I'm 83.47% Better at Ultra Running Than a Sea of White Hair and Velcro Shoes Lining Up for a 4 o'clock Dinner at IHOP

Before I get going on this post I want to express my love for the folks at ultrasignup.com and all that they do for the sport of ultra running. I will not be making fun of them and their percentages because they really have served endurance runners in a way that is altruistically compelling. Also remember that I am not one to make fun of people. Except for homeless people who wear deer pee stained T-shirts they find in the woods. They tend to smell funny.

Regardless, and like many other ultra runners, I do appreciate all of Ultrasignup's hard work and dedication to ironing out the details of every race from registration details to race results. So I thank them, and openly state that this post is in no way a cynical review of the website.

 However, I do want to pose a question as to how much do the percentages posted there mean really?

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Here's where I get confused: with my overall percentile of 83.47%, ultrasignup.com considers me a "solid athlete" which must mean I'm really good at something, right? But what is it that I'm good at? It’s my own fault for not asking them what exactly that is. For all I know they're referring to my mad hula hooping skills.

I'm guessing my percentage has to do with an anomaly that happens quite often. Non-elites who do well in races with small fields (like me) or when the races are non-competitive will tend to have a higher ranking, giving them the appearance of being better than they are (like me).

For example at my second 50k race in a Florida swampland complete with slippery tree roots and tree-rooted snakes I was given an "elite" ranking of 91.84% for finishing my slowest ultra race to date. In real life, I was beaten by two other chicks in my age group at this event. I also couldn’t even beat a monkey at a 50k if it meant achieving "elite" status. Even a drunk, blind monkey who doesn't even use Tailwind in his water bottle. Just Mountain Dew.

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And I don't think I'm the only "solid athlete" with a results profile on ultrasignup.com to wonder what's up with this status quo. First off, anyone who has ever run an ultra event can be found on the site, as long as the RDs report their results to them (I've recently run a 50k that is not reported on ultrasignup as the RD went rogue with a different site). Evidently runners listed on the site receive their overall rankings based on previous finishes (from what I am told). Each runner's rank is simply an average of his or her past results in ultrasignup's database. For each race, ultrasignup takes the gender specific best time (winner) and divides that time by each participant's time. The result is a value less than 100% with winners receiving the full 100%. The average of the participant's past races is their ranking represented as a percent. So elite hybrid half-Marine, half-Army soldiers specially bred for killing by the US Government in climate controlled pods, will often place in the upper 80-90+% range whereas regular everyday runners garner a ranking of usually 40-70%. This is no reflection on the average person's running ability. However, these percentages posted on ultrasignup.com make the average Joe and Jane trail runners appear like the statistically challenged track club drop-outs better suited to running a gas station than running an ultra. These rankings can seem harsh to newbies just getting their ultras on. I worry these newbies will become too depressed to run upon reading their average-to-low percentile numbers. If this happens, they'll most likely spend hours on end wearing their fat pants and hiding under their desks at work with cans of chocolate frosting and spoons. It will become a pitiful time in the ultra racing community.

So it is because I am quite the opposite of "elite" and not so "solid" in my ultra performances as I begin my forray into the ultra running world that I cannot bring myself to focus too hard on the percentages dealt here. When I do give them more than half a thought, my eyes glaze over with confusion and I have an overwhelming desire to don a shirt with kitty cats and unicorns that matches my Garanimals rainbow pants with elastic around the waist. Just so I can constantly point to my chest and say, “Look at my pretty kitties”.

And when someone attempts to suck me into the grown up business of understanding percentages, I distract them by saying, “Hey… hey… hey! Wanna know what I can do? Wanna know what I can do? I can say my numbers all the way up to ten without messing up!”

And should someone come into my home and sit down in my lazy boy chair to talk about percentages and other equally grown up and wholly mind-numbing words, I will most likely spin around and around in front of Netflix until I get sick and throw up.

I feel this way because what do these percentages really mean to the non-elite, non-solid athletes? NOTHING, the numbers mean nothing. And this is good because I have a hard time understanding math anyway. All I know is things squared make my butt look big and pi is for throwing or eating or putting Ex-Lax in when you have grown tired of telling someone to get more exercise.

I'm thinking an online book complete with little anime people throughout its pages who serve to explain the percentages and rankings concept on the site would be helpful to the non-elites like me. That way, when stumped about who is older and faster and will kick our butts in a 50 miler, we can look at the little picture of the ultra runner on the side of the screen. If her eyes are popping out of her head and she's holding her hand over her mouth in shock, we'll know immediately something is expected to go terribly awry on race day when meeting these friendly speed demonic competitors and monkeys drinking Mountain Dew.

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This can be like Ultrasignup Percentages for Dummies. Thank you, Jesus.

But here's the real reason I bring up these numbers and percentages: I do it because I'm wondering if there are people out there who care about these rankings and the percentage comparisons to other runners?

For example, after signing up for my first 12 hour ultra I was sent a few links from ultrasignup including registration info from the race director and finish predictions for the upcoming race. Upon reading Ultrasignup's percentage based predictions I was filled with both psychotic shock and an overwhelming need to weep uncontrollably. I felt myself entirely capable of pulling the legs off a spider. Of course, afterward I’d feel really bad about it and try to super glue them back on, but let’s face it. That spider would forever after crawl up water spouts with a limp.

Let's just say my hormonal imbalance was pushed into a Code Red situation.

I’ll explain.

Ultrasignup.com predicts me to finish 5th overall and 3rd woman in my age group.

 

Or do they?

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 I really can't tell what this means because I also suffer from math impairment due to my Mother’s addiction to overly priced carnival apples when pregnant with me.

Despite being force-fed enough apples on a stick to make me sick in utero, even I can see these math based predictions can be skewed. But here's the big question: would you consider opting out of a race because you became slightly injured or not prepared or for other reasons won't run at your best just so that you can keep your ranking high?

I wonder if Ultrasignup snobs exist out there... Not 'snobs' in the self-proclaimed trophy wives and socialites with more money than God – Well, God before the price of oil dropped anyway. I mean are there actual people who care about their ranking on the website?

I am willing to bet that at least a little part of us is somewhat concerned with that ranking and how it might be impacted by a poor performance. But no worries about a DNF.

Any race an ultra runner DNF's, does not show up in the results on this website and subsequently, plays no role in figuring out a runner's rank percentage on it. Since learning of this, I finally dawned on me, why some of the speed demons out there would rather DNF a race then finish in a place lower than they expected as it would mess with their ranking.

So I know I shouldn't really worry about this whole ranking thing but I do look at registration lists for races I'm going to run and check out the profiles of those ranked high in the field. I look at those lists and try to decipher where I'm going to land at the finish. And generally I'm right unless I personally blanket Virginia with vomit while descending to the trailhead.

After much thought (and sweet Lord, what a nightmare of thought this has been), I'm positive my brain is about to spontaneously combust. Who knew ultrasignup rankings could hurt so much? Even thinking about it now causes the whites of my eyes to throb. And I've never thought of myself as stupid really. Slow sometimes? Sure. Directionally impaired? Absolutely. But stupid? I thought I was at least marginally better than stupid. Now I realize I'm just one small blow to the head short of having to wear a helmet and a special bib at every aid station.

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Before inevitable brain combustion occurred, I thought about it some more and concluded, in my opinion, that the runner ranks on Ultrasignup.com are incredibly skewed. One of the reasons being is that I would like to see the amount of DNF's listed in results on the site. Some of the results are missing because of the non-noted registrants who did not finish the races they signed up for, so it's not a total ranking in my humblest opinion. So how is this possibly an accurate representation of how tough or easy a race can be for those viewing past results?

Therefore I'll ask the question again, what does the ultrasignup ranking mean to you? And what does it mean? How did I get so lucky to be in the 80 something percentile? Am I really expected to finish in fifth place in a 12 hour adventure trail race?

I was not happy to see Ultrasignup's percentage based prediction of my placement in not-yet-attained race results. The pressure to finish near the top is overwhelming as my blood vessels are bulging and my eyes are popping out of my head. All I know is this race takes place on a trail with muddy places, streams and possibly snakes. From my training and experience as a trail snake enthusiast, giant Anacondas are quite wily in that they will hide somewhere on the trail until you least expect to step on them, at which point they will reach out and swallow you - especially if you are trying to keep up with 'elite' and 'solid athlete' runners and smell like vomit and Mountain Dew.

So to say finishing this course ahead of 100 other ultra runners is hard is an understatement of epic proportion. It's like saying Scarlett O'Hara was a little bit dramatic or my chocolate lab only smells a little bad after she eats three or four convenience store burritos out of the trash.

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Yes, once in a while, my 10-miler-a-day running buddy is sneaky and manages to nab a morsel of an unauthorized food source. I don't have to see her do it to know she's guilty. She tells on herself. Every step she takes, it is like someone is slowly letting the air out of a kid's birthday balloon while simultaneously boiling cabbage. It's entirely unpleasant, but at least it makes my husband feel like he's not so bad in comparison.

So, what have we learned so far? The dog has the potential to be quite smelly and ultrasignup results (percentages and rankings) are somehow skewed. Armed with that knowledge, how would you like to then stuff my 70 lb. dog into a crate and ride with her in a tiny, enclosed space for two hours while you read ultrasignup.com results at your leisure?

With overly processed people food permeating from the dog's backside to mark the unofficial end of summer, I spent a leisurely weekend engrossed in racing stats terminology I've never heard and ridiculous percentages that I'm pretty sure are made up by a deranged monkey with nothing better to do. I've barely showered, my hair looks like the dog licked it clean after licking the inside of a bean and cheese burrito and I actually dreamt that I showed up at Prince William Forest Park for the adventure trail run… naked with exception of my Hoka men's clown shoes.

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You might say I've been slightly distressed trying to discern what these percentages mean in the whole scheme of things. I still don't know what the heck is going on, but I plan to ponder these calculations and in so doing, at some point before I die, I will figure it out. Well, so long as there can be no math involved. Math makes me cry.

Although I do know the square root of some stuff. (But I'm not telling you cause you'd get all uppity and nobody likes an uppity blog reader especially if they're listed on ultrasignup.)

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