Sunday, March 23, 2008
The Ultra Running Scene & Scott Jurek: Over-Rated?
Everybody who reads this blog knows my personal hero is Ted Corbitt, who also happens to be the father of ultrarunning - and yes I've seen the video clip of Ted introducing Scott Jurek. I've never met Yiannis Kouros (historic Ultrarunning superstar) or Scott Jurek (modern day superstar), but I have spoken with Pam Reed and Dean Karnazes several times, as well as many others not so well known. I've never ran an Ultra however everyone who has tells me they're easier than racing marathons. Why? You run easy - and just endure, so they tell me. I know few ultrarunners that train more than 40 - 60 miles a week in fact. (countered to marathoners that as a matter of practice clock 120 - 140 miles / week). It strikes with me that ultra events comprise distortion & outright nonsense - and is this probably the reason the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refuses to consider ultrarunning as a credible sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympics (Yiannis Kouros & others have tried to get it ultrarunning in the olympics for years to no avail). Running easy for 50 miles or 100 miles is clearly a lot easier on the body than actually racing for 26.2 with total effort as many run 5 or 6 of their events per year (at a competitive level). Most informed people know competitive marathoners can only run 2 or at the very most 3 marathons a year for reasons directly related to the rigors of the endeavor. It's a function of physiology - the human body & time. It takes several months to prepare to race a marathon, 2 or 3 weeks to taper, 5 - 7 days to nutritionally prepare.....all to have a peak performance on race day. That challenge necessitates a regime and time that does not exist in ultramarathoning. Competitive ultramathoners run these events as the come, with no particular regime prerequisite, even the best of the sport. After racing a marathon it takes numerous weeks for the body to recover from a myriad of damage & stress (microtears, biochemical alterations, etc - all well documented science.) A similar physical penalty to the body does not exist in ultrarunning. If you trot 100 miles one weekend, all you need is a couple of weeks downtime and you can trot another 100 miles - at a competitive level. Ultrarunning attracts an "older class" of runner - like those Ultrarunners above on the right, or those on the right running through the night - or that happy fellow below on the left. It does not strike as a competitive arena drawing talented runners (basically there's no money in it, and it consumes a lot of time). These fact have proven to be an effective barriers of entry in drawing the interest of talented runners (they're busy racing marathons and their professional lives). The Superstar of the sport is Scott Jurek but he racked up most of his wins as a 20-something (and 30, 31) racing against mostly guys old enough to be his father. That's a basic fact of the events and who enters them in general. Jurek's known for winning the premier event in ultrarunning, "BadWater" (a 135 mile race) - however what's not widely known is for example there were 67 finishers that completed this race in '05, 17 were under age 40, a whopping 50 were over age 40 - it strikes with me that Jurek's enjoyed a leveraged advantaged playing field being one of the few youthful runners - and this has been the case for the bulk of his wins. Furthermore the men's fields in these events commonly leave much to be desired in the way of running talent (it's taboo for me to say this - but it illustrates as true) - take a look at that very same crowning event "Badwater" '05. The fact are in 2005 the women were actually faster than the men. It's true looking at both the mean and the median, the women were faster. There were a total of 67 finishers (54 men and 13 women) the 54 men had a mean finish time of 44:43:45 and a median of 44:24:33. The 13 women had a mean finish time of 43:19:46 and a median of 41:31:15. Kudos to the women! (draw your own conclusions on what this speaks to of the caliber of the male runners in that race). Now Scott Jurek has been able to dominate ultrarunning to the extent where it's silly and makes no sense, actually hurts the sport in my opinion. Note Jurek was a very good Marathon runner and I don't believe many ultramarathoners were very good marathoners - they don't come from the running base he came from. Hence Scott Jurek enters the sport from an advantaged base (being a very good marathoner) couple this fact with the fact that he's competing largely guys who were not very good marathoners and mostly guys old enough to be his father and that all equates to a win, after win, after win. I believe Jurek's marathon PR is a 2:29. I've examined his WAVA age gradiing and Jurek's 100km and marathon time line up exactly on the WAVA charts. I suspect this too would play out for other marathoners who (if they chose to) run an ultra - and that strongly suggest a high level of mediocrity defines the very top of Ultrarunning in the context of competitive running . Why do I say this? Perspective: note the biggest star in Ultrarunning, Scott Jurek, was never talented enough to qualify to run in the Olympic Trials for example - by serious margin. I was at the '08 US Olympic team trials in '07 and the "A" qualifying standard is 2:20:00 for men (but a 2:22 will get you in). That day I saw 85 runners clock a faster marathon time than Jurek's ever clocked and there are several hundred runners in the U.S. that can go sub 2:29:00 - Jurek's best mark. Like Jurek - these runners could very likely extend their marathon talent to the ultra scene and I would suspect their WAVA tables would line up rather closely to their marathon times - just as Jurek's has. But these guys don't have interest in racing ultras (no money in the sport, and few people have time) and if Kenyans & Ethiopians entered these events? Game over for the current crop of runners on day one. To his credit Jurek was clever - able to scope an area of running wherein he could leverage his youth, talent, and exploit the nature of the sport drawing older runners - and become the King - and he did it, I applaud that. But it must be said, Jurek's enjoyed an advantaged playing field being one of the younger guys and as legit and solid marathoner before Ultra-running - he can clean up in a field of "weekend warrior" caliber runners. Jurek has not had to compete against guys like him, guys who can go 2:29:00 at the Marathon. When guys his own age have showed up, even ultra neophytes like Akos Konya has a shot of knocking off Scott Jurek - as he nearly did in '06. Some backgroud, this is a guy, Akos Konya, who working 60 hours / week as a restaurant manager, little time to run or train, he entered this big race, Badwater, with only 1 ultra under his belt and almost beat the Superstar of the sport Scott Jurek. Per the reports "Had Konya not pulled over at 1 a.m. (a 135 mile race) Tuesday and napped for 30 minutes in a sleeping bag, he might have won. Scott Jurek of Seattle, the seven-time Western States winner, won the race in 25 hours, 41 minutes". Konya, this neophyte took a nap for a half hour during race, lost winning by 17 minutes. Speaking of Badwater & Jurek - that guy on the right laying in that cooler with ice covering him (during the Badwater race - this is a technique he uses to cool off during this 135 mile Badwater race in the heat of the desert. Anyone can go to the Badwater website and see the rules state and I quote " So-called "cooling vests" or other types of artificial / technological cooling systems may not be worn or utilized by race entrants. Here's a comment from Jay Birmingham, Badwater Hall of Fame member:"If it uses technology that negates the envioronment, e.g., acts as a refrigerator, uses chemical reactions from manmade materials, and the like--it should be prohibited. A cooler is technology designed to refrigerate & retain cooling - Jurek typically as a matter of practice as you see in the photo lays bags of ice in the cooler, then lays in it with his support crew laying bags of ice on top of him - utilizing this technology - a cooler's thermodynamics to create a cooling chamber. Is it not clear how Jurek violates the rules of Badwater to the letter? I wonder why they never disqualify him? I've always wonder if he was simply viewed as as above the rules of the race. However the single most glaring fact about Ultrarunning that in my opinion gives the sport a "black eye" and illustrates beyond any doubt how overhyped these events are and loaded with "marginal" running talent? Well this was when Scott Jurek won The Western States 100, and then 2 weeks later won the Badwater 135 miler in 2005. This is ridiculous and a poor statement for ultra running courses & the quality of the running talent. 1). I just posted a blog entry publishing an article by Donald Buraglio where he described the Western States 100 Ultra as "the Toughest, Grueling, Unforgiving, Ferocious, "Hardest day of running they will ever encounter". I saw this as a very typical "ultra self-aggrandizing" about their Herculean task and what mighty men they are. 2). Badwater 135 Mile is truly supposed to be the very most grueling - physically and mentally demanding - race in the U.S. - I agree with this. Well then how is it that a man can run the Western States 100 at a level that's required to win the event - indeed win it - and then be physically capable and ready to race another ultra - truly the most grueling 135 ultra mile race, Badwater, - 13 or 14 days later? 1) Where was Jurek's fatigue from the Western States 100? 2) Ultra racing does not require any recovery period - no regime whatsoever - and it's clearly not possible to be physically marginalized by racing the Western States 100 - you can come out of the Western States Ultra 100 with no recuperation and recover price to pay - fit and able to race 2 weeks later in fact, like Scott Jurek and 3) It seems to me if the Western States was demanding, and you ran hard, Jurek should have entered Badwater seriously physically marginalized and other runners should have whippped up on him. That did not happen - most of those other runners were old enough to be his father, the Western States 100 is clearly not so difficult that it renders you fatigued and unable to competitively race an ultra just days later - there was no competition in either event - the very integrity of ultrarunning as an event suffers (event difficulty, talent of the field, etc.) when a single guy can not only enter but win the 2 so-called most grueling events, within a span of 2 weeks - it's a farce on that fact alone, I don't even need to talk about the - the Sri Chimnoy runners - do I? I've learned the ultra crowd does not like it when their events are examined under the lens of scrutiny - for their athleticism - field of talent. There's a huge "camradery" factor in these events, - an esprit de core - a pride in shared pain, sacrifice, etc. they frown upon anyone who stands out from the whole - Dean Karnazes is not the superstar within the sport - but by far the best known - yet he is despised in general by most of the Ultra running community for this very reason - standing out - and people in the community know there is a serious and extreme dislike of Dean Karnazes for what they characterize as "Grand Standing". I've spoken with Dean about this - I say it's because he's smart, a Yale man, handsome, a master promoter, does stunts and has been very successful at promoting himself in the context of ultrarunning. I like Dean Karnazes a lot in fact for these reasons. Now you see the blog I posted about David Horton (above on the right)? That's your typical Ultrarunner that I see - an old guy - who gets off on the shared misery and pain of it all. Why is it a lot of ultrarunners don't even look athletic? have you seen them? Just go over to Youtube and search "Ultra Race" or the like and take a look yourself. It's not just the men - I've met and spoken with one of the women's Superstars, Pam Reed - the lady does not even look healthy in person - does she? Can easily pass for 10 - 15 years older than she is - even on the women's side of these events - there is just little actual running talent in the fields - and that's seen when in '05 Pam Reed who at age 42 not only wins the Master's Women's field (Women 40+ in age) at the crown jewel event - The Badwater 135 mile race - she also wins the overall field of all women of any age, WTF? This speaks to the poor fields of women in their 20's and 30's in these events - sorry, Pam Reed wining the overall does not reflect well on the caliber of talent of women runners at Ultra races. So I'm not sure what to make of these events - and I'd really like to one day read why the International Olympic Committee dismisses them as worthy of inclusion in the Olympics. I'm the same age & w/the same body as Dean Karnazes - have spoken w/him about entering these - he tells me it all breaks down to being blessed with certain ideal mechanics to run - of which I am - and I thank I can do these events well - and be far more distinguished than I am in marathon running (which is just another face in the crowd). However these events hold no appeal for me. From all I gather form those who engage in them - they boil down to and are motivated by a "Self against the Environment" type of personal challenge, quest and feat. However Jurek is very competitive and keeps keen awareness of his standing with his support team relative to the competition during these Ultra races. Ultrarunners though are big into characterizing the terrain, elevation grades, blah blah blah, I hold not desire to challenge terrain and land - I'm still driven and interested in competing against other runners at standards. I can cherry pick marathons and win the Masters class if I wanted to - but that would mean nothing to me. Whenever I speak to ultra runners - I learn they lost interest and appeal in the Marathon. I always want to ask them, "Have you ever ran one (marathon) well"? I find ultrarunners commonly got into the sport by saying they lost interest in the marathon - without disclosing if they ever ran marathons well. It strikes with me that they've chosen to give up on realizing marathon goals - in favor of what are more so characterized as "feats". For example, the stuff that David Horton does? Entirely feat achievement by people with time. Take 1 look at David Horton - he cannot actually race against real runners on any trail, real runners just don't have the time or interest - David Horton does - hence when he asserts he set the "speed record" - it's very laughable in many senses as who in the hell is trying to do it? Who has the time? I see far more fulfillment in goals to be reached in the Olympic standard - the marathon - and running against the best runners - than I do in running 50 or 100 miles against a seriously weak field of runners. I will say this - in the last 2 years - ultrarunning events have been able to attract more runners of real talent - as opposed to the "weekend warrior runner". As they do - you're seeing Scott Jurek's records fall - as again - people coming from his background enter these events - and they are not only breaking Jurek's records - they are shattering them and in the process illustrating Jurek was mediorce talent - per his WAVA grading - relative to others with competitive marathoning backgrounds - Jurek enjoyed the spoils of a shallow pool - it has to be said - not even racing international competition - and what did we see when a legit international runner showed up at Badwater? Well Jurek's talents might be framed in a more accurate perspective then......- as they were when a Brazilian by the name of Valmir (above on the left crossing the finish line) bothered to show up at Badwater. Valmir summarily SHATTERED Jurek's record by 1 hour and 45 minutes. How do you characterize Jurek's performances after a guy from Brazil blows him away by nearly 2 hours? What you thought was great (Jurek) - was all the time good, but clearly not great - you just had marginalized small fields of weekend warrior runners - and Jurek looked great in that backdrop and context - and you would have known ahead of time when you saw Jurek - you say good but not great - if you examined Jurek's performance in the context of WAVA tables and knowing what's out there in the world of running - runners with the talent - just not interested in running Ultras (no money in the events). Again - I am not trying to slam Scott Jurek - I just am taking time to look at ultrarunning and explore what's really going on....when I do - I see all I've spoken to - and the proof is in the points of fact that kind of say it all, no? So when I say Jurek might be overrated, it's all in the context of who he's been racing against and more importantly, NOT racing against - his peers.
at 5:18 PM Posted by Smith