Ultrarunning Is Dead

For most of the past three decades, it has made a lot of sense to combine all running that is longer than 26.2 miles into one category and call it Ultrarunning. The number of people running Ultramarathons has, until recently, been very small. The majority of these folks were not regularly running shorter races, and many people who were regularly running sub-ultra-distance races didn’t even know ultramarathons existed to the extent that they did. It was such a niche thing to run longer than a marathon that it made perfect sense for it to have one simple designation and leave it at that.

In the past 5 years, however, the number of total ultramarathon finishes has increased at a rate far greater than any other time in the nearly 50 year modern history of the sport. One thing that has not increased nearly as rapidly, though, is the number of finishes in road ultras, leading to an ever growing disparity between trail ultra and road ultra. This growing disparity has been fueled largely by the exponential growth in trail running in general, but it also seems quite certain that ultra trail running has grown at a much faster rate (as compared to all ultrarunning) than has sub-ultra trail running (as compared to all sub-ultra running).

There may be a few reasons for this, but I think the most likely is that a few of the key reasons why people like to run trails (less impact, more variety, to get to remote places) go hand in hand with running really far. In short, I think you have a symbiotic relationship in which the less impact and more variety allow you to run much farther, and the farther you run, the more remote places you can get to. Therefore, as trail running has exploded in popularity, it has fueled an even more rapid growth in ultrarunning, not because people are specifically wanting to run really far, but because trail running and running really far go so well together.

This has led to a vastly different demographic in ultrarunning than has ever existed. The percentage of ultrarunners who have never run a road ultra has grown incredibly in the past decade. More ultrarunners than ever before identify themselves primarily as trail runners and secondarily as ultrarunners. And for these reasons, I think the ultrarunner classification is antiquated and inaccurate. As more and more “ultrarunners” are in the sport simply because they like running trails, and would much sooner run a 10-mile trail race than a 50 or 100-mile road race, it makes more and more sense to go one of two directions: either get rid of the classification of ultrarunning all together or divide it into two categories (as many folks have started to do already): trail ultra and road ultra.

At the end of the day, it’s all just a label that doesn’t really mean much of anything, but I think the demographic of people running longer than 26.2 miles has changed so much in the past several years that if we are going to have these labels it just doesn’t make any sense to continue forward with an all encompassing label that does such a poor job of defining what/who you are talking about. In reality, it’s all just running, but if you’re going to break it down further, I think it makes a lot more sense to break it into trail running and road running than it does to continue with the category of ultrarunning, which does such a poor job of categorizing such a large percentage of people. I, for one, think of myself much more as a trail runner than I do as an ultrarunner. Especially when the category of ultrarunning includes flat road races, which I am quite certain I am unlikely to run anytime soon.

I’m curious, though: how do you all see yourselves fitting into these genres of running, and am I the only one who thinks that the term ultrarunning is antiquated, and very poorly represents the bulk of the runners who are currently running long-distance races?

There are 131 comments

  1. konrad

    I was running a trail section of a 100 miler a while back in front of a couple of guys who were discussing why they liked trails over roads and wondering why any body would ever run roads at all. Well, because of my schedule and my wife's schedule and the kids and the fact that the nearest decent trails are about 45 minutes from me ninetey-nine percent of my training is done on roads. I felt like telling this guys, "You know what? We've been running on this trail for hours and what have we seen. Trees! And Rocks! And dirt! And that's about it! A billion trees! When I run on the roads I see houses, people, horses, cows, barns…and trees . And maybe a '68 Chevelle! Plus I pass gas stations where I can get a Red Bull and some ice cream!!" I was kidding but there was some seriousness to what I was saying. It's all running, man. It's all good. Be well rounded. To paraphrase The Who, "Ultrarunning is dead! Long live ultrarunning!"

  2. Dan Brannen

    Geoff,

    I wonder at your choice of essay title. OK, yes. It's an attention-grabber. But, in the context of your essay, it also means that your intent (or preference) is that you want the term "ultrarunning" to stop being used to describe a sport that has now really become two separate sports.

    You may be right about that evolution. I think the verdict is still out, but your essay is on the cutting edge of observation and analysis. And in that sense it's astute and provocative.

    Let me offer a different perspective: The dwarfing of road ultrarunning (uh, let me correct myself, and yourself, right here: road/track ultrarunning–not just road ultrarunning)… the dwarfing of road/track ultrarunning by trail ultrarunning did not achieve critical mass just in the last 5 years. The domination/subjugation of road/track ultra by trail ultra (in terms of sheer numbers; of both events and participants) was achieved more than 15 years ago.

    What has changed (dramatically) in the last 5 years is one very significant factor: the number of unarguably world-class-talented American male ultrarunners who have reserved their focus exclusively for trail ultras, and completely eschew road/track ultras. That percentage of a bare few handfuls of male individuals has skyrocketed over the percentage of the same number of bare few handfuls of individuals who were the "marquee" names of American ultrarunning from the early 80's through the late 90's. The perception (by the ultra community; by the general running community; and by the general public) of the nature and culture of our sport is as much (if not more) colored by the exploits and practices of this very small number of its "elite" performers as it is by the volume of the "rank & file." An unfortunate (but very real) corollary of this fact is that the elite men make more of an impact on general perception than the elite women. Yes, Ann Trason (arguably–or, as I would argue, unarguably–the greatest American ultrarunner who ever lived) achieved tremendous notoriety from her phenomenal ultra exploits. But she would have made an even bigger impact on the general public if she had been a male achieving the same level of dominance.

    There was really no cohesive national ultra "community" (with marquee events and "stars" and critical mass) until the early 80's. Hence, our "sport" as a national community is just about 30 years old. During virtually that entire lifespan, the Western States 100 Mile has been universally regarded as the premier American ultra. You are one of the few who has won it. Take a look at the list of winners going back to the early 80's. The overwhelming majority of them (and other top WS finishers)–both male & female–were primarily trail racers who then crossed over to achieve success (or at least to attempt to achieve success) at road and track ultra racing. Those who didn't are so few that they comprise the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Among women the trail to road/track crossover is almost universal. But among the elite American men that trend came to an abrupt halt during the last half-decade. And it's not just Western States winners/top finishers. It's a phenomenon that extends even to those who are proven top male trail ultra racers (multiple victories at major trail ultras; course records) during the same last 5-6 years who haven't excelled at Western States. It's as if a curtain suddenly dropped down on the sport, separating our elite male trail ultra racers from our elite road/track ultra racers. The same phenomenon has not occurred among the elite trail women. They still almost universally cross over. And I think that elite male trail exclusively at the very top goes a long way toward explaining the widening gap in the rank-&-file ultra culture between trail & road–at least as much as does just overall participation numbers.

    I find myself asking "Why?" And I can't come up with an answer. It's a mystery to me. In that sense, your essay's focus on the separation/distinction of trail from road can almost be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. My intention is not to put you on the spot. But, you've sort of put yourself on the spot with your essay here. You've pretty much displayed yourself as the poster boy for this phenomenon. You are one of the best ultrarunners in the country (perhaps in the world), yet you make it very clear that you intend to stay away from road ultras. You ran and won the American River 50 Mile in close to record-equivalent time. That's basically a flat road race for the first 25 miles. I wonder what you would have run if the 25-mile point had been a U-turn and the course was an exact out-&-back? Would you have not entered the event? Many of your American elite trail-only peers have run similarly well there. The UROC 100k (self-billed as America's first true ultra championship), where you beat Mike Wardian for the win last year (and some of your trail-only peers ran too), was reported to be half road. So, it's not as if you are averse to racing seriously on the roads. I look at you and see a guy who quite possibly has a realistic shot at breaking Tom Johnson's 17-year old American 100k record while winning the 100k World Championship. Or finishing in the top 10 (top 5?) at Comrades. Almost all of your American elite trail predecessors for the past 30 years had a passionate interest in such pursuits, but you (and most of your American elite male trail-exclusive colleagues) seem to have no such interest. Yet your feminine peers still do. I find it puzzling. And a bit sad. I invite you (and any of your trail-only peers who care to) to explain the sudden cultural shift at the top. Your essay is interesting and provocative, but it doesn't really address this question. Do you care to solve the mystery?

    Sorry, I don't intend to be confrontational or combative. But I think I have a legitimate question. And I think it's important for the future of our sport. And It think it needs an honest and accurate answer. And It think you've (perhaps unwittingly) brought it to the surface.

    -Respectfully,

    Dan Brannen

  3. Ellie G

    Too many comments to read but I would also suggest that 'ultra running is dead' in a different angle. Now ultra running is becoming more popular we'll start to have some runners who specialise/ excel at say 50km distance whilst others are 100 mile specialists and others still are multiday specialists. As more runners participate in ultras it is unreasonable to expect the top runners to excel at all distances, or even middle of the packers to be the same place in the pack in races over different distances. Along the lines of not expecting a good 5km runner to be a good half marathoner. Good luck at Transvulcania Geoff!

  4. Peter Andersson

    Tossing in another angle here; isn't big parts of middle class society in itself moving away from "big cities" and comparatively out on the "boonies"? We now have the internet and smartphones so we no longer need to live in big cities for "information" and with the health food "revolution" on top of that we're no longer dependent on either growing our own food or on small stores in those big cities to get that. Foodwise, healthwise and informationwise you can now live in Smallville and still get anything you need within 24 hours, hence more people run and train on trails that would previously have lived downtown Metropolis, trained and races there.

  5. Fabrice

    Many comments, and I believe there should be a clear cut between trail running and ultra running. When I read about ultra runing 50 km?????? Since when 50km is ultra running???

    I love the quotation of the god of ultra running Yannis Kouros " ultra runing is when your mind will leave your body and you will not feel anymore pain" his second quote was you are a ultra runner when you have to change your training from marathon training and if you run a 50 km or 50 miler you can do pretty good with only a simple marathon training type, now when it is mile 111 this type of training is mindingless.

    Many good trail runners have become but not many ultra runner have defeat Yannis world records or Badwater course record.

    Happy trails to everyone

  6. Abichal

    There are no 6 day races on a 400 m track. This years inaugural 6/5 day Circuit races will take place on a 500 m grass loop, all the others are on paved/ish loops. The Unix 6 day currently taking place in Hungary is on a 900m loop.

    Geoff does have a point. To call both a 50k trail race and a 6 day road race, ultras, is to fail to convey a world of difference.

    If the number of participants increases dramatically, then as Ellie suggested there will naturally be more and more specialization.

  7. Bill Ahlers

    Coming from shorter then ultra road races to ultra trail racing it wasn't that I was a trail runner per se but most all ultras in colorado are mostly trail so I became a trail runner. Now did I label myself a bike path concrete marathoner or an asphalt gravel marathoner? No, I was just a marathoner. First and foremost I am a runner and a competitive person so I am a runner that likes to compete. I will run anywhere I feel challenged whether its marathons or ultras. Trail or road. Like most have said its a solution looking for a problem.

  8. Monica

    I agree with you. I always associated "ultra" with any distance greater than 26.2. I didn't distinguish between a trail runner or a road runner. It's the distance that is impressive, not the terrain. I don't think there needs to be nit-picking on the sub-categories of what an "ultra" runner is.

  9. Girl Ultrarunner

    I proudly consider myself as an ultrarunner; I don't think it matters whether I run roads or trails (I've run >50 trail ultras including # 17 100s), the greatest change I see in the sport is the difficulty in getting into races. Ot is discouraging to me how many races that fill within minutes or have lotteries. I ran WS twice in the 90s, thank goodness, because I could wait years now.

  10. Craig

    Actually, in my experience I've found that most people categorize themselves as either trail or road marathoners. Not that I do that, but that's been my experience.

  11. Jim Parry

    I am an ultrarunner, put simply. I have always wanted in the worst way to be nimble off-road and effortly cruise mile after mile in those remote areas you describe. The problem is that I am clumsy and inefficient in that environment. I enjoy it, but rarely get to practice my skills there. Rather, I find myself completely at home on the side of a gravel road, knowing how far it is to the next town. At times this has made me feel like I am not a "true" ultra runner, but I understand that this environment makes sense to me and makes me happy. I would guess the same feeling holds true for those who live on the trails. That said, it would be great to see more road ultras, but until that happens, I will have to look at a road map and decide where my day is going to take me based on that.

  12. Mick Tarry

    I think the word Ultra has a special zing to it and the word really focussed me when I tackled my first one. I felt enormous pride at ducking under the cutoff by 4 minutes at the end. The pleasure of running long on trails has now superceded my initial desire to tackle an ultra and I also refer to my runs as long distance trial runs without specifying the distance and go to describe the characteristics of the run to anyone that is interested. Road Ultras are harder mentally and on the body but defining an Ultra as anything more than a marathon regardless of road or trail should stay for the sake of the beauty of simplicity.

  13. Todd Fuller

    I don't run any roads. I either run on the treadmill, cross country courses, or trails which are my preferred running surface. Running on the road hurts my knees too much and why I'm moving out West next spring to be able to run trails all the time right outside my door.

  14. Will

    Jared, that is just about word-for-word what I tell people. It's all about being out in the hills. I had a pretty troubled childhood and whenever I wanted to escape reality at home, I would run through the woods as fast as I could – until I was ready to face the world again.

    Will

  15. Bob Gilmore

    Why feel the need to attach a label to what you like to do? Being someone who runs is nothing more than that. Distance, terrain, elevation, it can all be different yet it is all the same. Put one foot in front of the other. Enjoy it for what it is: a simple act that makes you feel good. Trying to differentiate yourself and define who you are by the type of running you do is all ego. I have met trail runners that wear headphones and obsess over splits, road runners that are helpful, pro MMA fighters who study yoga and like kittens, hopefully you get the point. Every time I see an article about running that begins with "As a runner…", I've come to expect some level of self-importance and "belonging to some exclusive club" feel to be associated with it. I think we all could use getting over ourselves a little bit.

  16. Duane VanderGriend

    I like thinking of myself as an ultrarunner. To me it embodies a more relaxed, more organic approach to running than my pre- ultrarunner days. Where in the past I bought into the idea that it was all about getting faster, now my mantra is WWUDD. What would ultrarunner Duane do? He'd slow down, go long, take walk breaks, and eat and drink a lot during the run. And now running is fun again. And people think you are nuts when you tell them you ran 50 miles. I like people thinking I' m nuts.

  17. Dan

    I am also just a runner as we all are. I did many trail races and many roadraces this summer. The other 5 months I trained almost exclusively on a treadmill. How wacky is that? The distinction should not be what the RUNNERS are but what the RACES are that they run. Trail running and road running are as different as roadbikes and mountainbikes. I don't see a problem with that. Even track and roadrunning are two distinct categories. And don't forget cross country! While you may find a few extremely hilly road races (I ran the Ridge Runner marathon in WV a few years ago), most are fairly flat. It is just the opposite with trail races that tend to seek out the hilliest, hardest terrain possible. That makes the distinction even more pronounced. I would just get rid of "ultra" all together. When asked what kind of races you run, you can tell them trail 50 and 100 milers, road marathons, 5ks, or whatever you like to do the most. Remember in the early 80s when towns would call their 3 mile roadrace a mini-marathon?

  18. Karen T

    When asked what my hobbies are, I tell people I'm an ultra trail runner. I've never run a purely road ultra race and don't ever plan on it. Although I don't mind a few dirt roads thrown in a trail race, all road is just too boring for me. I fell in love with trails first and then ultra running. If I was told I either had to give up ultra running or trail running. It would be ultra running. Although I love running longer distances, one of the most important aspects of being out there for me is being a part of nature. It results in a big smile and happy heart.

  19. Runningmom

    Ultra Running can't be dead, i'm just getting started : )

    It's the most amazing feeling in the world to know you can run long LONG distances.

    It makes my kiddoes (my 3 little boys) proud.

    I could come in last place and my kids would yell "WAY TO MOM, YOU'RE THE BEST!!!" : )

    I was the best in their eyes, because i tackled my first ultra and finished.

    For the first time in my life i did something truly amazing!

    I am an ultra runner : )

  20. Dane

    Since I didn't see a direct response to you and I had an answer, Vanessa, I thought I would do so, even though this article is old. Running an ultra distance on the road is not that confusing. It is for people who don't feel you have to be surrounded by lush beauty and flowing streams and the nature of everything to enjoy pushing yourself for a very long period of time.

    I often tell the story of two different runners I have met. One runs around 3000 miles a year and never races. The other basically does all of their training miles running in an industrial crap part of town. To me, these two are the definition of runners. One runs with no main goal per se, never receiving accolades in the form of a medal or official race time. The other hasn't seen a squirrel or a babbling brook n a run in years. It is easy to be a runner when you receive praise or finisher's medals. It is easy to be a runner when your daily route is awe-inspiring. It is far harder to be a runner when those things are taken away.

    On the other hand, some people really enjoy running on the roads. I am one of them. I do not get beat up by the road. I enjoy the even footing it gives. When I really want to let fly, I don't have to worry about scree sliding out from underneath me, or roots to trip me or other dangers. DO I love running on trails? Well, it is hard not to! Being in nature, enjoying alone time and taking in all that is out there is easy to do.

    Probably more of an answer than you expected but I felt like responding. I love the roads and love running very, very long on them.

  21. Norty

    I run on whatever's in front of me and are gratefull for every day i am un-injured and can do so. Having said that, I try my best to run exclusively trails, and totally agree with Geoff. I am a "trail runner" and anything over marathon distance I run because I love trail running, not because I'm an ultra-runner. After partaking in the Tarawera 100 this year I 'd also say that the 'ultra' tag is dead as Sage and Tim Olsen flew past me (it was an out and back) at a pace quicker than most mere mortals run a road marathon.

  22. kyle

    Not sure this is concrete of a split as detailed in the article (pun intended). All joking aside, where would you lump timed races? I've run races on asphalt loops, dirt tracks, trails, roads. Does it really matter? I love the distance. Maybe Im old school though. I do think though that we should distinguish between 50k's and longer.

  23. KevinL

    I know this is an old post with many, many replies, but I just found it today, so here's my take.

    In 2010, I became an ultrarunner. Knowing that the VT50 would be my first, I transitioned to trails, my home from back in my high school cross country days. When people would ask, how can you spend so many hours and miles on trail? There's no other place I want to be. This happened in DC, where, believe it or not, there are many miles of trail to be had…loops, AtoB, and AtoA out and backs. I called myself an ultrarunner.

    Fast forward to today in my new home of Carrboro, NC. I have two races planned: a 24hr paved loop in PA, and the VT50 again. But, I think I'm going to skip the VT50, because once the 24hr race is complete, I don't want to run the miles needed to prepare for Vermont.

    Why?

    I hate running here. There is one park with trails, but it's essentially a pen, and as any trail horse knows, a pen confines the soul. The roads are not hospitable, either, but the chief gripe is lack of long-run trail. This lack has killed my joy and thus, my desire to run.

    And after reading this post, I get it: I'm more a trail runner than I am an ultrarunner, because without trails to love, I have no desire to run ultras anymore, and so I won't, lest I come to despise running in general.

  24. paul

    Personally I think there's quite a big difference between trail/fell runners and road runners. Surely more than the difference between a 26.2 mile runner and a 30 mile runner.

    Fell running where I am can be quite technical and very different from pounding the tarmac – the flipside is I struggle to keep running at the same pace for hours on end on flat roads.

    As for the term, I just ran my first ultra – at 30 miles I don't feel like it quite counts as an 'ultra', too close to 26! But as a long hilly trail race, it was great.

  25. Chris White

    I completely agree with Jeff. First of all, most people who enter the races considered "ultras" could not run a fast marathon time, even for their own age/gender, myself included. Yes, that sounds too direct perhaps for some, but let's face facts. We who finish in the bottom 80-90% of most "ultras" may like calling ourselves "ultrarunners" but how accurate is that really? Are we just so darn great at marathons that 26.2 miles isn't enough for us? Or, is it that the longer races are on trails and sound like a great challenge and a lot of fun and that's why we run them? I never call myself an "ultraunner" because I couldn't run a sub-3 hour marathon, but I can complete a 50K or a 50M just decently and enjoy myself in the process, but why add the bragging rights aspect of lumping myself in with the true elite athletes that do deserve the title of "utlrarunner" when I'd be lying to myself. This is of course a generalized statement and is not meant to insult anyone. I'm merely trying to build off of what Jeff stated and encourage us all to be honest, and the term "trail runner" is more accurate for the vast majority of us who run what are labeled "ultras." We can still be proud of our accomplishments, but let's be real: the vast majority of us aren't the elite athletes that this label conveys.

  26. Chris

    I love irunfar for thoughts like this. Thanks for the write up. I guess I'll just comment that I just like running far. Most trails accessible to me in St. Louis are fairly short, so I have to resort to running on rails-to-trail places. These are flat, hard-packed, gravel and monotonous after several hours. But, I enjoy the distance. So, I'm somewhere in between. I agree with the impact preference of "trail" like places and would add that traffic is a problem for roads. There are bike paths here, but they are paved and full of … well … bikers. So, I naturally gravitate to trails…but like I said, my trails are somewhere between that of a road or a trail. Anyway… I guess I'll throw a poop in the ring and just say, I like distance…wherever I can get it.

  27. Gzrrnnr

    As a 67 year old trail runner who has been on trails for longer than most of the runners at trail races now have been on the planet, I find this discussion a bit amusing. Way back, we did not give a shit what you called it. We just went out and enjoyed it. Too bad it is not that simple anymore…..

  28. Chinyere Obasi

    Good grief!Just run. Period. Who cares if ultra/road/trail/ or whatever. The time spent reading and writing this could have been spent doing a run.Just do it…

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