Τρίτη, 30 Αυγούστου 2011

RunBlog: UTMB 2011 - Comparison of US and European elite trail runners

The 2011 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (100miles - 9.400m of accumulated ascent) has produced a lot of discussion about the poor performance of elite US ultra mountain runners, compared to their European counterparts. In the same year, the Europeans did very well at most of the ultras they choose to participate in the US (Jornet at WS100, Heras at San Francisco 50miles...), leaving behind the favourite US runners. So it looks like there is a deficit of performance of the elite US runners compared to the Europeans!

I have finished some ultras of my own, including the UTMB in 2009. I am not an elite runner, but I like reading about the sport and I follow closely the US scene for the past 3 years, through specialized magazines, publicity and blogs. I have even tried to register for Hardrock 100 for 2010, but the limited number of accepted runners and the resulting lottery left me out of the starting field. I like to test my limits, and find out how far I can go, and then after how fast I can cover this distance. My approach to the sport is that there is nothing heroic about ultra running, and that increasing numbers of simple people, with no special equipment shoulf be able to excercise this sport out on the trails. I am not a big fan of elitistic events and elite athletes, since their professional sports background is not compatible with 99% of the rest of the field in a starting line of any mountain running event (ultra or not). But reality is that they are role models and they inspire more people to go out and run on the mountains. So they are usefull in a certain way! That is reason enough for me to look at them from time to time and evaluate their performance.

The US field of elite ultra trail runners, is not comparable to the European field in certain important aspects. These points (according to my opinion and experience) I analyze below. This does not mean that in some cases a top US mountain runner cannot win an event against top European runner! But statistics will always be in favor of Europeans as long as the following areas remain as they are today. I also think that most of these remarks, apply to all levels of trail runners if we try to compare them between the two continents. So here is my list of important differences for elite runners of mountain ultra running events:
  1. Number of runners at the start line - In UTMB and in many other wellknown European mountain and trail running events, the number of participants is thousands, or several hundreds. In the US most of the races are with a few hundreds of runners. This affects in two ways the runner: Emotionally - In European events you are always close to another runner. In ultras emotions are a big part of the strategy of the race. Seeing fellow runners pass you or fall behind because of different capacity or different race strategy is sending emotional messages to the runner, changing his mentality and emotions for his own effort. Take a look at Roes and Krupicka comments of the downhill break aways of Kilian Jornet at 2011 WS100 and you can now imagine what is going on in the head of a competitive ultra runner! They are not always running the race they planned (as done when in a lonely - not crowded event). They respond and adapt their race strategy according to the messages they receive from fellow competitors. And in crowded events like in Europe, this is happening a lot throughout the race. Pacing, Strategy - As explained in the previous point, for the emotional side of it, pacing yourself in a lonely event is a matter of focus and discipline. In Europe these two attributes of the ultra runner, have to be even stronger. Competitive runners react and adapt their strategy when another competitor is trying a break away. In the end, you do not run your race as you plan, but according to the dynamic field around you. Therefore an ultra runner, able to perform well at a consistent uniform pace throughout the race, must be able to stick with his plan, when he sees others speeding up at a downhill. One has to understand that there are many runners who can take the hammering of the downhill better than him/her but by following them you end up with burned muscles sooner than you should. On the other side, if you let go, most likely will catch up at a subsequent uphill!
  2. Support model - Mountain ultras in Europe follow the model of semi-autonomy for the support of the runners. There is no point in stressing the obvious importance of nutrition and hydration in any endurance event. The comparison of European with US ultras, is showing differences in the following two ways: No pacers are allowed in Europe - No one is allowed to help you carry water or food. No one can supervise on the course your calories and fluids intake. No one can push you a step further when you start feeling slugish and hit a low point. You have to carry all the food and fluids needed to get you to the next station which can be 2 or 4 hours away! Only for water this can mean an extra 1,5kgr of weight at your back! Plus equipment! The backpack - Mountain ultra runners in Europe are always with a backpack. The image of a mountain ultra runner without one a backpack does not exist! Most of the times you see them carrying walking poles as well, since the existence of a backpack at steep uphills is forcing them to have the sticks to support their back for the extra weight. Many races in the US are not like that at all.
  3. The terrain - Ultra trail running in Europe consists of 80% single track trails usually. UTMB is considered to be one of the moderate difficulty trail running events. Forest roads an wide trails have to be a small minority in these events. In the US the popular events, include long stretches of forest roads and easy going trails. Also the altitude profile in most continental events at first sight, is not runnable! Constant up and down without any flat parts or even with runnable incline. The hammering of the legs and the heart is without a break. This makes a big difference for the body and the mentality of the runners. Somehow we could say that European ultra trail runners, are stronger mentaly and physically, just because they evolve through this kind of races. There is also a very strong technical aspect in this element. I've noticed that it is very common in US mountain 100mile races to see finishers with achievements of less than 24 hours. This is very rare in Europe. Only the winners some times manage to finish in less than 24 hours. Running (or crawling when it comes down to it) on the mountains for more than 20 or 24 hours in most of your races builds different characters and approaches to the sport, compared to events lasting 17-20 hours for the winners. As Anton Krupicka wrote recently, following his injury, he came to realize the importance of fast walking during a mountain running effort! Elite US runners are used to ... basically run the whole event! Well, this is not feasible in the terrain of most European races!
  4. Professional approach to the sport - After 2011 UTMB I was walking around the streets of Chamonix and saw Geoff Roes and some friends of his trying to find a spot at an overbooked creperie to get their dinner fixed.
    At the same time Kilian Jornet and not only him, was with his Salomon Team specialists applying their recuperation plan in a nice hotel room. Most of the European elite runners, are supported by a sponsor - brand which is investing in them heavily (for the standards of this sport). Nutrition specialists, physios, doctors, trainers, training facilities, race-specific adaptation trips, and personalized equipment and training plans, are available to these runners. Some are commenting on details on the race calendar of athletes like Kilian, but it is not the specific details that make the difference. It is the fact that his support team, consisting of scientists and professionals, know him very well and can optimize the racing - training calendar according to his capacity, weaknesses and advantages! For example I was reading recently that many US mountain ultra runners, do not like interval training! Scientifically it is proven that this kind of training is an important feature of any running training plan! Elite runners not only should do interval training, but furthermore, be able to personalize and plan it in their race season accordingly. It is elementary! Intervals can address uphill or downhill skills, anaerobic threshold build up etc. No one should be proud of not doing his homework! Salomon team uses computers to analyze the performance of their athletes, as well as their most likely competitors in many events. They study the weaknesses of their opponents.
  5. Racing season, calendar - I read many comments about the high altitude training of most of the European ultra trail runners, and their advantage of leaving at high altitude. These are small details compared to the big picture of the full race season of any of these runners. After all, if one looks carefully on the top runners at UTMB for example, there are many runners who do not live at altitude of 1300m or have no clue of how to ski! Also Boulder Colorado and many other similar resources exist in the US as well. European racing scene consists of many events which are not so common in the US. I am reffering to events like vertical kilometer mountain runs (1000m of ascent within 5-6km of distance = average incline of 25%), or very technical uphill and downhill events of short distance (in rock gardens or in total absense of trails) or even at mountaineering ski competitions at Les Alps or Pyreneans at high altitude (which basically involve anaerobic effort at steep uphills at high altitude, carrying some equipment)! At these races, the starting line again consists of several hundreds of runners and competition is fierce. This side of the sport is available not only to elite mountain runners (who can participate in as many events as the need to because of their professional resources), but also to any level of mountain runner in Europe. These events are quite common and even if someone does not have access to mountain skiing he can make up with vertical kilometer runs during winter time. Planning a race season (always with the support of the specialists team) is an important but also common task for elite runners in Europe.
As I said at the opening of my post, I do not particularly like the professional and elite side of mountain running as it has evolved in Europe. I prefer the more casual and less "superman-like" approach and this is more close to the US ultra runner scene. I like the Anton Krupicka kind of runners with their worn out shoes and cotton t-shirts (if they are wearing any...). After all, the metnality of ultra running on the mountains is 85% about how far one can go, and only 15% of how fast! The field of runners and their admiration of finishers (and not only speedy ones) proves my point. But elite runners, are platforms for promoting the sport and the apparel - equipment that goes with it. Personally I care about the evolution of the sport in the direction of attracting more and more people in it. Human nature is such that we try to immitate those that we admire. Therefore, elite runners have a role in this scene as icons.

In my opinion, US elite runners in order to catch up with their European counterparts have to address these 5 areas of the sport. I believe that it will be a big help to the US field, if events like HardRock 100 open up to more entries and avoid the lottery system while adopting a point-system for overcrowded events. Also it will be nice to see more technical events (again like Hardrock) with no pacers allowed and a semi autonomy background. By increasing the number of participants, you make up for the safety issues that arise from the solitude of the top runners in these events (they will not be alone!).

Ultra mountain running, should involve technical terrain, discouraging uphills and knee-killing downhills, but I would like to see more people running these with cotton t-shirts, and sandwiches at their backpacks at the start line rather than "shop-window-dolls" like elite runners in white compression outfits, and hi-tech power-bars and space-like powders for their nutrition.

10 σχόλια:

  1. Well done article. It gives some valuable insight. Thanks!

  2. Λεωνίδα, συμπαρίσταμαι στις θέσεις σου, που είναι και δικές μου: προτιμώ τους αθλητές με τα βαμβακερά σορτσάκια, τα σάντουιτς και το ατιθάσευτο πνεύμα, από τους επαγγελματίες της σιδερένιας πειθαρχίας και των στόχων. Συμφωνώ με τις αιτιάσεις που θέτεις, με μία σημείωση: η Salomon αποκλειστικά έχει δημιουργήσει όλο αυτό το star system, το οποίο μας δημιουργεί αρνητισμό. Όσο για τους Αμερικάνους, ναι, αυτοί αγωνίζονται σε κάτι άλλο στην πατρίδα τους και είναι λογικό να μην τα καταφέρνουν στην Ευρώπη

  3. There's nothing inherently wrong with Americans runners' DNA or their approach to the sport. Note that two of the top three women at UTMB were American! In my opinion, the only meaningful difference between the elite Europeans and the elite Americans is the professional support on the European side (particularly with Salomon). It's next to impossible to train 35 hours a week, year after year, as Kilian Jornet does, if you work full time. Regardless of sport, amateurs defeat professionals only in the rarest of circumstances. Ultrarunning is no different.

  4. I don’t think that its such a question of Americans dominating Europeans and vice versa… We could just take a look at the facts. From my point of view European elite trail runners train more professionally just like track and field athletes do, thats what my impression is when i see Killian and the rest of the Salomon team supporting their athletes… well going over to an American mentality of ultra running things are just simpler… something like “a door to trail running attitude” which is not wrong from my point of view… Maybe the European runners just take it more seriously. American ultra runners do not lack of talent and endurance, but the UTMB is a tough race, its not only the steep ascent, but i think its the weather that plays a major role as well. As for the Americans pulling out take a step back and see how many LOW key USA runners DNF’ed ? just curious… Many elite athletes just think its not worth it JUST to finish so they pull them selfs out of an ultra, you get that quite a lot. For me its the journey and the persistence for the accomplishment not the standings overall.

  5. To Kleran: Regarding the part of your comment for the US female runners: 48 registered US runners out of which 13 were female athletes. That is an amazing almost 25%!!! The female presence in the starting line of UTMB was less than 8% on average and less than 7% at the finish line. This gives you an indication of the other major difference between US and European trail runners. In Europe the sport is not as popular as in the US for women. This explains in part the difference also in elite female runners. Finally keep in mind that the winner was once more (with a big margin) Lizzy Hawker who is an English woman (a country with basically no big mountains but strong tradition of excellent fell runners) leaving the last years at the area of Zermat Switzerland.

    Regarding the part about professional approach, this was exactly my point. And as I said, I prefer the US approach since this is compatible with 98% of the field of runners. But everyone has a role in this scene of ultra trail running.

  6. Such a poorly written article and very subjective. Half of your sentences begin with "I read somewhere..." (i.e., "For example I was reading recently that many US mountain ultra runners, do not like interval training!") Really? Where did you read that? What publication? Which blog? Was it written on a cafe napkin? Was it written by a coach? If you believe half the stuff you read or hear, then you're just a lemming. And reading something and then commenting on it does not make you an expert.

    Also, all of your stats are solely related to 2011. But in what place did Killian finish in last year's WS100? Yup. Third place nearly an hour behind Roes and Krupica. Killian is amazing (I'm not saying he isn't), but just because he's having a great year in 2011 doesn't automatically mean Europeans are better than the Americans. You could have written the same article about the Americans dominating in 2010.

    The only good point you make is regarding Solomon's sponsorship power, and I agree with you on that 100%. But it has more to do about money than attitude. Solomon is owned by Adidas, the 2nd largest sporting company in the world behind Nike. So yes, Solomon sponsored athletes may have more dollars to support their cause then say Roes and Dakota Jones who are backed by home-grown Montrail. (You also leave out Ryan Sandes from South Africa, who just won Leadville two weekends ago, who is also sponsored by Solomon.)

    Let's see what 2012 looks like... All of the runners in the world (not just American) will be gunning for Killian.

  7. I add some points to discussion:

    1. UTMB crew is only possible at that level you mention with Salomon to europeans; americans, if they don't invest a lot, will not have that crew and support. But you don't need 10 people, with one well prepared is mostly enough.

    2. Most euro races have self-autonomy rules (or something like that, flexible), except UTMB; yes, "nobody" uses backpack in US, but UTMB is the worst example of autonomy cause you can have all support except pacers (plus mandatory equipment). I have to imagine US runners knew this and train with some weight.

    3. Kilian doesn't make interval trainings (according to himself) as some others like Heras. One big difference is they do those short races to take speed as you comment, and also practice other sports, like cycling (road, like Kilian or Heras), less running kms to joints.

    4. @David: Salomon is owned by Amer sports (the same than Suunto, for example); was owned by Adidas, but sold it to have cash to buy Reebok. This was done in 2004.

    5. I also read that many US runner don't do intervals, but make many many miles per week, much more than euros, for sure; I think it keeps them very slow but allows to run all 100 miles. But if the races starts very fast maybe it could be against them if follow that pace.

    6. Quads training is so important in Europe, for downhills; I did a race last year, from 3000m to 0 straight, 20km of pure downhill, brutal for legs. Check Nick Clark that suffered a lot in Sierre-Zinal in downhills (and speed climbs), I think is something US runners have to work in.

    7. This edition was 9th in UTMB, for many americans... 1st, these are many years of advantage, as a road cyclist should learn how to compete in Europe, also US ultrarunners need time to learn the differences if want to be competitive in Europe. The only one who had the time to learn this is Scott Jurek, but I don't know why, he never has a good result in UTMB, and I think he is much better runner than he shows in this particular race.

    7. There are few professionals in euro scene, but the only 100% dedicated with "unlimited" help is Kilian. This is an advantage, for sure. But others, Heras or Carrera (that could be with Kilian the podium) work 8h as you and me.

    Interesting post.

  8. To David: An example is http://www.anotherfnrunner.com/2011/06/alaska-trails-geoff-roes-interview.html this is Geoff describing his running routines and training habits. I can dig for more... I have an interesting archive of issues of UltraRunning Mag.

    Also, as I said, at a specific day anyone can DNF or perform poorly at a 100miles race. There is no such thing as invincible ultra trail runner. I am talking about stats for elite runners. The comparison between US and European runners is something new, since the exchange of participations started only a couple of years ago. One major problem for this "exchange" of cultures, is that many US races accept a very limited number of runners and usually one has to go through lottery. This is discouraging when someone wants to plan a season and budget for a trip like that.

    We are in agreement for the professional approach of Salomon team (even though is not under Adidas anymore). I prefer the Krupicka approach to the sport, but everyone has a role in this scene! After all we can judge for ourselves.

    I assume that you agree with the rest points I present as well. So ... I do not quite understand your attitude towards my insights!

  9. A good article which tries to be fair and a few good point in here.
    What does not fit at all though it the generalisation of "European" events or runners etc.
    I live and train in the UK and there are no races which compare to the UTMB since the highest point is just below 1400 meters.

    So I am an European and I love running Ultras and I do quite a few but I do not fit your profile of an "European" at all. In fact I'd rather fit into the category of US runners when I follow your classification.

    Maybe you are referring to races in the Alpine region and you should distinguish accordingly.

  10. To Thomas: Indeed GB has different terrain compared to continental Europe. But I must admit that GB runners are quite competitive due to the strong fell running background. I would say that GB trail runners are accustomed to bad weather and harsh terrain, as much (or even more) than any continental runner. Actually British runners (English, Scottish, Irish) and especially those of Cumbria / Lake district area, are doing pretty well!!! Which is one more reason to shift the focus from the "high altitude" advantage mentioned in many occasions.

    Anyway, the Alps (whole area), Dolomites, Pyreneans, Greek, Slavian and Eastern European mountains are the main contributing areas for ultra trail running in Europe. And these areas provide similar technical background, from the terrain as well as racing point of view (similar culture in events).