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.