Thoughts on The North Face EC Championships 2011

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile Championship 2011 is in the books.  So, what happened?  As far as my picks were concerned, I didn’t do too shabby.  Although I mentioned D Jones as an outright favorite in SF in a recent post digesting his R2R2R FKT, paired with the rest of his nutty and gutsy 2011, I balked and fell for the ole Geoff Roes will find his big stage big race form once again.  Roes at or near his best has so much appeal, I might spend another year looking for that immaculate into the wild form.

In the aforementioned “recent post” I called Jones the future of  competitive American ultra.  His 2nd and HR100 2011 and his shorter ultra chops make him so dangerous on just about any track.  Only world-class studs (Chorier, M Wolfe, etc.) will be able to run him down on a good day.  Remember the early century K Skaggs and Krupicka?  Welcome to Jonestown.  He’s only 21.

Then there’s Mike Wolfe.  In the discussion that ensued post-race, there was talk of Wolfe for UROY.   His 2nd at WS100, the win at Way Too Cool, strong showing at Miwok among others and, indeed, this guy is right there, especially considering the other candidates.  Granted, I picked Wolfe to possibly win SF50, but I had the wrong dog.  Jason Wolfe finished 8th.

The Endurables’ fantastic portrayal of the day gives us a nice perspective on how things unfolded out there in the Headlands.  Stunning scenery.  The gorgeous landscape was pretty fine too.  Yeah, the scenery to which I refer is the peloton of world-class runners that battled across that dirt roller-coaster consisting of 10k of climbing, forest canopied trail, technical sections and the like.  Jones and Wolfe exchanging blows for what seemed about 20 miles, with some of the literal who’s who of ultra and mountain running in their wake, makes SF50 an instant classic.

Mike Wolfe – the grinder who seems really smart and calculating (I think he’s a lawyer for God’s sake), strong and not someone you want to tangle with even if you do plan to inflict head wounds.

Mike Wardian – how can his race schedule have been auspicious at all going into TNFSF.  I think a lot of people had him winning.  I thought, in the end, he’d implode at the start.   Pretty gutsy to run like that. . . almost every weekend!

Adam Campbell – A classy guy who ran an absolutely classly race.  I am very disappointed that I didn’t see that although we all certainly missed a runner or two due to this incredible depth.  I am really stoked for this Canuck mountain runner.  And will continue to enjoy his stuff.

Jason Schlarb, one of my lucky 7, had a nice race, finishing 10th.

Alex Nichols, a popular pick amongst some Coloradans was apparently running really strong at the front when he twisted his ankle.  Very unfortunate.

What about Laborchet off the front through about 20 miles with another Salomon runner (Vollet?) and then pulling-out?  What was that?

We could go on and on.  The bummer for me is still that Roes didn’t quite have the goods.  I thought he did have unfinished business.  I thought he was ready to crush some demons, salvage 2011 massively.  Hey, top five is still fantastic; I just like his style and wanted to see him carve off the front.  I remember seeing a tweet from iRunFar at about 25 miles, Geoff in about 3-4th place and Bryon saying Geoff looks “chill.”  That sounded perfect.  But it sounds like his energy waned and he just didn’t have the boost to stay with the mad dogs fighting it out for the win (and again, iRunFar’s coverage was great).

Other than those menial thoughts on the men’s race, overall I thought Salomon and mountain running showed-up big-time.  Anna Frost is a huge talent.  The fact that she in very recent times has competed victoriously with the women Skyrunners, and is now doing very well at the ultra distance seems pretty remarkable.  I like Adam’s 3rd for Salomon, as well.  The white suits continue to represent where ever they “lace them up.”

I did get a chance to see Rickey Gates’ race report.  In sum, he was calling for more of these ultra guys to step to some of the shorter, more classic mountain races ala Sierre Zinal and Mt. Washington.  I love to hear that as it seems against the popular train of thought, the one that goes:  “yeah, my grandma got chosen for HR100, so I’ll be pacing her and the whole family is getting involved.”  Long live American mountain running.

What does this race say about 2011 and 2012?  Last year, this race dawned an incredible trend of Salomon dominance that’s well chronicled.  What trends might we see in 2012 hatched from the Headlands of 2011?  Any thoughts on that?

I think last weekend’s race is a kind of coronation for Mike Wolfe who seems like a very legitimate world-class ultra marathoner.  Maybe (other than Kilian) the best in his sport given what he’s done on big stages.  Last Saturday had to be a big pint of confidence.  I’ve heard others talk about him.  I’ve gathered bits and pieces of some of his training that seems utterly world-class (big volume, big hills, blue-collar ballz).  Certainly TNF has a fine leader in Mike Wolfe.

I’ve already waxed about Jones.  He’s the future of the sport if he continues to enjoy it as much as he currently does.  Mad game.  Can run all kinds of tracks.

Adam Campbell is just another reason I want to visit Canada.  That big block of ice, that purports to offer fantastic culture, spits out some pretty classy and down-to-earth athletic talents, specifically of the endurance tribe.  We’re rooting for Adam all the way.  Here’s to a big 2012.

Geoff Roes will be a very compelling athlete to watch in 2012.  I’m sure he will have some superb races and results.  No need to say anything else, really.  Other than we’re rooting for Geoff big time.

Looking forward to it all.  What do you think about 2012? Especially as TNF50 Championships may have produced a couple of trends we can watch develop perhaps over the next year or so?

The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco Championship 2011

It’s Friday (well, Thursday night really), the day before the biggest ultra of the year (2011 The North Face Endurance Challenge  San Francisco Championship). There are a few reasons why we should consider this race ultra big, or this ultra race big. That’s what I’ll spend the next hour or so chipping away at, that idea that we’ve reached at last the Marin Headlands and a field of runners will assemble in just a few hours that could absolutely, in the spirit so poetically described by Geoff Roes, explode trail lore. Imagine what’s at stake. We are witnessing a sport get defined, re-defined as its precocious limbs mature before our very eyes.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships San Francisco represents the other half of this sport’s split personality. About a month ago, I explored the meaning of UROC and think some of those words apply here to this weekend’s race.

“What is the intent of [UROC]? This is a rhetorical question. The race is about the competitive nature of the sport. Period. Even more interesting: Geoff Roes is at the front of this campaign to create a race where elites are treated like elites and the race is centered around highlighting that competition at the front. Again, this sport is suggestive of two worlds: the down-to-earth just run and have fun and finish vibe, and the world-class Micahael Wardian v Geoff Roes vibe, or Jornet v Wolfe and Clark or Heras v Roes and Mackey vibe. It’s tough to deny this split personality in the sport.”

That is what is happening in San Francisco this weekend.

All year, every weekend, runners gather on myriad national and international trail to “race.” Most of these are friendly battles between friends and family members, or new and familiar faces just enjoying the outdoors. These events might more represent the local endurance challenge. The “race” might be inaugural or it might be 35 years-old. The spirit is better reminiscent of fellowship, of sister or brotherhood, of people of all walks of life sharing in the stewardship of our natural world and getting fit and having fun at the same time. “Winning” might not even be part of the local lexicon. A podium might be replaced by pints of craft beer; but the sweat and the beautiful feelings associated with giving it a go out there circulate like the good vibes of a people engaged in what I would call a new civic duty.

TNFSF50 certainly includes this same kind of friendly praxis, even amongst the elites (perhaps even more amongst the elites). Be that as it may, there’s a race going-on, one of world-class proportions, one so big it’s more germane to the competitions of ancient Greece, where epic battle preceded a celebratory feast.

This race has been well hashed and rehashed by the blogs. The folks at iRunFar produced a fine preview of the men’s and women’s race. The aforementioned renderings of Mr. Roes have people spinning on their bar stools. Adam Chase has been keeping us abreast of the Salomon scene, as well.  Here we are, still in the tryptophanic aftermath of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, we have a lot to be thankful for. I am certainly thankful for the access we are all granted to so many stellar peeks at this sport’s elites (the runners, the managers, race directors, publishers, etc.). I am thankful for the blog as it seems to give us all an opportunity to articulate whatever odd ball single-track idea we’ve developed and hope to share with a few passersby.

The idea that this sport is indeed schizophrenic or of two minds (whatever you want to call it), is supported by this online presence.  As AJW essays on the future of the sport with certain fundamental changes happening all around, in terms of corporate influence, etc., we have to be reminded that the sport is largely defined by the casual, neighborly discourse that exists on these webs, just like it is during those trail runs, at and after those hundreds of weekend races. Significant commercialization of all of that would be a tall order.  Is some of this white-collar share-holder cologne distorting or undermining some of the trail discussions or the competitions? Perhaps. But the positive effects of these dollars are on display, as well: This weekend and any such opportunity we have to watch these elites battle it out on world-class trails has to be welcomed by even the casual fan. Viewing the MUT world in this open-minded way, I think, is imperative at this point. The sport is clearly changing, and Saturday’s race is another such example. But the sport is also staying the same, and every weekend of the year marks occasion for this argument in the abundance of ultra and mountain “races” in which we all get to compete.

Both worlds will be on parade tomorrow in San Francisco.

And this is how I see the men’s race going down: Above, I referenced a passage from an article I wrote about UROC.  I make note of the role Geoff Roes played in that race’s organization (of course he played a pretty big role in the actual race, as well). I referenced that passage to evidence the parallels we see in UROC and TNFEC50. These two are especially similar in that they are geared toward attracting a large field by offering substantial prize money. Looks like we’re building a parallelogram: I see Geoff Roes winning this race, convincingly. He’s definitely had some close-calls at this race in the past. Sure there’s his back-to-back runners-up finishes in ’09 and ’10, but don’t forget about 2008.  He was right there when the shit went down between Steidl and Carpenter.  This is a must read from the event website archives:

At the bottom on the bone-crunching descent, at the seaside hamlet of Stinson Beach, Carpenter met his crew – his wife, Yvonne, and his six-year-old daughter, Kyla. “Last year, I’d come into a station and scrounge around a little bit for my drop bag,” he explains. “I’d lose a few seconds. And at this level you just can’t do that.” Still, Carpenter lost ground as the pack passed by like greyhounds, weaving through the quaint town’s streets before vanishing up the Matt Davis trail, heading 1,700 vertical feet uphill. This is when many runners felt Carpenter, who has built his legendary status running up the steep slopes of Pikes Peak near his home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, made his move and took control of the race. He quickly passed Steidl and soon came upon the others. “By the top I had wheeled everybody in again,” recalls Carpenter. “It was Geoff Roes and Shiloh (Mielke).” Carpenter, unsure of whether there were still some others ahead, turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, who’s still ahead?” They replied, “Nobody.” And Carpenter pushed on. After a short out-and-back segment, during which runners could measure exactly where they stood (Carpenter, Skaggs, Steidl), they passed through Pantoll once again. Now Steidl had passed Skaggs, who had become somewhat dehydrated. At this point, Mile 30, Carpenter still held a two-minute gap on Steidl, but, entering the stretch run, and heading down into another deep valley, spectators wondered if Steidl could catch Carpenter. And, lurking only a few seconds behind, was Geoff Roes, hanging tough. They all dove 1,000 feet down the famed Bootjack trail, devouring technical trail like Tour de France riders descending the Alpe d’Huez.

Roes finished 5th that year in 7:12:35.  That was the awakening of Geoff Roes if you ask me. His entire 2009 and 2010 were legendary. We all know that’s quite a run, which had already begun in Marin County in 2008 under the no less watchful eye than that of the great Matt Carpenter.

Team Salomon, which includes Rickey Gates, Christophe Malarde, Adam Campell, and the recently signed Matt Flaherty and Jorge Maravilla, look very well represented; and who knows if they might implement some team tactics to break-up what will be a very loaded peloton. Can Gates hang with Roes for 50 fast undulating miles? Can the Frenchman, or the talented Canadian? I don’t see it.  Some see Flaherty as a real dark horse.  If he were to win, that would be a huge upset.  Some are picking Maravilla top 5.

The other runners I like this weekend are Dakota Jones, Michael Wardian, Jason Wolfe, Jason Schlarb, Leigh Schmitt and my big dark horse is Galen Burrell. Jones might have won last year and his 2011 campaign has been really solid. Knowing he can compete really well in such diverse conditions as Hardrock (2nd) and Sierre-Zinal (17th), races really well at this ultra distance, and just nabbed the R2R2R FKT, I really like this guy’s chances. Wardian is there because he’s Wardian. He absolutely could win this thing, but I don’t see him climbing with Geoff. Wolfe is a bit of an unknown to me, but I sense he has gobs of speed and climbing enduranc; he has some nice road and off-road results to his name, namely the Trans Rockies win.  He could be tough.  Schlarb was top five here last year and  is apparently very fit and ready to rumble.  Schmidt seems like a lock for this distance; he should have a solid showing. And, of course, the ultra inexperienced Burrell who can climb with the best of them and just spanked Leor Pantilat at a trail marathon in the bay area (and Pantilat doesn’t lose).  I’m getting really good odds on my Burrell pick.  There’s my lucky 7.

For the women, I’m really going-out on a limb here and picking Frost, Greenwood and Hawker to claim the podium.  Based on recent racing though, how do you not pencil in these ladies.

A quick shout-out to Max King, wishing him luck this weekend going for another win at the Xterra Worlds in Hawaii; and a helpful reminder that TNF SF 50 would also offer some lovely trail travel this time of year, say, in 2012.

But it’s Roes with the huge win this year.  He has unfinished business in Marin, and that is, I’m afraid, the way it is.

North Face 50 Preview: Geoff Roes’ Dreamscape

Corle and Geoff

In lieu of yet another nerdy list of possible contenders at the NF 50 that we normally try to provide here at Inside Trail, we think Mr. Roes has outdone himself with an obvious uncorking of pent up frustration with the granular over-analyzing of our sport.  Of course, he does it in his own dry, insightful sense of humor.  Read a classic post here:  http://akrunning.blogspot.com/2011/11/north-face-50-race-preview.html

Trail Commentary

The results are in.  At least from a few revealing events that have transpired over the last couple of weeks.  Let’s start with what our burrowing Euro Bureau correspondent has to report.  The Skyrunner Series is officially finito.  The European Skyrunning Championships took place in Alicante, Spain on Saturday, November 5th with the Vertical Kilometer® del Puig CampanaTalk about earning your post-race beverages: the course amounts to one thousand metres elevation gain over 3.650 km distance with inclines that reach 35.5%. The race starts at 380m in Finestrat, ascending to the summit of Puig Campana at 1,408m, which stands overlooking the Costa Blanca.  The 8 km descent is done at what we would assume a much more leisurely pace.

Individual and team titles were at stake.  The European final is combined with the Swiss International SkyRace® which took place on June 12.  Points are added from both races for the combined title.

Ranking after the first leg in Switzerland on June 12:

1 SPAIN – 326 points
2 ITALY  – 298
3 SWITZERLAND – 170
4 RUSSIA  –  152
5 ANDORRA  – 142
6 GERMANY –  92
7 FRANCE – 86
8 GREAT BRITAIN – 80
9 SLOVAKIA – 74

The men’s race was dominated by the Italians, smothering the podium with Urban Zemmer, Marco De Gasperi and Nicola Golinelli going 1st 2nd 3rd.  Zemmer set a course record, covering the 3.6k and 1k vert gain in 35:43.

A course record occurred in the women’s race, as well, as Spain’s “new skyrunning promise” Laura Orgue went 44:01.  Oihana Kortazar and Corine Favre, women’s Skyrunning regulars (Kortazar the 2011 women’s series champion) finished 2nd and 3rd.

Ranking after the European Skyrunning Championships del Puig Campana:

1 ITALY – 630 points
2 SPAIN  –  628
3 FRANCE – 314
4 ANDORRA  –  312
5 RUSSIA  – 238
6 SWITZERLAND –  150
7 GERMANY – 88
8 GREAT BRITAIN – 82
9 SLOVAKIA – 80

Italy and Spain certainly have asserted their dominance in this style of racing.  The battle among Kilian Jornet, De Gasperi and 2011 Skyrunning Series Champ Luis Hernando at the recent Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon/Skyrunner SuperCup, along with the scuffles at Giir di Mont and Sierre Zinal between Jornet and De Gasperi, remind us of this year long supremacy.  As the European cold sets-in, allow us to tip our hat to the magnificent racing that took place in this epic series and look forward to 2012.  Stay tuned!

Now just a few quick remarks about some of the domestic professional trail:  For the foreseeable future I see Max King and Dakota Jones dominating their respective schedules.  No need to explain my King hypothesis.  He is the U.S. and mountain running world champ, and owns his USATF “jurisdiction.”  I’m interested to see how he’ll fair in more ultra events and whether or not he’ll take a few deeper cuts at races on the Skyrunning calendar, going head-to-head with those guys, and even getting to the start of Pikes Peak with some timely fitness.  This guy is young and has barrels of talent.

That last sentence can also be used to describe Dakota Jones.  Here’s another guy, like Nick Pedatella, for whom I could make a case for UROY.  He ends-up a little light on the typical criteria, but I say, what the hell: if the award is truly up for grabs, then let’s say he has a shot and that TNFEC San Francisco championship has much to say about that recognition.

Look at this Ultra Sign-up card for a glance at this 20 year-old’s 2011 results.  To make a long story short, he was 2nd at the disturbingly difficult 2011 HR100, beat some stiff competition at both Moab’s Red Hot 50, and the Pocatello 50, and was 17th at Sierre Zinal.  That last one (definitely not an ultra) is really impressive, in my humble opinion, in terms of this guy’s potential.

Of course he just beat Mackey’s R2R2R FKT.  His write-up is great.  I think it gives a nod to the entire sport of ultra running in that IF more and more talented runners entire the fray, records (FKT) will drop accordingly.

I will have more to say about Jones in an upcoming column that previews the San Francisco ultra mayhem.  With his GC exploits, Jones is a clear favorite (recall he was off the front for much of the race last year before being swallowed-up by some of the sport’s bests).  But I will leave you with a reminder to keep an eye on Mr. Geoff Roes’ blog.  There is a direct correlation between his writing and running.  He is loving life, if you ask me.  Which could be terrifying for any ultra running peloton.

This is also published at my personal blog.

Inside Trail Post Therapy

We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.  –Jim Wallis

Inside Trail is a gateway to trail competition. –Me to someone in a bar

Tim and I have enjoyed the last week or so of blog wars.  I guess.  The now infamous Inside Trail Commentary, posted on Sept. 15, was too much; we pulled it to give everyone (including us) a breather.  We were not hiding it.  We were definitely re-posting that mess because that’s the way it is.  I’m afraid it made me look like a punk.  Yuckity do da day.  Oh, and the subsequent gossip was pretty fresh; it would have fit right-in at my mom’s wine parties back in the 70s.  I am in Lord Balls’ head.  Enough said.  IT, but certainly more specifically, I, have been among blogspot’s or wordpress’s most wanted.  That was not my intention at all.  Readers have said from the beginning that they’ve enjoyed the “edge” in some of our work.  But I went over the edge with the way I worded some of my reflection upon reading Roes and AJW that week.

Our work really hasn’t tried to get everyone’s approval.  That’s a fool’s errand unless your goal is to write to just a tiny niche enclave of like-minded yes-(wo)men.  We love what we do.  That’s it.  Our commentary will continue to be ambitious, but more thoughtful; it will never be considered mean, or cheap.  Trust me on that.

As for my part in this: I have an obsessed focus on the substance of trail competition.  That’s our project’s tagline.  We cover as much killer trail competition as we can.  The fact that we came out of the box Sierre-Zinal, Pikes, Leadville, UTMB, WMRC, etc. might be some indication of that (but look for me to focus even more on international stuff or shorter American trial clashes).  So, in such a competitive trance (daily), I reacted to Geoff Roes’ resignation (that’s how I read it).  I’ve read other comments that have echoed this reading.  From a competitive stand-point, it’s been less than ideal and the “enjoyable” seemed awkward to me.  However, I should have explored my respect for him instead, and expressed my hope for his return to the front of the race.  He’s free to do whatever he wants to do and I don’t think anyone, including me, wants him to change what he’s doing.  Of course there’s more to enjoy than winning.  Of course “results” make-up, in the end, just a few very memorable events in a year/life of running.  But in one tiny little nutty neck of the woods (IT), we want to grow a place that brews discourse about the competitive aspect of the sport.  That part of the sport is very interesting to us.  Tim and I really want to jive on that funk and at the front of the pack.  But I crossed the line on Sept. 15th.

And then there’s AJW.  He represents the heart of the sport.  Here’s why: he’s so positive and down to earth and accessible; and he’s competitive.  The sport realizes these two worlds, which is why you have some people say things like ultra-marathoning will never be mainstream, yet you have other entities like iRunFar, or UROC or UTMB and even WS100 or LT100 that suggest otherwise.  It’s a little schizophrenic.  The sport is low-profile by nature, but getting more exposure, becoming more mainstream from corporate sponsorship and media getting onboard to more everyday folk buying their Glycerins or FiveFingers.  Andy Jones-Wilkins represents these two worlds perfectly and what I said about him was pretty thoughtless.  In the end, I was asking for his help in the UROY discussion, which despite many people’s suggestions that we all forget the confusion, still manifests in various points-of-view.  That means it matters.  I was tapping his proverbial shoulder and I think ended-up shooting myself in the proverbial . . . metatarsus.  No way did Mr. JW deserve that.

For me, this fine-line between competition in ultra (especially the big American ultra) and that grassroots casual gathering, fun-loving nature of the sport is becoming pretty intriguing.  Look at my comment about Geoff Roes and the aftermath.  I was talking purely from a competitive standpoint.  Yet I got absolutely bulldozed because the sport is not all about racing and winning.  Who in the hell am I to question how Roes feels about his year of running?  From a competitive standpoint, however, it was a bit sub-standard by Geoff Roes’ measurements.  That’s objective.  But people defend that non-competitive nature of the sport so well.  On that point, I was way out of line.  And I sounded drunk.

Cut to UROC.  What is the intent of this race?  This is a rhetorical question.  The race is about the competitive nature of the sport.  Period.  Even more interesting: Geoff Roes is at the front of this campaign to create a race where elites are treated like elites and the race is centered around highlighting that competition at the front.  Again, this sport is suggestive of two worlds: the down-to-earth just run and have fun and finish vibe, and the world-class Micahael Wardian v Geoff Roes vibe, or Jornet v Wolfe and Clark or Heras v Roes and Mackey, etc.  It’s tough to deny this split personality in the sport.

photo: iRunFar.com

All this to say, I (and IT) hale from the more competitive angle.  That’s what IT is exploring more.  It certainly does not excuse what I said back on Sept. 15.  Competitive or non-competitive, it doesn’t give me the right to carelessly criticize people like Geoff or Andy.  For that, again, I am sorry.

And in a word, UROC was great.  I think it does represent a significant move in the American ultra race scene, for lack of a better term.  That Roes won is simply genius.  We feel bad that Wardian may have gone off course, but no one should think twice about the result evoking a sense of je ne sais quoi.  Roes is part of the race organization and the win is a great sign that Geoff is feeling better about racing.  Naturally, we’re bummed about Dave Mackey’s day.  Indeed, things got interesting after that.  Congrats, UROC race organizers, racers, supporters and fans, some of whom even mobbed racers at the finish for autographs – who said the sport couldn’t go mainstream?

UROC has definitely added a compelling piece to this American ultra puzzle.  As this post has touched briefly on the intrigue of the two worlds of American ultra (laid-back vs. highly competitive), one might note too the intriguing relationship between American and international ultra.  Is there anyway one can suggest that the sport not more international than it’s ever been?  One blogger suggested that today is no more international than it was when Yannis Kouros was setting myriad ultra standards.  I would just suggest carefully considering the two eras, the actual races that took place.  We, like many (!), have made this very simple observation of recent ultra competition: more so than ever, the sport today is very much made-up of an international field, which begs the questions about end-of-year awards, etc.  Doesn’t one have considerable evidence to make this observation?  And why would one claim that Kouros represents an era that makes such an observation short-sided?

UROC: A Step in a New Direction

GEER 100k Start (same location as UROC) Photo: Charlottesville Track Club

Trail Runner’s Ultra Race of Champions 100k (UROC) is getting a lot of coverage on the interwebs.  Other than a potentially meaningful race in Bend, Oregon this Saturday, specifically the Flagline 50k, picked for the second year in a row as a USATF Trail National Championships, the gathering near Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday the 24th seems to be on several people’s radar, for several reasons.

Change is major theme in the current trail and ultra running discourse.  This statement might be misleading since people, especially groups and communities of people, are often involved, whether they know it or not, in some phase of their own individual and congregation’s transformation, evolution, renovation, etc.  One can call it whatever she wants: there is always change in the air, and we are definitely talking about more than seasonal change (though that’s a nice metaphor).

One of the big topics of change getting volleyed about in this spirited discourse includes the rise of professionalism in the sport (especially in the American version).  This includes (among other things) the role of sponsorship.  Clearly more money invested in the sport will impact race organization, competition, and the winnings and other bonuses made available to elite athletes.  This professionalism will “enhance” races in other ways, such as media coverage, which can only be good given that more people will “see” the sport, including America’s impressionable youth.  I was telling my friend the other day, “How cool would it be to have your kid want to be the next Scott Jurek.”

Mike Wardian

The Comrades Marathon may be the extreme of this embrace of growth and professionalism in ultra running; look what that could do to the “value” of a race.  Massive media attention, including full television coverage and winnings that reach six-figures mean there is an example we can certainly target for the elite level of competition.  Though sponsorship capital on the European race scene doesn’t seem to reach the levels of Comrades, that off-road running contingent (which really spills into the general population) over there certainly uses another currency that can logically translate into money: Interest.  The well-documented international Team Salomon seems to very much exemplify this kind of change going-on in the sport.

Not having a database of race statistics to pull from, we could still safely say the American ultra sport is growing in interest.  The sheer number of MUT races that meander across the lands is staggering.  Just according to Ultra Running Magazine “There were 554 ultramarathon races held in North America in 2010.”  Of course, what about the number of runners signing-up for these 554+ races?  There are several hundred examples we could cite with a few clicks.  It’s great news.  How can we not see this type of individual and group interest very encouraging?  Furthermore, who doesn’t have an ultra running blog?  This alone may be the best place to look in order to illustrate not just the growth of the sport, but growth’s predecessor (and the point of this paragraph): the interest in the sport.  And it’s some of the discussions on these blogs where one will find so many perfect examples of change bouncing around.

A big discussion for some time has been the need for a true national or even world championship trail/mountain race.  Having thought at length about this topic, talked with many people and read many different perspectives (including trying to find all of the current sanctioned “championships” that exist), this aspiration seems admittedly plagued with difficulty.  Tradition is a very formidable foe to change.  The sport of ultra running is traditionally low-key, and almost uneventful.  The trail racing elite has emerged over the years, but the larger trail community doesn’t necessarily thrive on fierce competition among other runners; it’s not the driving force.  Races are spread-out, happen throughout the year with very little sense of series organization or tournament style (other than a few like the North Face Endurance Challenge and the evolving Montrail((Patagonia?)) Ultra Cup ((?))).  Instead, there are simply some classic races, a few with huge followings; most people are well read on these traditions.  Races more become opportunities to congregate and run together for several hours with the hopes of just finishing (certainly of PRing), of enduring several degrees of fatigue and pain.  Sure, there are different levels of tradition among these hundreds of races and often stemming from these traditions are real races, even among the mid to back of the pack runners.  Be that as it may, as it stands, there is no one race or race series to rule them all. 

One of the best people to ask about this desire for championship race change is Geoff Roes.  The man behind the Alaska Mountain Running Camps has been outspoken on this issue, even writing in January of this year, following his 2010 UROY selection, which he won with the help of winning the hugely traditional Western States 100, “I think the discussion of what effect a true championship race would have on the sport is a moot point. I think that there is such a high demand for this that it is absolutely going to happen within the next couple years. It’s a simple aspect of a free market that when you have a large demand for a product/service that is not available, someone will provide a product/service to fill that void.”  This is a definitive stance on an issue to which many industry folk might balk.  This is pulled from his blog.  The post is brilliantly illustrative of a how one of the top mountain ultra runners in the world feels about the lack of a true MUT national championship.  He literally lays it out in this fiery piece.

Jump ahead to September 21, 2011, on the eve of UROC.  Geoff is preparing to travel to compete in the first running of a race organized to crown a champion ultra runner.  The design follows perhaps that of the North Face Endurance Challenge, which caters, at least more than other “championships,” to the front of the race, the elite runners.  What’s remarkable was how the race has received instant credibility and heavy criticism: the classic mixed response to change.

What is worth pointing-out is Roes’ role in the formation of UROC.  Back in January he wasn’t just talking the talk of change at the championship level.  And remember, this is a guy who has competed in the sport’s most competitive races, namely WS100, several other American classic ultras (Wasatch, Hurt, Bear, Masochist, AR, etc.), including the competitive North Face EC series, culminating in the fiercely competitive San Francisco race.  Come to think of it, perhaps Roes sees the NF EC championship and maybe UTMB as legitimate world championships, but what is still in need is a definitive national championship.  Hence, he helped the organizers of UROC in recruiting the “champions” for the race on Saturday, in effect “designing” a championship race.  What does this mean?  Given the idea that organizing such a race faces a lot of difficulty, given the staunch tradition that defines the sport of ultra running, the problem with finding land and permits with which to facilitate, etc., we have to focus instead on the intent of the race, the fact that Roes has become a true ambassador, even steward, of ultra running (in a previous post we suggested he become the Czar of the sport, seriously).  Because the sport, as he himself argues (in support, referring to several discussions he’s had with several elite ultra runners), needs this change.  This weekend, one could say, is Roes walking the walk.

If the race doesn’t go-off without a hitch, with runners going off-course, with complaints of too much road in a supposed trail championship, with complaints that runners were forced to hurdle Oktoberfest revelers in route to the finish, still we believe that the bigger picture here remains intact, that the sport/community (driven by its leaders and enthusiastic congregation) is in the midst of massive change.  And that Geoff Roes is playing a big part in the positive changes occurring in the sport.  When we asked him about his thoughts of the race just days from the start-line, he told us,

“I think UROC will be really exciting. I have no real expectations or goals for myself but it’ll be fun to see how the race plays out in terms of the kind of interest it gets in the running media/blogosphere. UROC certainly has some kinks to work out (as all new events do for the first few years), but I do think it’s taken a bold step forward that no other ultra races have been interested in or willing to take at this point. That is they were willing to say here’s a race that will have a primary focus on the race at the front of the pack. So much so that they are actively recruiting top-level runners to take part in their event.  To my knowledge they are the only ultra currently doing this. This approach doesn’t appeal to everyone (far from it), but shouldn’t be seen as a problem.  There are so many ultras in the world today, any runner interested in racing should have no trouble finding dozens that appeal to them. The lack of diversity in the style of ultrarunning events is sometimes quite shocking, but I think events like UROC (and other new events that actively do things a bit differently) are helping to create a bit of diversity, and a bit of excitement, in an otherwise very homogeneous sport. This isn’t to say that the style of existing events don’t appeal to me (I wouldn’t have run almost 30 ultras in the last 3 years if I didn’t enjoy the existing events), but at some point many races start to feel like they have been designed to be as much like the typical race as possible. I think the trend in the coming years will be events that actively try to be different than the typical ultra. I think UROC is just one example of this and I think this trend is terribly exciting for the sport.”

Enough said?  Almost.  We just have to highlight the read here on such a seemingly monumental event.  Granted, the race may not be perfect or “appeal  to everyone (far from it),” but when a runner of Geoff’s caliber talks about a the sport being “very homogeneous,” that he is interested in “helping to create a bit of diversity, and a bit of excitement,” that’s compelling.  Hopefully people are thinking big picture here, mind-set, paradigm shift, etc.  Traditions are strong and flourish because people care about them and therefore continue to derive a lot of meaning from them.  At the same time, change is natural, powerful, and inevitable.  UROC is just one of many examples of change happening in the sport today.

And the race itself.  Anyone reading this has seen iRunFar’s and Karl Meltzer’s terrific previews.  Not much more to be said here other than to reiterate that actually picking a podium seems very difficult with the suspicion of late season fatigue and the ever so probable accompanying cold.  Inside Trail does suspect that this race could go be won be any number of dark horses (like a Jon Allen, Scott Gall, and Michael Owen), especially if some of the favorites are not 100%.   So, keep your eye on that.  And clarification of the 100k course reveals that some 37 miles appear to be either dirt or paved road.  Naturally, this may favor a runner like Mike Wardian and other marathoners with that kind of speed. Tis the season, late September, so we just hope that the runners are all there, feeling 100% and ready to rock and roll.

Inside Trail Commentary

A check of the “local” blog-o-shpere reveals a couple of soft pours.  If you like what a tavern usually serves, then it’s your obligation to notify the patronage, even the management, when there’s a miss.  Geoff Roes says this year has been his most enjoyable year of running.  Andy Jones-Wilkins is asking for comments about this year’s UROY.

I really don’t want to seem like I’m piling-on Geoff Roes.  I already wrote a piece that went out of its way to formulate some kind of explanation for his whiff at Western States 100 and his 2011 racing misfortune in general (COMPARED to his recent past.  Context is key, for all contrarians out there).  The sliver of hope that some mustered post WS100, rallying around the fact that he was not fully back from a tough spell, but in fact his entire 2011 season was focused on UTMB, came-up short.  Objectively speaking, from a competitive racing standpoint, 2011 was a pretty big loss for Roes.  And again, the argument that one (I) should not be critical of others, that one (Roes) can run for whatever thrill he/she seeks is horse manure.  This is a sport, a very competitive one in which Roes has been pretty successful the last few years.

I’m not going to exhaustingly analyze this recent statement, other than to say really it doesn’t make any sense at all.  At least qualify your statement more than reference to an “up and down” year.  At least acknowledge the difficulty and misfortune that seemed to transpire.  Give fans a more fulfilling account.  Or is it just an advertisement for socks.  I’m a sports fan and the past provides enormous context and expectations.  Certainly, an off year is perfectly understandable.  A plan to improve upon this year – sounds great.  Racing doesn’t mean as much to him as it has in the past?  Okay, if that’s how you feel.

But enjoyable?  What in the world are you talking about?  Does anyone remember Terrell Davis?  I phantomed a Roes pick in our UTMB preview because the guy has, in the past, shown a lot of competitive heart, which assumes race health and fitness.  I felt, if healthy, fit and driven, that he was the one and only guy who could hang with the train.  Competing didn’t transpire.  I’m disappointed like any fan of ultra running should be disappointed.  Hate to break it to some who may think that on the elite level this is still just an extra-curricular past-time, like a little chamber of commerce fun run: this is going going gone international with the kind of competitive spirit that precedes major international endorsement aka major athletic production participation.  If Roes doesn’t have the health or the drive, give the world a heads-up and good luck on that recovery.

Roes actually did have some success this year.  I am not talking about Chuckanut or Crow Pass.  Rather, he was instrumental in putting together a championship race since the country clearly lacks any sort of event.  I love his thought process.  He was actually anointed the “elite athlete liaison,” which basically means he was charged with convincing other elites to come on down to Virginia and run the UROC 100k with him.  He helped organize an ultra national championship!  Geoff Roes for Ultra Running Czar!  If you didn’t catch wind of some of the discussions that took place on the web about this issue, go find.  They seemed to revolve around the misguided idea that Western States is a default national championship ultra marathon.  Roes, a reader can see, has some strong opinions on this matter.

In either Idaho or Virginia, the Andy Jones-Wilkins – to – Western States 100 association is freakishly strong.  And it’s the autumn of another racing season.  Therefore, he’s wondering who will be crowned Ultra Runner of the Year.  Being of the quasi-academic fold, I hope he efforts to clarify for everyone the purpose of the UROY.

So often a discussion reeks of superficial significance.  Andy and the sport at large can do better than this (that’s what Geoff Roes helped reconcile this year.  Not sure if UROC will become the official national championship, but the effort is there.  Appreciate that.)  What would give UROY more meaning is a clarification of it’s intent.  Though some might say the website/magazine does specifically say the award is for the top N. American ultra runners (without distinguishing between trail or road) picked by representatives from N. America, the popular perception is that it certifies a more comprehensive (global) supremacy.

In the past, the UROY might have been fairly accurate in recognizing a season’s top ultra (“100 miler mountain”) runner in the world.  And I suppose we might just have to assume that this particular runner (especially guy) ran and won Western States 100 because it’s an “old” race that has been on “everyone”’s radar.  In the past, we could perhaps feign ignorance about what was taking place around the world.  These athletes rarely came together but for some shorter Skyrunner series races, or WMRA races, or European mountain classics like Sierre-Zinal.  So let’s assume the award just symbolized the innocence and naiveté of a sport understandably excited about what’s happening in its own backyard.  To the point, we’re years later, getting much more worldly and mature.  Consequently, it’s time for some clarification just so we’re not misleading anyone here with a sense that our young sport decided to skip world geography, drop-out of school, and go to work at the local gas station (not that there’s anything wrong with working at a gas station).

We have argued elsewhere that the American version of the sport (or even the world’s for that matter) hasn’t seen, nor will it see – at least as far as we can see – a versatile talent like Dave Mackey in a long time.  He races and, usually, he wins.  He does his job.  He’s been one of the biggest influences of Inside Trail’s other half, Tim.  This year he’s a leading candidate for UROY.  This is a great achievement, but it’s time to address the  lack of international credibility that UROY has had in the past.  If it has zero international scale, then clarify that.  You can’t really disagree with that popular perception of UROY.  Change the name of the award.  For the sport’s sake.  For Dave Mackey’s sake.  He is the best North American ultra runner of 2011.  Tough to argue that.  In fact, we are going to go ahead an award him the NAUROY.  Congratulations, Dave.

In the end, this commentary is not meant to belittle anyone; rather, we are more interested in improving the sport and really encourage discussion of these types of issues.  An “MVP” type of award will always have shades of controversy involved because a “committee” votes and even if the criteria are rock solid, there’s still opinion that can discourage consensus or rational thought.  That’s understandable and actually expected.  At Inside Trail, when there appears to be a huge flaw in a process that’s supposedly quite central to a community or culture, we feel like that should be addressed.