I was in a Barnes & Noble looking at magazines a few days ago, and found a magazine called "Trail" (not the regular Trail Runner), in which there was a slick feature about "best" American trail races in all sorts of categories: "Best Partner Race," "Best Marathon You've Never Heard of," "Best Barefoot Event," "Best Race on Reclaimed Industrial Land," "Most Zany Fun Run" . . .
I noticed the item "Best Ultra Race," and out of curiosity took a moment to read it. I had read in Ultrarunning magazine that there are now more than 550 ultras in the U.S., so how does anyone decide which one is "best"?
The selection was "The Western States Endurance Run." This was no surprise. Western States is probably the most famous, most publicized, and--as I note in a forthcoming piece (August issue) in Running Times magazine--the most "legendary" ultra. And, while I have run around 50 ultras (along with around 600 other long-distance races) in my life so far, I wouldn't particularly argue about this one-shot magazine's designation of Western States as "the best."
What amazed me, though, was the writer's reason for selecting Western States. In the interests of journalistic accuracy (and what journalists call "fair use"), let me quote the three-sentence reason the writer gave:
"This is the granddaddy of them all, the 100 mile race that spurred the sport of ultradistance trail running in the U.S. It morphed out of a horse race; when Gordy Ainsleigh's horse came up lame in 1974, he decided to run the entire course through the Sierra Nevada mountains himself. Since then, Western States has become the Boston Marathon of trail running, attracting the best trail runners from around the world."
I have read a lot of "rewriting of history" over the years, but this one should get a prize. Hey, I have a few dusty trophies and medals from popular ultras I ran in the years before Western States was born, so maybe I could send the writer one of those. And maybe I could enclose a note asking how Western States got to be a "grandaddy" of some major ultras that were older than it?
For example: In 1973, the year before Gordy Ansleigh became the lone first finisher of the first Western States, the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland had 673 finishers. Other ultras that thrived before Western States include the Sri Chinmoy hundred-mile and thousand-mile ultras in New York, the Two Bridges 36-Mile in Washington, DC, a series of 6-day races in New Jersey, and some others I'd have to go look up my dusty old copies of the long-defunct Long-Distance Log to recall.
In one respect, the "Trail" blurb is right: ultrarunning boomed in the 1980s, and Western States certainly had a role in it. But the boom had nothing to do with the launch of that race in 1974; it was spurred by the ABC network TV show "Wide World of Sports," which featured Western States in 1984 and '85, and gave ultrarunning a kind of media exposure to the general public it hadn't had before. In a very PR-savvy rewriting of history, Gordy Ansleigh's heroic feat was recast as the launch of the ultra boom. But it wasn't. A TV special was, ten years later.
The real "grandaddy" of American ultrarunning, of course, is not Western States but fthe JFK 50, which had 1,311 finishers over the decade before Western States had its first, and which has had hundreds more finishers than Western States in every one of the 37 years Western States has been run.
Of course, there will be those who say Western States is the more "legendary" race because it's more competitive. Well, I won't at all disagree with the "Trail" special's observation that top runners come from all over the world to run Western States (although that has been true only in the past few years). But they come to JFK, too--just with much less fanfare. In 2010, when seven-time Western States winner Scott Jurek came to JFK, a lot of us assumed he'd win in a breeze. He finished 11th.
As for what race is "the best" trail ultra, again, I wouldn't argue with the "Trail" writer. Western States has a spectacular course through the Sierras--taking you through pristine snow and 100-degree heat just hours apart; it traverses awesome canyons, vistas, and climbs; it has superb aid stations and organization. And the legacy of Scott Jurek's seven wins (and Ann Trason's 11 wins) there is truly awesome. I also know that at least 20 other ultras around the country might make the case that they are "best," but just less publicized. The Lake Waramaug run in Connecticut, for example, started up the same year as Western States (actually three months earlier than WS), and became iconic to ultrarunners in the late 1970s but never became known to the public. "Best" is a subjective word. To paraphrase an old saw, "Best is in the eyes, heart, and feet of the beholder."
My point is just that in the world of long-distance running, "best" cannot be determined by TV producers, film-makers, and publicists. It can only be decided by runners.