|Timmy Olson's 2012 Western States Record. Photo: irunfar|
Selected World Records/Bests (All Surfaces)
Men - Thomson Magawana (RSA) 2h43m38s (1988)
Women - Frith Van Der Merwe (RSA) 3h08m39s (1989)
Men - Don Ritchie (GBR) 6h10m20s (1978)
Women - Tomoe Abe (JPN) 6h33m11s (2000) [I believe there were issues with a lack of drug testing making this potentially unofficial]
Men - Oleg Kharitonov (RUS) 11h28m03s (2002)
Women - Ann Trason (USA) 13h47m41s (1991)
Men - Yiannis Kouros (GRE) 188.63 miles (1997)
Women - Mami Kudo (JPN) 158.11 miles (2009)
Arguably the end of the last century was the golden age for road ultras since most of the current road and track world records were set then (see above for a selection, sourced from the IAU here) but in recent years the focus has switched to trails.
As trail and mountain running has increased in popularity thanks to stars like Kilian Jornet, deeper fields of faster runners have been taking down records on a weekly basis. Some of these are mind-blowing and the old records were described by some as untouchable, like Ann Trason's Western States 100 record that Ellie Greenwood destroyed in 2012 by 50 minutes.
However, I'm not sure why the quality of runners in the flatter ultras plateaued in general, especially in the US and UK. Yes, road races at marathon distances have got bigger prize money now but it's not generally Americans (and certainly not Brits) that are at the front of these African-dominated races. There are less road runners around the top level (like sub 2:20 male marathoners) than there used to be in western countries, something I'd ascribe partly to increased wages with longer work hours making a tough life of training more difficult and less appealing, relatively.
Anyway, back to my original point that trail running talent is on the rise. Course records and Fastest Known Times ("FKTs") keep falling to give a good indication of what some runners are capable of, but the more impressive thing is how deep fields are becoming, especially on the men's side. Several times a year a race gets described as 'the most competitive ultra of the year' and I personally love the fact there are so many events where runners can race against a good selection of the best runners around. Times that would have been guaranteed to win races in the past now end up off the podium so everyone has to raise their game and it makes us all better runners. Ann Trason dominated women's fields for years and basically raced the men rather than other women, but who wouldn't have wanted to see her in her prime against the likes of Ellie Greenwood and others?
I wonder how much better runners can get. Cam Clayton suggested he could run a 14hr Western States and it'll be fantastic to see continuing mind-blowing performances. The addition of fast road runners who also specialize in mountains has made a difference. However, many of the top runners have never and will never race on roads - think of Kilian's disdain for the 12 miles of roads at UROC100k!
Some marks I hope can be reached over the next few years in a few of the classic trail ultras are below. I think they're possible with the help of perfect running weather and several fast runners pushing each other.
UTMB: sub 20hrs for men, sub 22hrs for women
Western States 100: sub 14h30m for men, sub 16h15m for women
Leadville 100: sub 15h40m for men, sub 17h30m for women
Any trail 100: sub 12h30m for men, sub 14hrs for women
Grand Slam: sub 68hrs for men, sub 75hrs for women
JFK 50: sub 5h20m for men, sub 6hrs for women
Some of these are likely to be more feasible than others and I think the UTMB and WS records are most likely to fall due to the higher level of competition at those races year in, year out.