Sunday 3 July 2016

Comrades and Western States 2016

The start and finish arch for WS100. Never thought I'd be so involved with the race I'd sponsor it. A very proud moment. Photo: Amy Sharman

Rather than a standard race report for the past couple of events, I thought it'd be more helpful to spell out what I learnt. Ultra running is about constantly improving and avoiding making past mistakes in training and racing, so that process never ends (it's one of the most fascinating aspects of ultras).

I've doubled up on two of my favorite races four times now and they're four weeks apart on totally different terrain. Comrades in South Africa is at the end of May and is the biggest and most competitive ultra in the world, then Western States 100 in California at the end of June and is generally considered to be the premier ultra in the US. Comrades is a hilly road race, WS100 is a hot, rolling trail race with a mid-range of vertical gain and loss.

This year I'd hoped to really go for it at Comrades and break six hours for the 55.5 mile course, but it didn't happen thanks to an injury in the build-up and illness right before the race while on vacation in Paris. So what did I learn from that? Mainly I learnt that just getting to run Comrades at all is still a huge thrill and that without the pressure of running hard it's more relaxed and fun. However, I'm driven by competition and seeing how well I can run so the relaxed race days will mainly have to wait til my 40s (or maybe 50s). I also learnt that with around one hour of sleep a night for the week before the race (due to coughing non-stop through the night), I was able to run fairly normally and not feel too tired. Probably good news if I ever run some multi-day, non-stop race like Tor des Geants. But that's not on the radar for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, continual coughing fits during Comrades didn't annoy me as much as I thought they would since I'd already adjusted my goals and accepted the reality for the day instead of the race I'd dreamed of having. This is a lesson I've learnt before and one that's vital to getting the most of out a given situation in a race.

So Comrades ended up being a hard training run for WS100, which gave it a useful purpose and kept my motivation up. 6h25m (Strava data here), over 24 mins slower than my best, but that's still pretty close and was at a reasonably comfy effort for the most part. Next time...

In the weeks between the races I knew that recovery was the most important and useful factor for performing well at WS100 so I let my body heal with hiking and easy running. In 2015 my heat training was inadequate so that was another area I could work on without harming my recovery. I had some dizzy, energy-sapping slow hike/runs with up to nine layers of clothing, plus another four on just my head. Not the most fun, but it paid off in a huge way on race day.

Heat training - hiking at Lake Tahoe in my winter gear. Photo: Amy Sharman
Pre-WS100 I was invited to take part in the Veteran's Panel, which was a great chance to question my own race day strategy. Here's the video, which includes some excellent info from he panel of Gunhild Swanson, Erika Lindland, Danny Westergaard and myself.

Then on to race day, which was hotter than average (a high of around 100F in Auburn compared to around 90F as a median). This was possibly the first time I was genuinely felt excited on race morning instead of a dread that I have to run a full 100 miles and that part of it will feel horrible, guaranteed.

The biggest story of the race was how aggressive Jim Walmsley ran, despite the blistering heat. It was an impressive run to get so far ahead of the course record splits for a long period, but the beauty of a 100 miler is that there's a lot more to deal with than in a shorter ultra. The three favorites (Walmsley, Sage Canaday and David Laney) all had difficulties and it ended up with many of the slower, experienced 100 milers in the top positions, plus relatively slow times for the top 10 in general. The right tactic was to avoid reacting to the fast pace of the leaders, but it takes discipline to stick to a game plan, especially when it looks like someone else is rapidly pulling away. Luckily, the same mentality that helped at Comrades also helped here - I knew I'd not run enough on trails or enough vertical to be particularly fast, so there was less pressure internally to try to move quickly and more focus on saving the legs for the latter miles so my pace wouldn't fall off a cliff. This was painfully brought home to me by four nasty falls in the high country, a personal record compared to one minor fall maximum in the previous WS100s I've run. Basically I was uncoordinated and below par on anything remotely technical. Not much I could have done to fix that, but it did force me to be more conservative, which I should have done earlier on. Again, playing the conditions and the fitness I actually faced would have been better than going for things regardless and wishing I'd been able to train differently and be more agile. But that's an easy one to fix if the next build up is injury-free.

Duncan Canyon at mile 23. A few cuts and bruises from being uncoordinated. Photo: Greg Lanctot. 

Another lesson here - always look out for the markings even when it's the seventh time you're running a race. I got lost soon after Michigan Bluff since I expected the road to go upwards and forgot it goes downwards first. A few minutes of running by someone's house and I had a group of 3 large dogs running with me. They didn't go away for miles and the detour meant that fellow Brit, Paul Giblin, caught me up. The dogs then distracted us when we were looking for the turn to Volcano Canyon and we missed it by half a mile, then doubled back due to a lack of marking meaning we clearly had gone off course.

The next lesson resulted from this - when shit happens, move on quickly and don't dwell on 'could haves' and 'should haves.' It's annoying, but adapt to the new reality. I felt I did that pretty well and tried to avoid bitching to my crew about it since dwelling on negatives doesn't help my mindset or lead to good performance.

Then the final lesson of the day was that it ain't over til the fat lady sings (or John Medinger announces your name as you cross the finish line, at least). Despite only moving at a moderate pace, I was running a good portion of the race for the last 38 miles and the only people I caught were the leaders for most of the day, both of whom were walking - Sage then Jim. Last year it was 100-mile legend, Francois D'Haene, who I caught as he walked it in after getting food poisoning pre-race. If guys of that caliber can have things go wrong but still gut it out then the only excuses I could use for slowing down or stopping involved something like a bone sticking out my shin or an arm hanging by a thread after being ripped off by a cougar. Neither of these scenarios had occurred to sucking up the final miles was the only reasonable way forward. Final result: 16h55m for 6th. Not what I wanted back at the start of the year, but solid and not easy at all so I'm very satisfied. Strava data until the watch ran out of memory are here.

So that was a longer write-up than I'd intended, but I know I'll read this before WS100 next year and this will help me appreciate the fitness I have and the opportunity to line up for my eighth run at the storied event. Three more top 10s to be the first man to get top 10 in his first 10 attempts. But I really want one of them to be a win (or, ideally, three).

Thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, crew and pacers at both these incredible world ultras. Dave Pearse was my legendary local crew (again) at Comrades; Amy Sharman and Rob Tucker crewed expertly at WS100 and Altra's Brian Beckstead got in some pre-Hardrock miles by crawling along with me for the final 22 miles.

Gear (all worked perfectly and will be used in exactly the same way in my next ultra):

Shoes -
Comrades: Altra One 2.5
WS100: Altra Lone Peak 2.5

Nutrition -
Comrades: Clif Bar gels
WS100: Clif Bar gels, Shot Bloks and Organic Energy Food pouches

Hydration/lights -
Comrades: Water and Energy drink pouches along the course (no handheld bottles)
WS100: UltrAspire Isometric pocket bottles and Lumen 600 waist light

Some more photos that capture the beauty and trials of WS100:

Cruising in the middle of the race. Photo: Paul Nelson.

The joyous American River crossing at mile 78. Photo: Gary Wang.

More river crossing fun. Photo: Gary Wang.

Medical tent at the end, having pieces of grit pulled out my arm. Get all the pain out the way on the same day! Photo: Rob Tucker.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

3 Ultras, 3 Weekends

Pre-Boston Red Sox game with Clif Bar

Saturday before the marathon includes mile races looped around the finish line. This was the pro women.

It’s Saturday night in Boston, right before Marathon Monday, and I’m sat at a sushi restaurant with Brian Beckstead and Kyle Petrieri. Brian’s at his fourth Boston and has told me he’s running the Boston double, starting early on marathon day to run the course in reverse then run the race as normal. He’s done this every time he’s run Boston. He also co-founded my shoe sponsor, Altra, so he really walks the walk of a passionate ultra runner.

Despite running ultras the previous two weekends and wanting to run a hard, fast marathon, I can’t think of a good reason not to run the double with him. It’s my fifth Boston and it sounds like an interesting opportunity that will make this year stand out from the other Bostons I’ve run.

Fast forward 36 hours and my alarm goes off at 5am on Monday then I remember what I’ve agreed to do and I’m tempted to roll over and get some more sleep, a typical race morning feeling. Yet when I meet up at 5:30am with the five other runners who decided this was a great plan I feel more of a buzz than ever before about seeing the entire Boston course twice.

Those other intrepid (ultra) runners are Nicole Kalogeropoulos (Rocky Raccoon 100 record holder and three-time champ), New Yorkers Stephen England and Keila Merino plus Utah’s Alison Memmott. So we take the obligatory selfie at the Boston finish line in the dark then start running. It takes until the first turn (less than half a mile) before we’re off course, but we soon get back on it and follow the rows of barricades as a guide for the course route.

5:30am at the Boston Marathon finish before starting the double

As the sun rises I find myself running with Nicole, a little ahead of the others. The first few miles are mainly uphill, running Heartbreak Hill in reverse (which makes it harder and longer). Two minor missed turns later and we’re enjoying ourselves but have added on some extra distance and are somehow behind the other guys. Then we catch back up around the half way mark and start seeing more and more people out for the race. At first it’s a few cops then it’s volunteers setting up the aid stations every mile or so. Already tipsy students cheer us at a couple of places, some confused into thinking we’re in the official race at that point, despite no other runners being around, a slow pace and running the wrong direction.

As we approach the final miles a cavalcade of police motorbikes goes by, each representing a different police force in the local area, totaling maybe 20 in formation. Then we see a few military men and women running in full combat fatigues and boots with race numbers. They’re spread out over several miles and it seems there’s some kind of early military start. In the final uphill miles to the start (it’s a big uphill in that direction, meaning a big downhill the other way that gets lost in the adrenaline and huge crowds of runners trying to overtake each other) we see the other early start races. First the wheelchair racers fly by on a downhill, maybe going at 20-30 miles/hour. Next the hand bikes at almost the same speed on a lesser descent. Disabled runners, some with prosthetic limbs and guides, come next and the crowds cheer them on enthusiatically, as we do. These other races are something I see little of in a straight forward run at Boston.

Then the final early start is for the elite women, which we witness about half a mile from the start line, running closely in a pack of around 40. Already this is the most memorable marathon I’ve ever run and I’ve technically not even begun yet. Nicole tells me that she might just come next year to run this reverse Boston and not even bother with the standard marathon too. I know just what she means…although I don’t think I could fly over and not fit in the official event too.

Finally we arrive at the official start from the wrong direction and security guards wave a metal detecting wand over us before letting us pass with an orange wrist band. Security is much tighter since the 2013 bombings, as you’d fully expect. We pose for another group photo and split up into our respective corrals, some starting in later waves. Now I’m back to my usual Boston morning experience, except my legs are a little tired after around four hours of running. Within seconds I see the bunch of ultra runners in corral one, mainly from the Bay Area. It includes Jorge Maravilla with the goal of (soon) running a sub-2:19 marathon to qualify for the Olympics for El Salvador (how amazing would that be!?), Alex Varner, Scott Dunlap and a whole host of SF Running Company guys.

Arrival at the hot start of the Boston Marathon, around 27.5 miles into the run

A few minutes later and the US national anthem is sung, then we’re off. Things are a fair bit faster than the casual run to the start but I’m pleasantly surprised to feel good cruising around a 6:15/mile pace. As always the race has fantastic support and amazing volunteers. If you’ve never run Boston then it’s well worth working towards qualifying for it, even if you’re a die-hard trail runner. After all, all the people mentioned above are mainly trail runners, as am I.

Overall it was an extremely memorable and unique experience which I’ll definitely replicate again in the future. I paced things fairly evenly, losing a little time in the Newton Hills between miles 16 and 21 for a 2:49:42 marathon (here's the Strava data). I was mindful about Scott Jurek’s words at a Clif Bar event the day before about the importance of enjoying the race experience at Boston and taking it all in. So I kept things more relaxed, high fived the crowd a lot and just plain had fun.

Surprisingly I felt fine afterwards and less sore and wobbly than after American River 50 two weeks earlier or even Gorge Waterfalls 50k nine days earlier. My intention before these races was to use them to boost my endurance and really kick start the three month build up to Western States. It looks like it worked perfectly as I’m stronger now plus I’ve had a great time at three classic races so far in April. Two shorter races remain ahead - the Bend Half Marathon this Sunday then Bloomsday 12k the following Sunday. No need to double these distances up and a healthy dose of speed is just what my legs need.

Gorge Waterfalls 50k in Oregon, one of the most beautiful ultras in the world. Photo: Ryan Kaiser.

Congratulations to all the runners over these past three races and I can only imagine the variety of life changing experiences people have had at each. One last thing to mention is that American River was the culmination of the second season of ‘Becoming Ultra’ so I know that two runners in particular had profound days. Krystalore Stegner was coached by Liza Howard in the project to complete her first ultra as well as scoring a Boston qualifier in a build up marathon. Then my client was Janet Patkowa and she went from very little running and a half marathon or two under her belt to back-to-back long run weekends and an epic 12 hours out on the trails to complete her first ultra. Thanks so much to the two girls who put in all the hard work and shared their story publicly, as well as to Liza and the master-mind behind the project, Athlete On Fire’s Scott Jones. The podcasts are available from the whole season, plus a short video will come out soon covering the project. Season Three starts soon and we’ll be searching for candidates in the very near future.
Krystalore finishing American River 50 and showing why she won the Spirit Award for the race.

Janet and Krystalore at the start of their first ultra, pre-dawn

Sunday 7 February 2016

Rocky Raccoon 100 2016 - The Best Way To Spend Super Bowl Weekend

Photo: Jason Bryant

At mile 20 I felt like running was the easiest thing ever and maybe the course record would go down. Five miles later I realized this wouldn’t happen since my legs were already sore, even though my heart rate and effort were low. And so it goes with 100 milers - big highs and crappy lows.

Rocky Raccoon is known for being a flat and fast trail 100 miler, but the normal course still has 5,500ft of vertical gain and lots of roots to trip up unwary or tired legs. This year there was construction work on the dam and that altered the course to include more jeep roads, more climbing (somewhere around 1,500ft per 20-mile loop or 7,500ft in total) and a little more distance (around 0.3 miles/loop or 1.5 miles in total). So there are definitely faster trail 100s out there, but none that have attracted the same level of talent as this Huntsville, Texas, race (Eric Clifton, Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek…just on the men’s side).

I’ve had good and bad years at RR100, which were predictable in hindsight. A DNF for my first ever 100 miler (right after an injury and almost zero running for two months), a course record (I was in great marathon shape), another DNF (too focused on going for the record even with really muddy, stormy conditions), then three more runs in the mid-to-high 13hr range with two of them as wins and a second place.

This one ranks on the predictably imperfect end of the scale. I entered it 12 days pre-race on a whim, after fully planning on focusing on a marathon instead. In the five months pre-race I had one long hike and a handful of long runs, all but one under three hours. However, I was in good shape and had some quality speed work in the past couple of months. So that resulted in 20 miles feeling very easy then the lack of endurance rearing its painful head soon after. After two loops I felt like I’d run four and was hanging on for dear life. Luckily I’ve leant a few things from previous 100s about how to manage things when the original plan is derailed, so I settled into grinding mode and acknowledged that every bad patch (of which there were many more than there should have been) would only last a few miles.

Photo: Jason Bryant

So lesson learnt, only enter short races at the last moment and respect the 100 mile distance. However, the upside of a tough run is it’s that much sweeter afterwards to know that there were many opportunities to quit and I didn’t take them. Some of the most satisfying races of my life have been the harder days where it didn’t go perfectly. In contrast, the course record year at RR100 in 2011 was anti-climactic since it felt ridiculously easy (hence why I don’t slow down). I’ll keep striving to have another perfect day like that but realize that so many factors have to come together that it’s more about managing inevitable problems mid-race than expecting none to occur.

In terms of results, I held on for the win in 13:45:03, followed by Paul Terranova who repeated his USATF 100 mile Championship title win after being first American at RR100 last year too. Even more impressively, Sabrina Little ran in third all day (or with Paul for 25 miles) and finished in 14:55, the second fastest time ever at RR100 on a day that the course added a little time to her run. Mind you, the weather was absolutely perfect for fast times, never hot or humid.

In addition, two legends of ultra running ground out great finishes - Gordy Ainsleigh qualified for Western States 100 at the last chance he had (he automatically has an entry due to being the founder, but still needs a qualifying race); plus 71-year old Gunhild Swanson of the famous 2015 ‘seconds to spare’ WS100 finish was strong for a 28:22 finish.

Gunhild gets her buckle from RD Chris McWatters. Photo: Lynnor Matheney

Gordy after his successful finish. Photo: Lynnor Matheney

Congrats to everyone who ran and the loops and out-and-back sections mean that I saw all of them many times through the day to mutually support each other. Full results are here.

Gear (all worked perfectly and will be used in exactly the same way in my next ultra):

Nutrition - Clif Bar gels, Shot Bloks and Organic Energy Food pouches
Hydration/lights - UltrAspire Isometric pocket bottles and Lumen 600 waist light

Sunday 17 January 2016

Top 10 Female 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 (as well as coaching elite women) to consider the most impressive female runs ever and have included the equivalent list for men 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).  Also, how well these records stand the test of time is important, so a very well-challenged record 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).

No photo available of Tomoe Abe - anyone got one?

1. Tomoe Abe, Japan - 100k World Record at Lake Saroma, Japan (6:33:11, 2000)

She set the fastest 100k time for women by a long margin (nobody else has broken 7hrs and Ann Trason is one of the closest with a 7:00:47 best). I've heard that this record was set with a tailwind, but it's still so far ahead of any of the other road or track marks set by women at any ultra distance that it really stands out. To give an idea of Abe's caliber, she won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1993 World Championships and her personal best time is 2:26:09. In addition, she ran a 2:28:01 in the same year as her 100k record and a 2:27:01 the following year so was very much at her peak at that point. This is equivalent to 5:16 for 50 miles (compared to the 5:40 world record by Ann Trason), or even quicker if she slowed towards the end of the 100k. Also, this record is surprisingly close to the men's record by Don Ritchie of 6:10:20 (number five on the top 10 all time ultra men's list).

Frith van der Merle. Photo:
2. Frith van der Merwe, South Africa - Comrades Down Run Course Record (5:54:43, 1989)

van der Merwe destroyed the Comrades down run record in 1989 and nobody's come very close since, with just two other women breaking 6hrs - Ann Trason with a 5:58:24 in 1997 and Tatyana Zhirkova with 5:58:50 in 2005. van der Merwe's average pace was 6:23/mile, working out as around 5:19:30 through 50 miles with hills. The down run is usually won in a time around 6:10:00 and the record looks safe for the moment.

However, the up run course record of 6:09:24 (Elena Nurgalieva, 2006) isn't quite as comparably fast and doesn't make the top 10 list. It's 15 mins off the down run record while the men's up run record is only four minutes slower than the down run record (see the top 10 all time ultra men's list).

Rory Bosio. Photo: Tim Kemple
3. Rory Bosio, USA - UTMB Course Record (22:37:26, 2013)

The top ranked trail performance is by Rory Bosio, who decimated the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc field two years in a row (2013 and 2014 wins), taking over two hours off the course record and finishing seventh overall in 22:37:26, well ahead of the female competition. On top of that she made it look easy, smiling and playing in the mountains throughout the race. This is arguably the most competitive trail ultra in the world and Rory was so dominant that this could easily have been number one in the list.

Ann Trason. Photo: Running Times
4. Ann Trason, USA - Grand Slam of Ultra Running Record (79:23:21, 1998)

No woman dominated ultra running like Ann Trason. 14 wins at Western States 100, including the former course record, plus wins at Comrades, the 100k World Cup and just about every major ultra you can think of in the 1990s. She also holds American and World Records at numerous distances, most of which still stand today. She generally raced the men since no women could keep up with her and the fact she has several spots in this top 10 reflects that her times are just as competitive today.

However, I judge the top-rated performance of her career as her Grand Slam of Ultra Running record, the combined time for the Western States 100, Vermont Trail 100, Leadville Trail 100 and Wasatch Front 100, all over one summer in a period of 10-11 weeks. The next best female time was nine hours back by Krissy Moehl! Ann was the female winner in each of those races, which wasn't unexpected for such a talented runner, but it speaks to her ability to not just perform well for a single target race but to manage so many other factors within ultra running to stay strong and fast through each of these races. If there was an award for the best female ultra runner of all time, it would be hard to argue against Ann as the clear winner, especially with her breadth of dominance.

Anna Frost. Photo:
5. Anna Frost, New Zealand - Transvulcania Course Record (8:10:41, 2014)

Anna's had numerous spectacular performances and is undoubtedly one of the best female mountain runners of all time. Her course record at the hyper competitive Transvulcania ultra on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is something that stands out. When Anna's on top form she's like a steam train uphill and most of the very fastest mountain women of the modern era have tackled this course and not come close to this time. Only Anna herself (8:11:31 in 2012) and Skyrunning star, Emelie Forsberg (8:13:22 in 2013), have come close to this performance.

Ellie Greenwood. Photo: irunfar
6. Ellie Greenwood, Great Britain/Canada - Western States 100 Course Record (16:47:19, 2012)

When someone breaks the record by a large margin at the oldest 100-mile trail race in the world and the former record was the result of 14 wins by Ann Trason, you know it's a special performance. Yes, the weather was very mild and that made it quicker, but it was 50 mins faster than Ann's best. It may take another colder year and a group of the quickest women ever in the world to break this record. Several of the other women in this list have tried, many on more than one occasion, but Ann and Ellie are the only women to break 18hrs.

Nicole Studer. Photo: Jason Bryant
7. Nicole Studer, USA - Rocky Raccoon 100 Record and Trail World Best (14:22:18, 2015)

The 100 mile record for trails has been less tested by the quickest women in history, but is still a very solid mark. Nicole took 35 mins off the course record at Rocky Raccoon 100 in a mind-blowing performance and took 20 mins off the existing world trail best from Tunnel Hill 100, a flatter course that's arguably easier. Nicole started fast and held on for an astounding win that doubled as the USATF National Championship and not far off the 100 mile record for any type of terrain, which stands at 13:47:41 by (you guessed it) Ann Trason, dating back to 1991.

8. Ann Trason, USA - Leadville Trail 100 Record (18:06:24, 1994)

Ann's Western States wins were clearly excellent, as were many of her road and track records, but her 1994 winning time at Leadville is far ahead of any other woman at that race. The high altitude course sits between 9,200ft and 12,600ft, with around 15,000ft of vertical gain and the same descent. It includes a lot of fast, flat running but that altitude slows it significantly and many fast women have raced it, with only a handful breaking 20hrs.

Stick with me for a minute here for some back of the cigarette packet calculations...Using my own rough comparison of the Western States 100 and Leadville Trail 100 courses (from running both numerous times) I'd estimate that the male course record times (14:46 for WS100 and 15:42 for LT100) are roughly equivalent in terms of difficulty, giving the nod to Matt Carpenter's LT100 as being marginally more impressive. So I think of them as having a one hour difference for that pace, meaning around 1:10 at Ann's pace, i.e. her 18:06 at LT100 is equivalent to a sub 17hr WS100. So, pretty damned quick, then.

9. Ann Trason, USA - American River 50 Record (6:09:08, 1993)

You could pick any number of Ann's records as being amongst the best runs in the world, but the only other one I choose for the top 10 is her American River 50 record from 1993 - a race that's been competitive since it's inception in 1980. That older course was quicker than the current course and involved about 50% bike path and 50% rolling trail, but this is a record that's been tested over the years, not least by Ann herself within her five wins. The only other woman under 6:30 is Ellie Greenwood, who's career mimics many of the elements and highlights of Ann's.

10. Anna Frost, New Zealand - The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 San Francisco Record (6:56:07, 2011)

Anna's second appearance in the top 10 is at the season-ending TNFEC50 in the Marin Headlands. The large prize purse and reputation of the race means it's always got a deep field and the aggressive running for the men's record by Zach Miller from 2015 was also spectacular, narrowly missing out on inclusion in the men's top 10. It's often muddy and the rolling hills add up to around 10,000ft of vertical gain, so sub-7hrs is extremely fast and involves beating the quickest women in the world on runnable, hilly trails. In comparison, the similarly difficult Lake Sonoma 50, which also attracts a stellar field and has 10,000ft of vert, has a female course record of 7:08:23 by Steph Howe, which narrowly missed a place in this top 10.

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:
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:
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:
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.