Until I read Tim Tollefson’s recent blog post on flotrack.org, “CrossFit vs Ultrarunning. Which is more nauseating?,” I’d never encountered any published anti-ultrarunning epistles. But, alas, I do feel obligated to respond to Tollefson’s unfair and unprovoked attack on my beloved sport and especially his comparison of ultrarunners to CrossFitters, both of whom he calls “annoying” and “self-righteous.” He also tacitly attacks organized religion and politics (as well as Fox News in his follow-up post--more on that below), just for good measure.
First off, let’s get this little fact out there: Tollefson is an elite road runner, but not in the Ryan Hall class. I respect his talent and I’m sure he works his tail off. Not that he cares what I think—especially since I’m a lowly ultrarunner, right? Secondly, I don’t know much at all about CrossFit, except for what I’ve seen on TV. Not long ago I watched about 30 seconds of the CrossFit Games—I think it was on ESPN. Look, CrossFit isn’t my thing. I think it’s more exercise than sport, but I’m not going to attack it, because I admire the dedication of its participants. So my concern in this post isn’t with defending CrossFit; it’s with defending ultrarunning against an incredibly unfair attack, which flotrack.org has published for the world to see. And it's because Tollefson's attack is on flotrack.org that a response is needed.
Tollefson, who has since published an equally obnoxious, arrogant follow-up mea culpa (“Round 2: Ultrarunning vs Fox News"), attacks ultrarunners as gloryhounds who go around bragging and wearing clothing that says dorky things like, “Marathons are my warm-up,” “Black toenails are my friend,” etc. Ultrarunners as braggers? Nothing could be further from the truth. Ultrarunners are among the most humble group of folks I know. How else to explain the fact that most of our races are unknown to the masses and all we get for finishing a 100-miler is a damned belt buckle? Most ultrarunners I know (me included) would actually prefer that our sport operate in the darkness rather than be in the limelight thanks to the overdramatized, yet highly entertaining, best-selling books by Christopher McDougall and Dean Karnazes.
Tollefson then goes on to say ultrarunners “failed at” their sport and turned to super-long distances to mask their average abilities. Um, to this accusation, I ask Tollefson: Have you ever seen Nick Clark descend a mountain trail? Have you ever seen Matt Carpenter (who may or may not identify himself as an ultrarunner but has nonetheless excelled in the sport) attack 14,115-foot Pikes Peak? Have you ever seen Mike Morton run for 24 hours? Have you ever seen Kilian Jornet, Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey and Anton Krupicka in action at an ultra? What about Max King, who ran in the Olympic Trials Marathon, and Michael Wardian, who is a sub-2:20 guy like Tollefson and eats marathons, 50Ks and 100Ks for breakfast?
Those guys are not only great ultrarunners, but also supremely gifted athletes. Carpenter and Jornet’s VO2 maxes are as high, if not higher, than Lance Armstrong’s—and probably higher than many elite marathoners. And yet they are as humble as the back of the packers who run the same trails that they run in a race. It’s the crushingly difficult process of training for and completing an ultramarathon that makes our sport’s participants a humble lot. Sure, a few of us might get cowboyish at times (I’m guilty of it, but it’s all fun and games), but never will you see us exerting some kind of false superiority in public. That’s not who we are, OK?
Make no mistake about it; ultrarunning is a sport. Runners line up at a starting line and then race a given distance—50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers or 100 or more miles. There are winners in ultrarunning, just as there are winners in more “traditional” track and field events.
(That said, racing a marathon is still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s insanely difficult from a pacing standpoint and in the final 10K, and so my hat goes off to Tollefson and others who do it so well. By the same token, his hat should go off to ultrarunners, especially our sport’s elite.)
Finally, Tollefson’s attack is severely undermined by the fact that he bases it almost entirely on McDougall’s book, which he says is littered with inaccuracies, half-truths and exaggerations. I won’t dispute that McDougall stretched things a little here and there, but it’s preposterous to use that admittedly over-the-top book as the basis for attacking the sport of ultrarunning (hence his follow-up mea culpa). Has Tollefson ever raced an ultra? Has he ever volunteered at a 100-miler? Has he ever been at the Placer High School track during the finish of the Western States 100? What Tollefson has done is pick apart a few unfortunate sections of the McDougall book and then draw a series of absurd conclusions. It’s that kind of flawed, unfair and narrow thinking that leads to hateful things.
In closing, I’d like to offer my services as a writer and ultrarunner to flotrack.org since it clearly needs a more fair and balanced approach :-). And I also hope Josh Cox, Michael Wardian and/or Max King will take Tollefson on in a 50K or 100K, especially since those guys--you know, dudes you turned to ultrarunning since they "failed" at their sport, according to Tollefson's thinking--already beat him in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials.