Paying the Price

A couple of things have sorta dawned on me recently, and with WS100 in the books and HR100 on the immediate horizon, time to pour a couple of stiff ones, San Diego double IPA style, if you will (yes, this tends to get me into trouble).

Really two points I want to address here: first, the men’s 100 elite field: a pattern.  No way am I going to take-on the argument that the mountain 100 miler is a bad competitive concept for its sheer destructive nature.  The popularity of the distance among elites and everyone else alone renders the point almost irrelevant; besides, I need to run one to strengthen my view (which is ironic).

That’s like saying in order to write about death, I need, first, to die.

Instead, I’ll look at the men’s 100 elites as a short study that may reveal a couple of insights.

Then I want to give a shout-out to the HR100.  Very inspiring mountainous goods and a friend of mine is running it again.

Wish I was there.

Remember the infamous “Inside Trail Commentary” post months and months ago?  Beyond all of the bad press that ensued, I remember one “astute” reader saying I lost all of my blogularity following said post.  To summarize, I thought Geoff Roes was being disingenuous and AJW could bolster the entire sport’s credibility using a different tact.

I got killed and so did Tim (for helping a brother out!).  The article was about Roes and UROC (AJW got roped-in because that’s how I think).  This was last fall when I absolutely felt that something was wrong with Roes on the trail (I did give him props for his support and work to get UROC organized – this point was whiffed by the audience).  Keenly watching his ’09 and ’10 campaigns gave me an almost eternal hope that he could turn things around at any race.  His ambivalence on the subject of his health did not seem to match what was happening on the trails at the time compared to what had happened on the trails in the previous couple of years.  So I made a note of this discrepancy.  I guess I cared enough to throw myself on the block.

But take a step back.  What did happen to Geoff Roes?  Or what is happening to him?  Are we using past tense at this point for one of the most dominant mountain 100 milers ever?  Giving a little nod to my comments coming-up shortly on the 2012 HR100, Roes ala Meltzer (ala Roger Federer) could engineer an epic resurgence despite the apparent youth taking the reigns and subsequently controlling the sport.  No doubt, these things can happen.

It is my contention, however, that the front of the American mountain 100 peloton is an inherently risky endeavor, one that speeds-up the ultra runner’s half-life, per se.  Not that this is going to hinder one’s love of the long trail riddled with 14ers, but we may just have a bit of a pattern that I think is worth noting.

This is not an exhaustive study with a fearsome statistical argument.  It’s fairly anecdotal, maybe even a little superficial.  Mind you, please look-up the word superficial before you suggest that I’m making some kind of confession as to the weakness of this argument.  These are observations, rather, that are being made at a kind of glance of the short history of the modern ultra trail.  To simplify even further, we might recommend that the history be broken into two periods.  There are the early days that take us up through the first part of the 21st century and the current era we’re in now.  Sure, this seems rough.  The second half of the “two period” history doesn’t seem long enough to establish any sort of “pattern.”  I say it does.  Time to lace up the dogs and get after it.

Speaking exclusively of the elite competitive American mountain 100, we are seeing some insane efforts that amount to the sport having to rethink what is possible, what amounts to a paradigm shift.  Highlighting a few particular performances, we might say Roes’ and Olson’s WS100 wins are great examples.  Interestingly, Krupicka’s 2nd at WS100 and his work at LT100 (wins but historically 2nd relative to Carpenter’s CR) provide similar examples.  Lastly, Skagg’s epic HR100 CR (of one of two courses) is another terrific example of this kind of paradigm shift.

These performances essentially cover the last 5 or 6 years and there are undoubtedly others we can use to engage this point: Because of the training and racing involved for an athlete to accomplish these kinds of efforts, the life or peak of such talent or ability is short-lived.  In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Skaggs, Krupicka and Roes seem to have seen their best days running at that supreme level come and go.

Again, the fact that anyone of these men can roll-out another world-class, mind-boggling, paradigm shifting performance next month or even next year is not the question.  Rather, what we’re seeing is that athletes like these who throw-down such epic 100 mile mountain races experience some real difficulty maintaining that level of excellence.  We don’t need to get into the back story of Kyle Skaggs, but he’s gone after that epic run and since 2010 Roes and Krupicka have not been the same.  Tim Olson’s 2012 Ws100 is staggering.  Slower course (allegedly) than the one Roes destroyed in 2010.  And of course Olson is still by all accounts ready to keep blowing our minds.  But I would say to keep an eye on that “graph.”

Is this just coincidence?  No.  I would argue the competition contributes to these more unforgiving conditions at the front of the elite mainstream 100 trail.  The training is more intense perhaps, and the race schedule busier; the draw of better athletes to ultra trail might be considered an factor, as well.  All of this and more means, then, that the races themselves are bigger, there’s more at stake, CRs are falling, there’s more sponsorship, more international presence, etc.  Guys are going bigger.  And paying the price.

What about guys like Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurker and even Hal Koerner?  I label them old school.  Hal might be straddling the fence, if you will.  He’s been around for a while.  Meltzer and Jurker have been hammering out 100s for years, along with Hal.  The difference is simply that many of their races, I am arguing, did not have that kind of speed and depth at the front of the race.  Indeed, these guys have beaten deep fields, have weathered tremendous adversity out on the trail, racing, emptying themselves, etc.  But there wasn’t such consistent depth and speed.  Granted, Mackey may have chased Jurek to an unbelievable WS100 CR, but today, in these big races, the fields are consistently deep and fast, so the guys winning are just pushing the envelope that much further.  And paying the price.

Which brings us to Dakota Jones and HR100 2012.  I will not comment on the entire field as others have done a much better job than I ever could.  Jones, given his recent ascent to other worldliness, will probably break Skaggs’ record.  Why wouldn’t he?  He’s finished 2nd at HR in 2011, so he’s got that going for him.  And he is absolutely crushing his schedule.  Granted, there are a few guys capable of winning this year in Silverton, but Jones is clearly the guy to beat given his established prowess and apparent high trail intelligence that may prove to anoint him the outlier of the pattern I’ve described above.

Is Jones a Jedi Knight?  All kidding aside, he seems to have a slightly different approach to this sport compared to some of his contemporaries.  Two things jump out at me:  he trains and races, at least recently, with very clear goals in mind (that, or he’s just so fit that he coincidentally destroys very stout CR/FKTs).  R2R2R and Transvulcania come to mind.  Mackey’s R2R2R FKT was fairly legendary (even out of reach for the vagabonding Krupicka).  And then Transvulcania was immense.  Look at the field.  Look at the CR.  Wow.

The second point, which is more the focus here, is his race schedule.  Even though he qualified for WS100: he just said no.  Sure, I’m observing from afar (using my trusted palantir), and may be missing the crucial fact that he was attending his nephew’s 10th birthday party; the reality is he seemed more determined to live and train for HR100.  This kind of selective racing probably pays off in the end, perhaps putting Jones on a different graph.  Does he have a specific approach to the ultra that may provide for a different outcome?  Will he last longer?  He may be more of a hybrid.  His 17th at the 2011 Sierre Zinal still strikes me as pretty amazing.  Then he finishes 2nd at HR100 2011 about a month later.  Hmmm.  Different he may be.

In the same light, many might refer to Meltzer as a Jedi Master.  At a glance, it looks like he just runs his ass off.  Certainly, this guy is legendary.  What would you attribute his longevity to?  Sipping tequila at late stages of a 100?  I like that, actually.  He’s more like the king of the sport if you ask me (that’s a different article all together, one that includes the analogy comparing big wave surfing to 100 milers).

I’m not sure if any of you saw Wimbledon 2012, but an old dog won that race.  Roger Federer, at 31, pretty much destroyed everyone in his path, including world number one, Djokovic.  So, let’s say here that either Young Money takes the win this weekend, or an old dog drops-in on him and entertains us all with a vintage HR win, his sixth!  Go Meltzer!

Off course, let’s also give a shout out to the very wily Tim Long.  Keep an eye on this top 10-er.  Go Long!

Back to the pattern of young uber-talented ultra trail runners, in effect, burning-out from the rigor of today’s UROY 100 culture.  The idea here is that guys are not lasting like they used to.  The racing is more intense now.  The money, the international presence (that is different compared to the “international” racing of the 70s-90s), equipment, training, media. . . whatever it is, the fields are deeper and faster, so guys are literally breaking a leg to stay afloat.

I read an interview with Jonathan Wyatt where he commented on Kilian Jornet’s propensity for the 100.  Wyatt was more or less dubious about that kind of running and the ability to extend a career, maintain winning consistency.  He clarified that such a program would simply result in some good races and some not so good.

Will this be the pattern we see develop?  Runners pushing long, fruitful careers that consist of some good, some not so good careers?  Perhaps this is the pattern of the 2nd tier 100 miler, or ultra runner in general, out to compete hard, maybe pull-off a win now and then, maintain a full time job and family, etc.  That 1st tier 100 miler, on the other hand, seems to be a neighborhood of temporary residences, a beautiful place, indeed, with views of heaven and hell and incredible story-telling of pain and mind-boggling triumph.

And if one says, “These are guys that don’t feel the higher stakes; they just love the mountain run.”  I agree, but there is a  professional/semi-professional culture that is breeding incredibly fast races full of stronger, quicker athletes.  And recently these conditions have taken a toll on some of the top dogs.

Some may say, no shit.  Of course that’s going to happen.  What do you expect?

To that, I agree.

13 comments

  1. Good take Matt; I’ve been wondering similar things. I read this before following HR100, and considered it much as we watched a Master hold off the Knights. Cheers to footfeathers for another intrepid finish.

    You can certainly write about ultras (100s even) without having run them, but I’ve certainly looked at them differently since scoring a “love the mountain run” finish. I’m surprised how worked up I get about not being out there. I’m looking for more and working to gain a step or two on the speedsters. I’ll still be hours behind, and that’s just fine.

    Keep it up…

  2. Thanks, Darren. I bet I run a big one someday. It’s too alluring.
    An old dog definitely came up huge out there.
    What do you have on the calendar?

    1. Sure. Liked reading your stuff on the pacing. I want to be a fly on the trail of you and Tim bickering at each other. And JT burping up PBR putting an attack on Tim. Brilliant theater starring some pretty good guys. Congrats.

  3. Hal Koerner embodies the argument that one can have a long, long career at the front of the pack in 100s (and with the versatility of jamming shorter distances too). Hal has shown unmatched speed on the flats (RR 100) and now in the (most) mountainous of events this year alone. Where does his longevity come from? Or, is it just that his body of work and years of racing absorbs those times of injury or voids (which he’s had) like Roes is experiencing now?

    Oh, and DCraig isn’t Darren. He’s Darren’s bro. Just wanted to point it our in case Darren comments too…

  4. Kyle left. Not disappeared, simply left. Could care less about publicity and such, records, stuff, ruh-ruh…
    Dakota, on another hand, will disappear.
    And last, but not least, thrilled Hal blew your prediction away. Don’t care for Geoff or Tony, but Mr. Hal, “the Old School”, is what I will stand for, along with Jurek. Long live Old School.

    1. You know as well as anyone that predicting a 100 winner is like running in the dark, without a headlamp. None the less, I’m thrilled you’re thrilled. Like you, I’m stoked Hal (hard)rocked the (dis)course. Legendary. . .

  5. I think Geoff is going to be fine. My guess is that moving to Nederland threw his body for a loop. Assuming his heart is still in it, he’ll return to form.

    Wyatt

What say you?