By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Throughout the history of ultrarunning, the Western States Endurance Run has served as a litmus test, or key indicator, of the state of the sport. Researchers, coaches, athletes, and fans look at the longitudinal data about finisher rates, the number of silver buckles awarded for sub-24hr finishes, the amount of time it takes runners to get through the lottery process, and the depth of elite men’s and women’s fields. The 2021 race was notable, but not for good reasons.
According to irunfar.com, the finishing rate for the 2021 Western States was 66%, which is the lowest it’s been since 2009. Similarly, only 57 runners finished in less than 24 hours to earn silver buckles, the lowest number since 2006.
So, what happened?
Don’t jump straight to the fact it was hot. It’s almost always hot at Western States and the heat this year wasn’t substantially different than it’s been in some previous years. The heat alone didn’t decimate the field, but it did expose and magnify deficiencies.
The major extenuating circumstance for Western States this year was the loss of a full season of racing due to the COVID pandemic. If the widely held theory that ultrarunners train too much and race too frequently were true, then a season without high-profile races should have resulted in a leap forward in performances and course records. And although I don’t believe over-racing or training too much are as prevalent or problematic as a lot of others believe, I did write that a year without major races was a chance for athletes to rebalance their training and shore up their weaknesses without the pressure of impending competitions. And with deferred entries already secured, they could create longer and more gradual buildups to their goal events, which in theory means you should be able to maximize fitness with less risk of injury.
But so far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, in the first high-profile, major event of the season, the field fell apart. And I’m purposely using broad terms because the drop in performance and competitiveness was pervasive throughout the categories. The only conclusion I can reach is that, despite their best efforts, athletes arrived at the race underprepared and undertrained.
Racing Really Matters
I don’t think that more runners failed to finish or took more than 24 hours to finish because they were lazy in training. Far from it. Rather, I think a season without major competitions has shown us that from a training perspective, racing really matters. Using B and C races in the process of building up to an A race creates training stimuli and learning experiences that are very difficult to replicate without toeing a start line. It’s not that runners couldn’t replicate race distances with backyard or virtual 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile races. It’s that the stress of a major ultramarathon is greater than the sum of its parts and practicing and refining race-day routines (pacing, aid station habits, equipment choices, nutrition and hydration strategies, and competitive strategies) are big benefits of competing on a regular basis.
The good news is that the pathway back to higher finisher rates and faster times is ahead of us with the resurgence of the ultramarathon race calendar. Ultrarunners after the pandemic are fit, but rusty when it comes to putting it all together for race day. As those routines become more automatic again, maybe we’ll see that leap forward in performance I’ve been anticipating.