Ultrarunning Is Dead

For most of the past three decades, it has made a lot of sense to combine all running that is longer than 26.2 miles into one category and call it Ultrarunning. The number of people running Ultramarathons has, until recently, been very small. The majority of these folks were not regularly running shorter races, and many people who were regularly running sub-ultra-distance races didn’t even know ultramarathons existed to the extent that they did. It was such a niche thing to run longer than a marathon that it made perfect sense for it to have one simple designation and leave it at that.

In the past 5 years, however, the number of total ultramarathon finishes has increased at a rate far greater than any other time in the nearly 50 year modern history of the sport. One thing that has not increased nearly as rapidly, though, is the number of finishes in road ultras, leading to an ever growing disparity between trail ultra and road ultra. This growing disparity has been fueled largely by the exponential growth in trail running in general, but it also seems quite certain that ultra trail running has grown at a much faster rate (as compared to all ultrarunning) than has sub-ultra trail running (as compared to all sub-ultra running).

There may be a few reasons for this, but I think the most likely is that a few of the key reasons why people like to run trails (less impact, more variety, to get to remote places) go hand in hand with running really far. In short, I think you have a symbiotic relationship in which the less impact and more variety allow you to run much farther, and the farther you run, the more remote places you can get to. Therefore, as trail running has exploded in popularity, it has fueled an even more rapid growth in ultrarunning, not because people are specifically wanting to run really far, but because trail running and running really far go so well together.

This has led to a vastly different demographic in ultrarunning than has ever existed. The percentage of ultrarunners who have never run a road ultra has grown incredibly in the past decade. More ultrarunners than ever before identify themselves primarily as trail runners and secondarily as ultrarunners. And for these reasons, I think the ultrarunner classification is antiquated and inaccurate. As more and more “ultrarunners” are in the sport simply because they like running trails, and would much sooner run a 10-mile trail race than a 50 or 100-mile road race, it makes more and more sense to go one of two directions: either get rid of the classification of ultrarunning all together or divide it into two categories (as many folks have started to do already): trail ultra and road ultra.

At the end of the day, it’s all just a label that doesn’t really mean much of anything, but I think the demographic of people running longer than 26.2 miles has changed so much in the past several years that if we are going to have these labels it just doesn’t make any sense to continue forward with an all encompassing label that does such a poor job of defining what/who you are talking about. In reality, it’s all just running, but if you’re going to break it down further, I think it makes a lot more sense to break it into trail running and road running than it does to continue with the category of ultrarunning, which does such a poor job of categorizing such a large percentage of people. I, for one, think of myself much more as a trail runner than I do as an ultrarunner. Especially when the category of ultrarunning includes flat road races, which I am quite certain I am unlikely to run anytime soon.

I’m curious, though: how do you all see yourselves fitting into these genres of running, and am I the only one who thinks that the term ultrarunning is antiquated, and very poorly represents the bulk of the runners who are currently running long-distance races?

There are 130 comments

  1. tyler

    i think of myself first as a trail runner who runs ultra-whatevers. the term ultra- is something i apply to the race itself because, frankly, i find it a bit much to refer to myself as an ultra-anything.

    i see a loose analogy in the way i would refer to myself as a skier and not a Giant Slalom racer.

  2. Benj

    I am a runner. Some days I run on the road, some on the trail. Sometimes I run a 5k sometimes an 80k, I just run really…

    1. Graeme Colhoun

      100% agree Benj!! i've ran 100 milers on road, trail, around a track. I've run 5k's and 10k's….simply put, I just run:. I do not discriminate against distance or terrain:)

  3. Mark 'Doc'

    I humbly disagree. I run road ultras and trail ultras and enjoy both. I have finished 2 trail 100s and 4 road 100's. We do not classify marathoners as 'road' marathoners and 'trail' marathoners, we call them ,marathoners. There are lots of people who enjoy trail and road.

  4. Jeroen

    To me it makes no sense in changing the definition just because more people do it or because the reason pleople do it has changed.

    These definitions already exist, either descrbing where you run (trail, road etc.) or what distance.

    If someone calls himself a trailrunner that does very long distances: Great! If someone calls himself an ultrarunner that prefers trails: also fine.

  5. Brett

    And then you have races like IROC 100k that is a mix of both.

    I train on roads (because of where I live) and run races on trails (because of where they are). So I guess I am a low-mileage-road-training-ultra-runner-who-runs-ultra-races-on-trails…or LMRTURWRUROT for short.

    To keep it simple, I may change the classification to lower outside ultra distances for all road/trail, or LOUDFART for short.

  6. Brad

    I agree, my main reason for running ultra races is to be able to cover long distances on trails to remote places. The only roads are run are the roads from my house or work that lead to the trailheads. I am fortunate that in the summer I can run in Wilderness areas at elevations above 10,000 feet. In the winter I stay closer to home and run in the foothills. Entering races keeps me disciplined. I too consider myself a trail runner/mountaineer who runs ultra races to aid in training. I do not intend to run a road race and have never done so. I do like Bret's humor though so according to his analogy long outside ultra distance for trail or LOUDFAT.

  7. Win Bassett

    "At the end of the day, it’s all just a label that doesn’t really mean much of anything…" I agree with you here. As long as you're running, you're running.

  8. Reid Landes

    Though I prefer ultramarathons to shorter races, and trails to roads, part of my self-identity is as a “runner.” When others who show an interest in running think of me as an “ultra-runner” or “trail runner,” then I am not as approachable.

    “Oh. He only runs long distances. I can only go a mile… maybe.”

    “Oh. He runs on trails. I’d trip and fall.”

    It is a blessing to run on any surface for any distance. So at the end of the day, I will stick with "runner.”

  9. Chris

    I agree with Jeff. Trail running has enabled runners to run much farther and enjoy it.

    Also, the term 'ultra' has a bit of a self-important ring to it. When it was unheard of to run so far, it made sense, but it makes less sense the more standard it becomes.

    In the 80s, "extreme" skiing meant jumping off a 20 foot cliff, whereas now that term has pretty much disappeared because it's just not considered extreme anymore.

  10. Joe

    But, but…just saying trailrunning doesn't 1-up my '26.2 stickered-on-their-mini-vans' friends when I post 'just ran a trail race!' on Facebook. NO…it must be ULTRA.

  11. Trail Clown

    Even if 99% of ultrarunners are trail ultrarunners, ultrarunning is still a more broad term to the narrower categories of trail versus road ultrarunners. So even if you are like Geoff and only compete in trail ultras, you are still an ultrarunner first, a trail ultrarunner second. As long as the two narrower categories exist, then the broader term should live on. I think it's become a big deal because of the year-end awards and whether more weight should be given to road ultra winners versus trail ultra winners. And that is where I think things should be separated. So yes, Geoff is correct that the broad term is not very useful in terms of awards. But for the average Joe, being an ultrarunner still seems useful.

  12. Alex

    I agree whole heartedly with Geoff. I run on/ off trails to get to remote places, to experience the environment, to experience the freedom of travelling to such places under my own steam. From me these are the most important things, and thus 'running' is in many ways a by product of these aims and goals. It's just my preferred method of achieving the above. With that in mind, I'd be nowhere near satisfied/ comfortable covering the same distances solely on the road. Hence I'm a trail runner!

  13. Rob Youngren

    I disagree that trail running is ALWAYS less impacting than road running. Ever take a horrible spill and break a bone or suffer a severe laceration on trail? Ever feel totally pounded running down a talus or boulder field? I also disagree that road running is necessarily more impacting and damaging. Sort of a false perpetuating myth. Anyhow, I consider myself a "runner" first and foremost. I like running trails and I like running on roads, I even like bushwhacking through the woods on occasion. I like running 5 and 10kms. They help maintain my leg speed and turnover. While I'd most likely chose a trail run over a road run most of the time, I can honestly say some of the most amazing ultra experiences I've every had were on the roads, I think of my Badwater experience for one. Ultramarathoning simply means going beyond the marathon distance, ultrarunning means any extreme running event, regardless of distance. The two words often get confused. I think folks who reject doing any sort of road race simply because it's on the "road" are missing out on some awesome experiences. But too each their own.

    1. Steve Pero

      Totally agree with you, Rob. I spent the first 20 years of running, running road races in the Boston area and since have run trail races and ultra races. I'm now planning a road marathon in December after I get Hardrock and Bear out of the way. All my weekly training are road miles on a flat bike path in ABQ., where I can work on running faster than on any trail. It's all good! I am a runner!

      Steve( who has a plate in his arm from a trail race fall in 2000)

      1. Rob Youngren

        Definitely. Why on earth anybody would want to put on "blinders" when they run is beyond me. Keep and open mind, there are awesome places to discover Out There on both trails and roads. The surface doesn't matter but the attitude does!

      2. Rob Youngren

        Forgot to add. There was a guy we were running with at Strolling Jim 40 mile this past weekend, yes, yuck a ROAD ultramarathon! Gads! ;) Anyhow he said he didn't consider this event an ultra because it wasn't on trails??? And he was serious? WTF!!??

  14. Johnny K

    Agreed, labels are not really that important as many of us cross over all those lines. That said, I am completely in the demographic you describe. I'm relatively new to the sport and pretty much only run trails. 26.2 is a line on the measuring stick — I just like being out in the mountains.

  15. Wyatt Hornsby

    Interesting and thought-provoking columnn. I consider myself an "ultrarunner" but, unlike many in this sport, I LOVE running roads. Trail running tends to be more fun, but I consider the purest form of ultrarunning to be road races since that's how the sport formed in the modern era (think of the timed races in Madison Square Garden, the Bunion Derbies, etc.). There are still some great road ultras out there, such as the Spartathlon and Mad City 100K. Also, there are phenomenal 24-hour races like the North Coast 24 and a few lower-profile races like the Lt. JC Stonr 50K that are amazing road experiences.

    Wyatt

  16. Matt

    Ultrarunning (for me) conjures up images that I remember from my childhood, when I saw a documentary about Max Telford running across Death Valley. My main memory was that he kept his shoes in a fridge – that has to be classified as ultra-something.

    Trail running sounds a more accurate way to describe what Geoff and all the other mountain men get up to – they run on trails, but happen to do it for 50, 60 or 100 miles. And they (and we) do it for other aims than merely covering distance, like the adventure, the feeling of getting out in nature etc, etc.

    I bet Scott Jurek – who of course has been successful on roads, trails and tracks – would be able to come up with a definitive answer.

  17. Alex from New Haven

    Couple of thoughts in no particular order:

    -Moving away from the label "ultra" seems like a good idea. Trail runner, runner, long distance runner, are more ego-neutral

    -Observation: I recently moved to New England and people here mix road, short trail and long trail frequently. Very different from CA where except for Dipsea I can't even think of an iconic, frequently run, short trail race.

    -I just did my first road ultra after 6 years of trail ultra. I really liked it, but, like shorter road races, it's about time, splits and competition more than "adventure". I like mixing road and trail to stay sharp. It's a different kind of fun.

    -Aside from surface it seems like there is (marathon/50k) then (50m/100k) and then (100mile/24h and beyond). These are more metabolic/time categories and as both everyday folks and pros have found out success at one does not always translate to the others.

    /2cents

  18. Nate K

    Along the subject of taxonomy, I've only run one ultra (on a trail); as a middle of the pack finisher I did a lot of walking, I did a lot of jogging, and very little running. For all but the elite, should we be called ultra-RUNners at all? Maybe ultra hikers that run some of the time, UHTRSOTT?

  19. Emily Baehr

    I think it is hard to define… each race is its own beast. Sometimes I'm a walker, maybe even a jogger. Sometimes I'll get lucky and podium. I still feel guilty about calling myself a "runner". I don't quite know what quantity of miles I feel I need to accumulate to achieve the title. I'm assured by friends and family I have accomplished it. Titles feel elusive but also snaring. Once your path changes…do you lose that identity?

    1. footfeathers

      Emily's got something here. The word "running" in ultrarunning is the part I think is misleading. It seems like maybe 5% of participants in trail ultras (especially the longer events) actually run. Maybe "Ultramovement" "I do ultramoving."

      1. Mark

        Only 5% of the people are actually running??? What are the rest of the people doing, jogging?

        I have never run more than 26.2 miles and consider myself a trail runner. I just ran my first Trail Marathon last weekend and had a blast. When I do exceed that arbitrary number that classifies a race as 'Ultra', I still won't call it that. I will just say I ran a 50k or 50 mile or whatever distance trail race. I certainly won't be running it on the road!

  20. Kevin

    I prefer to keep it even less categorized and say I am an "endurance athlete". To me this, in a not too cocky way, explains that I like to go out and push the limits of my body for longer periods than a "normal" person. Most of the times it is running trails, but hey, why not some road time, or a road/mountain bike or fast-pack. Truly all that matters is you are getting out there and loving it and not trying to define a label.

    1. KenZ

      I like this. Or perhaps endurance runner. Because really, is there really THAT much difference between a marathon and a 50k? Me thinks not.

  21. Peter Andersson

    The Alpine Ski World Cup does a fine job (economically) of forcing together such different "sports" as slalom and downhill under one name and one organisation. Why kill the term ultrarunning now that it finally has become a household word?

  22. art

    the whole reason I got into this stuff is so I could attach the label "ultra runner" to myself.

    ultra just sounds cool …

    and never tell your non ultra friends you actually walk most of it.

  23. Craig

    There terminology only matters to actual ultranners and I don't think any of us really care. Non-ultrarunners only understand one thing: running farther than 26.2 miles is insane and we are all crazy. The rest is semantics.

    My true opinion about what we should call it shouldn't be distinguished by road vs trail. I think it shouldn't be called ultrarunning until you are doing 50+ miles. 50k distance has become the new marathon and doesn't quite give the same impression it used to. However, the longer we participate in this sport the more removed we become from the normal human who often has the life goal of just hoping to complete a marathon. So in reality, maybe it should be the non-ultrarunner who gets to classify us and not our own community. Wow, my thoughts are all over the place.

  24. JohnnyTri

    Running is running. Either road or trail anything past the 26.2 is ultra-running. As some have said, it doesn't really matter if its trail vs. road, its Ultra. On some days I like road vs trail but at times its opposite. My first 100 mile run was on Road and now I am attempting a trail 100, as I said, either way its Ultra! I say leave the "ultra-running" classification.

    If we start saying trail or road ultra, does that mean we have to start saying "Half UltraMarathon" vs. Full UltraMarathon"???

    rockon'

  25. Richard Dodd

    What about those events that combine both, how would you classify them? In November of 1982 I (and my twin brother) ran the Vilas 50K in 2:59:56, still a WI State Record. It was a 4.45-mile loop, 1/3rd of which was a trail called Picnic Point, performed 7 times. So more than 10 miles were trail, and the other 20+ on the roads.

  26. Catherine P

    Never thought of this but good point. Ultras are primarily the distance I run, but I've always jut considered myself a trail runner that likes to run long. Won't be doing road ultras EVER.

  27. Andy

    It's Ultrarunning. Ultrarunning magazine covers ultramarathon running both trail and road and that's just fine. If you run a race longer than a marathon it's ultrarunning. I much prefer running on trails and if I'm going to spend my money to do a race, I'll spend it where I enjoy it most – on the trails. I might identify myself more as a trail runner, but if I run a trail ultra, it's still ultrarunning. I say who cares what it's called, go out and run a long ways on trails. If it's not a race, I don't consider it ultrarunning anyway really. I'm just going out for a long run in the woods which I rather enjoy…

  28. Johann Sigurdsson

    I'm a trail runner who participates in 2-5 trail ultras per year. To friends I often use the term mountain running as most of my Ultra's are in mountains i.e. UTMB etc.

  29. Andrei

    Geoff,

    Have you considered the reason for having more trail races vs. road races is permits and logistics. Organizing a road race of a 100 miles point to point is a nightmare of navigating permits and logistics with local communities. Being able to obtain a permit for a race in a park or somewhere with no traffic is way easier. Safety and liability are main factors which come into place as well. A road race is far more dangerous than one on trail due to vehicles.

    Ultrarunners will go and run where they can find races. While there are many who prefer trail races, there are also many who prefer road races. I would always pick the road vs trail if a have an option, however most of the times I pick races based on how far are from my home, my ability to take time off from work and travel. That is no indication of a trend change, it is an indication of circumstances.

    Rob, pointed well that injuries happen on trails due to terrain. On asphalt you know what you get from the beginning, on trails it is gamble.

    Lastly, I have to agree with you that some trails where you cannot run because of terrain, should not be considered ultramarathons, a more appropriate term would be ultrahicking. Nevertheless, ultrarunning is a term which can be used for trails, roads and a combination of the two; trailrunning on the other hand cannot. Perhaps we should work together as a community to promote ultrarunning instead of making claims that is dead.

  30. Lynsey

    I don't think the term ultra running has become antiquated so much as it's usage has become lax.

    Ultras, at least as far as I classify them, are distances that go beyond the marathon. Ultra has no regard for terrain. Simple as that.

    One can be a trail runner without being an ultra runner. And that is fine.

    I think part of the lax is designating so many things as 'ultra' is due to the increase in people being running and their need to validate themselves as awesome.

  31. Jonathan Bean

    It's an interesting point to note that ultra trail races are growing do much faster than any other area of running – except perhaps charity 5ks – but I think we're in danger of getting too hung up on definitions. We're all runners. If I meet someone and they ask what i'm into i'll reply "running". Usually that is enough, but if they press further I might expand on the kind of running I do, but I don't think I would stick to one label…

  32. Justin

    Great article geoff! i moved to colorado from upstate ny several years ago, kind of like you, and got lost in the world of trail running. in the past two years ive upgraded from 5ks to 10k to half marathin, to competetive trail racing in breckenridge including the breckcrest mountain marathon which was only 23 miles but still an experiance of a life time. june 30th i will run the leadville trail marathon, my first 26.2 miler, why not go for leadville. i consider myself a trail runner for life, look forward to 50milers and maybe 100s someday. i only run on pavement on the way to trails and road ultras sound boring and painful. your an inspiration geoff.

  33. BOB

    Geoff,

    Why are you doing this? Why do we need to classify everyone. Can't runners just be runners. I like to run road ultras, some people like trail ultras, can't we all just get along!

  34. Phil Jeremy

    I never think of running roads. The reason I started doing trails is because its more fun and when I discovered ultra's I only ever considered them on trails. To do a road ultra just sounds very boring to me…..give me trees and mountains any day.

  35. nicholas wied

    Great piece Geoff, I totally agree. I ran a lot of short road races before moving to trails and ultras. I now identify as a trail runner who runs trail races from 5k to 50-100miles. When people ask if I'm an ultrarunner, I tell them I'm a trail runner who also runs trail ultras.

  36. Michelle

    I come from a climbing background so this make sense to me. I wouldn't say that ultra running is dead, but the point is correct. If you are meeting up with somebody and they say they are an ultra runner you could assume they mean they are a trail ultra runner.

    If I say I am a climber, what does it mean for most people. Those that are not climbers, they will think of movies like Cliff Hanger where you climb up a wall and put you gear in tiny cracks until it fits just perfect. Falling can cause your pieces to zip line. They may even think you can climb Everest, because that is what climbers do. However, the truth is I couldn't climb Everest, and I have only climbed one route where I attached my pieces straight to the wall, whatever that is called. I am a sport climber, and still bring my rope us with my on a route. However, I attach to pieces bolted into a wall. I can only climb routes that where set-up in advance.

    You are not really a climber, that doesn't mean anything. However, you could be a sport climber, trad climber, or a mountain climber. Each mean their own thing. The outside world will still see climber, but inside climbing world they are worlds different.

    I run a lot of both. However, I prefer the trails any day but I live in Florida and my options are limited. I travel for my key races and they are all trail. If I where to leave Florida, the chances are I wouldn't do road ultras. With that said I would consider myself a trail ultra runner that does some road ultra marathons.

  37. Rob Youngren

    All I can say is if one hasn't actually done some road ultras how can one know they are "boring" or "painful"? I've done plenty of trail races that were boring & painful, I've also done plenty of road races that were far from boring and not any more painful than trail running. Where do these false premises come from? Don't knock it unless you've had enough experience to form a opinion.

  38. dogrunner

    Interesting conversation.

    Personally, I run trails. I do not like pavement any more than I like treadmills. The latter have their purposes (stay in shape for running trails :) )but I'd probably not be a runner at all if those were my only options.

    I think "ultra" or "extra-long" -distance vs sub-ultra or not-so-extra-long -distance is orthogonal to trail vs pavement (roads, asphalt bike paths, sidewalks, etc). They are different axes or dimensions of the running niche. People will use whatever terminology is needed to describe the variants they are contrasting at the moment. Sometimes it takes extra adjectives to communicate accurately.

    Just my $0.02.

  39. Peter

    This is a good post. My perspective is that distance running is all more or less just distance running, and I would think that distance running is 10k and up.

  40. Jacques

    I agree Jeff, I've been running trails for 25+ years and the only reason I got into Ultra's was because 50 miles was our only choice for a trail race "back in the day". I did learn to love the long distance as long as the trail was interesting and a challenge, singletrack preferred. For instance I became obsessed with WS not because it was 100 miles but because of the event itself and it was on the Western States trail. My trail running club is going through a bit of an identity crisis. We became an Ultra running group [we do have better stories] and unfortunately some of the shorter distance trail runners started to drop away. Our Wed. runs are usually 7-10 miles so anyone can participate. Not a big deal but maybe i'm more of a Distance Trail Runner then Ultra runner. That does have a nice ring to it.

  41. Mark Myers

    I think that the real observation isn't just as much the aspect of ultra road versus ultra trail but nature versus industrial. In trail weather it be short 5 k or an ultra 100 k it is getting away from all aspects of technology and things manmade. In a trailrun you experience that in the road ultra you are taesting your limits and in the trail run you are saving your sanity. We are always seeking something greater than ourselves and in the God's creation provides that. I would be curious to know of those running trail ultras what type of profession they are in and how deeply they are imeressed in technology daily.

  42. Ken Eng

    I agree with Geoff that the term "ultrarunning" has become too general and encompassing to describe the variety and scope of running events beyond the marathon distance. Ultrarunning's technical definition is precise, (beyond 26.2 miles, but what there is beyond 26.2 miles has become vast and keeps changing. Even someone saying that she is running a marathon doesn't really describe what type of experience she will have since the variety, size, difficulty, terrain, and support provided is incredibly diverse. The only thing that can be determined when someone says that she has run a marathon is that she has run a race 26.2 miles long. There's a big difference between a flat course marathon at sea level and Pikes Peak Marathon. The only thing that can be determine from someone saying that she is an ultra runner is she likes to run events longer than 26.2 miles.

    Like Nicholas, I describe myself as a trail runner that likes to run trail ultras.

  43. Dominic

    I think there is very big difference in terms of what a road ultra and a trail ultra require of the runner. I've trained for and raced Badwater and trained for and raced mountain 100s. In training more Badwater my muscle mass shrunk and I mentally focused on the mental fortitude required to maintain a strong pace on some really booring roads. In training for Angeles Crest, my body adapted and built up muscles to absorb the undulations of the trails, and my mind focused on adapting to the challenges of the wilderness.

    Both a difficult and rewarding in their own ways. I've gravitated to trails for the sole reason of pure enjoyment. If you wanted to call someone from Florida, and someone from Alaska, Americans, you could.. But you'd sooner identify them for their stronger characteristics indicative of where they live.

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