The Hype Machine

“You take the things you like, and try to love the things you took.”

– Regina Spektor

I’m going to fly to the Canary Islands next week to run fifty miles. That’s right, the Canary Islands. If you haven’t paid attention to geography since high school, you should know that the Canary Islands are geologically part of Africa. AFRICA. To run fifty miles. Does that seem odd to anyone else?

Let me start over. I’m an ultramarathon runner, meaning I run races that are longer than marathons, typically of the fifty- or one-hundred-mile distances. These races are usually held on trails in areas with lots of elevation change. The people who are attracted to these races tend to be experienced outdoors-people with strong legs and short memories. I got into the sport because I saw a cool race and wanted to do it, so I took the steps to do it. I run in mountains. Big deal.

But people want it to be a big deal. The sport is growing dramatically and as a result the number of participants has increased rapidly over the past five years. A “scene” has evolved online where people discuss races and racers, gear and places, nutrition and strategy. The fast runners have become pseudo-celebrities among their peers, indistinguishable to the untrained eye but near deities to those informed. Blogs, websites and interviews have flashed across the internet, hyping up the competition beyond its normal scope. Many runners have now quit their “normal” jobs to take running full-time. Such is the sport of ultrarunning.

I seem to be right in the middle of it, which distresses me in some ways and excites me in others. I’m not going to deny that I’m flattered when people tell me my run at Race A was “super impressive,” but I will deny that I’m doing anything other than running a lot. Similarly, you can let the exorbitant amount of money and hype surrounding the Tour de France convince you that riding as hard as possible around France for three weeks is the most important thing in the world or you can realize that it’s just a bunch of amazing athletes riding bikes around Europe really hard. What they are doing is incredible, but relax dude – it’s just a bike ride. In running, Kilian’s Quest is a high-end example of strategic marketing. He runs up and down mountains. Nothing more.

But at least he does that really well, and for the right reasons. He’s not running up and down mountains to be this “Kilian Jornet” figure that has been hyped up to the media – he’s running up and down mountains because he loves it. He has an important stake in winning races because that is how he makes a living, which certainly adds a key incentive to his training. But training to race ultramarathons at the limit of a person’s abilities is impossible without a true love of the sport, whether that person is Kilian Jornet or Joe Regular.

So next week I’m headed off to Africa to run fifty miles. People are going to conjecture the results in long diatribes. “This guy has this strength, but this guy is from this place, but this guy has done this already, but this guy has a beard” and so on in that vein. The point of it all will be to get overexcited about something that will affect few and soon be over. We build a bubble which we then burst and try to convince ourselves that it had meaning which still remains. On the other hand, ultrarunning is a supremely personal and unproductive activity (in the Western sense of the word), which we have morphed into a way to make money. With money we can take the sport to new levels, allowing us to do more and greater things. Companies see our sport as a lucrative venue for business, which translates into fantastic opportunities for everyone. Those of us in direct communication with said companies receive express and obvious benefits, but the people at the bottom of the food chain also benefit in the form of more races, more people, greatly improved gear and much wider acceptance of the sport. Still, the “sport” has nearly become separated from the running. The scene has morphed into its own entity that is sometimes only marginally connected to its subject. In this way running has become a vehicle for the scene, and I find that silly.

But I also find great meaning in the acceptance of my peers. I race because I love to challenge myself against others and be part of something greater than myself. The scene allows me to join a group of people with similar interests in an activity that provides me with a lot of meaning. I revel in sharing the beauty that I find on the trails. And beyond that it’s just running. Nothing more.

I’ll be putting my cat through dryer cycles if you need me. See you in Africa.

There are 100 comments

  1. Brian

    I don't think he's missing the point at all. He points out that these are "amazing athletes" but this is still a sport 99% of us have done at varying levels since we were old enough to walk..or ride.

  2. Kimmiq

    Interesting point of view for sure, but what young Dakota doesn’t seem to recognize or at least articulate in this article is that racing (ultra marathons, major cycling events, or any other competitive endeavor for that matter) is the pinnacle to a journey. Everyone there is there because they love what they are doing, there are no cyclist on the Tour that are there because of money, yes it is a big machine and involves lots of money, and the money motivates, but make no mistake, NO one who does not have passion for what they do ever becomes a champion! Why would a professional hockey who has more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life keep skating after having suffered concussions – because he is a champion, and one does not become a champion motivated solely by money, there are easier and less painful ways to make money. People become champions because of their passion! To suggest that Killian is making money at his sport but that at “least he is doing it for the right reasons” is insulting to all other professional athletes.

    Towing the line at Hard Rock or lining up to start the Tour de France IS a “Big Deal”. Anyone can go riding on the roads or running though high mountain trails anytime, so why do people get butterflies in their stomachs at the start of major events? Because it’s the pinnacle of the journey they took to get to the line, it’s because they had the drive and passion to plan and train for months and years… sacrificing sleep, time, money, injuries, taking a year of school, or living in truck – all just to get to be part of a “Big Deal” – that my friend, takes passion!

    So why don’t we just go running, because it IS a “Big Deal”. Whether your running up front, a mid-packer or dead last being part of an event with a group of people who have been dedicating months and years of their lives doing what they love, where, there, on that day, they will leave it all on the trail, run farther or harder that they’ve ever have or harder than they could have ever run without the support and excitement of the event – that’s a “Big Deal”. Geoff Roes actually sums this up quite nicely in “What’s So Special About Racing” http://www.irunfar.com/2012/04/whats-so-special-a…. But it’s also more than that, it’s about the journey that everyone has taken together; we may not know each other, but when we get there we all know and understand that everyone there has been dedicating significant portions of their lives to the same goals for the same reasons – because of the passion we share. That my friend IS a “Big Deal” and achieving the pinnacle to the journey would not be possible without the “Big Deal”.

    Cheers

    1. dogrunner

      I also enjoyed Geoff's take on racing, BUT…

      And not to beat a dead horse (cuz that is just mean), but as much as the personal journey IS a "Big Deal" personally, emotionally, spiritually, to each individual, it is ALSO "just running" (or just cycling or just hockey, or whatever). I love running, and to my non-runner wife and friends I am OCD about it sometimes (ok, all the time), but a little perspective – on a day-to-day basis, nobody here "needs" it (except in our own minds — not to say the values I listed above are not real). We will still eat, have access to drinkable water, find shelter, not have someone shooting at us, etc, even if we do not get a run in. We all feel like life should be more than just mere survival, but to the vast majority of people who enjoy running, it is a bonus of modern life, not an essential part of it.

      OK, that was way too serious. Please set phasers to stun :)

      1. Kimmiq

        Thanks for setting your phaser on stun! It's a lot of fun until…-:)

        You're absolutely right, from a purely existential perspective, running is just running and nobody “needs” it. But most of the things we do as a society nobody “needs”. Why does a writer write or artist paint nobody “needs” that either. I could certainly survive without music, but it does bring me a lot of joy, it may even make my life better and so does running.

        We are driven do the things we are passionate about, and if we are lucky enough, if there is enough “hype” or if it’s a big enough deal, some of us may be able to make a living at it, but that would not be possible without the “hype”. So as much as I can appreciate the existential perspective, I say bring on the “hype” – as long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously it’s more fun that way!

        Cheers!

      2. Yeti

        I have to respectfully disagree with dogrunner's point that,"the vast majority of people who enjoy running, it is a bonus of modern life, not an essential part of it." Running, to me at least, and I hope others as well, is one of the essential components of life (especially modern life), in much the same way as shelter, water, etc… We need running. Mind and body are one, they are not seperate entities, the idea of a dichotomy in this regard is false. To malnourish our happiness and fulfillment takes a toll on the body AND mind in much the same way as not drinking enough water. The outcomes are obviously different but to neglect either is profoundly destructive. As far as how this relates to racing (at least in the way we know it now with gps, gu's, electrolyte powders, hundred+ dollar entry fees, etc…)then yes, it is a bonus of modern life. But running stands alone from all those trappings and remains the best nourishment for my health and "survival" I could ever imagine.

        1. dogrunner

          ya ya ya. I said, your survival does not depend on it, that's all. And that is true. I also said that the emotional, spiritual, and physical values are real. That is why I run too. But if you think you slowly (or rapidly) fade away because you cannot run, just like not drinking water, that is just not the case. What we do IS *just" running, however central to our emotional/psychological/physical well-being it is. I agree that the mind is not separable from the body, but lots of physical activities (walking, for example) will take care of the body just fine, if you're open-MINDED about it. This is feeling like a religious debate now, where my swimmer friends are doomed because they do not run :). It's only my totally sedentary friends that are doomed :) :)

  3. run1

    I think the hype might exist so much in ultra running simply because there is so much more stuff companies can sell to us. Think of the amount of compulsory gear for utmb. Because we need to be self reliant we need packs, jackets, high energy portable food etc. Unfortunately companies probably see us as a very profitable market. But i think if this means more and better organised events it can still be a good thing. Bring on the hype!

  4. Dan

    I really didn't gel well with this article or with Dakota after reading this and I now, REALLY don't like him after Transvulvania. What sort of jerk would walk over to a fellow runner just after he passed out and drop a flower on his chest???? Especially a runner that you called out specifically in this article. Kilian ran a heck of a race and passed out at the finish line and you think it makes the most sense to drop a flower on his chest like he's dead or something?!?!!? What a royal douche bag! If Dakota doesn't like the fame and fortune he gets from running, stop entering races, put on a suit and tie like the rest of us jerk off's, and just run.

  5. Amy -The Quirky Glut

    LOL.

    My hubby is a gravel road cyclist. We drive 200+ miles for a 100 to 300 mile gravel grinder.

    We planned our vakay to Hawaii around which island county had a race for myself.

    We are planning a vacation to California around an entry I won into a trail run–a $40 entry. HA.

    ". I race because I love to challenge myself against others and be part of something greater than myself. The scene allows me to join a group of people with similar interests in an activity that provides me with a lot of meaning. I revel in sharing the beauty that I find on the trails. And beyond that it’s just running. Nothing more."

    LOVE it.

    And really, the Tour IS a bike ride. . . I don't get all hypy (is that a word) about Hollywood stars–they're paid to do their job. Does anyone get all hypy that I do a great job at my job? it's nice to spot a celeb on the street–to stalk them for doing their job well is creepy.

  6. Zac B-S

    And have ultrarunning be like every other sport out there, being eptied of its meaning and reducing the value of non-professional efforts. Yes, that would be great.

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