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The top 20 most inspirational ultra runners of 2019

In putting together this second annual Top 20 Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year list, one thing really stood out.

This was way harder than last year for the first edition of the inspirational ultra runners.

Perhaps more ultra runners had inspiring performances this year. Or perhaps social media has made those more public than years past. Or perhaps my consumption of ultra running content has grown — and therefore my familiarity with more runners who inspire from the front, middle and back of the packs.

(Special thanks to Coros Global for their support of this year's Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year compilation. My Coros Apex has an amazing battery life, is simple to operate and easily syncs when workouts are completed. If interested in getting one for yourself — or that special runner in your life — check out my discount code.)

There are six runners who remained on the list from the inaugural one. Last year, there were 12 males and eight females on the final list. Coincidentally, there is the same distribution this year. Also notably, at least five athletes on this list have recovered from near-death experiences. Personally, I have found all of their journeys to be incredibly inspiring. I summoned strength from each of them during a run, workout and/or race. So as another incredible year of ultra running draws to a close, I wanted to acknowledge these athletes and the passion that drives them to inspire the rest of us.

Here is my list of the top 20 inspirational ultra runners for 2019 in alphabetical order:

Hillary Allen: Two years ago, she could have died during a race. Instead Allen suffered severe injuries when she fell 150 feet down a mountain during the Tromso Skyrace in Norway. Two broken arms. Two broken vertebrae. An injured ligament in her right foot. A sprained left ankle. Numerous lacerations. But her spirit was unbroken. Allen endured surgeries in Europe and back home in Colorado before returning this past August to the race. “I was pretty scared seeing the ridge,” Allen told Runner’s World, referring to the area where she tumbled down the mountain. “I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t crying; it was just eerie.” This year, she crossed the finish line — with Manu Par, the fellow runner who helped keep her alive after the fall two years earlier.

Katie Arnold: I happened to meet the ultra-running champion twice during 2019, first at the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) in Virginia and again at the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver. Whether we are chatting in person or during a phone interview, Arnold is gracious, welcoming and supportive of non-elites such as myself. As a fellow writer/editor, I have been inspired by her not only for her running accomplishments — she won the 2018 Leadville 100 and finished second at UROC — but her story-telling abilities. Her book, “Running Home,” is a beautifully written tale of running, loss and grief, and discovery. It’s a great read for runners and non-runners alike.

Amelia Boone: Her accolades are well known in the endurance sports community. Boone is a three-time winner of the World’s Toughest Mudder, champion of the Spartan World contest and has more than 50 podium finishes to her credit. While her athletic achievements are inspiring, her decision this year to publicly reveal her eating disorder is why she lands on this year’s list. I can’t begin to tell her story succinctly in this limited space. So I would encourage you to read — or re-read — her blog posts that discuss her battles and recovery.

Matt Daniels: A year ago at this time, Daniels was not well known in the ultra running community. What a difference a year makes. During our interview, Daniels was preparing for Black Canyon in February — a race he won by 25 minutes and received a Golden Ticket to Western States in June. On the way to Western, Daniels won the Tillamook Burn 50K in Oregon. And of course, his 15:21:36 finish for fourth-place at his first 100-miler at Western has been well documented. But it’s not just the blazing fast speed — he has also clocked a sub 4-minute mile — that propelled Daniels to this list. It’s his ability to overcome a difficult situation, embrace joy in everything he does and giving back to the sport. “I learn so much from getting to coach so many great people,” he told me in January. “It has given me purpose and enjoyment that is immeasurable.”

Courtney Dauwalter: The ever-smiling, basketball shorts wearing, candy-chomping ultra runner had another stellar year. In February, she won the 100K Tawawera Ultra in New Zealand, then the 115K Madeira Island Trail Ultra in Portugal and then UTMB in France. The victories build on her legacy of fast times and strong performances. While Dauwalter does not win every race she lines up for, she has taken the lessons from her first 100-mile attempt when she DNF’d at Run Rabbit Run. “That really lit a fire for me,” she told me earlier this year. “I decided that I wanted to figure out the 100-mile distance and that I needed to invest myself more in the whole process and respect the training that would go into it. And figure out nutrition and gear and all those pieces that are important.” While I will never have the leg speed of Dauwalter, she sets great examples for runners of all levels from her beaming personality to her inspiring growth.

Gabe and Justin Grunewald: To those who may point out that, Gabe never ran an ultra marathon, I would say that her courageous, years-long battle with cancer more than qualifies her to land on this list. It’s hard to quantify how many runners and non-runners she inspired with her relentless courage she displayed during her on-again, off-again fight to which she succumbed to this past summer. And it was not just runners or fans of track distances that she inspired. Her reach was felt in the ultra world and beyond. Her husband, Justin, continues to inspire with his charity work and running accomplishments. After Gabe’s passing, Justin won the marathon distance race at the Silvretta 3000, took first place at the North Face 50-miler in Wisconsin and finished third at the North Face 50K in San Francisco. More importantly, Justin continues to carry on her legacy through the Brave Like Gabe Foundation.

Maggie Guterl: Quite simply, her signature victory this year ushered in a new vernacular, Last Woman Standing or Last Person Standing. Guterl became the first woman to win Big’s Backyard Ultra when she outlasted the competition, running 250 miles over the course of about 60 hours. It was an improvement over the previous year when she dropped after running 183.3 miles. In her career, she has impressive performances ranging from a top 10 at Western States to a second-place finish at the Georgia Death Race to various podiums at much shorter distances. Still, a few years ago she was mired in a running rut. Guterl re-examined her why and rediscovered her love of running and adventure. “To my surprise, I was choosing things waaay outside of my comfort zone,” she told me just prior to the Big’s race. “Types of races I wasn’t good at or had never done. And now I am excited about running again.”

Walt Handloser: A few years ago, Handloser struggled with weight and decided to start working out. He ran. He lifted. He boxed. As he dropped 100 pounds, running stuck with him and he soon discovered ultras. At the beginning of this year, he set out to chase an amazing goal: break the world record of 100-milers in one year, which was 41. Handloser beat that record and made it virtually impossible for another runner to top his mark of 50 (if he completes Across the Years this weekend. As someone who travels frequently and just completed my first 100-miler, I have trouble wrapping my head around doing even four in a year. Bravo, Mr. Handloser, bravo.

Hayden Hawks: Born, bred and still living in Utah, Hawks had a very successful 2019 as an athlete. He picked up victories at Chuckanut 50K, Ultra Trail Tsaigu, Broken Arrow and other races, while also setting course records along the way. Perhaps even more inspiring is his approach to living a balanced life and teaching his young son about the outdoors. “Life is not good unless enjoyed with the people you love. I love my family and we try to stay balanced in all that we do,” Hawks told me earlier this year.

Camille Herron: The car’s windshield blew out. The fire started to spread. And Herron was upside down in the vehicle, trying to figure out an escape. She did get to safety, relatively unscathed physically, after her vehicle was struck by another in January. “I almost just died,” she told me, understandably breaking from her normal jovial tone. “It’s really helped me appreciate the world around me and appreciate what my body can do, what I do as an athlete. It's actually made me reassess my life.” While it took her longer to recover emotionally, her running did not seem to miss a beat. Just weeks after the crash, Herron won the Tarawera 100-miler in New Zealand. After having to DNF at Western States, she rebounded to win the 50K at the Hennepin Hundred and set a new world record at the International Association of Ultrarunners 24-Hour World Championship. That performance helped the United States win the team title. When Herron laces up for a race, she is all in. And that certainly reflects back to the crash from nearly a year ago. I actually like that kind of pressure on me,” she says about going all out. “That feeling of I have to do this now. I may not get tomorrow. I may get injured. You never know what might happen.”

Dean Karnazes: In early 2019, the ultra community learned that Karnazes is not immune from injury. But the renowned ultra runner did not suffer an overuse injury — he never has. It was simply an unfortunate combination of limited light and a small rock. Karnazes had been running a flatish section of the brutal North Face Endurance Challenge Series 100-mile race in Chile, which had a 30 percent finisher rate, when the fall occurred. He made it to the next aid station, where medics confirmed that he needed to go to the hospital. There is was confirmed: Karnazes had a cracked rib, broken toe and torn intercostal muscles. Karnazes healed quickly and soon returned to running and inspiring athletes of all experience levels. “You need to look at your life through the lens of an athlete, of being the best beast you can be.”

Dave Mackey: To be honest, I should have included Mackey on the 2018 list. His return from a near-death experience to become the first athlete with a prosthetic leg to finish the Leadville Series last year was incredibly inspiring. In the summer of 2019, Mackey again completed the grueling Leadman, finishing 11th overall. Given his stature before the accident, Mackey has a unique opportunity to inspire endurance athletes and others. “I hope that people know that they can have adversity,” he told me in an interview. “Mine's pretty dramatic, you know, falling off a mountain and losing your leg. Despite all that, you can still do what you did before.”

Michael McKnight: The first of two people on this list who I met at the Boston Marathon, McKnight does not compete in road races for a very simple reason. It’s bad for his back. But it may not be what you think. McKnight suffered a severe back injury while skiing in 2012. His doctor told McKnight he would be lucky to run within a year, but he might be able to swim or do some other low-impact exercise by the following winter. Instead, McKnight went for a run three weeks after the accident and ran a 10K race “for fun” six weeks after surgery. In 2017, he raced and won the Triple Crown of 200s by having the lowest accumulated time. He returned in 2019 and became the first runner to win all three of the races individually, beating his previous overall time by more than 40 hours.

Mario Mendoza: When I was planning my blog posts for the Father’s Day time period, I could think of no one better to highlight than Mendoza. The elite ultra runner has strong bonds with his father and had become a father himself the previous September. And last year in his first race after his son was born six weeks earlier, Mendoza returned to his homeland of Mexico to run the Ultra Trail Mexico 100K. It was a “pretty incredible” experience he told me about the race, which he not only won but set the course record. The inspiration I draw from Mendoza is partially because of his love of family but also his love of ultras. He feeds on the raw emotions. He embraces the suck. He redefines his limits. “You just get really down to this real core, perhaps a place of humility sometimes. And I like it because I think I've learned the most about myself from pushing myself in ultras.”

Sean Nakamura: Western States 100 Endurance Run. Arkansas Traveller 100. Old Dominion 100. Mohican 100. Vermont 100. Angeles Crest 100. Leadville 100. Wasatch Front 100. Some of all of these historic 100-mile events are on many ultra runners’ bucket lists. Few complete all eight in their careers. Even fewer — four — finish all in the same calendar year. In 2019, Nakamura became the fourth person to complete the Great Eight of Ultra Running, which span from early June to early October. “I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go big for an epic summer,” he says. But he didn’t stop there. Nakamura also completed the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 170-kilometer race and the Tahoe 200-miler, where he finished fifth overall. Don’t expect him to slow down in 2020. He has a running streak of more than nine years going and he is signed up for the Triple Crown of 200s and the inaugural California Untamed 330-miler.

David Roche: Earlier this year, I was in the market for a new coach. I had interviewed Roche previously about the book he co-authored with his wife, Megan, “The Happy Runner.” I also read the book and have been inspired by Roche’s online columns, podcast appearances and much more. I reached out for a coach but wound up with a coach/cheerleader/friend. To say that my running has improved under his guidance is an understatement. As much as I needed someone to draw up training plans, I may have needed someone to provide daily, positive support more than I knew. For the first time, my annual mileage has climbed past 2,000 miles, while finishing my first 100-miler under Roche. But that’s not all: my speed has quickly progressed, well more than I could have anticipated. But best of all, I am a happy runner. Thanks Coach!

Carol Seppilu: It doesn’t matter that she finished 455th at her first 100K at Black Canyon Ultras in February. Seppilu couldn’t run more than a couple of blocks five years ago. She persevered to become an ultra marathoner. And not just an ultra marathoner but one whose tracheostomy tube in her windpipe makes breathing incredibly difficult. The trach and the scars on her face are from a dark moment in her life. At age 16, she was drunk and upset about losing friends to suicide. So she got her father’s gun, pointed it at her face and pulled the trigger. Doctors doubted she would ever see or speak again. Seppilu proved them wrong, of course. And she prove to herself that she can do hard things, including finishing her first ultra in 2017. “Running ultras helps me to be stronger physically, mentally and emotionally,” she told Women’s Running. “I need that especially in my life, because I’ve been through some pretty tough situations. I shouldn’t be here, but I am.”

Sabrina Stanley: A returning honoree to this list, Stanley put together an extraordinary year. She began 2019 by winning the HURT 100 race, then took first at the Cruel Jewel 50-miler, won the Fragrance Lake 50K in Washington state, stood atop the podium at the Never Summer 100K and concluded the year by claiming victory at the Grand Raid La Reunion 170K. Stanley is known for being fiercely competitive, telling me during our interview, “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.” Her competitive fire burns brightly and that’s why she again is an easy selection to this list.

Jim Walmsley: Perhaps the top ultra runner of his generation, Walmsley broke his own record at Western States with a blistering 14:09:28, just besting his roommate and training partner Jared Hazen, who finished in 14:26:46. Walmsley also won the Nine Trails 35 Mile Endurance Run and the Ultravasan 90K in Sweden. During the much-hyped, Hoka One One Carbon X Project, Walmsley broke the 36-year-old record for 50 miles. His time of 4:50:07 edged the previous mark by 14 seconds. In his spare time, Walmsley trained for and achieved an Olympic Qualifying Standard at the Houston Half Marathon. Other than trying for the Olympics, what’s in store for Walmsley in 2020? Who knows? His Ultrasignup page currently has no races listed. But one thing is for certain: at whatever races he lines up at in the coming year, it will be hard to keep up with him.

Michael Wardian: Meeting and chatting with Wardian at the Boston Marathon expo was among the most memorable experiences I had at the historic race earlier this year. It should be no surprise to anyone who has met, listened to or knows about Wardian that he was just as kind in person as he is on podcasts and elsewhere. He is not only a prolific runner he handles all sorts of distances on all kinds of surfaces. His accolades are impressive, so much so that it is challenging to keep up with his latest mind-blowing achievements. Among the notables from 2019: breaking the world record time for 10 marathons in 10 days (with an average time of 2:55:17), setting a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of 10 days, 16 hours and 36 minutes on the 631-mile Israel National Trail and winning the inaugural Marine Corps Marathon 50K in 3:11:52. Through all of his impressive feats, Wardian remains humble. Looking back to a year when he set another record, the FKT on C&O Canal Path, he showed appreciation for those helped him on his journey. out to help some random dude achieve this goal that he dreamed up one day on a run,” he says. “There is no way I would have made it without everyone coming out and supporting me. It was super inspiring to see everyone rally around the cause. I am unbelievably grateful.”

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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