Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mike Morton, Ultrarunning Legend

>>Go to my interview with Mike Morton!

>>Also see my in-depth story about Mike's life in the March 2012 issue of Ultrarunning magazine

Every so often an ultrarunner does something that makes your jaw drop. Among the truly great performances/achievements in recent memory:
  • Matt Carpenter's record-setting 15:42 at the 2005 Leadville 100. Legend has it that Carpenter, the Pikes Peak Marathon king himself, ran every step of the course. My suspicion is that only two or three guys today could come close to what he did on that August day in the unforgiving Rocky Mountains.
  • Scott Jurek's seven straight Western States 100 wins from 1999-2005.
  • Ann Trason's 14 straight Western States 100 wins from 1989-2003. I doubt this record will ever be matched, much less surpassed.
  • Karl Meltzer's six 100-mile wins, including four course records, in 2006 (HURT 100, Hardrock 100, Wasatch 100, Bear 100, San Diego 100 and Javelina 100)
  • Bruce Fordyce's world record 50-mile time of 4:50, set in Chicago, in 1984. Folks, that is insane.
  • Don Ritchie's world record 11:30 for 100 miles, set on a London track in 1977
  • Yiannis Kouros' world record 188+ miles for 24 hours, set in Adelaide (Australia) in 1997. This record will stand for generations.
  • Kyle Skaggs' record-setting 23:23 at the 2008 Hardrock 100. People were stunned.
Those are just a few that come to mind.

Legends, indeed. L-R: Courtney Campbell, Dave Horton and Mike Morton, apparently at the Rattlesnake 50K in 1997. From
This past weekend, we saw a remarkable performance at the Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic, a trail race in North Carolina with 16 bridge crossings. As a historian by academic training, I feel obligated to write about this performance--because it was truly legendary.

Details are still a little sketchy, but apparently 40-year-old Mike Morton, a Navy diver from Maryland, covered 163.9 miles, running about 108 laps around the 1.52-mile trail loop. That's about 2 miles under the American record, held by Scott Jurek, who set the record on a flat, hard-surface course. Apparently, Morton battled 90-degree heat and course congestion in spots. Oh, and by the way, he nailed over 153 miles at Hinson last year.

Here are Mike Morton (L) and Courtney Campbell (R) at the 1997 Trail Run Across the Commonwealth. From
Folks, this is remarkable.

That's only part of the story. Here's the rest. The name Mike Morton may not mean much to newcomers to the sport and/or those who haven't studied the history of ultrarunning, but to those who have been around a while and those who have read their ultrarunning lore, Mike Morton is a legend. Here's some history from former Western States 100 race director Norm Klein:
The Morton Comeback
The only words necessary to describe the 1997 [Western States 100) race are "Mike Morton." A U.S. Navy diver from Maryland, Mike had a difficult time in the 1996 race, withdrawing after 86 miles. Certainly no stranger to ultramarathoning with victories at the Old Dominion 100 and the Vermont 100, Mike returned to Western States with just one thought in mind: make up for 1996.
It has been repeated a thousand times over that no runner can win Western States without having the advantage of training on the Western States Trail. Most experienced runners will contend that knowledge of the trail is worth at least two hours off the total time. Further proof of this is that in the first 23 years of the race, there had never been a men's winner who didn't live in California. And furthermore, every winner since 1987 had lived in Northern California. Well, Mike Morton apparently wasn't privy to the prevailing knowledge.
Fortunately for everyone involved, weather conditions on raceday were the finest in the history of the race. Temperatures never topped 80 degrees, and the night was very cool, although by the time Morton arrived in Auburn, the sun hadn't even had a chance to go down.
Mike took the lead at 17 miles, and when he arrived at Robinson Flat (30.2 miles), everyone felt he would "lose it in the canyons." All he lost when he hit the canyons were the runners who were pursuing him. At Foresthill (62 miles) people said, "he'll crash and burn on California Street Trail." The only things Mike burned were the rocks as he blazed over them. At the river crossing (78 miles), the sentiment was "he'll never finish at that pace!"
Not only did Mike finish at that pace, but he also became the first non-Californian to win the race, defeating Tim Twietmeyer (who finished second) by an hour and 33 minutes. To those who thought he'd crash and burn, instead Mike burned Tom Johnson's course record by 14 minutes. Skeptics felt that if an "outsider" won, he wouldn't be accepted by the "Western States family." I've been involved in 15 Western States awards ceremonies, and Mike Morton received the loudest and longest standing ovation I've ever witnessed.
That was taken from a May/June 1998 Marathon & Beyond article, which you can read here. Apparently Morton, who also won the Vermont 100 in 19955, the Massanutten 100 in 1996, and the Mountain Masochist 50M in 1997, soon after endured a rash of injuries that more or less derailed his career. When I searched his results, it looks like he didn't do much, if any, racing from 1997 to 2009. (Update, thanks to Footfeathers' investigative work: Morton ran in the 2007 JFK 50M, finishing 26th overall with a 7:15, and finished second overall at the 2010 Weymouth Woods 100K with an 8:57). From what I've seen, Morton seems to have evolved into a once-or-twice-a-year racer who has a penchant for opening up a can of whoopass when he shows up to an event. When Mortons' toeing the line, you better be wearing your fast shoes.

Morton at the 2011 Hinson Lake 24-Hour Ultra Classic. From
I wonder what my own performances would be like if I raced only once or twice a year, instead of 7 or more times like I've done so far this year with the Eisenhower Marathon, Cheyenne Mountain 50K, Jemez Mountain 50M, Mount Evans Ascent, Leadville Trail Marathon and Leadville 100M....

The Hinson Lake leaderboard at 23 hours. From
Anyway, in my book, what Mike Morton did at Hinson Lake over the weekend is Performance of the Year. When you consider the course and the conditions, it's a slam dunk in my book. When you consider the runner, it's the stuff of legend.

Norm Klein wrote of Morton's 1997 Western States as a comeback. Fourteen years later, at the age of 40, are we seeing yet another Morton return to domination?

>>Go to my interview with Mike Morton!


  1. I have a Twitter feed of leaderboard pictures on my blog. And split estimations I made along the way.

    The course is not pavement, its not flat, and is filled with 250+ others...most of whom are an aweful lot slower. There is no way he was running tangents.

    The main website still doesn't have results up yet, but I have heard 4 different people say the final mileage was 163.9. I believe that since I estimate he was doing 8 minute miles with 1 hour left when he was at 156.6.

    And yes, the heat index was 90F for a lot of the day. I never run without a shirt, and I didn't wear a shirt after mile 5. I was even able to sit and hang out with no shirt as late as 2am. It was hot and humid.

  2. Mike's actually raced a few times more recently, including jfk in 07 and last year at Weymouth Woods 100k and a couple low mileage 24 hr events.

  3. His entry states Afganistan, FL - Guessing he is serving in Afganistan. 90F would melt most of us away from a 150+ mile performance - Heck it was between 46-56F in Brive for Scott's record. I would guess he is amazingly heat acclimated.

    Trail - Harder or easier? I do think it is a harder course then most 24 hour events.

    But I would not want to minimize a performance at a World Championship - With all the competition and "Racing" that could accur.

    World Championship (Scott's race) would have had that man athletes half the size course with no one running the same pace - You'd be amazed how many walkers from the start.

    I do hope Mike is able to go to Poland 2012 WC and he gets great weather to see what he can really do with better conditions.

    Sadly I do not believe the course is certified to be able to have the mileage ratified for a new Masters AR.

  4. PS - I have been waiting for posted results since Sunday when I 1st heard about this on the UL.

    According to Scott's blog he is running Soochow in Taiwan in December this year.

    Mike Morton - Great show Man!

  5. Brett: If you're so inclined, please send me a few photos of the leaderboard. I'll be sure to credit you as the source.

    Tim/Footfeathers: Thanks for the info! I need to do a better job of investigation.

    Michael: I hope Mike is asked to join the US 24-hour team, especially if that's something he'd like to do (I think he's in the Navy). You've done way more 24s than most of us, so you'd know what's harder--trail or pavement. I can tell you that I've never been so beat up as I was after the 2009 NC24. My body was a mess and it took me easily 3 months to recover.

  6. So is this your vote for UPOY Wyatt?

  7. GZ: When it comes to UPOY, My opinion doesn't count. :).


  8. Wyatt, click through my name to my blog and my latest post has several pictures you can pull. You don't have to credit me, there is nothing proprietary or artistic about it. :)

  9. I saw him last year and this year with my own eyes. Absolutely incredible. It was actually much hotter last year when he ran 154....about 3 hours in this year, we chatted for a sec and I asked him what his plan was. Paraphrasing, he said "I already hit my goal; I didn't get a chance to train like I wanted to." ....Then he just hammered down for another 21 hours. Incredible. Nice humble family guy too. Couldnt happen to a better dude.

  10. Its official, Mike Morton did 163.9 miles in 24 hours at Hinson Lake:

  11. Brett:

    Just incredible. I certainly hope Mike's going to get an invitation to join the US 24-hour team. Imagine a team of Mike, Scott Jurek, and Phil McCarthy. Pretty stout.


  12. It was an amazing thing to watch the last two years!!!!

  13. It was an amazing thing to watch the last two years. If he would of had the right conditions I'm positive he would of broke 170!

  14. We just had Mike turn in a GREAT performance at the Long Haul 100 in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Mike completed the 100 mile trail course in 13:18:58 !! If my math is correct that is an average minute/mile pace of 7:59. He was flying! He did not wast any time at aid stations, in and out. Not only was he a fantastic runner who was a spectacle to see, he is a kind and humble person. Sometime within his final 17 miles he came across another runner whose headlamp had died...Mike gave his light to him and continued on in the dark. We had a great time being a part of this historic runner's story! You can see his result at

  15. Love reading about Mike. Help fill out his Wikipedia page if you have any info.

  16. What has been holding Mike is that he is active in the Army. Imagine doing 20milers on a treadmill every other day for training because if you run outside, there might be a sniper.