Sunday, January 18, 2009

High Level week for the "non high level athlete"

Rocking the new sponsor, Moeben. Best sleeves ever. And in Giraffe for the Giraffe.

"I just love ultra (marathon), but there's not a lot of high-level athletes doing it." Those are the words of Josh Cox, elite marathoner who over the weekend attempted to break the (unofficial) World Record in the 50k distance. He did not succeed in that, nor did he even win the marathon that hosted his effort. He did set the American Record, which is great. What I don't think is great is the above quote. I know that there has long since been a which is harder, better, etc between ultras and marathons battle. Marathoners believe that it is merely a matter of desiring to run the extra mileage, but don't since it is not worth it. There is no money in ultras, there is money in marathoning. So stopping at 26.2 is a financially responsible decision, furthermore it IS less distance on your body. Ultrarunners know its much more than just a matter of speed. Completing a competitive ultra takes a lot more (as Josh Cox found in this race as he experienced numerous incidents of stomach trouble).

I believe that there is not one throne, one sport, one distance for the "high level athlete". While the battle between the what distance is harder, better, etc rages on, I know for myself I struggle with finding my own place, my distance, my focus. Marathoning is about pure speed. Especially stepping down to the marathon from the ultra distance, it is a matter of maintaining pure speed. I feel that ultras challenge me more. I feel that it is harder to balance the factors of an ultra than the relative simplicity of a marathon. No, its not simple to run a 2:40, but it is even less simple to successfully run 100 miles. While I find myself trying to focus on the pursuit of a 2:40 marathon time and being fast while I am young, I can't seem to let go of wanting to tackle trail 50s and, yes, run another 100. I have and continue to train like a marathoner for the most part. I do high mileage weeks, with longer long runs. I like to be fast, but I really like to go long. And that brings me back to the original point. "High Level Athletes" Josh Cox? Have you met my friends and teammates Michael Wardian and Kami Semick? Have you tried to keep up with Uli Steidl or tried to wear down Nikki Kimball? Is your VO2Max anywhere close to Matt Carpenter's? Have you gone for a run up a mountain with Scott Jurek? While the talent pool may be smaller in ultras due to the financial draw down to the shorter distances, that does not mean that the sport lacks "high level athletes". We "non-high level athletes" run Olympic Trial Qualifying times as training runs AND at the age of 43 (Kami Semick). We "non-high level athletes" break a different American Record every weekend and win a National Championship at numerous distances and surfaces (Michael Wardian). I guess they are the few "not alot" (but some) Cox is talking about. Cox's comment rubs me strangely because it hits me amongst my own battle of marathon vs. ultra.

Fact of the matter is, I have run all my best marathons as a product of my ultra training. They have either been a training race for an ultra or even more miraculous, as a recovery (as my CIM 2:49) was this year. On top of ultrarunners throwing down crazy marathon times as cheeky training runs or fun sprints (look at Sean Meissner's CIM time this past December), we do it amidst schedules that have us racing marathon or further distance more than a dozen times a year. And that is the elites. The mid and back packers in ultras often run numerous more times per year, per month, sometimes even weekly. And everyone of us does it while holding down full time jobs, having families and lives. Ah the luxury of being a sponsored marathoner!(that is not to say there aren't elite marathoners in the same situation, at all, but the top top are just training).

All this I know and yet I continue to try to make myself focus on the marathon distance. I have been resisting. Jonathan keeps asking me, "are you in for Vermont or not". And I cannot decide. Everyone says, "you are young, be fast. There is plenty of time to go long later". But then I look at the elites of the ultra world, and they are nearly 20 years my senior and not only faster in ultras, but in marathons too. So doesn't that just mean I should just have my cake and eat it too? Do what I have done for the first two years of my ultra running career and just jump in feet first? Should I let my ability to perhaps go fast dictate my goals? Am I only a high level athlete if I am pursuing a sub-ultra goal? That seems to be the sentiment. You are crazy, wacky and hard to understand if you run ultras, but you are high level if you subtract the (minimum) 5 miles and participate in a popularized event. Wasn't it just 20 or so years ago that marathoners were looked upon as being the crazies? Why is it that sports and their participants seem to feel the desire to minimize the other sports and distances in order to assert that they are the best, hardest, etc. I don't see it that way. Which is why I struggle. Why I go back and forth with my finger over the mouse, hovering over the register button for this summer's Vermont 100 or Where's Waldo or Chuckanut or Leona Divide.

I had a phenomenal week this week. I went over 100 miles for the second week in a row and sit here without even a tinge of soreness and an abundance of energy. Am I high level this week because my efforts point towards a successful race at Boston? Or I am not because I will run a 6o mile run this Thursday to promote the Seattle Public Library, Orcas Island 50k and Napa Valley Marathon all before Boston? I averaged mid 6 min/mile pace for all my non recovery runs this week and a week ago got confirmation that I was physically able to train to a 2:40 at this moment, and a 2:30 eventually (marathon). And yet, am I high level since my ultimate goal is not the Boston Marathon, but the World Cup 100k. Sure I am harping on this point, but I am curious to know. My teammates and I represent our country in a World Championship, this year we (women) got 2nd place as a team in the WORLD and yet we are not treated (by funding and by attitude) as if we are as elite, as high level.

There are many factors, many sides to the argument. I think that Josh Cox's comment is arrogant and ignorant. I have absolute faith that someone, such as Michael Wardian, will come along and surpass Cox's record and all while not occupying to privileged position of just "being a runner" that Cox does. Wardian will do it while working a demanding full time job and raising two young (including a newborn) children with his wife, and I am sure he'll do it a week after winning some marathon or national championship. What it comes down to for me is there is nothing lost in respecting others for their achievements. If you could only imagine you could do it better, but don't have the guts to prove it, don't cast down those who HAVE done it. We are all worthy of respect for achieving our own goals.

As for me, I'll keep mulling it over figuring out where I belong. But I am young, I have that luxury. For what it's worth, if focusing on marathoning means I have to buy into Cox like sentiments, than I think I will stick with ultras, where the community is strong, the people genuine and the soup is always warm on the side of a mountain in the middle of the night until the last person has come through. I am an ultramarathoner, I know that now after two years, despite the numerous marathon wins and PRS. And while we may never earn millions for our efforts, while we may only ever earn belt buckles, tshirts and cofffee cups, the one thing we should have WELL earned is the respect of our (shorter) distance peers. And even if we haven't, I am sure any ultrarunner will tell you, that doesn't matter much to them either.

So many new sleeves, not enough arms!

Jonathan rocking the Montrails after a 43 mile weekend.

The bestest everest after a sunny Sunday loop on Cougar.


  1. Drs. Cynthia and DavidJanuary 19, 2009 at 5:36 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly that the comment was arrogant and ignorant, and really self-serving. If you've decided ultras are too hard or don't pay enough or don't fetch enough glory, then knock them and their devotees. Some people just want to please the crowds, who are also somewhat ignorant (not that many spectators at ultra events!). I often wonder how the fast marathoners would perform compared to the best ultrapeople. I doubt it would be pretty. Raw speed isn't enough, and training for roads isn't the same as training for hills.

    That said, I don't see why you can't play in both sandboxes, to some extent. And maybe some marketing is in order, publicize the ultra events more?

    Glad to hear your training is going so well. Good luck!


  2. Journey to a CentumJanuary 20, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    Elite Ultra runners must be the Rodney Dangerfield of athletes!

    For me nothing is more enjoyable than rambling down a single track trail in some PNW forest. As you mentioned the marathon is all about being able to hydrate and maintain speed. Sure you have some strategy with regard to hills but ultra racing is much more complex. Trail conditions, downfall, mud, fueling all fall into play. This complexity draws what I would consider a more intellectual athlete capable of putting the whole puzzle together and make sub 24 hour 100 mile races seem easy.

    For me marketing ultras is a double edged sword. While the elite athletes deserve attention and perhaps some nice cash incentives I was initally attracted to the sport because of the low key attitudes and small crowds. I was tired of the hyped up super competitive venue of many marathons. Can't keep a good thing quite for long as is evident from the popularity of the PNW Fat Ass races and other ultra distance events on the West Coast. I am certain that if sponsors offered a $100,000 cash prize for first place in the Vermont 100 we would soon have a champion from Kenya.

    I continue to "play in both sandboxes" but my true love (besides Michelle) is ultra running.

    Enjoy Boston and tear it up!

  3. Drs. Cynthia and DavidJanuary 20, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    And then he had to go and set a record in an ultra event! Does that mean he doesn't consider himself a high level athlete? or maybe he's decided ultras are worth doing after all...

  4. It is definitely a double edged sword. I mean we have enough trouble getting into our events as it is. I guess I just wish that people such as Cox (who made a contrived event for his purpose) didn't feel they had to tear down the community/distance and talk poorly about it. After all, instead of saying "wow, I had to go through what EVERY ultrarunner goes through and I didn't even have to do it in a 'real' 50k race". We like our ultras they way they are, big events make most of us shudder. That said, I think that the accomplishments that are achieved in our sport should not be so drastically overlooked (like for instance Kami getting 2nd in the world at the 100k and there was not even a note on RunnersWorld or when I ran the fastest time for an American Women in 10 years in the 50k and it didn't even make a blip on the radar).

    Double edges sword for sure. But I guess I just want to be able to not only play in both sandboxes, but have my (Gluten Free/Egg Free)cake and eat it too!

  5. You go fast, and you go far, Devon, and eat a few more cakes too! I am so amazed at you, Sean, Kami, Nikki, Hal and so, so many, you guys are blessed, and you work super-hard, so don't focus on some comment, step it over and do what brings you joy.
    And best on your Library run!

  6. I say give Josh a free entry into Way Too Cool and see how close to Uli's 3:18:17 he gets. If he finishes in the top 3, he'll get a free-ride into Western States where he can really show the Ultra world how the "high-level runners" do it.

    FWIW, Josh Cox did complete an impressive run and he does have amazing abs.

    Cheers, Paul

  7. Paul- yes, it was an impressive run no matter how you slice it and he does have really nice abs. He just didn't need to diminish the entire ultra world afterwards. I would like to see him go up against Uli's record though or try his hand at WS. If he is complaining of stomach troubles in a flat fast 50k, he would be in for a treat at WS!! Don't think that will happen though. He's my facebook friend though, perhaps I will pass on the suggestion....

  8. I just looked and Uli's marathon PR is 2:13:56 and Josh's marathon PR is 2:13:55. Would make for a very interesting comparison if Cox would do an (actual) ultra (not just the distance).

  9. Devon, you yourself said that the talent pool is smaller in ultras, and I think that's all Josh meant. Sure, he could have chosen his words more carefully so as to sound more respectful of the ultra community, but maybe we shouldn't get too hung up on the wording if his basic point is valid. To cite a somewhat similar example, recently referred to me as "near-elite" (as opposed to truly elite). While I wasn't exactly flattered by this adjective, the guy simply meant that some other ultramarathoners are at a higher level than me. (Uli and Scott were his two examples.) And he's right, so I didn't fret about his use of "near-elite." I feel similarly about Josh's reference to "high-level"....


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