Top 25 most inspirational men ultra runners of 2023
By Henry Howard
After five years of compiling my annual most inspirational list of ultra runners, it's time for a change.
Due to the increase of inspirational athletes, I’m doubling down. This year’s list is actually two — one for the most inspirational males and another for the most inspirational females.
Thanks to Gnarly Nutrition for sponsoring this year's lists. I use Gnarly BCAAs before and/or during most of my workouts, as well Gnarly's chocolate vegan protein powder, creatine and performance greens to help boost my recovery. I love Gnarly because their products are NSF sport certified, made with real ingredients and work well.
And now on to the honorees, the most inspirational men ultra runners:
Mathieu Blanchard: Throughout 2023, Blanchard notched four top finishes. His racing began with the 236K Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, where he placed second; then took third at the 235K Marathon de Sables; finished sixth at Western States; and concluded the year in fourth place at UTMB. Perhaps what impresses me the most with Blanchard is his openness about some mental struggles he’s had and how he’s overcome them. This pre-UTMB interview with iRunFar captures that perfectly.
Brian Boyle: I’ve been friends with this amazing human and ultra runner for several years. We first connected when I wrote about Boyle’s incredible survival and recovery from a horrific car crash that left his life “hanging by a thread.” Recently, he finished a challenging 100K that he dedicated to his son, Liam, who has a critical form of congenital heart disease. On this episode of The Adventure Jogger, Boyle discusses the challenges and emotions of discovering his son's health issues and the impact it had on his family. He also highlights the healing power of running, how it has helped him cope and the strength of Liam.
Jeff Browning: Age is just a number for Browning — aka Bronco Billy. Winning five ultra races is an impressive achievement. Now winning five ultras in a year is even moreso. What’s even more impressive yet is winning five ultras within six months at the age of 52. That’s what Browning did in the first half of 2023, including the Cocodona 125 and the Bighorn 100. In the second half of the year, he finished fifth at Hardrock 100 and took second at the Wasatch 100. Not bad for a 50something who shared his secret for masters athletes with me.
Joe Corcione: If anyone can be described as “all in” for trail and ultra running, it is Corcione. He has migrated from obstacle course racing to find his passion as a trail and ultra runner. But it goes far beyond that. He regularly podcasts, volunteers and crews, and aims to inspire others. And, just recently, he announced he was leaving his full-time gig to pursue a career doing what he loves the most. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Corcione, who shared his journey from drugs and alcohol to gels and electrolytes with me.
Jamil Coury: Runner, race director, ambassador for the sport. Coury is, of course, the driving force behind Aravaipa Running, its races and the increase in live coverage of our sport. It’s hard to imagine ultra running without Coury’s influence. It certainly wouldn’t be what it is today. And for that we are grateful for his many contributions in the past, present and in the future.
Andrew Glaze: Running saved his life, as Glaze told me in this story, and he hasn’t stopped since. Right now, he is nearing a streak of 200 consecutive weeks of running 100 miles or more. It’s quite the transition from when Glaze was overweight, inactive and completely unhealthy. Now, he is not only physically fit but radiates with a caring glow, inspiring runners of all shapes, sizes and experience levels. Also notable is his commitment to a vegan diet, which began when he was a vegetarian but still clung to dairy. “I had a couple of races that ended because I was in some GI distress,” he recalls. “In hindsight I look back and it's because I ate dairy, but at the time I didn't know that I was having a dairy allergy.”
Tyler Green: If it’s possible to fly under the radar with top 10 finishes at Western States and UTMB in the same summer, then Green has achieved that notoriety. Green has a series of successful finishes in the sport’s top races, including second place at Western this year and in 2021, fourth in 2022; and sixth in this year’s UTMB; and a runner-up finish at the 2019 Javelina Jundred. Beyond his race finishes, he’s a good human, seeking out adventures and service opportunities as he has lived at times in Nepal and Libya.
Aaron Hale: The blind and deaf veteran’s inspiring story merged my two worlds, my job handling media for The American Legion and my passion for the sport of ultra running. When I heard about Hale’s story, it piqued my interest and I immediately sought to have him as a guest on our award-winning podcast. During his appearance, he talked about joining the Navy as a cook, transitioning to the bomb detonation unit, recovering after going blind and deaf, and becoming the first person with those challenges to complete the Badwater 135.
Wally Hesseltine: The 80-year-old ultra runner recently set the 100-mile age group record at Tunnel Hill, finishing the race in 26:22:26. On this episode of The Adventure Jogger, Hesseltine discusses his running journey and achievements, as well as his experience and mindset during Tunnel Hill. Hesseltine is a pick for this list because of his mindset, love of the running community — oh, and that record he set, which is absolutely incredible and inspiring. And it does not appear that he is stopping any time soon. Hesseltine is signed up for the Jackpot Ultras 100-miler in February, followed by 50Ks in March and August.
Jake Jackson: I had the pleasure to briefly meet Jackson at the Burning River 100 in July. It was his fifth 100-miler in five months, his Survive 5 in 85 Challenge. Not only did he finish them all, he achieved his goal of completing them all in less than 85 hours. Also worth noting: he won the first four races and finished fourth at Burning River in less than desirable conditions. Jackson is far from a professional athlete. He works full-time but manages to be a shining light on the ultra running community. We chatted a few years — and many miles — ago about his ultra running, positive vibe and more.
Dakota Jones: Perhaps the most inspiring story of the year was Jones biking from Salt Lake City to his first Western States. His journey was intended to raise awareness about the environment, which is just as much of a passion of his as is running. Even though he biked nearly 700 miles leading up to race day, Jones completed Western in a bit over 17 hours. Two months later, he took third place at CCC. In addition to his running accolades, Jones was an easy pick for this list due to his work on environmental causes. That as a big topic of conversation during our interview for this story a few months ago.
Andy Jones-Wilkins: Name another elite athlete in another sport who regularly shows up on podcasts, volunteers at events (ever see a former NFL player directing traffic at the Super Bowl?), and serves as the pre-eminent ambassador of the sport. Jones-Wilkins does all that and more. While his running has declined as his age has increased, his influence on the ultra runners of today and tomorrow is unmatched. And his Crack a Brew with AJW podcast, launched in early 2023, is a must listen for ultra runners of all experience levels.
Harvey Lewis: It’s mind-boggling to comprehend what Lewis did at the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra where he finished with 450 miles in 108 hours, a record for a last-person standing event. Think about it this way. Run 4 miles every day for 112 days. That’s what Lewis did consecutively without any break longer than 10-15 minutes or so. That wasn’t anything new for Lewis as he has a solid track record for going extraordinarily long distances. His mental game is as sharp as is kindness is real for the ultra running community.
Zach Miller: If you don’t get charged up by watching Miller compete — balls out the whole time — you need to be checked for a pulse. Miller cranked out a phenomenal year, finishing second behind Jim Walmsley at UTMB, taking first at the Tarawea 100-miler and nailing the second-fastest Rim to Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon, once again behind Walmsley. I have a feeling Miller is far from done yet. Sit back and enjoy all that Miller Time has to offer in the years ahead. That will start in the summer of 2024 as he takes on Hardrock, which followed this very thoughtful Instagram post in the wake of the UTMB takeover of Gary Robbins’ race.
Ryan Montgomery: This past year was likely the most consistent of Montgomery’s career thus far. He put together a solid group of performances, including third at Tarawera 100K, seventh at Western States and third at the Javelina Jundred 100-miler. Beyond his race performances, I selected Montgomery for the change he is seeking to drive. Montgomery, a gay and queer athlete, is passionate about creating community for LGBTQ+ athletes and making the outdoors more inclusive and equitable. He also founded Out Trails, a community of queer trail runners, that hosts retreats and group runs nationwide.
Rajpaul Pannu: It was a consistent year for Pannu, dominating at the 50-mile to 100K distance. He won the American River 50 in April, then placed second at the Kauai 50-miler in August, before winning the Javelina Jundred 100K and, just two weeks later, finished as runner-up at the 50-miler at Tunnel Hill. His inspiration stems from how he overcame weight and sedentary issues during his teen years to blossom as a runner, as he talked about with me for this story a few years ago.
Adam Peterman: This may be the only list the 2022 ultra running breakout star appears on this year. An injury essentially shut down Peterman for all of 2023 after the string of successes he had a year earlier. He won his first 50K (Speedgoat), 50-miler (JFK), 100K (The Canyons) and 100-miler (Western States) in less than a year. Peterman makes this list for how he has courageously worked back from injury. It’s been tough on him but it’s a learning experience. As he told me in this interview, “I'm definitely going to change some things going forward, and hopefully it leads to a healthier and more consistent version of myself.”
Jonathan Rea: Among his achievements this year were improving upon his second place finish at the 2022 Javelina Jundred to winning it last October in 12:43:10, more than 20 minutes faster than a year ago (and breaking Dakota Jones’ course record by 15 minutes). Rea also took fourth at CCC and improved his finishing time at Western States by more than two hours. He’ll return to the prestigious race again this June when he will be a good bet to finish in the top 10. Beyond his speedy feet, I also appreciate Rea for his work as a climate scientist. Learn more about this somewhat under-the-radar runner in this story by Freetrail.
Tommy Rivers: His inspiring battle to overcome a rare form of cancer has been well documented. He’s back to running marathons, albeit much more slowly than before. Still, he has the heart, drive and passion of an ultra runner. This video of his return to the Boston Marathon in 2023 captures why he is on this list, even though to the best of my knowledge he has not — yet — returned to ultras.
Gary Robbins: Similar to Corrine Malcolm’s inclusion on the women’s list, Robbins was selected for his running achievements as well as to throw my support behind him in the wake of the UTMB shenanigans. The greed of UTMB led to the coup of Robbins’ Whistler Alpine Meadows race and generated a ton of support for him. If you haven’t already read what happened, I highly recommend reading Robbins’ post about it. I personally have been even more inspired by Robbins these past few months as he has rallied to create his own race once again and — as always — placed the ultra running community above his own self interests.
David Roche: What can I say about my coach? He’s my Ted Lasso. But his influence goes well beyond just the training plans, relentless positivity and kindness he gives all his athletes. He gives of himself to the community, as does his wife and Team SWAP partner Megan Roche (who was on the women’s version of this list). Roche also leads by example, shrugging off days where the wheels come off to shoot his shot another day. It’s been an inspiring journey thus far, Coach, and I look forward to much more to come. (How Roche got into coaching.)
Seth Ruhling: People with heart ailments are not supposed to be running mountain races, especially as quickly as Ruhling does. But that’s who Seth Ruhling is. Less than three months after learning he had pericarditis, inflammation of the lining around the heart, Ruhling took sixth place at CCC. Two months later, he returned to JFK where he repeated his victory from several years earlier. In our interview a few months ago, he talked about just how fortunate he is to have dodged a more serious heart ailment. And we are lucky to have him inspire our ultra running community with his determination, positive outlook and heart.
Wes Smith: Not very long ago the Army veteran was overweight, consuming 6,000 calories a day and suffering from PTSD. But he transformed himself, thanks to running. He has lost 145 pounds, adapted a healthy lifestyle and challenges himself with last-person standing events where he regularly completes ultra distances. “My mood is so much better,” he told me for this story. “I’m probably more motivated than I’ve ever been even in my Army days, and I have an immense amount of willpower and discipline.”
Jim Walmsley: He became the first American male to win UTMB, the highlight of the year when he won other affiliated races including the Istria 100-miler and the Nice Côte d’Azur 115K, just four weeks after he achieved his quest. Walmsley's dedication to winning UTMB was admirable. And, thanks to the win in Nice, he has a Golden Ticket back to Western States. The big question is what Walmsley will pursue in 2024 and beyond? A Western-UTMB double? Taking a shot at Matt Carpenter's record at Leadville? Something entirely different? Stay tuned.
Michael Wardian: I’ve had the honor to interview Wardian a few times (including his strength training advice for masters athletes) and chat with him when we met at the Boston Marathon five years ago. He is a wonderful ambassador for the running community who keeps redefining what is possible for masters athletes. His achievements are so varied it’s challenging to keep up with him. In any case, Wardian’s 2023 highlights include setting the Fastest Known Time across Panama, covering 86K in just over 9 hours; placing second in the Marine Corps Marathon 50K and completing the California International Marathon in under 2:29:55 (a 5:44 pace). And not only that, on Dec. 22, Wardian completed 24 hours of continuous rowing with 243,728 meters or 151.446 miles, as he posted on Instagram. You might think Wardian would take a break after such an achievement. Nope. As he posted, “Time to refuel before pickleball with Arlington Iron Paddles.”