Ultra Progression

There more I explore this sport, the deeper I want to go. I want to run longer, in more places, more often. I'm psyched to visit new and difficult terrain, but I'm also drawn back to the same events year after year. These are two, very human mindsets: one of exploration and one of community. As 2019 approaches, I am struggling to balance these two.

I want to feel better when running long. I want to be faster. I want to go further and be out longer. I also want to finish what I've started (Hardrock). I want to hang with my wildly dispersed set of adventure friends more!

To that end, I've been thinking a lot about how to model progress in this sport. One hundred miles is a reasonable benchmark. It took me three seasons to attempt and finish a 100M race, but there is a huge variance in that timeline. Hell, there is huge variance in people's first 50k finishing times. As 2019 approaches, I'm struggling to define where I am in ultrarunning, and where I want to go. Here’s my first attempt.


Unlike climbing which affords a somewhat universal system of grades, trail running is pretty broad. The only two natural hierarchies that come to mind are distance and time.

Distance feels like a good metric for personal evolution, although with people now regularly running the AT and folks running across the US, this metric loses focus quickly.

Time is helpful in a micro sense, when comparing individual efforts across a course. A sub-three marathoner might have some great leg speed, but this doesn’t translate far into the mountains. The trail running skillset feels more broad.

Besides, for me at least, trail running is equally about the practice of adventure as it is the practice of sport.


With something as nebulous to optimize as “adventure”, we had better define some objectives if we hope to have any success in modeling our progress. Here are some categories that keep coming up, and some associated artificial benchmarks.

  1. Time : The more we run, the faster we get.

    1. 100M in 24 hr

    2. 50k in 4 hr

  2. Volume : The more we run, the more we run, repeat.

    1. 6 100M in 1 yr

    2. One Big. Long Trail.

  3. Objective : Do big things often.

    1. Circumambulate some PNW Volcanos

    2. The Flagstaff Fearsome 4

    3. Run across the Grand Canyon


The adventure projects we take on shape our running career, so it behooves us to pick them well. With a foundation in mind, there does seem to be a hierarchy of things to do. There are races to participate in and famous adventures routes to run. Sometimes you get lucky, like with Hardrock, where races become attractors that are more akin to an annual festival than a singular event.

Like individual climbing routes, we model our progression on what other folks have done, both for training as well as culture exposure. Moving past other people’s projects into new and bigger things - pushing the trail running soul forward in a meaningful way - is probably the best proxy of mastery I can think of.

To close our initial foray into this discussion, here is a short list of some the ideas that come to mind along this vein:

UP North Loop

Owyhee Canyonlands Adventure

Finding Traction

Mt Hood to Mt Adams