The possibility of Jim Walmsley doing the Ridge Run this year inspires the question:
Can Jim break the course record?
Are Course Records for Trail Runs Meaningful?
With variable weather and trail conditions is it even meaningful to keep track of a course record for a trail run over the years? Conditions from one day to another can change significantly making one day fast and another day slow. Variability certainly diminishes the true meaning of course records. But humans like benchmarks and enjoy measuring themselves against standards, so records of performance, even for trail runs, are popular.
In the case of the Ridge Run, the course itself has changed significantly over the years. 2012 (the record year) just happens to be the very last year where the Start location was the same as the original Start location in use since 1985. Beginning in 2013 the Start moved lower down the mountain to accommodate an expansion of the Fairy Lake Campground. This move lengthened the course by 3 minutes for the fastest runners (double that for the slowest) making breaking the course record just that much more difficult.
Is the Course Getting Faster as it gets Worn in or Slower as it gets Longer?
Since its inception in 1985, the Ridge Run course has gone through some significant changes. Overall, it is now about a mile longer than the original. Most of the lengthening taking place between the Start and where the course reconnects with the Foothill Trail after Sacajawea. These changes were from adding switch backs to the route and blocking the shorter faster direct routes. In my estimate, it is now takes about 10 minutes longer (for the fastest runners) to get from the Starting line to the Foothill Trail junction than it did in the early 1990’s. The portion of the course just after Ross Pass also has been ‘switch backified’ adding a few minutes to race times.
From Bridger Bowl to the top of Baldy the course is largely unchanged, but is much more pronounced and visible making route finding less of a problem compared to the race’s early years. You could say this change makes this section faster. Perhaps, but I would suggest that the fastest successful runners did not slow down because of route finding. There were even years from the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s were the course was marked with orange paint so often that you could always see where the route went.
With each passing year, as the course gets traveled more, it has gotten very worn in. This changes the footing. In some areas, the footing is smoother and faster. But in other areas, footing has gotten worse and slower with wear. In places, it is now extremely slippery with loose dirt and gravel. Wear also exposes fixed rocks underneath. Each year as surrounding dirt gets worn away embedded rocks get more pronounced and trip prone.
Are the Runners getting Faster?
The popularity of trail running and the increasing body of knowledge about training, fueling and racing has resulted in many more talented and faster trail runners than there were in the early days of the Ridge Run. The course has significantly changed and slowed over the years, but the fastest runners keep getting faster. Some day, the Ridge Run course record will be broken. Will it be this year? In another week we will find out. I would enjoy seeing Jim show up and go for it.