Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Top 10 Male Ultra Performances of All Time

Given there are plenty of annual lists at this time of year for best performances and runners, it got me thinking about the very best ultra performances of all time. Obviously it's impossible to have some perfect formula to compare every aspect of one performance to another, but I used my own experience from road, track and trail racing to consider the most impressive male runs ever and have done the same for female performances here.

I factor in the level of competition on the day, the level of competition that's attempted the world or course record at any point in history, weather (where applicable, like at Western States where it can vary significantly) and knowledge of the tactics and skill used to get such a great performance. I was lucky enough to see some of these performances in person or at least meet most of the runners mentioned below.

I include only one performance per race, unless the race has more than one format or direction (like Comrades with its Up and Down runs or the clockwise/anti-clockwise directions at Hardrock 100). Otherwise, many of the best performances would be at Comrades due to the depth of the field at the world's largest ultra both currently and for almost 100 years in the past and it would dominate the list. Also, how well these records stand the test of time is important, so a very well-challenged record (not all have faced much competition) from longer ago is deemed to be especially impressive.

I also work off the assumption that if a runner hasn't been caught doping then their results are legitimate, since unfounded accusations are spiteful. Anyone who is a confirmed doper is not part of this list (that I'm aware of, despite allegations against some of the runners below).

Numbers 1 and 2 are Leonid Shvetsov. Photo: Comrades Marathon
1. Leonid Shvetsov, Russia - Comrades Up Run Course Record 87kms (5:24:47, 2008)

Shvetsov has a marathon best of 2:09:16 from 1997 and is a two-time Olympic Marathoner for Russia. His Comrades wins in South Africa were back-to-back and I rate his up run record from Durban to Pietermaritzburg as the better of the two, especially since very few runners can win both directions. Despite it being marginally shorter than the down run (54 miles compared to 55.5 miles), it has around 6,000ft of ascent and 4,000ft of descent and is usually much slower than the down run. The women's records are 15 minutes apart compared to just four minutes difference for the men. This race has up to 20,000 runners and just getting in the top 10 in the up run requires a 50-mile split around 5:20 with all that uphill.

2. Leonid Shvetsov, Russia - Comrades Down Run Course Record 89kms (5:20:41, 2007)

The down run at Comrades is quicker with around 4,000ft of ascent and 6,000ft of descent and this course record required an average pace of 5:46/mile or 2:31 marathon pace for more than two marathons...with hills. This record had inched down over the years and Bruce Fordyce deserves a mention here for his nine wins at Comrades and for holding the record at both the up and the down - Shvetsov broke his 5:24:07 record from 1986! The back end of the top 10 at the down run requires running around 2:40-2:45 marathon pace for this distance, with hills, something that's just plain astounding in terms of the depth of the field.

Yiannis Kouros. Photo: complex.com
3. Yiannis Kouros, Greece - 24hr World Record at a track in Adelaide, Australia (188.63 miles, 1997)

Kouros is the Lionel Messi of running with a list of world and age group world records that goes on forever. He focuses on roads and track running and dominated even into his 50s. However, many of the areas he got records in are not tested by as deep a field of runners as the other performances in this list and his stand out performance is his 24hr world record, the race format where the top 11 times ever are all by Kouros and barely anyone can even reach 90% of his mark. He also has the record for the Spartathlon race in Greece, which nobody has come close to, but this top 10 list is based on the factors mentioned at the top of the page, and even that record is not as impressive as his 24hr record. If this was a top 100 ranking, Kouros would make up a lot of the places. However, trails weren't to is liking, as shown by his sole Western States 100 run in 1988 where he was 24th overall in 20:12:54.

Matt Carpenter. Photo: Marathon & Beyond Magazine
4. Matt Carpenter, USA - Leadville Trail 100 (15:42:59, 2005)

Of all the trail records, I think this one stands out as the most impressive. Despite minor changes to the course over time, nobody has come close to Carpenter's 2005 time, where he had a level of dedication and scientific focus that I've rarely seen or heard about in any sport. The Colorado course varies between 9,200ft and 12,600ft and that altitude slows most runners considerably, but Carpenter has an ability to run at altitude that may be the best ever seen within racing globally. Over the years a lot of top level ultra runners have tested his record but none have even broken 16hrs. To back up his credentials, his seemingly untouchable Pike's Peak Marathon record is testament to this too, another record that nobody has come close to.

Don Ritchie (right). Photo: RRC
5. Don Ritchie, Great Britain - 100k World Record at a track in London, UK (6:10:20, 1978)

Don holds numerous records, including the British 100 mile record (11:30:51 in 1977), which was the world record when he ran it. He's the only person to break 6 minute/miling in the 100k and his record is older than I am (just).

Kilian Jornet. Photo: Strava
6. Kilian Jornet, Spain - Hardrock 100 Clockwise Course Record (22:41:00, 2014)

Kilian's won nearly everything, set records everywhere and is the only real global megastar in the sport ever. However, many of his most impressive performances are at sub-ultra distances and I suspect he rarely goes to 100% effort in ultras, especially given how frequently he races and how easy he looks even at finish lines. Again, he'd probably have a lot of entries in the top 100 performances, but his astounding Hardrock 100 clockwise record in Colorado's San Juans shattered the previous best and led to another win and anti-clockwise record the following year. Most amazingly is that he didn't seem to go all-out for this record and could probably go a fair bit faster. Nobody is able to touch this performance this race even through the extremely tough lottery has yielded some of the best mountain 100-milers to have a try.

Rob Krar. Photo: Competitor Magazine
7. Rob Krar, USA - Western States 100 (14:48:59, 2015)

Rob is probably the best ultra runner currently competing at a high level not named Kilian and those two have only raced once, with Rob taking the win at the 2013 UROC 100k to Kilian's 4th. When he's in race mode he could probably run through a brick wall without noticing and this level of focus and toughness got him wins at California's Western States 100 in 2014 and 2015. He's the only man to break 15hrs twice and narrowly missed the course record by two minutes, despite temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the record-setting year of 2012 (by Timmy Olson). His tactics were perfectly executed on the day for one of the finest ultra races ever.

Xavier Thévenard. Photo: nordicmag.info
8. Xavier Thévenard, France - UTMB Course Record For New Longer Course 170kms (21:09:15, 2015)

Even though the UTMB course around Mt Blanc has been getting slightly longer over the last few years and the level of competition is arguably the highest at any trail ultra globally, Thévenard repeated his previous victory and decimated the field with a tactically perfect race with a 48-minute margin of victory at the finish.

No photo available - anyone got a picture of Magawana?

9. Thompson Magawana, South Africa - Two Oceans Course Record 56kms and 50k World Record (3:03:44, 1988, with the 50k WR set as a split at 2:43:38)

Raced in Cape Town in South Africa, this is another long-standing record and included the 50k world record as well, even more impressive since the 50k mark is at the top of the largest climb in the race before a fast 6k to the finish. This record includes 2:18 marathon pace for an extra third of a marathon, with two significant hills, plus the 50k record is at 2:17 pace, suggesting that Magawama had to hammer that hill to break from his competitors then held on for the win in the easier final kms. The combination of speed and competitiveness in this event makes it the fastest ultra in the world, as well as the second biggest after Comrades.

Alastair J Wood. Photo: scottishrunninghistory.co.uk
10. Alastair J Wood, Great Britain - London to Brighton Course Record 54 miles (5:11:00, 1972)

The 'other AJW' was a Scot and a 2:13 marathoner who held the European Record for the marathon. London to Brighton was started in 1952 through the inspiration of Comrades champion, Arthur Newton, who moved to the UK from South Africa and wanted to recreate his home country's banner race with a similar distance, hilly, point-to-point course. Several winning times were very close to the 1972 record, including Bruce Fordyce in the third of his three wins in 1983 (5:12:32, which includes the official 50-mile road world record of 4:50:21). However, Wood's win suggests a split of 4:48 for 50 miles, which is around the same split as for Leonid Shvetsov in his Comrades down run record. This race was the first ultra I ever ran and it was also the final running of this classic event (2005), so it holds a special place in my heart and if you've never heard of it, have a read about it's insanely fast history here.


  1. Hey Ian, how do you think Jim O'Brien's AC100 CR stacks up against the rest of these? The trail performances are all from the modern era; seems like there might be a bit of recency bias (which is understandable in any list like this).

    Really cool list. Nice to learn about some tidbits from the history of road ultrarunnning, which has a very low emphasis among US ultrarunners.

    1. From what I understand, the changes to AC100 (especially the hotter time of year it's now run during) mean that the record time doesn't compare to times run it currently. Although certainly a classic, it's not attracted the top level of competition over the years in in any individual year to know how strong that record is. WS, Leadville and UTMB have been tested by the very best in the world on numerous occasions so the best performances ever at each of those 100s really stand out more than any other 100s globally - they are races that elite runners treat as the pinnacle and focus of their season so the competition is about as good as it can be.

      Related to this, 3 shorter trail ultras stand out to me as super competitive with course records that are on the cusp of the top 10 - Transvulcania, Lake Sonoma 50 and TNFEC San Francisco 50.

  2. Ian,

    http://bit.ly/1OKlYDb has a photograph of Thompson Magawana.

    Great article!

    Happy New Year to you.


  3. Link above has lots of photos, but none of Thompson Magawana [note spelling of surname]that I could see.

    Sean - South Africa

    1. Yes, that's what I found when I Googled him - lots of photos of other fast guys from South Africa but none I could tell for certain were him (given I don't know what he looks like).

  4. Great list Ian! Definitely some stellar performances here!

  5. This is an awesome list. You're clearly a fan among fans of ultra running. I haven't the faintest idea where you would even be able to read up on all of these events. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm!

    Silas - Santa Fe, NM, USA

  6. I'm a little late to the party but thanks for the interesting list. However, Thevenard's time was actually 21:09, not 20:09, and not a course record. Impressive run, though.