Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Where's the sport's ideal finish line?

Martin Fritz Huber wrote a short but entertaining piece for Outside Online defending a thesis that, while addressing a moot argument, arises again and again in distance running circles: Regardless of how physiologically impressive the most celebrated feats in ultramarathon running may be, the efforts of world-class track-distance specialists -- and for Fritz Huber's purposes, top milers in particular -- are undeniably superior by applicable athletic measures.

Though the author's arguments -- some of which are cheeky -- are compelling enough, I didn't need to examine them to agree with his premise, which in turn was inspired by a very accomplished ultrarunner, Rickey Gates, having proposed the same essential thing. In my view, a single sub-four-minute mile by a man (or if you prefer, a sub-four-minute 1,500 meters by a woman) is a better sporting achievement than most of the top performances in the ultrarunning world.

I should try to excise the nastiness out of this up front, although without the legion of trolls populating Internet message boards who routinely scoff at ultrarunners for everything from their lack of basic speed* to their attire, I probably wouldn't have to. So here it is: To proclaim one thing superior to another in no way relegates the lesser thing to the realm of the trivial. The fact that I consider Pedro Martinez to have been a far better pitcher in his prime years with the Boston Red Sox than Roger Clemens was in his own salad days in Beantown is not a derogation of Roger Clemens. The comparison here is between two all-time Major League greats. And I agree wholeheartedly that the best ultramarathoners in the world are great athletes.

But if you have ever watched a field of world-class milers go at it -- especially in person -- you might concur that there is something undeniably stirring about watching a group of people who have already been circling a track at better than fifteen miles per hour pick it up even more, with the best of them often posting final laps in times that would win the boys' open 400 meters in most high-school meets. Most of us understand that while we could perhaps go to the local facility and run an all-out mile at a speed that would impress all of our friends and neighbors and a good many fellow runners, this represents at best a crude imitation of what the likes of Matt Centrowitz and Jennifer Simpson do. There is in fact an appalling, even humorous gap between, for example, what I was able to accomplish on my best running day -- which was good enough to get me within two percent of the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard -- and what world-class runners accomplish, even if a 2:24 marathon is itself probably in the top one-tenth of one percent of marathon performances ever recorded. Yeah, it's very lonely at the top, more so statistically than poetically.

But it's not really about the numbers; those merely provide a frame of reference for what we're witnessing when we watch the best tracksters fly. Do read Fritz Huber's whole excellent piece, but this is its key element:
When the goal is merely to finish, it’s logical to assume that the longer the race, the more formidable the task... 
But while surviving an ultra (or, for that matter, a boring old “regular” marathon) can be a gratifying item to cross off your bucket list, it shouldn’t obscure the fact that, as [Rickey] Gates notes, on the hierarchy of running achievement, longer doesn’t automatically mean more difficult. Another way of putting this is that it’s less about what you run and more about how you run.
The piece goes on to describe the reasons some people perceive virtually any ultramarathon finish as intrinsically better than any mile finish, but stripping out the gimmickry that's sunk its tentacles into competitive running (a marathon a day for an entire geological epoch! 100 straight hours of running without sleep, food or flatulence!), it's also worth scoping out what's happening at the higher end.

I was second in a national-championship "ultra" in 2004 -- the U.S. 50K road championship. (I use quotation marks because it's difficult to defend the argument that a 31.1-mile race on very gently rolling pavement bears an honest relationship to the types of races most people think of when the word "ultramarathon" is mentioned.) I managed this despite averaging barely better than 6:00 per mile, and I wasn't in close to my own best shape at the time. Any number of 2:15 marathoners could have showed up in Georgia that day and won the race in an effort consistent with a somewhat ambitious training run. But for 500 bucks, why would anyone have bothered?

This relates to the heart of the difference between "standard" distance running and the longer events Ultrarunning has attracted some genuine talent in more recent years -- Max King (2:14 marathon) and Camille Herron (2:37) come to mind -- but it will probably never attract world-class talent. The root reasons are almost entirely economical. Perhaps Haile Gebrselassie (2:03:59) and Paula Radcliffe (2:15:28) could have trained for and obliterated the world records for 50K and even 100K in their primes, or even after their best days were clearly behind them. But the incentive for top athletes to attempt this was, and remains, practically nil. There is almost no money in it compared to top road-race purses, there are no Olympic ultramarathon events, and the risk of injury -- not so much in the training for ultras but in the races themselves -- is tremendous. (The two athletes I cited were often hobbled by this and that physical setback as it was.) There is also the opportunity cost: When an elite runner in his prime trains for, races, and recovers from an an ultra, that's six months of his athletic life he could have spent doing something far more lucrative and prestigious. Even the best distance runners aren't usually set for life financially by age 30 or 35, like most baseball, basketball, football and even golf standouts are.

But the lack of money is not the whole story. Even if someone could pound out the Western States 100 at 7:00 pace and crush the current record by over three hours, this simply wouldn't be as amazing to watch at any point as a 3:45 mile or a 12:45 5,000 meters is. Perhaps in part because of the limitations of the human attention span, there is no equivalent of a 500-foot home run or 360-degree slam dunk in the world of ultras. The same may be true of not just ultras but running competitions across the board, but at the level of emotional resonance, the mile comes closer.

I think that the fundamental reason this issue is even controversial is that a lot of people, particularly in the U.S., are inclined to attach virtue to suffering, however self-imposed that suffering is.
All of this serves to distort what "impressive" really represents in athletics. Call it a religious impulse, or maybe just the human impulse that first produced the tenets of most religions in the first place. Without veering into a sanctimonious treatise on the underpinnings of Christianity (Jesus died for your sins, so that you may be redeemed) or other faiths, it is plain that American culture is largely fueled by the idea that success not only relies on sometimes-painful personal sacrifices, but may even be defined by these sacrifices.

The distinction is not subtle. It is one thing to observe that someone has achieved greatness only by enduring a modicum of pain and ugliness, but quite another to declare something great because it was a painful and ugly endeavor. And most sports fans, including running fans, would rather watch something elegant and great than ugly and great.

* Notice that this is a great example of slippery-slope reasoning. If we milers and 5K types are inclined to diss the best ultrarunners for hiding out in events that require no leg speed, how might top sprinters judge our events?


  1. I was on the 2003 USA World Cup 100k team with your buddy Verrington. Three of the 5 of us were over 40 and Danny was a grandfather by then. The simple fact was I saw the lack of competition in those adventures and made a run at the team. I'm not trying to put down any athlete on those teams because to me they are great runners, but when someone like me runs 3:10:58 at the Smokey Mountain Marathon in 2000 all out and then somehow makes the team 3 years later proves your point. It was a great experience for a bum like me. There have been a number of people from MA and WI on these teams. Every one of them far better runners than I'd ever have dreamed of being. To be perfectly honest it is humbling to this day when people bring up the fact that yes...I was actually on a USATF team. I still have a hard time believing it.

    I do run ultras. It is one long cross country race and as an older guy it can be fun running smart and weaving your way up through the ranks over the last 20 miles....sometimes. At heart I'm just a runner and do all distances. But as you said elsewhere, who really combs the race results to see I blazed a 20:00 5k? Personally I do know a few ultra runners who appear to like the attention it brings. Which I find comical when your 55 year old neighbor can get in before you. This is part of the reason I still like to leg it out when I can. Just trying to keep people honest...all in a perfectly legal and binding sense.

  2. Anyone can go in to Cumberland Farms and eat half a sandwich and ask for a refund because it tasted bad. Anyone can pocket toilet paper from Porta potties. Anyone can grab extra straws from Dunkin Donuts. I am convinced Beck that these ultra runners.......Walpole State Prison! Put em away!

  3. I knew this one SOB. He parked his car up in Belchertown ma years back somewhere and ran all the way to nice and very liberal Northampton Ma and acted all sweet with them puppy eyed waitresses then skips out without paying after guzzling ginger rails at the bar for 2 hours. Laughing and giggling silly on his run back!

  4. This is a Great American Running Blog Beck! One of the BEST in the Country. Your expert writing for the month of July 2017 was rated "Best In The United States." Thank-You Very Much Kevin. TPR

  5. Hey Beck!I bet you miss Bryant a lil. C'mon You must remember them great Blackstone Millville teams. True Powerhouse. I lived in Webster down the road from them and really,really, tried to beat as many of them runners as possible. Let's face it they had a great coach who took them up to New Hampshire and gave them some great coaching at them camps. When they were in your house, Runners World for that crazy streak of winning hundreds of races in a row. We in Webster were the powerhouse back then in the Border Conference and I was the Captain of the team for 2 years. Our Coach was great. Worked hard. But I never listened to him. Should have. I was all about sprinting the first quarter mile on Webster Lake's course. You needed to sprint very fast in Webster back in the day. We had Nathaniel Bar-Jonah.