Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Great Debate: Kenyans, Ultras, and Who's the greatest?

-Geoffrey and Geoff, and their two big course records

I was asked the other day who had won the legendary Western States 100 miler. The same person also asked "was it a Kenyan?". I chuckled, and said "no, it was actually a Spaniard. Kenyans don't run ultramarathons." I've actually heard quite a few people assume that since Kenyans and Ethiopians are basically the fastest road runners in the world, that the same folks must be winning all the ultras. It often surprises my friends who don't have the "ultra inside scoop" that many of our races are won by north American runners, often with cool beards, long hair, and normal day jobs.

The main debate is that the best ultrarunners may not be faster than marathoners, but in a 50-100 mile race they would still win. Notice I'm not talking about 50k's because it's only 5 miles longer than a marathon(yes mountains would make it tougher). However, when Josh Cox set the 50k American record he simply ran a 2:18 marathon and tacked on 5 miles at a track to finish in 2:47. He recently went after the world record doing the same thing and came very close with a 2:43. No doubt impressive, but there are guys who could do it 10 minutes faster if the money was there. Ultimately, given the same training, I say the top marathoners crush our ultra elites Roes, Krupicka, and Jornet. Here's why.

The ultrarunner supporters believe that even the best ultra guys and gals would still beat the fastest road marathoners. Consider how Tony Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Geoff Roes, and others largely dominate road guys like Michael Wardian. Wardian, who btw wins plenty of ultras, is a 2:17 marathoner, but still loses by hours to the other guys if the race is 100 miles and in the mountains. I agree that guys who train 150+ mpw in the mountains will have a much better chance at outrunning a faster road runner who trains 120 mpw on roads. Mountain runners have bodies that are simply more conditioned to go the distance with varying elements (such as extreme weather and geography).Tough terrain and vertical climb are the first things to negate a marathoner's raw speed. The second thing is that nutrition is vital in longer races. Elite marathoners can subside off a dozen cups of water, but they are completely spent when they cross the finish. Tweeking their nutrition plan so they can learn how to consume substantial calories, would be the difference in sustaining their pace through an ultra distance. The transition from 26.2 miles to 50 to 100 is tough, and obviously not every elite marathoner's body is designed to do it. However, those that do would clean house.

The bottom line is that elite marathoners have fewer variables other than air temperature. They often have a predictable running surface, minimal elevation change, and minimal time for weather to change since they are done within a couple hours. Tony Krupicka's 2:40,Koerner's 2:35, and Scott Jurek's 2:38 marathon personal bests would get scorched on a marathoner's familiar turf. However, I believe that once the fastest marathoner's start training like ultrarunners (ie eating while running, running trails with lots of vert) they would start to crush our current level elites. So, why aren't Kenyan's and Ethiopians running ultras?

Money! Ultras are low revenue events that more than likely provide no prize money. The few races that do have a cash prize, like the North Face, still only give out $10,000 to the winner at their national championships. Unlike many Americans who enjoy the "luxury" of the income their jobs earn, many 3rd world athletes will compete where the most money is. The Boston Marathon dishes out $150k, NYC $130k, and Chicago $125k. They can't support their families off belt buckles and medals. Perhaps if our ultramarathon athletes were in the same situation, they'd be training for the big bucks, but that really hasn't been the attitude of ultrarunners. Ultrarunning has always been very low key, laid back, and out of the spotlight. Sometimes it can't help be anything but out of the lime light. Afterall, how could you ever televise a mountain ultra? Where on the trail would sponsors put their logos, other than on the athletes already competing? You can't generate money when trails and national parks limit entry fields to 300-400 runners, unlike the big city marathons where you have 30,000 people paying $120 a piece to run. Ultramarathons simply aren't designed to draw a lot of income(ok, maybe the JFK 50 miler for $195). Imagine a 50 miler through NYC, and finding a tv station that would want to cover at least 5.5 hours worth of running just to see the winner finish! Too big of an investment risk.

Now let's suppose, hypothetically, that The North Face, or Montrail ever got to the point of tossing out a $100,000 cash prize. You still might not get THE fastest folks who don't want to risk injury by training, or racing an ultra, but you'd definitely get many others. Historically, the top ultra runners have been between 2:35 and 2:45 marathon speed. Seven time Western States winner Scott Jurek had a personal best of 2:38 when he was dominating ultras in the early 2000's. I think ultras are drawing more crossover runners who can't quite be competetive in big city marathons, but can win at ultras. I'm talking about guys like Matt Woods, David Riddle, Michael Arnstein, Matt Carpenter, Max King, Michael Wardian, Uli Steidel, Todd Braje, and others who are capable of anything from 2:14 to 2:30 marathons. Plenty fast, but not enough to win against guys running sub 2:10. Uli, Carpenter, and King have the most speed in the group (all sub 2:15 PR's), and all have adapted their training to suite ultras. If they can win ultras doing this, of course even faster folks would also be winning. So, you can see the allure of going to ultras where you could at least make a run for some victories/cash. Even the women are raising the bar. You've got 2:49 marathoner Ellie Greenwood, 2:53 Kami Semick and Jenn Shelton, all the way to low 2:40's Devon Crosby Helms. Very fast, but even they couldn't hang with the elite women dropping 2:20's.

It sounds crazy, but I think if the money was there, you'd see course records fall left and right. Western States would go from 15:07 to sub 14:30, JFK would drop to 5:30ish, and we'd see a bunch of 100 mile course records drop by hours. Imagine someone like Haile Gebrselassie making a move at Western States and dropping a 5:30 mile into Forest Hills, or setting a 2:25 marathon split at American River en route to a 5:15 course record (27 minutes under Krupicka's 5:42)? It would be crazy, but very plausible. I could be wrong, but the only reason guys like Roes, Mackey, and Jornet are winning ultras is because the money hasn't drawn in the big dogs yet. Would I even want ultras to become some mega marketed machine? I think it would destroy the character of the sport and take away many of the little things that make ultras so endearing. Ultras have always been about an individual journey to push beyond, and a place where first and last place received the same reward when crossing the finish. Maybe a 2:03 marathoner would fall apart trying to run more than 40-50 miles? Maybe not? There's no doubt that elite marathoners have amazing mental toughness to maintain sub 5 minute miles for 26 miles. But, there's a grit and toughness that a rare few have(marathoner, or ultrarunner) that keeps them relentlessly moving forward after 60,70, and 90 miles. That being said, I would still be rooting for my fellow ultra guys/gals to prove that being the best long distance runners means more than just being fast.


Jess said...

I love seeing the ultra rock stars all out there looking kind of hippie-ish and cool. They are way cooler!

Andrew said...

i dont know if this is a fair comparison because you are saying elite marathoners would beat our ultra guys if they trained for ultras comparing marathon times. I may be wrong but of those marathon times you posted I don't know that any of our top ultra guys have trained specifically for the marathon. Wardian seems like he has (although doesn't take the breaks/taper like the marathoners) and he's gotten to 2:17 but who knows about the others. Maybe its possible some of these guys could drop quite a bit off their marathon PR.

Although its possible the marathon PR means nothing in a 100. Although a better comparison that this it seems almost like looking @ 5k times and saying who would make the best marathoner.

Mike Bailey said...

Hey Andrew,

Thanks for the feedback. Most of this entry was more for my own entertainment, though it does raise some interesting questions. No doubt, if the top ultra guys/gals focused soley on marathons, they could run faster. There are a couple out there who have found a good balance training for fast marathons and ultras(ie Max King, Devon Crosby Helms, Steidl, so on). Even Wardian has said he might be a 2:12 marathoner if he didn't race so much, and only focused on marathons. After watching some interviews from the UROC 100k, most of the elite ultra guys did, in fact, have low 2:30's marathon PR's, and a few others in the 2:20's, with Wardian's 2:17 being the fastest of the group. I definitely don't think a speedy marathoner always translates to good ultra performance, though it'd be a good starting point. Like I said, this was mostly just a fun topic to get folks thinking. The sport is still so young, time will tell who will be the best, especially now that prize money is entering ultras.

Dainius Figoras said...

Money could be one off reasons, but there is many runners from Africa, so that doesn't explain why there is none winners (if you have 20 runners from Kenya only few will get money, if you are alone from Kenya in ultra marathon, there is bigger chance you will win and/or will get something from sponsors). Ultra and regular marathon are very different races (and not because of higher risk of injury). Look how ultras finishing, in middle they are waiting for other mates to run in group. Regular marathon is more like everyone for himself.