Friday, December 31, 2010

UTMB in the US?

There's been something I just haven't been able to get out of my mind since running the first few hours of the canceled UTMB race in August. This being the question of why don't we have any races like this in the United States? That is to say races with the kind of energy that UTMB has. Sure we have a handful of road marathons that have this kind of participation and energy, but as far as trail ultra goes we have nothing even close. Western States is probably the most "energetic" of our trail ultras, but compared to UTMB, Western States feels like a church bake sale. And where I see the real difference is that at a race like Western States the energy doesn't really spread out of the very isolated bubble that is American ultrarunning. Sure a few Auburn/Sacramento "locals" get a little bit excited about Western States, but for the most part the general American public doesn't give a shit about a bunch of people crazy enough to run 100 miles. Or do they?

Now before I go too far here let me acknowledge what a lot of you are probably thinking: that this is a good thing. A big part of me agrees with this. Some of the most enjoyable races I've ever been a part of have been the ones that are the most low key/low energy. Bear 100, HURT 100, Run Rabbit Run - to name a few. A larger part of me though feels like a balance of the two would be more appealing and more satisfying. This touches a bit on a few points I made in my previous post about prize money. I think the more races you have with high energy (or hype or attention or prize money or whatever you want to call it), the more super low key races you are going to have as a response to that. To me these are the types of races that appeal to me: the ones out on the edge of either edge of the spectrum.

Back to my original point though: why don't we have any trail ultras that are even close to UTMB in "energy?" This is the question that has been bugging me for 4 months now. I've talked to a lot of people about this, and most seem to feel that there is simply a difference in American popular culture as compared to European (or at least French) popular culture that Americans simply don't have an interest in these kinds of events. I don't agree with this opinion. I think instead that it's a result of the fact that almost every trail ultra in this country does everything it can to create a route that takes the runners out into as much wilderness and away from as many settled areas as possible. We do this because we love running in solitude through the mountains and through the forest, and because here in the United States we have enough open space to actually do this. Thank God for that. I love this aspect of these races as much as anyone. In Europe they don't really have this option. If you want to create a Tour De France or a UTMB you are going to have to pass through settled areas. You bring the race to large populations of people and the people respond. Here in the states we just haven't brought these kinds of events to large populations of people because we don't have to the way that they have to in Europe.

And so the next question becomes: if we bring the race to the people, how will the people respond? I don't know the answer to this question. I don't know if anyone knows the answer to this question because I don't think anyone has really tried. I want to try. I want a mountainous trail ultra that embraces populated areas, rather than avoids them. Race mostly through the mountains, but also race right through the center of numerous towns. Promote the race in these towns. Get local businesses on board who get excited about the prospect of several hundred (and potentially several thousand) spectators being out and about their town on race day. We have places we could do this. There are places along the California coast where you could put together a 100 mile route, mostly in the mountains, but where you could also hit a dozen or more villages or cities along route. It would be a little trickier but you could also do this in a couple places in Colorado and perhaps some areas of Washington or Oregon. Or for that matter, out East, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, etc. where there are plenty of mountains and trails, but also, like in Europe, small villages scattered throughout these mountains.

Anyhow, just a random thought that's been running through my mind. I think it'd be awesome if we had a race or two like this. And I think it's possible. I just don't think anyone has tried. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm curious to hear what others think. I can't be the only one who has had this thought. I suspect many are going to comment that they feel races like this would damage the existing low-key ultrarunning culture. I can certainly respect this opinion, and I certainly have some of these same concerns, but if you have been to France and been a part of UTMB it's really hard not to feel (at least for me) like there is a whole another aspect to ultrarunning culture that we are really missing out on here in the United States.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Prize Money

There's been a lot of talk lately about the future of the sport of Ultrarunning in regards to globalization and money. I think a lot of this was a result of the recent North Face race in San Francisco that drew a large international contingent of runners wanting to get a piece of the "largest purse in ultrarunning." I realize that to 99.99% of the people in the world this might be the most boring topic imaginable, but for the .01% who give a shit I suspect that there are some really passionate thoughts about this. Here are mine:

Globalization to me is an easy one. We're all humans. When I line up to run a race it really doesn't matter much to me where the people are from that I'm racing against. It's a fast growing sport and this is leading to races with more and more people from all over the world. I love running day in and day out, but the thrill of lining up with hundreds of like minded runners and testing myself in a competition with them is something that I can only do in races. I thrive on the competition. Generally the more top level runners in a race, the more excited I get about that race. And thus, the worldwide growth of the sport makes me really excited to open up so many more possibilities of talented runners to race against. I want to race against the best in the world. More and more that is becoming a possibility. A possibility that might not have existed in trail ultras a few years back. To me these are all good things. It's the money issue where things get a little bit stickier:

There has been a fair amount of prize money making it's way into Ultrarunning in the past few years. There still isn't much, but if the amount of races with prize money (and the total amount of this prize money) grows as much in the next few years as it has in the past few years it will begin to be a fairly substantial amount. The North Face Endurance Challenge races are the most obvious examples of new prize money in the sport, but there have also been dozens of other new races to pop up in the past few years with small amounts of prize money. Why is this?

There are so many ultra races now that a new race needs to do something to separate itself from all the other races. One way of doing this is to offer prize money. The more money, the more separation. So far this trend hasn't really had much of an effect on the sport. The old established races are generally still the most recognized races and to my knowledge not one of these "old" races has yet added prize money. I'd be surprised if this still true in another year or two.

By putting up a $10k prize the North Face has created a race that in 5 years became what was generally considered to be the most competitive 50 mile trail race ever in the world. Surely someone else has noticed this and has thoughts about upping the ante. The North Face has done almost nothing to promote this event and tap into the real potential that they have in their lap here. Instead it feels like they just kind of threw down the prize money for the hell of it and then forgot about it. Someone soon will put down more money and will do more to take advantage of the runners that this will draw, and in short time they will have one of the most recognized trail races in the world. To me this seems like a given. And when this happens I think it will begin to force some of the existing "most recognized" races to make some decisions.

Right now there is a void. The North Face has shown that by simply putting down a little bit of prize money you can draw a ton of attention from top runners around the world. As more new races begin to follow suit this void will begin to fill up and existing races will need to decide if they want to play the game or if they want to fade aside into the category of largely non-competitive races. Most will probably choose the later. A few will choose the former and there will become a fairly distinct divide in terms of the level of top competition seen at various races around the world. Not unlike the current marathon racing dynamic around the world.

Maybe none of this is actually going to occur. I think it's going to though. I think it's already started and is virtually unavoidable at this point. Thus the question becomes whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or neither.

I'm actually kind of split on this question. I would love to be able to earn decent money racing something that I love so much. More than this though I would love it if there were dozens of races around the world that drew the kind of competition that the North Face race is now drawing. I want enough money in the sport that truly elite marathoners (sub 2:10) are inclined to try their hand at it. Large amounts of prize money will make these things happen.

Where the problems with prize money start to creep in is when you start to think about where the money is going to come from. Ideally large corporations (North Face and others) put down the money and draw enough attention to the event (because of the elite runners), and their products, that they feel confident that they are making a financial gain. The other option is that races pay out large sums of prize money with money generated from race entry fees. In some situations this might be able to work (specifically in races which are allowed huge numbers of people), but in most cases this prize money will result in significantly increased entry fees or significantly decreased amount of amenities that we receive from races on race day. I think entry fees are already really high in this sport ($370 for Western States), and certainly nobody wants races to provide less for them before, during, or after the run.

And herein lies the potential problem with more prize money in the sport. Ultra running is already a pretty exclusive, middle to upper middle class activity. Right now I think this has as much to do with demographics as it does with the costs related to participating in events, but the thought of making events even more expensive, and thus less accessible to individuals with less money doesn't seem like a good direction to head towards.

Ultimately what I hope and think will happen is that large corporations will follow the lead of The North Face and put down some serious prize money to get their hands on some of the void that exists right now because of how fast this sport is growing around the world. Just think how strange it is that by simply throwing down $10k (which is virtually nothing to a company like NF) they were able to create one of the most competitive ultra races in the world almost overnight. It shows just how much the established races aren't keeping up with the growth of the sport. Companies that are able to maximize the attention they get from being attached to such a worldwide event should have no problem recouping the prize money they put down without any need to charge super high entry fees.

Many races will take a staunch stance against prize money and they will "thrive" as old-fashioned, low key, low competition events for individuals who are drawn to this aspect of ultrarunning. The ironic thing is that many of these will be the same races which are currently some of the most recognizable and competitive events in the sport. Personally I think this is all a good thing. I like the low-key, low competition events just as much as the events with world class competition. In fact I think the further toward either end of this spectrum that an event falls the more appealing it is to me. It's the ones in the middle that are kind of boring. Luckily these are the ones that will likely fade into oblivion (by moving far to the left or to the right) as more prize money comes into the sport.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Loving Juneau... Again...

I'm in Juneau now for almost two weeks. Got here yesterday afternoon and for the second time since leaving here in early August I have returned for a visit. And just like it was when I was here in October the weather is perfect. It was a bit cloudy when we flew in yesterday, but by this morning it had cleared and the forecast now is for 8 or 9 days of sunshine! I know I pretty much did this same post when I was here in October, but if you haven't been to Juneau when the weather is like this you really are missing out.

I ran up to about 2,000 ft. today (just above tree line) and was blown away by the beauty of the mountains here. I have seen the view I saw today hundreds of times but it still looks absolutely amazing every time. On days like today it is hard for me to believe that this place really exists. It is without question the most majestic and luring landscape I have ever been immersed in.

I'm still taking it pretty easy on the running front. I did 19 miles on Sunday and it was a fun run, but I was still feeling fairly tired from racing 8 days prior. After yesterday off I felt really good today, but only went for an hour. I'll probably go pretty easy again the next couple days, but by the weekend I intend to get out for 4+ hour runs with my snowshoes up into the mountains here... we'll see if I can actually wait all the way until the weekend though.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Looking Forward

With 2010 winding down I thought I'd touch a bit on my running plans for 2011.

Actually my current racing season isn't over yet. Since March I've been racing more or less one race each month (only in November did I not race) and I'm going to extend that streak one month into 2011 and head down to Texas to race the Bandera 100k on January 8th. It was just announced this past weekend that Bandera will be the USTAF 100k trail national championship race for 2011 and '12. Hopefully this will help entice some top runners to line up with me next month, and I know of at least 2 top guys who are considering joining me there.

After Bandera I'll take a little time off and then race again in late March (either Way Too Cool or Chuckanut); early April (Lake Sonoma 50); and early May (either DTRE 100, Miwok, or Ice Age).

My summer will look a lot like this past summer: Western States, Crow Pass (tentative), and UTMB. I wavered for the entire fall on whether to run Western States again. I had fun in that race this year. The course was a lot more enjoyable than I expected. This said though, I certainly wouldn't be running Western States again if it weren't for Kilian and/or Tony both planning to run again next year. I just can't imagine the two of them lining up for a rematch in that race and me not being there to be a part of it.

Without a doubt though, UTMB will be my focus race for 2011. Ever since this year's race was cancelled I have been ready and anxious for next year's race. This race is so far above and beyond anything we have here in The States as far as the energy one feels in being a part of it. I still get goose bumps just about every time I think about running through St. Gervais in last year's race. On top of this I feel hungry and excited to race Miguel Heras after he got the best of me this past weekend in Marin. And I'm sure Kilian will be there again. And hopefully Tony. And all the other top runners who seem to be planning to flock to this race next summer.

Trail Ultra Running is becoming more and more of an international thing than ever before and I couldn't be any more excited about this then I am. I love the American Ultra Running scene/culture, but I think it's great to mix this scene/culture with the Ultra Running cultures around the globe. I feel like all the foreign runners who ran this past weekend (and did very well for themselves) was a huge step toward many of the top races around the globe becoming truly international events. I think next year's UTMB will have more of an American presence than ever, and I fully expect Americans to be a huge part of the race at the front of the pack. Beyond UTMB there are dozens of races around the globe that interest me, and will interest me more and more as they become globally participated events. Good stuff.

Interspersed amongst all of this racing next year, I am hoping to put on a couple Trail/Ultra running training camps up in Alaska next summer. I'll be posting more details on this in the next several weeks as I get more of the details figured out.

In all it should be another super exciting year of running. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

North Face Endurance Challenge Race Report

I'm glad I've taken a few days to let this race sink in before writing this report. There has been a lot to think about and I probably would have missed a lot of things had I written this two days ago.

Things didn't go that great for me in the 10 days or so leading up to this one. Two days before Thanksgiving my lower back got really sore and forced me to spend the better part of 3 days in bed. In all I only ran 13 miles in 4 days during that stretch. I felt a lot better on Sunday and Monday (5 days before the race) only to come to feel a bit of a head cold creeping in on Tuesday. I fought off the cold with every thing I could think of: Lots of sleep, little to no running, vitamin C, and Osha root. This seemed to work and by race day I was excited that I still hadn't been hit too hard by this cold. Just a slight sore throat and headache as I lined up to race Saturday morning. The main downside was that I hadn't run at all since Tuesday, meaning that I ended up only running 5 of the last 10 days before the race, certainly more of a taper than I would have liked.

But as the race started I quickly felt excited just to have made it fairly healthy to that point. My back was healed up and my head cold felt like it would hold off for at least one more day.

And so we were off. I felt tight. I felt like I hadn't run in 4 days. But beyond that it felt great to be racing.

We were in a huge group at the start. 10 miles in and I think there were still 25+ of us within a few seconds of the lead. Looking around I knew that there were several runners who didn't belong in this group, but there were also a dozen or more who did belong in this group. It was an amazing group of elite runners to be running with. I chatted a fair amount with Dakota and Dave, and a bit with Michael Owen, and one or two short sentences with Miguel Heras. Beyond that I just kind of ran along very relaxed. It was nice when the sun came up around mile 15. At this point we seemed to regroup into a couple lead groups. One group of 3 up in front and then a "peloton" of about 12 of us slowly reeling in this lead group on the climb up toward PanToll.

I still felt tight, but this climb also felt really easy to me. This was probably the first point in the race when I knew that I would have no problem running hard for 50 miles on this day. I didn't know if I would be able to run fast enough to stay near the front, but I knew that I was going to be able to put in a 100% effort and that my body would hold up.

By the time we got to PanToll the peloton had caught the breakaway group and Dave took the lead on the short downhill stretch over to Bootjack aid station. Dave hammered down this technical stretch of trail and a few of us followed in close pursuit. This fast downhill and the transition point at Bootjack was a key point in the race in which several runners were suddenly unable or unwilling to stay on the pace. Still hanging around in front was Dave, Dakota, Heras, Lorblanchet, Matt Flaherty, and I.

Just past Bootjack we hit the 4 mile out and back stretch of the race and Dave seemed to really push the pace in this stretch. I still felt pretty relaxed but I certainly couldn't have run this stretch much faster than we did. I was relieved when we made it back to the beginning of the out and back portion and begin the drop down to Stinson Beach. The pace felt a lot easier going down and I knew that once we hit Stinson we would begin the long climb back up to PanToll. Something I felt excited about, as I had been climbing comfortably all day.

I stopped to urinate at the bottom of the climb from Stinson Beach up to PanToll and discovered that we had dropped Flaherty and Lorblanchet. We were down to 4 in the lead group. Dakota moved into the lead on this climb and I slowly, and easily passed Miguel and Dave and caught back up to Dakota. This climb felt super smooth and super easy to me. Dakota and I put a bit of a gap on Dave and Miguel and we cruised together this way all the way to about mile 35. On the downhills through this stretch Dave would catch up to us briefly, but we would drop him again just as soon as we went uphill at all. Just past the Old Inn aid station there is a short (but steep) climb and this was were I pulled away from Dakota for good. He stayed close though all the way back to Muir Beach. And then finally on the climb out of Muir Beach I pulled comfortable away from him and into the lead all alone. I had no idea where anyone else was. I knew Dave and Miguel were probably not far back but I hadn't seen either of them in almost an hour.

I was feeling good, but never feeling certain that I would win. All day I had felt strong on the uphills, but relatively average on the flats and gradual downhills. I liked my chances of winning based simply on the fact that I was 2 or 3 minutes ahead with less than 10 miles to go, but I also knew that if anyone behind me found a really strong late surge that I might still be vulnerable.

And of course it was Miguel who found that surge. I was pretty sure I saw him storming down toward me as we dropped into Tennessee Valley (mile 45) but I kept holding out hope that maybe it was a runner in one of the other races as there was a 50k and marathon going on at the same time. And so I pushed on harder. Mostly knowing that it was Miguel and mostly knowing that he was going to catch me, but never really knowing for sure until he motored by me with about 4 miles to go. Of course I tried to stay with him for as long as I could but I just didn't have it in me. I hadn't faded, but rather Miguel was closing his race in epic fashion. It was frustrating to finish second in this fashion but there wasn't anything in my bag of tricks that could have held Miguel off on that day. Sometimes everything just comes together at the right time and that was the perfect time for him.

Overall I was super happy with my race. I finished ahead of more truly elite runners than I ever have in one race and it was a delight and an honor to race with everyone in this race. And now I feel like I have a much better understanding of how Tony must have felt about his Western States run. My race Saturday was a lot like his WS race. Strong and steady throughout, but just not quite enough to hold off a freak of nature like late charge. It certainly felt better to be that freak of nature as I was at Western States, but it's also really fun to be the strong and steady one who drags the pack along most of the day.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Little Bit Closer....

... To actually winning a race in The Marin Headlands. I'm now 0-5 in races in Marin. I'm obviously quite happy with my race yesterday, but I do feel a bit like I let one get away that I had in my grasp. I don't know if there's anything I really could have done though to hold off Miguel Heras. He was on fire the last 10 miles. Overall it was a super fun day of running with some of the fastest ultra runners in the world. I'll write up a full report about my race in a couple days. For now though It's all driving. Hitting the road in just a bit for the 1,200 mile drive from here back to Boulder.