Evolve Or Die

I have found myself wondering recently if ultrarunning has become a fad that will at some point in the future decline into obscurity? The popularity of any activity ebbs and flows over time, and without question there is going to come a time when ultrarunning isn’t nearly as popular as it is today. Whether this will ever happen is not at the heart of my question, but rather my curiosity lies in what the time frame of this unavoidable decline will prove to be? Will it burn out and ‘disappear overnight’ in true, fad-like fashion (think aerobics in the ‘80s), or will it continue to find ways to reinvent itself and endure over time such that it will still exist as a relatively common activity 30 or 40-plus years from now (think downhill skiing)?

The challenging thing about becoming a fad is that often when things turn in the other direction they take everything down with them, even the aspects of that particular entity that existed long before it became trendy. There are certainly many fad like aspects to the sport of ultrarunning today. Over the past five years it has become a trendy, somewhat mainstream, and ‘cool’ thing to do. Much of this stems from the reality that ultrarunning is a worthwhile, satisfying, and typically healthy thing to partake in; but certainly some of it stems from some inexplicable cultural patterns that I (and probably most people) fail to understand. Sometimes pop culture just happens without anyone really knowing way.

Maybe I’m going a bit overboard referring to ultrarunning as a trendy part of pop culture, but it certainly has gained a level of mainstream awareness, participation, and popularity in the past few years that simply did not exist for the previous 95% of the history of the modern version of the sport. The question then becomes, will ultrarunning find a way to maintain its vitality for years to come, even once it has lost its ‘cool’ status, or will it become virtually obsolete like so many other popular trends? I think this question will ultimately be answered by how much ultrarunning is able to reinvent itself in the next few years.

Modern ultrarunning has been around for well over 40 years and has a rich history and precedent to fall back on. It’s easy to want things within the sport/culture to stay more or less the same as they have always been. Ultrarunning has long been a sport that the vast majority of participants find great pleasure and satisfaction in. It seems reasonable to assume that nothing needs to change for this to continue to be the case. The problem is that the sport has exploded so much in popularity recently that I don’t think it is any longer possible to simply fall back on keeping things the way they have always been. What has worked for a few thousand participants will not likely work for hundreds of thousands of them, especially considering how much more diverse in age, nationality, and socioeconomic standing the population of ultrarunners has become.

The vast majority of people who have ever finished an ultramarathon have done so in the last decade. It’s now quite likely that more ultra races occur worldwide in a typical month than what occurred in the first three decades of the sport combined. If you think about this for a moment it seems pretty illogical and impossible to expect the sport to remain the same as it has always been. If it does so, it will almost certainly lose popularity as quickly as it has recently gained it.

Many folks may see this eventual loss of popularity as a good thing, but for those who want to see the sport continue to evolve, thrive, and develop in character and substance I think we must expect and demand athletes and events to take a progressive approach, and change in ways that will help the sport maintain a vibrant level of participation.

Certainly I get the point about not wanting to lose many of the good things that this sport and culture has developed over the years, but when you have something that has been around for more than four decades that suddenly multiplies in popularity by 1,000% or more, it’s not logical to expect the sport to continue to thrive by simply keeping things the same as they have always been. As much as we may want them to, popular trends just don’t happen in this way. Huge waves in popularity tend to have more clout than the activity that preceded the fad, such that when the trendiness wears off, the activity is often left in a less vital and sustainable place than where it started. Even if we do not like that ultrarunning is suddenly trendy, if we don’t accept that this is the case, then we may live to see a day when ultrarunning is essentially a non-existent sport.

What this all points to in my mind is a need to think more for ourselves and with less of a copycat approach. I think ultrarunning has always been somewhat of a copycat culture, but I think the prevalence of the internet has caused it to be even much more so in the past 15 years. Nearly all races seem to be very similar to other, older races. It’s rare to find athletes, ideas, or events that seem to truly be doing their own thing. This has worked well for a long time. There have been some high-quality events and athletes that have been closely mimicked by hundreds of other events and athletes. This has allowed for a long, slow, steady development of the sport. Now though, there are so many new people from so many different backgrounds who are a part of this culture that the sport is developing much more of a demand for variety and a quicker, more pronounced evolution than ever before. This isn’t to say that I think we need to abandon history and change everything about the sport of ultrarunning, but without being open to new ideas and approaches, ultrarunning will almost certainly become a fad that is essentially forgotten in five or 10 years by nearly everyone who has come to the sport in recent times.

Again, I think there are many people who would welcome this trajectory, but the problem with this is that if ultrarunning doesn’t change to be more representative of all the different people who are now a part of the sport it will quickly lose most of its new participants as it stops being a hip thing to do. You are then left primarily with a bunch of old timers who aren’t getting any younger, and are less and less likely to be introducing the sport to more than a very small handful of new people. After another decade or two (or less) the last holdouts are gone and you end up with an entire sport which has essentially become a thing of the past. This might all sound a bit overdramatic and unlikely to occur, but this has happened with numerous other things in modern pop culture, and could certainly happen with ultrarunning over the next several years.

In some ways I am implying that it is a bit of a curse to become ‘trendy,’ but if not responded to in the right way, the ebbing of any fad will bring most everything else down with it. In my opinion it is better to change with the times than to stubbornly refuse to do anything (and end up with nothing) because you miss the way things used to be.

Personally I hope there are enough truly innovative and unique individuals and events to allow the sport to reinvent itself and evolve in a way that is able to draw new young participants for decades to come. I think there is a decent chance there are, but currently I think the mindset of many people in the sport is focused so much on trying to keep things the way they have always been that it will be very hard for this evolution to occur in time to keep significant numbers of new people excited about ultrarunning.

Perhaps this is all for the better. Perhaps it’s just not possible for ultrarunning to thrive as a somewhat more mainstream sport, but I do think it’s entirely possible for it to continue to grow in quality, satisfaction, and vitality, even when it stops being such a trendy thing. I think it only needs enough people to take new and fresh approaches.

The copycat nature of this culture has worked great for a few decades of slow, steady growth, but the explosion of popularity that has occurred more recently has completely changed things. If this same, copycat approach remains the norm for even a few more years I’m not sure this sport will make it through the next 15 or 20 years.

Within ultrarunning today I think there is an excess of followers and a shortage of leaders. I think a lot of this has been caused by social media. It’s really easy through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to follow what anyone is doing, even people we have never met. It becomes easy to fall into the mindset of being a follower, and much harder to be a leader, or even to just do our own thing. There’s nothing wrong with this on an individual basis, and I even think there can be some value in this, but I think this dynamic has created a bit of a stagnant culture that needs more independence and less copying. We can all do our small part by being a little less prone to copying so much of what other runners are doing. Furthermore, our races don’t all need to copy the format of the original races, or of any existing race.

There is a lot that needs to be done in this regard, but I am optimistic though. I think there are a handful of very innovative events, ideas, and individuals within the sport right now. I just think we need a lot more of this. I think we all need to be more eager to try new things, and to blaze our own paths. The existence of our sport may depend on it.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think of Geoff’s argument that ultrarunning will have to eventually deal with being on the downside of being trendy? Do you think we face that in our future?
  • What are some examples of truly innovative aspects of the global ultrarunning culture? Who is marching to the beat of their own drum out there?

There are 45 comments

  1. LukeDistel

    Hi Geoff,

    It'd be interesting to hear your thoughts on who those truly-individual leaders are, what constitutes some unique endeavors, what is an innovative race you would like to see, etc. One of the things I personally enjoy about the sport is that it allows each of us to find how to use "it" in our own way. You want to race a bunch and run against the fastest out there? Great! Head over to ultrasignup. Want to go wander in the mountains? Go on ahead, no shortage of adventures to be had! Fancy 100 laps of a park path? That can be arranged.

    As a non-elite observer, it seems to me like there are a lot of "regular" people already doing their own thing…? Are elites doing the same, though? Maybe that's what you're after…?

    Best wishes,
    Luke

    1. grroes

      Thanks for your thoughts/questions. There are too many athletes, events, endeavors who are unique and innovative to touch on here (maybe content for another article). To partially answer your question though I think the sport simply needs more diversity among it's athletes, events, etc. I could name dozens of people/events who are doing truly unique and innovative things, but for every one of these there are dozens if not hundreds who are more or less copying what everyone else is doing. Getting a hand in the pot while the gettin' is good you might say. There's room for all of this right now, because demand is still growing, but when/if the huge numbers of new runners begins to level off (which i think is already happening) and the supply starts to outweigh the demand things can and likely will burst really quickly.

      I agree that there are a lot of people doing there own thing, but again, for each of these I think there are way more who are simply copying what those around them are doing. I have no issue with this from an individual standpoint, but from the standpoint of the long term vitality of the sport I think this imbalance has a huge chance to lead to a rapid decline.

  2. @BourryYang

    Bit of a strange post. If people were only running ultras because it's the cool thing to do (which I don't think it is, most people think it's downright weird), they wouldn't keep coming back for more.

    Seems to me that every year new races spring up and the existing ones are constantly raising their game. Things like post-race parties, live entertainment, better swag through improving sponsorships, "races within race", downhill-only races, uphill-only races, kids races, silly themed aid stations, on-course photography, videography, live updating, film festivals… etc.

    And stop being so down on social media. It's fantastic. There's a ton of people I've met at races that I've been able to reconnect with on Facebook or Strava and it's great to keep up with what they're up to.

    1. grroes

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Certainly there are huge numbers of people running ultras for reasons that have nothing to do with it being a trendy thing to do, but I think there are also huge numbers who are doing it primarily because it's trendy. Not that they are specifically doing it because it's trendy but rather that they know it exists and have friends who are running ultras because of how popular it's become. A decade ago you really needed to want to run really long distances to get into the sport, now I think there are so many more people involved that it has become so much more likely to make the leap. When you are constantly interacting with people who have done something it becomes much more likely that you are going to give it a shot. I think this is all great and exciting, but when it perhaps doesn't take as much stubborness and determination to get into something as it previously did you are much more likely to have people who dabble for a few years and call it good. i'm not at all implying this is a bad thing, I just think this is an unavoidable shift that occurs when a sport multiples in popularity ten fold (or more) in such a short time.

      Yes, I do think there are many challenges and negative side effects of social media on the sport of ultrarunning (huge topic to go into here), but like you I also agree that there are many good things about it. If it were used exclusively in the manner you are suggesting that would be all great and rosy, but certainly there is a whole lot more going on in terms of the impact of social media than simply a tool to reconnect with people we meet at races.

  3. @BourryYang

    Incidentally, I'd single out James Varner's Rainshadow Running races as one of the best examples of this approach to continually improving races with cool new stuff.

  4. grroes

    I have not been to one of his races, but from what I have heard he is a great example of someone who is changing things up and providing a great "product" for the sport. The thing is though, that he stands out as unique within the sport. For every James Varner there are dozens of race directors who are simply offering races that are more or less copies of races that already exist, just in a different locations. There is nothing wrong with this from an individual standpoint, but from the standpoint of how the sport will move through the next 5+ years I think there is a high likelihood that many of these races will not exist 5 years from now. Again, not neccessarily a bad thing, but something worth considering.

    1. @Rainshadowrun

      Geoff, we'd love to have you at one of our races some time. We're really trying to stress the community aspect of this sport with our races – and happen to think that's one of the things that set our races apart: The idea of these races as a family event, where we celebrate the runners who've been with us for years and years while also encouraging those just starting out.

      We remember when there were so few races, too – and are grateful for the boom. After all, if there weren't such a boom, there'd be no iRunFar. We're also optimistic that even if the boom does fade, there will always be a trail running family. The challenge of seeing what one person can do with their legs is simply too great for this sport to ever die.

      [And for what it's worth – co-race directors Matt & Kerri Stebbins are doing most of the heavy lifting for the Rainshadow Running races at this point, as James is concentrating on projects like The Trail Running Film Festival, the Steamboat Stringband Jamboree, and training for Hardrock. These races don't work without a solid team effort and hundreds of amazing volunteers.]

  5. Joe_the_runner

    I believe there are 2 very different types of people running ultramarathons these days. The motives of one is that of self improvement, challenging goals and the love of the environment. The second motivator, and I believe this is the case with a vast majority of the newer runners in the sport, is one of public acknowledgement. I think the proof of this lies within the rising popularity of bragging about runs on social media, strava, facebook, ultrasignup and so on… I'm sure there are many new runners who are not led by their ego but I'm guessing this is rare. When metaphorical bomb goes off and after the mushroom cloud goes away, I think what will be left over is the first group and a few newbies that run for other reasons then to show off big strava numbers. This is my hope anyway.

    1. grroes

      Unfortunately I think there is a decent bit of truth to what you are saying here. It's certainly not entirely black and white, but as I touched on in the article I think it's only a matter of time before ultarunning stops being as "trendy" as it is today (I actually think the top of this bell curve is already being met). It will be interesting to see where things go from there.

  6. @bpurcell72

    I'm curious how this is different than the similar explosion of marathons and half marathons? Many, if not most, people get into these races because their friends are doing it. Most of them will like do at most 2 or 3 races and then say, "Ok, I did it; now let's move on." A few will find their true love an passion and have it become a lifestyle. These races also have the problem of being cookie cutter races set in different locales. But hardly anyone is arguing that the popularity is going away anytime soon. These races have the benefit that new people each year. Even though it seems there's a lot of people running these races, there's FAR more that haven't. From a business perspective, ultra-marathons aren't at the same usage capacity as say cell phone owners. There's still room to grow.

    Living in Northern California, I clearly have a weekly choice of ultras to choose, but there is still areas in the country where ultras within a short drive are at most 2 to 3 a year. There may be some race consolidation in the near future in states like California, but there's such a growth potential in the central and southern states.

    Last, do you feel like The North Face series is an example of good or bad? They've worked hard to make ultras that have road marathon environments (meaning the pre and post race hoopla). Is that what you're looking for, or are you looking for more crotchety RD's doing Barkley Marathons? Maybe more races like Lake Sonoma 50? I'm just confused of what kind of uniqueness you're seeking.

    1. grroes

      thanks for your comments. I agree to some extent with what you are saying in your first paragraph, but I think it's worth pointing out that there is a huge difference in comparing something like ultrarunning to something like cell phone usage. The vast majority of people on the planet are potential cell phone owners, whereas some significantly smaller number (i would guess less than 5%) would ever have any chance of running an ultra no matter how popular they became. in terms of the potential market i'm not so sure ultras are very far removed from where cell phones were about 5 years ago. Yes, there is still room to grow, but unless the sport evolves to meet the desires/needs of the current population of runners I think it will stop drawing new runners as fast as it's losing others.

      Again, this is not neccessarily a bad thing, but just something that I think might occur. Cell phones are as popular today because they become something very different than they started out as. there were mobile phones for quite some time before they become something that nearly everyone owned. only when they evolved into something that did more than simply made it so we didn't have to be plugged in to make a phone call did they become something that was destined to stick around in popularity.

      In terms of various events as being good or bad I think it's more important that there is a large amount of diversity. Everyone has different tastes. Personally I think they pre/post race hoopla stuff that the North Face races do is cheezy and annoying, but that doesn't mean it's bad for the sport or bad from a business standpoint… just not my style. I just think we need to have more events, athletes, media, etc who are a part of the sport who think outside of the box. Sure, you can rattle off long lists of unique events, but for each of these there are dozens of cookie cutter races that are really similar to each other. This is not a problem as long as there is as much demand as there is supply, but I think we are at a point where there is becoming more supply than there is demand and thus to continue to be in demand things will need to stand out to some extent.

  7. EmersonTA

    I do not mean to be glib, but who cares? If every race was cancelled in the future for lack of interest, anyone and everyone would still be free to run any time and (most) anywhere. Professional runners, shoe companies, and sponsored running websites might suffer, but the rest of us would be fine — free to run. The beauty of running is that it's an *individual* endeavor. If one doesn't like social media, turn it off. If one doesn't like crowds, run alone. The only substantively troublesome thing I see in the running craze is a huge amount of injuries, due mostly to ignorance and overreaching. Injuries and other social trends (parkour!) may cull the running field, but utrarunning will last as long as you, I, or any runner heads out the door seeking adventure.

    1. grroes

      it's hard not to agree with the general point you are making, and I generally do agree with it… but being that there are thousands of people who read this website who do seem to care about things like this I suspect you would agree that it's a logical thing to discuss, even if in the end it really doesn't matter a whole lot what happens. Thanks for your perspective.

      1. EmersonTA

        Thanks for your measured response, Geoff. I think the fundamental problem is that each of us have our own perspective on the so-called "evolution" of running. Thus, when you say "I do think it’s entirely possible for it to continue to grow in quality, satisfaction, and vitality," this may mean 10 things to 10 different people. My quality may be your crap, and vice-versa. I tend to be like you insofar as constantly reaching for new experiences, but who am I to say this is any better or "more evolved" than the dude who cranks out 10 miles 6 days a week on the same route and loves it? A few months ago Buzz Burrell responded to an AJW post which was distinct, yet very similar, to yours: it tried to claim a certain way of thinking was the "right" way (in his case the so-called "old school" way). Buzz can write; he destroyed the argument in the kindest way. As for me, I think the Navy SEALS are on to something when they label EACH training session an "evolution." Thus, in the end I agree with you: evolve or die.

  8. sharmanian

    Ultra running takes such a commitment it's difficult to be a fad people pick up one week and drop the next. In addition, the world's biggest ultra is continuing to get bigger and bigger and has done so since 1921 – the Comrades Marathon sells out 18,000 entries.

    Each year we see more races and interest in the sport, largely due to the fact it's inspiring, challenging and that it's easier and easier to follow via technology to see how friends, elites or anyone else is doing. Even without major TV coverage for all but the biggest races, Twitter, irunfar, videos (live like Ultrasportslive and detailed post-race epics like 'Unbreakable') and other sources mean the sport is being brought to a wider audience. In particular, there's a lot more visual media available now – a key element to make it more engaging.

    It's still relatively small with just tens of thousands of runners in even the biggest markets (something like 0.02% of Americans ran an ultra last year), so there's no hint it has peaked or that it can't grow a lot more.

    1. grroes

      Ian, I think you bring up a lot of good points, but I do think that it's also important to note that ultrarunning is in a sense competing with hundreds of other outdoor, adventure, endurance activities for people's attention and interest. Certainly I was playing Devil's Advocate suggesting that ultrarunning might fade into obscurity, but just because there are numerous reasons why it seems like it will continue to grow I think it's entirely possible that it could essentially lose out to other activities and end up much more obscure like it was just a few years back.

      It's certainly not the perfect comparison but remember when Yahoo!, excite, netscape, AltaVista, etc were all popular search engines and likely to be around "forever"? i'm sure most or all of these still exist, but with just a fraction of the vitality they once had. ultrarunning has had a much slower, steady build up than these companies and is thus much less likely to fade out so quickly, but I do think ultrarunning (as an actual organized sport/culture) could be as obscure in 20 years as Netscape is today.

      1. sharmanian

        The difference was that things like Yahoo were mass market, adopted by millions (and were supplanted by either superior technology or pushed out by Microsoft's monopoly). Ultra running is only a tiny proportion of running.

        I think a more accurate comparison is with the obstacle races, which were designed purely from the concept that people like to show off in photos on Facebook (I'm not kidding – that was the rationale for starting them). That's a different culture and style to ultra running. Plus those races had over 2 million entrants last year from one source I recently read. That's more what I'd describe as a fad since it's risen rapidly to large entry numbers, become very popular in the main-stream culture and has low barriers to entry because you don't need to train much to finish a 5k obstacle race at the back of the pack. None of those factors apply to ultra running. It seems popular to us…and to me it seems like everyone runs 100s because 75% of people I speak to run 100s…but it's a very small world compared to more mainstream sports.

        1. grroes

          Good analogy Ian. Certainly obstacle races fit the Yahoo! comparison much more accurately. Thanks for sharing that thought.

          I would never claim that ultrarunning is a fad in the same scope as something like obstacle racing, but I do believe that it is simply a much less pronounced version of a fad. I think there is a wave of popularity in ultrarunning that has built quickly over the past 5 years and is highly unlikely to last to the same degree for even 5 more years. to me, for better or worse, this makes it a bit of a fad. Who knows though, maybe i'm wrong. maybe the current type of growth and popularity of the sport is something that will continue for many years to come. I doubt it, but I guess time will tell.

  9. footfeathers

    I tend to agree with you. But you probably already knew that. :-)
    One thing is certain: the growth of ultras will eventually be limited by natural resources (locations) and will either have to overflow (back) onto the roads (heck, maybe we'll see more than 15 people at the 100k national road championship) or regress back into a more individual pursuit, FKTs, etc.

  10. Hillrunner50

    I don't think of ultrarunning as a fad. Fads are things like wearing minimalist toe shoes, growing a beard and wearing tiny shorts with no shirt, wearing loud socks, and wearing a collared plaid shirt (I still don't get that one). Those things come and go, but at its essence ultrarunning is just running. Put on shoes and shorts and head out the door, whether it's one mile or 100. Yes, it has become popularized because of its exposure to media, but it's not going anywhere as long as there's a human that's willing to go the distance for the love of it. Just as with any sport, runners will come and go. Some will burn out, some will just find something else to do, and some will continue to do it throughout their lives. New and influential runners will appear with their own distinct personalities and future crops of runners will emulate their hair style and dress. As more money comes into the picture, some will dope. And it doesn't matter if it's an organized race, an FKT attempt, or an adventure run, it's still running. In the end, it's still a simple, individual activity that almost anyone can do.

    1. grroes

      Thanks for your thoughts. I should have been more clear in my article that I was speaking specifically about ultrarunning as an organized sport/culture, not simply the act of running long distances. These are in many ways 2 different topics of discussion.

    2. grroes

      I do think that for many people the sport/culture of ultrarunning is in a sense a combination of many of these fads you are touching on. In this sense I do think that ultrarunning itself is a fad in many ways.

  11. alfredo_1_2

    To help my brain process some of the questions raised I’ve replaced “Ultras” with “Apples”.
    There has been an explosion in the consumption of apples. Why? Is it trendy, more readily available, benefits are better known, other? Will the trend continue, plateau or decrease? To sustain the consumption growth rate apples need to be reinvented? For apples to continue to be consumed in the future they need to evolve?
    Do I like apples? Why? Will I keep eating them? More or less?
    I like apples!

    1. grroes

      Thanks for the fun comparison. I think there is a good point in what you are saying, but i think this touches more on the aspects of ultrarunning simply as the activity of going out and running long distances as opposed to ultrarunning as an organized sport with a very intentional culture built around that. I have no doubts that people are going to continue to run long distances simply because they like to run long distances, but I think the sport of ultrarunning may be building itself up as such a trendy thing that a prominent fall from popularity is impending. this isn't automatically a bad thing, but being aware of this possibility could be important in helping the sport move forward through it.

      btw, I think ultrarunning may have been more like an apple a decade ago, but I think it's more like chia seeds now.

  12. DanZiebarth

    In all honesty, I don't think there is a need to fear ultrarunning falling off the map or in many ways not ever reaching "mainstream". I believe the essence of ultrarunning and what most runners in the community value is the connection with their surroundings, challege of distance/course difficulty, and the positive and fiendly community surrounding ultrarunning. I don't disagree that in many ways it would be helpful for ultras and ultrarunners to evolve
    with parts of modern society such as sponsors ans social media, but at the end of the day ultrarunning has been, and will always be built around the simple idea of the beauty in running and the great people that constitute the running community. This creates a sport where evolution will likely happen, but evolution in the sport will never change making the connection to ourselves and the world around us that is what truly fulfills those who run ultras!

  13. eflow

    As someone who has just started out on an ultrarunning journey (nothing over 50k distance so far) I think a lot of it just comes down to awareness more than 'trendyness'. I've been trail running for well over 10 years but never participated in any races or running clubs etc… it was just something I've always enjoyed doing. I come from a martial arts/boxing background and running was just cross training for me for a long time. Eventually running took over as my main source of exercise as I got older and started a family. I had heard of certain ultra races here and there, but I really had no idea that ultra running was an actual sport that differed significantly from shorter distance races. So from my view, as someone who was never really a 'real runner' (just doing it for the fun and exercise) ultra running was just this obscure sport that I really had no idea about until fairly recently. Since then I've been gobbling up information about it as there is just so many things about it that resonate with me. It wasn't until one day I just thought 'I've been running a long time and really enjoy it, maybe I should look into some trail races' and bam! a whole new world opened up I didn't even know existed. No one I know runs races, or really knows anything about what an ultra marathon is.

    So from my perspective on the issue of the sport growing and being trendy, I think has a lot to do with it coming out of obscurity. Its becoming more of a 'thing' that people are aware of, and so therefor is attracting people who before had no idea it even existed. I think this probably explains at least some of the growth. For me trendyness has nothing to do with it since I know not a single person that even races or cares about ultra running.

    I imagine eventually there will reach a saturation point, where it is a household name and growth will level off for the most part. I have a hard time imagining that it will just die off.

  14. @AlaskaJill

    This column brought to mind a 1983 Ultrarunning Magazine article that laments ultramarathoning as "A Dying Sport." http://www.ultrarunning.com/featured/ultramaratho

    It also reminds me of the current decline of endurance mountain biking — 24-hour races and 100-mile races specifically. The sport enjoyed a surge of growth in the late 90 and early 2000s, only to drop off precipitously in this decade. Adventure racing is another sport that was popular for a while, and then declined. I think with any "niche" sport — and one could argue that ultrarunning still fits in the niche category, with fewer than 100,000 participants per year worldwide — you're bound to see ebbs and flows based on media coverage, social influences, etc.

  15. dougdanielpt

    Sky-Racing: awesome and new to the states! __I agree that truly copycat courses could stand to be more creative.__There are several point to point ultras here in the South and Stage Races in Nearly every state!__People are doing FKTs all of the time__I have heard it argued that some ultras should completely focus on the best possible scenery and not worry about the distance, so more random distance events: 37 milers, 71 milers, etc that just offer the best possible course should be done.__Thanks for the article and provoking ideas!

    1. grroes

      Yes, these are all things which I think the sport could use more of… and this stuff is happening, but I wonder if there is enough of this to build enough variety and diversity to keep the large numbers of people from so many different backgrounds interested? This is, in a nutshell, the point i'm most interested in.

  16. EmersonTA

    Anecdotal observation: your identification of several current fads — beards, etc.– are confirmed by the lack of "thumbs up" to your post. All those engaged in the fad are chagrined. I would add compression socks to the fad list. Tube socks had a solid run, so to speak, in the 1970s. The current tube sock craze is equally brutal in my opinion. .

  17. yafizicist

    You can't look at it in isolation: the popularity of running in general is increasing – http://runrepeat.com/research-marathon-performanc…. I hadn't heard about ultras till I started running marathons and knew people who were running ultras.
    It also takes a serious commitment to train and prepare for any ultra, which is unlikely to go along with a fad.
    I'm not even sure the amateur level sport will change that much. It's in the nature of the sport that races have limited fields, and the popular/famous events all have high entry barriers and ballots, but loads of new brilliant races are springing up.
    I wouldn't really consider entering one of the famous races when there are so many good ones on my doorstep in the UK. When I do travel further afield it will be to interesting races not famous ones.
    Maybe at the top level the sport is changing with sponsorship and money, but it's still full of fascinating inspiring characters. I'm not sure what else matters.

    1. grroes

      Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing. for this type of discussion I do think it is valid/worthwhile to isolate ultrarunning from running in general. The vast majority of people who run marathons do not also run ultras and large percentages of people who run ultras do not run marathons. in this sense i think we should be careful to compare the two all that closely. The study you linked shows that the worldwide growth of marathon participation from 2009 to 2014 was just over 13%. I doubt anyone has done a similar study about ultrarunning, but my guess is that the growth worldwide is probably well over 100% (and quite likely 500% or more). This is why I think it would not be entirely innacurate to call the sport of ultrarunning a fad (albeit a moderate one), whereas i would never call running in general a fad.

      as a side note, I find the study you referenced interesting in that outside of Asia where marathon running has had fad-like growth, there have been some countries that have seen prominent decreases in numbers. Will be interesting to see if those were anomolies or if those are trends that continue to show up more and more in nations where marathons have been highly popular for several years now, as all of the nations with decreased participation were european nations where marathon running has been common for a long time. it's worth noting that the two slowest growing nations among those that had actual growth were the US and Canada. This might suggest that these would be the next nations in line to see actual decreases in marathon participation? Anyway, not exactly relevant to my original post, but just something i found interesting in this study. Thanks for sharing.

  18. @justcallmeTP

    Marathons and half marathons have been doing the same for a long while now. There is only so much variation you can do for races before it all turns to spartan style races. I like what Rainshadow and go beyond are doing with their races and it has mostly to do with the after parties and celebrations. The race itself is the same as any other race. Start here finish there. Aid statons in between. I think most people get into ultra running because it's a new challenge and/or it's not mainstream. They don't want the marathon feel or the crowds. Someone mentioned earlier that there are already tons of different races from 50k to 100+m and uphill and down hill only events. We are seeing more race series as well to give folks the chance to run all year in their local area to win the series for being consistent and see their points add up. I don't think it needs to change drastically. I believe it's on a good path for growth and success.

    1. grroes

      I agree with you to some degree, but I actually think there is a decent bit of room for changes within races as well. This is actually where I think the sport has the most opportunity/need to evolve. I've referenced it a bit in the past so I won't go into it at length here, but things like race distances based on the most logical route (as compared to tweaking a route to hit an exact distance) and fewer or no aid stations to encourage/promote a level of self reliance as an added nuance of racing are two examples of things which I think the sport could benefit from. Sure, there are examples of races out there that do these kinds of things, but I think many of the people flocking to the sport would be interested in things like this, but have no idea they exist because they are so uncommon. Not that there's anything wrong with the idea of staying true to the roots of the sport, but I think the exponential growth is an opportunity to add some new things, which combined with the traditional style could make the sport more nuanced, diverse, and interesting for everyone involved.

  19. senelly

    Good post. It asks (and answers) some basic questions most ultras don't think about much.

    I have seriously enjoyed running looong and faaaar (L&F) for nearly 40 years. May I add: so-called ultra running (UR) is an invented and kind of arbitrary classification of locomotion that some have called a "sport". Perhaps it comprises a bunch of sports, including track, road, trail, and adventure efforts, all over 26.2 miles and some of which are actual, organized "events". I have personally enjoyed doing this L&F stuff un-event-fully on my own and with friends. To put it more pointedly, I couldn't care less about the organized "sport"… and I believe that same unorganized, uneventful L&F running is the sport's origin. That said, I enjoy a good WS100 or Hardrock 100 as much as any UR. The "sport" grew from simple L&R running and it will live on as long as that activity appeals, which I believe will be longer than the life of any current event. UR stars will come and go; the UR universe will continue.

  20. grroes

    Great comment. Couldn't agree more. I believe that running loooong and faaaar is always going to appeal to a certain number of people, and there will be people doing it in some capacity long after we are all gone. On the other hand, what the sport of "ultrarunning" will look like 5, 10, or 20 years from now is a much less guaranteed thing. I should have been more clear in my original post that I was speaking specifically about the sport of ultrarunning as compared to the act of running long distances as these are 2 very different things.

  21. ClownRunner

    I totally know the next Evolution in Ultra-Running……Drone Locators!….Yup, searching the remotest jungles, prairies, and mountain tops to locate Evil Drones. And then, little bit of a blast with a Gel-Gun, and those suckers are kaput.

  22. @JuergenSchoch

    Thanks yafizicist for putting some facts into this discussion by sharing the link to the marathon performance study on runrepat. But when reading the smallprint you will find that the base for all this were just 12 major marathon races in US and Europe. I.e. we get figures for asian, latin american, italian or icelandic nations even though no race in that country was evaluated. In my opinion a huge bias.
    Detailed figures for ultra races since 2000 you can find here: http://statistik.d-u-v.org/summary.php?country=al
    with posibility to filter for each of the 169 nations.

    1. yafizicist

      That's really interesting thank you. I can't remember where I saw the source but it was in either the Guardian or a running journal, so I didn't follow up and investigate further. Your source is very interesting.

  23. TRupp

    One way to look at Ultra Running as "organized events" is how monetization happens (even if that is probably the last thing anyone who really loves the sport would do… which is probably it's missing in the thread above). This only works – to the current level – by connecting 3 distinct groups: elite runners, amateur runners, fashion buyers. Amateurs (inspired by Elites) multiply the ultra culture by transporting to the general public (who would not learn about this otherwise). Most money in this sport is made by big brands selling equipment (shoes, apparel) and this is maximized by promoting the lifestyle of ultra running (using lots of social media). Looking around, I see hundreds of people wearing Salomon Speedcross that never run 1 mile (if you need hard data look at Google search term: http://bit.ly/1ExOdtJ ). And this is how I understand Geoff's fad argument: if certain races (excluding e.g. Rainshadow with very little commerce – thanks!) exist only because of money flowing to grow product sales to essentially non-runners, these will disappear as soon as something else becomes fashionable. Let's hope innovation in ultra running happens and quality survives for those who love this sport!

  24. mountainmarkus

    I just saw this article at the yearly review.

    How should be ultrarunning more innovative?

    Why should it be innovative at all? There is a distance, there are aid stations, a course and a finish line, that's all what matters at an ultra everything else is just BS in my opinion.

    Yes, ultrarunning is a little more trendy right now. Some people will do it to get it off the bucket list, others do it because they like to run long distances. And this won't change.

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