The future of ultra running: freshening up the spring racing season and trending away from mainstream running

cody reed 1Billy Yang Films

Western States shouldn’t be America’s first interesting race of the year.

Sorry to say it, but Moab Red Hot 55k, Way Too Cool, and Chuckanut are about as interesting to me as a treadmill world record…maybe. Not that anyone really cares how interesting they are to me personally, but if I am any kind of bellwether for what people are thinking, maybe there will be some head-nodding as you read this.

These races are the big spring races in America and they are essentially VO2 max tests for genetically pure runners. What I mean is if all the elites toe the line fit and ready to run, the one with the most talent is likely going to win every time. These races don’t really require ultra skills and experience, just genetics, fitness, and speed.

There are the occasional anomalies: Cody Reed winning Way Too Cool shocked me. I don’t think anyone expected him to drop that kind of performance. Reed was fast in college but taking down Bak, Smythe, and others – dudes with mid-13 5k leg speed – that deserves some credit. But in general, I woke up on those Saturday mornings with a feeling that I didn’t even need to check the results. I pretty much already knew who would stand on the podium before the gun even went off.

If I wanted to watch the genetic freak win every time, I’d just tune in to any Diamond League track meet or any marathon major. And by the way, I do that regularly. Those guys: the Kenyan, the Ethiopian, the Rupp, the Centrowitz, the Jager – they are the best runners in the world.

What I want to see in ultra running are the best ultra runners in the world, which should be a different breed altogether. I don’t want to watch the 2:2x marathoner who jumps over to the 50k because he thinks that might be a niche that can provide some notoriety that he otherwise wouldn’t get on the roads. I want to watch ultra runners. There is such a thing. Those with trail and mountain prowess that have skills and abilities different from the gazelles. So how do we do this? Make ultra running VERY different from road/track/xc running.

chuckanut1VO2 Max Productions

I know this would wipe out some classic races such as the above-mentioned and many others, but I think we need to garner a more distinct identity as ultra runners. It’s true that there are more limitations in the USA from a permitting perspective, but take a look at Glencoe Skyline and Tromso Skyrace in Europe. Those are races that set apart an ultra runner from a distance runner. I’ve run the Rut. That is the closest thing we have in my opinion. If Foote and Wolfe can organize that race, with those sketchy climbs, and get the green light from any applicable authorities, then I don’t see why others can’t emulate that.

Let’s be clear, if Galen Rupp spent two weeks conditioning his quads for downhill running and then went to Moab, Cool, or Chuckanut, he would mop the floor with anyone in our sport. However, if Rupp went to Sierre-Zinal, I think he’d get his ass handed to him by Kilian no matter what he did. Galen is a gazelle; Kilian is a mountain goat. We need races in the USA (that the elites will attend) that spotlight this distinction and I don’t think Moab, Cool, or Chuckanut are in the vein of races we want as the premier spring events. I’ve run Chuckanut. It’s great and all, but it’s not a course that tests the best.

Anton Krupicka is the perfect example of a pure ultra runner with ultra-specific qualities that set him apart from runners at large. He admits that he is not really a gifted runner. He ran track and field and XC in college and was a middle of the packer for a mediocre running school in a pretty insignificant conference. Despite this, he had tremendous success in the ultra running world because he had those X-factors that set him apart. For him, an insatiable appetite for huge volume conditioned him to succeed at Leadville. Your average fast runner dude (maybe those guys that smoked Anton in college) couldn’t possibly have put in 150-200 mountain miles a week even if they wanted to. Not everyone has that kind of motivation to pound dirt. Some do – like Walmsley – he has the pure runner genetics, the drive to run big miles, and he is tweaked in the head just enough to do well for himself in ultras. He’s the perfect storm.

I’d like to say before I go on that I don’t want to take anything away from the runners of those races I mentioned – those races are the ones that are available and they are the most competitive. If we had different, more ultra-centric races with similar notoriety, then I’m sure those guys and gals would be there and trying to kill it at those races too. My heart in writing this is to add one tiny spec of sand on the scale to help tilt our sport towards something more our own.

I want to watch ultra running on TV. I know this isn’t quite the same but if you watch the Mount Marathon coverage in Alaska, you’ll have an idea of what could be possible in our sport.

Can you imagine a 3-hour special on NBC covering Western States or Hardrock? Even if you are some old-school guy who is only all about the community and doesn’t want ultra running to blow up and all that, you have to admit that seeing Walmsley at Western being taken down the river on live TV would have been sick. I would have thrown my popcorn at the screen.

We could have seen televised back-stories of Andrew Miller, Jeff Browning, Kaci Lickteig, and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet. We could have fly-over course profiles, commentators, and vignettes on the character of the race, it’s geography, its history, its aid stations, its ethos. Right now we follow iRunfar on Twitter. It’s good and I love it … but I want more, especially for the big races.

The way I see it is if more people are being exposed to what ultra running is – the ethic, the culture, the landscapes, and the environmental bent, the more people are going to get their asses off the couch and drag themselves up the local hill. Then they’ll feel that sense of satisfaction we feel, they’ll see the natural beauty, and they’ll become better humans because of it.

Rise & Grind.

5 thoughts on “The future of ultra running: freshening up the spring racing season and trending away from mainstream running

  1. Oh, so many things to mention here. TNF50 2016 was *so* much more exciting to me than watching skyracers slog up ridiculous grades over boulders with poles and ropes. Ultrarunning does and should include races like Comrades, Chuckanut, Bad Water and Ulmstead even if they don’t offer The Rut 50K-style vertical gain or technical footing just because of the unpredictable things that happen when the distance is extended past 26.2. Wasn’t it fascinating to see 37-year old Max King win Chuckanut because sub-14 5K speedster Hayden Hawks had trouble with the mud? I agree that Rupp or any of the northern African elite marathoners could clean up in in ultrarunning but it doesn’t matter because the $$$ will never be there for them there (I guess Comrades is the closest thing we have). This recalls a statement made by Meb Keflezighi a few years ago that it would take an NFL-style salary to ever get him to run a 160K. Likewise, the USA could field a better World Cup soccer team if our best athletes weren’t drawn to the Big 3 sports. Finally, not taking anything away from Krupicka but he was winning before the fast guys got into the sport. He said in a recent interview that you have a chance to do well in ultra’s if you grind out 200 mile weeks but that he could never touch the fast runners (“real runners” he called them) in the sport now like Walmsley and Hawks.

    Good stuff.

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    1. Sal! You make some great points! I agree that a lot of real talent won’t come out until there is big money involved. There have been whispers of a massive RRR pay purse, which would be interesting. And I don’t think Chuckanut and Cool should go away all together, I would just like to see the elites testing themselves on more difficult courses. Comrades is a classic with real history…great race. A final comment on Anton…yes, some fast guys weren’t in the sport when we was winning but take a look at the entry lists since he dropped his 16 hour finish. Many fastguys have tried and failed to come anywhere near that time since then. Thanks for the comment…wish I had more time…in Scotland hopping from trailhead to trailhead. Very little wifi time! Cheers!

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