UROY: How Big Is Your Running Award?

Tim:  What a year of racing so far. American ultrarunning has experienced globalization in its biggest events and narrow perceptions have been peeled wide open. It all seemingly began with Salomon surging to a convincing men’s and women’s sweep at last year’s North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco, thus earning the $20,000 prize and introducing a significant change in the landscape of US ultras. That spark set off the firestorm of not only “foreigners” winning the big American events, but one team dominating the big races. Salomon seems to have single-handedly retooled American ultrarunning to the international colors and to the meaning of the word “team”.

What does this storm of white and red compression clothing do to the sport here in the US? It reestablishes the concept of “elite” and “best”. The coveted annual award of Ultra Runner Of the Year (UROY), presented by UltraRunning Magazine has been awarded to North Americans (Canadians and Americans, mostly) who’ve won the big US events, with acute focus on the big 100 milers, specifically Western States. The organizers of this award will have to either clarify, which they don’t do currently, whom is eligible for this award or specifically rename it the “UROY award for North American residing runners placing highest in primarily western US trail 100 mile races with arbitrarily weighted importance to which only the selection board is privy.” Personally, I say open it up to the world. What do you think, Matt?

Matt:  I think this is a problem: I could say that the UROY award goes to that year’s “world’s best ultrarunner,” and up through 2010 there might not be much opposition to that. My audience would half-nod in agreement, not really knowing what they’re agreeing to. But really the award is for the best American runner (which echoes your earlier reference to “narrow perceptions.”). From the UR website, the announcement of the award reads like this: “2010 UltraRunning Magazine North American ultramarathoners of the year.” That is fairly clear as to whom the award goes; it’s reserved for an American (and rare Canadian). The point is this: clarify the intent of the award, which is to recognize ultra runners from North America only. I bet a lot of people think it carries more weight than that.

Another problem comes from just a fleeting glance at the past winners. The UROY prize has pretty much gone to trail runners who have excelled at the 100 mile distance (a specific kind of ultramarathon). More specifically, as you have already pointed-out, the winners have excelled at 100 milers in the western half of the U.S., and even more specifically at one particular race. So, just call it the Western States 100 Mile Champ award or the Champion of the 100 Milers in the Western Half of the States award. All kidding aside, many interested people have shared these complaints.

Tim:  As you point out, there are a lot of tangential conversations that emerge from this topic. Back to my original point, the merging of nationalities is common at races like UTMB, but we’ve never really seen it here in the US (especially in the bigger 100 milers). I think the organizers of UROY have to face the task of either revamping the award and the process in which runners are chosen or the committee must face the diluted value of the award. In many people’s minds, including mine, Kilian Jornet is the UROY, worldwide. The UROY voters in the US have had a somewhat easy task when voting in the past; “Who won Western States? Okay, that’s our UROY winner.” What do they do now that a Spaniard, a Frenchman, and a South African have won the big 100s in the American Wild West? The “old boys” network has its work cut out. Regardless, Salomon has smashed the rosy, narrow-view lens through which we’ve enjoyed looking, believing that America had the best ultra runners in the world. This exciting year will come full circle in December and The North Face Championship in San Francisco will be the climax event of 2011. I’m excited that we at Inside Trail will be there.

Matt:  Yes, the process has only been complicated by the non-American wins at big American 100s (and yes the TNF50 in December will be epic!). The award’s value will certainly be diluted if the much larger (internationally enhanced) audience doesn’t concur with the judge’s decision, especially in the men’s “race” to UROY. By reading what others have already said about the UROY and USA Track and Field’s awards, one has to wonder why there hasn’t been more effort to find a true governing body to oversee these important recognitions. Is that what the International Association of Ultrarunners is all about? Why does the UROY have more credibility than the winner of the IAU 100k World Championship? Because UROY is about trail/mountain 100 milers, not some subordinate road ultra? Essentially, what happens in mountain 100 milers in the western portion of the U.S. says a lot more about who is “the best” ultrarunner (or it used to say that). According to the UROY web page, regarding the 2010 voting, “A panel of 18 race organizers from all regions of North America submitted ballots this year. An ultramarathon is generally defined as any race longer than a 26.2-mile marathon. There were 554 ultramarathon races held in North America in 2010.” I would guess that the 554 races probably include road ultras. And based on the voting, the races that really count are, in fact, 100 milers run on trails.

In the end, clarify what the UROY award means (as it apparently means a lot – at least in the U.S.). Because of the confusion about the true criteria of the award, and because of the huge displacement of American runners in these “big” races this year, the award committee probably ought to reassess (quickly) what it’s looking for. After all, what exactly is an Ultra Runner of the Year?

This is the article we wrote for Go Trail Magazine this month.  Check out the mag.  It’s truly levels above its contemporaries.