Underrated Ultra Performances: Great International Grandmasters

A celebration of some overachieving grandmasters from outside of North America, through the lens of data.

By on December 27, 2023 | Comments

It’s time we make good on our promise to profile another round of grandmaster runners whose exceptional performances can be better appreciated with quantitative data.

You may recall that a previous article featured runners aged 50 and over who resided in North America, and whose remarkable athleticism felt underappreciated. Let’s continue the conversation by highlighting several of the many grandmaster athletes outside of North America, who also perform to those standards.

For this article, we will often use the DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics age-graded calculation of a runner’s finishing time to contextualize their accomplishments. The DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics website has a robust explanation for why and how it age grades runners’ times, citing research to explain that “an athlete of 55 years can achieve just 85% of the performance of a 30-year-old athlete.”

I should note, however, that Joe Uhan’s recent article on sport longevity for masters runners provides valuable qualitative context for understanding the work grandmaster runners undertake in the pursuit of exceptional performances. As Uhan explains in the article, and readers expanded upon in thoughtful comments, strong performances among aging runners demand rigorous training balanced with deliberate recovery and injury prevention measures.

As before, this is not an authoritative “best of” list. There are many admirable runners we weren’t able to include, and we welcome your nominations in the comments for additional runners who deserve the attention.

[Editor’s Note: We kindly remind readers that the Running the Numbers column is a just-for-fun analysis. While we always endeavor to analyze accurately, we limit the scope of each article in order to make the work doable for author Mallory Richard, and the results digestible for readers like you.]

Joss Naylor

Thanks to one of our readers for suggesting, as he put it, “the legendary Joss Naylor.” Naylor is a British fell runner and retired sheep farmer who lives in England’s Lake District. Naylor boasts many individual performances that can be described as exceptional, but we’ll opt here to focus on the longevity of his running career and his contributions to fell running.

Naylor set a peak-bagging record in 1971 by covering 61 peaks in under 24 hours (23:37), in what’s called the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record. He improved on that record the next year, summiting 63 peaks in 23:35.

In 1986, at the age of 50, Naylor completed the Wainwrights Round — which involves climbing 214 peaks in the Lake District — over a period of seven days, one hour, and 25 minutes. That record stood until 2014.

In 1997, at the age of 60, Naylor ran 60 Lakeland fell tops in 36 hours. In 2006, at the age of 70, Naylor ran 70 Lakeland fell tops in under 21 hours. The feat included over 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) of climbing.

Naylor remains involved in the community, having co-authored an award-winning book on exploring the Lake District.

Steve Cliff and Joss Naylor

Fell running legends Joss Naylor (left) and Steve Cliff (right), who has now passed away, atop a fell years back. Photo: Ian Charters

Francesca Canepa

In 2023, Francesca Canepa joined some of the sport’s greatest by being named a UTMB Legend. The honor is bestowed upon athletes with exceptional records of success in trail running and previous wins at UTMB. Canepa, an Italian grandmaster runner, won UTMB in 2018.

She continues to test her limits at competitive races ranging from vertical kilometers to the challenging TDS. In September 2023, Canepa won the UTDM Magistra Langarum, a 106k trail race in Italy with in excess of 17,400 feet (5,300 meters) of elevation gain. Canepa’s 16:52:12 winning time equals an age-graded performance of 14:35:40.

Of note for this race, the second-place woman, Daniela Bonnet, was also a grandmaster, and the entirety of the men’s podium, Giorgio Pulcini, Pierpaolo Giorgis, and Marco Lotti, were in the men’s 45-49 and 50-54 age groups.

2014 Transgrancanaria - Francesca Canepa second

Francesa Canepa at the 2014 Transgrancanaria. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Tòfol Castanyer

Spaniard Tòfol Castanyer is another trail runner who’s notable for his longevity. Castanyer has been competing at the highest levels of the sport for over two decades.

He represented Spain in the 2002 World Mountain Running Association World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. He boasts top-10 finishes at such competitive races as the Zegama Marathon, Sierre-Zinal, Marathon du Mont-Blanc, Pikes Peak Marathon, Les Templiers, Madeira Island Ultra-Trail, UTMB, and many more. He won CCC in 2012.

In May 2023, in his first season as a grandmaster, Castanyer won the Trail Menorca Cami de Cavalis, a 185k race in Spain with over 11,480 feet (3,500 meters) of elevation gain. His winning time of 18:19:50 equals an age-graded performance of 16:21:17, according to DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics.

Tòfol Castanyer - 2023 Trail Menorca Camí de Cavalls 185k - men's winner

Tòfol Castanyer, winner of the 2023 Trail Menorca Camí de Cavalls 185k. Photo: Trail Menorca Camí de Cavalls

Jocelyne Pauly

French legend Jocelyne Pauly entered her grandmasters era with a bang. Pauly’s previous results include a win at the Diagonale des Fous, as well as podium finishes at UTMB and Tor des Géants, to name a few.

Pauly raced with frequency, intensity, and success in 2023, her first season as a grandmaster. She won the Penyagolosa Trails CSP 105k in April, represented France at the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in June, finished third at the Eiger-Ultra Trail in July, and took second at the Tor des Géants in September.

Just making it to the starting line of those races would be the season of a lifetime for most of us, and Pauly turned in elite performances at each.

Jocelyne Pauly - 2022 UTMB - Les Contamines

Jocelyne Pauly on her way to taking fourth at the 2022 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Bojan Galin

Bojan Galin is a Slovenian trail runner with a consistent history of running the Šmarna Gora race in Slovenia, a rugged 10k mountain race with over 2,300 feet (700 meters) of elevation gain on a point-to-point, mainly uphill course. It was part of the World Mountain Running Association World Cup in 2019.

In July 2023, at the age of 65, Galin finished 33rd in a field of 611 runners at the Soča Outdoor Festival 15k race in Tolmin, Slovenia. Galin covered the distance, which includes two steep ascents, in 1:26:33, and he did it less than two weeks after racing another mountain race, the Podobro Trail Running Festival 10k.

Ildikó Wermescher

We mentioned Hurgarian Ildikó Wermescher, who lives in Germany, in an earlier article on great performances in the UTMB family of races. But we knew fans would consider it an oversight if the grandmaster woman with the highest UTMB Index was absent from this article, so we’ll reiterate some of what we said before.

2017 Western States 100 - Ildiko Wermescher - finish

Ildikó Wermescher at the 2017 Western States 100 finish. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Wermescher has a string of great results to her name, particularly in hard, mountainous ultras. She won the 2022 Trail Andorra by UTMB 100k event, and placed third in 2023 — but improved on her previous time by some 28 minutes. Over that same period, she also won the 2022 Istria by UTMB 110k, and finished on the podium at the Restonica Trail by UTMB 66k and Trail Alsace Grand Est by UTMB 110k.

Perhaps Wermescher’s most impressive performance at a UTMB race is her fifth-place finish at the 2022 TDS, where she finished fifth behind Martina ValmassoiClaudia TrempsKatharina Hartmuth, and Julia Rezzi.

What made Wermescher’s result stand out is she was 57 years old on race day. The DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics database estimated that Wermescher’s finishing time of 24:38:45 is the equivalent of 19:57:30 if the performance is age-graded. For context, Valmassoi’s winning time was 22:42:47.

Closing Thoughts

It was tough to choose athletes to profile for this article, and we’re aware there are many exceptional athletes who are just as deserving of the attention. This is where you come in — we’d love to hear your suggestions and feedback in the comments.

Call for Comments

  • Who else would you include in this list?
  • We’d love to hear your suggestions!
Mallory Richard

Mallory Richard is a data analyst and trail runner in Winnipeg, Canada.