Trail running contains many stories of perseverance, bravery, and adventure which make it one of the most exciting and scenic sports to watch and follow as a fan. There have been many great achievements in our sport’s history, legendary athletes, and unforgettable races that have shaped trail running into what it is today creating a culture that engenders participation from the recreational enthusiast to the elite athlete.
For this article, I share what I consider to be the top five achievements in American ultra and trail running history. You’ll learn why I chose these five and what each one means to our sport. I selected a mix of ultramarathon (longer than 26.2 miles) and sub-ultramarathon distance trail races spanning several decades.
Do you agree with my picks, or do you have other achievements worthy of a top-five list? Please share your greatest trail running moments in the comments or mention ATRA on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Tayte Pollmmann’s Top 5
#5 – Pablo Vigil’s Sierre-Zinal Streak (1979-1982)
Reasons for this choice: Throughout trail running’s history, Europe has been and still is the epicenter of the sport. Europe hosts many of the most competitive races and has produced some of the sport’s greatest athletes. Americans who race in Europe for the first time are often humbled by the tough competition and more grueling and technical race environments. Fifteen time Team USA mountain and trail athlete, Andy Wacker, said about his experience racing in Europe versus the US, “Trail running in the US is great, don’t get me wrong, but it is nearly a religion in Europe.”
Sierre-Zinal, a 31-kilometer (19 mile) mountain race held in Switzerland’s Valais Alps, is recognized as one of the most prestigious sub-ultramarathon mountain races in the world. The course includes over 2,200 meters (7,000 feet) of vertical ascent and is a mix of technical and smooth terrain. In the event’s forty-seven year history, only four Americans (two females and two males) have ever won the event. One of those men was Pablo Vigil. Vigil not only won the event for the first time in 1979, but would go on to win four times in a row from 1979 to 1982, a streak that has lasted until this year when Kilian Jornet won his fifth consecutive Sierre-Zinal.
In an era where very few Americans were willing to travel to Europe to compete with the sport’s best athletes, Vigil stepped up to the challenge and proved that Americans could compete on the European scene. His success at Sierre-Zinal has inspired and paved the way for more Americans to race in Europe. Still today, Vigil is the last American male to have won Sierre-Zinal and his fastest time of 2:33:49 would put him in contention for the overall win in any given year.
Interested to learn more about Vigil? Check out this interview on the Run the Alps website and his induction into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame class of 2021 and induction into Adams State Hall of Fame class of 2006.
#4 – Ann Trason Out Runs The Legendary Tarahumara To Set The Leadville 100 Record (1994)
Reasons for this choice: Ann Trason is undoubtedly one of the greatest female ultrarunners of all time. In 2020, she was introduced into the Ultra Running Hall of Fame, and has had many incredible performances in both road and trail ultras. Her accomplishments include three Leadville 100 and fourteen Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run wins, as well as World Records in the 100-kilometer, 12-hour and 100-mile distances. She also won an unprecedented 56-mile Comrades Marathon and Western States 100 Mile double (the two races were held only twelve days apart!). She completed this amazing double in both 1996 and 1997.
Although Trason has had many phenomenal performances in her career, her Leadville Trail 100 record set in 1994 is perhaps the most memorable. In this race, Trason battled for the win against not only other top American women in the sport, but also the legendary Tarahumara “Superathletes” of Mexico. The Tarahumara were invited to the Leadville Trail 100 in 1994 to see how they would perform in one of the country’s premier trail running events and the world was expecting them to dominate.
The Tarahumara did live up to expectations and outran nearly everyone in the race, except Trason. Trason led the field until she unfortunately succumbed late in the race to intestinal distress. She still held on to finish second overall with a time of 18:06:24. She was the only “non-Tarahumara” in the top five and finished an unbelievable six hours before her next female competitor.
Twenty-seven years later, Trason’s record still stands and the Leadville Trail 100 has remained one of the most prestigious ultra trail running competitions in the United States. Clare Gallagher became the closest to Trason’s record when she won the race in 2016 and placed fifth overall with a time of 19:00:27.
#3 – Matt Carpenter’s Sets Untouchable Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon Records (1993)
Reasons for this choice: In discussions I’ve had with many of the country’s top elite trail runners (including two World Mountain Running Champions), there is a consensus that Matt Carpenter’s 1993 Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon records will stand the test of time. Carpenter is one of the greatest “Skyrunners” of all-time and has set seemingly superhuman performances at high-altitudes. During the height of his career, Carpenter performed tests at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO where he achieved the highest VO2 Max (a measure of the body’s ability to intake oxygen) the facility had ever recorded with a score of 90.2.
Carpenter had many great wins in his career, but there was no event he obsessed over winning like the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent. The Marathon is a 26.2-mile out-and-back from the town of Manitou Springs, CO, 6,400 feet, to the summit of “America’s Mountain” Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet. The Ascent follows the same route as the marathon but participants finish at the summit and are shuttled back down. With over 7,800 feet of elevation gain and such extreme high-altitude conditions, even experienced runners may find themselves running at much slower paces than they are used to. Most runners reach the half marathon point at the summit in a time longer than it would take them to run a full road marathon.
In 1993, Carpenter ran the fastest recorded ascent of Pikes Peak in 2:01:06 seconds, which he did in route to winning the entire marathon in a time of 3:16:39. Twenty-eight years later, both Carpenter’s Ascent and Marathon records still stand, despite being challenged by some of the best athletes in our sport.
The World Mountain Running Association’s (WMRA) Greatest of All-Time (G.O.A.T) Joseph Gray, four-time Pikes Peak Ascent winner and two-time World Mountain Running Champion, ran the closest to Carpenter’s ascent in recent years in a time of 2:05:28. Although Gray’s time is also exceptional, it should be noted that his performance was recorded in the Pikes Peak Ascent and not the marathon.
Carpenter still had to run 13.1 miles back down the mountain after running his 2:01:06 to the top! Kilian Jornet, who many label as trail running’s other “G.O.A.T.,” has also challenged Carpenter’s record twice, and is the closest to Carpenter’s marathon time in recent years at 3:27:28. When analyzing long-standing records in our sport, most will agree that there is none more impressive than Carpenter’s Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon records.
[Fun Facts: Matt Carpenter still resides in Manitou Springs and owns and operates The Colorado Custard Company. He has been quoted saying, “Ice-cream heals injuries!”. He also owns the record at the Leadville Trail 100 set in 2005 when he finished in daylight timed in 15:42:59.]
#2: – The 2006 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon Shows The World We Are Born To Run (2006)
Reasons for this choice: Born To Run, written by Christopher McDougall, and inspired by the author’s experiences at the 2006 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon in the Copper Canyons of Urique, Mexico is arguably the most important piece of literature in trail running. This book reached the New York times best-seller list and has sold over three million copies since its publication in 2009, putting the relatively niche sport of trail running in mainstream media.
The book also had a major impact on running trends and influenced the rise of natural and minimalist footwear, as well as inspired audiences with the belief that all of us are deep down “born to run.” This book contributed largely to the current running “boom” and is also why trail running is one of the fastest growing sports in the US.
Without the 2006 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, Born To Run, would have no story to tell. This race had one of the most unique origins in the history of our sport. Caballo Blanco, a mysterious trail runner and American-expat living in the Copper Canyons of Mexico and McDougall come up with the idea to invite Westerners to participate in a race with the local Tarahumara Indians, the legendary “running people.” McDougall compiles a ragtag motley crew of athletes to participate, which includes many colorful characters that remain icons in our sport today including “Barefoot Ted” and Scott Jurek, seven-time winner of the prestigious Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and one of America’s most renowned ultrarunners.
Without revealing specifics of how the race unfolded, I will simply say that this race, and McDougall’s retelling of it in Born To Run, captured many of the most beautiful aspects of our sport, including camaraderie in shared struggle, cultural appreciation, and a love for connecting with nature through trail running.
#1: Undefeated Legends Face-Off at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (2010)
Reasons for this choice: Every sport has stories of unforgettable games, matches or races. Examples include the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1973 “Battle of The Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Joan Benoit Samuelson’s win at the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984, the 1971 Fight of The Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, or the NFL’s “Greatest Game of All Time” in 1958. For trail running, this story may very well be the 2010 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
This race was a battle among four of our sport’s greatest legends who faced off for the first time on the largest stage of the ultra-trail running scene in the United States, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Hal Koerner, two-time defending Western States 100 champion, Geoff Roes, undefeated at the 100-mile distance, Anton Krupicka, unbeaten in every ultramarathon he had ever started, and Kilian Jornet, the rising Catalonian mountain running star and two-time Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc champion all competed against each other for the win.
Eleven years later, if you ask trail runners what they think of as the most exciting race in our sport’s history, this race is sure to make the top of anyone’s list. For those who don’t know the story, watch the classic trail running film that recaps this incredible race, Unbreakable: The Western States 100.
Courtney Dauwalter’s Moab 240 Overall Record (2017)
Courtney Dauwalter, one of the most accomplished ultramarathoners of the 21st century, pushed our sport and women’s’ running to new limits when she won the the Moab 240, a 240 mile footrace through the deserts and mountains surrounding Moab, UT in a time of 57:55:13. She beat the next place finisher by nearly ten hours, which led many to realize that women can compete with men for the overall win, especially at longer distances. Watch an interview about her race experience below:
Gary Robbins Heartbreaking DNF at The Barkley Marathons (2017)
The Barkley Marathons, regarded by many as the most difficult (and quirkiest) race in our sport, always produces compelling race stories. Iconic race director “Laz Lake” designs the race so that only 1% of all participants will finish. Canadian ultrarunner Gary Robbins is now synonymous with the event because of his exciting struggles at this event. Watch the documentary about his incredible race experience in 2017 and prepare yourself for a wild finish!
The Foundation For Women in Trail Running: The Womens’ Dipsea Hike (1918)
The Dipsea, the oldest trail race in the United States founded in 1905, has had a colorful history that has progressed women’s’ participation in sports. In 1918, the first “Women’s Dipsea Hike” was held with 148 participants. The term “hike” was used to avoid the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ban on women competing in sports. The event continued to grow in size and although it eventually ended in 1922, it helped pave the way for women in trail running. This event was truly ahead of its time and it’s incredible to think that the first official women’s finish in the Boston Marathon did not happen until 1967! Read more about the history of the Womens’ Dipsea Hike.