Ultrarunner Rankings

An iRunFar reader recently asked the following questions:

Could you shed some light on how runners get national rankings in the ultra trail running world? Is there a set of races these rankings are based on? If someone is cited as “nationally ranked” what does that really mean? Just curious as to how it works and can’t find a straight answer on the web.

With the various year-end rankings such as Ultrarunning Magazine, USATF ultrarunners of the year, and the Speedgoat of the Year, we thought it an appropriate time to open up a discussion on what it means to be a nationally ranked ultrarunner and, more broadly, whether and how such ranking should be done.

Here’s my response to the inquirer:

There’s certainly no unified trail ultra ranking system, especially during the course of the year. The closest thing there is would be Ultrarunning Magazine’s annual rankings: (2007 results). The voting is done by a bunch of ultrarunners, but tends to be skewed in certain directions as the voters are designated by the magazine editors (I believe).
Ultrarunning Magazine also annually published a long list of the fastest times at particular distances (50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles, I think) – the list includes the top performance by every runner who breaks a set time standards at the given distance. I guess anyone who is on that list would be “nationally ranked,” but it could be ingenuous for two reasons. First, one could rank high on the 50k list for running a flat, loop road course while many top ultrarunners don’t run such races. Second, the list is very deep…. I think going maybe two or three hundred spots for a given distance. Certainly someone who is 268th ranked for their gender at 100 miles in a given year is stretching the truth to call themselves nationally ranked given the relatively small number of folks who run a 100 in a given year. It would be even worse if their time was from a fast 100 like Rocky Raccoon.

There you have some off-the-cuff thoughts on the subject. Surely, some will feel that ultrarunning shouldn’t involve rankings and what not, but as other ultrarunners (including some of the top runners) are interested in such things, why not discuss this, right? Here are a few questions to ponder:

  • Should there be any ultrarunner rankings?
  • What group is best qualified to develop or implement rankings (i.e., Ultrarunning Mag, USATF, an individual’s website with internet voting)? What are the limitations/problems/advantages of each group?
  • Would a race series or point system for races be an appropriate method on which to base such rankings?
  • Is there any point in or possibility of a rolling ranking as opposed to year end ranking?
  • If there was a definitive ranking system, how many runners deep should it go?
  • About how many elites, national-level, or regional-level ultrarunners do you think there are?

Alright, go for a run, get thinking, and then share your thoughts on iRunFar.com!