Sage Canaday Explains The Ultra Marathon Scene to LRC: Getting Helicoptered Out of Races, Carrying a Phone and How Would Kipchoge Do?
by: LetsRun.com (sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE)
April 29, 2019
Through the end of May, thanks to the support of HOKA ONE ONE we’re exploring the ultra marathoning scene and trying to discover: What are the best ultra races in the world? We’re giving away some great HOKA prizes along the way, and if you’ve like to participate in the discussion, we’d love for you to tell us your favorite ultras in the thread here (or email here).
As we explore the ultra scene, we know we’ll be exposing some of our own ignorance because we at LetsRun.com know a lot about distance running, but very little about ultra running.
To kick off our exploration we decided to talk with an athlete we have a personal relationship with professional ultra marathoner Sage Canaday. We hoped Sage could help bring us up to speed on everything ultra.
Sage joined us for nearly an hour and 30 minute talk about all things ultra marathoning on our last podcast and we’ve taken the highlights from the podcast and typed them up below and republished the interview as its own podcast.
Sage ran for LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson when he was the men’s distance coach at Cornell University. While at Cornell, Sage was the runner-up at the Heps (Ivy League) Cross Country Champs, an individual qualifier for NCAAs in xc, the Ivy League 10,000m champ, and the youngest qualifier for the 2008 US Olympic Marathon Trials, which he competed in the week between conference and regionals in cross country the year he qualified for NCAAs (don’t worry, he only ran the first 10k).
After college, Sage placed 16th at the Boston Marathon and transitioned to becoming one of America’s best ultra marathoners. Sage has won the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler, the USATF 100k trail championships, the Speedgoat 50k, Lake Sonoma 50, and the 100k at Tarawera. Sage has a very popular running youtube channel with more than 140,000 subscribers and his own coaching website.
The full talk is also embedded in the podcast player below which can also be found on your major podcast platforms.
Q&A With Sage Canaday (condensed and edited). Click on a blue timestamp to start listening to the audio at that point.
LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson (LRC’s Rojo): (After an introduction the talk turned to ranking the world’s best ultra marathons). If we’re going to rank them, the races that popped in my head were Comrades and Western States as the two most prestigious (ultras) and that’s mainly because those are the two that I had heard of before I started LetsRun. I remember Alberto Salazar winning Comrades when I was in high school (actually college), and then everyone’s heard of Western States, but is there a race that sort of jumps out? A numero uno? If you were talking about marathons, (ignoring the Olympics) London is the hardest for a pro to win and most prestigious to win. Is there a race (in the ultra world) that jumps out you like when we tell you we’re going to be ranking these races?
Sage Canaday: It would be Comrades. Not everyone would agree with that. But it’s by far the most competitive. It’s got the longest history. And it’s got the biggest field size by far, over 24,000 runners this year. 94 year history, most prize money purse.
I’d say it’s hands above the rest in (terms of) competition. But a lot of people from North America haven’t heard about it. So there’s that.
LetsRun.com’s Weldon Johnson (Wejo): (laughing) You just said that because you’re running it this year right?
Sage: No, I’d say that anyway. I have run it before too. And I am running it this year. But I think if you just go by the quantitative data, just those facts that there’s 24,000 runners doing it, whereas Western States there’s less than 400 runners. Plus Western States is hard to get into. Comrades, if you’re good, you could get in. Same thing with UTMB, if you’re good, you could get in. Western States is a little harder to get into and other races are really hard to get into and they limit the field size. If there’s only a couple hundred guys in the race, how competitive can it be? Versus 24,000 guys with a prize money. $38,000 to win?
LetsRun.com: Look at Boston this year, the elite field, they limited that. There’s 20 to 30,000 people in the race, but they limit the elites to only 70 people. So if you have all the elites, it doesn’t matter if you have 400 or 40,000 behind them, right?
You’re saying the top person in the world could want to run Western States and they might say no (you can’t run)?
Sage: The top person in the world would have to qualify for Western States. And there’s a couple ways to do that. You either have to run a special golden ticket race, which there’s only four in the spring, and they’re all in the US. You have to finish top two in that race to get a golden ticket to qualify for Western States. Or you get selected in a sort of biased way by the Ultra Trail World Tour committee to maybe get a spot at Western states. Otherwise, if you’re fast and you want to run Western States, you can’t run Western States, you won’t get in. You could wait on the lottery, but that might take five years.
LRC: I think this just sort of shows the difference in the ultra world. There’s just such variety. Here you have different distances, how you qualify for the races is different. Whereas, most top marathons, if you’re fast and you try to get in, the race will let you in. Then also on top of it, it’s very well established what people want to win. The Olympics is number one. There’s no question everybody wants to win the Olympics and then after that on the track, it’s (the) world championships. The marathon’s a little bit different (in terms of World Championships not being important), but then its the world marathon majors and then you sort of go from there. In marathoning it’s all established 26.2 (miles), run over the roads. Some courses are more difficult than others, but it’s not like the distances vary by a factor of five or 10.
(In Ultras) if you want to get into it, then you have the really obscure stuff -racing across America, the race where you run around the block (for a month) in Queens.
Sage: The Transcendence Run. You do like a month of running around a block.
LRC: I think you need to win that one Sage.
Sage: Oh, I don’t know (about that one). That’s too far for me. Too much of a time commitment. The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, long trail records. Those maybe in the future (for me) but not for a long time.
LRC: And then you’ve got stuff like Barkleys (which) gets a ton of press now because I don’t know. Let’s talk about Barkleys real quickly. Is that more of a gimmick, an obscure thing you can’t get in, but it’s just sort of kind of cool? Or is it too obscure? How many guys get in that race anyway, 20 or something?
Sage: I think maybe it’s more than 20. It’s less than 100. It’s very obscure, I call it a scavenger hunt in the woods. Because it’s this impossible loop, you’re not even running most of the time, it’s off trail, your route finding, you have to find these pages out of a book that are hidden in the woods, you’re in Tennessee in the brambles. It gets muddy, it’s rainy, it’s cold. A lot of people are hiking. It’s a scavenger hunt, basically. It’s very hard, because you have to cover 100 miles off trail and the weather is very bad. And you have time limits so people don’t finish. But that’s the whole draw of this event is that it’s this race that’s become impossible to finish.
But they really do limit the field size. I know some very good runners, that would have had a chance maybe to finish that got rejected, because the application processes is very secretive, I don’t even know how to get in it. And it’s kind of like one of those secret society clubs, that if you know, certain people, maybe you could get in. I think it’s been blown out of proportion by the media, by people on YouTube. People like to write articles about it, because it’s so extreme, but it’s not really a competitive race. And, you know, if you want something hard or difficult, you could say any race is hard or difficult. Running a low two hour marathon is very hard and difficult. Running a 10k on the track fast is hard and difficult. It’s not that it’s harder per se, because it’s an extreme course, it’s just, there’s a lot of variables at play. But I think it’s been totally blown out of proportion.
[13:25] Is There a Triple Crown of Ultras?
LRC Rojo: One of the things I want to do in this before this five weeks are over, is try to come up with like the equivalent of the Triple Crown or maybe a quadruple crown of (ultra)running, kinda like the Grand Slam in tennis or the Triple Crown in horse racing. It sounds like Barkleys shouldn’t be on there. Not knowing much about it, I was thinking, ‘Barkleys that thing is so cool.’
Let me take a step back just and take a broader view, you have races that are on the road, you have races that are on the track, you have mountain races, and you have the trail races. Do you specialize Sage, or are there any athletes that could win everything, they could win a mountain race, they could win a trail race, they could win a road race, and they could win a track race? Do you specialize on surface or type of race. How does that work?
Sage: Well, my hashtag motto has always been any surface any distance, but of course, I’ve kind of failed a lot. So I’m kind of just mediocre at all these different things. But, you know, I’ve been lucky to be able to do races like Comrades, World Mountain Champs, I’ve done UTMB, I’ve done Western States. I’ve done some really technical mountain races in Europe. So I’ve seen the different surfaces. And I’d say right now, no single runner could totally dominate on the surfaces, especially on the guys side. There’s some women that have better versatility. I think part of it’s because there’s not quite as many women in the sport, but there’s some really phenomenal runners that have run pretty fast road marathons that could do really good technical trail running. They usually don’t do the hundred milers, though. So if you’re talking about doing a 50k versus 100 miles in the mountains, it’s different. If you’re talking about doing 100k on the roads versus Comrades, sometimes it could be different, but it’s hard to dominate every surface.
At these different distances, it would be hard to win Comrades and UTMB if someone did that, that would be very impressive. In the history, there has been people that have run really well at Comrades, and then won Western States, a woman from the US. Ann Trason did both within two or three weeks of each other. She won Comrades, and then won Western States a couple weeks later, which is one of the most impressive doubles in ultra running history. But Comrades and Western States are more runnable and fast paced races, especially Comrades on a downhill year because Western States is a net downhill race. But to win Comrades, and then UTMB, something really mountainous, that would be really hard. And if Killian Jornet, the best mountain runner in the world, tries to run a road marathon, he’s never going to do it (as he doesn’t like the roads), but if he did, I don’t know how fast he could run. I don’t think he could compete at Comrades. He says he doesn’t even like running on the pavement for more than six or 10 miles at a time.
[16:55] Racing with a phone and getting helicoptered out of a race
LRC: UTMB be how far of a race is that?
Sage: It’s just over 100 miles, it’s 105, 106 miles depending on the course. And 33,000 feet of climbing. You start at night, or you start in the evening. So you have to run all night. So you’re running up and down these big mountains through Italy through Switzerland, running all night. You get extreme temperature changes. You get the night running, you get snow and rain, you get sometimes muddy trails, but it’s not a technical race. They’re pretty smooth trails. There’s a lot of double track, but they’re so steep that you have to power hike a lot. You’re walking, you’re using trekking poles. 80% of the field probably uses trekking poles. You have to carry a five pound pack with required gear. Well, most people’s pack weighs about five pounds because you have to carry a rain jacket, rain pants, you have to carry your phone, you have to carry all…
LRC Wejo (interrupts): Your phone. You have to carry a phone?
Sage: Oh yeah, that’s required at a lot of European mountain races.
Rojo: This is just…. I’m blown away. I’m trying to get away from my phone. Is it a satellite phone? Do you get reception at the top of the Swiss Alps there?
Sage: It’s a safety thing.
Wejo: (No it’s) for selfies right?
Sage: Well you could do that too. I’m not stopping and taking a selfie but during a race. They have a tracker on it.
Rojo: Can we put like a GoPro on your head?
Sage: It’s too heavy. You’d rather carry five extra gels because that’s going to help you more.
LRC: How is the phone a safety device if there’s no reception?
Sage: There is spotty reception. It’s not too isolated. The first year I did UTMB I fell and I had to get stitches and I cut my knee open on a rock. And so I did pull out my phone and tried to make a call so my parents knew not to drive to the next aid station in Switzerland. But I was able to contact I think the race director and they actually flew me off the mountain with a helicopter.
LRC: Do they make you pay for that? Is it kind of embarrassing or is it a badge of honor to be airlifted out?
Sage: It was more embarrassing, but it was a cool helicopter ride and it was about 200 euros. I asked how much it would cost before they did it. I was basically stranded on this mountain. My knee was ballooned up swollen, it was extremely painful. I was worried about injuring myself permanently. So I said, you know what, I have to stop. I can’t really walk downhill anymore. Can you give me a ride downhill? And they’re like, there’s no cars. There’s no roads up here. There’s no way off the mountain you either roll down or you get a helicopter. And I was like ‘how much would a helicopter cost’? And they’re like, ‘Oh, 200 euros’ and I was like, ‘OK bring in the helicopter.’ I’d been up all night. I was sleep deprived and was in a lot of pain. I was 60 miles into the race. So I got the helicopter ride and didn’t finish the race. It was embarrassing. I got stitches. It was a bad fall.
LRC: Have you been back?
Sage: Yeah, I went back a couple years later, and I had a horrible race. I finished 50th place. I just was out of it from the start. I was walking most of the last 40 miles. I just didn’t have it. I wasn’t in shape. I have no excuses. I sucked it up. I’ve always sucked it up at hundred mile races.
LRC: What’s the longest race you’ve done? Or the longest you’ve run? And also what would you say is your best accomplishment is ultra running and also marathon regular running? I don’t know if it’s fair to call it regular running.
Sage: The longest race was that UTMB, when I suffered to the finish, I didn’t really want to finish but I was like, I’m going to finish. It’s embarrassing. I think two or three women passed me in the last 20 miles.
I ran 26 hours there. So 26 hours, 105 miles. That’s the longest I’ve ever been out there on the course. It was a lot of walking though. It was embarrassing. And proudest accomplishment in ultra running was probably winning the North Face 50 mile Endurance Challenge in San Francisco. Up until that point, it was the biggest prize purse you could win in a trail ultra in the US – $10,000. It’s usually one of the most competitive 50 mile trail races that there is in the whole world. So I won that in 2014. And then regular running, road marathon running, I’m really proud of qualifying for Olympic Trials under Rojo’s coaching running 2:21:43 when I was 21 years old, and then also getting 16th place at the Boston Marathon in 2015. Pretty proud of that. I missed the Olympic Trials standard by 12 seconds (that year), but there was a little bit of a headwind that day. Damn headwind.
LRC: The North Face 50. Is that race every year?
Sage: Well, it was actually canceled last year because of the smoke from the wildfires. But traditionally, it’s been every year. In December, they moved it to November some years. It’s sponsored by North Face. It’s in the Marin headlands right across from the Golden Gate Bridge. They’ve changed the course over the years to but it’s usually about 50 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing, smooth or single track trails. $10,000 to first place. It’s usually a loaded field. You get some international guys, you get a lot of top Americans. They’ve been advertising it for years. When I was running at Hanson’s Brooks back in 2011, 2010. I saw ads for it. And I said, You know what, guys? I want to do this race. It’s $10,000 to win 50 miles I could do it. So it took me a couple of tries though to win it.
LRC: Again, big picture here. Most marathoners do two marathons a year. Some of the Africans do three. For these trail ultras is it similar? What’s your schedule like for this year?
Sage: Well, I’m probably not a good example. It depends on the runner, and it depends on the race. So usually, if you’re a pro sponsored runner, and you want to do really well in a couple hundreds, maybe you do one, you focus on one or two 100 milers for the year and you focus on the big ones. So if you’re an American guy and you want to focus on the big ones, you’re going to do Western States, then maybe you’re going to do UTMB, maybe you do another hundred like Run Rabbit Run, which is $12,000 to win, so you know that’s lucrative. So you’re focusing on may have a couple hundreds, but you want to build up to those hundreds. So maybe you do a couple 100ks, or you do a 50 mile race early on in the season. So maybe you got a 50 mile, a 100 k, (and a) couple hundreds. So then you’re up four races, then maybe at the end of the year you want to do North Face 50. So you do another 50 miler, so that’s five races. So you could easily be doing five or six ultras in a year spread out. Maybe you jump in some shorter races too. Most ultra runners, some are serial racers and they do races every couple weeks. Some of my seasons, I did an ultra almost every month. I did an ultra 10 months out of the year. Almost one race a month, but it’s not sustainable. I think it’s a bad idea and it started making my performances really inconsistent. So this year, the main focus is Comrades. And I’m actually going to do more 42 k trail races in Europe.
LRC: So let’s talk a little about Comrades. It’s about a 55 mile race on the road, South Africa, famous people like Alberto Salazar have won it. I think you were 15th the year you did it. Is that right?
Sage: I take out the two guys tripped a drug test on the day though. Two guys who finished ahead of me that year in 2015, tested positive for PEDs. So I like to tell people I got 13th (but) I was the 15th guy across the line.
LRC: Is this something that you dream of winning and have a realistic shot of winning? Or is it kind of like you running the Boston Marathon where you know, a top 10 would be a career accomplishment type thing, and top 15 is more reasonable. You’re a 2:16 marathoner, what type of person normally wins that race? What are your goals and hopes, dreams?
Sage: It’s not like a marathon major, it’s not as competitive. So I could definitely get top 10 at Comrades, whereas I’m probably never would get top 10 at Boston. Maybe last year, if I ran smart and didn’t get hypothermia, I could have got top 10 at Boston, but it’s way harder to get top 10 at a Marathon Major for most runners.
I dream of winning Comrades. It definitely would be really, really hard. But I don’t think it’s impossible. I’d be thrilled if I got top five. I ran a pretty bad race in 2015 when I got 13th. So I think I could improve quite a bit on that. But the type of runner that wins it, you do get these 2:12 marathon guys, you get some 2:08 guys, but sometimes the 2:15 guy wins Comrades. Because it’s 6000 feet of climbing on an uphill year. It’s hot. You got to fuel (for) 55 miles. It’s almost a six hour race. If you run under 5:40 (per mile) you’re probably in contention for a top three or the win. But it’s you know, it’s a long race.
LRC: And is it an up year this year or down?
Sage: It’s an uphill year.
LRC: It seems like you’ve done well in the uphill races. Is that what you prefer?
Sage: Definitely. I’d never do downhill as I suck at downhill running. It’s still a lot of downhill though, because it undulates a lot. So 6000 feet of climbing and 4000 feet downhill. It’s all on pavement, rich rolling hills. The first year I ran it, Max King was doing it (Editor’s note: A fellow Cornell alum although he and Sage weren’t on the team together). He had a really rough day that year. He did much better the downhill year. He got top 10 the next year on a downhill year. I think he was eighth at Comrades the year after. But we came through the first marathon split, I think in about 2:38 and that was after like 3000 feet of climbing. So you’re running low six minute mile pace. If you want to win, you have to run low six minute mile pace. The course record is under six minute mile pace but it was by that guy who Eddy H(ellebuyck) told people used to sell him EPO in Albuquerque, which I’ll just leave it at that. It’s an impossible record. But yeah, Comrades, you know, I think a 2:17 guy could still win it. Bruce Fordyce won a record number of times, and I don’t think his marathon PR was any faster than 2:17. Sometimes 2:20 guys win it.
[28:10] Unpredictability in ultras
LRC (Rojo): I know last week was the Two Oceans Race, which used to be sort of viewed as the prep race for Comrades. But now it’s got such a beautiful course, I’ve heard that a lot of people treat that as it’s own race. But a bunch of Kenyans showed up, they said they were going to beat the course record, blah, blah, blah. And of course, they didn’t even (finish). I think two of the three dropped out. So it is a different game.
It seems to me that in the ultra scene, and this is what I think is why it’s popular to some degree, I always say in regular running, there’s no interceptions. There’s no fumbles, there’s nothing that adds randomness to the results. So the results are pretty predictable.
Am I wrong in saying that there’s more unpredictability in the ultra scene?
Sage: Yeah, you’re right. And it’s a combination of factors. If you just look at the sheer duration of the race, because it’s it’s longer because it’s maybe hilly, you’re out there running for six hours, eight hours, 20 hours. So the more time you’re spending on your feet, the more time things could go wrong, the more time you have to get a really bad stomach ache or bonk, the more time you have to get hypothermia or overheat. So it’s just the sheer duration makes it more unpredictable. Then at the same time, the competitive depth is not there. And you’ve got people that do totally different training, that you don’t know how they’re going to do. You don’t know how they’re going to react. Tactics play a big role because as you know, in the last 10 k of a marathon, if you start bonking, you start slowing down a lot. Well, things go exponential in the ultras, if you’re bonking and you have 30 miles to go, it could turn into a really bad day. So you know, people start running, you’re running seven minute mile pace, one mile, and the next mile, you’re walking, and you’re doing 20 minute mile splits. So things could change really fast and things go really, really bad. So it’s just a matter of the duration though mainly, all the time that you’re spending out there. It makes it more unpredictable.
[31:34] Could Kipchoge Win the Comrades Marathon Tomorrow?
LRC: Okay, so here’s a hypothetical for you. So, Eliud Kipchoge, obviously the greatest marathoner in history, 2:01:39 seems like a misprint. He’s in supreme shape. If I had loaded Jonathan (Gault of Letrun.com)’s bag with a million dollars of cash and had him go to Elliot’s hotel room (at the London Marathon) and say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be running London on Sunday. Here’s a million dollars. We’re going to have you run the Comrades marathon.’ Could he win it? Would he win it? Could he just train for the marathon and win that thing?
Sage: I think he could win. I don’t think it’d be a guarantee he’d win. But I think he could definitely win because he’s head and shoulders above the rest of us, in terms of marathon PR. Like, I don’t know, I haven’t looked at the full Comrades field. But I don’t think there’s a guy faster who’s run faster than 2:08. So I’m going to have a 2:01 guy versus 2:08 guys. But then I don’t know. What’s his longest long run been?. Has he done a 50 k long run? Because you do feel a bit a little bit different after you get a couple long runs in over 42 K. He could surely win it though, on pure talent alone and pure marathon training alone. Yes.
LRC Wejo: Sage. 55 miles uphill? I think he doesn’t win. He’s only run Chicago. He’s never run hills (in a marathon). He’s never even done Boston or New York. He’s only done flat marathons.
Sage: Yeah, but he trains on some hills.
LRC Wejo: You need to defend the ultra people more. Robert and I are going to become like the gods the ultra marathon world because (we’re saying Kipchoge would lose). Sage (the ultramarathon guy) is supposed to say ‘you guys (ultra runners) are the best. Real runners suck.’ Oops. I just call them real runners. Traditional marathoners suck. And you guys are tougher. But it’s more than twice the distance Sage. I’m kind of shocked you said that.
Sage: Well, it’s a road race. It’s not like UTMB or something.
[36:35] The 100 Miler ‘is a totally different beast’
Discussion turns to whether Comrades is more like a marathon or if it is totally different. Sage says since it’s not that far and on the roads it is more like a marathon. Then we ask about 100 milers.
Sage: A 100 miler is a totally different beast. And I could say that because I failed epically at the few hundreds that I’ve tried. But it depends if it’s on a track or road versus if it’s in the mountains. A hundred miles at UTMB, might take 20 hours, if we run 100 miles around a track maybe could do it in 11 hours. So that’s a totally different race even though it’s both 100 miles…. But I’d say the biggest difference besides just the sheer time is the terrain that you’re running on. So you know UTMB, a mountainous hundred miler is a lot different than a 50 k on the roads. Whereas if you’re running 100 miles on a track like Camille Heron does, it correlates a lot more to a Comrades or a road ultra 50k ultra Marathon.
LRC: So let’s talk about Camille. She’s a LetsRun visitor and she’s won Comrades, right? She’s won these track races, but does she also do well in the trail scene?
Sage: She has not done as well, historically on the trail scene. She did win the Tarawera 100 K or hundred mile in New Zealand, which is not really a super technical race, and it actually wasn’t super deep this year. She’s an amazing runner, though. She won Comrades, she set the record for 100 miles on a track, 12 hour record. and ran a pretty fast track time for 100 miles. But it like I said, I think it correlates really well with your marathon. Just like Comrades correlates really well with the marathon. Now you throw her in a mountain race in Europe, a really technical race. And I would guess she hasn’t done it yet. I would guess she wouldn’t do as well. Even a race like Lake Sonoma 50 miles, that has 10,000 feet of climbing. She hasn’t done as well in Western States. She didn’t finish last year or two years ago. So the trail races have been a lot harder. And that’s why I’ve always said it’s hard to dominate any surface any distance you don’t get guys winning UTMB, then winning Comrades.
LRC: Are there some world records that people really respect – like a 24 hour run or hundred mile record or run across America record? Is there anything that just really jumps out at you like, yes, that’s sort of the Secretariat of world records or something like that?
Sage: Well, it’s hard to establish trail records because you got courses that change and then you have different weather conditions depending on the year. Whereas with the road and track records that are really held with high esteem, I’d say the one that pops out would be this Greek runner. (Yiannis) Kouros ran the 24 hour record. And no one’s touched that. It’s really good. That’s a really good record (Editor’s note: It’s 188.59 miles for 24 hours or 7:38 per mile non-stop).
Another really good record I’d say is the 100k open road world record 6:09 for 100k by the Japanese runner Kazami (Editor’s note: That’s 5:56 per mile). That’s a pretty good record. Then, of course, the Comrades uphill course record, which I think is untouchable, but it again was by that (guy suspected of doping) (Editor’s note: The up record is 5:24.39 for the uphill approximately 89km (55.3 mile race). If it was exactly 89km, that comes out to 5:52 mile pace).
[74:27] Walmsley vs Jornet
LRC: I don’t want to have you anger your fellow competitors, but if Comrades is the number one (ultra) marathon (in the world) is there someone that comes out as the Eliud Kipchoge right now of the ultra scene? Is there a clear cut heavyweight champion now?
Sage: Well then you’re getting into the definitions. Are we including MUT (Mountain, Ultra and Trail)? Most people would say Killian Jornet because he has the range in all the mountain races whether it’s a half marathon or hundred miles, he wins or podiums at most races in the mountains. He doesn’t do the runnables, the pavement stuff. He doesn’t do the flat stuff, but he is the king of the mountains.
Rojo: Killian Jornet is a little like Pete Sampras, there’s a flaw in his game. He can’t win the French Open. Killian doesn’t do the roads.
LRC: Americans are fascinated by (Jim) Walmsley. Or at least maybe we are because he has a track background. Would you say Killian’s right now the number one and would you say Jim Walmsley’s number two?
Sage: They haven’t gone head to head that much. The only time they’ve really gone head to head was at UTMB when Killian got second and Jim got fifth. And they went head to head at UTMB last year and they both dropped out. So they really haven’t raced each other head (much).
They both haven’t done Comrades either. I believe there’s a ITRA scoring system, International Trail Running Association scoring system, and I believe Jim is ranked ahead of Killian on that scoring system. Jim has won a lot of big competitive races in the US, Lake Sonoma course record there, Tarawera, races like that, but they they really haven’t raced each other head to head that much. Killian’s been around for a really long time. Jim’s been around for three, four years. … It’s hard to rank guys unless they race head to head against each other.
LRC: It’s like Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. Who knew even the ultra marathoners are ducking each other.
Sage: I don’t know if they ducking each other. It’s just they get pulled into different races because they’re more lucrative or they’re more passionate about certain races.
LRC: All right Sage, we need your top five ultra races.
Sage: So are these bucket list races for me or for people in general? You didn’t specify. I could do most competitive ultras in the world. That’s where I would start.
LRC: Okay. You want to do five most competitive ultras in the world. Let’s hear it.
Sage: I think this is more objective. And you know, a lot of the hardcore trail mountain guys will give me a hard time for this because they like the trails stuff, but I’m gonna have to go with some road races to start for the top three actually. So Comrades hands down is the most competitive. Number two, I think is Two Oceans again, it depends on the year of it, but it’s also a lot like Comrades, you get a lot of the same guys running 56 K, it correlates well to the marathon and you get a lot of guys in Africa that run it, so it’s a very competitive race, there’s good prize money. The next most competitive race number three, I’d say is the ITU World 100k Championships on the road. You have to make Team USA or represent your country. It gets a lot of the top Japanese ultra runners all together. It’s a standard distance, hundred kilometers on the roads, very good competitive depth. Then number four, we’re down to UTMB. It’s the greatest mountain race probably in the world. It’s the greatest, most competitive ultra in Europe. It’s more competitive than Western States, for sure, because you get a lot of guys that do both. But you get all the Europeans as well. After that it’s really hard. After that, I’d say it’s, it’s a big toss up because it really depends on the year, The North Face 50 mile in San Francisco has been historically very deep. If you look at the top 10 finisher times and the density of the top 10, it’s usually very close. Another race is called Transvulvania out in the Canary Islands owned by Spain, on the island of La Palma that’s also historically been a very competitive race. I’ve run there a couple times when Killian didn’t win. It depends on the year, some years it’s more weak than others, but it’s a toss up for number five, I really am struggling to come up with number five, because it depends on the year what kind of field gets assembled.
LRC: Those are the most competitive, but what about the most prestigious? Boston may not be the hardest marathon to win (but it’s prestigious).
Sage: Prestige factor, then you throw in Western States, you throw in Western States, for sure, especially for North American athletes.
Thanks to Sage for kicking off our discussion of everything ultra marathoning.
We condensed this interview. If you listen to the full podcast, you can learn more about Sage’s training, how he became a top ultra runner, and even why certain races are run in certain directions because of bears.
What are your favorite ultras? Participate in the discussion here.
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