Sunday, December 14, 2008

One In A Thousand?

I wasn't very fast when I ran in high school and college. I wasn't the top runner on my high school cross country team until my senior year and the one year in which I ran in college I was the 3rd or 4th guy on a very bad team. In the most competitive race I ran in college I got beat by more than 100 runners.

I know there is a HUGE difference between running 5 and 10k's and running ultra marathons, but I can't help but wonder just how many of the tens of thousands of runners who were and are much faster than me at shorter distances could be elite ultra runners if they decided to devote the time to it? On one hand I feel like very few of these runners have the mental strength, tenacity, and patience to make great ultra runners, but on the other hand there are so many people out there who can run so much faster than me at anything under a marathon that certainly many of them should be able to be very fast ultra runners as well.

There is the "cream rises to the top" idea that perhaps runners who are genetically made up to be elite ultra runners tend to come to realize this sooner or later. On top of this is the fact that being an elite ultra runner almost certainly requires that you passionately enjoy running or you're just going to get burnt out from all the training that is required. There may be thousands of runners who have the physical potential to be top ultra runners, but don't enjoy it enough to ever put in the time to get to that level. But there is also the idea that there just might be thousands of runners out there who have the ability to be elite ultra runners but they just don't ever pursue it because they simply aren't aware of their abilities or just aren't interested in running that far.

The question then that this raises is if the elite ultra runners in the country (Jurek, Krupicka, Skaggs, Carpenter, Steidl, Meltzer, Koerner, Pacheco, Mackey, etc.) do in fact represent, for the most part, the best ultra runners in the country or would these names just be anonymous names mixed in with thousands of other runners if ultra running were as popular and as widely contested as 5k, 10k, and marathons? Am I actually a better ultra runner than the 100+ runners who beat me in one race 12 years ago in college would be if they decided to train for and focus on ultra races? I'm really not sure what the answer is to this question. What do you all think?

12 comments:

Evan said...

I think the top guys that you mentioned would still be up. There would be more names added to the list though.

I for example am an above average ultrarunner but nowhere near elite. I saw how fresh you were after Rez Pass 100 this year and it is scary how talented you are. You were just chatting nonstop the whole drive back to Anchorage while I was in the backseat throwing up. I think I could hang with you in a 10k but you and the other elites have something extra when it comes to long distances. Something that most of us never will have. When Julie and I were a couple she also had that. It was amazing to watch.

Luke said...

Your post made me think quite a bit on the subject, I am new to ultrarunning, and like you wasn't anything special as a runner of short distances. As a matter of fact I had a jr high coach tell me that I would never be a good runner and that I should try some other sport. I ran xc my sr. of high school and did okay but never outstanding. I began trail running two years ago, and I am quickly finding that the longer the event the more competitive I become.

I think that some people are just wired to be ultrarunners, the desire to overcome suffering, to constantly push the mileage, and be so committed to the cause takes a certain type of individual. I don't think that many on the elite short distance runners could make an easy or rapid transition to becoming an ultrarunner. It takes a different physiology and different mental state to ultrarun and to do it well.
Thanks for such a thought provoking post.

Matt said...

You're probably right. If there were some Soviet Olympic team style program (without the 'roids) to examine the larger population and identify, develop, and train potential ultrarunners, I'll bet there would be oodles of people on par with, and in some cases superior to, today's elites. (Not a recommedation, just a thought experiment). I don't think that "takes away" from any of hte accomplishments of today's elites though, any more than today's elite one milers' times takes away from the first runners to break the 4:00 mile barrier.

And you could have the same conversation about lots of activities - bowling, lawn darts, ...

Stack said...

Good points but don't downplay how good you were as a runner when you were younger. Its not like you ran for Fulton or something ;) You ran on a really competitive top level high school team and kicked butt!! Plus I think everyone could always tell you had a little extra something in the tank!

Anonymous said...

Physiology is the key, and then training is what separates the best from the 2nd tier once physiology has separated good ones from the masses.

WynnMan said...

I've always thought that if a fast runner at one distance should be fast at the next, maybe not the best they could be, but fast nonetheless. If you are a fast 10km, then you should have a strong 1/2 marathon, marathon etc.. Obviously the major X-factors in ultras is practice at long distances mainly in fueling, and of course the mental aspect. A 2:20 marathon runner running at a 9 minute pace for a 100miler would have no problem at all with level of pace. Typically the reason why a 2:20 something marathoner will crash and burn an in ultra is just simply due to lack of practice or experience. I have no doubt they would be strong if they continued to practice. Again a lot of it comes down to... Do i really want to be out there for 4+hours. For some, that just does not interest them. Some don't like trail or specific surfaces, etc... I know a few really strong 50milers who doubt they will ever do 100s. I guess you do what you like. Most elite marathoners would not waste their time or energy in ultras as there is no payday worth putting the body through that much punishment. They put enough punishment running at 2:09 marathon as is. A lot of those guys are also held together with bailers twine either in great shape or totally broken, so depends even if their bodies could hold on for an ultra distance. Inevitably in ultras, you have to give up a little speed for endurance it seems. It would be very challenging to be a sub 2:20 marathoner and have the endurance for a 100miler. Ya have to give a little to get a little I think.

Bottom line I guess, you do what interests you and you do what your strengths are. You won't see Meltzer running lots of 50km's or marathons, but you will see him do 100 milers.
just my 2 cents. i don't know much about any of this, but just some random thoughts.

Eric said...

I've never raced longer than 24 miles so what I say should be taken with a grain of salt. I do believe the physiology is much more similar than different. The elite marathoner, for example, is still not able to perform at or above their anaerobic threshold for that distance. That suggests that their limiting factor is muscle fatigue and/or glycogen storage; which also appear to be the limiting factors of ultramarathon runners.

Another similarity is the amount of training. It is not uncommon for world class marathoners to train more than 130 miles/week. Correct me if I am wrong, but his is not noticeably less than world class ultra runners. A more significant difference, is the speed at which those miles are performed. Assuming the training is done on similar surfaces, the male marathoner would be able to do this with mostly ~6 min miles whereas the ultra runner could only sustain their mileage with 7-8 min miles.

Let's also consider the ability of runners to succeed at varied distances. There are many examples of runners excelling from 1500m to 10,000 and even to the marathon. Haile Gebreselassie, was a world champion at the indoor 1500m in 3:32(?) and now holds the world record in the marathon. It is probably safe to say that there is much greater difference between 1500 and 10,000 or the marathon than the marathon and 100 milers. So if people are capable of being the world's best across the first spectrum, it makes sense that most world class marathoners have the POTENTIAL to dominate ultras when those who only seriously race ultras do cannot run within 10% at the marathon. Uli Steidl is within that margin but he was a world class marathoner before attempting ultras.

I believe a difference besides the length has much larger influence: ground surface. We all know that rocky, rooty, and sinuous terrain significantly reduces speed. The reduction in speed changes biomechanics and the inconsistency requires much more stability and coordination. These skills of world class marathoners' are atrophied from throusands of hours spent on smooth surfaces and so they just can't apply all of their fitness.

It is likely that the best marathoners in the world have the potential to outclass the best ultra marathoners over 100 miles of pavement, but some of the best ultra marathoners could dominate the best marathoners on a rugged trail over 26 miles.

michelle said...

Like Stack, I think you sell yourself short. But you always have been and "ultra" type of person. Ultra modest is who you are as well. I heard they wanted to put you on the high school's wall of fame, but you dodged that one. You may never admit it to yourself, but you are a great runner.

olga said...

I liked Matt's idea on Soviet training camp. There is something to it:)
OK, I am not going to claim I had ever been close to the top, placing be banned from discussion, it's the times that matter. However, I had been more or less ok some time ago, and the longer - the better I faired (sp?). To add, I had never been any kind of runner in HS or college - not good, not bad, not at all. I ran first 5k at the age of 31 (or 32?) smoking a pack of cigarettes a day back then.
So, my guess is - just as in African runners, there are Kenyans, and there are Ethiopians. Some faster at 10k, some - at marathons. I would apply it to ultrarunners. Some good runners from college and marathoners can become extremely fantastic ultrarunners (and they are), but some will fade as distance adds on (why Uli never raced above 50M? Matt C. done Leadville and that's it?). It doesn't make any of them (either of them?) better or worse. There are specifics. More power to guys in any distance who trains and races at teh top level.

Spanish said...

Geoff: First let me say nice run in san francisco and I agree with you about the trails being hard out west. I spent my last 7 or 8 years training on soft, muddy trails in PA and VA. I moved out to Arizona about 6 months ago and every trail feels like pavement.

Eric: I agree with your thoughts until you say that rugged trails verses road would make a huge difference. I just think the fittest athlete would win regardless. A dumbed down example would be to look at the best runner in the world, Kenesia Bekele. He wins everything, track or cross country. While its not the same as rugged single track, I think he would still smoke the best trail runner in the world.

I have always felt that ultrarunners just aren't as talented as most marathoners or shorter distance racers. I feel like they keep moving up in distance because they simply can't compete with a decent marathoner. BUT they are a helluva lot more persistent most runners which I like. (Persistence is a talent by the way)

I have always wondered what I could do in a longer race. I ran my first marathon in 2:39 two weeks ago training 60 miles a week. I feel as though I wouldnt have a problem running 50 miles at 7-8 min per mile even on rugged terrain. However, I have never run more than 26.2 miles so i could suffer badly. I think it would just be a matter of training. Most people just aren't as committed or persistent as ultra runners.

Conclusion: The best marathoners in the world would easily beat the current Ultra stars that you mentioned in the post. After all, most of the guys you mentioned (carpenter and steidl) have excellent PR's at the short distances.

Anonymous said...

Here is an idea:
You can't be a good ultra runner without good fueling and good fat metabolism, and if you are relying on those energy sources, the speed of marathons and shorter efforts is irrelevant.
What do you think?

Matt Newlin

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