Growing Pains - Page 4
25-time sub-24-hour Western States 100-miler finisher and WS 100 Board President, Tim Twietmeyer (pictured at the 2006 WS 100) says demand for races is at an all-time high. Photo by Luis Escobar.
With more and faster runners entering the sport, the talent pool has deepened, and records are crumbling quicker than melting Patagonian glaciers. At the same time, racers are clamoring for true championships. After the 2008 Western States lottery, when several elite runners failed to gain entry, discussion snowballed at www.wasatchspeedgoat.com. The main driving force was the desire for a true championship-caliber race featuring all the top runners, lottery and qualifiers aside.
Helping to fuel this issue is a changing competitive landscape. Kyle Skaggs, who shattered the Hardrock 100 record in 2008 by over two hours, and a tsunami of others who have stormed onto the scene in recent years, are redefining what is possible. They bring collegiate cross-country pedigrees and beefed-up training regimens to the sport, and that’s quickened the pace at which records are falling:
- Anton Krupicka, 24, churned out two of the top three fastest times ever at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2006 and 2007, plus new records at the 2007 Collegiate Peaks 50-miler (Colorado) and Moab Red Hot 50K in 2008 (Utah).
- Not to be outdone by his brother, Kyle, Erik Skaggs, 26, won the prestigious Quad Dipsea 28.4-Miler, coming within 38 seconds of the “untouchable” record [set by Carl Anderson in 1992].
- A fresh crop of women runners like 24-year-old Jenn Shelton (2008 American River 50 winner) and more seasoned newcomers like Susannah Beck, 39, and Anita Ortiz, 44, are giving traditional favorites a run for their money. Beck took the 2008 White River 50 USATF Championship—with a course record, no less.
With due respect to the sport’s fresh blood, the latest rush of new records actually began to pick up the pace five years ago, when sub-2:30 marathoners like Uli Steidl, Greg Crowther and Matt Carpenter embraced the sport. On the women’s side, stars like Nikki Kimball and Kami Semick—perhaps reacting to more competitive race fields—continue to break record after record.
“Suddenly, so many of us feel really slow,” says 30-year-old Bryon Powell from Washington, DC, host of the popular blog iRunFar.com.
So what’s the problem with runners ripping it up? Well, with so many races vying for attention—from USATF Trail Championships (for 50K, 50-Mile, 100K and 100-Mile distances) to The North Face Endurance Challenge events to any Montrail Ultra Cup race—it’s difficult to (1) find a consensus on a true championship race, and (2) provide a big enough carrot to attract enough elite runners to make one crown legitimate.
The biggest carrot thus far has been The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, a 50-mile dash for cash that awards $10,000 to the winning male and female and $4,000 for second place. Although this is still an event in its infancy—2008 is its second running—it’s already drawn some never-before-seen matchups, including an epic showdown between Matt Carpenter and Uli Steidl in 2007. Other “championship” payouts range from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 for a USATF Championship to $2,500 cash for the Montrail Ultra Cup.
Burrell has long been an advocate for elite competition. “We need to recognize the people who have dedicated their lives to running really long distances,” he says.
Yet even some elites aren’t sold on the idea of one singular championship as a cure-all for the sport. Take Jasper Halekas, who won the 2007 USATF 100-Mile Trail Championship and finished third at this year’s 50-Mile title race. “I can’t decide whether the ultra community would really be any better with one universally recognized championship,” he says. “I guess it’s better for the one person who wins that race, but does it really do anything for anyone else? Especially given the iconoclastic, do-your-own-thing ethic that seems to pervade ultrarunning.”
One idea posed by Burrell is to create an ultra version of the existing World Marathon Majors, where the top several ultramarathons form a circuit that awards points, culminating in a true championship that changes hands each year. To ensure the inclusion of top racers, the races would either allow only elite runners or would agree to set aside a generous number of entries for elite runners seeking entry at any time.
And then there’s the issue of whether other runners actually care about the top level in the sport—and those who have a realistic chance of carrying home an oversized novelty check. Do middle-of-the-packers care about a true championship?
Even Kyle Skaggs, who stands to win money at championship races, says, “That’s not the biggest concern for me. I do it because I love it.”
Not Gary Knipling, a 65-year-old runner from Mason Neck, Virginia, with over 75 finishes under his belt. “I would guess less than 10 percent of runners actually pay attention to championship races,” he says. “They don’t have any meaning to me.”