Matt Bixley gives us his take on the multiple “world championships” available to the ultra, trail and mountain runner.
I’ve read and taken part in a few conversations over the last month or so all loosely related in some way to the standard of trail running. What’s elite? What’s not? What are championships or series and what does that all mean? I got cranky at times, I ran and ruminated and thought that putting it down on paper and showing how laughable some of the claims are would make me feel better. That expanded to something somewhat larger than would be appropriate for a BCR post.
So Part 1 will just list a long string of organisations and events that claim some sort of “World” status with what I believe are varying degrees of validity. These are events that we as trail, road, and ultra-runners all have some association with. Part 2 will look more closely at home and Athletics New Zealand and their role or potential role in trail running etc.
For me, a World Championship is an event that attracts the best athletes in that particular discipline each and every time they are held. The participants may not be perceived as the best athletes ever, but the simple fact is they are the best athletes in their chosen discipline. It’s a different argument to say that XYZ would win if they ran. A) They didn’t and B) they might not. There is no better example of that than Mo Farah the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m Champion. He was relatively useless when he stepped up to run a marathon.
The IAU – International Ultra Runners Association
The IAU have a long(ish) history of 24hr and 100km World Championships that attract the highest quality athletes competing at those disciplines. The best performances in any given year are often associated with those events. NZ has managed a couple of individual Silvers at the 100k and the Aussie has bagged a Bronze in the 24 hour. Both events have the backing of the IAAF. However it’s my opinion that the IAU have lost focus by trying to get into the trail running side of athletics. This has been to the detriment of the 100k and 24hr. The biannual Trail World Championships are farcical in their depth when compared to the other two events. It is beyond a joke for them to consider that the best trail runners from around the world are taking part. Yes, some do, but the overall standard is abysmal.
WMRA – The World Mountain Running Association are also backed by the IAAF and have held 29 annual championships to date, alternating between and up/down and an up only course. Since 2004 they have also run a Long Course (marathon distance) event that is usually attached to other classic events like the Jungfrau or Pikes Peak. The events are not a free for all and nations select teams usually based on their own mountain running championships. They also have a World Series which is more of a European based event and caters for the shorter distance. They know their niche/market and they are sticking to it (even if they have thrown the occasional tantrum). They tend to be a good crossover between the more traditional track and cross-country athletes. The notable standout from our point of view is the 6x World Champion and Olympian Jono Wyatt.
Sky Running Federation – Sky Running has its origins in the early 90’s and running up and down mountains for FKT (Fastest Known Times) this merged into actual racing and they have largely stuck to their knitting of altitude, difficulty and distance. Although they’ve successfully integrated the vertical K into their program, and have relaxed their criteria somewhat to allow other nations to hold sanctioned Sky Running Events. Most notably for the very successful Buffalo Stampede. Their biggest success has been their annual World Series.
Where they are falling down though is their World Championships. This years’ event was held on the same weekend as The Western States 100 mile and the Lavaredo Trail 100+km event. So it was no surprise at all to see 3 Aussie blokes finish in the top 10 in Chamonix with Anna Frost on the women’s podium and Ruby Muir running well for a podium before altitude got her. With a Kiwi in the top 10 at Lavaredo and another Australian in the top 10 at Western States, that’s the standard we’ve to come expect from watching races like TNF100 Australia, TNF50 San Francisco, Tarawera.
My biggest issue is that they have a Marathon the very next day, effectively splitting the depth of field in two. The timing as noted above meant there was in fact 4 high profile races on the same weekend, all of similar standard. It also means that there are TWO marathon length trail runs having World Championship status.
UTWT – Ultra Trail World Tour. I’m still not sure what to make of this, for New Zealand and Tarawera it’s a fantastic and I have no doubt helps bring in talent and vast qualities of money to the country. Beyond that it just seems to be a small pool of athletes getting paid to fly around to races and is in direct competition to Sky Running. So we have two World Series going head to head so what does winning one of them mean?
Now we get into what I think are the joke races and championships.
UROC – Ultra Race of Champions, “The Ultra Running World Championship”. That is the strap line on their webpage. It is a race born out of the frustration of a few people who couldn’t get into Hardrock or Western States and wanted to race each other for some money. Some of the best do turn up (especially when it have Sky Running Status and Salomon flew their team out there), but self-proclaimed world championship status. You have got to be kidding.
XTerra – Yes they too have a self-proclaimed World Championships that is really just a group of Americans trying to use the Ironman Model to make money from trail running. At the last year’s championship, from 850 odd finishers there were 3 Kiwis, 15 Australians, 1 German, 1 Argentinian and 5 from Japan. With awards for 5 years age groups (aka. Triathlon), everyone goes home a world champion.
Badwater – you guessed it, they also claim to be the world championship. From this year’s website, “Scheduled for July 21-23, the new and improved 135-Mile World Championship….” I don’t really have anything more to say about such a ridiculous statement for a closed entry private event.
So what’s the point? It’s clear to me that in recent years there has been a proliferation of groups trying to make money out of trail running (and running in general) by claiming some sort of world status. The IAU and WMRA have long established histories and conduct well run championships with the best athletes in those disciplines. Beyond that, trail runners seem to go and run the events they and their friends want to go and do. Championships for trail running don’t seem to be working.