The Ultra Race of Champions aims to level the playing field for the sport’s top performers while offering a challenging opportunity for other ultra runners.
By Henry Howard
Francesca Conte grew up in Italy where high school sports are not very well developed. Since then she has made up for lost time.
Conte, who did run cross-country while attending Point Loma University in San Diego, won the Sun Mountain 50-miler this year. Her previous victories include the Old Dominion 100-miler, Headlands 100-miler, Bull Run 50-miler and the Tussey Mountain 50-miler, which served as the USATF track and field 50-mile championship.
“The longer the race, the better I do, so I am pretty good at 100- and 50-milers,” she says. Conte has been able to combine her passion for long-distance running with an innovative race she co-directs, the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC).
A ‘championship’ for ultra racing
The Ultra Race of Champions, held in Auburn (Calif.) State Recreation Area, caters to both elite performers and regular ultra runners. The September 24 event offers 100K, 50K and 25K options. If you would like to rub shoulders, swap war stories and commiserate with some top ultra marathon runners, use the discount code “MTA_uroc_$_2016” to get 20 percent off your race entry.
UROC is the crown jewel of Conte’s races. She also directs some marathons and shorter races around Charlottesville, Va. “I wanted to find an occupation that combined my passion with a ‘job,’ so here I am,” she says. “Being a race director can be very stressful and frustrating, but it is the best job I have ever had. It always changes and I get to do everything from marking a course, to setting up a marketing strategy, to coordinating with police or authorities to negotiating with sponsors. I also do all our graphic design and website work, so it definitely never gets boring.”
Conte gives credit to her partner, James Gill, for conceiving the idea for UROC. The race — the Super Bowl of ultra marathons — is now in its sixth year.
“He saw the need for a ‘championship’ for the sport of ultra distance running, a day when all the best runners in the sport could come together and measure themselves against the competition,” she says. “He wanted to create a race that could offer a substantial cash purse, to support the athletes who work so hard for the sport.”
Gill wanted to create a course that would not favor one type of runner vs. another. It needed to be a course that would be equally challenging for the best mountain runner and the best 100K road runner in the world. He also purposely selected 100K as the distance — instead of 100 miles — to even the playing field.
“The community has received it really well,” Conte says. “UROC always attracts a very competitive field while remaining open to all runners, which represents the inclusive culture of the sport. There are not a lot of sports where elite runners can stand and run side by side with recreational runners. The elite runners appreciate the race because of its competitive aspect and the cash purse and the recreational runners love the challenge, the course and the atmosphere of the event.”
Challenging elevation, runnable trail
The course in Auburn, Calif., is not for just anyone. There is 11,043 feet of elevation gain, for starters. The weather can also be a challenge.
The normal temperature is in the mid-70s to high 80s. Last year, Conte says, it was very hot — temperatures were in the 70s at the start but rose to the mid- to high 90s for the rest of the day. “We prepared by adding two unmanned water stops with lots of extra ice.”
She says the 2016 version of the race will be exactly the same — albeit hopefully cooler — with one exception. A tunnel will be added, which will eliminate one of the road crossings.
“The trail is very challenging but also quite runnable, meaning not a lot of extremely technical sections with rocks and roots,” Conte says. “It meanders up and down the flanks of the American River gorge, so the views are always spectacular. There are two water crossings in the Ponderosa Falls out and back, which is unique because this is a trail that has never been used by any other event. Check out the course, based on last year’s winner’s Garmin profile.
All 100K finishers receive a belt buckle; those who complete the 50K or 25K receive medals.
Why you should run UROC
Conte encourages elite and everyday ultra runners alike to participate in the Ultra Race of Champions.
“UROC is unique because the goal of the race is to compile the most competitive field possible and to offer a leveled playing field,” she says. “Many other races, like UTMB, really favor people who live there and can train on those trails. With UROC, you can be good at many things and you’ll be able to find a course that’s hard, but does not limit your skills to one specialty. In addition, the cash purse is one of the largest in the sport ($21,500). We also do everything we can every year to help as many elite runners as we can with lodging.”
For the non-elites, Conte recommends that runners should have a solid base, at least one moderately challenging 50K on trails under their belts and fueling knowledge. “The advantage of the 100K distance is that it is not as daunting as the 100-miler distance, but hard enough nonetheless,” she says.
There are plenty of reasons for everyday ultra runners to put UROC on their race calendars. “The Auburn State Recreation Area is absolutely beautiful and breathtaking,” Conte boasts. “For the runners who tend to be star struck, it is always fun to be side by side with some of the biggest names.”
Conte credits the Elite Advisory Council for being instrumental throughout the race’s history and moving forward in making some of the biggest decisions. Council members include Geoff Roes, Ian Sharman, Anna Frost, Devon Yanko, Michael Wardian and Dave Mackey.
“We tap into their expertise and opinions quite often. They are big supporters of the event and understand the concept we are heading toward.”
Name: Francesca Conte
Hometown: Born in Merano, Italy, now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and Colorado
Number of years running: 15
Point of pride: “Having realized early in my life that the most important currency is not money, but time to do the things I want to do.”
Favorite race distance: 50-miler
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: CLIF Organic Trail Mix bars
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I lived” by One Republic
Favorite or inspirational mantra or saying: “If you are not on the edge, you are taking up too much room.” — Randy “Macho Man” Savage
Where can other runners connect or follow you: