Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mike Morton Phenomena

(Mike Morton en route to a course record 13:11 at the 2012 Umstead 100. Photo courtesy of

Like any sport, ultrarunning has its legends and myths. Mike Morton is the modern day version of The Natural. He basically dominated ultras in the mid 1990's, even when he was just in his early 20's. I'd say 1990's east coast ultrarunning was highlighted by short shorts, guys like David Horton, Dennis Herr, Courtney Campbell, Eric Clifton, and of course Mike Morton. He won the Vermont 100, Old Dominion 100, Massanutten 100, and Mountain Masochist, but his capstone was setting the course record at the 1997 Western States 100. He ran a time of 15:40, bettering Tom Johnson's previous record by 14 minutes, and easily finishing ahead of Western States legend Tim Twietmeyer. Morton was also the first none California resident to win the fabled race.

Then at some point in the late 1990's Mike Morton was gone from the ultra scene almost as fast as he dominated it. Somewhere along the way he made an overseas comittment to the Navy, and then eventually the US Army. The early 2000's were a fairly tumultuous time politically and militaristically in the post 9/11 world. (In the very improbable case that Morton actually stumbles across this write up, thank you for your service to our country). Mike then started a family, and suffered some physical setbacks due to hip injuries. Here and there his name popped up at some smaller events, but for the most part Morton was out of the spotlight. Or so we thought.

Then, in 2010 a 39 year old Morton shows up to the rather low key Hinson Lake 24 hour run in Rockingham, North Carolina. He runs 153.89 miles in hot and humid conditions to win the event, and set a course record. One year later he comes back and betters the mark with a near American record of 163.9 miles. His 2010 Hinson Lake run is arguably the best US ultra performance most people, until now, have never heard about. This monumental run came on the heals of Scott Jurek setting the American 24 hour record by running 165.7 miles at the 2010 24 Hour World Championships in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France. Scott ran with other elites on a fast paved loop, in cool conditions. Mike Morton ran with 250 slower recreational runners on a sandy, hot, 1.52 mile loop. One could argue, and argue well, that Morton could contend for the US record if given the right race conditions. Hopefully, he gets the opportunity, and we get the chance to see it happen.

But, Morton's story is really just beginning for the second time. The 5'4" powerhouse, now 40 years old, is making headlines again for casually blazing 100 mile course records. Already in 2012 he has run 13:18 at the Long Haul 100 in Florida, and then raised the bar again by breaking Zach Gingerich's impressive Umstead 100 course record. Morton ran a 13:11, knocking 12 minutes off Gingerich's 13:23. His marathon split was 2:58, and he was dropping sub seven minute miles for nearly the first forty miles of the race. I can't imagine how Jim Sweeney and Mark Manz felt about running 14:14 and 14:16 (times that would easily win most years) and still finishing an hour behind the winner? Hands down, that just says that much more about where Mike Morton has taken his running career. Morton himself says that he is running less weekly miles, perhaps 70-100 per week, due to family and work. This really makes it even more impressive because, like most of us, he is a working professional and family man, yet still found a way to return to an elite level. I guess that is the mark of greatness, isn't it?

Speaking for myself, I know I am very excited to see Mike Morton back to dominating the sport he loves. For now, I know Morton is signed up for the 2012 Badwater 135 mile ultramarathon. In a previous post, I noted that Morton could be the man who takes down the course record. Well, I guess my wish came true. It will be interesting to see him run against a fairly solid field with former Badwater champ Zach Gingerich, Michael Arnstein, Phil McCarthy, and of course current defending champ Oswaldo Lopez. Mike has already shown he can cover the 135 mile distance, and his success in hot weather has shown he may fair well in Death Valley's 120-130 degree temps. I predict he will break Valmir Nunes' 22:51 course record, and may possibly break the 22 hour barrier. Beyond Badwater, Morton has stated an interest to race a couple times a year, and that he would love to go back to Western States. Let's hope they give some priority to the former champ and course record holder.

I think Morton is an example of what some other runners are already doing, and that is redefining their running and specializing at certain distances. With so many fast road guys and gals now entering the sport, and some of the older stars aging, more folks in their late 30's and 40's are turning to 100's and 24 hour events. Losing raw speed won't make you competitive in "shorter" ultras, but the gained mental experience and conditioning have made previous speedsters into incredible super long distance runners. Just look at Scott Jurek's transformation, and even Hal Koerner going for faster 100 mile races. Then you've got Phil McCarthy, Serge Arbona, David James, Jay Aldhous, Jack Pilla...and so on. Though it looks like Mike Morton is sticking to the longer stuff, him redefining his running is hopefully going to help redefine ultrarunning. Like a fine know the rest ;-)

Also, check out Wyatt Hornsby's interview with Mike Morton. Morton isn't much of a spotlight guy, so any access is a little hard to find.

(sorry, gotta copy and paste link. Other way didn't work)

Happy running,

Mike Bailey