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 JFK "rip off" 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.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Squaw Valley to Auburn: Final Thoughts

This will be my last post concerning anything Western States until December. The lottery drawing for the 2012 race will ultimately determine my future with WS, though it seems back to back selections are very unlikely. Last years selection odds were 12:1, and assuming next year has more applicants, it would project a 13:1, or more ratio. Thus, being selected two years in a row seems something of at least a 100:1 chance. However, since I was already selected once, I suppose I am now back in the 12:1 odds pool with everyone else again :-)

Final thoughts on my 2011 race

Pacing: I didn't wear a watch, and obviously it would have helped nudge me to hit certain time goals. Going "old school" without a pacer, or crew didn't seem to bother me either, though a motivator late in the race may not have been bad. WS is a well stocked course, and I never felt like I was lacking anything I needed running solo. The volunteers pretty much are like an adopted crew team, but for family and friends who want to support their runner being on a crew is probably very rewarding, needed, or not.

Nutrition: My weight was never down more than 4 lbs, or up 2 lbs. In fact, beyond mile 55 (Michigan Bluff), I was within 1 lb of my pre-race weight. Bottom line, even without a watch I kept very good track of my liquid and calorie intake.

Pre race "training": I only trained 40 mpw leading up to WS. I also had a handful of slow 20-30 mile runs, but nothing fast. It would have been nice to toss in a few quick 4:30-5 hour mountain 50k's for training. Ideally, I would have aimed for 80+mpw, topping out at 100, but it wasn't in the cards this spring. Trying to be balanced with work, social life, and other hobbies made it tough to really want to dedicate so much time to running. There's always a trade off.

Performance at WS: Obviously, finishing any 100 is something to be proud of. Like they say "there's no such thing as an easy 100". WS certainly isn't an easy 100. My biggest physical setback during the WS run was clearly the deterioration of my left quad starting at mile 38. In a big race like WS, it's really demoralizing to know you have 62 more miles to run on a bum leg. I would have liked to have at least made it to Forest Hills (mile 62) feeling relatively fresh, but that was cut short by about 22 miles. Lack of training volume is probably to blame, as my muscles simply were not conditioned enough for runs longer than 40-50 miles. There were significant amounts of the course beyond mile 62 I knew I could have run. My time of 25:26 reflects the fact I kinda "walked it in" after I knew sub 24 was gone. I really believe if I spent a dedicated, and strict 3 months training specifically for the WS course, that I could run in the 21-22 hour range. But, that's easier said than done.

Post Race Recovery: There are only two other races I was more sore after finishing: my first 100, and my first ultra. My left quad was the primary culprit of my post race limping. My right quad was barely sore, calves fine, and ZERO blisters. I lost one toenail because of a rock I kicked, but at least it wasn't due to blisters. Had a bit of a bruise on my right foot from lacing my shoes too tight. At first I thought I may have broken a metatarsel, but the bruising and swelling has gone down a lot since the race. It's kind of funny, but my feet never really hurt during the race, mostly afterwards. My left quad is also feeling much better, which is a good sign that the pain I felt during WS was just a strain, and not a serious injury. Don't get me wrong, it still hurt a ton during the race, and going faster simply wasn't an option.

That's all I got to say about Western States until the next lottery drawing. Wouldn't it be crazy if I got selected again! I'm hoping next June I can enjoy the coolness of Squaw Valley and chuckle to myself saying "didn't think I'd be back here so soon." I'm looking forward for another chance at a silver buckle. Like a true runner, there's always a goal on the next horizon :-)