In October I mentioned that my friend John commented that my UltraSignup score would suffer after choosing to run the Condor 25k with a friend rather than race it. It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone from the Corvallis trail running group make mention of Ultra-Signup scores. My friend Scott once went on about how small races help your USU score whereas the big well known races are likely to hurt your score. I had heard the guys playfully banter about who had a higher ranking. And my friend Gaby asked me at the conclusion of the 2012 Gorge Waterfalls 50k, “Jeez, did you have to win by so much? You made this one of my lowest Ultra-signup results!”
Yes, it is obvious people are paying attention to their Ultra Signup scores, but just how important do people really think they are??
Ultrasignup arrived on the ultrarunning scene in March of 2009 as the brainchild of Mark Gilligan. Today USU handles the registration for approximately 80% of all ultramarathons and many shorter distance events as well. The company tries to upload all of the race results that they are aware of, even if the race does not use USU for registration or timing. RD’s can assist in this massive data collection by submitting results to USU in a spreadsheet format.
Mark admits that he was interested in knowing about his competition going into races, but looking up each person individually took an enormous amount of time, especially for the larger races. He said he was interested in putting together a system to help participants (including himself) easily analyze the competition. The idea for quantifying results came to him one night while having beers with friends after work: The score for each race is calculated by dividing a runner’s time by the winner’s time and the percentage becomes the runner’s score for each event. An individual’s aggregate score is just an average of each individual race score. It was a simple calculation that allowed people to see how many races someone had run and what their quantified average of past results were, which created a general runner rank. The system also benefitted ultra fans, allowing them to quickly identify top competitors or “race favorites”.
The system is decidedly less complicated than something like the BCS ranking system which involves a combination of expert polls and computer calculations. It is this simplicity that it allows it to be applied universally to the ultra-running community, but unlike football there is no accounting for “strength of schedule”. The formula does not take into account the number of participants in a race, the number of people a runner beats, or the strength of the competition in the race. The winner of a ten person fat-ass in the middle of December gets the same reward as the winner of Western States on Ultrasignup. Likewise, a runner could have an exceptionally good race but if the winner destroys the course record on that particular day, the Ultrasignup score may not reflect the accomplishment. But the method of dividing one’s time by the winner’s time was certainly not a novel concept in Ultrarunning: race series, like the Montrail Ultra Cup and the Oregon Trail Series, predated Ultrasignup with their use of the same formula to determine runner rank within the series.
Mark says he has gotten numerous suggestions on how to improve the algorithm, but few are as simple as the current system. And Mark states: “It is not our intent to inject subjectivity, it really is just your average of how you have done over the course of your running career.”
But recently there have been changes to the USU system and the ensuing discussions on the Ultrasignup Facebook page made me realize a lot of runners take this rank really, really seriously. In fact, Mark says he knows of a few situations where egos have been put in check after people have been called out on their low rank. And there are stories where people have sized up potential dates based on their Ultrasignup scores. Now that’s taking it seriously!
One of the changes involved timed race events. Previously these had not been calculated into the score, but these results have now been averaged in (using a modified formula of runner’s distance/winner’s distance). Those who frequently run timed events were strongly in favor of this, basically stating they wanted “credit” for these results. But opponents stated these races are often used for training or running a specific distance with no intention of running the entire time and they didn’t want to be penalized for this. The second change involved listing the DNF’s, though that had no effect on the actual score.
With all the banter and importance placed on the Ultrasignup score, I have decided to share my wisdom and experience (61 Ultrasignup results!) on how to achieve an Awesome Ultrasignup Score:
- If you are having a bad day, you should DNF. Sure the DNF’s are listed now but they don’t actually hurt your overall ranking. On the other hand, sticking it out through a tough day will earn you a score significantly lower than you are used to. My rough day at Western States in 2012 earned the ranking of 58%!
-Never run competitive races. Whenever a lot of fast people show up, the time between you and the first runner is likely to be a lot greater, meaning your score goes down even if you think you had a good day.
- Run a bunch of small, non-competitive races to pad your score. Better yet, go to a fat ass with Ultrasignup registration and race it all out. I like to race and I like to have some runs as training runs. Local races are perfect for this. And high placings at these races that nobody outside of your state has ever heard of (or cares about) can not only boost your ego, but also you USU score!
- Do not do any races for fun. Do not do any races for training. And certainly don’t run with anybody slower than you. Two years ago, I ran the Pac Rim One Day with my daughter. I thought it was pretty fucking awesome to run an ultra with her when she was only 8 years old. But Ultrasignup didn’t - they reamed me with a 35%. My recent endeavors to help a friend meet her goal at the Condor 25k were also frowned upon in the USU system.
- Do not race outside of your strengths. Last year I thought it would be fun to run a mountain half marathon to mix things up and get some good vert for Western States. But I am not great at steep uphills or steep downhills and I certainly don’t have the speed to compete in a half marathon. Ultrasignup corroborated this with a lower than average score for the day.
- Never race against Ellie Greenwood. A couple years ago, I had a decent run at Chuckanut (it was on the top 20 all time list at the time). But Ellie set the course record that day. Likewise, her two speedy runs at Western States hurt my scores on the day. Fast chicks and dudes can do a number on your score even if you have a good day. It’s best to just not run any races against them at all.
;) Ok, hopefully, everyone knows I don’t mean any of that! (Well, except the part about Ellie Greenwood. Nobody has a chance against her :). My point is that ultrarunning is a lot more than a computer generated score. Enjoying new places, hanging with other people, being active, and even toughing it out on a bad day are all things that enrich our lives and make us better people. Being competitive and pushing yourself to do better and even beating others is all part of this sport, too, and I certainly relish that aspect of ultrarunning. But it is good to keep it in perspective.
Amongst all the Facebook feedback and suggestions, a few commenters hit the nail on the head. One said his Ultrasignup score was “not something I think about when I am running an ultra. Stats and rankings don’t mean much.” Another person noted, “I don’t need to be ranked to love this sport.” Even Mark Gilligan, the founder of Utrasignup, says: “the ranking is just for fun so don't take it so seriously. It was added to the site after a few beers so take it for what it is.”Ok, so fess up! Has the ranking system ever influenced your race decisions, such as what races you run or whether or not to drop? Be honest - How seriously do you take your Ultrasignup score?