Why Is The West So Great For Ultramarathons?
March 04, 2013

Photo by Criss Furman
Jamil Coury, left, and Nick Coury run in the Silverton Day 6 Race, which they directed and competed in.

PHOENIX -- To complete a marathon — a 26.2 mile race — is certainly an accomplishment.

But ultrarunners consider that distance a warm-up. Officially the definition of an ultramarathon is anything longer than 26.2 miles, but standard ultra races are 50 to 100 miles, racing on roads or trails.

And while ultrarunning is a global sport, several of the most popular races take place in the Western United States.

The calendar at ultramarathonrunning.com lists 284 races in the United States in the next year, with 117 taking place in the 11 states west of the Rocky Mountains. The most popular are known even by non-runners: The Leadville 100. The Hardrock 100. The Badwater Ultra. Copper Canyon.

What makes the West so great for ultramarathon events?

An obvious reason is elevation: The highest peaks in the United States are in the West. With a few 6,000-foot exceptions in the Southern Appalachians, most of the East Coast and Midwest aren't far above sea level. Not only does training at altitude increase an athlete's ability to use oxygen, but documenting the change in elevation of a running course is something of a badge of honor.

For one transplanted runner, it's about the environment. Evan Reimondo is from Buffalo, N.Y. but didn't get into running until he moved out west.

"A big part of it is the open spaces," Riemondo said. "There are places where you can see forever."

Riemondo first took up running to cross-train for mountaineering, but soon found more adventure in ultrarunning.

"The Hopi Water is Life 50K, that changed my life in a small but meaningful way," he said of the annual race on the reservation. "We saw beautiful country that you wouldn't normally see, but we were also welcomed into the culture as well."

Riemondo, who now lives in California, attempted a solo run the length of the Arizona-Mexico border to raise awareness of border issues.

There is one ultra scheduled in Mexico — the Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco, held in Chihuahua's punishing Copper Canyons. The race was renamed this year in honor of the late Micah True, a legend of the sport who in March 2012 went for a run in Southern New Mexico and never came back. His body was found near a stream in the Gila Wilderness, a reminder of the dangers ultrarunners face.

Jamil Coury of Arizona has competed in the Copper Canyon race five times. He and his brother Nick have found a way to make ultrarunning a full-time job. They created Aravaipa Running, an endurance running event company that puts on about 20 races in Arizona and Colorado.

"A lot of the famous races have limited numbers because of where it's held. The Forest Service won't allow 10,000 people to run in a National Park," Coury explained. "Events fill up quickly. There are lotteries, wait lists."

So the Courys decided to create more. Why does Jamil think people are attracted to running events in the West?

"I have done hiking and running on the East Coast, there are a lot of trees and vegetation, it's very green," Coury said. "But you don't get the views. It's a wide-open landscape. You can just see as far as the eye can see. And a lot of people are intrigued by running by a saguaro cactus, something they just don't see every day. A lot of out-of-state runners think it's beautiful."