Time for Something New

I’ve run several ultra trail races in the past seven years. Not as many as some people, but enough to get a pretty good sense of what the typical race is like. I’ve run some of the oldest, most well established races on the circuit: e.g., Western States, Wasatch, Mountain Masochist, and American River. I’ve also run several very young races that are trying to establish themselves as “instant classics”: UROC, Run Rabbit Run, and The North Face Endurance Challenge. Beyond this I’ve run a dozen or more races that fit somewhere in between these classics and newbies.

Having run all these different races the one thing that jumps out at me when I compare them to each other is how much they are all alike. Virtually every ultra I’ve ever run has either been 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, or 100 miles. They’ve pretty much all had aid stations no less often than every 10 miles (typically in the 4-7 mile range). Nearly every one of them has started between 5-7 am on Saturday morning. Every race has a few minor things which make it a bit different from others, but for the most part, you could roam around the country running a new race every week, and after several weeks you would likely start to feel like you were running the same races over and over.

There is, of course, a reason it’s like this. There are some key components which were born in the beginning of modern-day ultrarunning that have been passed along and emulated over the years. In almost all cases these components have become tradition because they make a lot of sense. Right? That’s what you would think would be the case, but when you look closer at some of these things it’s actually hard to find logical reasons (other than tradition) for the widespread similarities in all these races.

Is there any reason why it makes more sense to run 50 miles as opposed to 44, or 56, or any other distance that a desired route happens to be? In track or road running where you can typically compare times from race to race it makes a lot of sense to have various common distances. But in ultra distance trail running why does there also seem to be this kind of consistency in race distance? Due to the variation in terrain you can’t begin to compare one race to another, and, if anything, many race routes end up being compromised due to the “need” to make them one of the four common distances. Is it just that we like to be able to say that we ran a nice round number of miles? Does running 50 miles really sound more bad ass than running 55? Certainly, if you’re going to run 92 miles, it’d be nice to tack on 8 more and make it an even 100, but when it’s said and done, doesn’t it seem to make more sense to just run the 92 as opposed to running an out and back stretch on a road to make up the extra mileage (something that I’ve done more than once in 100-milers)?

Laurel Highlands Ultra

The 71-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra covers the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail’s entire length. No more, no less.
Photo: CatchTech Adventures

What about aid stations? Running 50 kilometers or more takes a ton of calories, water, and often a lot of emotional support – all of which we get a lot of from aid stations. C’mon though! If we can run 100 miles can’t we also run stretches of 15, 20, even 50 miles without aid? I get the point that running these distances are really, really hard so we need all the support we can get to help us do it successfully, but is this such a necessary thing that virtually every race in existence should have no fewer than one aid station per 10 miles? Does it really make it that much harder if we need to carry several extra gels in our pack, or stop a few times during the race and bend over and actually get our own water out of a stream? And does harder make it any less appealing? If that were the case why wouldn’t we just run a 5k instead of 100 miles? I also get the point that we are paying to do a race so that we can receive the kind of support that goes along with all of these races. When you think about what you are getting for your money at most of today’s races it’s actually a pretty good deal. This said though, why do they all need to be this way? Wouldn’t it make just as much sense to have many races with significantly fewer aid stations that could thus charge significantly less for entry? Again, not a very novel idea, but one that virtually no races seem to adopt.

Anyway, no need to ramble on any further on every single thing that races seem to do similar to other races. Obviously tradition and trend play a huge part in these patterns, and many new races adopt these patterns without even thinking of it. I, for one, though would love to see some change in this regard. I think the “typical” races are really great, and make a lot of sense, but they aren’t the only things that make sense. In the same way that I think more diversity among the participants in our sport would make the sport richer for everyone involved, so, too, would more diversity among the events in our sport. To anyone out there looking at starting a new event (and I assume there are more than a few reading this who fit into this category), do you really want to start another event that’s more or less the same as the 99% of races already out there?

I don’t raise these points to criticize anyone for creating new races that are modeled so closely after the vast majority of current races, but, instead, to hopefully plant a few seeds for something a little different in the future. I’m still at least a couple years away from putting on a race of my own (if ever), but you can bet if I ever do it won’t be shaped with the same cookie cutter as all the races I’ve run in the past.

There are 18 comments

  1. Sniffer

    +1 I really think this is a great point on both the race distances and the aid stations. Focusing more on the "quality" of the trail run than getting it to end on a certain number of miles would really appeal to a large number of runners.

  2. John Fegyveresi

    This is one of the many reasons I'm drawn to thru-hiking more so than trail races (despite loving both). There's something magical about getting up every morning and just going until you feel like stopping…without worrying about distance or time covered.

    Great article as always Geoff. And the Laurel Highlands trail is definitely a beauty too. Right in my "backyard".

  3. Trail Clown

    I love this. But it'll never fly in America, where there has to be a McDonald's in every city and standardized test scores for every school district. That's why you see a "100 miler" popping up in every city. And how would anyone break Karl Meltzer's 100 mile wins record if we only ran 97.3 mile races in the future?

    1. KenZ

      I know you partially jest, but there's more than a little truth in this. There is, and has been for a while, the Plain 100. No aid over the two different 50 mile loops. And you know what? When talking to other ultra runners almost no one's looked at it (I only know two who've run it), and when they hear that it has no aid, they all say how hard that would be and don't give the race a second thought… since there are so many options out there that DO offer aid.

      So Trail Clown (*Who I am hoping wins a book and thus has to use his real name*) actually has a point. I don't see people flocking to the effectively unsupported current 100s, or even the clearly TOTALLY awesome scenic, reportedly very well run Fat Dog 100 which is actually 120 miles. One of the shortest starting lists out there, yet arguably the best scenery on this continent. But 120 miles… who wants to do that if the T-shirt only says Fat Dog 100???

      Thus, this is all evidence that would convince me, if I wanted to host a new race, to NOT do anything other than a standard distance and standard aid.

      1. Trail Clown

        There is no quiet place in white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in the spring, or the rustle of insects’ wings. –Chief Seattle

  4. Jon Allen

    There's definitely "non-standard" races out there, though they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past year or so, I've done the Laurel Valley 35 mile (run in South Carolina in August with 0 aid stations or support) and the Uwharrie 40 mile. There's also the Mt Mitchell Challenge (40-ish miles), and the Horton/Clark races (Hellgate starts at midnight, Grindstone starts in the evening). I'd also say that even many standard distance races are off by more than a few miles, either long or short.

    Except for 100 milers, I don't really care what distance a race is or if it's a standard distance. If it has a good reputation and pretty scenery, I'll be there.

    Good post.

  5. Mike Bailey

    Great topic Geoff, and others. I am on staff with Brandon Wilson's 100 mile race in North Carolina called the Graveyard 100. While the course is a flat paved road that follows the length of the Outer Banks, it is held in the first week of March, and provides very infrequent aid. The aid stations are located anywhere from 18 to 24 miles apart meaning you are required to carry all your food and gear. While the race does allow the use of a crew, uncrewed runners are very much on their own most of the day. The logistics of running in the OBX in March can be harrowing, as winds off the ocean can be a steady 30 mph all day, and temps can dip into the 20's and 30's at night. Imagine that constant wind chill factor. The course also traverses the entire length of the Outer Bank's main road, route 12. There are a couple spurs, but not really there to add distance, so much as to place the aid station at one of the famous lighthouses. The course is somwehere between 100.7 and 102 miles, but it's all fairly irrelevant to the objective of finishing a long tough race. For folks wanting to step outside of the challenge of running a trail race with aid every 3-10 miles, you should consider stepping up to this race. The 100 miler for the 2013 event is sold out, but there may be space in the 100k. Or, some volunteer and crew to see what it is all about. Mike Morton will be there in hopes to throw down one of the fastest 100 milers on US turf. Let's just hope those 20-30 mph winds are at his back.

    -Mike Bailey

  6. Tony Mollica

    I run mostly by myself. Therefor I am willing to pay to have other people to run with and to have aid stations so I don't have to carry so much. It's also nice to be around people who don't see what I am doing as crazy, and don't say "I get tired driving that far."

  7. Dmitry

    Create your own race…as ultra-running for most of us not about winning/competition but experiencing nature. it will be by definition unsupported and the distance would be odd. pick the trail your want to do (say Cordillera Real traverse in Bolivia), plan and go solo/with friends with aim to complete it with minimum supplies and in the shortest time. I do such trips regularly as addition to the organised events. And in case of the US you could run there regulation will never allow to run an organized event (could you imagine organized race through JMT?)

  8. Swampy

    I start a new event once a month. Me and my buddies drive up to a primitive camping spot near the AT, set up camp and run all weekend. The aid station is usually a truck stocked with plenty of junk food and PBR. I forgot who won last weekend…

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