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. brucef

    you can simply compete with others, without joining the machine. The hypocrite,"( a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings).gripes from his jealousy,("feeling resentment against someone because of that person's rivalry, success, or advantages )" i don't understand why you bring up someone's name, and complain about a competing company's marketing.

  2. olga

    "ultrarunning is a supremely personal and unproductive activity". As long as we all remember it, and don't take ourselves (or, rather, ourselves in this particular activity) seriously. It's just running, man. Life is out there.

  3. dogrunner

    I don't care what anyone else thinks, in case anyone else gets defensive or otherwise ornery about it or whatever, but that was an awesome post! DJ you have a career ahead as a writer or sociologist or iRF contributer (can you make a living doing that?).

    As one of the bottom of the food chain types (I run because I like running), I still enjoy the race reports and the trickle-down gear improvements – I guess that makes me the TARGET audience for the hype/marketing machine. But checking in at iRunFar gives me something to do between runs :)

    Good luck next week!

  4. Dominic

    Yeah, but the fact that you aren't doing Western States means that you're a pussy and also going to run harder at Transvulcania, Zegama, and Hardrock. Seriously, if Kilian gives you crap during your next races about not doing WS, the scene won't defend you unless you win.

    1. MikeC

      I think it is. A popular spectating event and extreme preparations done by well paid riders, teams, and organizers. But they are just riding bikes.

      Dakota's point sounds like a dose of humility. As great as the top runners and bikers are, they are just running and biking, not curing cancer or meeting the needs of the population.

      I do love to follow the scene though…

      1. Graeme McCallum

        I worked for Team BMC – Cadel Evans won the tour with them in 2010 – Our sports director , John Lelangue, always used to say to us staff when things got hectic and it was touch and go to get to a specific feeding point on a mountain or to get back to the finish in time, "Don´t worry, just take it easy , it´s only a bike race " – just my 5 cents on perspective

  5. Tilman

    Hey Dakota, great post! Btw don't try and tell any Canarian the Canary Islands belong to Africa. Even if they are located at the same latitude, they definitely are not African (Officially, they belong to Spain, but the Canarians don't want to hear that either :-))).

    Have fun anyways – which island of the seven are you going to?

  6. ned barrett

    The attention I pay to sports comes precisely from what you refer to: it means nothing other than what it is. I'll follow your race, root for you, get excited about twitter-feed blow-by-blow accounts knowing that, for the most part, it occurs unaffected by the crap in the outside world. I run in part because it reminds me that my body functions even when I most distrust what my mind is telling me–it's cheaper (well, maybe not, but at least healthier) than Prozac.

    Thanks as always for your perspective, and thanks for being a great athlete.

  7. Ann

    Flying all the way to Africa to run 50 miles sure proves that you do not care about your carbon footprint! Isn't there any races closer to where you live?

    Beside that, I loved your article and think you have a great perspective.

    1. DavidP

      If he chartered a flight it would increase his footprint, if he takes a flight that will be going where he is going anyway as is the case with most flights there is no additional impact.

  8. boisean

    Ann, are you opposed to people traveling for pleasure? Sometimes the 'carbon footprint' people are going a tad overboard.I'm quite sure that he knows that there are closer races to run, as he already has 'been there, done that.'

  9. boisean

    MikeC, I can see the 'humility' aspect to Dakota's article, but still disagree with the 'bike ride' comment in regards to the 'le Tour.' Sure, if you want to get all pedantic and nitpick this to death, one could say that these guys are just 'riding bikes,' but that would be to miss the point.

  10. Martin

    Okay, but calling Canary Islands Africa might offend some locals you know. It's kind of like calling Hawaii a part of Asia. Or the U.K. a part of Europe :)

    1. Bryon Powell

      Geographically, the UK is Europe, no? Same goes for the Canaries being part of Africa geographically not withstanding that it was conquered by Europeans and remains politically and culturally European. Can't the Canaries have dual continental citizenship and we just all get along? ;-)

      (Ps. Hawaii is not part of Asia either politically or geographically.)

  11. Alex from New Haven

    So I think about this. A lot.

    I love trail running for its own sake. Personally, I also want to be part of something bigger than myself. After months of solitary running I crave a "Sense of Community" and cultural tradition to situate what I'm doing. I know that "out there" are thousands of other people doing what I do. Knowing some of their stories and learning about the history of the sport enhances the enjoyment I get from the hard training. It gives further dimension of meaning and context. I add the adventures of my friends and the re-told stories of the elite to my own to form a broader story in which my own running makes more sense. Knowing the history of Western States and knowing who was "racing" make the two years I did WS much more rich.

    If you, personally, feel over-exposed, over-hyped and over-twittered that's a whole different issue. This is <1% of even pro marathoners go through and 0.001% of what other "pro" athletes/celebrities endure. Honestly, it may be the price of getting a buck to run in the woods in short shorts. If you feel your sponsors or certain blogs or sites are making things "inauthentic", work with them to make it feel better.

    cheers,

    Alex

  12. Brad D

    I actually laughed when I read the part about the cat at the end. I think most people may have even missed it. Hilarious but you better watch out for the PETA people. They may be in Africa to "greet you" as you exit the plane :)

  13. Trail Clown

    Since you dropped out of school to pursue this, I hope you succeed. That is the fascinating part of this evolution of ultra-running to me. Not that people are upping the ante competition-wise, but that so many people are eschewing the "traditional" path to success. It is the brave new world, and there are alot of people trying to ride the wave. As a bottom feeder I love the innovation that has occurred, and I think it's all good. And I truly think the next evolution is already occurring, that of Team Ultrarunning Leagues. This year's WS will pit the European Salomon vs. the American Pearl Izumi, and I think that type of drama will eventually lead to an organized league with a Commissioner, international venues, standings, etc. How about Bryon Powell for first Commissioner of the new league??

  14. bgos

    Dakota- Hey Buddy, go easy on the cat. Wait a minute……Cat….Canary Islands……….Cat ate the Canary? I'm cracking your little code here, aren't I Amigo? Expecting a CR are we?

  15. Kelly

    Awesome, Dakota. Very well put. Interesting times we live in with our activities, for sure. Tons of similarities with climbing here, and I wish more climbers had such great perspective — thanks.

  16. Colin Matthews

    Interesting perspective in this article. Although I found it a bit hypocritical. I work in the outdoor industry and recently sat through a Mountain Hardwear sales presentation that featured a video of, guess who, Dakota Jones and Max King, testing a new technical t-shirt.

    Like it or not, you're part of a similar 'high-end marketing strategy,' so if you're looking for an example of that, why bring Kilian into it?

    That being said, I think you're an exciting runner and am impressed by the fact that you're putting a lot of thought into the way the ultrarunning 'scene' is unfolding.

    1. dogrunner

      I did not read it that way. He just said, amidst all the hype / big business elements, it's just running. It's a big deal BECAUSE of the hype / big business aspect (fed by fans who find value in following the sport), but it is not a big deal in the sense that it is "just some folks running." Same is true for ALL the big sports, including TdF. Its a business where companies make money, but its just a game when you get down to the core activity.

  17. Speedgoatkarl

    its' hard to resist an "all expense paid trip to the Canary Islands" the international Skyracing federation is making this happen, and it's very cool Carbon footprint or not, it's a great opportunity for super fast US runners to experience a big stage. Not one race in this country has a "big stage". Nope, not WS, not HR, not anything else, it's a cool experience any way they look at it. I found the race to be too short for my liking. :-) it's a sick route, and a great race. So, does this race count on the "North American, ultrarunner of the year". I guess it has to.

  18. Fabrice

    Good luck for next week, but you are not going to Africa, the Canary Island is part of Spain and you will be running in the European Community. How ever you will have to commute to Africa to get there….

  19. AJW

    Salomon vs. Pearl Izumi at WS? Indeed, both those "teams" have talented runners but there are many, many others. Turning it into a team event is, in my perspective, a bit simplistic. Ultrarunning has not and is not likely to ever be a binary sport.

  20. CJ

    Nice post Dakota. A little wisdom from someone who's lived a few more years…ALWAYS stay humble and grateful for the opportunities and gifts you've been given. And don't ever forget the "Joe Regulars" in the world :-)

  21. David T.

    Hype or no hype I find the Kilian's Quest vids to be inspiring.

    Beat Kilian in the next couple races and you might get your own Dakota's Quest series! (-;

    It will be interesting to see how Kilian performs considering up until last weekend he was still focused on skiing (whoops – slipping into hype mode…).

  22. Ben Nephew

    I think describing it as a scene, as in something you find at a popular fraternity house, restaurant, etc. is very accurate. The problem I have with it is that this part of ultrarunning is different from much of running, and not in a good way. The ultrarunning hype is more similar to NFL than professional track or road racing. In ultrarunning, some individuals receive attention long after any significant peformances, or solely as a result of marketing. Race results are ignored or discounted because they not from popular races. Compare this with a few bad races from a US track star, or realize that the world record holder in the marathon from last year didn't make the Kenyan Olympic team.

    I like running because there are no scores or points for style, and coaches do not play a key role in how races are won. While people still debate various performances, credit is given where credit is due. Popularity has a very minor role in track and road running, but ultrarunning is different. I think part of this difference is due to the fact that ultrarunning, more than other forms of running, attracts people who are looking for attention.

    1. Anonymous

      Name recognition carrying hype for years does happen in track. Take a look a certain websites posting front-page news every time Alan Webb runs a race, maybe making his big comeback.

    2. Jeff Faulkner

      I find just the opposite. Ultrarunners, of the Joe Regular variety at least, do it for fun and camaraderie. It's the road and track runner who do it for popularity. And let's not even begin to talk about the multisport types…

      No, in ultrarunning it's way more about fraternity and beer than popularity. My view from the BOP.

  23. Andy

    Maybe I'm just a bit too old and jaded, and I don't know Dakota personally, but I find many of the comments a bit amusing and wonder if Dakota does too. My read of the post is that it's just satire — of self and, of course, ultrarunning in general. The people, the activity, the scene, the whole thing. It's all true, to a degree, which is why it's funny. Which is part of enjoying what we do without taking it, or ourselves, too seriously.

    And thanks, Dakota, for helping me — a middle-aged middle-of-the-packer — explain to non-running types why on earth I would run 50 or more miles anywhere. "It's the perfect activity for 'experienced outdoors-people with strong legs and short memories.'"

    1. Matt Smith

      I agree about the comments.

      Many of those who posted humorless replies about this whimsical/funny opinion piece just go to prove Dakota's point about 'the scene' taking itself too seriously.

      Calling out his previous comments about carbon footprint and calling him a hypocrite is just lame. As Oscar Wilde said, "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative." Contradicting oneself is a sign of an open mind.

      Write on, brother!

  24. Brett

    I still get a good chuckle everytime Dakota is interviewed by iRunFar after races. He just has this 'aw shucks' attitude laughing like 'I can't believe people film these stupid interviews after races'.

    'I ran a lot, and I won. The End.'

  25. Ed

    Worst sh*t I have ever read. Was a stuck up little prick, Mr. "I race because I love to be part of something greater than myself". Never heard such drivel.

    What a terrible f*cking attitude,not the least being 100% untrue (I guaruntee it), he races to beat other people and prove to the "world" he is better than everybody else. That is it!

    Stephen Hendry, 7x World Chamption, plays sport for a real reason, to win, none of this "taking part in something bigger than myself" b*llocks, just to win. Now that is inspiring.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Jordi, with Dakota being clear that he's referencing La Palma as being geographically part of Africa (it is), I'm not sure what's wrong here. We all know that the Canaries are politically part of Spain (even if as an "Autonomous Community"), which is in the EU, but that still doen't move La Palma off the African tectonic plate. ;-)

  26. Ed Poppiti

    Hype away! For those of you who are skilled enough to make money at it, outstanding. Ride it for all you can. Ultimately it's a meritocracy and what could be more fair. Karl will say 100 miles isn't that far, but it is, and I understand it's "just running", but it's a personal challenge that few on this planet would ever contemplate. The "attention" we get from our individual peer groups for embarking on these quests means absolutely zero at mile 27. The hoopla at the start and finish means absolutely zero at mile 27. I really enjoy reading about the ultra running cast of characters ,the gear, the events, the successes and the failures. You know, underneath the sizzle of all the hype, there remains a lot of substance to this "community", that's something I find very attractive today.

  27. Jamie Falk

    Dakota, love your posts, however much the satire is lost on some. Best of luck in what is, after all, geographically part of Africa.

    I wonder if putting my cat in the dryer occasionally would keep it from shedding so much . . .

  28. Anonymous

    Ben,

    Ultrarunners looking for attention??? C'mon. I'm a former professional soccer player, and, FROM EXPERIENCE, ultra runners are not looking for attention. I've been part of the machine that is money/sports/fame and ultra running is no where close to the other "big" sports. It's like most avenues in life…when you excel at something…attention comes second. (unless your initials are D.K.) Popularity means what to you? The comparison of ultra running to track and road running seems lost on me.

    Gerell

    1. Ben Nephew

      It is all relative, I'm comparing ultra with road, track, and shorter trail races. I find utlrarunners less modest than runners from other disciplines. Based on your background, it makes perfect sense why you have a different opinion. I'm not sure where you are confused on the comparisons with road and track running, but that brings up another good point. In other running disciplines, my 10k runner friends don't feel that there distance is the true championship distance, and clearly superior to the less popular steeplechase, XC, and 1500. This is clearly not the case with ultrarunning.

      1. Anonymous

        Interesting that you find ultrarunners the least modest…Maybe you find this with the runners you know or meet., but for me I can't disagree with you more. In fact, the runners I know and have met…unless someone else tells you or you know their accomplishments personally, you would never know how awesome they are. I think that some runners are jaded by what they see in the ultra running world, and don't have the perspective of how it really is in other sports. I can't even tell you how many times I've heard or read a race recap from an ultra runner winner say how it was just their day, and if the race was the next weekend they might not win. Read Dylan Bowman's race recap of the Leona Divide 50. Be thankful of athletes being humble, and enjoying what their doing.

  29. CraigR

    Great piece here! If I were Dakota's age and that talented in this sport, I'd be doing the same thing.

    However, until an American dethrones Jornet at UTMB, my guess is that he is still the man to beat. It seems that is all the rage these past 2-3 years on most blogs that I read. And rightfully so. But as Karl Meltzer points out, "UTMB is like a freeway compared to HardRock".

      1. Speedgoatkarl

        the freeway just means the trail is better than Hardrock, more well worn. It ain't no easy route, it's tough.

        Krissy Moehl holds the women's record. American women count too. The US best finish is Brandon Sybrowsky the first or second year they had it. I think Killian was about 15 years old, or even younger. :-) less comp but the field was still bigger than any US 100 the second year.

  30. greg monette

    So you win one race a few weeks ago and then you go and poo poo all over it with this post. What's a matter with you? The rest of us learned a long time ago not to believe the hype (thanks Chuck D) so we don't think about it, and we don't write about it when we're not running. Wanna know why? Cause we're working when we're not running, and you're right, big deal, who are you anyway? [Personal affront removed by editors.] And if you're running Seven Sisters this weekend will you kiss my baby boy at the Summit House?

  31. Ben Nephew

    I completely agree with you, but there seems to be a difference between the front of the pack and majority of ultrarunners. What I am describing is my experience with road and track runners in the rather large running community of Boston as a member of the Greater Boston Track Club, and now the Central Mass Striders as compared to my experience in the ultra community. Top ultrarunners seem more likely to have a blog and post frequently on FB, etc.

    I thought of the difference between the front and rest of the pack with Geoff's article on comraderie. I see packs of midpackers all the time at ultras, but I rarely see comraderie up front. I do see a lot of competitiveness, though. I've run dozens of shorter trail and road races where several of the guys up front who are of similar ability run together for 3/4's the race, then sort things out at the end. The common occurence at ultras are the top runners going out too hard, and if a pack does form, there will soon be all sorts of surging. I've experienced this difference even with the same runners at both short and ultra races. I think how Kilian ran UTMB last year is an example of comraderie in racing, but it seems to be an exception rather than the norm. There are all sort of explanations you can throw at this difference, but most of the reasons for spread out races can be applied to both short and long races.

    1. Anonymous

      ben, if you're not seeing the comraderie among top runners in ultrarunning i think you might want to consider the geographic dynamic. you live and race exclusively in the eastern part of the country, and the vast majority of the top runners, and therefore the more competitive races are in the west. i'm not saying that there aren't top runners and top races out east, but there are so many more top ultrarunners out west that you just don't have the kind of depth at the top in races out east as you do out west.

      1. Ben Nephew

        Thanks to irunfar and all the personal blogs, you actually have to be at the race to realize how it was run. Taking off 30 miles into a 50 miler seems more indicative of competitiveness than comraderie. For comraderie look at how Kilian ran in the second half of UTMB last year. How he raced is not the norm in ultrarunning. While I will admit that we have virtually no top runners or big races in the east, we still have slow depth. My optinion is not based on races with 10 other hobby joggers. Lake Sonoma was a very deep race this year and the spread over the top 5 places was 43 minutes. The 2011 Pisgah 50k (I know, 50k's don't really count) had a spread of less than 8 minutes. To be fair Chuckanut did have a 2.5 minute spread over the top five. I was surprised to see Dane Mitchell get fifth there, considering he could only manage 6th at Pisgah last year.

        I also race in Europe, and have witnessed that same ultra competitive racing that is present in the US. There is nothing wrong with a group of 20 runners going out at a pace only a few can maintain, putting time in the bank, or trying to drop someone hours from the finish. I just wouldn't do those things if my goal was racing comraderie.

  32. Mark

    "I seem to be right in the middle of it, which distresses me in some ways and excites me in others."

    " but I will deny that I’m doing anything other than running a lot."

    There it is folks! Gotta read between the lines.. His points are being proven:)

    He "runs alot and wins" Damn that's good stuff!:) I run alot and ummm, hurt alot!

  33. bgosney

    Enough already, do not get sucked into this people!

    Dakota is an OK runner I suppose, but trust me, his day job is Provocatuer Extraordinaire. I know, because I've known Dakota since he was in leggings. Which sadly was not that long ago because his mother Beth, who is otherwise a terrific person, inexplicably made Dakota wear leggings until he was 18. Along with chilhood obesity, this meant Dakota didn't date much at Durango High. At high school cross country races Dakota would make some Nietzschian existential quip at the start line, stun the kids with actual talent and then waddle with his leggings and chubby, chafing thighs to another undeserved victory. Anyway, I propose we stop being supplicants to Dakota's idle self-amusement.

    And another thing. All this worry about Dakota dropping out of college? Please. The kid is creating a regular cottage industry around his own personality cult. Geeeesh.

    1. dogrunner

      66 replies. Dakota predicted this ;)

      For anyone that really wants to see discussions take on a life of their own after the group consciousness has been poked, go hang out at Slowtwitch :)

    2. andrew

      Pitch perfect. I'm scratching my head at many of these comments, so serious, so fearful. Seems to me like DJ is taking the piss out of the "scene" (such a silly word) and, more importantly, himself. What's wrong with that? He's right. It's just running. It's not like we're helping anyone else by spending hours and hours running through the mountains and on darkened roads. It's pretty darn selfish, actually. Maybe we're all just a bunch of moaning, relatively well-off, mostly white people whining about gear and injuries and our carbon footprints. I mean, really, we could be so much more productive if we all spent the time we devote to running by instead volunteering to help shocked and confused cats just out of the dryer who are now homeless, or people suffering from having guilt about flying long distances just to run. Like us, apparently.

  34. Van Horn

    Carbon footprint? Oh please. Sinner! He's a sinner because he is flying to another part of the world and you think the trip is un-necessary. To heck with the wacky, self-righteous religion of Anti-Carbon.

  35. Jon

    Great piece Dakota! Thanks for your perspective, humor, and satire. Keep it coming! To Dave T. that European Freeway Race aka UTMB you speak of has been won by an American… twice. An American Woman by the name of Krissy Moehl in 2003 and in 2009. Cheers!

  36. Stephane

    Sometimes one just need to produce 817 words for a blog post before a deadline. There's nothing wrong about it. If you want quality, buy a book.

    Just as Kilian needs to win races, our writer needs to write in order to buy food and shelter.

    FYI: The canary islands are part of Spain. Spain is a European country. You might ended up being very NEAR the African continent, but you'll actually never reach it.

    1. bfrench

      This is getting old. Dakota said it is geologically part of Africa. Quit being so quick to bash somebody when you didn't check your facts in his writing.

  37. Vermonter

    It really is one of the simplest things you can do. Run, Far. Sharing this experience is a wonderful blessing and privilege. Sure a competitive drive can kick in, but the camaraderie in theses things is unlike anything else. Like you said, bottom line: Killian just runs up and down mountains, nothing more. I enjoy the races where there are no awards and no finishing medals none of that hoop la. Just Run and just enjoy it.

    hmmm…maybe I'll grow a beard.

    Great post Dakota. Forget everything when you run. Let you're body do the thinking.

  38. Bryon Powell

    Yeah, I realized my previous photo choice of Kilian – made because he was mentioned in the article and positively, at that – gave quite the wrong impression. I'd rather poke a little harmless fun at myself. :-)

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