Underrated Ultra Performances: North Americans Who Dominate

A look at some exceptional achievers in the world of ultrarunning, through the lens of data.

By on September 27, 2023 | Comments

Can you think of a trail running or ultrarunning performance that hasn’t received the attention it’s due, and could be better appreciated in the context of some quantitative data?

We recently put this question to the iRunFar team, and this month’s “Running the Numbers” article digs into a few of their nominations. But rather than looking at individual performances, the ultrarunners included here have racked up long careers of astounding achievements. As passionate fans of the sport, our team offered more suggestions than we can fit into a single article. So, think of this as part one of a non-exhaustive list, generated during an extremely fun brainstorming exercise.

Do you have suggestions of your own? Please drop a line in the comments!

[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.]

The Methodology

When we reached out to the people who offered these suggestions, our criteria were intentionally broad. We didn’t ask for “the most underrated” or “the best performances.” We didn’t even define an excellent performance as, for example, finishing on the podium, finishing first in an age group, or setting a new fastest known time (FKT). We’re simply talking about runners whose accomplishments deserve some extra attention, with some numbers to hit home their impressiveness.

Jennifer Russo

When iRunFar team member Justin Mock first submitted his nomination, he couldn’t provide quantitative data on her accomplishment because Jennifer Russo was still running, with the 2023 Capital Backyard Ultra in Virginia into its third day.

Russo continued to run 4.1667 miles every hour for 74 hours, for a total of 308.33 miles. She improved on her remarkable result from the previous year by some 58 miles, as she ran 250 miles in 2022.

Jennifer Russo - 2021 Ohio Backyard Ultra

Jennifer Russo rests after completing 225 miles over 54 hours at the 2021 Ohio Backyard Ultra. Photo: SEOTR Events

Russo’s 2022 and 2023 performances at the Capital Backyard Ultra were special not only because of her personal accomplishments, but also because they raised the bar for others. In 2022, Scott Snell outlasted Russo by running for 61 hours compared to Russo’s 60. Russo was still running strong at hour 63 for the 2023 edition, forcing the battle between her and Snell to last for 75 hours. When she improved on her 2022 result by 58 miles, this required Snell to do the same.

Do you need more quantitative data to appreciate her feat? According to Gary Cantrell, the infamous inventor of the backyard race format, Russo’s result is currently one of the top 20 of all time. She ran it at the age of 57. While many runners — whether grandmasters or in any age group — are chasing cutoffs, Russo is chasing — or should we say hunting — the last runner standing.

Errol “Rocket” Jones

Errol Jones was one of the first celebrities in ultramarathon running who I became aware of when I entered the sport. He wrote for “UltraRunning Magazine” and was associated with some of the most prestigious ultras as a race director — or “indentured servant,” to quote his author biography. He’s run over 200 ultras since 1981.

Trail running Oakland California - Errol Jones - Lake Merritt

Errol “Rocket” Jones running at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Photo: Sarah Lavender Smith

In December 2022, he scored his 11th finish at the Hunter S. Thompson Fear & Loathing 50k in San Francisco, California. At the age of 72, Jones was in the front third of all finishers. While his finishing time of 6:47 wasn’t the fastest he’s recorded at that event — that would be his 4:55 finish in 1997 — it was by no means his slowest.

Most interesting, the DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics database lists Jones’s age-graded performance for 2022 as 4:52:58. And his age-graded PR at that event might be the 4:44:52 in 2016 at the age of 66, when his actual finish time was 6:11.

Beverley Anderson-Abbs

It’s commonly said that it’s bad for our sport when people take up trail running, throw themselves into it passionately, and then burn out within a season or two. By that line of reasoning, Beverley Anderson-Abbs is very, very good for our sport. She started running ultras in 1999, finishing on the podium in her first 50k. She threw herself into it passionately, but stayed in the sport — and largely stayed on the podium.

Beverley Anderson-Abbs - 2014 Jed Smith 50 Mile women's champion

Beverley Anderson-Abbs winning the 2014 Jed Smith 50 Mile. Photo: Jean Pommier

In her over two decades of competing at the highest levels, Anderson-Abbs has built an impressive résumé. Highlights include, but are certainly not limited to: four podium finishes at the Western States 100, a win at the Hurt 100 Mile, another at the Javelina 100 Mile, setting a then Canadian 50-mile record, a Barkley Marathons Fun Run finish, and wins at multi-days including the 314-mile Vol State, and the 326-mile Last Annual Heart of the South.

When iRunFar team member Ellie Greenwood nominated Anderson-Abbs, she chose to highlight Anderson-Abbs’s win of the 2023 Jed Smith 50 Mile. On a flat and fast course, Anderson-Abbs ran 50 miles in 6:32:39 at the age of 58. She finished more than 30 minutes faster than her 2019 time, and was only slightly slower than when she ran 6:18:38 on that course in 2015, at the age of 50.

For extra context, the DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics database lists Anderson-Abbs’s age-graded performance for her 2023 race as equivalent to 5:13:37. Her actual finish time breaks down to an average pace of 7:34 minutes per mile, and her age-graded performance would equal 6:16 per mile for 50 miles.

Tim Twietmeyer

For many fans of ultrarunning in North America, Tim Twietmeyer is best known for his connection to Western States 100. He has more than 25 silver buckles from finishing in under 24 hours. He finished within the top five on 15 consecutive occasions. He has served on the board of trustees for 27 years and counting. His consistent performance and ongoing dedication to that event truly are exceptional.

Tim at the 2021 American River 50 Mile.

Tim Twietmeyer at the 2021 American River 50 Mile. Photo: Joey Hollister

But, as iRunFar’s Ellie Greenwood pointed out in her nomination, Twietmeyer has an even longer track record at another event. Twietmeyer ran the American River 50 Mile for the first time in 1981, the second edition of that race. He now boasts 42 finishes at the event, including a 6:04:41 finish in 1997 that got him second place. A recent survey by the Trail Ultra Project revealed that 50.7% of the ultrarunners who participated were under 44 years of age, and 16.3% were under the age of 35. So, there’s a decent chance that Twietmeyer has been racing the American River 50 Mile since before you, dear reader, were born.

Closing Thoughts

Just like our article highlighting some underrated performances at the UTMB Mont Blanc festival of races, this article format is a fun way for us fans of the sport to recognize some excellent runners. Quantitative data can help us see the meaning and significance of individual race results.

However, as I wrote this piece I consistently felt as though I was just scratching the surface in attempting to describe each athlete’s contributions to the sport. At the time, I was reading Brett Popplewell’sOutsider,” a book that explores in detail the life of 81-year old Dag Aabye, an ultrarunner living in Canada. The book, along with Bryon Powell’s timeless tribute to ultrarunning superfan Bill Dooper, reminded me that quantitative data can provide insights quickly — which is why so many of our bosses love it — but qualitative data provides the richness and connection that powers storytelling.

One benefit of offering some impressive stats for multiple runners here, is we can see a broader trend. Perhaps inspired by Aabye and Dooper, the nominees I included in this article are all grandmasters. While each of these athletes is exceptional, it’s encouraging to be reminded there are enough grandmaster runners demonstrating remarkable athleticism, growth, and/or consistency. It prompts all of us to look optimistically at our futures in ultrarunning.

Call for Comments

  • Are there other grandmasters runners in North America that you would nominate as having underrated performances?
  • We’ll be looking at grandmaster runners outside of North America for a future article. Who would you nominate?
Jennifer Russo - 2023 Capital Backyard Ultra

Jennifer Russo during the 2023 Capital Backyard Ultra, with Scott Snell seen in the background. Photo: Sarah Smith

Mallory Richard

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