Happy Place

Ultrarunning, and more specifically trail ultrarunning, has been growing at a very rapid rate in the past several years. This is an undeniable fact that has been well documented on this website, as well as many other places. The sport is thriving like never before with impressive, top-level competition, as well as seemingly dozens of first-time ultrarunners finishing nearly every race. In this sense, I think it is fair to say that the past decade has been bringing in a ‘modern era’ of ultrarunning that is distinguishable and impossible to ignore. The look and the feel of the sport is simply a lot different than it was 10 years ago.

There are simple numbers you can look at that support this claim. It took until 2007 for there to be 25,000 annual finishes in ultra races in the United States. In just the seven years since 2007, though, this number has nearly tripled! It took 30-plus years to get to these 25,000 annual finishes, and less than four to get the next 25,000! It’s also easy to look at results of some of the oldest and most established races in the sport to see that the top-level performances are greater today than they have ever been. It’s nearly impossible to find any race whose course record was set before 2004 (major course changes not withstanding).

I think this kind of growth and development in the sport has been for the most part a positive thing. An ultrarunner today has so many more races and so many more types of races to choose from than ever before. A top-level runner can seek out at least a half-dozen races a year that will be guaranteed to bring in several other top-level runners. A middle-of-the-pack runner who doesn’t care about the top-level competition can find several dozen races to choose from that will almost certainly not have a single top-level runner on the starting line. Sure, there have been some growing pains, but in so many ways, ultrarunning is a more vibrant, more colorful, and more satisfying sport to be a part of today than ever before (in my opinion).

The question then becomes, how long will the sport continue to grow in this way, and what will it look like going forward after several more years of growth? In fact, though, I believe the rapid-growth phase I’m talking about here has already begun to come to an end. Certainly the sport is still growing, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, but if you look close you can start to see some slowing in this growth. Subsequently, I think that the sport has evolved to accommodate this growth such that in just the past year or two it has settled into a place that is much more stable and sustainable than it was three or four years ago.

There are also some simple numbers to support this claim. In going back to the overall finishes that I referenced above, I pointed out that the sport has nearly tripled in number of finishes in the past seven years, but it’s interesting to note that the growth by percentage from 2012 to 2013 was just 9.5%. This was about half of the average annual growth in these seven years, and about a third of the 28.2% growth that occurred during the fastest growing year (2009 to 2010). Unfortunately, I can’t find similar data for the number of ultra races in the United States, but, anecdotally, I feel like the same trend has likely occurred. Certainly there are still dozens of new races coming out each year, but it certainly feels like this trend has also slowed just a bit in the past year or so (would be great if anyone knows these numbers).

Another area where I believe you can see an example of a slight slowing in the growth and evolve-ment of the sport is through looking at top-level performances. 2013 was another year of amazing performances by so many capable runners, but it certainly was not the kind of onslaught of old-standing records that we’ve seen so much of over the past five-plus years. In races in the United States in 2013, there were only a total of three course records set in 100-mile races that have been around for more than five years (two women’s and one men’s). I don’t have the total numbers on this from past years, but off the top of my mind I can go back to any year between 2005 and 2012 and think of more than three for each year. Certainly I’m not saying that I think the top-level runners aren’t running at as high of a level now as they were a few years ago, but, instead, that many of these records have been lowered in the past several years to a much faster level than they were a decade ago, making it much harder now to set a course record in an old-standing race than it was just four or five years ago. The examples of ‘soft’ course records in races that have been around for 10 or more years are few and far between now. Is someone going to break a course record at HURT, Rocky Raccoon, Bighorn, Western States, Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch, or Bear this year (to name a few prominent examples)? Possible, but a lot less likely than was the case between 2005 and 2012 when each of these courses best times on the men’s side were lowered by huge margins. On one hand, there just isn’t as much room for improvement in many of these races now as there was just a few years ago, but there is also the reality that the number of new participants coming to the sport is almost certainly slowing down. As this occurs, we will almost certainly see a decrease in the number of course records being set (as we appeared to see in 2013).

Certainly there is more to the sport than 100 milers, and there were several prominent and impressive course records set in 2013 in ‘shorter’ races, but even in the shorter distances it’s looking more and more like things are leveling off. It’s slightly harder to gauge at the shorter distances because there seem to be fewer sub-100-mile races that have been around for several years and still have the same courses. Or perhaps the courses change just as much in the hundreds, but a slight tweak here and there doesn’t change the outcome of a 100 miler quite the way it does for a shorter race.

At any rate, at the sub-100-mile distance, I think it’s telling to look at what has happened the past several years at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship, arguably the most competitive race in the country. For the first five years of this event, there was a steady drop of about 10 minutes for the men’s winning time. (2010 was the only exception, but the course that year was about 1.5 miles longer than all other years, and it was a very muddy day. Without these variables, the winning time that day would have almost certainly fit nicely into this trend). Then came the 2012 race in which poor weather forced a major, last-minute change to the course, and so by the time the 2013 race rolled around, it had been two full years since anyone had raced this course. What would we then see? Had the level of these top runners continued to progress so much that it would take a six-hour time to win it, even though the previous best time was 6:19? Not to say that no one will or could ever run 6:00 on that course, but, instead,what we saw back in December was Rob Krar win the race with a time about two minutes slower than Mike Wolfe had won it with two years prior. The course there has always changed ever so slightly from year to year, but Rob and Mike essentially ran the same course. For the first time in the seven years since this event started, the bar seems to have been raised so high, and the growth of the sport seems to have simmered enough that we see a bit of a leveling off in terms of what it takes to win the race. This is just one example, from one race, but being that nearly every top runner in the sport runs this race each year, it’s certainly an interesting observation.

Certainly none of this is to say that the sport has stopped growing, and that it’s not going to evolve continually in the years to come, and that there aren’t faster and faster runners coming into the sport who are continuing to push the boundaries of human potential toward new and amazing course records, but I do believe that the growth and evolution of the sport has very definitely begun to slow down, and I think this will bring the sport into an even more solid, stable, and vibrant place than what it already is.

For a few years things were changing so quickly that it was hard to even tell what was going on. It is still at times, due to constant change, a hard sport and culture to understand, but in my mind, I feel like it’s become a little more predictable than it was a few years ago. It is still evolving more than enough to keep things interesting, but it also seems to have found a happy, stable place so that for the first time in several years, it’s a little easier to see where the sport is at, and where it is going. For the first time in the past decade I think we can stop asking, what is all this change going to lead to, and what is this new ‘modern era’ of ultrarunning going to look like? I think we have arrived at this era, and if we want to see where ultrarunning is at, and where it’s largely going to be for the next several years, we only need look in the mirror. Luckily the reflection is of a vibrant, sustainable, and healthy sport. Tragedy narrowly averted.

[Editor’s Note: Geoff used the January/February 2014 issue of UltraRunning Magazine as well as UltraSignup to tabulate his data.]

 Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you agree with Geoff’s thesis that the sport’s growth might be leveling off? That perhaps the 2014 growth numbers will be similar to 2013’s, and significantly less than the years prior?
  • What kinds of changes are you noticing on the level of your local ultrarunning community? Do you think the anecdotes of your local community mirror trends of the community as a national and/or international whole?

There are 14 comments

  1. barwic01

    Maybe Ultra's have gotten to the point where winning is more important than trying to set a course record. With all the sponsorship dollars on the line, no athlete wants to blow up at the end and drop when they could have won at a slower pace.

    Sometimes you read race reports where someone will mention running along with the lead group at an easy pace and instead of pushing it, they just sit there waiting until attack time in the last 10-20 miles depending on the course.

    1. @SageCanaday

      ^ This! For top runners In championship races you don't run for time…your run for place. I have no doubt in my mind Rob could've run closer to 6 hours flat but he instead ran a smart, tactical race (with a rather slower start and a very powerful surge to the lead near the end). Considering he had already raced 40 miles at JFK just two weeks prior and was coming off of a long season of very high quality CR racing I'd say that TNF50 was not an indicator of how fast he can actually go on that course! Same thing at an event like Lake Sonoma or even White River…those CRs have the potential to get down close to 6hrs flat in the coming years.

      1. grroes

        I agree for sure that Rob (and others – including you, Sage) could potentially run a course like TNF a decent bit faster than what it's been run before, but the larger point of the article is that for the first time since this race started the winner didn't NEED to run any faster than the previous year to win the race. In other words, for the first time since this race came to be, the pace of the larger pack (and eventually the smaller breakaway group) seemed to level off so that the eventually winning runner ended up running more or less the same time as the previous year. This race (and nearly all highly competitive races) plays out almost the same every year. 10-20 runners go through the first 20 or so miles within a minute or two of each other, then by about mile 30 this number is down to 2 or 3, and then over the final 10 to 15 miles one person is able to separate themselves and go on to win. In a race this competitive it will almost always be the pace of these larger packs that determine the winning time of the race more so than the actual ability of the winner. Watching Rob run the final 10 miles of TNF there is no doubt in my mind that had the pack run 15 minutes faster through mile 30 then he would have been able to run a faster time than he did that day… and I think the speed that the larger pack moves in these types of super competitive races is the best indication of where the sport is as a whole. This year was the first year since the inception of this race that the larger pack's pace actually leveled off (or even slowed a bit) from a previous year. Certainly this is only a one year sample, and having had sickness effect so many runners this year had an impact, but it's certainly a noteworthy change that will be interesting to observe the next couple years at this race and other top competition races. I think the talent in the sport is greater than it's ever been, but I think the rate at which the top talent is improving year to year is starting to slow a fair amount from what it was a few years ago. My guess is that this is in part because the number of new people coming into the sport seems to be finally slowing a bit, and because you can only raise the bar so far before the potential for improvement begins to slow rapidly.

  2. rfgordon2013

    One positive aspect of growth is the increasing number of races. People often can find a race within a reasonable (read: affordable) distance.

    More popularity and cultural acceptance can make getting permits and local support easier. On the other hand, most citizens of the United States of Adipose will still think you're insane!

    A negative can be the number of people who come to a trail race/ultra but bring a self-absorbed mindset. I know of several races that have had problems with litter, waste, bad on-trail behavior, etc. Unfortunately, the bigger the sample set, the more likely you'll get people several sigmas from nice.

    What I hope never to see is the trail/ultra scene turn into the crass commercial engine that has consumed road marathoning. The day we see a group of mercenary professionals run a race as a pack (like in almost all top-paying marathons), will be the day the music died.

  3. guycheney

    One notable exception to your comments on course records: Jim O'Brien's 1989 17:35 at the AC 100. The closest anyone has come to this mark was Hal Koerner who came within 54 minutes of this time.. Also, the course was longer back then when runners ran all the way into the Rose Bowl….

  4. Emir

    Another good article Geoff. You do have to wonder how many "fad" runners are in the sport and how many of those are now not coming back. For a while it was marathons that were a cool thing to do, obstacle races, relays, etc. People were dabbing their toes into ultras as well. Some love it and will stick around, others hate it and will never come back. As someone said above, once races start paying athletes to just show up at their event and run, it is time to ring the panic bells. Until that time, lets just take it one thing at the time.

    1. johnnyb2122

      I don't see anything wrong with Ultra's paying athletes to show up. If it costs me an extra $25 to run a race where I'll get to meet runners like Geoff Rose, Sage Canaday, Anton Krupicka, and many more, I'll gladly pay the extra fee. It's fantastic seeing such great competition up front and seeing these guys able to make a living off the sport. If runners aren't fans of the competition, like others have said there are smaller events popping up everywhere. It's very exciting that the competition is growing.

      1. @SageCanaday

        Hey thanks for the support Johnny! I wouldn't want you to have to pay an extra $25 bucks for anyone to show up though (besides yourself). With rising entry fees and lotteries already making hard enough for runners to get into certain races, I don't think that would be a good experience for the majority of the runners. However, I'm very grateful that companies are interested in providing sponsorship opportunities and support (support which ultimately comes from all the runners that continue buy their products).

        But for the future of the MUT (mountain-ultra-trail) running I think it's going to come down to a matter of self-selection. People who truly love the mountains and trails will stick with the sport and ensure its proper growth and future. People just in it as a "fad" or for "money" will come and go. Passion wins!

      2. TDawgNight

        I agree with Sage on this one. I'm sure those guys are nice and cool to hang out with, but what would I be paying extra money for? Maybe a handshake, and a nice to meet you, but anything more might get a little stalkerish. Again, nice guys I'm sure, but I'm guessing you'd be just as fun to hang out with.

        1. johnnyb2122

          The extra money that I wouldn't mind paying for would be for great racing. I wouldn't call wanting to meet the elites of our sport stalkerish. Just a fan in the same way people would like to meet Peyton Manning or Michael Jordan. Just a respect for how incredible they are.

  5. jasonhynd

    ^^ I don't think it's going to cost an extra $25 for runners to go to events where a few elites are paid to show. More likely, if that ever really happens, that money would come from event sponsors that benefit from having some fast guys and gals at the front. Now sure, if some people get free entry to small events with low-to-no event sponsorship dollars, I guess everyone's kinda picking up the tab on that. Not more than a couple of bucks anyway.
    All these CR's are touchable.. I think one of the reasons for the explosion in Ultra popularity is simply that word got out. BTR was a big reason for that, but along with social media etc. Now most people who are at all inclined to that sort of thing know that it exists, and they're easy to find since everyone has a good website etc.
    Plenty of people will give it a shot and decide it's not for them. Plenty more will retire at mile 80 only to come back again a few months later!

    1. @SageCanaday

      For the record I haven't been aware of any "appearance fees" for certain runners to show up at events…some things like comped entries, by-passed lotteries and maybe travel/hotel are sometimes covered but usually it's up to the sponsors to help with that (in my limited experience at least). Prize money may be another issue which I guess could raise entry fees, but I think usually that is more of a sponsor influence as well. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong here…(Speedgoat)?

      It may be hard to ignore the business side of things and this more recent pressure of "commercialization" within the sport…I also realize that it's a change from the more informal, laid-back grass root type of events that used to epitomize the sport (or so I've heard) – and the growing numbers are a concern to those that have seen this evolution from "old school" ultra values and history (that I deeply respect and am just learning about as a nube roadie). But with all these companies bringing money to the table in the form of race sponsorships and new investments in marketing (i.e. sponsoring athletes) there are now more and more innovative products to choose from…products that can hopefully help increase everyone's enjoyment of the sport.

      Also for the record: I don't think there will ever be a lack of craft beer drinking at any of these events though!

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