The Mountain Wilderness Factor

Geoff Roes explains why he think mountain athletes have an advantage in ultramarathons.

By on August 2, 2012 | Comments

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.

Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.