Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes!

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by the Trail Sisters’s Gina Lucrezi.]

I’ve been a part of mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running for eight years. I can remember my first race, the Greenland Trail Races 8 Mile in Larkspur, Colorado, and my first pair of trail shoes, the La Sportiva Crosslite. Eight years isn’t a super-long time, but it has been long enough to witness change in the sport, among athletes, and within our approaches to racing.

Disclaimer! I’m not here to say what is right or wrong, or what is good and bad, but instead create some food for thought and perhaps some dicussion. I’m curious as to what readers have to say about their own experiences, and especially what long-time veterans have observed through the decades of our sport’s history.

Let’s start with the sport itself. Mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running. I’ll never forget thumbing through an issue of Trail Runner Magazine circa 2008 and seeing ads for the Leadville Trail 100 Mile and the Western States 100. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why people tried to run for 100 miles straight, and I also wondered how large this participant group could actually be. I remember thinking that it must be a ‘thing,’ though, since there were advertisements for it in the middle of a magazine.

Today, I believe we are seeing an increasing popularity in these longer events to the extent that there are now (more) lotteries and wait lists to get into them. At one point, you were able to sign up on race morning at some of these events. To take it a step further, some races are so popular that they’ve created point systems to help your chances if you get shut out of the event multiple years in a row. Qualifier races aren’t necessarily new, but I think they are becoming more popular and ‘extreme’ races are requiring runners to complete a rite-of-passage event before even applying to their lottery.

Another interesting observation, what seems to be an increased appetite for vertical-gain-focused courses. The International Skyrunning Federation has been around since 1992, thus the idea of racing at altitude and doing large amounts of vertical is not new. Personally, I enjoy courses that are a bit more rolling versus ones that force you to hike. I’ll speak with runners about their training or upcoming races, and ‘vert’ never fails to pop up in the conversation (along with the word ‘epic’… ugh). Whether it’s how much they’ve done in week or how much is in their next race, the vertical gain one achieves in running is definitely a focal point among the people with which I spend time. Why is this? Is it driven by athlete demand, created by race directors, or inspired by outdoor companies? Is vertical gain a new obstacle in the sport that helps separate speedsters from mountain goats? I don’t believe that moderate-to-little-elevation-gain trail races are any less important or legit, so why aren’t these events receiving the same recognition and excitement from media and participants?

Time to shift gears; let’s talk about athletes. Once upon a time, being sponsored in the sport of mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running meant receiving a modest amount of shoes, a race uniform, and maybe a small stipend that helped pay for race entries… and this was reserved for the crème de la crème. Today, high-level sponsorships include copious amounts of product, trips, photoshoots, bonuses, public-relations events, and of course, a monetary stipend that pays for much more than just race entries.

Did this change come because of participation, social media, both, something else? Obviously there many ‘godfathers’ and ‘godmothers’ in the sport–THANK YOU for paving the way!–but I’m guessing the perks they received were a bit different. Personally, I think it’s great to have role models who inspire and empower others. I also think that these role models deserve to be compensated for their image (or the like) if it’s used to sell a product or service. Additionally, these athletes have the responsibility of looking out for one another and the sport, as they are driving force of influence.

Staying on track with athletes, has anyone else noticed the swell of mileage comparison and its seeming importance among our community? I’ve kept a running log since college and can be totally compulsive about writing my entry each day. I add up my miles and either be super excited about how many I ran that week, or bummed that I didn’t hit some arbitrary quota. Though I poke fun at myself, knowing your mileage is a common and normal thing for a runner.

With new technologies like Strava, Movescount, and more, people now have the ability to observe, critique, comment, or secretly stalk other’s stats. Though these are innovative and fun platforms, they present the ability for people to compete with one another over the most, fastest, highest, and more amount of miles. Will this influence people to overstep their abilities? Foster an overly competitive environment that can lead to injuries? Inspire people to do more than they thought they could? Simply provide motivation? Maybe all of the above.

Ironically, if you have competition in one segment of your life, chances are that it will spread to other areas. What am I hinting at now? Race schedules! Raise your hand if you have signed up for an increased amount of races in recent years. Being a fan of the race scene, I’m thrilled to see more events pop up each year. I don’t necessarily believe that means athletes should try to run all of them–except Mike Wardian–but participation growth creates excitement. Excitement can lead to UltraSignup experiencing a hefty payday! As people continue to bulk up their schedules, will we see more injury? Or, will more frequent racing help people improve from what they thought was possible? With an increase in participants, will race-entry prices increase? Will we see more lotteries? Undoubtedly we are seeing more events.

Call for Comments (from Gina)

Obviously nothing in this world will ever stay the same. Evolution is inevitable, and the sports of mountain running, ultrarunning, and trail running are not exempt. Though we can always expect change, we also have the ability to create change. I’ve only rattled off a few observations, but there are many more to be noted. What do you think the future holds for the sport, for the athletes, for the industry? Do the changes I’ve detected seem accurate to you? Are these changes good, bad, or neutral? I’m curious to hear your opinions and observations! Please share your thoughts!

Trail Sisters

is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.

There are 15 comments

  1. AJW

    Hey Gina! Great article, thanks for writing it. As someone who ran his first ultra in 1992 I’ve been around for many of the changes to which you refer. And your points are spot on. One topic that intrigues me in this discussion is sponsorship/athlete support. In that context, I thought I’d provide a snapshot of my sponsorship history and perhaps others will do the same.

    I received my first sponsorship in 2003. This included 8 pairs of shoes, a $500 stipend, and other associated products perks (race entries, accommodation in team houses at big races, etc…). In 2005 I began receiving a $1500 per year stipend which continued through 2012. At that time I urged my sponsor to spend the $1500 on someone younger, faster, and female. So they did. Over my most “competitive” years I continued to receive product and modest race support whenever I requested it. Over the last five years, I have continued to receive support from several companies and am forever grateful for it. In addition, I am further appreciative of the RDs who have offered to cover my entry fees. While not sponsorships per se these fees are supportive of my participation in the sport.

    One thing that I am grateful for is that none of my sponsors have ever required me to run certain events or even a number of certain events per year. Also, while I’ve certainly been encouraged to share my thoughts about products on the internet and social media, none of my sponsors have given me quotas or had any expectations of some kind of program by which I post about them a certain number of times per month, etc…

    This is, of course, just one person’s story of the last 14 years. I’d be curious to hear others’ stories about sponsorship or any of other topics you’ve raised here.

    1. Gina

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments AJW! Very interesting to hear about your sponsorship experience the past 14 years. I think this will continue to morph… If the numbers continue to increase, so will the dollars…and everybody will want a piece of that pie. I think athletes will start to look for more sponsorships outside of actual running focused brands (ie. cars, banks, food giants, etc.)…those brands have the dollars they hoping for. A few athletes are already doing this, but I think it will become the “norm” down the road.

  2. Stephen

    Going forward, I believe we will continue to see tremendous growth in the sport of ultrarunning. More runners, more sponsorship money, better technology to track our training progress, and sadly more people using PEDs. Someday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see high-profile races adding multiple start times or days to accommodate more entrants. Social media platforms like Strava could entice us to chase segments and do too much, but on the other hand, maybe it’s the push we need.

  3. John Vanderpot

    Just finished yr. 6, spent some of the best days of my life out there, no where near the front, no where, more likely to be DFL, seriously, but what’s really impressed me is the number of RD’s who have offered comp — invisible to sponsors, certainly, but the people who put on the shows have gotten to know me, and seem to like seeing me around, and somehow that means a lot more than whatever-hundred bucks we’re talking about here…as in I don’t always accept their offer, but I’m generally inclined to run their event!

    Sort of like AJW above, I often encourage them to pass it along to someone more deserving since so many people are starting to find these things a bit cost-prohibitive (the fees have clearly gone up!) —

    JV

  4. Jenn Thompson

    I dig several points in this well written piece. I’ve been in the sport about 5 years, and it has changed a lot. I have really noticed this movement of “vert”, for many of us becoming more important than weekly mileage (certainly was for me when I was training to DNF MOG100). But you raise a great point, flatlander, or rolling hundos are no less significant, or even challenging. Shoot, I would likely die if I had to “run” 100 miles straight, and have always preferred mountain ultras for that reason. But I cringe when I hear someone say “oh JJ100 only has xxx feet of gain”, because JJ100 isn’t remotely about the gain. It’s about people running sub 8 minute miles in triple digit heat, and believe me, that qualifies as hard. That’s what I love about ultra running – it embraces all of our different strengths and weaknesses, and there is something for everyone who is crazy enough to engage in the sport.
    I also remember as a road marathoner obsessing about my DailyMile posts, and when I ran Boston and moved on to ultra, switched to obsessing over which battery could last for a 50 miler. Along came Strava which was a cycling Mecca, and quickly became a running hub too, and now even has vertical challenges all the time.
    In terms of more changes, for myself, I am now working on realizing that it is not necessary to photo-document every run, or post every run in Strava – because it has to matter to me first. I think that is another interesting piece of ultrarunning…since most of us are fiercely competitive with ourselves, if not a bit compulsive (how else do you train for 100 miles).
    As for sponsorship, I missed the boat by winning a few smaller races, and then meeting a rattlesnake and just about my demise on the trail. It seems that sponsorship, ambassadors, etc have become way more mainstream than a few years ago, which certainly speaks to the popularity of our sport. What keeps me totally stoked on that topic? Old folks like me, have every chance to keep being competitive. I love that. And I love the community that is ultra running.

  5. shawn

    I’ve been running road races since I was 14 (34 years ago) but only started doing trail races about 3 years ago, starting with the Pikes Peak Ascent. Now I run almost exclusively on trails and did my first ultra this year with the North Fork 50K. I think the trail community is going to see a lot more cross-over age-grouper like me, but I don’t know whether the growing number of races will be able to keep up with the growing numbers of hopeful entrants. I sure hope that doesn’t drive the fun and comraderie out of this great community. (anybody who watches the BQ qualifiers this time of year knows what I mean. I don’t even care to attempt the Boston zoo again. I just hope ultras don’t get to the point where I have to do fundraising in order to snag a bib!)
    Happy trails!

    1. Nathan

      I think it would be nice if more races did performance based entry and less straight lottery. You could do something like finishing top 10% in one of such and such list of ultras is automatic entry and everyone else is in the lottery.

      That probably goes against the preference of most ultra runners, but I would like it.

      1. shawn

        Well, that would allow good runners to enter almost as many events as they wanted to, but it sure would be tough for new blood to get into the sport. That probably isn’t the outcome any of us want.

        On a related note…. The Pikes Peak Ascent+Marathon keeps trying to find ways to discourage people from racing both the Ascent and the Marathon. In order to double, you have to pay for both races AND an addition $150 doubler’s fee. Since the Forrest Service only allows them to have X many entrants in each race, they want to give as many people as possible the chance to run one of the races. Unfortunately, each year there seems to be a growing number of people that want to Double, which is why the races fill up so quickly and leave others on the sideline. That is doubly frustrating when the Doublers DNF, or perhaps DNS the second race.

      2. Cory

        I agree Nathan, kind of like Ironman World Champ. Let a small percentage of the slots at “qualifier races” go to the pros, but ALSO let non-pro age-groupers win slots, so that it doesn’t only select top speedsters (it will select them, too) but also age groupers. For instance, if Western States made ALL athletes qualify, they could offer x number of slots for pros (just like at Golden ticket races) and then also do the same for age groupers. It would force everyone to race to get in but not require them to beat the pros, just others in their group. Older, slower runners still get to race to get in, but only against others in their competitive league. A huge benefit would be that many many people would want to race the qualifiers, not just those who might have a chance at winning the race overall.

  6. JJ

    Nothing wrong with Ultrasignup, but some of the most memorable races aren’t on there, or maybe not posted anywhere online for that matter. “Bandit” races, just you and a group (30?) of invited friends are a riot. Plan a few self-serve aid stations, maybe a little trail marking, pre-run it to make a Strava segment in case others can’t make it on race day and want to run it before or after. No entry fee (unless it’s a canned food donation for a good cause or something), no t-shirts, not much if anything in the way of prizes. Try it sometime!

    (yeah, somebody’s bound to call me out on this….maybe it’s on private property with landowner permission…)

  7. Henry Bickerstaff

    In several years I would like to see a study done on the value of an athlete’s sponsorship versus their longevity in the sport. Their are exceptions like Anton but I would suspect, but hope it is not true, this is an inverse relationship.

  8. Tim

    As an older runner (about to turn 60), the more vert the better, since it reduces the amount of straight running I have to do, which I find hard on the joints and back (frankly I think this goes for runners of all ages, and may explain the “seven year” theory). And I find my climbing ability has held up very well, through that can sometimes finish in the top half or even third of the field. Technical descents are a different story! Get overtaken left and right (literally), since balance and reaction time goes with age: even being very careful have had a number of mishaps.

  9. Travis Macy

    Great questions and comments, Gina / iRunFar. I personally like races and outings with “vert” ;-) because I enjoy being in the mountains more than I like running flats, and, relatively, I’m much better at running (and hiking) up and down hills than I am at running on flat ground. I know others feel the same regarding a preference for flatter training and courses, which is AOK as well. Thanks for the great article!

  10. Bryan

    Any thoughts on the competitiveness of ultras now? And I’m not talking about the front of the pack, I’m talking about the whole pack. I’ve only been running ultras for four years now and I’m always amazed at the amount of people who want to pay money to walk the whole thing and sit down for extended periods of time. It seems like at most ultras, well over 50% of the people “running” want to complete the course with as little pain and suffering as possible.

    I always imagine the runners in the 80s and 90s as these total badasses; all of them competitive and pushing themselves to the the the limit to reach the finish line. They weren’t doing it so they could brag about it on social media later on and basically nobody knew these things existed back then… it seems the motivations were different at least? Anyone?

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