Ultramarathoner PRs: A Look Across the Miles

In my previous life I was an economist, before running took over and I switched to coaching. Rather than the macro-level factors leading to the recent recession (I swear it was nothing to do with me), I dealt with analysis at the micro-level and I have to admit to a lingering love for stats. So from now on, I’ll be writing for iRunFar with my ultrarunning geek hat on. I hope to shed a little light on different aspects of the sport with numbers and analysis.

To start with, the topic of faster road runners coming to ultrarunning has led to more competition and lowered course records. The sample of elite runners included below is small, mainly North American and contemporary with their personal records being more for interest than analysis. Like most runners, this group has focused to a greater level on certain distances than others so some of their PRs are relatively more impressive. Yet I think the numbers alone are fascinating and show the relative strengths of different runners for road or track events. Plus, it gives a rough idea of a range of how much any well-trained (but not necessarily fast) runner’s pace is likely to drop off as the distance increases on the flat, by comparing a runner’s PR at any distance to their marathon time.

These ranges are fairly narrow for shorter distances, but expand more for the ultra distances, partly reflecting that runners can’t be the best at every distance and will be suited to certain distances more than others. If you compare your own PRs in the same way, then you can see how you stack up against the relative strengths of these top-level runners.

A good example is to look at Mike Wardian, a man who has excelled at numerous distances and who races very frequently. As fast as his ultra times are, his shorter-distance speed suggests he could lower his road ultra times because his ratios are relatively high for ultras. That’s something his competitors should worry about!

Note that I selected runners who have at least some road or track background because those types of courses are more comparable than for trail PRs. I left blank PRs that either don’t exist for a runner or that are not at least reasonably reflective of a well-trained effort (by their own admission). The trail PRs reflect choice of race more than ability because a 50 miler like JFK (Max King’s best) is obviously quicker than the hilly Lake Sonoma course (Sage Canaday’s fastest 50). I’ve also included the world-record holders at 50 miles, Bruce Fordyce and Ann Trason–two of the most talented and influential ultrarunners ever.

We’ve embedded the table below. You can also access the data as an image or Excel file.

  • All data from the athletes themselves except Ann Trason’s data from ultralegends.com and realendurance.com.
  • Numbers highlighted in red have caveats or are adjusted from a close distance (eg. 1,500m extrapolated to 1 mile).
  • Numbers highlighted in purple are estimates for the sake of comparison since Geoff and Rory haven’t run a road marathon.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you glean from the data Ian provides?
  • For these speedsters, where do you see the fastest relative times coming from: genetic predisposition, training focus on a particular distance, relative number of times and times span over which a runner raced a distance, something else?
  • What do your splits across the distances looks like? If you take a look at your relative times, what is the root cause for your fastest relative performances ?
  • While most of the shorter-distance times are likely to have been run on reasonably similar terrain, how do we tease out meaningful trends when an ultrarunner may have only run slow courses or under slow conditions at one of more of these distances?