Top 20 Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year for 2020
If we needed anything in 2020, it was inspiration. From the ongoing pandemic to racial tensions to economic hardships to murder hornets and everything in between, 2020 delivered daily stressors often beyond our control.
For many runners, COVID-19 also limited our abilities to relieve that stress with our daily or near-daily runs. Quarantines, gym closures and stay-at-home orders sent many runners to their treadmills or other creative ways of pounding out the miles safely.
Yet amid the gloom, feelings of hope, examples of creativity and doses of inspiration arose. Races, which were largely silenced in mid-March, returned to a lesser degree in the late summer and fall with new safety protocols in place. Throughout the year, Fastest Known Times (FKTs) inspired all types of runners. So, too, did virtual races, which are still going strong and providing runners motivation.
On this year’s list of the Top 20 Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year you won’t find this summer’s champions from top races like Western States, UTMB or Hardrock. Of course, those races were canceled. But in this third annual list, you will find a range of ultra runners who inspired through their pursuit of FKTs, how they motivated the ultra running community or rose to the top in a number of other ways.
(Thanks to XX2i for sponsoring this year’s list. As a special bonus for my readers, XX2i is offering 60 percent off any of its sunglasses for athletes — and a free hat. Offer ends Dec. 31, 2020.)
There are some previous honorees from my inaugural list in 2018 and the one I published last year. For this unusual year, these are the men and women whose performances drew inspiration that rose to the top. I’ll start with the clear number one choice for me, and then list the others in alphabetical order:
Tommy and Jacob Puzey: The brothers evoked inspiration even before Tommy was struck with an aggressive and rare form of cancer last summer. But in his very public battle, the inspiration has sharply grown due to the Puzey family’s gratitude, grace and love as detailed in a recent blog post. Tommy, who has a top 20 finish in the Boston Marathon as well as other racing accolades, has inspired countless athletes as a coach/motivator as part of the iFit virtual workouts. Jacob has taken on a role he certainly did not ask for — the public face of the effort to support Tommy and raise donations — and has done so with so much grace and love. Lucy Bartholomew: As the realities of the pandemic were starting to take hold in America last spring, I reached out to Bartholomew to interview her, learn about how she personally coped with COVID-induced restrictions and how Australia was faring. Her homeland, of course, suffered back-to-back emergencies, first terrifying wildfires and then the raging coronavirus. Through it all, Bartholomew stayed positive, worked on her plant-based cookbook and trained for 2021 and beyond. “Even through the tough times; tough times build tough people. Together, we got this,” she said.
Amelia Boone: It could be argued that Boone was made for not just surviving but thriving in a pandemic. She finds joy exploring the outdoors running and biking, started working remotely before it was a thing and proudly lists in her Twitter bio, “happiest not wearing pants.” Boone is now roughly 18 months removed from treatment for an eating disorder. Her Twitter, Instagram and blog posts focus on the joy she finds in training, running and living life. What could be more inspirational than that? The endurance athlete has also found success and joy in challenging events. This year’s Big’s Back Yard Ultra is an example. “137 miles of joy, friends, and lessons in self-belief. I learned my body and mind can feel stronger at mile 120 than it can at mile 30. I learned the power of other competitors (especially my lady crew!) to pull you through the ebbs and flows. And I also (unfortunately) learned how quickly the wheels can come off in just one loop. Bigs Backyard is a strange and glorious race - regardless of how far you go, there’s always that little gnawing voice that says ‘was that enough?’ While I’d have liked to have gone further, I left it all out there, and it’s all I had in me on that day. And that has to be enough,” she wrote on Instagram. Dylan Bowman: After an injury-riddled 2019 that included a broken ankle, Bowman felt his career was in jeopardy. But he applied himself, focused on strength training and looked ahead to 2020 for redemption. While races ground to a halt this year, Bowman’s successes and inspiration flowed freely. After winning the Sean O’Brien 50-miler in February, Bowman placed third at Transgrancanaria a month later. He has not raced since due to the coronavirus but set three FKTs over the summer. Among them: the coveted Wonderland Trail loop around Mt. Ranier, which he did in just under 17 hours. “What a day!,” he wrote on Instagram. “Being able to check this career-long objective off the bucket list is a very special silver lining to the race free summer. Mt. Rainier National Park is one of the most incredible places and the Wonderland Trail is equal parts savage and spectacular — a relentless, seriously difficult circumnavigation.”
Buzz Burrell: In 2020, FKTs morphed from a side interest for ultra runners to a priority as races were canceled throughout most of the year. Burrell, who helped launch the current Fastest Known Time website in 2018, has 14 FKTs to his credit. But as interest in FKTs soared this year, Burrell, co-founder Peter Bakwin and others responded well to the increased traffic and launched a podcast, started a newsletter and recruited volunteers to help verify and publish new FKT submissions. With so many ultra runners gunning for FKTs, following the attempts of others and the general interest, is it any wonder that Burrell was an easy pick for this list? Alyssa Clark: Long before Clark finished her marathon-a-day journey and her story caught the attention of others in the ultra running media landscape, I interviewed her and shared her inspiring story. At the time, she had completed around 10 marathons in 10 days while in locked-down Italy. Her goal at the time? “I’ve set myself the challenge of running a marathon every day until the world has healed enough for us to be released from isolation. This means almost every marathon will be on a treadmill, but I see this as a gift I get to run at all,” said Clark, who wisely stopped due to illness at 95 consecutive days. While she couldn’t outrun the pandemic, she has inspired countless others to chase their dreams — safely — while social distancing.
Chris DeNucci: Perhaps no ultra runner has had more of an up-close view of COVID-19 than DeNucci, who has a full-time professional career as a radiologist. DeNucci provided an interesting perspective from the health-care side during our interview earlier this year. At the same time, he emphasized the joy in his running and fitness. While he hopes to once again compete at an elite level, DeNucci’s approach to life and running, as well as his contributions to the ultra running community, earn him a return to the list in 2020. (He was among my selections in the inaugural list in 2018 as he worked back from surgery.)
Courtney Dauwalter: What does one do for an encore after a string of successful achievements, inspiring the next generation of young female runners and back-to-back years on this list? Winning the U.S. version of Big’s Back Yard Ultra and besting last year’s mark of 280 miles is a good start. Dauwalter completed a record 68 laps and accumulated 283.33 miles to win the event in October. In our interview in 2019, she says she was intrigued by FKTs and was interested in trying the 500-mile Colorado Trail. While her attempt during 2020 had to be cut short, Dauwalter’s legendary running – and candy chomping — continues to inspire. I can’t wait to see what a year of training means for her in 2021 and beyond.
Trevor Fuchs: A late addition to this list, Fuchs had two outstanding bookend accomplishments in 2020. He began the year with a victory at the HURT 100, improving upon his second-place finish there the previous year. And on Nov. 29, he obliterated the White Rim 100 Mile FKT, finishing in 15:59 as compared with the previous mark of 18:43. Here's a look back at my interview with Fuchs about how he transformed from a couch potato smoker to plant-based elite ultra runner.
Hayden Hawks: In a year of limited racing, Hawks made the most of his opportunities, starting in January with a win at the Arches Ultra 50K. In February, he crushed the Black Canyon 100K in under eight hours, then followed up that victory with a win at the Squaw Peak 50-miler in June, a runner-up finish at Speedgoat 50K and setting the course record at the JFK 50-miler in November. In our interview from awhile back, Hawks emphasized the importance of family, which was prophetic for this year. “Life is not good unless enjoyed with the people you love.”
Camille Herron: Like Hawks, Herron had a successful year while races were limited. She also won the JFK 50-miler and the Black Canyon 100K. Additionally, Herron was crowned the 2020 USATF Women's 50K national champion by winning the event in March with a time of 3:25:17. These accolades notwithstanding, Herron’s appearance on this list is also due to what she came back from. Early in 2019, she was struck by another driver in a fiery, scary crash. Suffice it to say, she has recovered and has returned to her status as an elite and inspirational ultra runner.
Meghan Hicks: The pandemic shut down most of this year of ultra running, throwing a curve ball to Hicks and her husband, Byron Powell, and their iRunFar media company. But as good entrepreneurs — and ultra runners — do, they adjusted on the fly and made it work. Without races to cover, they created a virtual race early in the pandemic that raised funds for the World Health Organization. Additionally, they continue to publish informative, timely and interesting content on their website, keeping ultra runners informed, entertained and inspired. Last but not least, Hicks set an FKT on the Colorado 14ers.
Andy Jones-Wilkins: In recent years, the 10-time, top 10 Western States finisher, has been sidelined for months at a time due to hip resurfacing surgery. We chatted about the unique surgery and his return to running a couple of years ago as he rehabbed from his first one. Jones-Wilkins underwent a surgery on the other hip in 2018, and returned to racing in late 2019. After a series of races up to 50 miles, he completed the 100K at the Beaverhead Endurance Runs in July, then finished his first 100-miler in more than three years when he crossed the finish line in under 20 hours at the Yeti 100 in late September. Not only does Jones-Wilkins inspire by his physical achievements, he is among the best-liked and knowledgeable voices in the sport. He gives his time and energy to weekly columns on iRunFar.com as well as regular appearances on a variety of podcasts dedicated to the sport.
John Kelly: While all FKTs are notable, some are more impressive and inspiring than others. Kelly, who has six FKTs to his credit, collected two over the summer that are likely among the most significant of the year. An American now living across the pond, Kelly broke the 31-year-old FKT on the United Kingdom’s Pennine Way, previously held by top British ultra runner Mike Hartley. Kelly’s new mark of two days, 16 hours and 40 minutes didn’t last long as his friend Damian Hall topped the mark by three hours about a week later. Roughly a month later, Kelly — who finished the Barkley Marathons in 2017 — established the audacious Big Three Rounds. Kelly summitted the Paddy Buckley Round (Wales), Bob Graham Round (Lake District) and Charlie Ramsay Round (Scotland) which translates to about 190 miles of running with 84,000 feet of elevation gain. Additionally, Kelly cycled his way between the mountains, adding about 400 miles to his journey that he completed in five days, 10 hours and 43 minutes.
Travis Macy: As the sands of time are ticking down for loved ones, it’s important to emphasize the life left in our years, not the years left in our lives. I wrote that as part of my story on Macy, his appearance on the Eco-Challenge and the family coming to grips with the Alzheimer’s diagnosis for his father, Mark. As we chatted, I was literally in the midst of moving my dad from assisted living to a higher level of care for Alzheimer’s. Watching the Macys participate in the Eco-Challenge on Amazon Prime, was inspirational on several levels for me as I deal with my own father’s decline.
David Roche: I am so fortunate and grateful to have daily doses of motivation throughout my training log. After a workout, no matter the outcome, Coach Roche always offers up positivity. “Perfect!” “You’re amazing!” But it’s not just the typed, daily expressions that inspire me. It’s the unrelenting support, the ease in nudging me away from something that won’t help me in the long run and a training plan that works. The coaching relationship is only 18 months old but I have grown so much in that time, as a runner, as a coach myself and as a human. Thanks Coach Roche – YOU’RE AMAZING!
Zoe Rom: There are two acronyms that define Rom’s 2020: DNF and FKT. She launched the DNF podcast for Trailrunner Magazine and nailed a couple of FKTs. First up was the Buffalo River Trail, which we discussed in our interview early this summer, and later on she conquered the gnarly Capitol Peak in Colorado. Whether she is creating a wonderful story-telling podcast or raising the bar for ultra runners with a fastest known time, Rom delivers inspiration.
Sabrina Stanley: The pandemic scuttled Stanley’s racing calendar like it did for many other elite ultra runners. For Stanley it interrupted a strong run she was having after winning HURT 100, Cruel Jewel 100, Never Summer 100K and Grand Raid La Reunion 170K, all in 2019. So what does Stanley go out and do? She sets the FKT for the Colorado 14ers, then takes it back after Meghan Hicks topped her original mark. Stanley brings a refreshing brashness to the sport, telling me in our first interview in 2018, “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.” After her back-to-back FKTs, she offered a similar sentiment, saying, “I want, obviously, people to look at my time and be like, ‘Wow, that's a really stout time that can't be broken.’”
Michael Wardian: Perhaps the coronavirus had a greater impact on Wardian than anyone else on this list. After all, it’s hard to come up with a runner who races more frequently, especially when considering the success rate of Wardian’s. Currently, he has 16 FKTs listed on the Fastest Known Time website, the earliest of which is from the C&O Canal Path, which he told me was “the hardest thing” he has ever done. In 2020, he has added a dozen (so far) FKTs to his name, including the Delaware Crossing, which he did in just over 26 hours. But 2020 was not just about FKTs for Wardian. He also won the Quarantine Back Yard Ultra with 262 miles in roughly 63 hours and zero sleep. Accolades aside, Wardian consistently makes this list because of his contributions to the ultra running community and his incredibly friendly nature, which I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand at the 2019 Boston Marathon expo.
Coree Woltering: An elite ultra runner who also happens to be a gay African-American, Woltering is a great ambassador for the sport. Like Macy, Woltering received some quality time on-air during the Eco-Challenge segments on Amazon Prime. The actual Eco-Challenge took place in 2019 but was aired in 2020. So what did Woltering do in 2020 for an endurance activity? Just set the FKT on the 1,147-mile Ice Age Trail in 21 days, 13 hours and 35 minutes. He did have to push the final 157 miles in under 40 hours to finish, after he had a very early rough patch. And that final push followed a series of challenges including ticks, a bum ankle and sickness.
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