbit Run are putting up enough prize money that they are drawing dozens of sub 2:20 marathoners (and a few sub 2:15) into the sport each year. some of them are running some pretty good races, but none of them are taking over the sport with game changing performances. the sport is evolving very rapidly right now, and in the past few years there have been some shockingly impressive performances in trail ultra, but it's worth keeping in mind that almost all of them have been by runners who have never run a sub 2:30 marathon. obviously as more and more faster road runners come into trail ultra some of them will accomplish some great things, but the complete takeover of the sport that some people seem to envision seems very unlikely. if it was going to happen you would have started to see a lot more of it already.

  22. Wynn Davis

    I think probably one of the biggest factors which maybe someone eluded to in the various comments already…. is simply the fact that in most ultras (50 miles and greater) one does not require the need to utilize speed as much. Whether you are a 2:10 marathoner or 2:50 marathoner more than likely these two runners in a race are more than likely going to hold a similar pace, particularly on trails. To go any faster (in the case of the hypothetical 2:10 marathoner) he would blow up. One of the many equalizers of the ultra distance, particularly trail is that due to the distance (50mile and greater) the pace becomes slower. More people can hold a 8-10 minute pace for a long time than a 5 minute pace for 26.2 miles. Now… you look at the road and it starts to change a bit. Barney Klecker's previous world record in the 50mile road (4:51) calculates I think roughly a 5:45 pace. I think his marathon best was 2:17. There are plenty of 2:17 guys out there. The greater the distance and the more obscure the surface (trails) really become neutralizers. Throw in fueling, etc..

  23. Andy Lin

    I am not a statistician, but this really wouldn't be that hard to figure out mathematically; graph the times of the runners who have run both trail and road marathons, see what the correlation coefficient is. Are the "outliers" actually the outliers or the norm. All the data is there; maybe a number cruncher knows how/wants to put this all into a spreadsheet and figure it out..

    For what it's worth, I'm in the "fast runners are fast runners" camp. I run a road marathon about 3:20. In the few ultras i've run, I've looked at the competitors who finished around the same time as me, and 90% of those runners that have also run a road marathon also ran at about the same time. As far as I can see, the correlation is very very high. Look at Ellie Greenwood; she wins most of her trail races. She also has a faster road marathon PR than her competitors.

  24. Anonymous

    Geoff I am not sure why you stir this type of stuff up when you are basically out of the scene? Bottom line…the age of the "random" ultra hero is over!

    Keep running for the joy of it like everybody else your not going to be winning much from here on out, unless you can knocking out sub 8 all day, and I mean ALL DAY!!!

    Geoff you wanted to see ultras get big and draw money, you "wanted the sport to grow", well you got it have fun watching from the side lines.

    Welcome to the future!

    1. Tony Mollica

      This was a rude post! Perhaps you should use your real name instead of hiding behind "Anonymous"? I don't think Geoff is stirring anything up. I find the article very interesting! The amount of comments on this and the discussion would indicate that others do too.

      I think it is you who is stirring stuff up.

  25. mixing it up

    I'm pretty sure having faster speed will help you stumble just a tad faster at mile 80 than a slower chap with the same endurance, or are we saying having faster speed precludes one from stumbling faster than a slower guy?

  26. easy answer

    To compare the different strengths of bike racers: You have climbers, and sprinters. Dominant slow twitch, and fast twitch muscle groups. No matter how hard you try, a climber will not become a great sprinter, and vice versa. Then you have a Lance Armstrong with a (freakish) genetic predisposition for pain, power and endurance, and the ability to sustain those and recover quickly, just as the elite trail runners have. Of course durability, hard work, and the ability to control the mental attitude are essential. Bottom line; power, endurance, climbing ability, recoverability, mental tuffness, and basic phsyiology is what seperates elite trail runners, from meager road runners.

  27. Tony Mollica

    I think this is a great article Geoff, and I loved following the discussion!

    I see the technical downhills (and uphills) as a factor that would add difficulty to the conversion. Also finding one's way on a course such as Hardrock certainly adds to the difficulty. In most all road marathon's following the course is not difficult, and does not slow a runner down.

    I would love to hear more comments from really fast marathoners who have participated in ultras to see what they think!

  28. Seamus Foy

    I don't know much of Sage Canaday's bio, but he has certainly been taking trail running seriously. Check out this training video from (promising site I just found; may be familiar to most of you). [broken link removed]

    1. KenZ

      Oh, that was really good, thanks for posting. So that's a great example of a very fast, talented flat runner (referring to his marathon time, not saying he could only run on flats), taking specificity training very seriously. And look at his results.

      So when we look at all these other fast, flat marathoners who've tried ultras and not done all that well, I'd bet dollars to donuts that they NEVER did the type of training that we see Sage doing in this video. Just saying that their speed doesn't translate isn't a fair shake on the value of that speed if they didn't do the specificity training. Cripes, even I don't do that type of training in the video.

      Again, I'd argue that as long as they can mentally deal with the fast technical downhills (scary), if you take these ripping fast flatlanders and train them for specificity (ala the Sage plan), they will tear up the course records.

  29. Jason

    Yes, the post by Anonymous was rude and out of line. No doubt he just wants to get everyone all riled up! Here is a 'random' ultra hero: Tim Olson. He has no pedigree. Ellie is fast, but her 2:40 marathon is at least ten minutes slower than the Gouchers out there.
    I think on average you'll find a faster marathoner to be faster at ultra. But it's not always the case. The truth is that a lot of us really are road runners (or hybrids) due to our lack of ability to get to trails every day. Thats ok too. We wish to be full on trail runners, but are forced to compromise. Geoff is saying that if you are a less talented road runner, but can get out and REALLY train on trail and mountains that you might be able to surpass expectations. Id say that's a valid assessment..

  30. Jacob Puzey

    Thanks Tony. Technical downhills, wet, snowy, rocky terrain all kill me. When the course turns to fire roads, service roads, or wider trails I can make up a lot of ground. This has mostly to do with specificity. The closest runable single track to my home is about 20 minutes away and it is only accessible part of the year. I run trails as often as possible, but mountains are at least an hour away and most of what I do are farm roads and ball fields. My life (job+ family+second job as high school coach) limit my time to drive to these places to run on a regular basis. However, in the off season (winter and summer) I do what I can to sign up for scenic, challenging races to get a change in scenery and meet people who do it well.

  31. pat

    I think it comes down to the old "specificity in training" idea. I think that top level ultrarunners have a comparable cardiovascular engine to 2:15-ish road marathoners. What separates them is the type of training they do and the specific changes that each type of runner is asking their body to undergo.

  32. Mic

    This topic reminds me of someone asking why don't military trained soldiers do well in Multisports (aka Adventure racing)?

    The answer, they don't train for Multisport (Adventure races). They train in engineering, medicine, cooking, cleaning, setting up Base and breaking it down and also in weapons.

    As for ultrarunners that like hills and mountains, there was a study that said Mountains bring many people that are drawn to them a great deal of happiness. I for one get very depressed when the terrain turn flat. I've DNF'ed before because of a 4 mile stretch of flat road. Trail race directors want to squeeze in different single track separated by 5 miles of road and IMHO they ruin the course. I prefer a trail or mountainous Out And Back to trying to insert SideWalks and Asphalt Roads.

    The chaffing, rain, dirt, rocks and elevation gain is also huge in keeping Road Runner from the podium.

  33. trailrunner76

    Great write up. Lots of truth to it. Im not comfortable in cities… marathons are out! Thats really the entire reason I started Ultra Running. I found a great 13.1 on knarly trails, but all the 26.2 races where over populated scenes in cities. I loved the woods from backpacking so I skipped the 26.2 and went directly to 50k to get me out of the cities and into the woods! Now I have a 50M in the dark that starts at 9pm in WV in 2 weeks… gotta love the dark deep woods!


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