23 ultra running storylines to watch in 2023
By Henry Howard
When one year concludes it looks vastly different than when it began. While it is hard to predict what will rise to the surface in the sport of trail and ultra running in 2023, there are some storylines that will shape the next 12 months. (This is the second year in a row I've compiled such a list. Here's a look back at the one from 2022.)
Looking ahead, here are 23 storylines in trail and ultra running to monitor during 2023:
1. What’s next for the UTMB brand? Love it or loathe it, the far-reaching UTMB-Ironman partnership is here to stay and is having an impact. It did not take long for the uber brand to impact Western States, arguably the most popular 100-miler in America. As the UTMB-Ironman collaboration extends its reach further, the impact will continue to be felt by runners, race directors, other brands and more. And, in time, perhaps Americans like me will understand the whole “stone” thing.
2. Can anyone beat Adam Peterman? Since Peterman burst on to the scene at his first ultra, the Speedgoat 50K in 2021, he has been a force. His victories include the JFK50 in November 2021, Chuckanut 50K last March, the 100K Canyons Endurance Run a month later, followed by victories at Western States and UTMB Thailand. The only blemish during that time frame is a second-place finish at the Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs, Colo.
3. What will Courtney Dauwalter do next? The talented ultra runner is gunning for a Golden Ticket to Western States at the Bandera 100K in early January. Assuming she gets into Western one way or another, she has hinted that she will take on the summer double — Western and the Hardrock Endurance Run, which she won last year.
4. Is this — finally — the year for an American male to win UTMB? Both Jim Walmsley and Zach Miller had stellar performances at the 2022 race. Walmsley has firmly committed himself to winning the race. Will this be the year for him? Or could Miller or another American break through for the long-awaited victory?
5. Who will take the men’s race at Western States? There is always a competitive field but this year is shaping up to be truly special with talented athletes. Joining Peterman will be Tyler Green (second place in 2021), Drew Holmen (third in 2021), Arlen Glick (third last year), Cody Lind (fourth in 2021), Tim Tollefson (fifth in 2021), Hayden Hawks (second last year) and Scott Traer (10th last year). And don’t overlook Jonathan Rea, Tom Evans, Dakota Jones and Scott Hawker.
6. Will American women fare better at Western States? Those hailing from foreign lands dominated the top of the podium in 2022, led by Ruth Croft. She is not expected to return this year but other top finishers will be competing. Those include Marianne Hogan from Canada, Emily Hawgood from Zimbabwe and Camille Bruyas of France. Top Americans include Devon Yanko (won Brazos Bend 50-miler, Javelina and Umstead in 2022), Leah Yingling (top American finisher at Western in 2022), former champion Kaci Lickteig, Katie Asmuth (top 10 in 2021) and Taylor Nowlin (seventh last year).
7. How will injured athletes rebound? During the past year we saw incredible returns from previously injured athletes like Marianne Hogan, Zach Miller and Jason Schlarb. Among those who are now working through an injury are previous top 10 Western States finisher Katie Asmuth.
8. Will more top athletes from other sports cross over? Heather Jackson transitioned from being a top triathlete to a high-performing ultra runner. At the Javelina Jundred, she finished in fifth place. Not bad for a first ultra. Jackson is entered in Black Canyon and Western States this year, both will be good tests for this talented athlete. As the sport of ultra running grows in terms of sponsorship dollars and general interest, more top endurance athletes were likely follow her lead.
9. What’s next in the development of super shoes? We’ve seen the impact that carbon-plated shoes can have for road runners, from elites to weekend warriors. As shoe technology improves and becomes more affordable for everyday ultra athletes, how will that affect races and performances? I’m all for advancing technology, as long as it does not interfere with or detract from the reasons why we jumped into and still enjoy the sport today.
10. What new training theories will gain attention? Science is always developing and there is a significant amount of attention being placed on performance, nutrition and other factors. In early 2022, there was a lot of attention on Norwegian training, based largely on several breakout performance at the Winter Olympics at that time. Top ultra running coaches took note and began implementing the key takeaways from how the Norwegians performed. But that was only piece of the puzzle. In an evolving field, new research is being produced regularly. And that’s a key factor that will continue to boost athletic performance in all endurance sports, including ultra running.
11. Will the Barkley Marathons win again? 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.
12. Will interest in FKTs rebound? The pandemic created a record number of FKTs in 2020. Since then the overall numbers and general interest have dropped off. With races pretty much back to normal, have we passed the point of heightened interest in FKTs?
13. Will the Western States course be ready? The trail appears to have been spared some of the worst damage from last fall’s Mosquito Fires. But there was quite a bit of destruction that will require an immense effort from forestry officials, volunteers and others. It’s a daunting task but one surely that the ultra community will rally around. (This Ultrarunning Magazine podcast with Western States race director Craig Thornley provides a good analysis of the damage, the work ahead and more.)
14. What’s next in live coverage of races? Technology keeps improving and the audiences seem to keep growing. That’s a healthy combination that should drive initiatives like what iRunFar and others have provided for live coverage of pre-eminent races. Expect to see coverage of those races become more sophisticated while additional races will begin to untangle the technological and logistical issues necessary for live coverage. This is a huge, ongoing development for the passionate fans of the sport.
15. Will new media entities begin covering the sport? While it is challenging for new media entities to emerge, one to watch is Finn Melanson’s Singletrack. While others have joined Melanson in the podcast space in recent years, Singletrack has become a go-to for fans of the sport. Melanson pumps out the content, especially in advance of key races. Additionally, he has loftier goals for the sport and is leading conversations about vital topics. Will others follow Melanson’s path, with their own niche?
16. Which elites will venture into entrepreneurship? Dylan Bowman’s Freetrail gained momentum in 2023, highlighted by its unique fantasy game of predicting top performers in races. Andy Wacker just announced The Trail Team, which aims to mentor, financially support and develop opportunities for athletes on the cusp of becoming elite trail runners. Both elite runners seem to have carved out a niche. Who’s next with a new, big idea?
17. High carbs, low carbs, medium carbs? There is no shortage of advice or speculation about the best combination of nutrition that will help athletes. Popular diet fads come and go. As more research is done, products are unveiled and studies conducted, there will certainly be more trends popping up throughout the year. Will any have long-lasting impact and truly benefit athletes?
18. When will Candice Burt stop? Toward the end of 2022, the popular ultra runner known for race directing 200-mile races, started a new personal quest. As of this writing, she has completed a 50K daily for the past 60 days and shows no signs of slowing down. And these aren’t easy ultras. She is running in winter, amid snow, in the mountains. An incredible achievement already. Who knows how far she will go?
19. Who will break out in 2023? Which up-and-coming runners will rise to the challenge at the more prominent races? In 2022, we saw breakout performances from a number of athletes such as Katie Schide winning UTMB, Jazmine Lowther taking the Canyons 100K, Riley Brady’s second at Javelina, Matt Seidel finishing first at Lake Sonoma and fourth at JFK, and Garrett Corcoran scoring a huge victory at JFK.
20. How will Arlen Glick fare? The Ohio runner was impressive in 2022, following up a year in which he won four 100-milers. This past year he reached the podium at more competitive races, taking third at Western, second at Run Rabbit Run and third at Javelina (which he won a year earlier). It will be interesting to see how he follows up those performances. He also got into both Western and Hardrock. Will he end up competing in both races, and if so, will he put more emphasis on racing one than the other? Stay tuned.
21. Will there be more advances in inclusivity and diversity? When Riley Brady earned a Golden Ticket to Western States with a second-place finish at Javelina Jundred in October, the ultra running world was forced to face a challenging issue: How best to treat nonbinary athletes who finish atop races? Should they have their own division, like men and women? And what rules should govern who qualifies as a nonbinary athlete? There are many more questions. But one thing is for certain: more needs to be done to continue embracing inclusivity and diversity throughout the sport.
22. Which shoe brands will command attention? January is a time when athletes jump from one brand to another when contracts expire. So far, Craft has made arguably the biggest splash. Craft, which supported Tommy Rivers Puzey throughout his cancer battle, recently signed Arlen Glick, Tim Tollefson and Mimmi Kotka. They join other elites including Tessa Chesser and David Laney.
23. What’s next for Camille Herron’s new brand? As of this writing, the multiple world record holder has teased out that she has left Hoka for a new shoe company. “In 2023 & beyond, I’m beginning a partnership with a major brand that will be new to Ultra/Trail!” she tweeted during the end of 2022. My guess is Puma. But whatever brand has signed Herron is obviously making a run, so to speak, at becoming a player in the trail and ultra running world. It will be interesting to follow what else the mysterious brand has in the works.
What intriguing storylines are you following or are most interested in? Leave a comment on any of my posts or shoot me an email.