The Original Ultimate Runner Competition consisted of running a 10k, 400 meters, 100 meters, a mile, and a marathon all on the same day. The objective of the event was to determine the best all-around runner. Many national and world-class runners competed for the Ultimate Runner title.
The Original Ultimate Runner Competition
I was a nationally ranked miler in 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 next 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 I was looking for to end my competitive career. 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 best runners in the world who competed at various distances from 1500 meters to Ultra-Marathon's 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 winner of the original Ultimate Runner Competition was honored as the best all-around runner in the world, similar to how track and field media recognize the Olympic Decathlon champion's winner as the best all-around athlete in the world. The original Ultimate Runner was compared to the Ironman Competition that determines the best triathlete in the world.
By design, the original Ultimate Runner Competition tested the limits of human endurance in one day. The founders of the race reached their goal.
The Ultimate Runner race (it no longer exists in its original form) was the most challenging endurance event of my life. Some experts also considered it as the most challenging one-day race in the world.
Running anaerobically in four races before you step to the line of a marathon on the same day was no easy task. Your legs felt like bricks at the start of the marathon portion of the race after running so hard in four prior races. Running 26.2 miles after all those races felt like hitting the infamous marathon runner's wall after the first several miles, not mile 20.
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."
There is another way to envision this race. Imagine for a moment running at near top speed for over 33 miles in one day. Running 33 miles at a fast pace in five different races is a level of pain I had never experienced before or since this race. Mixing flat-out anaerobic sprinting with running a marathon created a new recipe for mental and physical fatigue. Running at these varied paces in one day was way different than running at an aerobic speed of a super long sustained run.
Some of the best ultra-marathoner runners in the world competed in the original Ultimate Runner Competition. The competition included Barney Klecker, the American record holder at 50 miles, and Charlie Trayer, the number three ranked ultramarathoner in the world at the time.
Klecker held the American record at this distance for almost 40 years. He set the American record in 1980. Klecker's' 50-mile record stood until May of 2019.
Charlie Trayer was named the Ultra-Running Magazine Ultra Runner of the year in 1987. Stefan Feckner, the Ultra-Running Magazine Ultra Runner of the year in 1988, also competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition.
The ultra-guys came 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 in the marathon 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."
John Craig, a semifinalist in the Olympic Games at 1500 meters, 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.
Going into the marathon, I had a small lead over the race's world-class field after four events. However, there was one small problem. I had zero experience running in a marathon. In other words, this was my first-ever marathon! I was running against a 2:12 marathon runner among others in the final race of the day.
Because of my lack of experience running a marathon, I decided to run at a conservative pace. My plan included making my move at mile 21 or so in the marathon. I was blessed to pass the 2:12 marathon runner at about mile 23. The last 3 miles of the race were pretty tough, but I found an extra gear by God's grace.
By the end of the competition, I won the Ultimate Runner Competition overall, setting the event's record. I finished ahead of several national and world-class runners whom 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 Olympians, 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. The meet officials had to lift me onto the stage at the awards ceremony that afternoon 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 trust God during physical pain, and most importantly, began to understand the verse "all things are possible with God."
Looking back, my entire perception of fatigue and endurance transformed during the competition as well. There is no question we can all do a lot more than we initially think in the endurance and mental realms of life.
In summary, the original Ultimate Runner Competition was the mental and physical test of a lifetime. I will always be grateful and cherish 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 believe.
Fast Forward To The Present
I took the lessons learned from the Ultimate Runner and teach them in my coaching practice still today. Running multiple races in one day opened my mind to many new possibilities in training, racing, and the mental realms of life.
Some key lessons I learned more deeply from this event and still teach today are listed below.
-People have untapped potential living inside of them, more than you can ever imagine at the beginning of a life race
-We can always do more than we initially believe at the outset of a goal
-Just because you have never done something before does not mean you can't do it now
-Your breakthrough usually happens when you least expect it
-Tune out the lie that you don't have what it takes to reach your God-given potential
-Have more faith and a deep belief in our gifts before you go to the starting line of any life race
-People are capable of much more than they ever imagined when they have the support of a healthy and positive life-giving community
-I changed my training for the Ultimate Runner event. I learned what type of training activities was best for me at the very end of my career (unfortunately, I did not know what worked best for me sooner in my career. However, this challenge helped me customize training for every athlete I coach).
Keep pushing the pace to your dreams. Never give in to pain along the way. Believe sincerely in your gifts. And most importantly, remember all things are possible for those who believe!
To learn more about how the Original Ultimate Runner Competition impacted my life, view the interview in the link below with sports talk host, Will Ferris. The video and podcast was released in October of 2019.
The Orginal Ultimate Runner History: John Craig finished second behind me in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition (10k, 400 meters, 100 meters, a mile and marathon all ran on the same day). John (number 145 in the picture above) ran in the Olympics in the 1500 meters and is seen here running against Olympic 1500 meter champion and world record holder John Walker of New Zealand in a 1500 meter race. John Craig was also the national road racing champion at 10k in his country.
Photo Credit: Unknown
The Original Ultimate Runner History: Barney Klecker held the American record in the 50 mile run for almost 40 years. He set the American record in 1980. His 50-mile American record was finally broken in May of 2019. He was joined in the original Ultimate Runner by two of the great Ultra Runners of all-time, Charlie Trayer and Stefan Feckner. Both won Ultra Runner of the year awards. Barney and Stefan both competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. You can view Trayer and Feckner's awards here: https://ultrarunning.com/features/reference/ultrarunning-magazine-ultra-runners-of-the-year/
Photo Credit: Rollga.com
The Original Ultimate Runner History: This is an old picture of Olympian Don Kardong, the fourth place finisher in the Olympic Marathon leading American legend Steve Prefontaine in a track race in their college days.
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…".
Photo Credit: Inlander.com
Famous running author and marathon Olympian Jeff Galloway competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. He is seen here running second to running legend Steve Prefontaine and just ahead of another Olympic Marathon runner, Don Kardong.
Photo Credit: Unknown
This picture was taken about 5 minutes after I finished the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. I looked like death warmed over and felt like it as well. The meet organizers had to lift me up on the platform to accept my first-place award. I could not lift my legs up the steps to the winners platform. This was by far the hardest race I ever ran in my career.
From the brochure of the Original Ultimate Runner Competition: " Some have called it runnings answer to the Ironman...The Ultimate Runner is what the decathlon is to track and field..."
Charlie Trayer won several national Ultra-running Championships and is an Ultra-running legend in the United States. Charlie is given credit for placing American ultrarunning on the world stage. Charlie is another great ultra runner who competed in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. You can read more about Charlie in the Ultra-legend series: https://ultrarunninghistory.com/charlie-trayer/
Photo Credit: Unknown
Dave Hinz is running on the shoulder of number 10 Dave Gordon in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with Bill Rodgers, Greg Meyer, and Alberto Salazar. Dave was a 2:12:06 marathon runner who competed in the Original Ultimate Runner. Dave went out at sub 2:20 pace after running a 10k, 400 meters, 100 meters, and a mile a few hours before the marathon. We were all new to the Ultimate Runner so no one knew what to expect when it came to racing at just the right pace for all those events.
Running at sub 2:20 pace after running all the prior events of the day was too much for anyone to handle including some of the best ultra runners in the world. I went out a lot more conservatively than Dave and felt very fortunate to feel strong with 2 miles to go.I passed Dave at mile 24 in the marathon, and went on to win the Original Ultimate Runner overall breaking the all-time record. I had never run a marathon before the Ultimate Runner Competition. I guess ignorance really is bliss!
Two of the best Ultra Runners of all-time battle it out in the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. Charlie Trayer and Steven Feckner had amazing endurance and it seemed like they could run all day!
I was number 11 in this picture running for Reebok in the mile run portion of the Original Ultimate Runner Competition. The man in the beard directly behind me is John Craig an Olympian at 1500 meters and a national 10k road racing champion for his country. John was running for New Balance.
This picture is from the last major road race of my running career. I won the race over my long time rival 3:58 miler Gary Gustafson. Gary was a great guy who was a finalist in the 1500 Meters at the USA Track and Field Championships. Gary had beaten me at the national championships.
I had an extra gear that day and won the race in the last 300 meters. This race marked the end of an era for me and the conclusion of a very meaningful chapter of life.
I retired from competitive running shortly after this race and less than two years after the Orginal Ultimate Runner Competition. I've run for fitness an health about six days a week since retiring from national class competition.