The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco Championship 2011

It’s Friday (well, Thursday night really), the day before the biggest ultra of the year (2011 The North Face Endurance Challenge  San Francisco Championship). There are a few reasons why we should consider this race ultra big, or this ultra race big. That’s what I’ll spend the next hour or so chipping away at, that idea that we’ve reached at last the Marin Headlands and a field of runners will assemble in just a few hours that could absolutely, in the spirit so poetically described by Geoff Roes, explode trail lore. Imagine what’s at stake. We are witnessing a sport get defined, re-defined as its precocious limbs mature before our very eyes.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships San Francisco represents the other half of this sport’s split personality. About a month ago, I explored the meaning of UROC and think some of those words apply here to this weekend’s race.

“What is the intent of [UROC]? This is a rhetorical question. The race is about the competitive nature of the sport. Period. Even more interesting: Geoff Roes is at the front of this campaign to create a race where elites are treated like elites and the race is centered around highlighting that competition at the front. Again, this sport is suggestive of two worlds: the down-to-earth just run and have fun and finish vibe, and the world-class Micahael Wardian v Geoff Roes vibe, or Jornet v Wolfe and Clark or Heras v Roes and Mackey vibe. It’s tough to deny this split personality in the sport.”

That is what is happening in San Francisco this weekend.

All year, every weekend, runners gather on myriad national and international trail to “race.” Most of these are friendly battles between friends and family members, or new and familiar faces just enjoying the outdoors. These events might more represent the local endurance challenge. The “race” might be inaugural or it might be 35 years-old. The spirit is better reminiscent of fellowship, of sister or brotherhood, of people of all walks of life sharing in the stewardship of our natural world and getting fit and having fun at the same time. “Winning” might not even be part of the local lexicon. A podium might be replaced by pints of craft beer; but the sweat and the beautiful feelings associated with giving it a go out there circulate like the good vibes of a people engaged in what I would call a new civic duty.

TNFSF50 certainly includes this same kind of friendly praxis, even amongst the elites (perhaps even more amongst the elites). Be that as it may, there’s a race going-on, one of world-class proportions, one so big it’s more germane to the competitions of ancient Greece, where epic battle preceded a celebratory feast.

This race has been well hashed and rehashed by the blogs. The folks at iRunFar produced a fine preview of the men’s and women’s race. The aforementioned renderings of Mr. Roes have people spinning on their bar stools. Adam Chase has been keeping us abreast of the Salomon scene, as well.  Here we are, still in the tryptophanic aftermath of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, we have a lot to be thankful for. I am certainly thankful for the access we are all granted to so many stellar peeks at this sport’s elites (the runners, the managers, race directors, publishers, etc.). I am thankful for the blog as it seems to give us all an opportunity to articulate whatever odd ball single-track idea we’ve developed and hope to share with a few passersby.

The idea that this sport is indeed schizophrenic or of two minds (whatever you want to call it), is supported by this online presence.  As AJW essays on the future of the sport with certain fundamental changes happening all around, in terms of corporate influence, etc., we have to be reminded that the sport is largely defined by the casual, neighborly discourse that exists on these webs, just like it is during those trail runs, at and after those hundreds of weekend races. Significant commercialization of all of that would be a tall order.  Is some of this white-collar share-holder cologne distorting or undermining some of the trail discussions or the competitions? Perhaps. But the positive effects of these dollars are on display, as well: This weekend and any such opportunity we have to watch these elites battle it out on world-class trails has to be welcomed by even the casual fan. Viewing the MUT world in this open-minded way, I think, is imperative at this point. The sport is clearly changing, and Saturday’s race is another such example. But the sport is also staying the same, and every weekend of the year marks occasion for this argument in the abundance of ultra and mountain “races” in which we all get to compete.

Both worlds will be on parade tomorrow in San Francisco.

And this is how I see the men’s race going down: Above, I referenced a passage from an article I wrote about UROC.  I make note of the role Geoff Roes played in that race’s organization (of course he played a pretty big role in the actual race, as well). I referenced that passage to evidence the parallels we see in UROC and TNFEC50. These two are especially similar in that they are geared toward attracting a large field by offering substantial prize money. Looks like we’re building a parallelogram: I see Geoff Roes winning this race, convincingly. He’s definitely had some close-calls at this race in the past. Sure there’s his back-to-back runners-up finishes in ’09 and ’10, but don’t forget about 2008.  He was right there when the shit went down between Steidl and Carpenter.  This is a must read from the event website archives:

At the bottom on the bone-crunching descent, at the seaside hamlet of Stinson Beach, Carpenter met his crew – his wife, Yvonne, and his six-year-old daughter, Kyla. “Last year, I’d come into a station and scrounge around a little bit for my drop bag,” he explains. “I’d lose a few seconds. And at this level you just can’t do that.” Still, Carpenter lost ground as the pack passed by like greyhounds, weaving through the quaint town’s streets before vanishing up the Matt Davis trail, heading 1,700 vertical feet uphill. This is when many runners felt Carpenter, who has built his legendary status running up the steep slopes of Pikes Peak near his home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, made his move and took control of the race. He quickly passed Steidl and soon came upon the others. “By the top I had wheeled everybody in again,” recalls Carpenter. “It was Geoff Roes and Shiloh (Mielke).” Carpenter, unsure of whether there were still some others ahead, turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, who’s still ahead?” They replied, “Nobody.” And Carpenter pushed on. After a short out-and-back segment, during which runners could measure exactly where they stood (Carpenter, Skaggs, Steidl), they passed through Pantoll once again. Now Steidl had passed Skaggs, who had become somewhat dehydrated. At this point, Mile 30, Carpenter still held a two-minute gap on Steidl, but, entering the stretch run, and heading down into another deep valley, spectators wondered if Steidl could catch Carpenter. And, lurking only a few seconds behind, was Geoff Roes, hanging tough. They all dove 1,000 feet down the famed Bootjack trail, devouring technical trail like Tour de France riders descending the Alpe d’Huez.

Roes finished 5th that year in 7:12:35.  That was the awakening of Geoff Roes if you ask me. His entire 2009 and 2010 were legendary. We all know that’s quite a run, which had already begun in Marin County in 2008 under the no less watchful eye than that of the great Matt Carpenter.

Team Salomon, which includes Rickey Gates, Christophe Malarde, Adam Campell, and the recently signed Matt Flaherty and Jorge Maravilla, look very well represented; and who knows if they might implement some team tactics to break-up what will be a very loaded peloton. Can Gates hang with Roes for 50 fast undulating miles? Can the Frenchman, or the talented Canadian? I don’t see it.  Some see Flaherty as a real dark horse.  If he were to win, that would be a huge upset.  Some are picking Maravilla top 5.

The other runners I like this weekend are Dakota Jones, Michael Wardian, Jason Wolfe, Jason Schlarb, Leigh Schmitt and my big dark horse is Galen Burrell. Jones might have won last year and his 2011 campaign has been really solid. Knowing he can compete really well in such diverse conditions as Hardrock (2nd) and Sierre-Zinal (17th), races really well at this ultra distance, and just nabbed the R2R2R FKT, I really like this guy’s chances. Wardian is there because he’s Wardian. He absolutely could win this thing, but I don’t see him climbing with Geoff. Wolfe is a bit of an unknown to me, but I sense he has gobs of speed and climbing enduranc; he has some nice road and off-road results to his name, namely the Trans Rockies win.  He could be tough.  Schlarb was top five here last year and  is apparently very fit and ready to rumble.  Schmidt seems like a lock for this distance; he should have a solid showing. And, of course, the ultra inexperienced Burrell who can climb with the best of them and just spanked Leor Pantilat at a trail marathon in the bay area (and Pantilat doesn’t lose).  I’m getting really good odds on my Burrell pick.  There’s my lucky 7.

For the women, I’m really going-out on a limb here and picking Frost, Greenwood and Hawker to claim the podium.  Based on recent racing though, how do you not pencil in these ladies.

A quick shout-out to Max King, wishing him luck this weekend going for another win at the Xterra Worlds in Hawaii; and a helpful reminder that TNF SF 50 would also offer some lovely trail travel this time of year, say, in 2012.

But it’s Roes with the huge win this year.  He has unfinished business in Marin, and that is, I’m afraid, the way it is.

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.