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. Karen T

    When asked what my hobbies are, I tell people I'm an ultra trail runner. I've never run a purely road ultra race and don't ever plan on it. Although I don't mind a few dirt roads thrown in a trail race, all road is just too boring for me. I fell in love with trails first and then ultra running. If I was told I either had to give up ultra running or trail running. It would be ultra running. Although I love running longer distances, one of the most important aspects of being out there for me is being a part of nature. It results in a big smile and happy heart.

  2. Runningmom

    Ultra Running can't be dead, i'm just getting started : )

    It's the most amazing feeling in the world to know you can run long LONG distances.

    It makes my kiddoes (my 3 little boys) proud.

    I could come in last place and my kids would yell "WAY TO MOM, YOU'RE THE BEST!!!" : )

    I was the best in their eyes, because i tackled my first ultra and finished.

    For the first time in my life i did something truly amazing!

    I am an ultra runner : )

  3. Dane

    Since I didn't see a direct response to you and I had an answer, Vanessa, I thought I would do so, even though this article is old. Running an ultra distance on the road is not that confusing. It is for people who don't feel you have to be surrounded by lush beauty and flowing streams and the nature of everything to enjoy pushing yourself for a very long period of time.

    I often tell the story of two different runners I have met. One runs around 3000 miles a year and never races. The other basically does all of their training miles running in an industrial crap part of town. To me, these two are the definition of runners. One runs with no main goal per se, never receiving accolades in the form of a medal or official race time. The other hasn't seen a squirrel or a babbling brook n a run in years. It is easy to be a runner when you receive praise or finisher's medals. It is easy to be a runner when your daily route is awe-inspiring. It is far harder to be a runner when those things are taken away.

    On the other hand, some people really enjoy running on the roads. I am one of them. I do not get beat up by the road. I enjoy the even footing it gives. When I really want to let fly, I don't have to worry about scree sliding out from underneath me, or roots to trip me or other dangers. DO I love running on trails? Well, it is hard not to! Being in nature, enjoying alone time and taking in all that is out there is easy to do.

    Probably more of an answer than you expected but I felt like responding. I love the roads and love running very, very long on them.

  4. Norty

    I run on whatever's in front of me and are gratefull for every day i am un-injured and can do so. Having said that, I try my best to run exclusively trails, and totally agree with Geoff. I am a "trail runner" and anything over marathon distance I run because I love trail running, not because I'm an ultra-runner. After partaking in the Tarawera 100 this year I 'd also say that the 'ultra' tag is dead as Sage and Tim Olsen flew past me (it was an out and back) at a pace quicker than most mere mortals run a road marathon.

  5. kyle

    Not sure this is concrete of a split as detailed in the article (pun intended). All joking aside, where would you lump timed races? I've run races on asphalt loops, dirt tracks, trails, roads. Does it really matter? I love the distance. Maybe Im old school though. I do think though that we should distinguish between 50k's and longer.

  6. KevinL

    I know this is an old post with many, many replies, but I just found it today, so here's my take.

    In 2010, I became an ultrarunner. Knowing that the VT50 would be my first, I transitioned to trails, my home from back in my high school cross country days. When people would ask, how can you spend so many hours and miles on trail? There's no other place I want to be. This happened in DC, where, believe it or not, there are many miles of trail to be had…loops, AtoB, and AtoA out and backs. I called myself an ultrarunner.

    Fast forward to today in my new home of Carrboro, NC. I have two races planned: a 24hr paved loop in PA, and the VT50 again. But, I think I'm going to skip the VT50, because once the 24hr race is complete, I don't want to run the miles needed to prepare for Vermont.

    Why?

    I hate running here. There is one park with trails, but it's essentially a pen, and as any trail horse knows, a pen confines the soul. The roads are not hospitable, either, but the chief gripe is lack of long-run trail. This lack has killed my joy and thus, my desire to run.

    And after reading this post, I get it: I'm more a trail runner than I am an ultrarunner, because without trails to love, I have no desire to run ultras anymore, and so I won't, lest I come to despise running in general.

  7. paul

    Personally I think there's quite a big difference between trail/fell runners and road runners. Surely more than the difference between a 26.2 mile runner and a 30 mile runner.

    Fell running where I am can be quite technical and very different from pounding the tarmac – the flipside is I struggle to keep running at the same pace for hours on end on flat roads.

    As for the term, I just ran my first ultra – at 30 miles I don't feel like it quite counts as an 'ultra', too close to 26! But as a long hilly trail race, it was great.

  8. Chris White

    I completely agree with Jeff. First of all, most people who enter the races considered "ultras" could not run a fast marathon time, even for their own age/gender, myself included. Yes, that sounds too direct perhaps for some, but let's face facts. We who finish in the bottom 80-90% of most "ultras" may like calling ourselves "ultrarunners" but how accurate is that really? Are we just so darn great at marathons that 26.2 miles isn't enough for us? Or, is it that the longer races are on trails and sound like a great challenge and a lot of fun and that's why we run them? I never call myself an "ultraunner" because I couldn't run a sub-3 hour marathon, but I can complete a 50K or a 50M just decently and enjoy myself in the process, but why add the bragging rights aspect of lumping myself in with the true elite athletes that do deserve the title of "utlrarunner" when I'd be lying to myself. This is of course a generalized statement and is not meant to insult anyone. I'm merely trying to build off of what Jeff stated and encourage us all to be honest, and the term "trail runner" is more accurate for the vast majority of us who run what are labeled "ultras." We can still be proud of our accomplishments, but let's be real: the vast majority of us aren't the elite athletes that this label conveys.

  9. Chris

    I love irunfar for thoughts like this. Thanks for the write up. I guess I'll just comment that I just like running far. Most trails accessible to me in St. Louis are fairly short, so I have to resort to running on rails-to-trail places. These are flat, hard-packed, gravel and monotonous after several hours. But, I enjoy the distance. So, I'm somewhere in between. I agree with the impact preference of "trail" like places and would add that traffic is a problem for roads. There are bike paths here, but they are paved and full of … well … bikers. So, I naturally gravitate to trails…but like I said, my trails are somewhere between that of a road or a trail. Anyway… I guess I'll throw a poop in the ring and just say, I like distance…wherever I can get it.

  10. Gzrrnnr

    As a 67 year old trail runner who has been on trails for longer than most of the runners at trail races now have been on the planet, I find this discussion a bit amusing. Way back, we did not give a shit what you called it. We just went out and enjoyed it. Too bad it is not that simple anymore…..

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