(Trail) Ultrarunner of the Year?

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

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.

There are 11 comments

  1. Jim Martin

    I tend to agree on many of the points being placed here. I firmly believe that rankings in any sport should be founded on tangible performance alone. And if a runner either trail or road excells within his/her field it should be classified as such. Mr. Nephew is right when asking the age old question of apples to oranges. There are alot of runners out there who may consider themselves an a competitive runner. But I make no illusions my races are usually on trails, so I consider myself a trail runner, and if a Trail Runner of the year award was given to somebody who won a bunch of trail races but is really at heart a road competitor I would bothered somewhat, but rankings are results don't lie. But with so few races that are comparible how do you get a true picture?

  2. Goji Yerba Wong

    World Series doesn't include teams from Cuba nor Taiwan. Ultrarunning Magazine is U.S. centric…I have no particular issue that they have more emphasis on U.S. trail ultra runners. Isn't it trail ultra more technical than road ultras.

    Ranking is always subjective.

  3. Natural1

    Interesting article – the comparison of US vs international racing is certainly a valid one, but also highlights the differences between East vs West racing in the US. The eastern US has no lack of talent or challenging races, but with the exception of the VT 100, Massanutten, Hellgate and JFK it seems like few elite western runners venture east to take on the top eastern racers.

  4. Ian Sharman

    I think this year will have more international competition in trail races, with WS, UTMB and TNFEC promising top runners from all over. But in general I'd consider trail (ie. mountain) and road running to be almost different sports. It's definitely possible for people to be at the top level in both, but to be up there requires so much focus that most don't give each an equal effort.

    Women seem to have a lot more examples of runners winning the big events at both. Currently, Kami Semick, Lizzie Hawker and Ellie Greenwood have been 100k road World Champs as well as dominating on trails. But the best example is Ann Trason and her Comrades/WS wins, 2 weeks apart!

    1. Ben Nephew

      As in most other forms of running, men's ultrarunning is usually more competitive, and I think that partly explains what you are seeing at the road 100k. That doesn't explain the relatively large number of women who compete at a high level in both sports, compared to men. Maybe fast men are more likely to focus on road marathons and shorter distances when they are not running road ultras?

  5. Geoff Roes

    I agree that it's very hard to compare the two. certainly the magazine seems to take a very trail centric view, but I think that's based more on the trail centric view that ultrarunners and events in general seem to have. i have no specific numbers on this but my guess would be that in this country there are maybe 5-10 times as many trail ultras as road. perhaps even more than that. it only makes sense that the focus would be on the event that significantly more american runners are participating in.

    As far as the magazine ignoring the IAU international events, that seems like a bit of an odd statement considering that they voted those events the women's performance of the year and the men's 2nd and 5th performance. i'm not sure what more attention you would expect than that.

    Natural 1, I agree that the Eastern US has no lack of talent and challenging events in the sense that there are plenty of strong runners and plenty of challenging events, but in comparison to the west there are significantly more of both in the west. I think a lot of the top runners in the West don't venture east because they don't have to. you could run a challenging and fairly competitive ultra every single weekend from April to October in the West. that just isn't the case out East. At least not as challenging and as competitive.

    1. Ben Nephew

      If it's trail centric, just call it Trail Ultrarunner of the Year. I'm not trying to argue that the magazine's focus on trail utrarunning is a problem. The issue is trying to compare road and trail racers.

      The article is focused on UROY, which should generally be related to POY. One of my main points was that I don't know how you rank road vs. trail performances. The sports are not similar enough to combine in one ranking. I'd rather see UR not consider road ultras at all in the ranking, or have separate rankings. However, just for the sake of discussion, I think you actually agree with me on the weight given to IAU events. Why do you think that Ellie deserved to win UROY, because of her 100k performance of the year? I'm guessing that if there was a road ranking, you would rank her first. Scott had his 24 hr performance ranked 2nd, but wasn't even in the top 10 individual ranking. Maybe that is due to racing frequency, which is another good point to consider. Should there be a minimum number of events for runners to be considered for UROY? Mike had that 5th place performance, but in the individual ranking he got outvoted by two guys without any ranked performances. I'm pretty sure infrequent racing wasn't an issue there.

      It's not the IAU events need more attention, they just need to be compared to similar events.

      If UR did just focus on ranking trail runners and events, you and Dave seem to think that the San Fran race didn't get enough credit. Along those lines, I think Nikki's UTMB lost out in the performance of the year ranking to a CR at Hardrock? Maybe I'm confusing years, but the point is that unless US runners regularly compete internationally, it will always be difficult to rank strong domestic performances against international race results.

  6. Art

    There are rankings in other sports, I would start with that. Sure it is difficult to judge different runs or records, but the best thing is, in my opinion, to assign ranking weight/score to different races and discuss them afterwards instead of flaming about individual achievements or runner's beard length.

    There is also the residency issue, which Dave Mackey called a 'grey area', but the same goes, I guess.

  7. Tony Mollica

    The ranking say "2010 UltraRunning Magazine North American ultramarathoners of the year." So of course they would be NA runners. The events list had no such limitation and included world events. If the UTMB had not been canceled then it's likely that one or more of the racers from that event would have been included in the performance rankings.

    I do agree with the apples and oranges argument presented by Ben. We all know runners who perform better on either trails or the road. I would also argue that ultrarunners tend to lean toward the trail in their preference for race surfaces. Of the 554 North American ultras I would guess that quite a bit more than half of those races were held on trails.

    I am not qualified to give my opinion on the entire list of top ten men and women; but in my opinion it's hard to take much issue with the top two male runners and the top four female runners.

    Of course the lists are subjective by nature. I believe that any discussions and/or arguments that these lists generate are good for our sport. We need more talk about ultras, not less. If somebody cares enough to take issue with the lists then I think that is a positive for our sport. I also think that discussions about the international ultrarunners are also good for our sport. I love to see the top international runners come to North America to race; and I love to see the top American runners go abroad to run. In fact I wouldn't limit those statements to the top runners; but to all ultrarunners no matter what part of the pack they run in.

    As ultrarunners we are in the minority of the world, and even the running community. The more that we can interact with each other, whether it be in person, in print or online; the better it will be for our sport! Thanks Ben for getting this discussion started! Good luck in your training!

    1. Ben Nephew

      Thanks, Tony.

      A few people have brought up the subjective nature of rankings. Ranking trail racers is clearly more subjective than ranking road racers. Road ultras have a uniform surface and are usually standard distances or very standard times. You can rank road times for any distance, and those times are going to closely reflect any sort individual rankings. Road ultra runners are probably going to be interested in annual lists of race times themselves. Trail ultra runners, probably not, unless you are talking about something specific like the the top 10 times at WS, etc.

  8. Josh Allfree

    Great discussion, Ben. While I agree that road runners need to be ranked seperately from trail, I think that what you touched on ("uniform surface") hints at another issue. How can you compare trail runners when the courses are so different? The UltraRunning Magazine race results include subjective factors that reflect nor only surface differences, but elevation differences as well. Factor in weather as well and you have a really subjective mix of factors that make any comparisons of trail running performance a matter of comparing apples, oranges, grapefruits, and more.

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