Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What The Grand S1@m Means To Ultrarunning

What The Grand S1@m Means To The Sport Of Ultrarunning:
My Ever-So-Unsolicited Opinion

#1 in the Second Amendment Soliloquy Series
(wherein I shoot my mouth off)

photo by Takao Suzukiby Ras

     Spellings in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent from legal action by the entities whose spellings have been changed. If you are unfamiliar with the drama involving said entities, here's a good introduction by Eric Schranz and here's an ultrarunning lawyer's take on the matter. I don't encourage you to invest much life energy on the issue, other than to enjoy the brief titillation of a minor scandal.

     Controversies aside, this year I had a special interest in following the Grand S1@m of Ultrarunning. Yes, I was interested in seeing how the duel between Ian Sharman, running officially, and Nick Clark, running stealth, would play out. And yes, I knew a few of the runners attempting it. But chief, to my mind, among these potential badasses, and the focus of my attention, was my friend Jonathan Shark. 

     I followed Jon's progress as he strove toward (and achieved) this monumental goal, and I found that the Grand S1@m (henceforth GSU) format changed the way that not only the runners, but the spectators, conceived of and approached the events involved. To a great degree it fixes some of the things I consider broke in the ultrarunning scene. In truth, any race series accomplishes the same thing, but the GSU does it on a, ahem, grand scale.

     A race series creates a time frame that stretches beyond a single race, thus creating a "season" of sorts, as found in other sports. And this very much affects how one plays the game.

     Coming from a backpacking background and trail culture, rather than a marathon or track and field background, I find the strategic DNF highly unpalatable. In my values set, finishing the course is the goal first and foremost. I understand that an elite runner has a lot to gain by dropping from a race in which they are not performing well in order to save the wear and tear on their bodies. This leaves them fresher, more rested, and less injured for their next big race, thus gaining them an advantage. But this is an advantage only because there is no system in place to penalize a DNF. Most 'Did Not Finish'es do not even show up in the race results. And they have absolutely no effect on a runner's standing.

     That is, unless said runner is attempting to complete a series. Suddenly a DNF has consequences, as it rightly should. If you consider dropping during the first race in a goal series, you invalidate all the other races in that series for yourself. If you are tempted to DNF during the final race, you throw away all the effort invested in completing the preceding races. Each of the middle races is an absolutely necessary component of the series as well. You don't get to pick and choose. You have to finish every race. That better fits my running paradigm. If not for medical reasons, a DNF should be one of the hardest decisions of your life.

     Sustainability becomes a key factor. Rather than focusing on training, peaking, and tapering for a single race, GSU runners must train for a series of four 100 mile races, each three(ish) weeks apart. A goal of this sort belies the foibles of the "win this one at all costs" mentality. One doesn't have to win a single battle in order to emerge victorious in the war. Waging a successful campaign takes a back seat to successfully waging a campaign.

     One of the things that makes watching football or baseball interesting is ... um, well, okay, there ISN'T anything that makes baseball interesting to watch. But what makes seasonal team sports interesting is the season-long strategy: which players will take the field against which teams. Who will be sacrificed to early season injuries and who will be held in healthy reserve for games against key opponents. It's not just a matter of fielding a championship team, it's a matter of getting TO the championships and still being able to field a championship team.   

     The GSU, and other race series, are a glimpse into one of the possible futures of ultrarunning. Seasonal standings, variable points awarded based on the difficulty of the route and stiffness of competition, penalties for DNFs and DNSs, and bonuses for every finish, amongst numerous other potential innovations, could drastically change the game. And the shift in paradigm could substantially alter who and what we consider to be an "elite" ultrarunner. 

     Here's a link to All 22 Finishers Of The 2013 GSU.

photo by Sean Scace
Jonathan Shark finishing the Western States 100

photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Vermont 100

photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Leadville Trail 100
photo by Linh Shark
Jonathan Shark finishing the Wasatch Front 100


  1. Hey Ras - you bring up loads of ideas but you stop short of making a proposal. It seems you are in favor of not letting anyone DNS or DNF if they want series points, got any other suggestions that would make ultra running more betterer?

    1. Blessings, Martin.
      Here I was specifically speaking from a spectators perspective. I think it would be very interesting for an organization of some sort (I hesitate to endorse a 'governing body') to track and rank ultrarunning on an annual basis and produce season stats based on finish rank, comparative difficulty of the course, size of the event, amount and type of aide, # of ultras completed both as a stand alone statistic and in relation to the # entered, age group, total mileage, and other factors.
      I have ideas for race formats that I would love to watch, but would not want to run. More of that in future blogs.

  2. love seeing ultra running evolve to closer resemble life and vice versa!

    1. Indeed, Benedict! I think we will see many new forms of races and events in the coming years.

  3. This shift could potentially bring with it more sponsorship, spectators (groupies) and ultimately cold hard cash. I wonder if this is the right course for the sport?

    1. Very true. And I did address some of those questions in a previous blog.