Update: (One of) The Most Difficult Runs… IN THE WORLD! A trail runner’s rating guide

August 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm 6 comments

Republished from one of my older, now-defunct blogs (originally posted November 2007); was recently featured at TrailRunTimes.com, an athlete-generated website focused on endurance trail running and racing.

One of the difficult — and appealing — things about trail running versus road running is the near-impossibility of comparing various routes and races of equal distances.

In 2004, Scott Jurek set the course record in the Western States 100 ultramarathon with a time of 15 hours and 36 minutes. The course record for the Wasatch 100 was set in 2005 by Karl Meltzer with a time of 19 hours and 45 minutes which was broken in ‘07 by Kyle Skaggs with a time of 19:35. In 2008, Kyle Skaggs broke Scott Jurek’s course record at the Hardrock 100 by almost 3 hours with a time of 23 hours and 23 minutes. So in three different 100 mile races, the course records vary by almost 8 hours!

In contrast, the difference in the course records among the Boston and New York City marathon is 21 seconds; adding the London marathon to the mix, the difference in course records is less than two minutes.


Lest people think us crazy trail runners are simply looking to enjoy nature, let me disabuse you of this notion. We are a competitive type, too. We just mask our ambition under stained and tattered “Running Is Life” t-shirts.

Until now, though, there has not been a real good way to measure, rate, and compare trail runs. A winning trail marathon time could be sub-three hours, or closer to four. What to do? Thanks to Jim Vernon, lead coach of The Endurables, we now have a reliable trail rating system.

Simply create a ratio of accumulated ascent/descent divided by distance.

Easy to measure the not-so-easy. The need for this kind of system came from a trail run we recently did that can only be described as epic. It was a 28-mile route. The first 9 miles had 3,800 feet of climbing. After 15 miles, we had climbed 6,700 feet. At the end of the run — finally! — we had ascended and descended over 23,000 feet. Holy cow!

To say this 28-mile run was tiring is the understatement of the year. It was utterly exhausting, even demoralizing at some points. As a consolation prize, Coach Jim said it was certainly one of the most difficult runs we would ever run and one of the most difficult anyone in the world would ever run. Just how difficult? Drumroll, please…

Utilizing Coach Jim’s trail rating system, our 28-miler had a difficulty rating of 821. (!) No Few organized runs, even those that brand themselves as the hardest or most difficult in the world, comes close to matching its difficulty. (Additionally, Coach Jim looked at the cut off times for each race and converted them to a 28 mile distance. I ran this beast of a training run in 5 hours and 15 minutes.)

Hardrock 100 – Rating: 679 Cut Off: 13:25

Diablo 50 – Rating: 535 Cut Off: 8:58

Wasatch 100 – Rating: 523 Cut Off: 10:04

Angels Crest 100 Rating: 483 Cut Off: 9:20

Western States 100 Rating: 400 Cut Off: 8:25

As for the Boston Marathon and the legendary Heartbreak Hill? It registers as a speedbump. It’s difficult rating is a pedestrian 98.

[Update: A number of readers have used Coach Jim’s rating system to identify incredibly epic and difficult trail runs, including the Barkley, with a rating of 1,040, and MMD50km in New Hampshire, with a rating of 1,062. Keep the ratings coming, everyone! Post them in the comments so we can start to gather a list of the truly most difficult runs in the world.]

If interested in tackling this brutal, epic 28-mile run, contact Coach Jim at The Endurables for a map. Good luck. Pack a lunch. And a GPS cell phone. Write down some personal affirmations and reasons you love trail running. When your spirit is broken, break-out these items. Eat some food. Find some motivation to keep going. And if you can’t will yourself to push on and up, call a helicopter to get you home and into a La-Z-Boy.

Note: commentators at TrailRunTimes.com have suggested that the formula be tweaked to take into account weather and altitude. No doubt Coach Jim will come out with a “trail running rating guide, v. 2.0.”

Run With It!
J.R. Atwood


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Price  |  August 29, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Barkley (yes it IS a race!)

    No gps’s allowed!

    Oh one loop =20 mile and the record (by Eric Clifton one of the faster ultrarunners at his prime) is longer than your 28 miler!

    If you feel this isn’t legitimate then contact laz sometime before late December and ask for entry procedure!


  • 2. J.R. Atwood  |  August 29, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Thanks for the note, John. From the Barkley website (http://www.mattmahoney.net/barkley/):

    The Barkley is considered one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world. It has 52,900 feet of climb (and 52,900 feet of descent), more than any other 100 mile race, more than the 33,000 ft. of climb at Hardrock, and more than the 45,000 ft. at Nolan’s 14.

    Since the race began in 1986, only 8 runners out of about 700 have finished within the 60 hour cutoff. Mark Williams of the UK finished first in 1995 in 59:28.

    All I have to say: Wow. There really are no words. Major props to all those who register, show-up, and start the race. To the finishers… You’re in an entirely different league.

    And John, best of luck on your TransContinental ultra-run. Sounds epic!


  • 3. rick gaston  |  August 29, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Jim Vernon and the Endurables, a great group of people to share the trails with.

  • 4. J.R. Atwood  |  August 29, 2009 at 12:55 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Rick. Coach Jim, Coach Rachel, and the rest of The Endurables crew are the most wonderful, inspiring, and fun people with whom to tackle the trails. For all those who live around the San Francisco Bay, I highly encourage you join the group for one of their fantastic Saturday long runs in the trails of the Marin Headlands. Visit http://theendurables.com/ for more information.

    And Rick, great website over at http://365ultra.blogspot.com/


  • 5. j.coury  |  August 29, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Don’t forget about the MMD50km in New Hampshire (More & More Difficult 50 kilometer). The run takes place in the White Mountains and featured over 34,000 feet of total ascent + descent over 32 miles. Comes out to a rating of 1062. It took me 19:50 to finish including getting lost several times and running through three storm systems!

  • 6. rick gaston  |  August 29, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Thanks JRA, I’ve had the pleasure of running with both Jim and Rachel. A great time indeed.


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

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