The men’s field for this weekend’s The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. Even knowing some of the guys who won’t be racing, I still came up with nearly three-dozen “top” ultrarunners. The guys at the bottom of the list, who’ll need a career day to go top 15 on Saturday, win local 50ks and routinely finish top three at established 100 mile races. This is of little surprise as for the past few years the only American ultra with a men’s field depth on par with the TNF 50 mile is Western States. Nothing else is close.
That said, it might be even harder to wrap one’s head around the talent at the front of this field. Here are the (American ultra) household names in the field: Roes, Wardian, Wolfe, Koerner, Jones, Bragg, Kaburaki, and Sharman. You might need to read that a few times for it to sink in or, better yet, just keep reading our thorough preview of this year’s race.
The Household Names
Until December 2009, Geoff Roes had what was, by his own admission, an illustrious resume in the Marin Headlands, the area just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge where the TNF race is run. However, Roes ended that with his storied mano-a-mano showdown with Uli Steidl that left Steidl as the 2009 TNF 50 champ and Roes satisfied with his performance. After winning and setting the Western States 100 course record (15:07:04) in June 2010, Roes returned to the TNF 50 in December to again finish second, this time to Miguel Heras.
Roes took some down time after winning the UROC 100k in late September before definitively deciding to run the TNF 50 again this year. On November 7, he noted on his blog, “I have no idea how things will play out for me in 4 weeks in Marin, but this is certainly the best position I have been in 4 weeks out of this race any of the times I’ve raced it.” He’s been pretty quiet on his blog the past few weeks, but he’s continued to churn out solid training. As neither Steidl nor Heras (knee injury) will be running, Roes has to go in as the favorite.
At last year’s race, Dakota Jones mixed it up with Roes, Heras, and Dave Mackey for most of the race even taking the lead late in the race before finishing fourth. This May at the most competitive Miwok 100k ever, Jones again finished fourth in the Headlands this time behind Mackey and two guys he’ll race this weekend – Mike Wolfe and Hal Koerner. Since then, Jones has finished second at Hardrock and, earlier this month, broken the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim record previously held by Dave Mackey. After last year’s race Dakota shared, “In the future I’ll be better.” There’s no reason to doubt that he’ll make good on that statement this weekend.
Mike Wolfe ran to a seventh place in the 2009 TNF 50, but there’s good reason to believe that he’ll finish even higher this year. Quiet simply, Wolfe remains the most underrated/overlooked man on the US ultra scene. I’ve had many conversations about who might be this year’s ultrarunner of the year and not once have I heard someone mention Wolfe. What an oversight! Wolfe raced the most competitive US 50k [Ok, second most competitive 50k. Thanks, Geoff.], 100k, and 100 mile trail races – Way Too Cool, Miwok, and Western States – and finished first, second, and second, respectively. At Western States, he finished a scant four minutes behind Kilian Jornet in the fifth fastest time in the race’s modern era (Jim King ran a 14:54 on a 90 mile course in 1984) and second fastest losing time in race history in 15:34:24 (Anton Krupicka lost in 15:13:52 in ’10). To put Wolfe’s WS100 run another way, he ran two minutes off what had been Scott Jurek’s course record just over a year prior. I haven’t a clue how he’s been running since his disappointing UTMB, but if he’s running like he did this spring, he will be in contention for the win.
When Wolfe finished second at Miwok, his TNF teammate Hal Koerner was less than a minute behind him in third place. With two Western States wins to his credit, Koerner is no stranger to fast 100s, but he’s kicked the speed up a notch this year with two sub-14-hour 100 mile finishes. He finished third at the Rocky Raccoon 100 (13:26:19) in February behind Ian Sharman and Anton Krupicka while he won the Javelina Jundred in 13:47:43 on November 12. The latter performance a mere three weeks before the TNF 50 gives me pause in saying Koerner can win this weekend’s race. In addition, it seems like Koerner’s come into this race tired more often than not … then again, he always races a lot. Still, Koerner’s yet to perform up to potential at the TNF 50 Mile championships with his top performance being an eleventh place showing at the 2008 race.
This year’s race includes two guys that race even more often that Koerner. Ian Sharman is one of those guys and he happens to have beaten Koerner with a 12:44:33 at Rocky Raccoon (short report and long interview). That’s not a typo. Sharman ran a 12:44 100 miler, the fastest trail 100 mile time on US soil. I could write an entire post on Sharman’s accomplishments this year, but the highlights include a fourth place at American River 50 (6:00:20), tenth at Miwok AS ELVIS(!), tenth at Western States (16:40:19), second at the Waldo 100k (9:42:51), and fourth at the UROC 100k (9:23:46). After admitting to racing a bit too much earlier in the year, Sharman has taken it easy (for him) with no ultras since UROC in late September.
Then there’s the racingest elite on the American ultra scene and leading US Ultrarunner of the Year contender Michael Wardian. Wardian’s last three races alone would make a great season: he was second to Geoff Roes at UROC after getting lost while leading late in the race, we won the USATF 50 mile road championships in 5:33:46, and placed second at the JFK 50 two weekends ago in 5:43:24, which bettered the 17-year-old course record by three minutes. That’s just his last two months, folks. He’s also won the USATF road 50k championships (2:55:59), placed third at Badwater, and taken second at the IAU 100k World Championships (6:42:49). Aside from his tangible accomplishments in 2011, Wardian has become a much better climber, which should help him improve on his ninth (’08) and fifth (’09) place finishes at the TNF 50 Mile Championships. On a course where the course record is irrelevant (there’s a modified course due to trail maintenance) and given his propensity for getting lost in trail races, Wardian might be best served by marking the leader all day rather than trying to run away from the field.
The biggest reason Wardian might want to give himself some distance on the field is the race’s dark horse, Rickey Gates. If the race were anything shorter than a marathon, it would be impossible to call Gates a dark horse. He’s twice won the Mount Washington Road Run, he’s a multi-time national champion (’09 & ’11), and was the 2007 USATF Mountain Runner of the Year. In August, Gates made his ultra debut with the 78-mile Canadian Death Race. He won the race and broke Hal Koerner’s course record by half an hour. The competition will be much stronger at the TNF 50, but Gates has raced the world’s best mountain runners around the global so there’s no reason he can’t run with the best ultrarunners on Saturday. Word is Gates has been training in the Bay Area for the past few weeks. [12/2 Edit: Added training bit.]
As usual a cadre of top international runners on The North Face squad will be running the race.
The overseas TNF runner that American’s are most familiar with is Jez Bragg. He’s got a third (’09 – 16:54;35) and a fourth (’11 – 15:55:08) at Western States, was sixth at this race last year, and won the shortened TNF UTMB in 2010. Bragg’s has a solid year back home in the UK.
Sebastien Chaigneau will be unknown to most American ultrarunners… unless they follow UTMB where Chaigneau has finished second in 2009 (22:36:45) and third this year (20:55:41). I don’t have much insight into his speed, but he did beat Koerner at the Ultra Marathon de Los Andes 80k last October. [11/30 Edit: Seb is out.]
Rounding out the familiar TNF squad from the other side of the globe is Japanese runner Tsuyoshi Kaburaki. In 2009, Kaburaki finished second at Western States (16:52:06) setting the masters course record in the process. This year, he finished fifth at WS (16:07:04)… only to reset the men’s master’s record. Kaburaki also has a third (’09 – 22:48:36) and a seventh (’11 23:41:04) at UTMB as well as a third (’08) and fourth (’09) at the TNF 50 Mile Championships. In other words, if Kaburaki is on the line, he’s going to take it to the competition.
Other top foreigners includes Salomon’s speedy Frenchmen
Thomas Lorblanchet and Christophe Malarde, who finished eight and 11th, respectively, at last year’s TNF 50. [Edit: Lorblanchet is out with an injury.] With an international mountain biking background and a second place five minutes behind Kilian Jornet at this year’s Table Mountain Challenge in South Africa, Salomon International Team manager Greg Vollet could surprise a few folks. Salomon also has Gustavo Reyes of Argentina who finished a second behind Chaigneau at last year’s Andres race, while TNF is bringing Brazilian runner Marcelo Sinoca and Siu Keung Tsang from Hong Kong, who finished 12th at the 2009 TNF 50 Mile. [Update: Both Sinoca and Tsang are out.]
Ok, who here was thinking I was going to skip Canada? Nope. Adam Campbell is coming south looking to continue his stellar year. In May, Campbell ran 5:44 for 50 miles setting the Canadian trail 50 mile national record and winning the national championship at the same time. In late August, he was again back in top form placing second at the CCC (a sister 100kish race of the TNF UTMB).
Now here’s the thing. You’ve just read 1,600 words about a dozen top contenders and top international runners you may or may not have heard of… and I’ve still got over a dozen guys who routinely destroy ultra fields. I’m talking 5:30 50 mile, top 10 at Western States, cleaning up everywhere else talent. At least one of the guys below should finish in the top five on Saturday. I could keep on typing, but is anyone still reading? (No, seriously, does anyone read 1,700 words into an article these days?) Given that I went thematic above with well-knowns and the internationals field (for the educational element), I hope everyone on the following list of additional contenders realize that I do, in fact, consider them contenders!
- Galen Burrell – I would have listed Burrell as dark house after Gates except Burrell’s never run an ultra as far as I can tell. [Edit: Matt points out in a comment that Burrell ran the 61k Kepler Challenge in 2009.] Burrell has a win (’04) and two seconds (’05 & ’06) at the Pike Peak Marathon and lives adjacent to the Headlands in Mill Valley. [Thanks for the correction, GZ!]
- Graham Cooper – Cooper is a past Western States champ (’06). He impressed again this year with his seventh place at WS100.
- Matt Flaherty – Flaherty has been a one-man-ultra-coming-out party the past three months. He won TNF Madison in 5:59 before placing third at UROC behind Roes and Wardian just a week later. A month later he ran 5:32:25 to win the Chicago Lakefront Fall 50. Flaherty has just joined the Salomon team.
- Ryan Day – A Canadian with 2:19 marathon speed who’s making his ultra debut. Marathon speed is no guarantee of success in an ultra, but Chris Lundstrum or Matt Flaherty had great success at the TNF 50 in ’09 and ’10. [12/2 Edit: Added thanks to Adam Campbell.]
- Mike Foote – Foote is more of a threat in a tough 100 miler. He was second at Hardrock in 2010 and was the top American at this year’s UTMB in eleventh place. He recently joined the TNF team.
- Dominic Grossman – Grossman is 24 years old and has run about the same number of ultras in the past three years. He’s been solid, but had a big breakthrough in July winning the Angeles Crest 100 in 20:21:33.
Dave James – James added his name to the waitlist last night… and I’m confident he’ll get in. Why the last minute decision? Well, after a down period he’s been doubling or tripling every day for a few weeks and he notes, “I feel like I did the week before the 100 Mile National Championships!” He won that race, the Burning River 100, in 15:57:43 this July.[12/2 Edit: Unable to attend.]
- Jason Loutitt – Canadian Loutitt adds yet another sub-6 hour 50 mile guy to the field. He placed second at this year’s American River 50 to Dave Mackey and ahead of Nick Clark and Ian Sharman in 5:59:55. He won the HURT 100 in January and ran a 7:28:25 at the Elk/Beaver trail 100k in May. [12/2 Edit: Added after personal confirmation of his racing, which follow Adam Campbell’s tip.]
- Jorge Maravilla – Maravilla’s won four ultras this year, including in his first 100 miles, the Tahoe Rim 100 (18:48:19). Previously, he’s placed fourth (’08), fifth (’07) and tenth (’09) at the TNF – SF 50k. [Added: Thanks to numerous readers who suggested Maravilla.]
- Jordan McDougal – McDougal’s run only three ultras, all three being TNF EC regional 50 mile races. He was third at last year’s DC race before beating Leigh Schmitt and Ben Nephew out by 15 and 16 minutes, respectively, to win at Bear Mountain, NY this May. In June, he was second (5:59:55) to Matt Woods and ahead of Michael Wardian at the DC event. He’s a 24-year-old grad of Liberty U where David Horton teaches.
- Karl Meltzer – Meltzer says he’s coming out to run with the ladies and drink beer with friends. Right… As usual he’s having another Karl year with wins at the Massanutten and Pinhoti 100 milers, a 14:27 at the Rocky Raccoon 100, and a third place at Wasatch on the heels of injury and illness. He’s Karl. [Edit: Added after confirmation of likely entry in the field.]
- Timothy Olson – Some folks would consider Olson a dark horse, but with a sixth place at this year’s Western States (16:18:42), second at this year’s White River 50 in a stellar sub-7-hour finish (6:59:38), and back-to-back Pine to Palm 100 mile victories, this guy is a champion thoroughbred who could easily be in the top five this weekend.
- Jorge Pacheco – Pacheco is an ultra institution. He won’t go top five on Saturday, but he won the Angeles Crest 100 last year and a bunch of local ultras this year.
- Martias Saari – Coming down from Alaska, masters runner Saari has the mountain trail experience to give Geoff Roes a run for his money in a three hour race. The question is can he do the same for the better part of seven hours. [12/2 Edit: Added based on multiple suggestions.]
- Jason Schlarb – Schlarb has been training his butt off … in Iraq while deployed there with the US Air Force. He was fifth at last year’s TNF 50, his ultra debut, and won the Nueces 50 mile, the USATF 50 mile trail championships, this March. This year’s TNF 50 is still listed on his race calendar found on his blog, which remains active, but he did race White River in absentia in Iraq in August. I hope (1) he and his military comrades are safe and (2) we see him throw down in California this week.
- Leigh Schmitt – The former king of East Coast 50 milers continues to roll after moving to the Bay Area a bit over a year ago. Historically, he’s been third (’07), sixth (’08), and sixth (’09) at the TNF 50 Mile. This year, he’s won eight ultras (all 50k to 50 miles) and placed second at the Vermont 100 (15:34:08).
- Eric Strabel – A speedy Alaskan trail runner who held the Crow Pass Marathon record prior to Geoff Roes. Roes is under the impression that Strabel is not racing, but we’ve added him just in case. [12/2 Edit: Added based on multiple suggestions.]
- Nathan Yanko – Aside from Burrell, no contender has likely trained as specifically for this event as San Francisco-resident Yanko. This Headlands training specificity has helped him take fourth and sixth at the past two Miwok 100ks.
Honorable Mention: Ron Gutierrez, Bob Shebest, Brett Rivers, Jacob Rydman, Joe Uhan
Finally, and I mean it, there are a few key absences from this year’s starting line.
The race will go off without any of its prior men’s champions in the field. The defending champ Miguel Heras has been battling knee pain since dropping out of UTMB in August. He did race after that, but last week pulled the plug on running San Francisco. The other two prior champions, Uli Steidl (’07 & ’09) and Matt Carpenter (’08), are also absent from the entry list.
Both Nick Clark and Dave Mackey are on the short list for Ultrarunner of the Year and previously had this weekend’s race on their schedules. Both had their own reasons for withdrawing (Nick Clark & Mackey).
Call for Comments
- How do you think the top five will shake out?
- Who do you think is the dark horse in the field?
- Any top runners that you know are racing that we forgot?
- How about guys we name who you know won’t be on the line?