Road Warriors

Joe Uhan

At first glance, the North American all-time fastest road ultramarathon list looks like a time capsule: names and times from decades past, seemingly frozen in time. The bulk of those fastest- ever road and track performances were all logged over 20 years ago. In fact, the most recent entry onto the USA Top Ten list for the 50-mile distance was etched in 1990.

In 1990, Andy Jones’ 4:54 clocking for 50 miles was an impressive push toward Barney Klecker’s 4:51 set in 1981, and in the rear-view of Bruce Fordyce’s 1984 4:50:21 World Record. Conventional wisdom might’ve said, surely by the end of the [first] Bush administration, we’d have a new 50-mile standard, or a sub-twelve-hour 100-miler.

But just like that, the roadies faded away, over the horizon and out of sight.

Until this fall.

What transpired back then, we may never know. North American distance running as a whole took a precipitous dive in the 1990s, evidenced by the presence of a single American male marathoner at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

On the ultra side, there began an exodus of sorts – to the singletrack. When Klecker and Fordyce were storming the double-marathon distance in the early eighties, trail ultramarathon races comprised only a fraction of all ultra races; the rest were on the tried and true tarmac and tartan.

By the nineties, trail races were growing more and more prominent. Perhaps it was the Running Boomers, souls wayward and joints aching from two decades of pavement pounding, taking refuge on the hills and dales of the trail run. Or perhaps it was the growing legend and allure of the Original Trail Hundreds – Western States, Leadville, Old Dominion, and Vermont – that drew folks to the trails as a challenge even more epic than the safety of civilized pavement. Either way, the magnetic pole of distance running allure flipped in a geologic instant in the nineties, and with the snap of a finger, the continent’s talent shifted with it, pouring efforts and race entries to the trails.

But if the 1990s was a pole flip, the 2010s have seen a tsunami of talent flooding to the ultra distance. Perhaps, then, it is only natural that some spill over to the roads. Or is a renewed interest in road ultra racing drawing talent back?

The International Ultramarathon Association has been a strong – if isolated – draw for America’s ultrarunning talent, marked by 100K World Championship podium finishes for both men and women, individually and as a team, in recent years. Yet we aren’t seeing a carry-over to the domestic road races. In fact, the dismal showing at this year’s USA 100K championships at Mad City in May – where only eight runners, including just one woman, finished – and the outright cancellation of the World’s race in South Korea may be further evidence of ongoing malaise and decline of the road ultra. Meanwhile, global trail series – Sky Running, and the new Ultra-Trail World Tour – continue to garner more and more attention.

Just when we’re ready to hammer the final coffin nail, the cool autumn breezes blew in, and breathed new life into the roads:

Californian Jon Olsen quietly showed up to an indoor track fun run in Ottawa, Canada, setting a new North American 100-mile record at the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Ultra Classic, in September. Olsen became the first North American to break the 12-hour barrier, clocking an impressive 11:59:28.

October’s Tussey Mountainback 50-Mile – the USATF championship road event held outside State College, Pennsylvania – saw a rare head-tohead – and smoking fast – battle between Matt Flaherty and Zach Bitter, two emerging road talents. The pair dropped IAU veteran David Riddle early with their hot pace, with Flaherty emerging out front in 5:28, a mere four minutes ahead of Bitter: blazing fast for a road course that features a gravel surface and over 5,000 feet of vertical gain.

Not to be outdone, Cassie Scallon ran hard up front with the boys at Tussey, posting a course-record 6:24 on the rolling course, a winning margin by nearly an hour, and a third overall placing. That time places her in the front of the fastest 50-mile times in the world for women in 2013.

A week later, Oregonian Pam Smith – bestknown for her dominant victory at the rugged, heat-packed Western States in June – toed the baking flour starting line at the quaint Autumn Leaves 50-Mile, outside Portland, for her traditional Halloween fun run. Though bedecked in metallic silver and lilac spandex, she meant business, intending to run a World Champs-caliber effort to replace that lost by the canceled IAU event. Perhaps in homage to Katy Perry, she “roared” to an unfathomable 6:11 on the hybrid road/mud course at the pastoral Champoeg State Park. This time now places her firmly in eighth on the all-time North American list for women.

While Olsen’s mark garnered requisite attention, the 50-mile performances flew under the radar. Until November.

The Chicago Lakefront 50-mile has a storied history: the two fastest 50-mile performances ever run were clocked there – by the aforementioned Fordyce and Klecker. Zach Bitter, perhaps feeling he had unfinished business from Tussey and, as he put it, “to test [his] recovery,” signed up for Lakefront just days before the race, with the implicit feeling that he could run fast there.

And he did. Running alone on the 12.5-mile out -and-back, Zach started clicking off 6:20s, and kept going. And going. Pre-race, he did his homework: a sub 5:14 finish would put him on the Top Ten list. Facing a strong breeze and mounting fatigue, he dug down over that last lap, knowing a strong finishing push would get him there. He clocked a 5:12:36, good for Number 8 on the list, and the fastest American at the distance since 1981.

That caught our attention.

My first-ever ultramarathon was a road race, also at Autumn Leaves. Back then, it was a Western States qualifier, and that was its only draw for me. But after running that first year, something stuck. A deep allure. To the simplicity. The geometry. As such, while the trails beckoned, I returned each year to Autumn Leaves. Here is why, and also what is drawing the many runners to the roads:

Simplicity

Trail ultras have mass appeal, in part, because of the myriad variables that must be balanced. Road ultras, by nature, are simpler: consistent surfaces and conservative pitches are a stark contrast to the extremes of terrain, altitude, weather, and late nights, of the trail run. The simplicity of the road challenges runners to focus more inward. That may deter some, but it is a major draw for others.

Flaherty notes, “There are fewer variables [on the roads], making it easier to compare performances across time and geography.” He adds, “Some may say the roads are ‘boring,’ but I say that the focus simply shifts from stunning views to the struggle against your competition and your own body.”

Weakness Has Nowhere To Hide

The variability of trail racing allows one to dull the impact of their weaknesses by emphasizing their many other strengths: an inefficient flat runner might easily out-run a fitter competitor by excelling at hill running, or technical navigation.

On the roads, weakness has nowhere to hide. Pacing, stride inefficiency, and nutrition challenges are magnified in the consistent, repetitive, and high-intensity, speed-inducing road realm. As such, for many runners, they’re a truer measure of fitness – and mastery – than trail running.

Smith speaks to some of the challenges of road ultrarunning, “I think the wear and tear on your legs is much greater than a trail race. Also, running with the same gait [on a less forgiving surface] the whole race puts you at greater risk for some of the repetitive type injuries.”

The mental challenges can also be staggering. Adds Smith, “There is definitely a strong mental component, because the roads usually don’t offer the same stimulation that a trail does. Many of the races are on loop courses, which compounds the need for mental toughness not to quit when you pass through the start/finish every lap. I think attention to pacing is a much bigger deal in a road ultra since you need to maintain a fairly consistent pace even in the last miles to run your best time.”

Because of their pure nature, road ultras can represent a more equitable assessment of fitness and fortitude. Says Flaherty, “When you have a race at 11,000 feet with relentless ascents and descents, there are a select few who are going to be able to properly prepare for the endeavor. The roads are accessible and equitable. Anyone, from anywhere in the country, can compete on a level playing field.”

Speed

Roads mean speed. Period. You’re either fast, or you’re not. Your fitness has nowhere to hide. The consistency of the roads allows runners to groove a sustainable, if not blazing, pace. Indeed, the consistent nature of road ultras may be one aspect that allows for faster performances. Country road mile posts, bike path markers, loop courses, and even track ovals all allow the brain to attach itself to “The Pattern” – to compartmentalize the race into smaller, more manageable parts. Bitter’s Lakefront wasn’t 50 miles, it was four times 12.5 miles. Or eight times a 10K, for Smith at Autumn Leaves.

Bitter notes: “Maybe it’s my track background, but going as fast as possible is very motivating to me. I love trails, mountains, and beautiful scenery as much as the next person. But there is definitely something missing in that realm. I think if I ran only on trail I would be left wondering how fast I could go given a minimum of environmental hurdles.”

Smith agrees: “While I love the trails for their scenery and the unique challenges of the terrain, I still enjoy seeing how fast I can go for a particular distance. And I really like getting in that groove where you lock on a pace and just go. When you are racing a long road race, it really doesn’t matter who else is running the race with you. The clock is really your main competitor and it is very objective.”

History

The surge in trail running – in numbers, and new races – makes comparison difficult. Storied races with great record-keeping, such as Western States, allow for historical comparison, but other races – most notably new races or those with varying courses each year – make it more difficult to gauge even personal improvement, let alone historic standing.

Both Bitter and Flaherty recognize this, and value both personal and historical comparison. Says Bitter, “If I run Western States one year, and then a different mountain 100-miler the next, I don’t have as accurate of a sense of how much improvement, stagnation, or regression. A pair of flat ultras can be much easier to gauge improvement.”

Flaherty adds: “Since 2011, I’ve had my eye on the U.S. Top Ten lists for 50K, 50 miles, and 100K. I love the historical aspect of those races, where I can say ‘Wow, look at what Barney Klecker ran in 1980! He was a 2:15 marathoner, so that means I should be able to run sub-5:10:00 at my current level.’ ”

For these runners, the roads are a joyful pursuit. Should the trend continue, their performances will likely inspire more runners to return to the roots of the sport. And with that, the record books will see exciting revisions in the coming years.

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Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 18 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50/50 in October 2010, was the bronze medalist at the 2012 USATF 100K Trail Championships, and finished 9th overall at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe works at Tensegrity Physical Therapy in Eugene, Oregon.
  • Marvin Skagerberg

    Road racing differentiated from trail racing. For those who race. For the road folks as I once was, it’s all there from Pam Smith in that siimple statement: “I still enjoy seeing how fast I can go for a particular distance.” And then, you have a pretty valid idea of how you stack up against anyone in the world who has ever run the distance.

  • http://www.WaldschmidtPartners.com/ Dan Waldschmidt

    Great article, Joe. I enjoy road running over trails myself. Glad I’m not the only nut job out there. :-)