Thursday, September 22, 2011

10 Things I Think I Think (Ultrarunning Edition)

Man, the ultrarunning blogosphere has been alive lately with new and creative insights, banter and even controversy! Taking a page from the playbook of Sports Illustrated's Peter King and GZ himself, here are 10 things I think I think.

1) This isn't the first time a non-North American might be considered deserving of the Ultrarunner of the Year Award...and yet is ineligible. First off, understand that UROY goes to the top North American male and female ultrarunners and is awarded by Ultrarunning Magazine, which has been around since the days of the mimeograph, bicycle messenger and C.C. Pyle. I'm not even kidding. A panel of 18 race organizers from all regions of North America submit ballots. Which is to say the award is specifically for North American athletes (read: US and Canada).

Yiannis Kouros
Getting back to my original point: There may be some who claim Kilian Jornet of Spain is clearly the top ultrarunner for 2011, and what a shame it is that he can't get UROY so they say. And since The King himself isn't eligible for UROY, well, let's just blow up the award since it's clearly out of whack with the now-international nature of the sport. Now for a history lesson for those who think ultrarunning has only recently gone international (or, as one person recently wrote, "going going gone international"). Back in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s--yeah, I know, ancient history--there was a guy named Yiannis Kouros who was from Greece (and later Australia) and dominated the sport like no one else, and yet he was ineligible for UROY. For those unfamiliar with Yiannis, he has the world records for 24 hours, 48 hours, 6 days, 100 miles, 1,000 kilometers, 1,000 miles and even 12 hours. He once ran 188 miles in 24 hours for a world record. Let me say that again: he once ran 188 miles in 24 hours, which breaks down to 7.8 miles per hour, or 7:41 per mile. That's a hefty 23 miles beyond Scott Jurek's current America record of 165.7. I think Yiannis even once ran to the moon..and a single day. He's also won the 153-mile Spartathlon race more than any other person in the history of the Earth. And yet he never scored Ultrarunner of the Year since it's a North American honor.

The takeaway is this: We love to think all things here and now are bigger and better (and sometimes worse, as in the current Great Recession) than anything that's ever happened before. That's often not true. If it happened today, it probably happened before. There's a precedent for almost everything. You just have to find it. Exhibit A: Kilian Jornet as today's Yiannis Kouros--only with freakish trail skills (and not quite the pure speed The Great One had). Let's not go overboard in dissecting UROY and just enjoy the award for what it is...a great honor for deserving North American ultrarunners.

2) Even though I'm still figuring out the 100-mile race, I believe success in 100s comes down to consistency with training over a long period. Show me the guy/gal who consistently runs back-to-back 20s, along with a steady diet of daily mileage and quality (along with some recovery), and I'll show you someone who will, nine times out of ten, beat the weekend warrior who runs 30 or 40 on Saturday, takes Sunday off or super easy and then sleeps in too much during the week.

3) It's not the elite guys and gals who make ultrarunning interesting and inspiring. It's the guy you meet at a race or in your local club who used to smoke three packs a day and/or drink himself under the table and then one day a light went off and he decided to go for a run. These guys--you know, the ones with leathery skin, endless war stories to tell, ankle gaiters and a closet full of buckles--are truly the toughest among us, grinding out 28- or 29-hour 100s because they love it. We all know one or two of these guys. I do.

4) Contrary to prevailing wisdom, success in the last 40 miles of a 100 isn't all mental. Don't get me wrong; mental toughness is a huge part of those final 40 miles. But what really counts is whether or not you did the right kind of training. Physical strength feeds a strong mind.

5) Ultrarunning is never going to be mainstream, but it will continue to grow. Running 50 miles, 100 kilometers or even 100 miles is never going to be a mainstream endeavor. Most people think marathons are insane. Though ultrarunning is a huge part of our own lives, the bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have never heard of the sport or even Dean Karnazes.

6) It's a shame ultrarunning is now about trails and not also about the road. Ultrarunning's roots go back to time-based events on tracks as well as transcontinental runs. Not too long ago events like the Edmund Fitzgerald 100K, GNC Ultras and Olander Park 24-Hour--all road races--were among the premier races in the nation. They're all gone now (note: The North Coast 24 in Cleveland has kind of replaced the old Olander Park races, which were near Toledo, while the Lt. JC Stone 50K has kind of replaced the GNC Ultras and is actually run on the same course, though it doesn't offer a 100K option). Bucking the shift toward the trail, the Badwater Ultramarathon continues to thrive but is still pretty niche.

7) I worry about crap that is a waste of time for me to worry about. Why should I care that USATF national championship races fall short in attracting the best in the sport? Why should I care about Salomon Running, Ultrarunner of the Year, the death of the Ed Fitz, etc., etc.? My only concern as far as ultrarunning goes should be the next training run because that's living The Gift.

8) Spartathlon is, to me, more enticing than Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Spartathlon is a nearly 153-mile race between Athens and Sparta that is run on road and trail. Scott Jurek won Spartathlon three times. It's on my bucket list big time--way ahead of UTMB. So is Comrades. At the end of the day, I'm a road warrior.

9) The marathon is hard to figure least for me. It's easy to run 20 miles hard. What's not easy is figuring out the right pace that is sustainable for 26.2 miles and gets you to the finish line with a new PR and nothing left in the tank. My current marathon PR is 2:58. Honestly, I should be down in the mid 2:40s.

10) Running a 100-mile race in 29 hours is harder than running it in 15 hours. When you see the sun rise for a second time (which I've never seen, thank God), you've been out there grinding away for a long, long time.


  1. Great post. The kind that deserves to be read. And, if you want to see a 2nd sunrise, run Hardrock. Agree about Kouros and all that stuff about this is a new age we're in blah, blah, blah.

  2. Awesome. Great post! I really agree with the points you make!

  3. Enjoy te post. You write well, and you capture the grit. Do us a favor and do it more often!

  4. Great post.
    As a slower 100 miler I would kill to actually finish in the dark someday.

  5. Great points, indeed. Voicing them is important. Make more sense than some recent ruminations.

  6. Thanks for the valuable insights and wonderful recent interviews. Keep up the good work.

  7. I'm not sure I agree with the common perception from elites (or 2nd tier sub-24 guys) that grinding it out for 30+ hours is "more difficult" than running it fast. First of all, faster legs may be hamburger by the end, whereas slower legs may be relatively fine (now, if the slower person has not trained well enough, then they may be dealing with hamburger legs/blisters, etc. too). I do agree that going through the night is not fun, at both Angeles Crest and Massanutten I had "Mount Everest" moments (where I just wanted to curl up and die), but then again, if you've never felt the sense of renewal and rising from the ashes that a 2nd sunrise provides, then you've missed out on something pretty cool! All things considered, I wish I were faster, but 2nd sunrises ain't that bad and there is no need for elites to feel sorry for us slowpokes. It comes off as patronization rather than respect.

  8. I don't think he was "feeling sorry" for the slower finishers. I believe he stated that with a sense of respect and appreciation in regards to the way they grind it out for so much longer than the top finishers - having to endure countless more ups and downs, mentally and physically.

  9. A fellow roadie! I must admit, I wonder quite frequently why I find trail ultras so challenging and marathons so straightforward. And yet, even though I feel like I've had just about every experience at 26.2 that I could ever have, each new one is somehow different. I've been working on overcoming the guilt I feel for my affection for pavement. Glad to know there are others who feel somewhat the same.

  10. AJW: Thanks! Your endorsement means a lot to me. I'm a big fan of your blog (and you). Hardrock is on my bucket list. It's a dream of mine.

    Devon and Anonymous: Thanks! I'll try to keep at it.

    Chris: Seeing two sunrises might actually add to the experience.

    Olga: Thanks and agreed!

    Thomas: I'm telepathic.

    William: More interviews are in the works but I'm going to spread them out more. I'm working on an interview with Phil McCarthy.

    TrailClown: That assertion was kind of from personal experience. Running for 24 hours at North Coast was insanely hard and left me quite damaged...maybe from 131 miles of concrete.

    Tim: Exactly.

    Fat & Slow: Well said. No need to feel guilty about your love of pavement. I love the trail and will always trail run, but the road entices me. There's something special about it.

  11. Eh, road ultras are not totally dead (no. 6). I think Jurek's AR for 24 hours came on a 1.1 mile road.

    Road ultras are probably getting less play because a.) it is a bitch to shut down a road for 24 hours, and b.) it is not nearly as mentally entertaining to run on a road for 24 hours as it is to do it in the epic locale of a trail, mountain setting.

    That said, as it seems the US culture has been slowing embracing more and more extreme events, I would not be surprised if flagpole sitting made a comeback along with more road ultras (24 hours around Central Park NY)

  12. GZ: Here's an idea I'm going to write more about in a future blog post:

    Transcontinental run
    Coast to coast
    All on road
    No stages--all in one go and you decide where you rest
    Each runner has a GPS tracker to ensure no one cheats by getting a ride, etc.
    $1 million prize purse:
    --$250,000 for top man
    --$250,000 for top woman
    --$100,000 each for 2nd place man and woman
    --$50,000 each for 3rd place man and woman
    --Rest of the prize purse could go for masters, grand masters and even stage wins

    If such a race happened, I cannot imagine the response. Lots of folks would be going on leaves of absence from their jobs to enter. A transcontinental run would be the ultimate equalizer among the fast guys and gals and the long, strong guys and gals.

  13. review -

  14. Great writing Wyatt and a well placed perspective. Consider the following sedulous points:

    1. Just call it NAUROY and no arguments will obtain. It seems rather arrogant that the organization would use such a global title for a North American award.

    2. Sure, there will likely be a core of training principles that are essential for success in such races but comparison to "weekend warriors" is not founded. Let's stick with discussion of serious athletes that are all likely to follow a core training regimen.

    3. If you want to call ultrarunning a sport then you must acknowledge excellence, if not, then ultrarunning is just an "activity". Sport, by definition, is about excellence and the desire to achieve what no one else on a particular day can. Without that drive there is no sport. The "activity" of ultrarunning should not take precedence over the sport, so the elites do matter, so long as you call it a sport.

    4. Agreed. Training provides the confidence to push your limits and test your mental fortitude in races. But realize that many with superior talent do not consistently perform- that is mental and it is important.

    5. Same was said in the US of road cycling (in the 70's) and mountain biking (in the 80's).... stay tuned.

    6. It isn't just about trails, it's just that the trail events seem to be more valued by the ultrarunning community. Perhaps a division into Ultrarunning Road and Ultrarunning Mountain is deserved.

    7. In sport the organization, the top performers, the teams, and sponsorship (in our age of professionalism) all matter, even in "amateur" sports which provide no substantial long term livelihood outside of jobs with sponsors (e.g. for instance Nordic skiing). Without good organization and international cooperation the sport will not advance. So I argue that you should have interest in these aspects.

    8. This is obviously a matter of opinion. Many find the alpine nature of UTMB very appealing, particularly to the "alpine culture" seeded throughout western europe. We have a similar western US "alpine" culture albeit much smaller and with less history but nonetheless it is an underlying part of many trail ultras. See Dakota's latest blog entry and you will see an example of our "alpine" culture.

    9. True for virtually any race on any day for any competitor.

    10. It all depends on your training.... remember: "... what really counts is whether or not you did the right kind of training. Physical strength feeds a strong mind."

    Thanks again for putting your thoughts out here; it is essential for such topics to be discussed, argued, and resolved for the sport to progress.

  15. Interesting post, so here is what I think I think:

    ad1) I think that continuous debate whether UROY's definition/criteria should change is totally OK. People used to think that the Earth is flat and for long long time they managed to do just fine. So it is OK to keep UROY as it is, but it will be also OK to say one day - it is time for a change. If that happens this year or next year or in 20 years - that is a different question. Downplaying or rejecting the debate is shortsighted, IMHO.

    ad3) I used to smoke 2 packs a day - so obviously no spotlight for me this time ;) ... but yes, these random encounters on the trail, synchronized puking with a stranger side by side and those high fives at finish with guys you beat on the last hill or who stormed by when you bonked are the essence of the sport for me.

    ad4) I used to think I am not mentally strong enough to run myself to the ground - but I can do that too. What took Tony K some 70-80M at Leadville I was able to do at high school during 1/2 mile race on the track ... (so no chance for Christmas card from AJW either)

    ad5) ultra runners will be next decade heroes ... just like adventure racers get big screen time today. Wait till Johny Knoxville toes the line at Leadville.

    ad9) I will have to try road marathon again. Last weekend I ran the road half-marathon and it felt so cool ... it was over before my legs warmed up.


  16. Wyatt, Their are two Ultra Runners of the year awards in the States.
    1. is the magazine "UltraRunning"
    2. is "USA T&F"

    I actually one both in 1999.
    I think the USA T&F means more to me than the one from a magazine.

    There have been cases in the past where they were not the same.
    Like 2010 Wardian was USA T&F Ultra Runner of the year and Geoff Rose was UltraRunning Magazine runner of the year.

    Not sure why a runner from South American, Europe... can not win the win Ultra Runner of the Year for the Magazine. Canadian Andy Jones won in 1990 and Jorege Pacheco from Mexico won in 2008.

  17. Mark: I'm pretty sure when Jorge Pacheco won Ultrarunner of the Year in 2008 he was living in Los Angeles (though he hails from Mexico). The maagazine award, from what I know, goes to citizens of the US and Canada.

    Going international with the magazine's UROY introduces the obligation to somehow cover/observe every race in the world. That would only be fair. Not sure the magazine wants to open Pandora's Box like that.


  18. You Americans! Change the name to USA-Canada Runner Of The Year and while you're at it, change the name of the World Series to the "USA-Canada Series"

  19. Name change. North American Runner of the year. Also, it's not the World Series, it's the "Canada USA" Series.

  20. VeryTerri: I agree in part with you. I think it's dumb when the NBA or NFL champs say they're world champs. Um, no. You're at most North American champs. Since Major League Baseball is truly an international sport in terms of where athletes are coming from (US, Canada, Japan, South America, Cuba, Dominican, etc.), I can deal with calling it the World Series.


  21. Wyatt,

    I came to this link via AJW's blog and after reading it, I immediately subscribed (..and I carefully curate what I subscribe to because Google Reader can be such a time-sink. But I digress.)

    You really hit home with #10: "Running a 100-mile race in 29 hours is harder than running it in 15 hours. When you see the sun rise for a second time (which I've never seen, thank God), you've been out there grinding away for a long, long time."

    I have not heard it that way before. I am the guy who's just coming through the 60 mile lap in 16 hours while the winners are finishing - and insanely jealous that everybody seems to be a lap ahead of me. And even though I know that I shouldn't compare myself to others, it's depressing to realize that most of my friends will finish by 2 or 3 AM while I'm destined to be out there all night and half the next day. So far, it has been too much for me to bear. I believe that is what has caused me to drop out of every 100 I've entered.. the possibility of taking 29 hours and being out there by myself after 95% of the field has finished and are in bed. Perhaps if I had gone into those races with the attitude that 29 hours is harder than 16, I might have been in a better state of mind.

    Anyway. I can only hope that one day my blog can be half as well-written and as insightful as yours. Looking forward to futre posts. Thanks.

  22. Forget second sunrise; I've seen a second sunset (and nearly third sunrise) at my first (and only) 100-miler — 41 hours at the 2011 Susitna 100.

    So ... not much of a runner but I am a big fan of this sport. Your points fall in line with opinions I've developed as I've followed ultrarunning, so I thought I'd chime in in agreement.


    Great post - Roots of Ultra running in USA started with walking then running 6 day races in mid 1800s. The 24 hour race in the late 1800s.

    I wish we (USA) was a little less 100 mile trail centric.

    Trails add a lot of variables that can give a person from geographic regions advantage over others (Long or steep climbs or downhills, evelation).

    NorthCoast 24 and most road ultras are a test of pure ultra-running skill. Not climbing skill, decending skill or ability to perform at elevation.

    Trails are beautiful, technical, challenging - Good for the soul. In timed races, the course is not the challenge.

    I wish a few more elite 100 mile racers were wired to try the 24 hour race. It would be fun to put together a team that could unseat Japan.

    Michael Henze

  24. PS - Jureks 24 record came on a 1250 meter loop.

    It was like a formula 1 course with at least 12 turns and 1 was a 180 degree that only one person at a time could go around. I small hill (7 feet), 500-600 meters of gravel and dirt, a bit of sand, 50-100 meters of coble stone and the rest pavement. Absolutely perfect weather.

    In that short of a loop and all the turns it does become hard to run the best line.