Feel the Burn of the Ultimate Runner

TCTC Ultimate Runner on Saturday, June 24, 2023, at Bob Sosnik Track, Hanes Park in Winston Salem, NC. (Photo by Robert Hill)

What makes an “Ultimate Runner”? Within the Twin Cities, an Ultimate Runner is one who completes the Ultimate Runner’s Racing Event: a 37-year annual tradition that is put on to see who can outrun them all. This rigorous race holds five events that each runner MUST complete to gain the title of Ultimate Runner: 1 Mile, 400 meters, 800 meters, 100 meters in that order held on the Bob Sosnik Track at Hanes Park. Sounds easy? To top off the event, every runner must complete a 5K race around the park for a grand total of 4.91 miles. If you complete this formidable race, you get an Ultimate Runner Finisher’s shirt and a car decal with the total mileage of the event. If you score low enough (it is scored cross country/golf style after all, lowest score wins), you even get a placement mug as your award. Remember how I mentioned that completing all five events was a must? Any persons who don’t beat the “five-headed Medusa” get their unearned shirts burned in a ceremonial shirt burning after the event where the ashes are “supposedly” scattered on the track later on.

So we’re a community of runners who generally run more than that on a regular basis, how hard could it be? Turns out much harder than one may realize. The challenge is to find a happy medium of effort to perform well without burning yourself out before the other events. Several athletes have stated that it’s a whole other ballgame than true distance running or a track meet. Remember, you’re reaching anaerobic (oxygen depleting) levels of activity across five events, and in the North Carolina summertime. There’s even a warning given in the emails leading up to Race Day NOT to perform personal record bests for any individual events as it comes to bite you later on in that 5K. This is a race that requires mental and physical toughness along with strategy. Definitely not for the faint of heart. 

This year’s 37th annual Ultimate Runner event is dedicated to David “Bubba” Gelly, a valued member of TCTC, who recently passed away. Along with his pals, Sandy “Sandman” Wetherhold (and the mastermind of the Ultimate Runner), Keith “Stoneman” Stone, and Don Kardong, they duked it out on the track several times after its inaugural year. Don Kardong wrote a great short memoir piece on the 10th annual Ultimate Runner which made it into Runner’s World magazine in 1997. Sandy referenced in the commencement of the event, it’s a great piece, you should read it. Great friends leaving it all out on the track and razzing on the one who ended up pulling up (cough, Bubba, cough). To truly dedicate the competition to Bubba, Sandy burned a small portion of a previous year’s shirt to honor his memory. The racers did not disappoint in making this yet another memorable race for the books. Many of the heats in the different events being neck and neck, having to go down to milliseconds to determine placement differences. Everyone put on a great race that was definitely a sight to see for our spectators. We hope to see everyone again next year for the 38th annual Ultimate Runner, scheduled for June 29, 2024!

Since this race is so vastly different from a typical distance or track event, we were curious, what has kept our runners coming back for more over the course of nearly 40 years? So we took to social media to ask this question. We’ll share the answers in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

TCTC Ultimate Runner on Saturday, June 24, 2023, at Bob Sosnik Track, Hanes Park in Winston Salem, NC. (Photo by Robert Hill)

Above: Author Marisa Browning runs the 5K in the 2023 edition of the Ultimate Runner.