The Top 25 Most Influential in Ultra Running

Step outside your comfort zone

Well, we put the teaser out on the Book of Faces yesterday and here is our list. Before we get into the ‘nitty gritty’ of the who’s who, a few things to clarify. First up, this list is a global interpretation. While we’re based in Australia and a good chunk of our readership is ‘Aussie’, over 60% of you come from outside the land down under. And when we say most influential, we’re again taking this from the stance of the effect that these people or things have had as a whole on our industry / sport – i.e. mass appeal and influence. We accept and understand that when it comes to an individual basis, we all have different heroes and people who we look up to. Those people might not be famous and just one of those everyday people, which we love too. They are people that influence us as individuals, but they’re very niche to specific people.

As you can imagine, a list such as this will create debate, agreement and disagreement. The list was in the most part, put together by Marcus while he was out running, thinking about people who have had such a massive impact on the sport. I gave my two pennies’ worth and as such, the list was born. There are some seriously great and talented people not on this list and it will always be open to subjectivity, we know that. But feel free to comment, add your own suggestions and rationale, but above all, keep it constructive and open-minded too.

While we appeal to people as individuals, as individuals we also have to acknowledge what appeals to everyone else in society. So here goes…

This guy pretty much wins any race from 1-200kms. His win (and course record) at Hardrock this year confounded him as the single biggest thing in ultra running.
This guy pretty much wins any race from 1-200kms. His win (and course record) at Hardrock this year confirmed him as the single biggest thing in ultra running.

1.Kilian Jornet

A marketers dream – humble, talented, unique and extreme. It seems that whatever the mighty Catalan does turns to gold. Unbeatable over 1km to 200 miles Kilian has done it all. The ability to be at the top of two sports and also pursue unique projects has given rise to a completely new way of looking at running. He has utilized the rise of social media in a very clever way by bringing us stunning images without an overtly commercial message. Like a good wine he seems to be getting better with age.

2. Dean Karnazes

The man who started many of the modernultrarunners on their mad capped pursuits. The reading of ‘Confessions of an all-night runner” has been cited more than any other reason why the bulk of us took up running the longer stuff. Still on most people’s dream list of who they would most like to spend time on the trails with. Coming from an average athletic background, Dean has pushed himself harder than most on a journey of self discovery with very little reference points guiding him. Dean brought a niche pursuit to the masses and turned it into a sport for the masses.

Anna is one of the most recognisable faces in ultra running. She only has to post a picture of her feet and she gets 20,000+ likes on Facebook - that's how influential she is. And she's a bloody great athlete to boot too. Credible, likeable and humble. She has it all.
Anna is one of the most recognisable faces in ultra running. She only has to post a picture of her feet and she gets 20,000+ likes on Facebook – that’s how influential she is. And she’s a bloody great athlete to boot too. Credible, likeable and humble. She has it all.

3. Anna Frost

Anna has been able to combine that unique mix of talent and image well. She has done as much in the modern ear to elevate women’s ultrarunning as anyone else before her by not just competing against the women but also giving the best men a run for their money. Her best days on the mountain may have been eclipsed most recently by her best friend Emelie but when she is on fire many in the field male or female need to fear her. An avid user of social media has raised her profile into the mainstream and divested her brand into a line of clothing inspired by her love of nature.

4. Catherine Poletti

The rise in popularity of the UTMB race over the last 10 years has seen the race grow into a massive commercial machine. UTMB has spawned a number of offshoot races all in the same week. The brains behind this are Catherine and Michel Poletti. Most recently their reluctance to grant UTMB points without a fee and accusations of driving athletes too hard to compete in their UTWT has led to some feeling they have too much control over a somewhat genteel pursuit. Time will tell if their ownership will be good for the sport.

5. Strava

“If it’s not on Strava it never happened” and ‘Prove It!” have become bywords for all of us to go out there and chase our own local version of FKTs. Who doesn’t like comparing themselves to an elite ? We even now have races marked with specific S segments throughout the course and it is incredible to see runners smash themselves just to snag a KOM. And bragging rights down the local pub. And both Dan and I have admittedly gone out the next day to snag a KOM back off our respective nemesis, all in good fun of course.

6. Emelie Forsberg

The owner of the biggest smile in ultrarunning. The young Swedish runner has not only turned heads since she came on the scene with her ubiquitous enthusiasm and energy but also her incredible downhill speed over the roughest of terrain. The better half of a potent partnership with Kilian Jornet, it would seem that Emelie has the world at her feet and will continue to light up races around the world.

The biggest smile in ultra running? Shit can she run too!
The biggest smile in ultra running? Shit can she run too!

7. Anton Krupicka

The humble running shoe has gone through a bit of a revolution over the past 5 years with the introduction of minimalist and maximalist shoes. You cannot go past the famous footage of Anton taking a knife to a perfectly good pair of New Balance shoes and turning us all into a band of barefoot runners. His star is on the wane a little now but we all secretly desire to see another day of Anton ripping apart the course at Leadville or Western States along with his particular appetite to smash the Nolan’s 14 FKT.

8. The Hardrock 100 Board

The more things change the more they stay the same. And you have to hand it to the Hardock board. As the boom in trail ultras has been happening around them they have stuck to their guns and let the race stay true to its heritage. Even superstars like Kilian had to wait patiently in line to get through the lottery. Long may some of these traditions stay.

9. Facebook

To quote comedian Will Ferrell – “People wouldn’t run marathons if they couldn’t talk about them”. The book of faces has a lot to answer for and a lot to be proud of when it comes to ultra running. Every Tom, Dick and Annie now has an “athlete” page on FB to allow themselves to differentiate their running from their private life, yet running is what most people do to have a life, not get a life. Oh, well, who hasn’t posted a picture of their favourite summit or new pair of trail shoes for all to gloat over. For some it is their only reason they run, well that and Strava.

10. Gordy Ainsleigh

The story of Gordy’s horse going lame just over 40 years ago is probably the most often quoted story in ultra running. It led to the birth of the 100 mile race and of course adds to the mystique of Western States and the eponymous quest for a buckle. More outspoken on matters of the heart nowadays but few have earned the right for an automatic start for life to the “Big Dance” than Gordy. Long may he toe the line in Squaw on the last Saturday in June.

This man started it all - that is all you need to know.
This man started it all – that is all you need to know.

11. Ian Corless & Bryon Powell

Who hasn’t stayed up all night hitting refresh on their browsers following a runner as they chase down a course record. Social media has equipped these two fellas with the ability to bring big race atmosphere to our desktops where cameras and film crews fear to tread. Talk Ultra’s Ian Corless brings a unique perspective to the sport from his days as an elite cyclist and professional photographer where we get to see the passion and emotion on race day all delivered with some good old British humour. iRunFar’s Bryon Powell, who gave up a perfectly good job as an attorney to dedicate himself to the US running scene gives us the most in-depth look at race coverage possible through his attention to detail.

12. Yiannis Kouros

The Babe Ruth, Rocky Marciano, Roger Federer and Lionel Messi of ultra runners. If Yiannis Kouros dominated a more mainstream sport like those already mentioned he would be a household name. His feats of endurance from 100kms to 6 days still beggar belief. We marvel at the 2 hour marathon potentially falling in our lifetime whereas some of Kouros record may never fall! And all of this done at a time when the media and the money in the sport were relatively non-existent. His 24hr record speaks for itself – 303kms in 24 freaking hours!?!?!?! Oh and did you know he has written over 1000 poems?

13. Tim Olson

Tim’s story sums up so many other runners journeys as to why they find the challenge of ultra distances so addictive. His rise over the last 5 years is one of life’s real success stories. As he has frequently said, running literally saved his life. 2 time winner at Western States has allowed him and his new family to see the world as a professional athlete. How he manages his body and evolves his running as new competitors come onto the scene will be his next big challenge and will help define the rest of his life. One of the good guys we all like to see do well.

14. Ann Trason

The definition of tough IS Ann Trason. The first woman to take it up to the boys over the ultra distance. Nearly winning Western States outright on a couple of occasions and a winning streak likely to never be beaten with 14 wins and her course record stood for over 18 years. Ann also managed these incredible performances whilst competing on the world stage at the Comrades ultra. She completed the double with wins at Comrades and 12 days later at States twice in 96 and 97. She has recently returned from the running wilderness by turning up at a couple of races and also co directing races. Filled with incredible advice and a tenacity yet seen, I reckon if she was to toe the line competitively again she would still be a force to be reckoned with.

The term 'legend' is way over used in our sport, for this lady it cannot be used enough. (Pic Ann Trason)
The term ‘legend’ is way over used in our sport, for this lady it cannot be used enough. (Pic Ann Trason)

15. Seb Montaz

When you are an ultrarunner, you are frequently asked ‘why’? Well for me I simply pull up a YouTube clip of Kilian descending a mad mountain slope in super slomo and say to my friends – Watch this. Seb is one of those unique filmmakers who is not just self-taught but an incredible athlete himself. The footage he sends back from the top of the Matterhorn or Denali takes guts and a fair degree of madness in its own right to capture, along with a level of alpine proficiency to keep everyone safe on the mountain. We have people like Seb to thank for making the unbelievable fill our desktops in beautiful 1080p HD.

16. Craig Thornley

Has one of the most enviable jobs in the ultra running world. As RD for WSER I reckon this man has been offered envelopes stuffed with cash more times than a mafia boss. Who wouldn’t want a coveted spot on the start list for the “Big Dance” He ran the race many times in his early days with great mate AJW and so it was fitting that one day he would make the jump across to direct the race. He is facing the universal challenge of more people than spaces for the run from Squaw to Auburn and how he evolves the race in the coming years will be his legacy. It is without doubt a race very trail ultra runner must complete once in their life to be able to wear that coveted buckle with pride.

17. Marino Giacometti

A mountaineer of some repute, Marino is heralded as the founder of Skyrunning. Basically a collection of running challenges held at altitude. The modern day Skyrunning revolution started with him and a couple of mates reviving the age-old challenge of fastest person to the top of the highest peak and back. Still a remarkable athlete today, Marino has seen the sport evolve around him as more commerciality and media coverage enters. But even with all the hoopla associated with today’s modern athlete, many of his FKTs still stand the test of time today. He will leave a great legacy for the sport as it aims to gain Olympic recognition.

18. The Oatmeal

Cartoonist come runner Matthew Inmann is a world-renowned comic creator with bestselling titles such as “5 Very Good Reasons To Punch A Dolphin In The Mouth (And Other Useful Guides)” and “How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You”. His comic strip entertains all manner of social topics and most recently his book “The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons I Run Long Distances” where we come to know the expression “The Blerch” crossed into ultrarunning folklore.

19. The African Attachment

We are often asked why brands like Salomon have managed to capture the unique balance of the beauty of trail running without the overt commercial messages associated with most sports brands. The South African boys Dean Leslie and Greg Fell are to blame. As filmmakers they have expertly melded the stories people have to tell, brought the stunning landscapes into our living rooms and all the while done it with commercial backing of one of the biggest companies on the planet. And yet we don’t feel like we are being promoted to. Their films for Salomon go viral within days and we all wait with baited breath for their next installment of Salomon Running TV to go live.

20. Bruno Brunod

Who would have imagined that a quietly spoken stone mason from Italy would be the inspiration for Kilian Jornet to lace up some shoes and show the world what mountain running is. Bruno set the FKT from Cervinia to the top of the Matterhorn and back that stood for 20+ years only recently eclipsed by Kilian. Seen as a once in a generation athlete by his peers he still commands attention today when he toes the start line of a race. Rarely out of the top 20 in races even though he is “in retirement” A fearless runner who showed the world that you don’t need lots of alpine equipment to move fast on the peaks. And boy, can he run downhill fast!

Without the guy on the left, we wouldn't have seen the guy on the right
Without the guy on the left, we wouldn’t have seen the guy on the right

21. Greg Vollet

The brains and mastermind behind the recent Salomon trail running revolution. As head of athlete marketing at Salomon, Greg has managed to take his years as an elite MTBer and the growth of that sport and bring it bang up to date in the modern era. With a stable of athletes who dominate podiums on all 6 continents, Greg has expertly matched the right athlete to the right event. He has also managed to drive the athlete developed R&D process perfectly. As our own Ultra168 survey shows each year, Salomon products are rarely outside the top 2 owned by all runners. And he is also a world-class athlete in his own right often seen leading runners out way too fast in ultras all round the world.

22. Rob Krar

Winner of Western States, Rob and his beard has set the US ultra scene alight in the last two years. A Canadian who like Kilian used Ski Mountaineering to gain levels of fitness to benefit his running, Rob came back from double knee surgery to realize his pure track speed on the trails. The North Face have capitalized on his image as he crossed over from triathlon where he represented Canada at two world championships. Yet to prove himself in the Alps and Dolomites, but when he does he will be more than just a star on the rise.

23. AJW

Cut him and he would bleed a mix of IPA and Western States 100, this family man and teacher embodies the passion of ultrarunners all over the world. He was one of the first to blog about his training antics leading up to Western States and his incredible streak of top ten finishes, some of which gained by beating better athletes with his mind games. Tough as they come, but with a smile and sense of humour even at his lowest points, a night sharing tall tales with AJW is something we should get to experience once in our lifetime.

24. Gary Cantrell

With the lighting of his cigarette, Gary quietly starts 35 hardcore athletes in the toughest race on the planet – the scary Barkley Marathon. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr assassin James Earl Ray who escaped prison in Frozen Head State Park and barely made it 8 miles in 3 days. It is a race like no other with five loops of 20 miles and a 60 hour, yes 60 hour cutoff. More men have been to space than completed the Barkley!

The most unassuming man you could think of, yet for 25 years has created an old school aura that still burns strongly in this world of increasing professionalism and money. Ultra running needs people like Gary.
The most unassuming man you could think of, yet for 25 years has created an old school aura that still burns strongly in this world of increasing professionalism and money. Ultra running needs people like Gary.

25. Scott Jurek

Scott was probably the first ultrarunner to cross over into the mainstream. He dominated running during the late 90’s and early 2000’s with multiple wins at Western States, Hardrock100, Badwater and Spartathlon. Brooks saw his potential to reach out to a new audience and happily developed a range of shoes that started the trail running shoe revolution with the Cascadia. A bestselling author and self-confessed vegan runner, Scott now commands more audiences at book signings than start lines of ultras with his last world-class performance in 2010 when he broke the US 24hr record.





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50 thoughts on “The Top 25 Most Influential in Ultra Running

  1. The most interesting point that I get out of this is that non-commercial messages/figures seem to be the most popular among ultra-runners; therefore, these types of messages/figures garner the most influence, therefore they ultimately sell the most products. It’s funny how many people make this connection, yet still buy into the idea of the “naturalness”,
    “simplicity”, “humbleness”, etc through ultrarunning as a sort of escape from consumerism.

    1. Agreed Charlie, each person has a personal list that they would chose. I reckon if we’re hitting 70%+ with this, we’re doing well.

    2. Rickey Gates has brought the world of ultrarunning to many through his writings in Trailrunner and other journals. I submit he has had an influence equal to many of the greats listed here.

  2. I think Christopher Mcdougall should be on here too… Born To Run surely must rank near the top in fact! I’d also add Ryan Sandes, another Salomon icon. If I wanted to be really cheesy I’d add the Unknown Soldier (Middle and Back-of-thepackers) as well.

    1. Carter, I’ve always flown a little under the radar. 🙂 and Rob Krar is not undefeated at 100, nor did Scott J win Hardrock more than once. It’s ok, it’s all mumbo jumbo anyway.

      1. Under the radar is where all the cool kids hang out Karl. You’re right, it’s all mumbo jumbo subjectivity… we appreciate you coming along to comment though. On a personal level, Marcus and I both look up to you as a pioneer in the sport and someone that inspires us. Keep up the great work.

    1. Yeah, Steve, it really sucked that they mis-spelled “Gordy” with the feminine version, “Gordi”, like I had had a sex-change operation or something, since that 107F day in early August, 40 years ago.

      1. Apologies Gordy, we have a friend called ‘Gordi’, and yeah, he runs like a girl 🙂 Thanks for popping on by and taking the time to comment. We’ll get the post changed too.

    1. This is awesome, thanks so much for adding some real value to the debate with some amazing pictures- you are a true gent! (Dan)

  3. You guys are a joke! You have Oatmeal, FaceBook and Strava but no Karl Meltzer? I’m so glad I don’t live I. Australia….

  4. I’m a little dismayed to see the true pioneers of this sport further down the list than the up and coming modern day stars. Sure they’re hot right now, but what they do and the culture that’s been created wouldn’t have existed without the likes of Ainsleigh, Trason, Kuoros, Karnazes….

    1. Eric, the best explanation of this phenomenon was given by Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, AKA William Shakespeare, in Act 3, Scene 3, of Troilus and Cressida. This is just the way it is:

      Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
      Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
      A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
      Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
      As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
      As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
      Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
      Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
      In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
      For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
      Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
      For emulation hath a thousand sons
      That one by one pursue: if you give way,
      Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
      Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
      And leave you hindmost;
      Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
      Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
      O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
      Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
      For time is like a fashionable host
      That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
      And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
      Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
      And farewell goes out sighing.

      Nevertheless, I had a problem with non-humans and cartoons out-ranking Karl Meltzer, and Killian’s girlfriend far out-ranking Ann Trason, who won 10 consecutive Western States while breaking both the uphill and downhill record at Comrades, and setting a world 100K mark.

  5. I know this is an international list, but given you guys are Australian I would have liked to see Kevin Tiller on the list somewhere. Those relatively new to the sport would have no idea who he is. He started coolrunning in Australia, fair to say it’s past its heyday now but it was a very big part of the ultra-running scene five years ago.

    He was also RD for Six Foot and built up its popularity to the point it was the must-do trail race in Australia for many years, maybe still is. I think this spawned a few other trail races acting as stepping stones and qualifiers to Six Foot as well.

    Lastly, although they are a distant memory these days, he was responsible for organising many a Fat Ass run in and around Sydney. Again, these acted as a stepping stone for many ultra runners I know.

    Make no mistake, he played a very big part in the popularity of trail running in Australia.

    1. Thanks for the contribution Simon. You’re right, guys like Kevin have had a huge impact on the sort here locally… but we’re not focused on just Australia right now. I’d say we’d like to do an Aussie list as well and people like Kevin would no doubt be on that list. Thanks for commenting. (Dan)

  6. I will give some more love for Scott Jurek, although he IS on the list, he’s on the bottom. What he did at Western States, winning 7 times in a row, is a record that will likely stand till he’s dead, even my 36 wins has a chance of being beaten if someone really focuses on it, even in this day in age. Killian, if he wanted to, could rack up a few years of winning 6 of em’ and later in life catch me. Scott helped bring Ultrarunning to the masses, much like Dean, but in a different way. I will say this list should mostly include older names, those that brought the sport to recognition, not who is hot now. Always good to read people’s comments, and thanks for the love. 🙂

  7. You never heard of Marshal Ulrich? Just ask Digger – if you haven’t read his books or seen him on film, trek up to Comrades…

  8. Well that got the feathers of ultra running around the world rattled! Time for some reflection and answers to a few comments. First up, this is not a list of the best, nor is it intended to focus on one country, it’s simply a cross-section that will appeal to as many as possible – globally. Naturally people will want to see their own heroes with names in lights, similarly will people want to see those from their own country in there too. But here’s how we define influence…

    For us, influence is: Reach + Relevance. What do we mean by that? Well the reach that someone has is their ability to reach huge numbers across the world, or parts of the world, not limited to one country. Most of the negative comments regarding this list came from people in the US sticking their hands up for US-based runners or things… nuff said really. There’s a whole big world outside the US and while you guys produce some outstanding runners and are leaders in our field, reach I’m afraid goes beyond just the confines of your borders. People like Scott Durek and Dean Karnazes have that global reach. We’re not saying they’re better runners than some people not named in this list… influence is completely different to best.

    Relevance is more to do with their impact and the cause and effect they have on people. Again, not to be associated with best, or indeed limited to one country. It’s about impact on a mass scale, these people or things cause a movement. Dean wrote a book, it sold massively worldwide and impacted a huge number of people worldwide, hence he is influential. Gordy Ainsleigh… everyone who’s a serious ultra runner knows about WSER100 and Gordy’s story, he therefore has reach and relevance on a mass scale. Likewise Strava is there because it spawned an entire generation to get out, log their runs and claim crowns, it’s had a huge impact on our sport. It has reach and is highly relevant to our sport. Maybe not in some countries, but again globally, it has.

    There’s a line I used in the opening to this list that I deliberately placed in there in the hope that people would look at this list objectively. The good news is that I think most people do get it.. This list is not about you, me or your best ultra running mate, it’s about everyone:

    “While we appeal to people as individuals, as individuals as also have to acknowledge what appeals to everyone else in society.”

    Thanks for reading our article, we appreciate every visit and we look forward to welcoming Troy to Australia soon 🙂

    1. Nice response there, and the list makes a lot more sense with that meta around it. It’s hard for people to put aside their “my favourite is” mentality when thinking along these lines.
      Since it’s an Aussie site, even though he isn’t on the list, I need to see Andy Kromar’s name up here. Would’ve been good to see him travel and wipe the floor with people all over the world. Still hoping for the king of all comebacks 🙂

      1. Thanks Stubbsy… Andy is a legend here in Australia I agree, but globally he would not be recognised, not that I think it would bother him in the slightest, or that he would even read this 🙂 I haven’t met him, but from what gather, he’s very unassuming and old school in that respect… I think we might have to do an Aussie list too. The Ultra Runner Podcast guys did a US version off the back of this… maybe it’s time to do a local one here 🙂

  9. If we only had a Top 10, I would put Timothy Noakes on there, whose influence on raising “ultra/trail miles run” via The Lore Of Running *far* outweighs the collected works of the good Mr. Karnazes. Is there yet a better book? I don’t know of one.

  10. I like seeing Gary Cantrell on the list. He continues to create novel “old school” type ultrarunning challenges. Another name “missing” is Matt Carpenter. While his focus was narrow, his ability was limitless. The year I ran the Pike’s Peak Marathon, he won the ascent on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. The second time he tried the Leadville 100 mile run, he set a course record by 2 hours – and he was NOT young when he did that.

  11. Seriously, no Bruce Fordyce?

    As a race, Comrades arguably has greater “reach and relevance” (and history and competitor numbers) than any race mentioned in the article.

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