Time for Something New

I’ve run several ultra trail races in the past seven years. Not as many as some people, but enough to get a pretty good sense of what the typical race is like. I’ve run some of the oldest, most well established races on the circuit: e.g., Western States, Wasatch, Mountain Masochist, and American River. I’ve also run several very young races that are trying to establish themselves as “instant classics”: UROC, Run Rabbit Run, and The North Face Endurance Challenge. Beyond this I’ve run a dozen or more races that fit somewhere in between these classics and newbies.

Having run all these different races the one thing that jumps out at me when I compare them to each other is how much they are all alike. Virtually every ultra I’ve ever run has either been 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, or 100 miles. They’ve pretty much all had aid stations no less often than every 10 miles (typically in the 4-7 mile range). Nearly every one of them has started between 5-7 am on Saturday morning. Every race has a few minor things which make it a bit different from others, but for the most part, you could roam around the country running a new race every week, and after several weeks you would likely start to feel like you were running the same races over and over.

There is, of course, a reason it’s like this. There are some key components which were born in the beginning of modern-day ultrarunning that have been passed along and emulated over the years. In almost all cases these components have become tradition because they make a lot of sense. Right? That’s what you would think would be the case, but when you look closer at some of these things it’s actually hard to find logical reasons (other than tradition) for the widespread similarities in all these races.

Is there any reason why it makes more sense to run 50 miles as opposed to 44, or 56, or any other distance that a desired route happens to be? In track or road running where you can typically compare times from race to race it makes a lot of sense to have various common distances. But in ultra distance trail running why does there also seem to be this kind of consistency in race distance? Due to the variation in terrain you can’t begin to compare one race to another, and, if anything, many race routes end up being compromised due to the “need” to make them one of the four common distances. Is it just that we like to be able to say that we ran a nice round number of miles? Does running 50 miles really sound more bad ass than running 55? Certainly, if you’re going to run 92 miles, it’d be nice to tack on 8 more and make it an even 100, but when it’s said and done, doesn’t it seem to make more sense to just run the 92 as opposed to running an out and back stretch on a road to make up the extra mileage (something that I’ve done more than once in 100-milers)?

The 71-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra covers the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail’s entire length. No more, no less.
Photo: CatchTech Adventures

What about aid stations? Running 50 kilometers or more takes a ton of calories, water, and often a lot of emotional support – all of which we get a lot of from aid stations. C’mon though! If we can run 100 miles can’t we also run stretches of 15, 20, even 50 miles without aid? I get the point that running these distances are really, really hard so we need all the support we can get to help us do it successfully, but is this such a necessary thing that virtually every race in existence should have no fewer than one aid station per 10 miles? Does it really make it that much harder if we need to carry several extra gels in our pack, or stop a few times during the race and bend over and actually get our own water out of a stream? And does harder make it any less appealing? If that were the case why wouldn’t we just run a 5k instead of 100 miles? I also get the point that we are paying to do a race so that we can receive the kind of support that goes along with all of these races. When you think about what you are getting for your money at most of today’s races it’s actually a pretty good deal. This said though, why do they all need to be this way? Wouldn’t it make just as much sense to have many races with significantly fewer aid stations that could thus charge significantly less for entry? Again, not a very novel idea, but one that virtually no races seem to adopt.

Anyway, no need to ramble on any further on every single thing that races seem to do similar to other races. Obviously tradition and trend play a huge part in these patterns, and many new races adopt these patterns without even thinking of it. I, for one, though would love to see some change in this regard. I think the “typical” races are really great, and make a lot of sense, but they aren’t the only things that make sense. In the same way that I think more diversity among the participants in our sport would make the sport richer for everyone involved, so, too, would more diversity among the events in our sport. To anyone out there looking at starting a new event (and I assume there are more than a few reading this who fit into this category), do you really want to start another event that’s more or less the same as the 99% of races already out there?

I don’t raise these points to criticize anyone for creating new races that are modeled so closely after the vast majority of current races, but, instead, to hopefully plant a few seeds for something a little different in the future. I’m still at least a couple years away from putting on a race of my own (if ever), but you can bet if I ever do it won’t be shaped with the same cookie cutter as all the races I’ve run in the past.

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.

View Comments (67)

  • Here in the UK I guess we're less hung-up on the distance thing: there are plenty of Ultras which have "odd" numbers of miles, usually because they're following an established trail like the Ridgeway, South Downs Way or similar (see here for some examples: http://www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk/events-single-day-ultra.

    I think you're absolutely right about the artificiality of "standard" distances, especially, as you point out, as courses differ so much that cross-comparison is pretty much impossible.

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  • It does seem that US / European races have become slightly "sterilised" for want of a better word and at the risk of offending.

    As an example, here in South Africa, most of our trail marathons / ultras have zero aid tables and one has to be fully self sufficient over 42 - 110km. Obviously, water is available from streams etc along the route and there may be checkpoints / marshalls for emergency assistance but generally, you are on your own.

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  • Here in the Netherlands most ultra's are advertised as round number races.

    If you look deeper into the discription you will find that a 60k is often 60.7k.

    And last June i ran a race which was 52.2k.

    I think it is important to make a race that has a scenic route and not a round number of miles or kilometers.

    Also that 52.2 kilometer race had only 1 aid station but was passed through twice.

    Here in europe there are a lot of races that don't have round number of kilometers.

    There also are some self supported races.

    So perhaps you should consider coming to europe to race!

    Greetz from the Netherlands,

    Rutger

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  • interesting article. thanks! there is a couple of "odd" number-races here in Europe. I started my "ultrarunning" with the Veitsch Grenzstaffellauf, a 54k (in Austria), which was then "upgraded" to 56k depending on trail conditions. Gran Trail Valdigne (Italy) was announced as a 70k race; the actual lenght was then 84 (back in 2007). a year later it was 87 and now they made a 100k out of it in 2011 (withouth adding any road, but wounderful trail sections!). This years Tenerife Bluetrail (crossing Tenerife Island, Spain)was 93.15k and this years UTMB ~103 (due to bad weather and complete rerouting of the course; usually 158 - 171 k depending on changes of the course). The Wörthersee trail maniak (Austria) is "only" 57k, cause this is the distance it takes to circle the lake on wonderful trails. And the Pitztal Glacier trail maniak, which will be held the first time in 2013 will have a distance of 95k. However, there are some of the "normal" distances: e.g. Zugspitz Ultratrail (100k) and Chiemgauer 100 Meilen (100 miles). ...for me the important thing is actually not if the distance is normal or odd, it is simply about the beauty of the course and the elevation gains and drops that make one ultra different to the other (although they might have the same distance to travel). well, and about the aidstation "spacing": this is pretty much a question of access and elevation change and not really distance at least in technical terrain. but i love the idea of more self-sufficiency... looking forward to the next ultra, be it normal or odd. maybe the 119k transgrancanaria (canary island, spain) early next year?.

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  • +1 I really think this is a great point on both the race distances and the aid stations. Focusing more on the "quality" of the trail run than getting it to end on a certain number of miles would really appeal to a large number of runners.

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  • It's always been more of the adventure/expedition type of races that have really spoken to me. Northern/winter races like Iditarod Trail and Yukon Arctic Ultra are very appealing in this sense with minimal aid along the way. It seems like this is a characteristic of the race and what makes it so special. I haven't noticed as many summer races either going this route, but here's hoping that they do.

    Aside...With regards to your comment about reduced race aid potentially meaning reduced entry fees...I'm not sure that's always the case when it comes to insurance requirements and what is needed to gain event insurance from the providers end. Not sure though as I haven't checked into it.

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  • Although my experience running ultras in Europe is quite limited, the two I have run were of non-traditional distance: a 60k in Spain (Trail De Penalara 60k) and the 57k race (Worthersee Ultra Run) in Austria that Tom mentioned. Both races featured well-stocked aid stations but it seemed that they were placed a bit further apart. As Tom mentioned, I suspect this is due to terrain access but it does, nonetheless, change racing strategy (at least it did for me). For example, many of the races I've considered running are "semi-autonomous" and require that the runner carry a modest amount of gear (e.g. thermal blanket, whistle, map, headlamp, extra batteries) while running. For an American introduced to ultra running on American soil, having to schlep a bunch of gear around can be a bit disconcerting but I suspect for most Europeans this is not a big deal. My sense is that the ultrarunning-minded Europeans have spent so much of their lives wandering and hiking around in the mountains (often shouldering day packs with everything they'd need to survive for a couple of days) that having to be "semi-autonomous" for a race is a trivial matter since they'd probably be carrying most of the stuff anyway. With that said (and considering my limited experience), many of the ultras in Europe seem more "organic" in that the distance is the distance (even if it isn't a round number) and if the terrain precludes setting up an aid station every five miles, so be it (shouldn't be a big deal since you'll be carrying at least two liters of water and 1,000+ calories with you anyway).

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  • This is one of the many reasons I'm drawn to thru-hiking more so than trail races (despite loving both). There's something magical about getting up every morning and just going until you feel like stopping...without worrying about distance or time covered.

    Great article as always Geoff. And the Laurel Highlands trail is definitely a beauty too. Right in my "backyard".

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  • I very much like the idea of race distance being a "natural distance" , one that fits the terraine/trail its run on.

    My nonrace FKT type runs are this way, why can't a race be this way.

    and Yes, a race with more widely spaced aid stations, or even a typical race with one or two very widely spaced stations, would add some character to the event.

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  • so you might like this one? 77 miles... point to point over trail... somewhat self supported (you are allowed to drop aid along the way)... and 18,000+ of gain!

    http://http://www.foothillstrailultraruns.com/index.html

    I must say that i'm a little disappointed with the ending of the post though... was hoping you were going to use it as a lead into your 112 mile ultra in Juneau with only 4-5 aid stations (maybe to be renamed 'life bases') spaced out over the course.

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  • I like to populate my race calendar with a couple favorite, standard distance parties - sorry I mean races - but in between them most of my weekends are spent on "adventure" runs. They are all free and self-supported, like the Zion traverse I ran with my wife and friends this fall or the Grand Canyon R2R2R last spring or the Kings Peak Marathon I ran alone during the summer (I won). I think that is what ultrarunning is really all about: there wont be any big sponsors or prize money, but thats only the concern of a tiny fraction of runners anyway.

    I love to see new, unique races on the calendar, but if anyone out there is considering creating one... just make it a bandit run! All you need is a course map, clipboard and a stopwatch. Forget the permits, t-shirts, awards, catered aid stations, videographers and all the rest because we are well stocked on those races.

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  • Did you talk to Tony while thinking about this? Sounds like something he would agree with.

    I have found that shorter trail races are less mindful of sticking to a desired distance. I signed up for a 10.4 mile race (unfortunately postponed so I couldn't race it) a few weeks ago, and Leadville puts on the Heavy Half. Shorter still I've run some great "4 and a bit" mile races. But it seems that when the races get longer, the statement changes from "I ran a really cool race" to "I ran a (marathon, 50k, 50m, etc ...). A strange phenomenon.

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  • I love this. But it'll never fly in America, where there has to be a McDonald's in every city and standardized test scores for every school district. That's why you see a "100 miler" popping up in every city. And how would anyone break Karl Meltzer's 100 mile wins record if we only ran 97.3 mile races in the future?

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    • I know you partially jest, but there's more than a little truth in this. There is, and has been for a while, the Plain 100. No aid over the two different 50 mile loops. And you know what? When talking to other ultra runners almost no one's looked at it (I only know two who've run it), and when they hear that it has no aid, they all say how hard that would be and don't give the race a second thought... since there are so many options out there that DO offer aid.

      So Trail Clown (*Who I am hoping wins a book and thus has to use his real name*) actually has a point. I don't see people flocking to the effectively unsupported current 100s, or even the clearly TOTALLY awesome scenic, reportedly very well run Fat Dog 100 which is actually 120 miles. One of the shortest starting lists out there, yet arguably the best scenery on this continent. But 120 miles... who wants to do that if the T-shirt only says Fat Dog 100???

      Thus, this is all evidence that would convince me, if I wanted to host a new race, to NOT do anything other than a standard distance and standard aid.

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      • There is no quiet place in white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in the spring, or the rustle of insects’ wings. --Chief Seattle

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        • Hey TC you should run in France. I've run races with virtually no aid stations and when you do get to one, its water, coke or ginger cake!

          ....thats why I always carry all I need. ..just in case.

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          • Wish I could, wish I could. No money in these pockets to do that. Probably why I'm always up on my soapbox, that's what being poor will do to ya. Two small mouths to feed, but at least they see me always pushin' them in the running stroller, and at least when I ran the Andiamo 44.8 miler last year, I ran 5.3 miles to the start to make it an even 50.1 miles for the day! Hope noone gets too worked up over my ranting, I am actually harmless in person :)

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  • Here in Scotland our longest Ultra is 95 miles. Thats is the length of the West Highland Way trail that it is run on. No Longer. No shorter.

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    • And it Starts at 1am.

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  • I agree with your point on contrived courses to reach one of the four "traditional" distances. There's something very powerful about finding a course that just makes sense, regardless of distance.

    On the other hand, I appreciate the more-frequent-than-strictly-necessary aid stations. Sure, we could get by on less aid, but racing is so appealing, in part, because it offers a safe way to push your limits. It's one of the ways racing differs from a long training run.

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  • They should make it so that you can't start a race with food and you have to forage your way through the race. I mean COME ON if you can run 100 miles, surely you can find your own food along those 100 miles. Support at river crossings? Pfft. forge it yourself or hell, if you can run 100 miles, you can run up river a bit to find a crossing. Maps? Trailmarkers? Coursemarkings? no way. Oh wait, that kind of does exist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Mountain_Wild...

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  • Great article Geoff! You must have read my mind as I was running a very fun course this past weekend. Because, despite fantastic organization and a great course, it had this really weird out/back aid station about a mile from the finish/half way point. This seemed really out of place and I personally felt it disrupted the rhythm and aesthetic of an otherwise amazing course. I've all the respect in the world for the organizers of this and other races, but I must agree, tweaking a course to be a specific distance often diminishes the experience.

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  • I like everthing about this article. When I started Ultra running, we had water bottles and bulky food items and non-tech clothing that wasn't as light and protective as today's stuff. While not compleatly necessary, aid stations close together sure lightened the load. Now I can easily carry everything I need for a 50k or beyond. Also I'm all for doing away with the round number thing. NEWS FLASH-many of our races are rounded up or down already. When I'm doing a 50 miler that's really 53, it would be nice to get credit for the extra 3 miles.

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  • David Horton fixed this a long time ago with Horton Miles, nighttime starts, etc. :) What many folks call 'unique', 'creative', and 'innovative', others call cruel, incorrectly measured, and heartless. :)

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