Nearly five years ago, we ran an article that proved to be one of the most popular on the website. It still continues to be to this day. The top 25 most influential people in ultra running. As always with list-based articles, there’s a lot of personal opinion and subjectivity our list of the most influential ultra runners. And while for the most part, people will generally agree with 80 percent of what you write. There’s always going to be some borderline inclusions that get the juices flowing.
Since that article was written, we’ve seen huge change in our sport. Growth and commercialisation are two of the biggest I could site. So to that end, it’s time to revisit the list and provide an update.
Any form of list will create debate, agreement and disagreement. Yet, it’s important to outline some criteria as to how the names that have appeared on the list made it into the top 25. The two main ones are outlined below.
- Global influence – This will be a major form of debate among many of our readers I’m sure. It’s all well and good being a hero in your own backyard, but what about influence across the world? Have these individuals really made their presence felt on a global scale?
- Importance / Impact – Not getting too high and mighty here, but a good yardstick of understanding important is to ask this question. “If we took this person away, would it have a detrimental impact on the sport?” If the answer is yes, then this person is truly important.
Longevity is important too, as is the ability to highlight greatness over time. But importantly, as these things tend to be, we are talking about a moment in time too. As such, people can have a huge impact in such a short space of time. Subjectivity will be rife in this area I’m sure.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out there is no running order for the 25 individuals, in terms of most and least influential. Hence no numbers appearing next to any names. Just 25 people whom I think have done the business for our sport.
The Top 25 Most Influential Ultra Runners
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 utilised 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.
Courtney Dauwalter is often described as a complete bad ass – yet more so as a term of endearment. I think mainly due to the fact that destroys ultra running fields in such a devastating fashion. Yet does so with a constant smile and relaxed attitude too. Last year, she finished the Moab 240 race in 2 days, 9 hours, and 59 minutes, faster than any of the men in the pack and beating the second-place finisher by more than 10 hours. She also made it to the final two in Laz’s Big Dog backyard ultra, as well as hammering Western States. A true bad ass.
Camille Herron is a phenomenal athlete. Like so many others on this list, while she’s a superb runner, there’s the additional qualities that we love about her that makes her so influential among us mere mortals. The fact that she loves to down a beer or two mid-race makes us feel like she’s one of us. She won the 2017 Comrades Marathon and holds several world records at ultramarathon distances, along with the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon in a Superhero costume. She’s also the US women’s 24hr track and 100 mile record holder too.
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 ultra running as anyone else before her by not just competing against the women but also giving the best men a run for their money. Now focused on other priorities, Anna is an inspiration for many of this generation’s ultra running women’s talent. I’m sure our own Lucy Bartholomew counts Anna as a huge guiding light an inspiration for her own career. Best of luck to Anna ahead of the birth of her child.
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.
Bryon Powell and Megan Hicks – irunfar
Who hasn’t stayed up all night hitting refresh on their browsers following a runner as they chase down a course record? Bryon Powell and Megan Hicks dedicate themselves to showcasing the US and global ultra running scene for the rest of us to enjoy. It’s no word of a lie to say that Ultra168 was set-up off the back of the inspiration of irunfar and their race coverage. They’ve brought ultra running to the world and we should be very grateful for that.
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.
In 1989, Karl moved to Utah to become a “ski bum”. After one season, and skiing approximately 120 days, he decided to stay in Utah to see how fun summer can be living near the Wasatch Mountain Range. The rest as they say, is history. With more 100 mile wins than you can shake a stick at, he’s not only one of the biggest names on the US ultra running circuit, but known globally too. Director of the infamous Speedgoat, and who can forget his Appalachian Trail record in a time of 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes, covering some 47 odd miles a day. A remarkably driven man.
The owner of the biggest smile in ultra running. The 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. Along with Anna, Emelie inspired a generation of female ultra runners, paving the way for many of the young stars you see gracing the circuit today. We wish Emelie well ahead of the impending birth of her child with Kilian.
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 commercialism 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.
Possibly the greatest ultra runner you’ve never heard of. And until today, me too. At 69 years old, she completed eleven 100-milers that year, including a few sub-24-hour 100-milers too. Her 196 100-milers have come in several different types of walking and running events on tracks, roads, and trails. These types of events will be described in this article. She also holds a number of Guinness world records too. Thanks to Ultrarunninghistory.com, hopefully the world will now become more aware of what this pioneering woman has achieved.
Nicknamed the King of the Fells, Joss is a legend of fell running. His achievements blow most out of the park. Bob Graham round, the Welsh 3000s, The Penine Way. If it involves a peak in the UK, you can bet Joss has got his hands on it. He considered the 72 peak Lakeland circuit as his own greatest achievement, setting a record which stood unbroken for 13 years.
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!
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. What I love about Gary however, is the ability to lead and push new trends to the forefront of ultra running. Many of us would have come across his Big Dog Backyard ultra this year. The race where there’s only one finisher and countless DNFs. Yet if you do a modicum of research, you’ll see this race has been going now since 2012. Laz just knows where it’s at. A pioneer of our sport.
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 capitalised on his image as he crossed over from triathlon where he represented Canada at two world championships. Rob is also extremely vocal about the challenges he’s faced with depression too. Thus, it’s not just for is running that Rob deserves a place in the coveted 25. I’m sure he’s had a huge bearing on the lives of many runners, who like him have suffered with the mental demons.
Candice is the 200 mile woman – and I know many down under look up to her with immense respect. She holds several unsupported fastest known times (FKT), most notably the unsupported record on the 93 mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, which she completed solo. In 2014, she created the first single loop mountain 200 mile trail race in the USA, the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run. She also created and organizes the Bigfoot 200, a point to point endurance run in the Cascade Mountains, as well as the Moab 240 and a number of other races. She also hosts the Humans of Ultra running Podcast. Phew!
One of the most versatile runners around right now. Last year he’s smashing the Western States 100 mile record, just this last weekend, he’s qualified for the US Olympic half marathon trials for the 2020 Olympic Games. When Jim hit the scene, a mass of expectation surrounded him. Everyone knew he was fast, but a series of hick-ups at Western States had the doubters firing.
There’s no denying his talent and ability over the flatter terrain. And has off to him for giving races such as UTMB a good crack too when it’s clearly not in his sweet spot. The trick now will be to see how long Jim can maintain this level of competitiveness over the coming years. We’ve seen many class runners hit the scene in a big way, only to fall by the wayside somewhat. Their bodies completely undone by over training and injury. But for now, Jim remains one of the best ultra runners in the world.
Along with Joss, arguably one of the greatest long distance runners ever. He held the Bob Graham Round record for 36 years. Before a chap called Kilian came along and nabbed it from him. HIs records though stand the test of time. Among his other outstanding records are that for the Wasdale Fell Race, which he completed in 3:25:21 in 1982 (only three weeks after his Bob Graham Round record). This time has not been approached in recent years, despite the event being one of the counting races in the national championships on several occasions. He also holds the record for the Borrowdale Fell Race, having run 2:34:38 in 1981.
Catherine and Michel 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. While there are some who view their charge with some skepticism, you cannot argue about the influence they’ve had on the rise in popularity of our sport.
A quality runner before ultra running became ‘cool’. It’s easy to forget that Lizzy has won UTMB five times. Yep, five times people. Her record in those early days is as good as any female athlete around. In 2011, she set the women’s world record for distance run in 24 hours with 153.5 miles in Llandudno, Wales. She also improved on her Everest record with a time of 71 hours 25 minutes. And has won the 100-mile Run Rabbit Run in Colorado, and the 155-mile Spartathlon, while setting a new women’s record. Lizzy has also run from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu in 63 hours. She has a PhD in physical oceanography and has done so much to help communities in Nepal too.
Scott was probably the first ultra runner 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. They 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.
The Rarámuri or Tarahumara
The Rarámuri or Tarahumara are a group of indigenous people of the Americas living in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. And they are for many of us, our first contact with ultra running through the book, Born to Run. They are renowned for their long-distance running ability. With widely dispersed settlements, these people developed a tradition of long-distance running up to 200 miles (320 km) in one session, over a period of two days through their homeland of rough canyon country, for inter-village communication, transportation, and hunting.
“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 Strava segments throughout the course. It’s incredible to see runners smash themselves just to snag a KOM. And bragging rights down the local pub.
The man who started many of the modern ultra runners 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.
An inspiration for many a female ultra runner. Pam smashed into the running world when she became the first woman to win Badwater in 2002. She wasn’t just the first female finisher. She was the first overall finisher, beating another rather famous person included on this list too. As if to drive the point home further, she defended her title the following year.
Also that year, she set the women’s record for the USATF 24-hour track run with 138.96 miles. And, completed a 300-mile run without sleep. Oh, and she’s completed twenty Ironman triathlons. Tough as old boots.