Utah’s Growing Ultra Scene
Pheidippides, the famed Marathon runner, was also the world’s first recorded ultrarunner. The often overlooked and dubious tale told by Herodotus claims Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta, finishing the day before his Marathon run. If this is to be believed, he covered 150 miles in two days. The technical definition of an “ultra” is any race longer than the traditional 26.2 miles Pheidippides ran in 490 BC, but the modern sport has settled on a few common distances: 50K (31 miles), 50 miles, 100K (62 miles), and the pinnacle event—the 100-miler. Basically, Ironman events are to the sport of triathlon what 100-milers are to ultrarunning—there are longer events, but the 100-miler gets all the attention.
Ultrarunning as a sport is currently going through a major growth spurt. Fueled by the popularity of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and our fascination with human limits, the sport has seen a significant increase in race participation and frequency. Utah, a well-known outdoor playground, has become a popular place to train and race for these long-distance endeavors. Our state’s natural beauty, protected land, and miles of singletrack trails lend themselves to adventure running, exploring on foot, and intriguing long-distance race courses.
As previously noted, humans have run long distances throughout recorded history, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the premier event—the 100-miler—came into existence. In that year 27-year-old Gordy Ainsleigh decided to finish the Tevis Cup horse race…without his horse, proving that a human could cover 100 miles on foot without dying. Ainsleigh has since said he never envisioned there would be more than three or four 100-mile races in the United States in a given year. There are now over 116 events in the U.S. alone, and the sport has caught on worldwide with some European races looking more like a Tour de France-Rave combination than what we’ve come to expect from our low-key, hardcore races in remote places.
Salt Lake City played an early role in the nascent sport of ultrarunning. In a mountain range just out of town lies the race course for the Wasatch 100-mile Endurance Run. “Wasatch” is the second oldest 100-miler in the U.S.; it began in 1980 with just five entrants. That year only two of them made it to the finish line, and none under 24 hours. Finishing under this time is still a difficult feat after 33 years of human performance and sports nutrition advancements because the tough course covers 100 rugged miles and climbs 26,882 vertical feet.
Utah now hosts eight 100-mile events each year, and the playgrounds of Moab and Zion National Park are training and racing hotbeds for the sport. Salt Lake City’s close proximity to the Wasatch training grounds means you may share an office with an ultrarunner (Clark Kent style) and not even know it. Many of the sport’s top athletes call the Beehive State home, including Karl Meltzer, possibly the best 100-mile racer to ever lace up a pair of Montrails. A top high school runner in New Hampshire, Meltzer moved to Sandy in 1989 to become a ski bum. Finishing the Wasatch 100 in 28th place in 1996, it took him two more tries before he won his first of six in 1998. He’s since won more 100-mile events (totaling 35) than any other athlete…ever.
We can also claim the 2012 Hardrock winner, Barkley Marathons, and Nolan’s 14 finisher: Jared Campbell. A Salt Lake City native, Campbell knows the nooks and crannies of the Wasatch Range better than most after spending years as climber and the last decade as an ultrarunner.
What about the women? Like Jared, Alta dispatcher and “Ms. Consistent,” Sarah Evans McCloskey has been running ultras for over a decade with many podiums to her credit before winning the big one—the 2013 Wasatch 100-miler.
The sport of ultrarunning also brought pioneering media business iRunFar.com to Utah. Owner and managing editor, Bryon Powell, left his career as a D.C. lawyer to start a fledgling business focused solely on the sport of ultrarunning that calls Park City home. Powell said of his decision, “Having traveled to many top trail running destinations around the world, I’ve not found any trails that top Utah’s.”
If you’re new to the sport of ultrarunning and looking for to learn more, iRunFar.com is the best resource for quality information on gear, racing, trails, athletes, and more.
Upcoming Ultrarunning Events
- October 18-Pony Express Trail Run in Faust, UT.
- October 19- Antelope Island 50K/100K in Syracuse, UT.
- January 25- Kahtoola Bigfoot Snowshoe Festival in Midway, UT.
- February 15- Moab Red Hot 50+ in Moab, UT.
- April 4- Zion 100 in Virgin, UT.
- April 25- Salt Flats 100 in Wendover, UT.
- Visit ultrasignup.com for more information, and to register for these or other ultras.