Top 20 Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year for 2021
(Photo by Instagram user dstagg17)
By Henry Howard
You might think that narrowing down my list of the Most Inspirational Ultra Runners of the Year would get easier now that this is the fourth annual compilation.
But every year it seems there are even more inspirational ultra runners, jaw-dropping performances and motivational moments. Ultra runners from podium finishers to back-of-the-packers contribute to the inspiring achievements which motivate our community.
As I finalized this year’s list, I reached out via my Instagram and Twitter channels to crowd source some nominees. I received lots of great nominations, some of which I have included in the final list and others who didn’t quite make the cut. A big thank you to everyone who submitted names!
On this fourth annual list, you will find a range of ultra runners who inspired the community in a myriad of ways. Six of the honorees return from the previous year’s list, which can be found here. Feel free to also check out my inaugural list from 2018 and the second annual one, published in 2019.
This year there was a clear number one choice for me. It was also the prevailing consensus among the responses I received via social media. We will start with that runner, then list the others in alphabetical order:
Tommy Rivers Puzey: The most inspiring ultra runner of 2021 hasn’t run an ultra in at least two years. But his incredible battle against an aggressive and rare form of cancer has been a source of inspiration for the community over much of the past two years. While it appears he has a long way to go, his gutty performance to walk the entire New York City Marathon — with his beaming smile – was a source of inspiration for countless runners and others. An Instagram post from the day after the marathon says it all. In the accompanying photo, Puzey is smiling deeply with one hand giving a high-five to a bystander and the other clutching a slice of New York pizza. In part, he writes, “Oh my goodness. That was the single most difficult athletic achievement that I’ve ever accomplished. NYC you are pure magic.” And so are you, sir.
Katie Asmuth: After smiling her way all through the race to a fifth-place finish at Western States in 2021, Asmuth took some time for an interview. Her brightness and kindness shined through the phone. She’s a master of balancing her roles as mother, wife, athlete, nurse and more. Is she Superwoman? “I think balance is all about priorities,” said Asmuth, who also won the Bandera 100K and took third in the Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada 125K during 2021. “I spend time doing what's important to me. I am intentional about being present where I am. When I’m on an adventure with my kids, I’m present in that moment. When I’m running, I’m giving it my all. And when I’m at the clinic, my mind is only with my patients. Balance to me is about setting priorities, and then being present in the moment.”
Robbie Ballenger: The plant-based athlete completed his own personal challenge this year, which he dubbed the Colorado Crush. The challenge included multiple bucket list endeavors including the Leadville Trail Marathon, traversing the Colorado Trail (485 miles in 11.5 days), the Leadville Silver Rush 50-miler, summiting all 58 peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado and the Leadville Trail 100-miler. In 63 days, he covered roughly 1,200 miles and over 300,000 feet of elevation. Ballenger does not shy away from testing his body in endurance feats. He’s come a long way since his days running a pizza joint and scarfing down unhealthy food as he detailed in our interview earlier this year.
Courtney Dauwalter: This was one of the easier selections for the list. In 2021, Dauwalter had a successful year racing while also exuding her bubbly personality and inspiring so many ultra runners. She returned to defend her 2019 title at UTMB, after the event was canceled in 2020, and took first place again convincingly. She lowered her time from 24:34:26 to 22:30:54, finishing seventh overall. The entry period for the 2022 race begins in January. With Western States and Hardrock already on her list for next year, will she pass up the opportunity for a three-peat at UTMB? Time will tell. But one thing is certain, Dauwalter will continue to compete, inspire and relish her unapologetic love of candy, as she did in our interview from 2019.
Traci Falbo: Many ultra runners are familiar with her journey from an overweight, sedentary young mom to a world champion. But she lands on my list this year for her more recent courageous battle with a relentless injury. It pushed her to the brink of retiring from running. Instead she returned to racing this year, including taking first place at a 50K in Texas. It’s part of an inspirational journey for Falbo, who has won 43 marathons/ultras, holds the world indoor track record for a 48-hour run with 242 miles and completed the ultra running Grand Slam in 2013.
Jason Hardrath: With the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, there was a surge of interest in and attempts of Fastest Known Times (FKTs). Hardrath became the first runner to hit the 100 FKT milestone this past summer. He planned a special FKT for the century mark, one that took the school teacher nearly his entire summer break. He detailed the idea in our interview earlier this year and you can also see the Washington Bulgers FKT here. The route is the set of the 100 highest mountains in Washington state. Overall, this was roughly 870 miles and 412,000 feet of gain in less than 51 days in gnarly terrain. But Hardrath’s story is not just about one FKT, or even 100, it is about overcoming challenges in life, including ADHD as a child and a near-fatal car accident as an adult.
Camille Herron: The world-record holder had a strong finish to the year, winning the Javelina Jundred in October with a course record 14:03:23. Just six weeks later she broke her own American record for 100 miles on the track at Desert Solstice, finishing in 13:21:51, ahead of the previous mark of 13:25:00. These accolades notwithstanding, Herron’s appearance on this list is also due to what she has come back from. Early in 2019, she was struck by another driver in a fiery, scary crash. She has recovered, spreads joy to the community and has returned to her status as an elite and inspirational ultra runner.
Andy Jones-Wilkins: There is no questioning the resume for the 10-time, top 10 Western States finisher. Likewise, there are few who exhibit the passion and the knowledge of the sport. It’s always a pleasure when Jones-Wilkins pops by as a guest on a podcast. I always learn something from the school administrator, as I have during our interviews including one when he was rehabbing from a unique hip surgery (which would be his first of two). This year, perhaps the most valuable lesson Jones-Wilkins taught us was that he is human. In his 185th start at an ultra, AJW had his first DNF at the World’s End 100K in June. He rebounded to later finish a 50K and win a 12-hour event. We look forward to seeing AJW return to Hardrock in 2022, and likely once again teach us something new.
Max King: How do you define King as a runner? Short distance? Check. Ultra runner? Absolutely. Mountain specialist? Sure. Adventure race? Yes, that too. Known for his competitiveness in a variety of race distances and formats, King had another successful year. He had podium finishes on distances from 5 miles to 100K. He also embarked on Expedition Oregon, a multi-day, multidisciplinary race across the state. King and his teammates were among only five teams that finished the event. Beyond his athletic achievements, King makes this year’s list for his continued support of young athletes. He created trail camps to introduce kids to trail running, and strives to incorporate minorities, offering scholarships to those who need a little help.
Anton Krupicka: Don’t call it a comeback, as LL Cool J asserted. Whether or not it was an indication of a comeback, Krupicka’s return to ultra running with a third-place finish at the Leadville 100 was inspirational. Even though he had won the race previously in 2006 and 2007, the now 38-year-old beat his time in the race from the last time he ran it, nine years ago. This film by Billy Yang captures Krupicka’s return perfectly. Let’s hope that this return wasn’t a one-and-done for the beloved ultra runner. We’d love to see him back at Leadville – and other races — in 2022 and beyond.
Harvey Lewis: It is fitting that his first race of 2021 was called the Long Haul 100 in Florida, where he finished second overall with a time of 14:49:07. Lewis, who is heading back to Long Haul to start his 2022 season, is perhaps best known for winning the last man standing Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in October. His final tally: a world-record 354.1695 miles. Lewis, however, had a long string of successes this past year. Also notable is his victory at Badwater, which the school teacher finished in just under 26 hours. For Lewis, perhaps the 100-miler in January isn’t so much of a long haul.
Michelle Magagna: This rising ultra runner doesn’t make the list just for her athletic achievements, though she had a terrific year. After winning the Big Turtle 50-miler in April, Magagna went on to an 11th-place finish at Western States. Her inspiration first and foremost comes from how well she has ascended from a traumatic assault during a run. Her full story can be found here. (As a warning to readers: It does involve a sexual assault, which may be triggering to some.) she is still recovering and doing better consistently. “I'm seeing a lot of progress. It took a while to get back to normal,” she says.
Sally McRae: The Yellow Runner is indeed a ray of sunshine. She casts her glowing beam on everyone she comes in contact with. But when she suits up for a race, she’s relentless as she powers through. McRae targeted the Badwater 135 this year, and came out on top, winning by nearly three hours. Whether she’s racing, inspiring the ultra running community or tending to her family, McRae is a beacon of positivity. In our interview earlier this year, she offered motivational quote after motivational quote. Among her points to other runners was to keep perspective. “There are so many things that we can be grateful for in running that have nothing to do with the race.”
Rajpaul Pannu: Yet another teacher on this year’s list. It’s been a long journey from the couch-dwelling, junk-food eating teenager to an elite marathoner and ultra runner. At Pannu’s debut ultra in late 2020, he finished in sixth place at the JFK 50. The feat is even more incredible considering he ran the vast majority of the race after spraining his ankle around Mile 7 on the Appalachian Trail. This year, Pannu finished the Hoka Project Carbon X 2 100K in 6:28:31, in second place behind Jim Walmsley. After battling injuries throughout the year, Pannu clicked off a 2:16 at the California International Marathon. While he doesn’t race as often as others on this list, Pannu’s journey is just as inspiring as his future is bright.
Van Phan: If she doesn’t slow down, she is going to break Ultrasignup’s web page. But there is no slowing down the prolific ultra runner who finished her 400th career ultra on Oct. 16 — just four days after completing her third Moab 240 race. Looking back at her long association with running, would she do anything different if he had the opportunity? “If I had to do it all again, I would have gotten into trail running sooner than later and would have focused more on the journey than the endpoint,” says Phan, also known as “Pigtails.”
Pam Reed: It’s mind boggling for some to process the thought of a human running 100 miles. Now try running 100 miles at least 100 times. It’s a fairly exclusive club, which Reed joined earlier this year, just shy of her 60th birthday. She not only achieved the rare feat at the Grandmasters Ultra but she won the race. It was at least her 25th victory at an ultra. Among other victories are wins at Badwater, a race which she has been on the podium 11 times. Reed is not slowing down at all. She truly lives by her mantra, “Keep putting one foot in front. Never stop.”
David and Megan Roche: Team SWAP athletes understand what the Roches mean to them individually as athletes, and the community as a whole. (I am so grateful to have daily doses of motivation throughout my training log from Coach David.) The Roches convey a relentless drumbeat of positivity in the training logs they create, the book they wrote, on their social media accounts, via their podcast and wherever else they may roam. Even in an incredibly challenging moment for Megan late this year, she exuded positivity, grace and courage as she battled a serious health condition. It’s not my story to tell, so I will let this episode of their podcast explain.
Jim Walmsley: After decisive victories at Western States in 2018 and 2019, Walmsley was going to forego an attempted three-peat in 2020. Thanks to the pandemic canceling the historic race, he was given the opportunity in 2021. And he took full advantage, winning with a 14:46:01, giving him three of the four fastest finishes of all time. Walmsley was far from a one-trick stallion this year. In January, he came oh-so close to setting the 100K world record at the Hoka Project Carbon X 2 100K. His 6:09:26 was easily good enough for the American record and just 11 seconds shy from the world’s best. Walmsley is currently not returning to Western States in 2022. He will likely return to UTMB, where he finished fifth in 2017. Will he be the first American male to win the historic race? Stay tuned.
Coree Woltering: By his standards, 2021 may not have been the best year for Woltering as an athlete. He endured a series of DNFs while collecting a handful of top 10 finishes, including fifth overall at the Bandera 50K and sixth place exactly a week later at the Coldwater Rumble 100-miler. Woltering, who set the FKT on the 1,147-mile Ice Age Trail in 2020, added the 335-mile Pinhoti Trail FKT in 2021. As an elite ultra runner who also happens to be a gay African-American, Woltering is a great ambassador for the sport. He and his husband, Tom Aussem, were featured in my first article for iRunFar.
You, or Everyday Ultra Runners: Last but not least on this year’s list, a tribute to all the ultra runners. I’m inspired by everyone who lines up at the starting line, chasing their dreams. And especially those who keep moving forward, fight cutoffs and finish (or not) in the Golden Hour. It’s not about the finishing time. It’s about the dedication that is so inspiring. These athletes don’t receive shoes on their doorsteps from sponsors before they arrive at their local running store. But these runners keep showing up, do the work and demonstrate sheer grit. And that is incredibly inspiring.
If you are looking for inspiration for your running or other pursuits, I’d encourage you to subscribe to my weekly Monday Motivation newsletter by going to RunSpirited.com and filling in your name and address in the box toward the top right of the page.
Also check out my LinkTree with links to all my social media accounts, which I update frequently with news, information and more about running in general, and ultra running in particular.
Custom race medals are more than just rewards; they represent honor. Participants in the race receive race medals designed every year by the competition’s organizers. There is always something to learn from these runners, no matter what your goals are for participating in the race. Customized medals carry more meaning than just claiming a victory over the competition and for many, collecting custom medals has become a hobby. Awarding runners with racing medals will make them proudly display and motivate them to join the race every year!