MUT Runner

By Sage Canaday

I’ve been training and racing year-round for 15 years. In the last year and a half I’ve been competing as a professional Mountain-Ultra-Trail Runner, and in that short time have become fascinated with the culture, community and history of this sport. I’ve already learned a great deal from long-time ambassadors such as Buzz Burrell and Scott McCoubrey, whose trail running roots go back to before I was even born. Guys like these, as well as super-star ultra runners like Scott Jurek (amongst many others) have helped pave the way for what the sport is today. I greatly respect and appreciate these individuals’ contributions to US ultra-trail running, and their stories of the past have provided me with context to understand how the sport is evolving now.

I believe that the sport has recently undergone some dynamic changes. A new kind of runner has emerged … a type of runner that will break course records, compete internationally, and rely heavily on support from sponsors as well as prize money from races. This is what I call “the rise of the MUT Runner”.  What is this person’s background, and what are the concerns and benefits of this development?

Postrace Speedgoat - Timothy, Luke, Anton, Sage, Max.

Postrace Speedgoat – Timothy, Luke, Anton, Sage, Max.

(“MUT” is actually an official term of the United States Track and Field Association, used to designate all “Mountain”, “Ultra”, and “Trail” running activities).

 Road or Track Background

win1Many athletes that make up this new breed of MUT Runner have backgrounds in racing cross country and track as well as successful careers running road races. Take for example last weekend’s North Face 50 mile Endurance Championships in San Francisco (which many consider to be the national championships of ultra-trail running at 50 miles). Both the top two runners in the men’s and women’s races have backgrounds in racing on the roads and/or track at shorter distances:

Men:

1. Rob Krar: ran a 3:44 1500m for Butler University and also a 1:05 half marathon on the roads.

2. Cameron Clayton: competed for the storied University of Colorado athletic programs in both cross country and track.

Michele Yates - TNF50

Michele Yates – TNF50

Women:

1. Michele Yates: 2:38 marathoner who competed in the US Olympic Trials twice.

2. Magdalena Lewy-Boulet: 2:26 marathoner who competed in the 2008 Olympics.

These MUT Runners are examples of athletes with a diverse range of backgrounds who have competed (or are still competing) in events ranging in distance from 1 mile to 100 miles on a wide variety of terrain. I believe that as the sport continues to grow, more and more of these MUT Runners will come on the scene, pushing the pace and setting new course records.

Professionalism

UROCFor decades numerous road and track runners were paid to run, while almost no MUT runner did so; there are now numerous people trying to make a living doing what they love. The “professionalism” of such top MUT Runners, as well as the influence of sponsorship, international race series, and prize money are changes that concern many in the sport. For most ultra-trail runners in the US, rising entry fees, difficulties gaining entry to events, and environmental impacts from a growing number of race participants are tied to “commercialization” in the sport. Many question (and fear) that the tight-knit community of trail runners who used to gather informally to run an ultra, eat hearty food, and drink craft beer is now being threatened. Many ultra runners see some of these changes in the sport leading us towards events for “the masses” such as large-scale road marathons.

Furthermore, with top MUT Runners competing for prize money, world rankings, and sponsorship opportunities, there is a concern that athletes may be tempted to use performance enhancing drugs. The discussion of drug-testing at events seems to make many uncomfortable as comparisons are being made to what has occurred on the road, track and of course cycling scenes.

I think these are all legitimate concerns (and personally I’d like to see out-of-season drug testing), but I also think that this evolution of the sport has many positive attributes: So far, from what I’ve experienced in the past 1.5 years, the Mountain-Ultra-Trail running community is still a close knit group of caring individuals. The support both in person at races and also on social media, is full of inspiration and motivation. As ultra runners we are all still (and will always be) united by the challenge of the sheer ultra-distance and humbled as a collective by the climbs and terrain. There will also still be post-race food and beer drinking, and the passion that many trail runners possess for the outdoors will help keep environmental concerns in check.

Sage Sandi

Also, compared to the mainstream professional sports, the access of communication to top MUT runners is very open. We all still toe the same starting line, and have the same feelings of exhaustion (and elation) during a race. Blogs of epic long runs, FKT efforts, and live race-day coverage all fill a niche on the web and are often shared generosity across social media platforms by fellow runners. I believe all of these changes in the sport are positive.

Timothy SageWhen sponsors invest marketing dollars in an athlete, invest in a person instead of an advertisement, that helps that individual to perform at a higher level, ensuring that he/she can compete against other top runners around the world.

Finally, the MUT Runners are working symbiotically with their sponsors to create innovate gear and new products. Most of the Ultimate Direction products that I use for example, were created in collaboration with a top-level runner.

These improved products from such sponsors help make the sport more enjoyable for every runner, and help them to get the most out of their running. For the MUT Runner moving through an aid station quickly, new innovative (and often light-weight) gear can make the difference between winning a race or finishing as a runner-up as margins of victory are now often be measured in seconds rather than minutes.

UROC Finish

MUT FIlm Project

This evolution of the sport in terms of this new breed of MUT Runner, (along with the influences of prize money, and corporate sponsorship) has fascinated me so much that I’ve started work on producing a documentary film about the topic.

Here’s the trailer for this video project:

I hope you like it, and please post your Comments and suggestions below!

 In Closing 

Ultimately, we have the power to shape the future of the sport ourselves, through what we do, what we say, and where we spend our money. We can pick and choose which races and brands to support and we can continue to remain outspoken with our opinions. I believe that the future of mountain-ultra-trail running is in good hands as long as we follow our hearts.

See you on the trails,

Sage

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SageCanadayFanPage

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/Vo2maxProductions

meinsanditopofbear

24 thoughts on “MUT Runner

  1. I agree with this change in the ultra scene, but I think we should be more honest about this “new breed” of runner. The main difference is that he and she actually have real talent, not just the mental fortitude to go the distance. The sport’s “legends” clearly had the latter, but not as much of the former.

    I love watching talented runners like Krar and Clayton redefining the ultra scene, and dedicating so much time to their training. But let’s keep in mind that, at 3:44 for 1500m, there are at least 25 collegiate runners faster than Krar in any given year; and Clayton was usually CU’s fifth man, placing only 210th at the 2010 NCAA XC Championships. If the trend of ever-more talented ultra runners continues, today’s top guys may also find their standing upended.

    • Couldn’t agree more. No doubt these guys are talented (sage, krar, clayton..etc) but there are so many fast guys in the NCAA system that are faster. I ran in college (i think skurka did too) and was always humbled during a cross country meet where I wouldnt even place in the top 50. I never made nationals. But i could place in the top 5 at many trail races in places like flagstaff or colorado out of college.

      I think the depth in ultrarunning is going to keep getting better. It takes a special collegiate runner who loves the outdoors and loves going long to step up to the next distance and/or the mountains. I believe we will see more of these faster guys joining in on the fun and skip the marathon scene all together. It seems like every weekend there is an unknown east african who has been running only 2 or 3 years drop a 2:05 in the marathon. A fast american might wonder why even bother? Why not have some fun on the trails where i can be more competitive at an international level. I give props to fast college guys (jeff eggleston for example) who keep the dream alive to compete at the international level in the marathon.

      Having said all of that, the guys at the top of ultrarunning now are admirable. The ability to run one 50+ miler without breaking down, let alone 3-4-5 fast ones in year is incredible while juggling work, family…etc. I love it.

    • Well said!

      For any given endeavor, there is always someone, somewhere, who is better than us. If we only ever compare ourselves to others, we’ll always be a loser.

      One of the better aspects of the ultra community culture is the perspective of “pursuing our own perfection”.

      All that said, the competition sure is a lot of fun, too!

  2. Andrew,
    You make some good points.

    However, faster (at the shorter distances) isn’t always better. While I agree a guy like Meb or Ryan Hall (and many other sub 2:10 marathoners) would probably do awesome at an ultra, many others would not. I’ve seen many a sub 14min 5km guy blow-up at a race like Mt. Washington or Pikes Peak…and those aren’t even ultras.

    Not to pick on Max King (who raced a ton and probably didn’t have time to train ideally), but at TNF 50 he wasn’t top 10 this year (despite having a 2:14 marathon PR, 1:02 half PR and 8:30 3km steeple to his name). Max is a great runner with great range (and one fo the fastest MUT Runners out there now), but he still seems to be adjusting to the longer distances.

    Also look at the women’s race: Michele Yates has a marathon PR 12 minutes slower than Magda (granted it was Magda’s first ultra), but still won by a rather large margin. I think Magda will continue to improve at ultras, but just because her marathon PR is a really speedy 2:26, doesn’t mean that a runner like Michele won’t continue to run ahead of her.

    On the guys side i think the 2:18 to 2:25 road marathon types seem to adpat the best (at least in the short-term) to racing mountain-ultra-trail ultras. I believe Matt Carpenter’s marathon PR was *only* 2:19 (not even fast enough to qualify you for the Olympic Trials now) – yet I don’t see anyone touching his Pikes Peak marathon record anytime soon (Leadville might be possible though).

    Another trend that I see is the need to train more specifically for a certain race course. Because competition will increase with an increase in numbers (at all levels), many of the top MUT Runners are going to have to really pick and choose their battles. Mountain-ultra-trail courses are so different in elevation profile, climbing and terrain that undoutably there will be certain runners that excel more or less depending on the unique challenges of the event.

    I don’t think we’re going to see a flood of speedy runners (ie NCAA All-Americans) crossing over to ultra-trails anytime soon. The will to compete after college has to be there and the interest (or even more importantly passion) to run ultra-distances has to be there. I wrote this post because I do see a trend and think that there will be more crossover – but I don’t think every speedy NCAA cross country All-American (or sub 3:44 1500m runner) is going necessarily excel at these longer mountain-ultra-trail races. There seems to be a huge learning curve (ie with nutrition and pacing) and there seems to be a need for a shift in metabolism and improved running economy on a wide-variety of terrain.

  3. I applaud you for calling for out-of-season drug testing, Sage. Any time it is brought up on “other trail running focused sites” they shut the discussion down as being about “unfounded drug allegations” etc. The problem is that sticking our heads in the sand is really not the way to deal with it.

    The trail running community appears to have a strange combination of exclusivity/inclusivity. They like to believe they are salt-of-the-earth runners who just love to run….man. The reality is most of them are somewhat cliquey and scared of change.

    Having said that, I am happy for the changes coming to the trail running community and eager to see top level performances by road and track runners itching to try something new. Many “trail runners” forget that marathon runners train regularly on the trails and at altitude and the switch isn’t so drastic….

  4. I like and admire Sage’s running quite a bit, but the consistent hinting about PED use is unseemly. Do you, Sage, think that the top MUT runners are doping? All, some, a few? Even if you don’t want to name names, you ought to answer the preceding questions directly.

    As for me, I suppose maybe one or two could be, but generally not but a host of reasons that differs for each respective athlete.

    With respect to Andrew’s comment, the conclusion is almost certainly true, but falls victim to the fallacy that if runner A can run a mile on the track faster than runner B, then runner A will also beat runner B on different terrains at different distances. That’s demonstrably untrue and I think all the variables are what makes MUT running immensely more enjoyable from a spectator’s point of view than track or road racing. All that being said, when guys with a track-based background move into MUT and reset the records over the next few years, it’s not because their track-based background necessarily *made* them fast; it’s because fast people are fast regardless of the surface!

    I say all this as someone somewhat new to the sport, with a generally traditional mindset, but very excited by the prospect that faster runners are gravitating to the sport.

    • CDG, I think you need to understand Sage’s perspective. He himself, along with Dakota, and Killian got accused of doping this year, and drug testing helps protect the runners so people can’t just spread rumors. People need to stop accusing (which can be hurtful) elite runners and start having a more kind decision on how to protect the sport from cheating. Additionally, there already have been ultra runners caught for doping in races such as Comrades. Furthermore, Sage has gotten beat in road races by runners who were then found to be taking illegal substances. While I believe 99% of ultra runners are honest, with prize money and sponsorship there will be one runner, one day, who sees the new prize money and sponsorship money and take advantage of the fact most ultras and mountain races don’t drug test. That will be terribly unfair for the honest men and women who work as hard as they can to do well in races. The honest runners need to be protected. Obviously, nothing will change quickly, but I think the sport has gotten to be the point where we need to have open, good mannered, discussions about it.

      • Vigorously agree with Sandi and Sage here.

        The point isn’t to accuse anyone of taking drugs, but to acknowledge that some small percentage of any group of competitors in any sport is going to give in to the temptation to cheat. Road runners, cyclists, and yes, even MUT runners, are susceptible. As Sandi notes, top competitors are going to be (and in fact, are being) accused of doping anyway.

        The more proactive we are about keeping things clean as prize money and competitiveness continue to increase, the less “unseemly” we’ll have to be when the first MUT-running Lance Armstrong comes around (inevitable IMO). In ten years I don’t want to be dealing with a future MUT-running Pat McQuaid who prefers to bury his head in the sand rather than root out the rot we could have prevented.

  5. @CDG:
    To answer your question: No, I don’t really think more than a few (if any) MUT Runners are doping now. But, as I hinted, when the sport changes/grows (and with races that have $10,000 on the line for a win) i think that drug testing isn’t a bad idea – and if you’re going to bother doing drug testing you have to do out-of-season (between races) to make it a surprise. Guys that finished ahead of me (and took money from many clean, hardworking runners) on the road have been busted for EPO…we never suspected them but after they were caught it kind of made sense. In my opinion it’s just something that shouldn’t be ignored (even in the ultra-trail world) and the more we talk about it the better off the future of the sport will be.

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  10. Thanks for sharing Sage,

    I do have a thought/question. First let me say I love trail running and ultras specifically. I can’t touch what the likes of Sage and other top MUT runners can do out there and am amazed by their talents.

    That being said, with the growth of the sport are we starting to see a viable option for those sub elite road/track runners to continue to pursue a dream and make a living off of running? Again, I’m not trying to discredit anyone or put down the sport that I love but to a degree are we seeing athletes that aren’t quite good enough in the pro road/tack world coming over and making a name and living for themselves in the MUT running community?

    Brad

    • For sure! (and thanks for the support, Brad!).
      I know some guys that run 2:14 in the marathon and they won’t get sponsored (ie no travel money funds) by a big shoe company on the roads. There is for sure a market niche in the MUT scene (a very cool scene) and for many runners who run 2:14 to 2:25 in the marathon the sponsorship (and prize money) is actually going to be better (if they can perform well on the trails). Last time I ran 2:16:52 in the marathon (my PR) I got $0. The roads and track are very tough to make any sort of prize money and/or gain sponsorship. There are more sponsorship options on the trails for most of these runners. Also on the trails you have races like TNF50 and Run Rabbit Run, where you can win $10,000 in one pop…on the roads you’d usually need to be at least a 2:12 to 2:10 marathoner to pull of that kind of prize money…I know for me personally I don’t have the talent/speed to probably ever run that fast in the marathon.

  11. This is very strange essay, one that starts – and ends very defensively. As a self-acknowledged hack, I’ll never even begin to reach some of the levels you’ve been able to attain – and that’s fine with me: chapeau!

    I’m not sure if the amount of interest in true professionalism in really any sport – especially *running* and most especially in the United States is really all that high. I think people run, because they want to run – not because they want to win some weird National Championships of trail running, or whatever.

    When I read this article, I almost see you talking to yourself in a mirror, and doing so, in a way to confirm to yourself that whatever it is you’re doing, is an OK thing to do. I’m not sure where that’s coming from, as you’re free to do whatever you’d like. But I get the feeling you’re still trying to force a difference between “Us” and, “Them”. You’re group has a official name (MUT?), gets paid in money to run, has races with prize money, and is therefore: very important to everyone else – “we’re growing up!”, you’re stating. Why this is important: I’m not sure. The dude that wears whatever shoes you wear (because you wear them, and had a hand in, “designing” them), and puts on a UD vest with those silly front-facing water bottles, over his far-reaching gut, plodding along main street on his 2 mile run, will forever always be there – if not your shoes, someone else’s, and if not your sponsors adventure tube-top, well, something else.

    I think your insight on the inflow of track/road runners into “trail” running – and showing great results in races is pretty spot-on. But, it’s also not unprecedented. Consider cycling: If you look at the mountain biking and road cycling “cultures” – the same cultural differences are there: you’ll find snickers of Type-A, “roadies” and more mellow mountain bikers having clashes in styles and perspective. The roadies are more interested in Watts and Heart Rate, the MTB’ers are more interested in, “Flow”, or whatever it is. That’s fine, but it’s a little silly – humans get pretty silly, when it comes to their free time to be recreational.

    Elite mountain bikers who race – and do really well, will admit to doing a lot of training on the road (just like you’re focusing on training fast on the road – getting back to your, “roots”), which further causes these types of eye rolling snickers from whatever band that counters such things.

    What you may be missing is that elite (“professional”, in your parlance) road-running/racing individuals will dominate certain types of things – mostly those trail running events you’re so keen on – but most likely events that are closer to what they’re used to on the road. If it’s too technical (for example), they’re not going to do as well. The excuse is going to be (to look into my crystal ball), “That’s not running!”, and all of a sudden the pros are telling “them” what is, and is not running, which again is silly – and again: it’ll be a defensive manuever, in the hopes of controlling some activity, in the hopes to continue to profit from them. So goes the slow march of progress!

    What it comes down to is style, and I’m a little apprehensive with you saying what sort of style people should go with, as it’s a personal choice. You have your style, which this essay is basically saying is really really good! And many would agree, and you’re saying there’s another style, that you’re not so into – because it involve amateurs, but it’s not so clear as to why that is. For example: I have no doubt that you have the talent, skill, and determination to keep up with your quite impressive marathon time – it’s something that is totally unreachable to me. But, let’s talk FKT’s and how crazy this Mountain stuff can get: are you interested in running from Boulder to Longs Peak, free soloing the East Face’s Casual Route, and running back? I don’t get that in your writing – it’s just a wholly different style than what you’re into. Again: that’s fine, but the person who’s into that, will never excel at whatever your style is – they’ll never be able to run a 2:15 marathon – it’s simply a question of time: there’s different skills to learn, and different styles to master, and just so many hours in the day.

    So, I guess to close this all – serious competitors looks for competitions that they can train for, and if these competitions are similar year to year, it’s easy to compare between years and competitors. But, it does nothing for variety of the activity, or creativity of the participants.

    My apology if this essay is a little long, a little lacking in focus. It hit a sour chord in me, and I’m trying to figure out, why. I do think a good thing to do is realize that running could be a part of someone’s life, but in the vast majority of people, it’s not their professional life, as it clearly is for you.

  12. Going back two “generations” of ultrarunners, where n-2 is Jurek/Trason and n-1 is Roes, Krupicka, Moehl, and Mackey, there is no doubt that the sport is attracting faster runners, most of whom had a road or track background, usually at an NCAA school. It should be no surprise that these runners are good at rolling trails, after all, this is where a lot of these runners train, even when they are racing on roads. Thanks to booming participation in trail running, sponsorship and prize money is attracting these runners to the sport, and it seems like a new name comes out of nowhere each month at marquis events. All eyes are upon the new generation, to see if they can conquer elevation, 100K+ distance, and technical trails.

    Oh, and there is money in the top tier of USA road racing, even though they aren’t competitive on the world stage. Keflezighi, Kastor, Goucher, and Hall all pull in $400K+ per year. On that note, I remember once Meb was asked about whether he would consider running UTMB someday and he said it would take an NFL-type salary to get him to run a 168K event.

    • I think Rob Krar has already shown that a MUT Runner can go 100 miles (ie WS 100) and do quite well…even on their first try! Now if it was a race like Hardrock then that would probably be a very different story…

      I’m interested in where you found that Meb, Hall, Goucher, etc. make $400,000+ per year? I was teammates with Desiree Davila (2nd at Boston, 2012 Olympian) and I’m pretty confident she didn’t make close that (even with prize money winnings). But then again she is sponsored by Brooks… I can see Meb and Hall hitting that high though as I know Sketchers put down a big salary for Meb (who, one could argue, was competitive on the World Stage as he did win the NYC marathon and got a Silver Medal at the Olympics in 2004). For a sub elite/national class marathoner (like myself) or any guy running over 2:12 there is not very much money to be made on the roads or track. Winning $10,000 in a single race usually requires a lot more “speed” than that!

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