Top 20 inspirational ultra runners of the year

December 22, 2018

It’s the time of the year when the “best of” lists come out and recognize the notable achievements throughout the past 12 months. 

In the sport of ultra running, 2018 has seen an amazing list of accomplishments by runners. It’s challenging to pick out the top ultra runner, or even performance. Kudos to those who weighed all the options and selected their choices. The selections are sure to prompt spirited debate, second guessing and adulation for the athletes. 

I considered coming up with my own similar list. But frankly it seemed like repetition given all the other accolades being announced. 

However, I wanted to acknowledge the heart of these athletes — the passion that drives them and inspires others. So here is my list of the top 20 inspirational ultra runners for 2018. 

In no particular order, here are the men, women — and technically one child whose accomplishments rival those of grownups —  whose performances drew inspiration that rose to the top this past year. 

1. Kaci Lickteig. Her year began rehabbing from a severe injury suffered while winning the Goatz 50K in October 2017. Licktieg returned to racing to place first at the Free State Trail Run in April and continued to perform well throughout the year. Among her achievements in 2018 was placing second at the JFK 50, a 10th-place finish at UTMB and repeating as the Goatz winner. And throughout her rehab, recovery and racing, she had her infectious smile on her face. 
 

2. Sabrina Stanley. She wasn’t shy about her goal of winning the Hardrock Endurance Run or really any other race she enters. During our interview, Stanley told me, “I want to be known as a super competitive female in the sport. When people see my name on a race docket, I want them to be scared.” I admire her for her dedication, grit and performance. In 2018, she finished third at the HURT 100, took first at the Orcas Island 50-miler and — as promised — won Hardrock. 
 

3. Chris DeNucci. Similar to Licktieg, DeNucci spent months rehabilitating from a severe injury. Also with a smile stretching widely across his face, DeNucci’s training and racing photos illustrated the joy he gets out of the sport. On Day 21 post-op, DeNucci declared on his Facebook page, “I’m free” as he ran slowly on a treadmill. He returned to the podium throughout 2018, most notably winning the 100-mile Rio Del Lago in November. 
 

4. Luke Sanchez. At age 15, Sanchez finished his first 100-miler, with Stanley pacing him to the finish at Javelina Jundred. About six weeks later, he finished third at the Vista Verde Skyline Run marathon. “I just love trail running and being out there in nature,” he told me after his first 100-miler. He will be a runner to watch in the coming years.
 

5. Justin Grunewald. He may not be well known now, but that will likely change. Grunewald works 80 hours a week as a hospitalist, prioritizes his wife’s running career and cancer battle, and somehow finds time to train. Given his hectic schedule, he often does hill workouts on a treadmill. In his first ultra finish, he won and broke the course record at the hilly and hot Afton 50K in Minnesota.
 

6. Jeff Browning. Bronco Billy continues to inspire runners as he competes with much younger athletes in the most challenging races. Browning not only takes on these challenges, he often stands atop the podium. This year, he won the Hardrock Endurance Run as well as the Pinhoti 100-mile race. He also finished fifth at Western States and third at Run Rabbit Run.
 

7. Michael Wardian. The ultra runner of ultra runners, Wardian’s race calendar and travel schedule are so jam packed, you might think there are two of him. Still, he prioritizes giving back to other people, granting interviews and being a true ambassador of the sport. With all of his amazing feats, he told me his FKT (fastest known time) on the C&O Canal Path was “the hardest thing” he has ever done. In true Wardian fashion, he dished out compliments to those who came out to support him on his journey. 
 

8. Courtney Dauwalter. It’s getting to the point of wondering exactly what Dauwalter can’t do. Her list of accomplishments are among tops in the sport. In 2018 alone, she won Western States, took first (and second overall) at the Tahoe 200 and won a handful of other races. Notably, she “DNF’d” at Bigs Backyard Ultra after nearly 280 miles. Dauwalter is the only athlete on this list who I have not interviewed, though I have not reached out to her yet. One of my goals for 2019 is to interview her and share her inspiring story. 
 

9. Camille Herron. Even in an off-year filled with injuries, Herron makes the cut for her inspiring performance at Desert Solstice. While 2017 may have been her breakthrough year, the 162.9 miles in 24 hours on a track was a breakout performance. That performance set the world record for a 24-hour race, an American record in the 100-mile distance and the U.S. record in the 200K. Here’s hoping that Herron is fully recovered and we’ll be hearing more from her — and her trademark laugh — throughout 2019 and beyond. Speaking of 2019, she is tentatively planning to compete in the Tarawera 100-Mile Endurance run, Lake Sonoma 50, the Comrades Marathon, Western States, Leadville Trail 100 and the IAU 24-Hour World Championship.
 

10. Jonathan Levitt. I’ve known Levitt for a few years now as I have partnered with his employer, InsideTracker. But this isn’t about that relationship. It’s how Levitt and others turned lemons into lemonade when California wildfires forced the cancellation of the North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50-miler in November. Levitt worked with Tristan Lewis and others to create the Donner Party Backup 50K and raised money to help with the recovery from the fires. Lewis routed (and rerouted) and marked the course, hosted runners in her home and manned the aid stations. That is what ultra and trail running is all about.

 

11. Rob Steger. I met Steger before Training for Ultra was hatched. In a few short years, he has grown his podcast/website/social media channels into a respected voice in the ultra community. While his own running has blossomed, his real impact is in how he inspires others to pursue and realize their own dreams. 
 

12. Gabe Joyes. Like me, Joyes has Celiac Disease and cannot eat gluten. His allergy is much more severe. But he does not let it stop him from being a tremendous ambassador for the sport, an elite racer and great race director. His successes in 2018 include winning two of three 100-milers he raced: Orcas Island and Bighorn Mountain. He also took fifth place in the Wasatch 100. In the coming year, I look forward to racing in his Rough and Tumble event in Sinks Canyon, Wyo. 
 

13. Candice Burt. What doesn’t Burt do for the world of ultra running? Runner. Advocate. Coach. Race director. Promoter. And now a podcaster. Her passion for the sport is genuine in everything she does. 
 

14. Darcy Piceu. Like Browning, Piceu is a fierce competitor and regularly comes out on top even when running against top athletes who are 10 or more years younger. Last year, Piceu nailed a personal grand slam — victories in four 100-mile races including HURT 100, Javelina Jundred, Andorra Ultra Trail 170K and Angeles Crest 100-miler.


15. Joe Gray. First off, Gray’s resume stands out: 16-time USA national champion, eight-time USA Mountain Runner of the Year, 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon, four-time Washington state road running champion and more. He’s won mountain races, cross-country events and even a snowshoe world championship. Gray is also a talented foodie and great ambassador of the sport.

16. Corrine Malcolm. She became the first runner to start on the Western States wait list but finish in the top 10. That gives her an automatic entry to the 2019 race, if she chooses to return. Wherever she runs, she will no doubt be smiling in all the photos. “I think I'm just a naturally smiley person ... that or maybe my grimace looks like a smile?” 

 

17. Coree Woltering. In a sport overwhelming dominated by white athletes, Woltering stands out. And not just because of his colorful speedos. Woltering is a highly competitive runner who also happens to be a gay African-American. Woltering is a great ambassadors for the sport, and I hope his continued success inspires other minorities to follow in his fast footsteps. 
 

18. Brian Boyle. Boyle is among a handful of athletes on this list who I have met in person. While he has not — yet — graced a podium, his story is among the most inspirational on this list.  Boyle was in a car accident and near death in 2004. Since then he has recovered, thanks to 36 blood donors, and competes in ultra races and triathalons. Even more importantly, he cheers on others and provides endless support. He was among those who have regularly checked in with me during and since my unexpected emergency surgery in 2018 — an experience that is nowhere near his. 
 

19. Clare Gallagher. Trail runner extraordinaire. Environmental advocate. Vegan. Gallagher is not shy about expressing her views or kicking tail on challenging courses. She clearly loves the outdoors and is a model runner and outdoors supporter. 
 

20. Michael McKnight. Last but not least is McKnight who suffered a severe back injury during a skiing accident in 2012. Through his own determination, he started running — against doctor’s orders three weeks after surgery — and seemingly has not stopped yet. Among his accomplishments are winning the 2017 Triple Crown of 200-milers, taking first at the Zion 100 this year and finishing 11th overall at Desert Solstice with 127 miles in 24 hours on the track.
Not bad for a mountain runner. 

Who am I missing from this list? Let me know on the RunSpirited Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram. Or shoot me an email

 

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