(Trail) Ultrarunner of the Year?

A discussion of whether comparing trail and road ultras is like comparing apples to bowling balls.

By on January 26, 2011 | Comments

Ben Nephew, an elite trail runner and ultramarathoner from New England, raises (and takes a stand on) difficult questions regarding the hot topics of Ultrarunner of the Year voting, international competitions, and championships races.

Am I the only one who wonders how road and trail ultrarunners are combined for Ultrarunning Magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year (UROY)?  It’s similar to having a 10k runner of the year that includes track and cross country, but the difference between road and trail ultra racing is much greater than between track and cross country.  There are some ultras that are a mix of road and trail, but when you consider each specialty as a whole, they are vastly different.

I doubt any of the other top 10 men’s UROY runners would suggest that they could beat Mike Wardian in a road ultra, and the top 4 would probably have a hard time with Todd Braje.  Conversely, Mike and Todd would probably get beat by several runners ranked below them at a challenging trail ultra.  Mike has won USATF UROY for a few years now, but that is not due to the fact that USATF is ignoring trail runners.  It may be a result of runners ignoring USATF trail ultras, but that’s another conversation.  I could make a long list of instances where road ultrarunners or road performances were ignored by the Ultrarunning Magazine UROY rankings, but what prompted me to write this article are a couple recently popular topics of discussion among ultrarunners: international competitions and championship races.

International Competition
If Europe’s UTMB is currently the pinnacle of trail ultras, why does it seem as though the foreign IAU championships get ignored in Ultrarunning Magazine’s UROY voting?  The IAU World 100k championship has been around for quite a while and attracts incredibly strong international fields, including US teams.  A race in California gets a few international runners and some claim that it was the most competitive 50 mile ever held, but even that race doesn’t seem to get much credit in UROY voting.  I have no idea how you compare runners who compete internationally with those who don’t.  Whether you are trying to rank road or trail runners, I think international championships should hold more weight than mostly US races.  There might be exceptions if US runners were dominant in either road or trail ultras, but the former is not true, and the latter seems to be unknown due to a lack of international racing at this point.  This issue of international vs. US racing further complicates any attempts at ranking trail and road ultrarunners together.

Championship Races
Once again, the IAU has been organizing road ultra championship races for quite a while.  The race committees for these races do an excellent job of attracting a diverse and competitive field.  I can’t think of a trail ultra that approaches the efforts of the IAU races.  Obviously UTMB attracts a quality field due to the incredible race experience, but what if the London marathon picked the entire field with a lottery, including elites?* That’s another conversation, as well.  The presence of real championship races for road ultras and lack of similar trail events is a third confounding factor that makes comparing road and ultra runners difficult at the very least.

When you consider the differences between road and trail ultrarunning in terms of surface, international competition, and championship races, it seem useless to try and rank them as one sport.  I’m interested to hear other opinions on whether Ultrarunning Magazine UROY rankings pertain to road ultras.  Hopefully, this will stimulate some discussion.  I just can’t figure out how to compare Geoff’s course record at Western States with Mike’s bronze at the World 100k.  It may be the definition of an irrelevant comparison.

Although I do some road running from time to time, the above comments are coming from someone who runs 95% of their training and racing miles on the trails.

?* [Editor’s note: It’s not altogether clear that UTMB randomly draws elites.]

Ben Nephew
Ben Nephew is an 11 time winner and course record holder at the Escarpment Trail Race. He has PR's of 3:10 for 50k and 5:47 for 50 miles and holds the fastest known times for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse, the Devil's Path in the Catskills, and the Pemigewasset Loop in the White Mountains. He has been running in INOV-8's since 2004, and is also sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.