My Thoughts on the Growth of Ultrarunning, Media Exposure, and the American Dream

AJWs TaproomRecent discussions and comments on iRunFar have led me to reflect a bit on where we are and where are going as a sport, and, perhaps, as a culture. And, as one of the “editorial voices” here, I feel compelled to comment. But, before I do, please know that these remarks are entirely mine. With the exception of the usual proofreading eye that Meghan and Bryon lend to my weekly posts, everything written here is mine and mine alone. Think of this as just one guy’s ruminations on a fast-growing sport looking to find its way in the world.

Many of us look back fondly on the good old days of running and I admit, as an experienced ultrarunner, I am one of those guys. But, I also know that those days are the “old days” for a reason and we’ve clearly moved on from Montrail Vitesses and Gookinaid. Ultramarathon running is now a legitimate, mainstream sport with fully professional athletes, companies with large marketing budgets to promote the brand and the lifestyle, and global events that are followed eagerly around the world. The sport has grown quickly and along with that growth have come, well, growing pains. Let’s look at a few examples:

Several years ago, San Francisco’s Dean Karnazes was brutally scrutinized for “commercializing” the sport through the publication of his books, his 50 Marathons in 50 Days effort, and his aggressive promotion of The North Face ultras. And, say what you want about Dean, his efforts brought thousands out to the trails and mountains, many for the first time, to enjoy running in ways they never thought they could, or even should. His charisma and energy were contagious and gave regular folks permission to get out there.

Next, after winning the Western States 100 a record seven times, the legendary Scott Jurek appeared prominently in a bestselling book about a mysterious running tribe in rural Mexico and then went on to publish his own bestselling book about, of all things, eating and running! Jurek’s Zen-like attitude had tremendous appeal in the midst of the dot-com boom yet some belittled Jurek for capitalizing on his fame to promote an alternative lifestyle. Whatever your position, however, there is no denying the powerful impact of both Born to Run and Eat and Run on the collective psyche of the running public.

Then, working on a shoestring budget with no clear goal in mind, Reno filmmaker JB Benna produced a remarkable little film chronicling the 2010 Western States which featured the battle between eventual winner Geoff Roes, iconic Catalan mountain runner Kilian Jornet, and the enigmatic and enormously talented Colorado ultrarunner Anton Krupicka. The film thrust the race into the global spotlight and all three runners became celebrities in their own right, perhaps none more thoroughly than Krupicka. His look, his lifestyle, his intellect, they captured the imagination of a global public looking for a hero. Like it or not, atop windswept Colorado peaks, Krupicka appears heroic and living a nomadic lifestyle out of the back of his truck has inspired thousands of desk jockeys to dream of a different life.

Undoubtedly, Karnazes, Jurek, and Krupicka all share a love of running. They share a deep passion for the outdoors and, for some reason, with entirely different temperaments and significantly unique personalities, these three men have inspired a generation and fueled the growth of one of the most quirky, bewildering, challenging, and fantastic sports in the world.

Along the way one guy has been on hand to chronicle it all. After leaving his Washington, DC law practice in 2009, selling his house, driving across the country in his Prius, and settling into a doublewide in California (and now Park City, Utah), Bryon Powell slowly transformed his personal running blog into iRunFar. At first, the website was a fledgling attempt at an online publication to provide a venue for race reporting, gear reviews, and reflections on “Mud, Mountains, Miles, and More.” Just as Karnazes, Jurek, and Krupicka followed their dreams in the process of making their passion their profession, Powell did the same thing in leaving the comfort of his comfortable DC lifestyle for the uncharted world of online journalism and covering a sport that, quite frankly, did not know how to grow.

What is it, many have asked, that makes iRunFar so compelling?

I suggest it is the same thing that makes the worlds inhabited by Karnazes, Jurek and Krupicka so provocative. It’s that unknown, mysterious realm of possibility and wonder. A place with few rules and almost no guidelines. Just as Anton doesn’t always know what line he plans to climb as he conquers his next 14er, neither does Bryon necessarily know the next twist in the iRunFar road. However, what these guys both know, and what countless other American dreamers who came before them knew, is that anything worth dreaming is worth doing. Here’s hoping that they both keep doing just that!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Green Man IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Green Man Brewery in Asheville, NC. I was down there last weekend and picked up a six-pack of the Green Man IPA. Sessionable at 6% and 63 IBUs, it has a touch of citrusy sweetness that makes it wonderful on a sultry summer’s day!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Certain events and people are, indeed, turning points in the evolution of our sport. AJW’s examples (except for Scott Jurek’s first win at Western States) have all taken place in the 21st century, now going on 13 years where our sport has exploded in popularity as compared to the previous century. If we look even further into our sport’s history, are there other runners and events that you think have contributed to creating the sport we call trail and ultrarunning today?

There are 108 comments

  1. Yeti

    bohica,

    In a way I am being forced, unless I were to not read irunfar anymore. It's like an obnoxious billboard blocking a beautiful view, a dam in a canyon, and like Hayduke and the gang, I'll attempt to monkeywrench it every time … This isn't the first time nor will it be the last that Sage will use an irunfar article or race report to either promote his brand or himself, if you don't believe it just look back at some of the older articles and comments. I just made the point that if I wanted his "aggressive" marketing, I'd go to his blog or youtube channel. He's entitled to his opinion and I to mine, neither of us have to like it I guess.

    Sandi,

    I've contributed many of my personal opinions to this forum, granted, they don't usually seem to be well received. I call it like I see it. Sage makes these videos and comments to promote himself and his brand, simple as that. That's not, nor will it ever be, "giving back" to the community. If you believe that then I've got a bridge to sell ya. We're all just people and he's a damn fine athlete and his performances are spectacular, but he's using his success in an attempt to leverage sales and that's lame and disruptive to an otherwise productive, entertaining and thought provoking forum.

    Sage,

    Sorry my words came off too harsh, if you stop with the incessant self promotion, I'll eat my dirty old running shorts as a gesture of good will and compromise :)

    1. Curtis

      I think you're overreacting, Yeti. A billboard advertises a specific thing. Sage just said what he's doing and it related to the topic of the post. It didn't even name his sponsors (although irunfar's coverage of him does) or link to this project. Other people post comments all the time that relate back to themselves and what they are doing. It's a personal comment that might or might not resonate with the many readers of the site. You're behaving like he spammed you personally.

  2. Curtis

    I started trail running and saw DK's book when it was initially published. That is what got me to think I could run ultras. Before that I believed they weren't accessible to me. My first race beyond a marathon was a six hour run where DK happened to be simultaneously participating in a 24 hour run. I can't say enough nice things about him. On the two mile loop he would always say hello, he donated money to a runner running for charity, and when the six hour finished he stopped running to congratulate all of us on our race. I don't think anyone deserves criticism for publicizing the sport, but especially not DK.

  3. Jason C

    I wish you were with us in Death Valley a few weeks ago. I'd have loved to hear you tell Dean that he isn't a "runner first". He wouldn't have had to say a word as everyone else around would have ensured you were returned to the cave from which you emerged.

    1. Lisa

      Jason,

      I agree! Slamming people and judging without knowing them personally is elitist and quite simply, arrogant. Dean Karnazes isn't a runner first? Why? Because he was so mainstream? Flashy? Not Classy? Come now. EVERYONE self promotes- to some degree. Making silly judgements like "not a runner first" is divisive and not really in the spirit of running, whether trail, mountain or road.

  4. Mark

    Don't be fooled by Badwater. Adventurecorps tells anyone who will listen that it's the "Worlds Toughest Footrace" and the "Challenge of the Champions". That doesn't make it so – those who have "run the run" know it isn't true. Badwater is a perfect example of what AJW is talking about.

    Rock stars aren't always the best musicians. DK is certainly not an elite ultrarunner if the criteria is speed (just look up his times). But he does communicate the idea that it's a sport at right angles to the mainstream.

    Lots of great comments in this post.

    1. KenZ

      Having run BW, yeah, it's hard but not the toughest footrace by a long shot. But whatever. While it is seriously promoted, I think it's also a highly under-appreciated race by most. Once you run it, or even crew it, you realize is has a comraderie and intimacy between participants that frankly I've never felt matched by any other 100+ miler.

      Look, I love tough 100 mile trail races WAY more than running on the road, but the "Badwater Family" stuff is for real. Like much of this sport, once you wipe away the hype, bravado, and posturing, it is a race that involves an inordinate amount of soul searching and a sense of community that is incredibly humbling.

      I'll also note that while many 100s have their "give back to the community by donating 8 hours of your time," every year Badwater participants, fewer than 100 people, collectively raise well north of $100,000 (possibly even over $200k) for charities that in no way benefit that race. Say what you want about BW from the outside, but perhaps you have to experience it to understand it.

  5. MonkeyBoy

    Listen, to Hone's point. If we want to hear about your sponsors, your projects, etc. You are active on social media and you have your own website, video's, etc. In other words, we know where to find you.

    To the Anonymous Coward who said we needed to give him a break because he was trying to make a living? I know of someone else who is trying to make a living as well: http://www.irunfar.com/advertise

    Probably a better medium for your sponsors to get the word out than with social media if you have something you really, really want to tell us about them.

    Congrats on your run at Speedgoat and your season to date.

  6. Goji Yerba

    Yes, the American dream. This is what makes this country great. You dare to dream and no one will stop you. I came to the ultra sense cuz of Dean, Scott and Anton and I'm a better person now. Kudos to a well-written piece.

  7. Matthew

    No need to defend yourself here. I hope anyone on this forum would respect your talent and your right to capitalize on your success. If anything, I have found that a good running community does not thrive without sharing our knowledge, our experiences, and our personal successes. For a top performing athlete, your willingness to share your journey has been more than generous. I can cite your activity on Strava.com as one example. It is inspiring to see the hard work it takes to perform at such a level. Good luck with your running!

  8. Wyatt Hornsby

    Fantastic piece, Andy. I used to be critical of Dean but his heart seems to be in the right place and he's inspired a lot of people. I think he's learned from some of the mistakes he's made (for example, I think he regrets some of the macho crap in his first book, Ultramarathon Man). Very few of us wouldn't love to have three national best sellers, a North Face sponsorship and the freedom to travel for racing, etc. As for Anton, there is no doubt that he's inspired a countless number of desk jockeys, including me. When we lived in Cleveland, I used to read his Leadville blog posts and daydream about one day doing that race. Now that we're in Colorado, I feel like I'm living a dream. While I wish Anton, with his ungodly talent, would do more races and return to Western States (not that he cares what any of us think he should do and I say bravo to that!), Anton is his own man and he embodies freedom. We as humans, I believe, yearn for freedom and yet, when we take a hard look at our own lives, we realize we're not all that free. We have mortgage payments, a job to report to, etc. Huge respect to Bryon for cutting himself loose from his constraining lifestyle in DC and having the courage to put himself out there. IRunFar.com is now the voice of the sport and that's because of Bryon and the team's hard work.

    That said, I would love to see iRunFar cover more east coast ultras, starting with Vermont.

    Wyatt

  9. adam

    So when he quit his well paying corporate job to pursue something he loves (runner first in my opinion) you wanted him to NOT self-promote and make ends meet? You wanted him to tell his pregnant wife that it's just not "who he is" and he's got to get some better results first? Health insurance can wait.

    Prize money goes to the fastest runners (running results / results-based), not necessarily the book deals, Late Night Show interviews, movies, sponsorships, etc (running message / marketability) … this is in EVERY industry in the free market. Why would ultra-running be different? It's not.

    Every word that directly comes out of AK and DK's mouth seems to be 100% genuine … they are identical – neither are the best in the world, they both LOVE running – but they have different haircuts and different lifestyles which prompts different fan-bases. I personally am WAY more inspired by DK supporting a family, running at 3am so he can send his kids off to school, Karno Kids, and through his life-change than seeing AK clock 200 miles/week but I identify more with AK getting "away" and into the mountains than DK's projects. Each is "them" … both are genuine … both are right.

  10. KenZ

    That's good- I was about to write a comment using climbing as the corollary (except with Nutcracker and Central Pillar of Frenzy in the Valley as examples).

    The inrush to ultrarunning is a mere shadow compared to how climbing has changed.

  11. KenZ

    What does Dean's relative speed as a runner have to do with it? Isn't it actually MORE compelling that he is not insanely awesome in his genetic running talent as an inspirational message? He promoted what he thought was a fascinating story about a random guy who found a love for running long, and in the process brought that love to likely tens of thousands.

    We are all born with a basic set of genetic traits, which we can capitalize on, refine, and push to their limits. For Dean, it got him where it got him (in terms of speed, performance, whatever). If he had, say, Killian's genes, he'd have been much faster. Someone else's genes, likely much much slower. But the message is still the same, and, again, I find it actually MORE compelling that he is not, and never will be, the greatest ultrarunning talent. Instead, he took what he had and did the most with it doing what he loved, and many of us have been inspired in the telling of that story.

  12. Ian Sharman

    The sport was great before I heard about it in 2004, was great when I started running and is great today. The main change is there's just a lot more of it out there – more races, more choice and larger fields.

    More of what we all love sounds good to me and nobody can really do a sport like ultrarunning just for the money as it demands too much commitment (and there's virtually no money still compared to almost any other sport…or job). Well done to guys like Bryon, Dean and Scott for finding ways to make a living out of their passion.

  13. Jay Danek

    It's easy for everyone to sit back and pick apart the few runners that have been able to support their dream through sponsorship. Without ever meeting Sage before until after I finished my slog fest at Speedgoat Saturday I found him to be one of the most stand up athletes I've ever met. Let's face it, most elite or professional athletes could care less about how a 8-hour finisher felt after their race. I honestly had no idea who he was as we talked and when I asked how the race went for him he gave zero indication that he won let alone smashed the CR. Most of us have started running because we were motivated one way or another but let's be realistic it's athletes like Dean, Sage, and Anton that have made this sport come alive. I know there are runners that talk about the old days of ultra running before sponsors and how great it was but we don't live in that era any more.. Sports evolve, should all sports have primitive leaders like baseball?

    Just because you put the material out there doesn't mean people are forced to read it. We chose to read Born to Run and Ultramarathon Man, it wasn't forced on us. Like it or not, this is what ultra running is and will be until the next legend comes along.

  14. Lynn

    The growth of every sport in the history if this planet includes sponsors, sponsored athletes and the promotion of those sponsors and athletes and thus the sport. It may not all be cool to all folks, but it is what is, take a chill pill and tomorrow is a new day

  15. Johnny

    Well said. Running Western States 11 times under 24 hours and running Badwater 10 times in an ultrarunning career spanning 20 years with tons of other races and running adventures mixed in, how could we not be inspired by his obvious passion for running?

    1. Dave m

      Great post. Dean's a great guy and marketer. All the more power to him for helping the ultra growth and making a living off it at the same time.

      I agree Jean Yves and Salomon had a hand in helping the sport grow. I worked for Salomon in trail running and adventure racing 14 years ago, and their investment at that time was much more in adventure racing, which was bigger sport in the US and the world at the time. Salomon devested in adventure racing when the sport waned and wisely focused on trail running, but my impression is that they wisely followed the growth of a contributions. Without naming any, many other footwear and gear companies have done the same and should be credited for their contributions, investments, and earnest belief in the sport. Sure it's money making, but it's passion too. At the same time I think the individuals are the ones more to thank..

      I personally have to give props to Scott McCoubrey, Fletcher Andrews, and Ian Torrance in the 90's terms of US "ultra trail running" and it's development; they were the sole game back then. You can follow the spider web of folks that then stand on the shoulders of giants in a corporate sense internationally, Jean Yves, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean Luc Diard, Topher Gaylord, etc. As well as the branch of their sponsored athlete contributors, who may have been doing their thing with or without the companies. And most of all, all these folks stand on the shoulders of the 99%, the ones who get out to simply hit the trails every day.

  16. Ethan Veneklasen

    Jay:

    That's great to hear that your interaction with Sage was so positive. It sounds like he embodies some of the really great qualities that attracted me to the sport 10 years ago.

    What you described is a BIG part of what folks are referring to when they talk about somebody being "old school" (at least how I describe use the term).

    As I described in my (admittedly VERY long post above), there are great traditions that are worth preserving because they are a big part of what makes our sport so special. Some of the ones that have resonated the most for me are:

    – Elite runners showing respect for the rest of us mere mortals, ESPECIALLY those who struggle to just finish before the cutoff.

    – Elite runners sticking around at the finish line to watch other runners come in. Scott Jurek was GREAT about this.

    – Thanking the volunteers and showing respect for their service in aid stations. – Encouraging your fellow competitors with a nod, wave and “looking good” as you pass them (or as they pass you). (When I do this at road races people look at me like I am from another planet).

    – Athlete Race Directors…Ann Trason embodies this to me, but there are many, many others who have carried on that proud tradition. For most of our history, ultras were marginal as money makers. Without these folks committing their time and energy there would have been no ultras for us to run. It is great to see that folks like Karl, Ian Torrence and many, many others have continued this proud tradition.

    – I'm missing some other great traditions…do feel free to add to the list!!!

    The sport is changing…This may be the one thing that we all agree upon. The question is how we, as a group, choose to manage that change.

    On one hand I lament the fact that races are now more commercial and (in some cases) are no longer the labors of love that they once were. On the other hand with the growth of the sport there is both room and NEED for more races (imagine how hard it would be to get into WS100 or Way Too Cool if there weren't so many other races).

    So…my point is this. Change is here…change is the one constant of the universe. It also brings stress and growing pains. Much of what has been articulated in these comments stem from that frustration.

    My hope is that the core VALUES I described above will not be lost as we continue to grow. We have to work together to promote those values and make sure that they are passed on to the next generation of runners who will continue to move our sport forward.

  17. Paul

    I have to disagree with you. What you are saying is the ultra runners (that are helping push the sport further and further, ie every single one of us that mentions that we raced an ultra to someone who has never run on.) are not allowed to have personalities. You have now wiped out over half the people who love this sport. You just told all front (non-podium), middle to back of pack runners (myself included) that because I do not have stellar results I am not a runner and that if I promote ultra running in anyway that I am a personality and not a runner. Get off your high horse and come back down to the community and look around. Many of the things we all love about ultra running is it's not where you finish it's that you push yourself, and support others, and all the crazy personalities that we see out there.

  18. Paul

    i enjoyed reading your piece. i was turned onto the book Born to Run from a friend. it is what got me interested in the ultra scene, and let me know there were others out there who loved going out and exploring, and that it was ok to go further than a marathon. i never knew there was a race scene, or groups that did stuff like that. i just went out by myself to explore hike run etc.

    we all promote the sport of ultra running. i, just like most everyone, have friends who do not run ultras. i tell my friends what i do and what races i go to, so therefore i am promoting the sport. I have actually been able to talk a few friends into 50k's. i am not able to make money doing this, but would love to be in the position to promote a sport that has given so much to me as a career.

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