A Highly Effective Free For All

Trail ultrarunning is fairly unusual among individual sports that are globally popular in that it doesn’t have any kind of universally recognized or established ‘world championship’ event or series of events. Whether it’s the International Ski Federation’s World Cup (for both downhill and Nordic), the World Mountain Running Association’s Mountain Running World Championships, or even the International Association of Ultrarunners 100k World Championships in road ultrarunning, virtually every sport has some event or series of events that has gained more traction as the ‘world championship’ of that sport than any event(s) have done in trail ultrarunning.

On the surface it’s easy to see the fragmentation that occurs as a result of this as a bad thing. When you have several events that are vying for this world-championship status (as opposed to one that is definitively established as such), it’s easy to notice how much the competition gets spread out among all these different races. One given runner can only run so many races in a year, and when you have upwards of a dozen or more races which are attempting to draw a ‘world-championship’-type of field you will not end up with a single race which has as stout of a field as a truly established and recognized world championship race would have.

The rapid globalization of the sport over the past several years has led to so many races that have sought and achieved truly incredible and super-talented international levels of competition. In reality, though, when you have so many events that have established a truly elite international field taking a piece of this pie (Western States, UTMB, UROC, Transvulcania, TNF EC 50, Speedgoat, Lake Sonoma, UTMF–to name but a few), you don’t end up with any single one that is ever as competitive as they might otherwise be if there weren’t so many races fighting for this competition. This scenario makes it easy to daydream about how exciting it might be if there was one race or one series of races that everyone ran each year. The sport has been growing so quickly, and has become so global over the past several years that it seems like every few months you have a race that is ‘the most competitive 50k/50 mile/100k/100 mile ever.’ These types of races are certainly very exciting, and it’s easy to imagine how much more exciting it might be if there was one race that stood out above all others. If so, you could have a level of competition that would totally dwarf of all these ‘most-competitive races’ that have occurred over the past few years.

However, in being around the sport for nearly a decade now and in thinking more about all of this over the past few years, I actually think the sport is better for not having a distinct ‘world championship’ race. As exciting as it might be to have a race or series of races that truly did draw all of the top competition from around the world year in and year out, I think what you would lose as a result of that format would be much more substantial than what you would gain. With the ‘fragmentation’ that currently exists you end up with so many different types of races that have an opportunity to, and ultimately do become legitimately international events. If one race, or race series stood out as the definitive world championship, you would never have an event like Hardrock that has come to draw a small handful of top runners from around the world simply by being such an appealing course, with more or less no attempt by the race organization to do so. Transvulcania, which is coming up this weekend, has become a top early-season worldwide race as a result of the International Skyrunning Federation adding it to, and using it to promote their new ultra distance world championship series. As great as the Skyrunning races are, they are not recognized throughout the world as the definitive championship of the sport, but instead as one of the many high-quality races or series of races. Thanks to this reality you can have a new race or series of races come along that can still get attention and gain a legitimate top-level field of runners on a worldwide level. In other words, due to the lack of any definitive ‘world championship’ race (or series) it’s still entirely possible to create a high-quality event and quickly draw a world-class field to your race.

As a result of all of this you end up with a pseudo series of championship races throughout the season, but because they are not a part of one specific series you end up with much more variety than you might have as part of a ‘world-cup’-style series organized by one governing body. There are now a couple dozen or so races throughout the world that are widely recognized as the most significant and competitive events in the sport, but because these races are not organized by one governing body you end up with the athletes having as much of a say as anyone as to which races these are. Under this type of system you end up with so much variety among these races, and the system more or less guards against poor-quality events being recognized and regarded as top events in the sport. When you have no definitive governing body deciding which races or which series of races are the championship races you will never end up with any race becoming a top-level race unless the race itself is well run and highly satisfying to the athletes.

It’s easy to make the assumption that trail ultrarunning has too many different events that are trying to be the most important event in the sport, and that the sport would benefit greatly if it had just one clear-cut top event or series of events. However, when you spend some time around the sport, and you really look at the way it plays out with the events and the organizations that do exist, I think it’s quite obvious that this ‘free for all’ fragmented system actually does a great job of ensuring that highly varied, high-quality events become (and remain) the top races around the world. Many of these races and/or series have visions and hopes of being recognized as the premier event(s) in the sport, but I think the fact that none of them have definitively become so is actually really good for the sport. I think it’s important to have events which are striving to be as high quality and world class as possible, but the fragmented system never really allows any race to fully reach this goal, and thus they all keep striving to improve. As participants in the sport, we then all end up with a much higher quality of events to choose from.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you agree or disagree with Geoff’s notion that a championship-less trail ultrarunning is a ‘highly effective free for all?’
  • Can you think of some other benefits of there not being a championship race or series in trail ultrarunning that Geoff doesn’t mention?
  • Do you think a lack of championship causes any problems for our sport? If so, can you describe them?

There are 4 comments

  1. @ACarollo1

    I truly love the ultra running scene in the fact that is doesn't follow the stereotypical path that other sports follow. I love that in any given month you can have multiple races with constantly changing fields. And yes, some races in certain years attract better fields than others, but in the end, I believe the uncertainty is what keeps the sport and the races exciting and more natural (less of a business). I love that without the premier race or series, you will see great runners at all different kinds of races

  2. Slow_Aaron

    I think that ultrarunning should follow the golf (or tennis) model – there is no "world championship" bestowed upon anyone, but there are 4 extremely prestigious tournaments. In golf, 3 of the four change courses every year, but for the sake of an entertaining comment, let's make 4 permanent "Majors of Ultrarunning". Each one has it's own the flavor:

    The US Open is like Hardrock – it's absolutely brutal for even the best. Winning this race takes more than 24 hours! That's crazy compared to the winning time of something like Western States, which brings us to our next race….

    The British Open is like Western States – it is the oldest, and when the conditions are right it can be absolute hell. When the conditions are good, scores and times can go low.

    The PGA Championship and UTMB; Both deserve to be majors, and while the PGA earned it's status for the people who put it on (the PGA of America), UTMB earns its status for the mountains, people and countries that put it on. Most important – it means something to the runners. The best show up, tapered and prepared. UTMB is never a B race.

    So, I've left out one, The Masters. It's hard to say which race fits this one. I think it should be less than 100 miles, but I'm not sure who deserves it. TNF50 is the most competitive, year after year. It has a long enough history, and most importantly, a varied type of runner that has been victorious. From Rob Krar (fast!) to Mike Wolfe (stong!).

    And the best part of this system is that it provides cool ways to rank golfers/runners. Who has won the most majors? Surely that person deserves to be considered the best. But what about the few people who have won ALL of the majors? To win Hardrock, UTMB, TNF50 and Western States in a career would show remarkably varied ultrarunning skill – these people should also be revered. Finally, the Grand Slam. Who can win all of the events in ONE year.

    So there you have it, ultrarunning – take a page from golf (bahahahaha….), and establish Majors rather than championships.

  3. Shanefelle

    Money will eventually decide the "Majors" or the Top Ranked events. As trail and mountain running continue to grow sponsors will look to pour money into it and I wouldn't be surprised to see biggish prize money for some of the lesser races.
    The likes of Western States, Leadville , UTMB might not be interested but surely othes would and would get great publicity and fields if they gave out decent money. Then you are on the slippery slope of Championships, leagues etc. as races pool together.

  4. @Watoni

    Ultrarunning could be more like cycling than golf, but the majors analogy is helpful.

    Road cycling does have a world championship, but in my view it is far less prestigious than the monuments: grand tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana), one-day classics (Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, Liege, Milan-San Remo), etc. Different events cater to different types of riders, even the grand tours have something for sprinters, climbers and overall contenders.

    The one difference is that you can still take part in the same events as the elite runners as a recreational runner, something that is unknown in most, if not all, professional sports other than running.

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