XC Scoring for Ultra Teams

What draws most people, including myself, to our wacky sport of ultrarunning is the individual nature of it all. It’s you vs yourself, with a bit of the elements, nature, and luck thrown in for good measure.  If you’re strong enough to battle for an age group position or top three, you’re likely paying attention to race strategy and other runners, but for most MUT runners, crossing the finish line in one piece is good enough.

For some of us, having the opportunity to run our own race, while also competing for a team, is a compelling idea that seems counterintuitive. Let’s explore it.

As the sport grows and more companies look for avenues into our world, corporate and club teams are formed, largely for marketing reasons.  Runners who compete for the big brands appear in ads, may have some product input, and receive various types of stipends from their sponsors.  Montrail, The North Face, La Sportiva, Salomon, Pearl Izumi, Patagonia, etc. are all companies who have traditionally sponsored ultra teams, in addition to the myriad local teams and clubs.

Salomon stands out from that group, in that they have successfully nurtured an international team that travels together, is completely outfitted in logo’d race kit, enjoys a strong marketing team, and apparently supports their athletes financially. They also have one of the stronger teams in the world, with the likes of Kilian Jornet, Miguel Heras, Ryan Sandes, Anna Frost, Anita Ortiz, Aliza LaPierre, and a whole slew of new athletes.  Put it all together, and Salomon went from an after-thought five years ago to the top ultra team in the world today, all because of their emphasis on the team.

But aside from the distracted interest of who’s running for who, teams really don’t matter to most MUT runners.   I’m a bit nuts about our sport, and a  niggling “running idea” has finally found its way to the keyboard, so I’d like to explore the idea and use it as a sounding board for something that could be very cool.

Let me back up a bit.  I ran high school cross country and have been fairly obsessed with it ever since (oh boy, that was 20 years ago!)  Keen listeners will notice that I bring up xc fairly frequently and yes, sometimes live in an Uncle Rico haze of the good ol days when I was fast.

For those not familiar, cross country in the US is scored as follows: 7 runners toe the starting line for a team. The first five runners score according to their overall place (1st place gets one point, 4th overall gets 4 points, etc) and the lowest team score wins.  Runners 6 and 7 don’t score, but they do displace runners from other teams, which makes them important strategically. Internationally, rather than seven runners starting, six start and four score under the same scoring method. For my discussion here, I’ll be using international numbers.

Back to ultra teams. Most teams aren’t deep enough to field a full team of 6 men and 6 women in an MUT race, but they are deep enough–and I’d say should be interested enough–to field a mixed team of men, women, and locals.  My idea will really only be relevant to a handfull of events around the country, and I think would be ideally suited for 50k-100K…Think Lake Sonoma, Chuckanut, Waldo, JFK, UROC, etc.

Teams could field their elite runners, and would then be compelled to use local runners (every town’s got a handful of sub-elite dudes and dudettes, right?) to form a team of, say 4 men and 2 women. Traditionally more men are entered than women, which explains the disparity in team makeup.  Local running clubs would also compete on the same plane, and likely could be quite competitive depending on their depth.

Let’s take Lake Sonoma as an example.  Here’s a list of the elite runners with their corresponding team affiliation. I did the best I could. Some have multiple sponsors, some have a relationship that isn’t listed. For that, I apologize. Please inform me of any errors or omissions.

Runner Gender Team
Karl Meltzer male HOKA
Gary Gellin male Inov-8
Yassine Diboun male Inov-8
Dave James male Inov-8
Victor Ballesteros male Inside Trail Racing
Leor Pantilat male La Sportiva
Nathan Yanko male La Sportiva
Max King male Montrail
Joelle Vaught female Montrail
Amy Sproston female Montrail
Erik Skaggs male New Balance
Jacob Rydman male New Balance (local)
AJW male Patagonia
Tyler Stewart female Patagonia
Denise Bourassa female Patagonia
Nick Clarke male Pearl Izumi
Bree Lambert female Quicksilver Running Club
Ryan Sandes male Salomon
Francois d’Haene male Salomon
Philipp Reiter male Salomon
Greg Vollet male Salomon
Rickey Gates male Salomon
Miguel Heras male Salomon
Jorge Maravilla male Salomon
Anna Frost female Salomon
Emelie Forsberg female Salomon
Sylvia Serrafini female Salomon
Anita Ortiz female Salomon
Ryan Burch male Team CLIF
Joe Uhan male Team Sunsweet
Lord Balls male Team Sunsweet
Megan Arbogast female Team Sunsweet
TimmyOlson male TheNorthFace
Hal Koerner male TheNorthFace
Devon Yanko female TheNorthFace
Stephanie Howe female TheNorthFace
Rory Bosio female TheNorthFace
Sage Canaday male Ultimate Direction
Jen Pfeifer female unaffiliated?
Megan Laib female unaffiliated?
Mary Churchill female unaffiliated?
Betsy Nye female unaffiliated?
Ryan Ghelfi male unaffiliated?
Oswaldo Lopez male unaffiliated?
Leigh Schmitt male unaffiliated?
Chris Vargo male unaffiliated?
Chris Wehan male unaffiliated?
Tina Lewis female Salomon

With their emphasis into making in impact on the sport, Salomon stands out, but since they don’t travel with their international team frequently, this deep a field would likely be an anomaly.

There’s The North Face with Timmy, Hal, Devon, Stephanie, and Rory. Solid group, but they’re missing one guy. TNF could work with the local running stores or RD and find an unaffilated local runner (check out that list!) who wants to wear a jersey, snag some swag, and run for The North Face for the day.

Check out La Sportiva. Leor Pantilat is arguable the quickest 50k trail guy in the country, and Nathan Yanko can certainly hold his own. They’d need two other guys and two gals to round out the team and they’d be ready to compete.

Montrail has got a slick little team with Max King, Amy Sproston, and Joelle Vaught. Two more guys and a gal (hello Ellie?) could do some serious damage!

Local clubs and shops would play on equal footing with the other teams. Quicksilver has got some speedy folks in Northern California, the So Cal Coyotes could certainly field a strong team, and the famous Virginia Happy Trails Running Club and Trailmonster Running on the East Coast would compete on that side of the country.  Running shops like Fleet Feet and Rogue Valley Runners generally have teams, as do ultra-centric companies, from Moeben to the URP Enduro Team.

From a marketing perspective, companies would gain greater exposure, and it would give clubs the opportunity to recruit more (and faster!) members.  From a viewers perspective, a team scoring system would provide a whole new dynamic, without changing anything about the event.

Of course questions remain.  How are DNF’s handled? Would companies and teams actually participate? What if athletes have multiple sponsors? How would lotteries affect the teams?

How would this affect the sport?

  • Runners would be more conscious of teams, hopefully bringing a bit more financial commitment to the athletes and events. I’m aware there’s a segment of runners who want  all money out of the sport, but I’m dealing with reality here, not idealism.
  • A new level of excitement would play out. If a teams top runner has a bad day and drops, the other members would have to carry the scoring, hopefully giving them a little extra incentive and push to finish strong.
  • Local clubs would enjoy some national attention. How great would it be if Team Pearl Izumi fell apart during a race and a local club was able to beat them? Awesome!

It’s a far-flung idea that I’ve tinkered with in my head for a long time. Could it work? Sure. Are there still questions? Of course! Would it matter to 99.999% of the greater population? Not likely.

What say you?

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