Why Jon Olsen Might Not Win Ultrarunning Performance Of The Year

There have been a handful of performances in the past few years (most recognizably Mike Morton’s 24-hour American Record, Sabrina Little’s 24-Hour American Record, and Jon Olsen’s 100-Mile North American Record) that have brought the changing dynamics in ultrarunning very much to the forefront of many conversations. These types of performances would have once been hands down the most recognized and respected performances of their time in the sport. Now, though, with the shift in popularity to trail and mountain ultras that has occurred in the past 20 years (and even quicker in the last five to 10), these road and track performances receive less attention, and in some cases, perhaps even less respect than they once would have. Whether it’s fair or not, performances like Olsen’s 100-mile record now compete for attention and recognition with performances at upstart mountain races like UROC that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Olsen’s run was almost certainly the most difficult-to-achieve performance in North America so far this year, but with the way the sport has shifted, it is quite likely not the most recognized or the most highly regarded by the masses.

The interesting question then becomes: is this fair? Do we just turn our backs on the past and recognize that the trail and mountain ultras are now more competitive and far more popular (at least in North America and Europe) than road and track races, and thus deserve more attention and more respect? Or does the legacy of the past mean we should be giving more of our attention and respect to the road/track/multi-day races that were once far more popular than mountain and trail races?

In my mind, the answer to this question lies somewhere in the middle. Most important is the reality that this isn’t something we can control just by talking about which races should receive more attention. At the end of the day, we live in a free-market society and the races that get the most attention are the races which people are most intrigued by. As trail running has gained popularity in general, trail races (at least at the ultra distance) have become infinitely more popular than their road counterparts. This isn’t the place to dig deep into the reasons why this has occurred, but I believe this is a change that is here to stay for decades. Trails races are simply (on average) more scenic, more varied, less contrived, and more challenging (in terms of terrain). For these reasons, people are going to continue to flock to the trails for the majority of their races. Those that don’t recognize and believe this are not in touch with the reality of the sport today.

This said, though, I do believe there is a mini-revival going on within the road/track/multi-day ultrarunning community (probably as a bit of a backlash response to the exponential growth of trail races). Or perhaps it is just that those who do prefer these types of races are becoming more vocal about their preference as the community at large has become less and less interested in these races.

Whatever the reasons behind these trends, I feel like things have settled into a ‘fair’ and reasonable place in terms of the amount of attention given to various types of races. There certainly seem to be some people out there who feel that road and track races should be getting more attention than they are because of the amount of attention they garnered a couple decades ago, and because of the legacy that was developed at that time. I can understand why people would feel this way, but it’s just not realistic. Yes, the past always has some effect on the present, but when you have dozens of people running ultras on trails in the mountains for every person that is running an ultra on the road/track, you just aren’t going to have equal emphasis and attention, no matter how things were in the past. In the end, though, I think this dynamic actually leads to the road/track/multi-day races getting more attention and respect than they would otherwise, and I think this is a good thing.

The legacy and past popularity of these races gives them a level of attention today that they would not otherwise have. This combined with the backlash effect that I mentioned earlier has allowed these events to have a level of attention and respect that I think is actually greater than you might expect based solely on the raw number of runners consistently participating in these events. Again, I think this is a good thing because I think they do deserve extra attention and respect because of the past legacy in these events. I don’t think we can or should just walk away from the past and not hold what Jon Olsen did on the track in Canada this fall in higher regard than we otherwise would if it weren’t for the decades-long legacy that he was running ‘against’ that day. This said, though, this only goes so far. There is still the reality that the vast majority of the fastest ultrarunners in this country are competing primarily on trails, and that there are dozens of trail ultras in this country each year with deeper fields than all but the most competitive one or two road and/or track races. Does this mean that it’s fair that these mountain/trail events now seem to get the vast majority of the attention and respect from fans and other competitors in the sport? Um? Well? Yeah, actually it does. And over the next several years, I think we will see things shift even further in this direction.

I think this is all a good thing as long as we are sure, in the midst of this shift, not to forget the past legacy of road and track ultras. In this way, it will always be highly recognized when someone does something on the roads like what Morton, Little, and Olsen have done recently. This said, though, these types of events are simply not going to be as widely recognized as something like Western States or Hardrock anytime soon (if ever again). With the way the sport has shifted over the last several years, this seems to me to be exactly as it should be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think that the level of attention that an ultra-distance performance gets should reflect the relative interest in that type of performance by the trail and ultrarunning community? Or, do you think that highest-level trail and ultra performances should be equally addressed?
  • And, what about respect? Do you think that the respect an ultra-distance performance is given by the community should reflect the community’s relative interest in that type of performance? Or, should we respect the inherent quality of a performance regardless of our personal interest in running the type of race from which the performance came?

A Call for Civility (from Meghan)

We all have our preferred means of trail and ultrarunning. Some of us like trails when they are super-technical, while others of us like to let ‘er rip on the roads. And, our personal preferences inform our sporting beliefs and ethic. Please feel welcome to share your thoughts and participate in this discussion. It is natural that some of us will agree and disagree with each other, and that’s great. We do require civility in our discussion, however. Please treat this conversation similarly to a discussion you’d have with a group of people on a 20-mile run (whatever the surface). Similar and differing opinions will always be present, but between them is always room for respect and friendship. Thank you!