Friday, February 24, 2012

In Defense of Ultrarunning: When Our Sport is Attacked

Until I read Tim Tollefson’s recent blog post on, “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 has published for the world to see. And it's because Tollefson's attack is on 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 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.


  1. For V02 Max comparisions:
    Five time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain - 88
    Cross-country skier Bjørn Dæhlie - 96
    Lance Armstrong - 85
    Kilian Jornet -92
    Matt Carpenter - 90.2
    Steve Prefontaine - 84.4
    Frank Shorter - 71.3
    Looks like ultra runners do alright!

    David T.

  2. BTW - You don't have to wait for Tollefson to race King and Wardian, they already raced in the Olympic Marathon Trails.
    Josh Cox, King Wardian, Ryan Bak, and Lundstrom all finished ahead of Tollefson.

    See here:

    and here:

    David T.

  3. Pretty funny articles. Kind of like the letsrun message boards, except the dude can actually haul ass.

  4. Ha! So first of all, he is bagging on Fox News and then defends his horrible blog by citing the number of hits and calling it a "success". Sounds to me like he ought to apply for a job with Fox News. And he complains about an "us versus them" mindset and then rips on the number of elites in an ultra field? I would think a man of "science" would have a basic understanding of numbers. Ultra fields are usually quite small compared the 5k - marathon fields. Perhaps the lack of "elite" runners in an ultra event is a direct relationship to the number of entrants?

  5. These articles along with Flotrail stealing Megan Hicks' photo for their banner make me like The Flotrail folks less and less. But the attitude doesn't surprise me - "elite" runners have often held that view toward middle of the packers, and in Tollefson's eyes, ultra runners are mid-packers.

  6. I think he was trying to be funny. He wasn't funny but what do you expect from a top road guy.

  7. He should just rename the blog post to "I am jealous of a casual runner who made more money on a book than I do from sponsorships. Also, I hate CrossFit and frat boys."

  8. Bleh. Runners have feelings too, but who cares?

  9. I don't think Tollefson knows the difference between satire and what he's doing, which is basically like mocking some kid in school, then saying "Oh, lighten up! It's a joke, can't you tell?"

    And then he says he's critiquing the "us vs. them" mentality. Rich.

    I don't understand a lot of things other people do, but I keep my mouth shut, assuming they have their reasons.

  10. I liked his first column. Thought it was funny. I do find that some ultrarunners take themselves and the sport too seriously and forget to laugh now and then about the silliness of it all. Hell, how many discussions about shoes have we all seen in the blog world? Even the hardest of hardcore among us have to admit that everyone has heard enough about New Balance shoes and Hokas.

    Heck, maybe my response to your post...or even your evidence that we all need to lighten up and laugh at ourselves a bit. There's plenty to laugh at, eh JT?

  11. He's just trying to get people's goat up to draw traffic. For me, if you want to get in shape by spending your day going backwards on a pogo stick, so be it. Just don't pee on my wave.

  12. There is plenty to laugh at in ultrarunning -- some of the Xtranormal videos are hilarious (and some letsrun comments as well) -- but neither of Tollefson's articles were good satire. So I'm offended as an ultrarunner, but even more as a fan of good satire.

  13. you should check out the post and comments here...

  14. It's the attack those who are successful trend that's sweeping the nation. What's sad is that it's now coming from the successful. I admire ultrarunners and marathon runners. I want to be like them, not resent them.

    By the way, Karnazes, although inspirational, does a great deal of humblebragging. He has an entire chapter in Run that's fan mail and a chapter written by his children saying how great he is.

    Love your stuff, Wyatt.

  15. Thanks for writing this! The FloTrack article was lame, but not shocking. (Wondering why they allowed this guy to write for them, for one thing, considering he lacks any sort of writers voice!) But to get to the point: I think the people the author is referring to are in existence, definitely. But they certainly aren't the truly elite runners. I watched Mike Morton (very modestly) slam Hinson, and watched Geoff race SBER100. Shoot we even hung out for awhile after his 15 hour finish and my 32hr death march. No elitism there whatsoever, and both of those men are quite the athletes. HOWEVER, I have also met a lot of people who are doing pretty well in our sport, winning local ultras, etc, and many have a gigantic PRAISE ME and LOOK AT ME type of persona. It comes down to the individual, and their amount of narcissistic tendencies, I guess. Definitely not the reflection of our sport as a whole. I think the saddest part of this is that this poor guy, whoever he is, thought he was writing a really funny article, when absolutely NOBODY gets his sense of humor. Too bad.

  16. If its so damned easy and we're all so damned slow, why doesn't he ever sign up his pansy ass for an ultra race?

    Because he's a blowhard thats why. Just trying to make his own unsuccessful self feel better.

  17. Say, is it really so hard to see that Tollefson’s article was meant to be funny?

    Now granted, his attempt at satire was a bit weak, but an attack on ultra running it was not.

    Lighten up, people!

  18. I can't say whether this is an attack on ultra runners because I don't yet belong to the group (training for the LT100 now). I was formerly a decent college wrestler at BYU and thought that was hard - training for Leadville is punishing, not only in the training itself, but in the mental and strategic aspects. Fighting through injuries takes incredible patience, perseverance and determination. I'm attracted to the sport because of its ridiculous toughness and because of the kind/humble people who enjoy doing it.

  19. I can't say whether this is an attack on ultra runners because I don't yet belong to the group (training for the LT100 now). I was formerly a decent college wrestler at BYU and thought that was hard - training for Leadville is punishing, not only in the training itself, but in the mental and strategic aspects. Fighting through injuries takes incredible patience, perseverance and determination. I'm attracted to the sport because of its ridiculous toughness and because of the kind/humble people who enjoy doing it.

  20. What's wrong with tacitly attacking organized religion?

  21. I came here when I searched "Why are ultra runners annoying?"

    They are annoying. As annoying as tri-geeks. Not as annoying as Crossfitters, but getting there.

    Crossfit is the WWE of "fitness."

    I have done some "ultras" and I wouldn't be caught dead referring to myself as an ultra runner now. Just...."a trail runner." Or "long distance runner." Hell, even the dreaded "endurance athlete" is better.

    I agree....what is wrong with attacking organized religion? This begs another question...why are those who run so often bible thumpers? If anything should be attacked, it should be organized religion....organized sport can be attacked second.

  22. Btw, this part:

    "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."

    Is just silly. VO2 doesn't mean anything in running. It is not an indicator of your performance. Sure, everyone elite has above 60, but after that its really not an important number. Frank Shorter had 71, but he is still a far better athlete than Carpenter and Jornet among many others. VO2 is not a good predictor of running performance or fitness for elites.

    1. Anonymous: I think you've been reading too much Letsrun crap. How can you say Shorter was a "far better athlete" than MC and Jornet when he was a road guy and MC and Jornet are trail guys? How can you be so sure Shorter could have ascended Pikes in 2:01, which MC has done? How can you be so sure Shorter could have run MC's time at Leadville? Dude, you are speculating. It is clear you don't get trail running. That said, I totally admit that Shorter would smoke both Kilian and MC in a road marathon. What you do in a road marathon doesn't always translate to trail racing and vice versa. We just had a 2:30 marathoner go sub 12 for 100 miles, setting a new American record. Show me an elite marathoner who could do that.

      Also, VO2 max is part of the equation, but it's a critical part. You're not going to ascend Pikes in 2:01 unless you are pretty stout on the VO2 max front.


    2. Far too much letsrun crap? Ultrarunners are barely mentioned on letsrun, dont think I've ever seen MC and Jornet etc mentioned in there.

      I have never said Shorter could have ascended Pikes in 2:01, I have never said Shorter could have run MC's time at Leadville? I am not speculating at all. Also, there is nothing in my comment that indicate anything about my knowledge about trail running.

      What I sad was that Shorter was a better athlete, in the same way Usain is a better athlete than MC. Not because Usain can run Leadville faster, but because Usain have the better performance.

      Shorters performance is better than MC and Jornets performances. Thats what I said. You seem weirdly defensive as you pretend I said anything about Shorters abilities in ultra/trail running.

      That being said, do I misunderstand you or are you actually arguing that trail/ultra are at the same level (performance vice) as the marathon?

      Like I said, you cannot use VO2 to measure someones fitness. Theres guys whos hardly trained more than the hobby jogger who has 80+. Cam Levins, if youve ever heard of him? Has below 70. One can't compare Shorters (or anyone else as elite as him) VO2 against someone else in the same sport or different sport and use it as a measurement about the fitness level. Its not comparable. Running is far more about efficiency than VO2 for example. Like I said, everyone at elite level have above 60+, most 70+. But after that it really doesn't mean much.

      If you disagree, look no further than Letsrun. The science and experience from top runners can be found there, and many other places.

  23. The statement V02 doesn't mean anything in running is just silly.

    1. Its not comparable was my intention with that statement. If you have 70, 75 or 80 in VO2 that doesn't say anything about your abilities in the marathon, 24 hour race, 800m, 5000m etc. Its not a good number to compare athletes against each other, as its not a good predictor of running performance.

      Theres plenty of guys with higher VO2 than Lance Armstrong, are they ever close to the level he was at before he started using PEDs (assuming he didnt when young)? No.