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?

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