Deconstructing the Ultra Runners of the Year

Joe Uhan

A late winter tradition in the sport of ultrarunning, as tried and true as Groundhog Day, is poring over the Ultrarunning Magazine Year-End Issue, looking at the fastest races – and the fastest, best runners – from the previous year.  The debate for the year-end awards, most notably UR’s Ultra Runner of the Year (UROY), is always intense.  It seems that everyone (once they get past the geographical nuances of the award) has their own idea of who is deserving.

True to its name, Now and Then looks deeper into the award’s 33-year history, looking for patterns and characteristics – physical, intangible, and logistical –  of what it really takes to be the UROY.

Be Small…

Ultrarunners have traditionally been bigger and stronger than conventional runners, across the board.  Especially amongst the bearded men, most ultrarunners more closely resemble lumberjacks than the rail-thin road and track brethren.

However, looking more closely, many of the historic UROYs – with several modern examples – are rather diminutive.  Rob Krar, the 2013 UROY, lead the list of compact, small-bodies, but strong-legged and lunged recipients of the award.  Krar, as well as recent winners Mike Morton (2012) and Geoff Roes (2010-11) measure about five-and-a-half feet high, and 140 pounds soaking wet out the American River.  But what they lack in bulk, they make up for in big legs and bigger lungs.

Ann Trason (1988-1998, 2001) and Kami Semick (2008-09) lead the slight squad on the women’s side. Ellie Greenwood (2011-12) and Anne Lundblad (2005-06) won’t be winning any height contests, either.

…But Strong

What UROYs might lack in size, they make up for in brute strength.  When discussing the characteristics of elite-level ultramarathoners, Comrades legend Bruce Fordyce notes, anecdotally, that top ultrarunners have bigger, more muscular legs than the typical elite, east African distance runner. Indeed, a quick look at any of the UROY winners might make the uneducated mistake them for rugby players. On top of that list is mountain man Dave Mackey (2011), who would have little difficulty passing for He-Man during Halloween.

Strong, muscular arms and legs are not a requirement for UROYs, but they’re common feature.  On the women’s side, this year’s winner, Michelle Yates, is a former fitness model, and it shows – in appearance, and in her results in her rookie campaign of 2013.  Want to know what it takes to be a repeat champion – and mountain crusher – at Western States?  Look no further than the steel cables for quads powering the likes of Greenwood and Nikki Kimball (UROY 2003-04, ‘07).

It takes tremendous strength the endure and conquer modern ultras, and UROYs have it, in spades.

Toughness.

It goes without saying that UROYs must be mentally and physically tough: not only to endure the many races they run (see below) and to triumph.  UROYs must be tenacious, patient but persistent, and above all, excellent problem-solvers.  Scott Jurek (2003-05, ‘07) might have won seven Western States titles in dominant fashion, but he struggled at one point in each of them (including enduring a severe ankle sprain in his third victory in 2001).  Greenwood overcame severe nausea – and rookie uncertainty – in her first hundred mile race at Western States in 2011, emerging victorious.  This year’s winner Krar was not about to let inexperience limit his performance: he was equal parts discipline and daring during his 2013 campaign that featured gutsy front running (UROC 100K) and measured early efforts punctuated by ferocious finishes (Western States, North Face – San Fran 50M).

Indeed, toughness trumps talent, but UROYs need them both.

Race a lot, and Win a lot.

On paper, it takes a lot to get the attention and garner adulation from UROY voters.  One needs to run big, and run a lot. And win: Nearly every modern UROY must produce with wins, and a lot of them, in the same calendar year.  Most UROY winners have run six or more races in a year, and win at least three of them.

One notable exception to this rule – a  that did not win more than four to six ultras in their UROY year – was Dan Held.  In 2000, Held, a veteran road marathoner, stormed the USA 50-mile championship in  and was a close third at the IAU World 100K championships.  Both times were among the fastest run in US history, but they were also his only ultras that year, and, as it turns out, in his career: Held did not run another ultramarathon after that year, largely due to injuries sustained after Worlds.

Big Stage Performances.

UROYs must win a lot, but at least one of those victories must be a “majors”: either national or international championships, or de facto trail contests on the storied courses.

Early UROYs in the 1980s featured fast national or world-class road performances, mostly on road and track.  But by the mid-nineties, the emphasis shifted to trails.  Since then, the UROY has won one of the major 100-mile trail races, such as Western States or Hardrock, about half the time.

World championship victories, such as the IAU 100K championship, or the World 24-hour race, are critical marks for the UROY resume.  But typically these races alone – unless accompanied by an American or World mark – usually aren’t sufficient to win UROY.  Amy Sproston’s IAU victory in 2012, and Jon Olson’s 24-hour World Championships win in 2013 were not enough for either runner to ascend to the top of the UROY crop in those years.

Fresh and rested.

An interesting factor in an athlete’s UROY-winning performance year is their degree of rest. 2013 featured two runners in Yates and Krar that were fresh to ultramarathon races in 2013.  Krar had never raced over thirty miles prior to 2013, while Yates had logged only one 50-mile race, in 2012.  Moreover, Krar had a notable long injury period prior to 2010 and most recently, in the fall of 2012, had a six-week period of no running due to illness that preceded his record-setting 2013 campaign.

Even more notable was Dave Mackey, who took off nearly the entire 2010 calendar year from racing. He might have been focusing on school and family, but he was still training.  And the following year, he crushed the calendar with five big wins, a top ten showing at Western States, and a UROY award.

Another striking example of a rested, comeback UROY was Mike Morton’s 2012 win.  Morton was away from the sport for over a decade before returning with a gusto in 2010.  No doubt his rest from intense training over those many years played a critical role in his ability to train and race as hard as he has in the past several years.

Speed.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but UROYs are fast.  No matter what the distance, they are among the fastest off all-time, if not the fastest – as measured by not only victories, but course records and US and world marks.

When UROY voting began with the founding of Ultrarunning Magazine in 1981, the sport’s focus was on road races.  Since then, even with the explosion of trail and mountain running in popularity, UROY voters continue to put a premium on speed.

The early UROY winners were stunning examples of this all-out speed, and it started on the women’s side.  Early winners Marcy Schwam (1981-82) and Sandra Kiddy (1985-86) tore up the road ultra scene in the early ‘80s, frequently swapping records back and forth.  In addition to setting world best at 100 miles and 100K, in 1982, Schwam was the first woman to ever break six hours at the 50-mile distance – a rare feat, as she is one of only three women to ever do so, even thirty years later. Kiddy was nipping on her heels at both the 50M and 100K during that time, and ultimately surpassed her WR at 100 miles in 1985 – a time that still rests solidly in the top-ten list.

Then Trason came along and obliterated all those times, truly setting the tone for pure speed in the modern era.

On the men’s side, Bern Heinrich (UROY 1981, ‘83-84) showed similar speediness in his ability to erase and re-write the record books.  Heinrich was a road and track runner who, as a master, transitioned to ultramarathons and stormed the US open and World Masters recordbooks in 1983 and ‘84, notching ARs at the 100K, 100M, 200K and 24-hour events.

Across the board, speed matters for UROYs. A cursory look at the current top ten list for 100K includes, for the men, seven previous UROYs in:

  • Tom Johnson (1994-97 UROY, #1 All-time North American 100K)
  • Held (2000, #3)
  • Andy Jones (1990-91, #4)
  • Heinrich (1981, ‘83-84, #7)
  • Stefan Fekner (1988, #8)
  • Charlie Trayer (1987, #9)
  • Rich Hanna (2001, #10)

The women’s top ten 100K list includes four previous UROYs (in Trason, Greenwood, Semick, and Lundblad).

Indeed, it would seem that logging a top ten 100K mark might be a sure-fire way to the UROY ballot.

Versatility.

Modern UROY awardees are more than simply fast, tough runners.  They must be versatile.  It is not good enough to merely run fast on the roads and tracks, or be a tenacious mountain goat.  History says, you have to do it all, and do it well.

Trason is an obvious example of versatility; but that she crushed everything may speak to her other-worldly quality.  Beyond Ann, repeat winners Greenwood (2011-12), Semick (2008-09), and Anne Lundblad (2004-05) possessed tremendous versatility – dominating fast road courses over short distances to the thin-aired mountain trails.

Simply put, you have to be strong across all distances, 50K up to 24 hours, and across all terrains.  Specialists – even when posting epic performances – face an uphill battle in the eyes of the UROY voters.  Even Jurek had to stray from the mining trails of Western States to earn his UROYs.

But it can be done.  The first repeat UROYs, Bernd Heinrich, along with Schwam and Kiddy, did not stray from the roads (at a time when trail ultras were still sparse), but their absolute dominance secured them the back-to-back UROYs in the 1980s.

Be a Mad Scientist.

Despite the extreme time and energy demands of ultrarunning, seldom are ultrarunners – including UROYs – full-time runners. In fact, they may succeed at running because of their strengths and interests in other disciplines outside running.

Even at a time of greater talent and more sponsorship, neither 2013 UROY runs full-time, with Krar working full-time as a pharmacist, and Yates putting in time as a a coach and personal trainer.  They follow in a long-line of big-brained, intelligent predecessors.

Ann Trason was a scientist and educator; Dave Mackey is a physician assistant, while both Jurek and Nikki Kimball (2003-04, -07) are physical therapists.  Bernd Heinrich (1981, ‘83-84) is perhaps the most prolific scientist in the group.  He is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, after many years of work and study at UCLA and Berkeley during his peak running years of the 1908s.  He is a prolific researcher and publisher of over two dozen books on insect and bird behavior, as well as the role of running in human evolutionary history.

Top ultramarathoners are survivors, and survivors must have a wealth of mental resources.  It is more than coincidence, then, that the best runners in the sport tend to be most scholarly, analytical, and clever.

Predicting the 2014 UROY

Given those factors, perhaps we can boil down the requirements as follows:

  • Be compact (<5’8” for men, <5’4” for women)
  • Be strong, with well-defined leg musculature
  • Be tenacious, stubborn problem-solvers
  • Run at least six races, winning at least four, including at least one major (World mark, or major trail race)
  • Run 100 miles and win, preferably Western States, Hardrock, or Ultra Trail du Mount Blanc
  • Run a fast 100K, good enough for the All-Time North American Top-Ten List
  • Be educated: have a degree – and work at least part-time – in the sciences

And, perhaps most importantly:

- Be well-rested going into the “Year”.

Armed with these criteria, it makes predicting the next UROY a little easier – or at least more interesting.

For 2014, on the women’s side, a healthy, strong and fresh Greenwood would – based on these metrics – once again sweep the sport – and the UROY votes.

For the men, an intriguing candidate for 2014 might be Zeke Tiernan.  The veteran trail runner from the thin air of Colorado fits many of aspects of the UROY mold: compact but strong, smart, tough and couragious.  But most importantly, he’s fresh.  Tiernan took off the 2013 season; continuing to run, but abstaining from racing.  But he intends to return in 2014.  HIs debut at Red Hot Moab on February 15 should be a good indicator of the strength of this prediction.  He’s also a teacher, and if you ever looked at him…he does resemble a Mad Scientist.

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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.
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    Daniele Cherniak, UROY in 1999, is also a scientist, with a Ph.D. in physics and numerous publications in the field of geochemistry.