On Ranking Ultrarunners

In light of Tuesday’s announcement by UltraRunning magazine of its new UltraRunning Race Series, as well as some other attempts to rank ultrarunners—both new (e.g. Jason Friedman’s rankings) and established (e.g. USATF rankings or UROY)—I’ve put together a few thoughts on the topic.  

First and foremost, I think it bears stating that there is no perfect system to rank all ultrarunners.  Ultrarunning is extraordinarily eclectic, with a wide variety of terrains (road, track, trail, off-trail, various combos of these); distances (technically 26.3 miles up to literally thousands of miles, though most fall in the 50k to 100 mile range); and types of races (timed, stage, “normal”).  When you’re looking at such a wide array of possibilities, perfectly ranking runners across all disciplines is an absurd task.  It would be like asking who is better, Usain Bolt or Mo Farah.  It’s apples and oranges.

Thus, any system necessarily makes choices of what to prioritize.  This is both OK and entirely unavoidable.  Once we recognize this, we can get over the cheap/easy arguments and complaints that a certain ranking is “unfair” to so-and-so or overemphasizes certain things. For UltraRunning’s new series in particular, I think it might be more valuable to frame it not as a ranking system, per se (though it can certainly be used as such), but rather, exactly what it purports to be: a series. 

Compare to the Montrail Ultra Cup of yesteryear.  Nobody complained that the MUC didn’t account for track races or didn’t give enough credit to 50k races or whatever.  It was a series that focused on certain things by design.  

The UltraRunning Race Series, while bigger and more complex, is really quite similar.  UR has created a system for comparing performances across disciplines, accounting for how competitive races are and how big they are. (Both of these have limitations of course—big races aren't always competitive, and sometimes top runners run races as training efforts—but it's pretty well done by my estimate.)  They've then then weighted those performances by distance, choosing to emphasize the glory event of ultrarunning: the 100 mile.  (For weighting purposes, non-standard race distances get rounded to the nearest standard; a 30-mile race gets the weight as a 50K, a 75-mile race the same as a 100K.)

But the series ranking is not a good substitute for the question, “who is the best ultrarunner in the country?”  Nor is it meant to answer this question.  First of all, it requires racing at least one 50k, 50M, 100k, and 100M race to rank well, while some runners may not run one of those distances by happenstance or design.  

Further, many top American ultrarunners are now running abroad quite frequently, and the Race Series is limited to domestic competitions.  I think this must be part logistical necessity—it would be near impossible for UR to gather data on every ultra in the world—but likely strategic as well.  It should foster more domestic competition, especially with a Western States ticket on offer.

But I think the real boon in the creation of this series is the gender-, age-, and region-specific competitions.  What a great way for locally-competitive athletes to compare and compete within the Midwest or Northeast regions, or against other 50-59 year olds, for example.  

And since everyone who runs an ultra in North America is automatically included in the ranking system, people can use the rankings and series for their own purposes.  A group like the Flatland Ultrarunners of Chicago or even my Quaff ON! Racing Team could have intra-club competitions.  You could even limit it to specific race distances.  For example, you could have a bragging-rights competition among friends for whoever has the best 50-mile race score at year's end.

Overall, I think the UltaRunning Race Series is a cool development for the sport, and I'll be excited to see how it evolves, even if I'm not ranked very well. ;)