More than a marathon, the Ultra Race of Champions puts the ‘ultra’ in running
Ultrarunning — the word alone sounds intimidating, as if just running in the mountains wasn’t already a challenge. Somewhere along the line runners decided that marathons just weren’t long enough, and thus a new discipline of running was born, the “ultra.” Any race beyond marathon length (26.2 miles) qualifies as an ultra race, typically 50K, 50-mile, 100K or 100-mile courses, on either roads or trails.
“The sport is still in its infancy,” said race director Dr. Francesca Conte. “It has exploded in the last four or five years.”
With origins as more of a grass-roots sport, ultrarunning continues to grow substantially, and with growth becomes more organized. Some in the ultrarunning community have voiced concerns about the sport’s commercialization, while others see it as more of a step forward, with the organizational benefits outweighing any negative consequences.
This Saturday, for the first time, Breckenridge and Vail will host one of the larger events in the growing racing genre with the first Colorado running of UROC, the Ultra Race of Champions.
Conte is one of the organizers behind this weekend’s race, previously held in Virginia.
“We’re planning on a permanent stay here,” she said. “I can’t think of a better place.”
The 100K course will run along the Tenmile Range from Breckenridge to Frisco, across Wheeler Pass to Copper, then to Minturn and ending in Vail. The Saturday race is also the last event in the Sky Runner World Series of ultrarunning.
With ultrarunners from across the globe coming to Summit and Eagle counties this weekend, the Summit Daily took opportunity to speak with renowned 22-year-old ultrarunner Dakota Jones to try to get a little insight into what it takes, and why anyone would subject themselves to that kind of punishment.
The short answer: because it’s fun.
For Jones, a big part of it is the challenge of running on trails, and adding the distance and elevation gain on top of it.
“It’s a challenge of your mental abilities as much as your physical,” the Boulder resident said. “It’s more about strategy.”
Unlike shorter races, a runner can’t simply out-muscle the competition. It’s also just a greater challenge than a traditional marathon, Jones said.
“Fitness is a huge part,” he admits. But as much as fitness is involved, “it’s about being the smartest runner,” he said.
So what’s the strategy? “You don’t want to go hard early, you’ll get fatigued faster. In my eyes it’s about being the fastest in the last 20 percent of the race.”
Jones has the potential to be a top finisher this weekend, according to Conte.
“He’s taken the ultrarunning world by storm. He’s definitely a contender for the top three, if not to win.”
Spain’s Kilian Jornet is the consensus favorite.
“He’s a freaking mutant,” Jones said of his Spanish competitor.
As for the draw to the sport, for Jones it’s clearly much more than covering a lot of ground. It’s as much about atmosphere. His interest has always been in trail running and getting into the mountains, rather than simply running on road courses. In fact, he’s disappointed about the short stretch of Saturday’s race that will incorporate the Vail Pass recpath.
“I’m inspired for a million reasons to run in the mountains,” he said. “It makes it more enjoyable.”
Beyond the scenery, it’s the technical aspects of trail running and covering substantial elevation gains and distance that are as much a part of the appeal for him.
As to preparation, Conte spoke to what goes into getting ready for such a taxing race.
“It takes a lot of dedication and years of training,” she said.
Jones is at such a point physically that he discusses running 50 miles as casually as most runners talk about going out for a jog.
“With normal fitness I can get up and run 50 miles if I need to,” he said.
As for preparing for such a race, it’s not so much distance as it is getting used to being on your feet for an interval of time. Jones said that the same distance ultrarun can be completely different from one race to the next because of the type of terrain incorporated in the course.
“You need to be able to run for eight hours at a time,” he said.
Jones balances his training with four-hour runs and shorter interval training to build his lactate threshold. But, he said, “Everybody trains differently.”
There is no textbook method.
Saturday’s race kicks off in downtown Breckenridge at 7 a.m. The course will dip into downtown Frisco for a few blocks on Main Street before heading up and over Wheeler Pass. The course will also pass through Copper Mountain resort on its way to Vail. Organizers expect the top finishers to run the 100K course in around nine hours, which would mean crossing the finish line in Vail Village at around 4 p.m. Organizers are also running a 50K and a half marathon that will both start and finish in Vail.
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