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September 21, 2018

WILD, BASELESS SPECULATION: Elite marathoners would make the best ultrarunners, right?

Stephen Kersh: Hey Eric. I’ve got some things I want you to grossly speculate on as our resident Ultramarathon Expert. I mean, the nametag you wear around the Citius Mag offices literally says ‘Eric, Ultramarathon Expert’ so you really have no choice but to answer my questions.

So, after some marathons, like the 2018 Boston Marathon ft. Terrible Weather and the 2018 Berlin Marathon ft. The Fastest Man Alive, some people enjoy positing how either an ultramarathoner would have fared in the conditions (like Boston) or how Eliud Kipchoge would tackle an ultramarathon. Both of these are fairly silly questions because they are assuming just because both road racing and ultramarathoning rely on your legs they are the same sport. But, come on, give me some nuance.

Eric Senseman: Eliud Kipchoge is the world’s best marathoner. Could he be the world’s best ultramarathoner?

This question naturally arises within some small fraction of the running community whenever someone runs relatively far, really fast. Why not just slow down a bit and run farther, they ask. He’s so much faster than every ultramarathoner, he could blow their doors off, they say. We’ve heard many tidbits like this and the overarching question–could Kipchoge be the world’s best ultramarathoner?–has been asked multiple times among the CITIUS MAG staff. It turns out that the question is a silly one.

It’s very easy to determine who the best marathoner in the world is. One need simply ask: Who has run the fastest time for 26.2 miles? The best marathoner in the world is that person and, as it happens, that person is Eliud Kipchoge*.

On the other hand, it’s very difficult to determine who the best ultramarathoner in the world is. Is it the person with the fastest 50k time? Is it the person who wins the most competitive 100-mile race in the world? Is it the person who runs the farthest over a six-day period? We’re not really sure and neither are you and that’s why it’s at least misguided and probably very stupid to ask if Kipchoge could be the world’s best ultramarathoner, or, for that matter, to ask if any world-class marathoner could be the world’s best ultramarathoner.

But since this publication’s mission is to answer silly and misguided questions, we’re going to make some hasty generalizations, oversimplifications, and outright false assertions for the sake of our readers. We know you didn’t come here for a fancy philosophical inquiry about the necessary and sufficient conditions to determine who could be the world’s best ultramarathoner. You came here for shoddy logic and black-and-white conclusions. That’s what we’re about to give you.

We’d love to write unadulterated and lengthy prose on this topic. We would write on end about all the possible ways in which Kipchoge could be the greatest ultramarathoner. We’d explore fun and interesting topics like hydration methods he could use for longer distances, nutrition tips for staying fueled throughout his world-record attempts at ultramarathon distances. It would be so interesting. But in actuality we tried writing a piece like that and it turned into utter nonsense. It was very uninteresting and, honestly, we couldn’t convince ourselves with any justification that the piece wasn’t complete garbage. Our editors therefore required us to turn this into a Q&A piece or else they weren’t going to publish it**. Read through our hypothetical questions and rigorous analysis below.

Question: Could Eliud Kipchoge set the 50-mile world record?

SK: Of course he could. I don’t even know what the record is, but I know my sweet prince Eliud is more than capable of doing it. That being said, I’m sure there are a ton of elite marathoners with the ability to set the 50-mile world record. There may even be a handful that could potentially be better suited for it than Kipchoge. What if after 2 hours and 10 minutes of running Kipchoge just explodes? We don’t know because he’s never had to run more than that, Eric. I bet someone like Yuki might be better suited for setting a record like that. Man. I love speculation!

ES: The official world record, Stephen, is 4:50:21 by Bruce Fordyce. Fordyce is an absolute legend. He won the Comrades Marathon an astounding nine times. He’s actually split 50 miles faster than 4:50:21 at least once during one of his Comrades Marathon^ wins. Fordyce was, I believe, just a 2:17 marathoner. So, if Eliud trained specifically for the 50-mile distance for a year^*, and learned how to run 5:40 per mile pace instead of 4:38 pace, and learned how to fuel properly, and taught his body to run for much longer, and everything else that would be required, he might get the world record. But he would also have to care about getting the 50-mile world record, and he wouldn’t, so I don’t know why we’re even speculating about this.

Q: Could Eluid Kipchoge win the ultra granddaddy of them all, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (the 170-kilometer mountain race in Europe)?

SK: Absolutely, 100% not. Mainly because Kipchoge is a runner, not a hiker, so he wouldn’t even sign up for this. (shots.. fired.)

ES: Let me answer this question with a question. Could Usain Bolt set the world record for most goals scored in the English Premier League? Are you confused by the question? Exactly.

Q: Could Desi*^ win the most competitive ultramarathon in the world, the roughly 90-kilometer point-to-point road race in South Africa, the Comrades Marathon?

SK: See, now this is the kind of speculation I love. While this is substantially longer than a marathon, the bones of this race should appeal to tough-as-nails marathon runners like Desi – the bones being that this race is on the road and Desi races on the roads. Could she win, though? Alberto Saladbar (Editor’s note: we think he means Salazar) won it once, right? So, using sound logic, if Alberto won it and was a world-class marathoner then yes, Desi, also a world-class marathoner could win Comrades. Good luck breaking apart that one, big guy.

ES: I like this question. I’m also the author of this question. Desi, if you’re reading this, I implore you to consider running Comrades. Why? First, you’ll be awarded 425,000 if you win. Okay, that’s in South African Rand and I don’t actually know what the conversion is to USD, but it sounds like a lot of money to me. Second, you’ll set an example for the many fast ladies who look up to you and the sport of ultrarunning will go mainstream. If I can make this about me for a minute, I’ve always wanted to help make ultrarunning mainstream. This is me doing my part^^. Oh, and my answer to this question is yes, Desi could win the Comrades Marathon.

Q: Would any world-class marathoner ever consider competing in ultramarathons?

SK: Ok, I’m going to assume world-class means any marathoner with a chance of either winning a marathon major or medaling at a global championship.

I’m going to say… NO. If they are at that level, there is no reason to delve into world of handheld water bottles and nutrition vests. This is assuming a few things, though. Mostly that any runner is motivated purely by financial promise and also that the world-class marathon runner intrinsically loves running road marathons.

It’s funny how ultrarunning sometimes gets lumped into really good runner’s bucket lists you know? Like, after I’m retired from the roads, I’ll give these dang roots and trails a try! But how cool would it be if we had these elite marathoners, who are in their prime, go try to throw down at these major ultra races? Answer: it would be cool.

ES: I agree with Stephen’s assumption–that’s the type of runner we’re talking about here. My initial thought? They wouldn’t consider competing in ultramarathons unless ultramarathons start offering similar prize money. If you’re an executive at Google making three million dollars a year, you probably don’t decide to leave your job and become an executive at some small company making $100,000 per year. Why would you? Kipchoge and Desi and Yuki and any other top marathoner winning big bucks at Boston or Berlin are like that Google exec making three million bones every year. Answer: If ultrarunning’s governing body pooled together all its resources, started an account on Patreon and raised a ton of cash, and designed a course similar enough to the road marathon, they might lure some world-class marathoners to an ultramarathon event.

* Unless you’ve been dead to the world for more than a week, you know about Kipchoge’s recent world record. If you don’t know about it, stop reading this article right now and go get yourself learned.

**  We, the authors, are also the editors. Listen, we’re working on a budget* here at CITIUS MAG and we can’t hire everyone

^For those that don’t know, the Comrades Marathon is a roughly 56-mile, point-to-point road race in South Africa. More on that later.

^* This is a totally arbitrary amount of time. But, hey, we’re speculating, so I’m allowed some creative license.

*^ If you don’t know that we’re referring to Desiree Linden when we say “Desi”, this entire article must make absolutely no sense to you. Huge kudos for making it this far.

^^ To that end, Malcolm Gladwell, if you read this, please RT and help us take ultramarathoning mainstream.

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