The Original Ultimate Runner Competition consisted of running a 10k, 400 meters, 100 meters, a mile, and marathon all on the same day. The original Ultimate Runner Competition sought to answer these questions: Was a miler or middle-distance runner the best runner in the world? Was a sprinter the best in the world? Was a marathon runner or ultra-marathon runner the best runner in the world?
I was a nationally ranked miler by my late 20's. However, aging legs are not a national class runner's friend. It was nearly time to hang up my spikes and move to the following chapters of life. I was in the final steps of my competitive running career, looking for one last challenge before I put my spikes away.
When I saw the advertisement for the Ultimate Runner Competition in a national running magazine, I jumped at the chance to compete. The race seemed like climbing Mt. Everest to me at the time. It was the battle and adventure that I was looking for at the time. You see, the original Ultimate Runner Competition consisted of running a 10 k, 400 meters, 100 meters, mile, and a marathon all on the same day.
Some of the world's best runners at various distances gathered to compete in The Ultimate Runner Competition.
The original Ultimate Runner Competition sought to answer these questions: Was a miler or middle-distance runner the best runner in the world? Was a sprinter the best in the world? Was a marathon runner or ultra-marathon runner the best runner in the world?
The original Ultimate Runner Competition winner was honored as the best all-around runner in the world, much like track and field honors, the Olympic decathlon winner as the best all-around athlete in the world, and the Iron Man determined the best triathlete in the world.
The goal of the Original Ultimate Runner Competition was to test the limits of human endurance in one day. The founders of the race reached their goal. The original Ultimate Runner Competition (it no longer exists) was the most challenging endurance event of my life.
Runner's World Magazine writer Jim Harmon covered the race one year and had this to say about The Ultimate Runner: "This competition may be the last word in running endurance."
Imagine for a moment running at nearly top speed for over 33 miles in one day. Running 33 miles fast in five different races is a pain level that I had never experienced before or since this race. Running in and out of oxygen debt all day long was pretty tough, especially in the final event of the day, the marathon.
Some of the best ultra-marathoner runners in the world competed in the original Ultimate Runner Competition, including Barney Klecker, the American record holder at 50 miles. Klecker held the American record at this distance for almost 40 years. On a side note, Klecker's son Joe made the 2021 Olympic team at 10,000 meters. Charlie Trayer was the number three ranked ultramarathon runner in the world at the time.
Charlie was also named the Ultra-Running Magazine Ultra Runner of the year in 1987. Stefan Feckner, the Ultra-Running Magazine Ultra Runner of 1988, also competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition.
The ultra-guys were attracted to this race because it was one of the most challenging running events ever created. These are pretty tough guys who think running 100 miles in a day is normal!
Don Kardong, a former U.S. Olympian and fourth-place finisher in the Olympic Games marathon competed in the Ultimate Runner one year and wrote about his race experiences. In his usual humorous style, Kardong and a writer from the American Running Association had some funny yet spot-on things to say about his participation in the Ultimate Runner Competition:
"When Kardong heard about the Ultimate runner competition in Jackson, Michigan, of course, he went. This diabolical contest has you run a 10K race in the morning, 400 meters, 100 meters, and a mile around midday, and for the afternoon, a marathon. Kardong is funny. He recalls passing a dead raccoon in the last couple of miles of the marathon, "I thought the roadkill looked better than I felt. "He placed fifth overall…".
Olympian and famous running author Jeff Galloway competed in the Ultimate Runner event just one time and said, "I haven't had this much fun since Viet Nam."
A semifinalist in the Olympic Games at 1500 meters, John Craig said the original Ultimate Runner was a great experience, but he would never do it again because it was too hard on him.
Kardong's humor sums up the event best. The race was brutally hard, and there was nothing left in the tank when you finished the race. Galloway's comment tells you the same thing in a different way.
The race turned out to be a battle of will from the very first step. National record holders in the ultra-marathon events, road racing champions, elite marathon runners, Olympic athletes at 1500 and 5000 meters competed for The Ultimate Runner's title at its peak in popularity. I was not on anyone's radar to win this event.
You could almost hear a pin drop at the beginning of the competition the day I ran the race. Every elite runner in the field was extraordinarily focused and wanted to win the race.
By the end of the competition, I was crowned "The Ultimate Runner," setting the event's record. I finished ahead of several national and world-class runners I had never beaten before. I was blessed to end up number one on the all-time Ultimate Runner point total list, ahead of 1500 meter and 5000-meter Olympians, marathon champions, and ultra-marathon national record holders.
Winning the Ultimate Runner Competition took every ounce of mental, physical, and spiritual strength that I could find deep down inside that day. That afternoon, the meet officials had to lift me onto the stage at the awards ceremony to receive my first-place award because my legs were like jelly.
Due to space limitations, I can't share all the details of the many life-changing experiences and life lessons that I experienced that day. However, I can tell you that I prayed and focused like never before, learned to push through normal physical pain much better, and most importantly, began to understand the verse "all things are possible with God."
My perception of fatigue and endurance changed after the original Ultimate Runner competition. I no longer bought into the accepted physiological limits of the day. We can all do more than we initially think in life's endurance and mental realms.
In summary, the original Ultimate Runner Competition was the mental and physical test of a lifetime. I am grateful and cherished the opportunity to test human endurance limits when I was a young man. The event taught me so much about running and life—we can always do more than we initially believed.
Keep pushing the pace to your dreams. Never give in to pain along the way. All things are possible for those who believe.
John Craig (number 145) is seen here running against 1500 meter Olympic Gold Medal winner and former world record mile holder John Walker of New Zealand. John ran in the Orginal Ultimate Runner Competition. John was a semi-finalist in the Olympic 1500 meters and was his nations road racing champion.
Photo credit is unknown.
Marathon Olympians and writers Don Kardong and Jeff Galloway ran in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition one year. They are seen here running behind American running legend Steve Prefontaine. Photo credit is unknown.
Barney Klecker competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. He held the American Record for 50 miles for nearly 40 years. Barney's son, Joe Klecker, made the 2021 Olympic Team at 10,000 meters.
Barney is in the American Ultra Runners Hall of Fame here: https://ultrarunninghistory.com/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-barney-klecker/
Photo Credit is unknown.
Charlie Trayer and Steven Feckner ran in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. Charlie was the number three ranked ultrarunner in the world at the time and is credited as the "father of American Ultrarunning." Both Charlie and Steven were world ranked ultra runners.
Charlie's story is here: https://ultrarunninghistory.com/charlie-trayer/
The photo is from the brochure of the Original Ultimate Runner Competition.
Two months after the Original Ultimate Runner Competition, I ran with my Reebok Harriers team at the USA Cross-Country Championships. I was still not recovered from the Ultimate Runner Competition in this picture. I am number 40 in the photo next to a current Master's world champion and USATF Master's Hall of Fame member, Rick Becker, number 37.
Photo credit: Mrs. Adams
This was my last major race before retiring from competition. I won the race over long-time rival and friend Gary Gustafson. Gary was a 3:58 miler and USA Track and Field 1500-meter finalist who beat me at the USA National Track and Field Championships.
Eluid Kipchoge Photo
I will close with a quote from the greatest marathon runner in the world as of 2022. The next generation would do well to follow the advice of a two-time Olympic Marathon Winner and the first person to break 2 hours in the marathon, Eluid Kipchoge. Kipchoge's famous tagline is, "No Human Is Limited."
You can always do more than you initially believed.