22 ultrarunning storylines to watch in 2022
By Henry Howard
Every new year brings hope, optimism and speculation about the next 12 months. This past year saw a return toward normalcy for the trail and ultrarunning community. We welcomed back friends, returned to more races and shared finish-line hugs. But rightfully passed on the germ-laden community bowl of chips at aid stations.
Safety measures stayed in place. Familiar names stood atop podiums once again. Newcomers broke through. Like any year, there were numerous developments that will shape the future of the sport.
Looking ahead, here are 22 storylines to watch for during 2022:
1. The UTMB and Ironman partnership. When the news broke last summer, I wrote about what the deal means for the trail and ultrarunning community. While there still remains a lot of details to be ironed out (heh), we will begin to see the initial impact during 2022.
2. What’s next for Jim Walmsley? In 2021, Walmsley three-peated at Western States, won Ultra Town Cape Town in a new record time and came within seconds of setting the 100K world record at the Project Carbon X 2 in January. At this point, Walmsley is not returning to Western States in 2022. I would expect him to race UTMB this year, as well as compete at another Hoka event. Stay tuned.
3. What’s next for Francois d’Haene? This past year, d’Haene won UTMB for the fourth time and set the course record at Hardrock, 21:45:50, in his debut at the challenging 100-miler in Colorado. It would seem logical for him to return again to UTMB and Hardrock. Beyond that, who knows?
4. Will Courtney Dauwalter three-peat at UTMB? In January, we’ll get a better feel for which elites will be racing at UTMB in 2022. Right now, Dauwalter is on the entrants lists for both Western and Hardrock, which are three weeks apart. With UTMB a month or so after Hardrock, that’s quite the challenge, even for Dauwalter. I would expect her to race two of those events but have no idea which two they will be.
5. The American men at UTMB. Will 2022 finally be the year when an American male breaks through and claims the historic race?
6. The men’s race at Western States. Assuming Walmsley does not return, that opens up the field on the men’s side. Eight of the top 10 men from 2021 are returning at this point. They are Tyler Green (second place in 2021), Drew Holmen (third), Cody Lind (fourth), Tim Tollefson (fifth), Kyle Pietari (sixth), Hayden Hawks (eighth), Kyle Curtin (ninth) and Alex Nichols (10th). Arlen Glick and Ryan Montgomery are also entered, thanks to Golden Tickets from the Javelina Jundred. That is already a super-fast field with several more Golden Ticket races coming up.
7. The stacked Hardrock field. Both men’s and women’s races are filled with elites who could end up on top. On the women’s side, joining Dauwalter (maybe) are two-time champion Sabrina Stanley; Darcy Piceu, who has finished first or second on eight occasions; and Maggie Guterl. In addition to d’Haene on the men’s side, there will be Killian Jornet, who has three wins and a runner-up finish at his four previous Hardrock races. Other top elites include previous champion Jeff Browning; Dakota Jones, who has finished second and third at Hardrock; and Nick Coury, who has two top-five finishes.
8. What’s next for Anton Krupicka? The beloved ultra runner returned to racing in 2021 with a third-place finish at the Leadville 100. In the few interviews he’s given since then, Krupicka hasn’t divulged plans for 2022. Will he return to the 100-mile race? Or perhaps, he will do the mountain bike version or even go for the Leadman series.
9. Will Karl Meltzer extend his streak? The Speedgoat won a 100-mile race in December, giving him 20 straight years with at least one victory at the distance. In 2022, he will surely go out to extend his streak. After all, 100 miles is not that far.
10. Women at the Barkley Marathons. Will this finally be the year that a woman finishes the incredibly challenging, five-loop course? Heck, will anyone be able to finish it? There have only been 15 finishers who have completed it a total of 18 times since the event began in 1986. The most recent finisher was John Kelly in 2017.
11. The impact of COVID on races and elites. As of this writing, omicron cases are skyrocketing, even among the vaccinated. States are now reporting the highest number of new cases since before vaccines were rolled out. Running coaches are seeing more athletes being diagnosed, too. This spread will likely prevent some athletes from running in some races at the start of 2022, either due to illness or not wanting to travel.
12. The popularity of Fastest Known Times. When the pandemic ushered in social distancing and forced other adjustments to our lives, it also spurred interest in FKTs. In 2020, a record number of FKTs were set and notable conquests are documented this year. With omicron currently raging, will we see more of the same throughout 2022? Or will the vaccine help allow races to continue but dampen the popularity of FKTs?
13. Shipping delays: The pandemic has also highlighted issues with our reliance on shipping and distribution of goods. There are many brands that support the small niche of our sport. The loss of revenue related to the onset of the pandemic plus shipping issues is a major headache for any business, especially the smaller ones. Hopefully, the worst is behind us. But it does make me wonder if those issues have curtailed other entrepreneurs trying to bring their big idea to endurance athletes.
14. The running media. In January 2021, Lola Digital Media acquired iRunFar. A few months earlier, Pocket Outdoor Media bought the parent company of Trailrunner Magazine and a few other health and fitness publications. It’s a trend seen throughout media that has escalated with the ongoing transformation from paper to digital. While I firmly believe there is still an audience for both a print magazine and digital content, the consolidation will definitely continue.
15. Live coverage of ultras. Among the 2021 highlights of live coverage, from a spectator’s point of view, were the Hoka Project Carbon X 2 and Western States. Obviously, there are challenges with Western and other point-to-point 100-milers in the mountains. But, as I wrote after the race, the live coverage via iRunFar was amazing.
16. Will it take 400 miles to win Big’s Backyard Ultra? Harvey Lewis set a new standard with his victory in 2021, with more than 350 miles. Will the needle keep moving forward, edging closer or surpassing 400 miles?
17. New year, new races. What new races or themes will emerge? The Cocodona 250, crossing Arizona, started in 2021. As race directors scout out new challenging courses, there will likely be more 200-mile options (and longer) for ultra runners to consider. At the same time, runners have shown interest in different endurance challenges like last person standing events. New opportunities to redefine boundaries will likely continue.
18. Breakout runners. Which under-the-radar runners will rise to the challenge at the more prominent races? Think Ryan Miller, who won his debut ultra, the 100K at Bandera in 2021.
19. Arlen Glick’s domination: The Ohio runner had quite a year, winning four 100-milers: Umstead, Mohican, Burning River and Javelina Jundred. His first-place at Javelina got him an entry to Western States. It will be interesting to see how he follows up those performances.
20. Inclusion and diversity. How will the ultra running community embrace and bring in more runners of different ethnicities, sexual preferences, etc.? Some race directors, brands and coaches are focusing on being more inclusive. However, it’s a long uphill battle. Hopefully, the community effort will bring about lasting change in 2022 and beyond.
21. Killian’s new project. Killian Jornet announced late in 2021 that he was leaving longtime sponsor Salomon. “This is not to go to another existing brand but to start a new project that I will tell you about very soon,” he wrote on Instagram.
22. Following in his footsteps: In a Dec. 26 Instagram post, Dakota Jones also announced he was leaving Salomon. A day later, Dylan Bowman took to Instagram and posted that he was leaving The North Face. While athletes jumping from one brand to another at this time of the year is not unusual, I’ve been wondering whether Hoka and other major brands will start creating their own teams. With a structured team concept in place, plus the advances in live coverage, just imagine the future of trail running and getting the sport in front of a larger audience.
After all, the dawn of a new year is supposed to bring hope and possibilities, right?