The Rise of American Ultrarunning Speed (and 2013 Desert Solstice Preview)

[Editor’ Note: Guest writer Nick Coury is the Chief Technology Officer for Aravaipa Running, a race-management company based in Arizona. In this article, Nick discusses the current revival of American ultramarathon performances on the road and track. He also previews the upcoming Desert Solstice Invitational, a 24-hour and 100-mile track race that he directs and that will be held on December 14 and 15, where some more high-level American track performances could occur.]

American ultrarunning is on the eve of a revolution, though it is happening with little fanfare. While ultra-distance events on trails are becoming more ubiquitous, a small group of ultrarunners are rewriting the record books far away from the dirt.

For the past few decades, fast road and track ultras have been the territory of foreigners. World-class 100k and 24-hour runners came from Japan, Britain, Russia, and Greece, among others. As the IAU developed the 100k and later the 24-Hour World Championships, the U.S. made token appearances but was rarely a legitimate contender. Two individual golds by Ann Trason are almost lost among the consistently high performances of overseas competitors.

No longer. Scott Jurek’s transition from trails to road in order to set the 24-hour American record in 2010 foreshadowed what was to come. [Broken link to May 24, 2010 Scott Jurek blogpost entitled “This Is What You Came For” removed.] In the past two years, Americans have dominated the long-distance running scene in extraordinary form. At the 2012 IAU World 100k, the women scored three in the top five for the overall win, led by Amy Sproston’s individual title. The men placed four in the top 10 for a second-place team finish. That fall, at the 2012 World 24-Hour, Mike Morton won the race, set an American record, and became the third best one-day runner in history. Connie Gardner also set an American record, leading the women to a team gold. This spring’s World 24-Hour saw yet higher results. Jon Olsen led the men to victory with an individual gold and teammates scoring second and 10th. Sabrina Little reclaimed the American record from Connie, with the second, third, and fourth-place scores allowing both U.S. teams the win.

2013 US 24 Hour Team

The 2013 US 24-Hour Team. Photos courtesy of Nick Coury

The world championships are far from the whole story. The revival of the American ultra-distance track race is just beginning. At the 2012 Desert Solstice, Jon Olsen and Mike Arnstein both broke 13 hours for 100 miles, the first time any American has done so since 1989. Pam Smith was within minutes of breaking 15 hours. In September, Jon Olsen became the first North American to ever break 12 hours (7:12 minutes per mile), becoming the eighth best 100 miler in history and bettering his own PR by 30 minutes. Going longer, we find Joe Fejes putting in a 156-mile one day as a warm up two weeks before his staggering 329-mile, 72-hour performance on the road. This itself is only prep for his coming attempts at breaking the six-day American record. On the flip side, Zach Bitter quietly ran a 5:12:36 at the Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile. The last time someone ran that fast was in 1981, five years before he was born.

All of this naturally draws the question, where are we going? Can Americans approach and surpass the standing world records? Who will be the ones to do it, and what conditions will it take?

Jon Olsen reflects on the prospects of future 100-mile performances, including the world record of 11:28:03 (6:52 minutes per mile) in an interview for this article,

“There are many runners out there capable of running a sub-12-hour 100 mile. It takes a 7:12 average per mile. But for those runners that run a 2:30 marathon or faster… they could down shift by a minute and 20 seconds and do it. However, this kind of race is more mental, than physical… There really is no rest. Unlike a typical trail 100 mile where you have downhill sections to rest, you have to hold your pace and effort every step… I don’t know if I really think I have a chance at breaking the 100-mile or 24-hour [world] records… but I think guys like Sage Canaday, maybe Michael Wardian, could come close because they have faster leg speed. But I think it would also involve a complete training focus to do it. 11:30 is flying!”

For this article, Mike Morton shared his take on Yiannis Kouros’s 24-hour world record of 188.59 miles (7:38 minutes per mile):

“I think we will see the records pushed over time… I think the record Mr. Kouros has established will take a while to achieve. 188 miles is 16 miles more than what I have done, I think 180 will be hit by someone. I think Jon Olson is the guy to do it right now along with a couple guys from Europe… I think if a 24 hour takes place and you have a group of guys or gals all pushing the record pace you will see an off-the-chart new record. 172 is soft and soon I will not be the American record holder. I think Joe Fejes is raising awareness of the multi-day events again as well. I think we might see interest in those events like there was in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Pam Smith also weighs in on the women’s 100-mile track and road world records in an email exchange for this article,

“I think there are several women in the U.S. right now who would have a good shot at running under 14:25 for 100 miles. I think the biggest barrier is just the number of women who have the desire to run 100 miles on the track. The world road record [13:47] was set by Ann Trason and I think that is a really stout time. And there just aren’t that many 100-mile courses with ideal conditions for running as fast as possible. That record could be around for a lot longer.”

A valuable perspective on the subject comes from British ultra-historian Andy Milroy. With decades of firsthand experience, insight, and most importantly, mountains of statistics, Andy knows exactly what kind of runner is needed for a world record. For this article, I asked him his thoughts. First he addresses past and current holders of the men’s record, “The 100 mile as Oleg Kharitonov and Denis Zhalybin showed, and Cavin Woodward and Don Ritchie before them, is really the preserve of the 100k runners. Jon Olsen did well but moving down to sub-11:30 is a different ball game.” After analyzing his list of top 100-mile performances, he makes an interesting observation. “Basically the men’s list for track is dominated by straight 100-mile races, the women’s by 24-hour splits… This indicates that a woman with good 100k credentials could go under 13 hours for 100 miles in a straight race.” And as for the 24-hour world record, well… “No one is going to touch Kouros’s 303k anytime soon!”

The world records won’t be easy, but they certainly aren’t impossible.

There is a lot of momentum building for fast ultras. The draw of the world championships pulls talent from the trail and shorter road events alike. Morton says,

“I think folks hear the stories from the team members and realize it is pretty cool to don that USA jersey and throw down in a world competition… It was a huge motivation for me to run with the potential to be a ‘world champion’ and recognize my country. I think more runners will see that it is a rare opportunity and taking part can be accomplished parallel to running trails.”

A fast ultra can even play a big role in training for trail races, says Smith, “Having a great race at Desert Solstice last year gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to run 100 miles well [at Western States].”

What do we have to look forward to? Lots. The 2014 national teams are shaping up to be the strongest yet. The Desert Solstice Invitational is this weekend with an ever-increasing field and increased prize money for top performances ($250 up to $5,000). The race is organized to provide ideal conditions for runners to set national and world records, qualify for national teams, and achieve significant personal records.

What does this mean in terms of race logistics? First of all, the all-weather track surface is ideal for top performances given its absolute flatness, traction in any weather, and consistently forgiving cushion. Stadium lighting at night prevents midnight fatigue and gives runners a mental boost. The aid station and crew tents are at the outer edge of lane two, keeping aid only a step away without blocking the inner lane. Large displays at the start line provide instant feedback on a runner’s distance, place, and lap times. The timing team keeps a close eye on runner performances, providing runners with the lap splits needed to hit their goals on-demand. This proved crucial for Jay Aldous when he set a world age-group record at 100 miles, as his trance-like focus the last 40 miles was on hitting the required pace one lap at a time.

What does this translate into for runners? Aldous’s time was a 76-minute improvement over his previous best. Or, take Michael Arnstein, coming to the 2011 race with a national-class 15:26:21 100-mile PR. With the advantages of the track, he improved by 100 minutes to clock a 13:46:18. If this wasn’t enough, he returned in 2012 to shave another 49 minutes and clock a 12:57:45. Joe Fejes pushed for a big PR at the 2012 World 24 Hour of 147.48 miles in order to score for the team. Yet, with the improved conditions of the track, Joe ran 156.626 miles three months later at last year’s race.

2012 Desert Solstice - Jon Olsen - Mike Arnstein

Jon Olsen and Mike Arnstein racing the 2012 Desert Solstice.

What will this year’s race see? Zach Bitter will be attempting a fast 100 mile, and could threaten Jon Olsen’s recent record. Pam Smith is gunning for the 200k American record, and then planning to push on for a spot on the US 24-hour team. Connie Gardner is a recent entrant, a former American Record holder who is still looking to break 150 in 24 hours. Other runners to watch are Jay Smithberger who ran 13:49:13 at Desert Solstice last year and will be gunning for running all 24 hours this year and Olivier Leblond with a 14:33:25 best at 100 miles; Anthony Culpepper, Anthony Forsyth, and John Maas are all shooting for over 150 miles; Eric Clifton with countless performances; and John Ticer and Roy Pirrung with their strong age-group performances. Spots are still available, and interested runners can inquire to [email protected].

Aravaipa will broadcast live results and a webcam during the race.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Which runners not mentioned in this article do you think could make a dent on some of the American (or world) records discussed here? In vetting for a particular person, please share the racing credentials you think make them a possibility.
  • Some runners show their ability to perform well on all surfaces, road, track, and trail, while some runners seem to specialize at certain race substrates. Do you think the ability or inability to cross over is a matter of genetics, training, or perhaps a little of both?
  • At the upcoming road and track events, who among the above-listed contenders has the best shot at reaching their goals? Why do you think this?