FM Show: Matt’s 1st Ultra and Lake Sonoma Preview

Welcome back to Elevation Trail.  On this week’s episode of the FM Show, Matt and I discuss his first 50k.  Find out if Matt’s nipples made it to the finish.  We also talk about the insanely deep field of runners at Lake Sonoma 50 mile coming up this weekend and give our uneducated predictions.  Of, course, 5 mins after I edited the show, Leor Pantilat wrote me back saying he won’t be in LS50 due to a slight injury.  We look forward to your comments and feedback!

et-FM Show Lake Sonoma 50

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Weekend Wrap at Inside Trail: Speedgoat Speedy and new R2R2R FKT

Grand Canyon. Photo: getoutgetlost.com

Over the last 30 years, running the “big ditch” has inspired men and women to see just how fast it can be done.  The rim to rim to rim, double crossing, out-n-back, or simply r2r2r is a substantial overnight hike for most people, who must already possess a level of fitness the average American will likely never attain.  To run the r2r2r in a day takes the adventure to a new level, a goal that has been plunked into most trail runners’ bucket lists.  This brings us to the crème de la crème brimming the rim of the canyon, the elite who train and plan for the undertaking in the hopes of having everything come together to set the FKT (Fastest Known Time).

Peter Bakwin’s site on FKTs briefly covers the men’s FKT accomplishments,

Allyn Cureton held the R2R2R record for 25 years at 7h51m23s, set in an actual race on 11/9/1981 (S to N to S Kaibab trails). Races have long been banned in the National Parks. The record was finally bested on 11/10/2006 by Kyle Skaggs, 7h37m. Kyle had to run a little extra due to a bridge being out. A year later (11/10/2007) Dave Mackey ran 6h59m56s, for the current record. Dave reported being held up for several minutes on his ascent back up the South Kaibab by a mule train.

Over the weekend Dakota Jones eclipsed Mackey’s record by 6 minutes, reaching the south rim finish in 6:53.  Brendan Temboli, one of a group of runners who started with Dakota said, “The weather forecast was not promising going into it. woke up to ~3″ of wet snow, lots of wind… hit the trail around 6:45am and within a few mins of dropping in elevation conditions improved a lot. north rim was very snowy too.”  Epic day.  Congratulations Dakota!

 

Pinhoti 100 Buckle. Photo: run100s.com

Pinhoti 100:  In the woods of Alabama, Karl Meltzer solidifies his already granite-hard legacy with his 31st WIN at the 100 mile distance at the Pinhoti 100.  Meltzer ran unchallenged, breaking his own course record crossing the finish in 16:42.  Pinhoti was his fifth 100 miler of 2011, two of which he won (Massanutten being the other).  He ran a steady solo race, staying on or under 17 hour splits.  Second place, Joseph Czabaranek of Shalimar Florida, was a distant 2.5 hours behind, crossing the line in 19:10.  Jamie Anderson rounded out the top three in 19:16.  Last year’s champion, John Dove, regrouped from some mid-race problems to finish 4th in 20:38.  For the women, Jill Perry, fresh off her win at Oil Creek 100, dominated the field for the win in 22:16 and 7th overall.

 

Eric Grossman at the 2008 MMTR. Photo: eco-xsports.blogspot.com

Mt. Masochist 50 Mile:  Eric Grossman is an instructor and he held class on Saturday with hard-earned lessons for his competitors at the Mt. Masochist 50.  Running his personal best in his sixth MMTR, Grossman hit the finish line in 6:58:22.  His star pupil was Brian Rusiecki, who came charging in for 2nd, just 1:12 behind in 6:59:34.  Paul Terranova earned 3rd place in 7:09.  Sandi Nypaver continued her winning form shooting to the line first on the tough 54 mile course in 8:05.  Alyssa Wildeboer came in a distant 2nd in a hair under 8:34.  Young Dacia Reed rounded out the women’s podium in 8:48.

USATF MUT Nominations (the-not-so soft pour)

USATF MUT Award

Thursday, we at Inside Trail tossed up one of those big neon softballs in the form of “Here’s the USATF MUT nominations. What do you think about it?” It was an intentional trial attempt at not laying out thick commentary of our observations in the hopes of drawing comments and thoughts from readers.

Regurgitating existing conversations or reposting current thoughts found elsewhere isn’t Inside Trail’s style, so we want to augment our last post with some IT-type questions and offer a bit of “substance of competition”. To begin, though, we need to understand what the criteria for the award is and how to interpret it. It seems that the qualifications have evolved over the last ten years. For instance, international competition was merely “encouraged” whereas it’s now a specific requirement.  As we’ll see, that turns out to be the doorman bouncer that keeps otherwise qualified candidates out of the party.

We’re not ones to sugarcoat things, so when I say that the USATF website is as jumbled as their year-long search for a new CEO, I’m simply pointing out facts. For example, the “History” section covers 133 years of history in approximately 100 words and thats for the overall history. There’s nothing other than an overview of the “joint subcommittee” of MUT being established in 1998 and annual meeting minutes from which to glean historical information regarding the MUT and, frankly, I’m not that interested to where I’ll spend a couple hours reading through meeting minutes. So, we’ll just start the discussion…

Tim: As I’ve pointed out above, there’s yet another weakness in the establishments attempting to manage our great sport. I don’t covet their task and assume it’s like trying to manage a wet bar of soap on tile. I did receive a response from Nancy Hobbs regarding the USATF MUT annual awards. The most important clarification I needed was whether “international competition” means competition off American soil or any race that has an international field, e.g. Western States. She confirmed that it means off US soil. That alone excludes Dave Mackey from contention for the USATF MUT Ultra Runner of the Year award. So, who does that leave? Obviously, the Mountain Runners of the Year have to be Max King and Kasie Enman. I’d like to focus on the ultra classification. Wardian is everyone’s obvious choice but let’s introduce Nick Pedatella into the mix. Heck, let’s talk about Pedatella for both USATF MUT Ultra Runner of the Year and UltraRunning Magazine’s UROY award. He flies low, under the radar with no blog, no sponsors, and a self effacing nature that screams “ah, shucks, I just run and that’s it.”  Matt, you actually pointed out Nick Pedatella’s stout season and obvious qualifications for consideration for BOTH of these awards. What’s your take on all this?

Matt: We quasi-academics like to complicate things. Before we get to an epic 10%ABV bottle of irony, let’s shore-up our superficial understanding of USATF, adding to what you said very well above. First of all, Matt Carpenter’s critical view of the USATF back in ’07 in an interview in Running Times seems to have a lot of traction (among the abundance of criticism out there). You allude to the lack of leadership, the organization still looking for a CEO for over a year, and just the simple lack of information that exists seems pretty indicative of how important these sports are to USATF discourse.

We might add that the MUT moniker was coined by Nancy Hobbs at a USATF convention in Florida in 1998 and two years later at a conference in Albuquerque the new MUT subcommittee was “elevated to the status of a Running Council.” Prior to that, USATF did have an Ultra Subcommittee, but no representation of mountain running. So, going on 11 years now, USATF has “supported” the mountain, ultra and trail running sports. The argument that the organization has a stake in American off-road racing does not possess much of a statistical argument (beyond some race results). In other words, if we’re going to be really honest here, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that one might consider enough to engage the audience with a clear, articulate national (and even international) argument for trail and mountain running. And based on our requests for information from current USATF leadership being unequivocally denied, the organization does not appear too concerned either about its MUT ethical argument (“don’t you want us to like you?”). Nonetheless, the organization has had a huge presence in road and track, as you point-out, Tim, for over one hundred years. And even if the folks at USATF embrace MUT with their fingers, it’s, I guess, better than nothing.

On their website, under MUT Records & Lists, they provide some records of past USA Champions for the various ultra and trail distances. Please excuse the attention here on the men’s side. I will list here the men’s champs. Each distance category provides past winners. The road categories go back to the 60s whereas the trail races go back to the mid-to-late 90s.
· Michael Wardian is the 2011 50k road champ
· Todd Braje is the defending 50 mile road champ
o The 2011 50mile championship is next weekend – October 23, 2011
Tussey Mt. Ski Area – Boalsburg, PA
· Andy Henshaw is the 2011 100k road champ
· A 100 mile road championship hasn’t been run since 2003
· Max King is the current 50k trail champ (although this result is not listed)
· Jason Schlarb is the current 50mile trail champ
· The trail 100k category doesn’t exist, but Dave Mackey won that event back in January at Bandera
· The trail 100 mile link is dead (no records), yet Dave James won the 2011 100 Trail Championship at Burning River 100. The Mohican 100 appears to have been a venue used in the past, as well..
· Max King is the 2011 USA Mountain Champion (Cranmore Hill Climb)
· Max King is the defending Trail Marathon Champ
o The 2011 championship is Nov. 5th at the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon
· The 2011 10km Trail Champion is Joe Moore

Why did I list all of those? It’s informative, so go ahead and start nominating though you’ll have to wait on the trail marathon results and the 50mile road ultra results, as they have yet to run.

One thing seems pretty clear about the USATF: the 100mile distance doesn’t get the press that other trail and ultra distances do. Maybe that’s just me. Now, for your 2011 USATF Runners of the Year nominations, go back to the criteria in our previous post and start making your case for a mountain, ultra and trail runner.

Since the USATF winner of any MUT category must have raced abroad, Max King is clearly the 2011 USATF Mountain Runner of the Year (and indeed Kasie Enman is the women’s winner). As for the USATF Trail Runner of the Year, King looks suited for that too having added the ½ Marathon Trail Championship, the 50k Trail, and most likely the Trail Marathon in Nov. Joe Grey won the 15k trail. So, maybe Max doubles.

And then we have the 2011 USATF Ultra Runner of the Year award.
Front runners:

Michael Wardian: Look at his results. He’s raced abroad, nabbing 2nd at the 100k Worlds and he won the USATF 50k road championships. He also won the NFEC Kansas City 50miler, 3rd at Badwater, 3rd at NFEC Washington, and 2nd at UROC.

Andy Henshaw: 3rd at 100k Worlds, 4th at White River and a 1st at Lost Lake 50k and a stellar win at the 100k road championship.

Beyond that, you’re pretty stuck (though do complicate, please).

Dave Mackey is not eligible because he did not race abroad. Nick Clark’s Sierre-Zinal isn’t an ultra and his 100 miler podiums don’t seem like USATF material although his Jemez and Speedgoat wins seem admissible. But the international race criterion I think nips him in the bud.

Footfeathers and Nick Pedatella

We like a runner named Nick Pedatella for USATF Ultra Runner of the Year, too. He was 2nd American at UTMB (I believe 13th overall). He won Oil Creek 100, The Bear 100, was 2nd at Big Horn 100, 2nd at Speedgoat 50k, and 4th at Jemez. His international entry is HUGE. And he faired extremely well at 3 other 100s to go along with shorter ultra results in big races. The guy raced a lot. And podiumed a lot. We like him. A lot.

But the USATF may look elsewhere. Michael Wardian has won three straight Ted Corbitt Memorial USATF Ultra Runner of the Year Awards. Although last year he had a win at The Comrades 98k and a 3rd at Marathon de Sables, his 2011 looks pretty impressive again. I would only say look at Henshaw as well; though Wardian did beat him head-to-head in The Netherlands. Wardian seems a natural pick for USATF ultra award, again.

That’s the men’s USATF UROY.

I hope you’ve been doing the math because although Pedatella’s phenomenal year doesn’t seem to measure-up to the spirit of the USATF Ultra Runner of the Year award, we would like to take this opportunity to suggest that he might be the perfect dark horse for the other big ultra award, UROY.

This award, it is widely known, loves it some mountain 100 milers! The fact that Nick Clark is clearly one of the favorites based on two third places at two very prominent 100 milers is another indication of this trend. If you just look at the results, the comparison between Mackey and Clark isn’t quite that compelling. Mackey has had a HUGE year (And had he made it to the UTMB, even to run the CCC, that would have been his international entry and the USATF ultra runner of the year would be his). It’s tough to compare Mackey and Clark only because Mackey has more wins in some very prominent American ultras. The ONLY reason there is still a conversation is that Mackey doesn’t stack-up on the 100 scale. He only ran one. And he finished 6th. And Clark finished 3rd in the same race, the one between Squaw Valley and Auburn, California. Otherwise, Mackey won just about every race he entered (American River, Miwok, Waldo, Firetrails, etc.). There is nothing soft about Mackey’s race schedule. He had a mammoth year. Please, don’t get me wrong: Clark’s WS/HR double podium is epic, as well. His Jemez CR, fantastic. But I would give the nod to Mackey just on the statistical argument.

However, the other Nick (Pedatella) submits a resume for UROY that is unmistakably UROY-like (other than the fact that he did not race WS100). Try this: compare the Geoff Roes 2009 year with the Pedatella 2011 year. Although Roes was bagging course records at 100s (HURT, Wasatch and The Bear) and winning some smaller ultras, Pedatella ran 4 100s this year, won 2, finished 2nd American at a BRUTAL UTMB (juxtaposed with the slew of DNFs we all witnessed), 2nd to Clark at Speedgoat and 4th at Jemez.

So you say the Roes ’09 and Pedatella ’11 don’t quite compare? There isn’t the same level of dominance that Geoff displayed back in the day? I beg to differ, especially given who Pedatella is up against this year. For UROY, the 100 is the golden egg. It’s what’s holding-back the brilliant year of Dave Mackey. How is Pedatella not in the conversation? Talk about mind-boggling.

Here’s your exercise to narrow-down the running for UROY:

1. Look at the UROY past winners. Look at those winners’ race results.
2. Compare the 2011 Nick Clark to the 2011 Nick Pedatella. Look at their race results, especially in the 100.
3. Once you’ve decided between those two;
4. Compare Nick to Dave. Look at their race results, especially in the 100.

In the end, we have a problem here. I (along with others) assume the 100 is the main currency for the UROY judges. That’s what they like. It’s indisputable. However, we don’t really know. You know what happens when we assume things.

Another observation that I may as well mention, which ultimately hurts Nick Pedatella, is the sense that the UROY award seems to also value an athlete’s visibility, or even popularity. I sure hope that’s not the case; granted, I know visibility comes from an active racing schedule, racing big buzz events, and getting results. But it’s just something we’ve noticed and that seems to be a factor negatively affecting Pedatella. Based on the numbers, there’s no way he should not be in the UROY conversation (or even the USATF UROY conversation).

And what about this bottle of irony I’ve opened. It’s the fact that based on all the factors and flawed ultra awards processes, Dave Mackey could be empty-handed when it’s all said and done. Most likely he wins UROY, but if that’s the case, then what happens to the “criteria” UROY has subtly conveyed to its audience over the years? Sure it’s that magazine’s award and they can do whatever they want. But not really.

Luckily, we won’t be thinking about this later this month when the 50mile Road Championships goes off, nor in November when Max King tries to defend his trail marathon championship. We certainly won’t give a rat’s ass when the boys line-up in the Marin Headlands in December among all the rest of the great trail racing taking place in the next few months.

I’m not sure what Dave Mackey will be thinking, but maybe even the prospect of such a turn of events with these hokey awards will light a little fire for this little race in December. Awards or not, he and the rest of these elite runners are having incredible years, enjoying the ups and downs of the literal and proverbial trail.

Nick Pedatella in his iconic striped green racing shirt. Photo: Jeff Montgomery

In closing, keep your eye on Nick Pedatella. His numbers have a lot of class. He can not be discounted. Do the math. As for Inside Trail’s “little darling,” [DM] I think 2011 is a win-win. He most likely wins the coveted UROY. Or he gets [N]icked in the final vote count. And comes back pissed and hungry for an even “insaner” 2012.

That’s what I think, Tim.

Weekend Wrap at Inside Trail: Mackey 3-Peats and Slickrock Circus

There was a good assortment of ultra races over the weekend.  From the soft, rolling hills in the Bay Area of California, to undulating and abruptly jagged desert trails in Moab, Utah, to ankle crushing rock-lined, steep descents of Virginia, there was variety in both the race terrain and the weather accompanying the events.  The weather played the biggest role at the Slickrock 100 (50 mile and 50k), where the recent heavy rains washed out dirt roads and created quicksand circumstances that actually swallowed the race director’s 4×4 vehicle up to the windows.  Both the 100 mile and 50 mile courses were changed substantially at the last minute to avoid the dangerous areas.  More on that in a bit.

Dave Mackey's well deserved bib number

First, let’s start with the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile.  Dave Mackey made it three years in a row with his win in 6:34 (Hi, Ultra Runner Of the Year, meet Mr. Mackey).  He now owns 3 of the fastest 5 times ever run in this 29 year old event.  In a repeat of their last race, Chris Calzetta and Jean Pommier had a sprint to the finish with Calzetta (7:02:54) reaching the line one second in front of the speedy 47 year old Pommier (they tied for 1st at the Skyline 50k in August!).   For the women, Roxanne Woodhouse lead all day and crossed the line first in 8:00.  Jennifer Benna methodically picked off people all day, moving up to 2nd where she finished in 8:09.  Bree Lambert held on for 3rd in 8:26.

The transfer of race management to NorCal Ultras was seamless.  Lots of good feedback from participants commenting on the well-marked course, post race food, and terrific weather, albeit a bit chilly at the start.

6pm start of the 2011 Grindstone 100. Photo: Scott Livingston

The Grindstone 100 saw Neal Gorman take the lead early and run alone at the front for 93 miles, finishing in 19:41 (second fastest time on this course).  David Ruttum and Frank Gonzalez battled all day with David edging away in the final hours to take 2nd in 20:28 and Frank coming in just 9 minutes later in 20:36.  Debbie Livingston took the ladies’ win in 24:58, nearly two hours slower than last year’s winning time and course record but she got it done with style and a win is a win.  Kerry Owens came in second with a 28:43 finishing time and Zsuzsanna Carlson (Interesting use of the “Z”s?) nabbed 3rd in 29:31.

Though the finish times suggest the women’s race was without excitement, Debbie had a race on her hands and didn’t take the lead until the second half.  Her husband, Scott Livingston, said, “Debbie overcame a 25 minute deficit to Katherine Dowson at the 51 mile mark (turnaround), by coming on strong in the second half. Unfortunately Dowson succumbed to the course and dropped at the Dowells Draft Aid Station at mile 66.”  Scott also points out that many of the participants complained of quad pain.  With the climbs and descents of this monster mixed in with warmer temps, I’m can imagine the pain!

Both of the previous races are managed and run like a fine engine, everything in sync and predictable.  Unfortunately, for the participants, the Slickrock 100 had some backfires and sputtering and then just sort of died.  Weather was uncooperative, causing the race director (in consultation with Search And Rescue) to reroute the 100 mile and 50 mile course, which lead to all sorts of problems from leader (and eventual winner) Ben Hian running off course for 6 miles early in the race to other front runners getting lost after running 90 miles and dropping in the middle of the night due to long periods without food and lack of warm clothing.  I made the choice to switch to the “50k” (which ended up being 65k; the real course was long at 35.5 miles and I was directed by an aid station person to continue on for “4-5 miles” past the correct turn around) and officially came in second just 4 minutes behind the winner, but technically I ran 5 miles further than he did, so…  I’m just happy I switched races and wasn’t out on a wild goose chase “fun run” course that could have been anywhere from 90 to 105 miles, nobody knows for sure and nobody ran the same course.  It can be fun having some uncertainty in a race but not with 100 milers in the cold rainy weather.

The best info I’ve received has the top four in the 100 mile as:

  1. Ben Hian
  2. Rhonda Claridge
  3. Chris Boyack
  4. Leila DeGrave

There will likely be some fallout from this event.  Brendan T. was there to crew and support a runner and wrote, “Yeah it’s an inaugural event and he was dealt a bad hand with the weather — but zero communication to racers and volunteers about what the hell was going on?? Negligent and dangerous.  I don’t think the SR100 was received too well and wil be surprised if Grand County issues him another event permit in the near future.”

In a comment on my personal running blog (footfeathers.com) Jeremy Humphrey wrote,

Glen Redpath and I led by 30 mins to 1 hour for 80+ miles (after a 6 mile detour by Ben Hian). They made the course up as we went, thus rerouting us back toward the start/finish for another quick loop to add distance. Glen and I hit the last aid before the s/f and was instructed by aid staff on how to proceed. We proceeded as such and got incredibly lost coming to a stop 9+ miles off route and staring into a 1000′ canyon. Several hours without food and inadequate clothing forced the drop. Managed 91+ miles. My first DNF.

I can sympathize with the RD, Aaron.  It’s a very difficult job to begin with but all of the problems could have been avoided with better planning.  I have many thoughts and opinions on this specific event and poorly managed events in general but I would be grateful to hear from readers about their past experiences with mismanaged events and thoughts on this race.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile Race Preview: Dave Mackey 3-peat?

This week we began our look at this weekend’s upcoming events on the East Coast with our preview of the Grindstone 100 in Virginia.  Then we traveled to Moab, Utah for a preview of the inaugural running of the Slickrock 100.  Today we finish this week’s race previews in Lake Chabot, California with the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 miler.  The Firetrails 50 is a popular race that sells out just about every year and in this, its 29th running, it is once again full.  The biggest change this year is the transfer in race direction.  The speedy duo of Ann Trason and her husband, Carl Andersen, had managed the race for several years.  It’s among one of the best managed races in the country, right down to the post-race festivities of delicious, abundant food and kegs of micro beer to wash it down.  This year will see NorCalUltras, headed by Julie Fingar and Mark Gilligan, taking over the event directing.

Firetrails 50 course elevation profile

Ann Trason and Carl Andersen

The course is an out and back design with a diversion over the last couple of miles taking runners around the opposite side, compared with the start of the race, of Lake Chabot.  The course ranges from 200 ft to 2,000 ft of elevation.  There’s nothing terribly difficult about the course but it’s still a good recommendation to take the first half easy because one reaches the turn around by descending a bit over 1,200 ft, then having to climb back up on the return trip.  The last 20 miles are very runnable with mild trails and a general rolling net descent to the finish.  It can be a fast course, if run correctly.  One who knows this first hand is Dave Mackey.  He’s participated and won for the last two years with the highlight last year of breaking Carl Andersen’s 16 year old course record with a 6:19 effort.  The women’s course record is held by, who else, Ann Trason with a 7:31 laid down in 1987 (good luck with that, ladies).

Speaking of speed, here are some contenders to note:

Women:

Bree Lambert – San Jose, CA.  Bree is a veteran of Firetrails with this being her fourth running.  She’s competitive and strong and should win Firetrails this year just cracking the 8 hour mark.  She won the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler in July in 23:07 and who came charging in just 16 minutes behind her at that race….?

Jennifer Benna – San Francisco, CA.  Yep, Jennifer was 2nd at TRT100.  She seems to have moved to a new level in terms of racing and will give Bree a run.

Men:

Dave Mackey – Novato, CA.  Coming off a DNF at UROC due to illness, Dave is the defending champion with the 6:19 course record at Firetrails.  His smooth, loping, but fast gait is made for this course.  Unless his Hoka Bondi Bs fall off his feet, he should have no problem repeating as champ for the third consecutive year.

Graham Cooper – Piedmont, CA.  Graham had a sharp run at Western States, actually nipping Mr. Mackey by a couple minutes there.  He hasn’t raced much, at all since, so should show up eager to run well.

Jean Pommier – Cupertino, CA.  Jean seems to prefer and excel at the shorter distances.  Thankfully, in ultras, 50 miles is a shorter distance.  He’s run Firetrails three times with a 7:15 PR.

Chris Calzetta – Monterey, CA.  Chris just began running ultras eleven months ago with his first 50k but has racked up some decent results, including an 18:45 at Western States (his first 100 miler) and, most recently, a 3:46 and 2nd place at Skyline 50k, just seconds behind winner, Jean Pommier.  If he doesn’t try to hang with big Mack early, he should run well.

Dan Barger – Auburn, CA.  Dan has been around the ultra scene longer than many of the participants in this race have been alive.  He hasn’t raced much this year but his experience requires respect.

Mark Tanaka – Castro Valley, CA.  Mark has had his typical year of 80 races.  Seriously, he races a lot and has five 100s in his body this year (again).  He has great speed but is probably not as sharp as he could be (this is speaking from my own experience this year of racing so much).  Regardless, he’ll be “in the race” and have a huge smile to brighten everyone else’s day, as usual.

Comments are welcome.  I would love to hear thoughts on the change in race management.  I’m personally sad that Ann and Carl aren’t at the helm any longer.  That, frankly, was the main draw for me wanting to run this event.  I’m absolutely certain Julie and Mark will do a superb job with it as well.  Anyone have any inside information on the participants or picks I’ve not mentioned?  Let’s hear it.

Have a great weekend of training runs and races!

UROC: A Step in a New Direction

GEER 100k Start (same location as UROC) Photo: Charlottesville Track Club

Trail Runner’s Ultra Race of Champions 100k (UROC) is getting a lot of coverage on the interwebs.  Other than a potentially meaningful race in Bend, Oregon this Saturday, specifically the Flagline 50k, picked for the second year in a row as a USATF Trail National Championships, the gathering near Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday the 24th seems to be on several people’s radar, for several reasons.

Change is major theme in the current trail and ultra running discourse.  This statement might be misleading since people, especially groups and communities of people, are often involved, whether they know it or not, in some phase of their own individual and congregation’s transformation, evolution, renovation, etc.  One can call it whatever she wants: there is always change in the air, and we are definitely talking about more than seasonal change (though that’s a nice metaphor).

One of the big topics of change getting volleyed about in this spirited discourse includes the rise of professionalism in the sport (especially in the American version).  This includes (among other things) the role of sponsorship.  Clearly more money invested in the sport will impact race organization, competition, and the winnings and other bonuses made available to elite athletes.  This professionalism will “enhance” races in other ways, such as media coverage, which can only be good given that more people will “see” the sport, including America’s impressionable youth.  I was telling my friend the other day, “How cool would it be to have your kid want to be the next Scott Jurek.”

Mike Wardian

The Comrades Marathon may be the extreme of this embrace of growth and professionalism in ultra running; look what that could do to the “value” of a race.  Massive media attention, including full television coverage and winnings that reach six-figures mean there is an example we can certainly target for the elite level of competition.  Though sponsorship capital on the European race scene doesn’t seem to reach the levels of Comrades, that off-road running contingent (which really spills into the general population) over there certainly uses another currency that can logically translate into money: Interest.  The well-documented international Team Salomon seems to very much exemplify this kind of change going-on in the sport.

Not having a database of race statistics to pull from, we could still safely say the American ultra sport is growing in interest.  The sheer number of MUT races that meander across the lands is staggering.  Just according to Ultra Running Magazine “There were 554 ultramarathon races held in North America in 2010.”  Of course, what about the number of runners signing-up for these 554+ races?  There are several hundred examples we could cite with a few clicks.  It’s great news.  How can we not see this type of individual and group interest very encouraging?  Furthermore, who doesn’t have an ultra running blog?  This alone may be the best place to look in order to illustrate not just the growth of the sport, but growth’s predecessor (and the point of this paragraph): the interest in the sport.  And it’s some of the discussions on these blogs where one will find so many perfect examples of change bouncing around.

A big discussion for some time has been the need for a true national or even world championship trail/mountain race.  Having thought at length about this topic, talked with many people and read many different perspectives (including trying to find all of the current sanctioned “championships” that exist), this aspiration seems admittedly plagued with difficulty.  Tradition is a very formidable foe to change.  The sport of ultra running is traditionally low-key, and almost uneventful.  The trail racing elite has emerged over the years, but the larger trail community doesn’t necessarily thrive on fierce competition among other runners; it’s not the driving force.  Races are spread-out, happen throughout the year with very little sense of series organization or tournament style (other than a few like the North Face Endurance Challenge and the evolving Montrail((Patagonia?)) Ultra Cup ((?))).  Instead, there are simply some classic races, a few with huge followings; most people are well read on these traditions.  Races more become opportunities to congregate and run together for several hours with the hopes of just finishing (certainly of PRing), of enduring several degrees of fatigue and pain.  Sure, there are different levels of tradition among these hundreds of races and often stemming from these traditions are real races, even among the mid to back of the pack runners.  Be that as it may, as it stands, there is no one race or race series to rule them all. 

One of the best people to ask about this desire for championship race change is Geoff Roes.  The man behind the Alaska Mountain Running Camps has been outspoken on this issue, even writing in January of this year, following his 2010 UROY selection, which he won with the help of winning the hugely traditional Western States 100, “I think the discussion of what effect a true championship race would have on the sport is a moot point. I think that there is such a high demand for this that it is absolutely going to happen within the next couple years. It’s a simple aspect of a free market that when you have a large demand for a product/service that is not available, someone will provide a product/service to fill that void.”  This is a definitive stance on an issue to which many industry folk might balk.  This is pulled from his blog.  The post is brilliantly illustrative of a how one of the top mountain ultra runners in the world feels about the lack of a true MUT national championship.  He literally lays it out in this fiery piece.

Jump ahead to September 21, 2011, on the eve of UROC.  Geoff is preparing to travel to compete in the first running of a race organized to crown a champion ultra runner.  The design follows perhaps that of the North Face Endurance Challenge, which caters, at least more than other “championships,” to the front of the race, the elite runners.  What’s remarkable was how the race has received instant credibility and heavy criticism: the classic mixed response to change.

What is worth pointing-out is Roes’ role in the formation of UROC.  Back in January he wasn’t just talking the talk of change at the championship level.  And remember, this is a guy who has competed in the sport’s most competitive races, namely WS100, several other American classic ultras (Wasatch, Hurt, Bear, Masochist, AR, etc.), including the competitive North Face EC series, culminating in the fiercely competitive San Francisco race.  Come to think of it, perhaps Roes sees the NF EC championship and maybe UTMB as legitimate world championships, but what is still in need is a definitive national championship.  Hence, he helped the organizers of UROC in recruiting the “champions” for the race on Saturday, in effect “designing” a championship race.  What does this mean?  Given the idea that organizing such a race faces a lot of difficulty, given the staunch tradition that defines the sport of ultra running, the problem with finding land and permits with which to facilitate, etc., we have to focus instead on the intent of the race, the fact that Roes has become a true ambassador, even steward, of ultra running (in a previous post we suggested he become the Czar of the sport, seriously).  Because the sport, as he himself argues (in support, referring to several discussions he’s had with several elite ultra runners), needs this change.  This weekend, one could say, is Roes walking the walk.

If the race doesn’t go-off without a hitch, with runners going off-course, with complaints of too much road in a supposed trail championship, with complaints that runners were forced to hurdle Oktoberfest revelers in route to the finish, still we believe that the bigger picture here remains intact, that the sport/community (driven by its leaders and enthusiastic congregation) is in the midst of massive change.  And that Geoff Roes is playing a big part in the positive changes occurring in the sport.  When we asked him about his thoughts of the race just days from the start-line, he told us,

“I think UROC will be really exciting. I have no real expectations or goals for myself but it’ll be fun to see how the race plays out in terms of the kind of interest it gets in the running media/blogosphere. UROC certainly has some kinks to work out (as all new events do for the first few years), but I do think it’s taken a bold step forward that no other ultra races have been interested in or willing to take at this point. That is they were willing to say here’s a race that will have a primary focus on the race at the front of the pack. So much so that they are actively recruiting top-level runners to take part in their event.  To my knowledge they are the only ultra currently doing this. This approach doesn’t appeal to everyone (far from it), but shouldn’t be seen as a problem.  There are so many ultras in the world today, any runner interested in racing should have no trouble finding dozens that appeal to them. The lack of diversity in the style of ultrarunning events is sometimes quite shocking, but I think events like UROC (and other new events that actively do things a bit differently) are helping to create a bit of diversity, and a bit of excitement, in an otherwise very homogeneous sport. This isn’t to say that the style of existing events don’t appeal to me (I wouldn’t have run almost 30 ultras in the last 3 years if I didn’t enjoy the existing events), but at some point many races start to feel like they have been designed to be as much like the typical race as possible. I think the trend in the coming years will be events that actively try to be different than the typical ultra. I think UROC is just one example of this and I think this trend is terribly exciting for the sport.”

Enough said?  Almost.  We just have to highlight the read here on such a seemingly monumental event.  Granted, the race may not be perfect or “appeal  to everyone (far from it),” but when a runner of Geoff’s caliber talks about a the sport being “very homogeneous,” that he is interested in “helping to create a bit of diversity, and a bit of excitement,” that’s compelling.  Hopefully people are thinking big picture here, mind-set, paradigm shift, etc.  Traditions are strong and flourish because people care about them and therefore continue to derive a lot of meaning from them.  At the same time, change is natural, powerful, and inevitable.  UROC is just one of many examples of change happening in the sport today.

And the race itself.  Anyone reading this has seen iRunFar’s and Karl Meltzer’s terrific previews.  Not much more to be said here other than to reiterate that actually picking a podium seems very difficult with the suspicion of late season fatigue and the ever so probable accompanying cold.  Inside Trail does suspect that this race could go be won be any number of dark horses (like a Jon Allen, Scott Gall, and Michael Owen), especially if some of the favorites are not 100%.   So, keep your eye on that.  And clarification of the 100k course reveals that some 37 miles appear to be either dirt or paved road.  Naturally, this may favor a runner like Mike Wardian and other marathoners with that kind of speed. Tis the season, late September, so we just hope that the runners are all there, feeling 100% and ready to rock and roll.