Down the Backstretch's ultra-running contributor Alex Kurt shares this interview with USATF-Minnesota Mountain, Ultra, Trail Chairman Sam Rush.
Down the Backstretch: First, can you tell us about your background as a runner, and how you got into the trail and ultra scene?
Sam Rush: I went to Minnetonka High School, where I participated in science fair and was able to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair all four years. As a result I was only able to run cross-country my senior year. After college (at the U of M), I moved to Rockport, IL where I began running the trails at Rock Cut State Park. After living in Rockford for two years I returned to Minnesota. I learned about the Minnesota Trail Running Series - I joined the series and started training with Lisa Trainor, who exposed me to ultrarunning. Last year I did my first ultra, Ice Age 50K.
DtB: How did you come to be involved with USATF-Minnesota, specifically as Mountain, Ultra, Trail Chair?
SR: I became involved with USATF in 2008 when I was voted Secretary. A year later I was named MUT Chair.
DtB: What sort of functions has MUT had in Minnesota up to the present day?
SR: MUT on the national level began in 1998 and I am the first Minnesota Association MUT Chair. Prior to 2009 there was nothing organized in Minnesota. In 2010 Afton Trail Run 50K and 25K hosted the inaugural USATF Minnesota Association Ultra and Trail Championships (Afton 50K hosted the Ultra championship again last year). Also 2010 was the first year USATF Minnesota named MUT Runners of the Year.
DtB: What can we look forward to with MUT this year?
SR: This year there will be the MUT Series, a series of 3-5 races ranging from 5K to 25K this year. Included in the Series is the Trail Championship. There will be awards given to top runners in each race and top runners in terms of points and mileage completed. In the future I hope to get some ultra races on the series.
DtB: Beyond this year, what are your plans and goals for MUT in Minnesota going forward?
SR: My overall goal for MUT is to promote the sport in Minnesota and to grow Minnesota’s reputation as a great place to run and with great runners. One way I plan on doing this is by encouraging Minnesotans to participant and race in National Championships. In the past we have had some people run at these races and make it to National teams. This year Helen Lavin ran at the IAU 100k World and European Championships. Chris Lundstrom was on the 2nd place US team at the 2010 World Mountain Running Championships and Dusty Olson, Jim Ramacier and Jarrow Wahman were on the 100K National team in 2004.
I would also like to bring a National Championship race back to Minnesota. In the late 80s, early 90s and as recently as 2002 a Minnesota race has hosted the 100K Road Championships. I would also like to get a team circuit started here in Minnesota -- at the national level this is currently being done. Finally, I would like to see some young Minnesota runners get involved with the Junior National teams.
DtB: What about mountain, ultra and trail events appeals to you, as a runner and in general?
SR: The community is very supportive and friendly. There is competition, but it is not as intense as the roads. The community is also very altruistic and volunteer-based. I like the fact that to get into some races you need to do some volunteer work at races or clearing/maintaining trails. It is not uncommon to see the winners stick around and cheer the other runners in. Besides the community aspect, you can challenge yourself physically and mentally while getting to see beautiful and hard to get to parts of the world.
DtB: So these races are more laid back – what do you think of efforts to better standardize distances, etc. of off-road races so they can be sanctioned by USATF, etc.?
SR: Just a few weeks ago, the American Trail Running Association released its labeling program, which states the race participating adheres to a number of standards to make it a high quality race. Some of the requirements include accurate course markings, at least 75% of the course is unpaved, it's safe, environmentally friendly (leave no trace behind) and financially accountable. I think this is a good idea since it brings some standardization so people will have a better idea of what to expect at races and will have confidence that they will have a good experience.
DtB: Yet mountain, ultra and trail events aren’t really considered mainstream in running. As someone working to establish these types of races as more legitimate through USATF, do you think this is a fair label, or one you can embrace?
SR: Should competitive MUT running be regarded at the same level as road racing? I believe so. Times in theses races may be slower, but you see slower times in cross country races. The effort level on race day and throughout training is similar if not higher than road racing. A funny story about this personally - I was holding off racing ultras for a few more years since I was concerned about losing what little speed I had. After a conversation with Helen Lavin and Larry Pederson, using Brian Peterson as evidence (he ran a 2:31 marathon), they convinced me I would not lose my speed. They were correct. Last year I was able to improve my fitness, and maintain and in some cases improve upon my prior road times.
DtB: Is it your impression that participation in ultras and trail events is growing? What do you think is causing this surge in popularity, and where will it lead MUT in the future?
SR: For the reasons I stated above, MUT running is getting more popular. This is evidenced by the increase in number of races, number of races reaching capacity, the proliferation of trail shoes and gear, and the more runner friendly private, local, county, state, and national parks. Additionally, the increased media attention through movies, YouTube and the like are really helping show people what the sport is about. More and more people are completing marathons and are finding that is not enough of a challenge for them, so they look to MUT for that challenge. I also think trails offer an escape from the overcrowding of road races and cities in general. Finally, it is fun to say that a marathon is your speedwork for your next ultra.