A New Breed

The growing popularity of ultrarunning that has occurred in the past few years has certainly had an effect on the sport in many areas. The overall number of races around the world has skyrocketed; the amount of prize money in the sport has skyrocketed just as much or more; and the degree to which every aspect of the sport is scrutinized in various online forums, websites, blogs, and magazines has grown even more. This is still a fairly obscure sport, but compared to just five years ago, the footprint that ultrarunning lies down behind it as it moves forward is larger than ever before.

I think most everything that could be talked about in relation to the growth of ultrarunning has been talked about (I personally plead guilty for having talked about virtually everything imaginable influenced by this growth.), but there is one thing that I haven’t heard any mention of (I’m sure it’s been mentioned, I just haven’t heard it.). Namely the effect that the new breed of runner coming to the sport will have on its future, and especially the future of events in the sport.

Ultrarunning is not just growing with more of the same people coming into the sport, it’s growing with a whole different type of “runner.” Obviously there are exceptions to these observations, but by and large I think that people are coming to the sport from a much wider spectrum of the population. Not that all ultrarunners were ever the same, but more than ever before I think there is no such thing as the typical ultrarunner. I think there are more high-level road runners coming into trail ultrarunning than ever before, and at the same time I think there are more people who have never run competitively in their life jumping on board as well. Two groups from very opposite ends of the spectrum, both very much a part of the recent, rapid growth.

I’ve written in the past about my belief that ultrarunning is in need of some more variety within its events, and I think it is this reality that so many new types of runners are becoming prominent in the sport that will make this happen at a rapid rate in the next few years. Currently any events that don’t fit into a certain mold are more or less obscure. Your race isn’t a 50k, 50-mile, 100k, or 100-mile: it’s pretty much obscure. Your race doesn’t have aid stations every five to 10 miles: it’s pretty much obscure. Your race doesn’t start sometime between 5 and 7 am on a Saturday morning: it’s pretty much obscure. You get the point: essentially people who have wanted popular, high-profile events have had to fit within this wide array of unwritten rules. Generally the only events that don’t fit into these standards have done so because they want to be obscure. This is where the important shift is beginning, and I think is going to continue to occur. Over the next several years I think these “obscure” events are going to start to become some of the more popular events in the sport.

Why would this happen, and why now? It goes back to the reality that not only is the sport growing, but in doing so it is bringing some very different people along with it. I think the current events do and will continue to accommodate the rapid growth among the fast road-running crowd quite nicely, as that seems to be what they were generally molded after in the first place (exact distances – something that actually makes sense if running on roads – plentiful aid stations, well-marked/well-defined trails, etc). The other demographic I mentioned above, though, this is from where I see the change coming.

From my observations there are countless people pouring into the sport who have never raced before, even many who have never run before. More and more people are skipping right over all other types of running and going straight to trail ultrarunning. Whether they’re like the guy I met this past weekend who got into running as a way to train to be a more fit climber/mountaineer, or whether they simply got into it because it seems like everyone else is doing it (Because let’s face it, this is how so many of us get into so many of the things we do.), they’re a new type of ultrarunner. A type that is perhaps more content to simply be out in the mountains for several hours at a time, and running just happens to be the most efficient way to do this. A type that doesn’t own a watch or a heart-rate monitor, and wouldn’t know how to use it if they did. A type that doesn’t know what their “PR” is – at any distance.

One amazing thing about this demographic is they aren’t, as you might expect, just middle and back-of-the-pack runners. Nearly every race nowadays it seems like there is some new runner in the top five or 10 that no one has ever heard of. In many cases these are fast road runners making the transition to trails, but in many other cases they are climbers, skiers, bikers, mountaineers, surfers, or adventure racers. In other words, they are athletes. Not runners necessarily, but simply athletes who have recently discovered that they are good trail runners. As this “new breed” becomes more and more entrenched in trail running it is their demands that will start to shape the events that are considered “popular” within the sport.

Any change like this is a slow process, and certainly I don’t see any of the current “popular” events dying off soon (After all, there is also growth within the more traditional demographic of the sport.), but I do envision several previously obscure events, as well as new events that don’t fit the standard mold, becoming quite popular in the next several years. I think this new breed is a bit more adventurous, a bit more curious, and a bit more willing to take risks (You could also say a bit more naïve.) than the traditional trail runner. I think in the next few years we’ll start to see a lot more events that are also a bit more adventurous and a bit more willing to take risks begin to rise more to the forefront of the sport than ever before. To me this is all a good thing, as I think this kind of variety will only make the sport of trail running even more appealing and more dynamic than it already is.

There are 11 comments

  1. Dmitry

    "Your race doesn’t start sometime between 5 and 7 am on a Saturday morning: it’s pretty much obscure." it is a matter of convenience – many runners are on 9 to 5 PM jobs and travel for events – so early morning Saturday start allows not to take any day offs. I've been on 100M race around Ojai, CA and I had to pick up pace to catch a plane back in time. The start time is the only variable that I do not want to be altered! What we are missing are free format single stage races longer than 100M (like TdG or Korean road ultras, they have single stage 622km race)…everything longer 100M appears should to be a multi-stage in the states with very few exceptions.

  2. Van Horn

    They will continue to pour in, those athletes who come from skiing, biking, swimming, mountaineering, or simple hiking – they will continue to pour into the sport of trail running for years and years. In just the past 2 years I have seen local events grow in numbers and popularity – Speedgoat and Antelope Island races, to name two. And I am one indivudual within that growth. I ran both last year, and am coming back this year for both. I never ran a marathon. Went straight fir the 50 mile distance, then upgraded to the 100 mile distance on my 41st birthday. One reason (out of several) I do it is to be able to see more wild places and cover more ground in a shorter amount of time, without having to carry a backpack: Uintas, Wind Rivers, Southern Utah.

  3. KenZ

    I for one would like to see more multi-day stage events in the US. Having done one of the easier 3 day, 30m/30m/30m mile ones in the UK… it was a total blast! At night they would have a slide show by someone on UTMB, or MdS, and some clinics and whatnot. We all slept in a school gym (different one each night) in sleeping bags on mats. WAY more fun than doing three separate races. I do realize that in our super busy lifestyle a three day race can be a bit of a pain, but at least some two day events, like a 50m/50m, or a 50k/50m would be awesome. Then hanging out at night with everyone, eating together, socializing, and getting up to run again. It's fantastic.

    On a somewhat related note, were others as intrigued by that write-up on Gary Cantrell's race in the latest Ultrarunning? The one where you did ~4 mile loop, every hour, on the hour, until there was one person standing? That also sounds super fun and social. An even like that is on my list now.

  4. Peter Andersson

    Let's make it a twenty year perspective instead of two:

    The longer the races = The lower the mental bar for the next generation?

    I grew up before the first marathon boom. Back when I was a kid no-one ran a marathon, except for that guy on the other side of town, but everybody and their parents knew that he was crazy, one had to be pretty mental to want to run that long, and to even finish that long one had to practise almost every day, and still you'd probably hurt your body for life by even trying.

    Like I said, back then "everybody" knew that, hence an invisible mental barrier was there, pretty much blocking out the entire sport of existence.

    But today, when you have ten marathoners on every block and an ultra enthusiast in every village – imagine what message that'll send to kids in their tenth, they might not be interrested, but they sure wont get the message that it's anything deadly dangerous one shouldnt' even think about anymore.

  5. Rob M.

    How good are the non-participants in ultra running? For any activity, countless people that have never tried something may have been some of the best competitively the sport had ever seen, but may not be involved simply for it's obscurity. Until last year I didn't even know ultrarunning existed, and I was an avid runner in high school and the 15 years following. I agree Geoff, as the popularity grows, and with the ease of accessibility to start running trails, ultrarunning will change as new groups take up the trail.

  6. Martin from Italy

    I see experiments in the Italian trail running scene taking place –

    Races where you have to compete as a team – these can be relay, for example The Abbot's Way (125km) which can be run as single, twin team (60k each) or team of four (30k each) or races where you run with a partner (always have to be within 20/30 meters of each other). These make for a great deal of camaraderie, with team members alternatively having to slow down or push the pace, encourage each other etc.

    Night races – both in trail and skimo. Usually short races between 2 – 4 hours but completely at night.

    Self sufficient races – very few aid stations and only water available. This makes for interesting logistics when you have to pack any food you intend to eat on a race of 70/80km and 4000/5000m+.

  7. marco denson

    I agree with the mental barrier perception. I for one got motivated to run a marathon after I ran a half marathon and hung around to see the marathon finishers. I saw regular folks of all shapes and sizes finishing a marathon. When I saw that I figured why not. So I trained for one and I ran it.

    the next mental barrier breakthrough came when I witnessed the 2006 WS100 finish. Morrison came in first and collapsed about 5 yards from the finish line. I was standing right there on the side of the track I looked at his eyes and they were gone. I knew he would not get up. we all know the rest of the story. I thought to myself. I'm not running this thing ever. Then I saw Cooper come in all smiles and his two kids holding his hands ran with him to the finish.

    I turned around and looked at my daughter and thought, yeah why not. So, I did. Seeing others accomplish the "impossible" first hand, not on tv, makes it seem no so crazy or out of this world. my daughter has seen me finish many ultra races and she knows it's possible. She even says that some day she will run WS100.

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