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 130 comments

  1. nicholas wied

    Great piece Geoff, I totally agree. I ran a lot of short road races before moving to trails and ultras. I now identify as a trail runner who runs trail races from 5k to 50-100miles. When people ask if I'm an ultrarunner, I tell them I'm a trail runner who also runs trail ultras.

  2. Michelle

    I come from a climbing background so this make sense to me. I wouldn't say that ultra running is dead, but the point is correct. If you are meeting up with somebody and they say they are an ultra runner you could assume they mean they are a trail ultra runner.

    If I say I am a climber, what does it mean for most people. Those that are not climbers, they will think of movies like Cliff Hanger where you climb up a wall and put you gear in tiny cracks until it fits just perfect. Falling can cause your pieces to zip line. They may even think you can climb Everest, because that is what climbers do. However, the truth is I couldn't climb Everest, and I have only climbed one route where I attached my pieces straight to the wall, whatever that is called. I am a sport climber, and still bring my rope us with my on a route. However, I attach to pieces bolted into a wall. I can only climb routes that where set-up in advance.

    You are not really a climber, that doesn't mean anything. However, you could be a sport climber, trad climber, or a mountain climber. Each mean their own thing. The outside world will still see climber, but inside climbing world they are worlds different.

    I run a lot of both. However, I prefer the trails any day but I live in Florida and my options are limited. I travel for my key races and they are all trail. If I where to leave Florida, the chances are I wouldn't do road ultras. With that said I would consider myself a trail ultra runner that does some road ultra marathons.

  3. Rob Youngren

    All I can say is if one hasn't actually done some road ultras how can one know they are "boring" or "painful"? I've done plenty of trail races that were boring & painful, I've also done plenty of road races that were far from boring and not any more painful than trail running. Where do these false premises come from? Don't knock it unless you've had enough experience to form a opinion.

  4. dogrunner

    Interesting conversation.

    Personally, I run trails. I do not like pavement any more than I like treadmills. The latter have their purposes (stay in shape for running trails :) )but I'd probably not be a runner at all if those were my only options.

    I think "ultra" or "extra-long" -distance vs sub-ultra or not-so-extra-long -distance is orthogonal to trail vs pavement (roads, asphalt bike paths, sidewalks, etc). They are different axes or dimensions of the running niche. People will use whatever terminology is needed to describe the variants they are contrasting at the moment. Sometimes it takes extra adjectives to communicate accurately.

    Just my $0.02.

  5. Peter

    This is a good post. My perspective is that distance running is all more or less just distance running, and I would think that distance running is 10k and up.

  6. Jacques

    I agree Jeff, I've been running trails for 25+ years and the only reason I got into Ultra's was because 50 miles was our only choice for a trail race "back in the day". I did learn to love the long distance as long as the trail was interesting and a challenge, singletrack preferred. For instance I became obsessed with WS not because it was 100 miles but because of the event itself and it was on the Western States trail. My trail running club is going through a bit of an identity crisis. We became an Ultra running group [we do have better stories] and unfortunately some of the shorter distance trail runners started to drop away. Our Wed. runs are usually 7-10 miles so anyone can participate. Not a big deal but maybe i'm more of a Distance Trail Runner then Ultra runner. That does have a nice ring to it.

  7. Mark Myers

    I think that the real observation isn't just as much the aspect of ultra road versus ultra trail but nature versus industrial. In trail weather it be short 5 k or an ultra 100 k it is getting away from all aspects of technology and things manmade. In a trailrun you experience that in the road ultra you are taesting your limits and in the trail run you are saving your sanity. We are always seeking something greater than ourselves and in the God's creation provides that. I would be curious to know of those running trail ultras what type of profession they are in and how deeply they are imeressed in technology daily.

  8. Ken Eng

    I agree with Geoff that the term "ultrarunning" has become too general and encompassing to describe the variety and scope of running events beyond the marathon distance. Ultrarunning's technical definition is precise, (beyond 26.2 miles, but what there is beyond 26.2 miles has become vast and keeps changing. Even someone saying that she is running a marathon doesn't really describe what type of experience she will have since the variety, size, difficulty, terrain, and support provided is incredibly diverse. The only thing that can be determined when someone says that she has run a marathon is that she has run a race 26.2 miles long. There's a big difference between a flat course marathon at sea level and Pikes Peak Marathon. The only thing that can be determine from someone saying that she is an ultra runner is she likes to run events longer than 26.2 miles.

    Like Nicholas, I describe myself as a trail runner that likes to run trail ultras.

  9. Dominic

    I think there is very big difference in terms of what a road ultra and a trail ultra require of the runner. I've trained for and raced Badwater and trained for and raced mountain 100s. In training more Badwater my muscle mass shrunk and I mentally focused on the mental fortitude required to maintain a strong pace on some really booring roads. In training for Angeles Crest, my body adapted and built up muscles to absorb the undulations of the trails, and my mind focused on adapting to the challenges of the wilderness.

    Both a difficult and rewarding in their own ways. I've gravitated to trails for the sole reason of pure enjoyment. If you wanted to call someone from Florida, and someone from Alaska, Americans, you could.. But you'd sooner identify them for their stronger characteristics indicative of where they live.

  10. Brea

    I just thought that "ultra" was a way to describe the distance of the race- anything over 26.2 miles. Otherwise, I don't see the need to classify myself as an "ultra" runner- I say that I run ultras, but I do not say that I am an ultra-marathoner or ultra-runner.

    I've done only road so far, but am hitting the trails this year. I find it funny that there is such a gap between the two- I didn't realize how much more popular the trails were. It'd be nice to see the exact statistics.

    In the end, as many of you have already stated, it's just a label. I doesn't matter if you call it "soda" or "pop", it's still a carbonated drink. Runners are runners no matter what they run.

  11. Ken Eng

    This is a great conversation with terrific comments being made. People like to use labels to characterize, understand and group things, including other people. It's not possible to give a simple one or two word label to someone and truly understand who they are.

    We are all runners but have different reasons for running and different preferences, even among "ultra runners." Perhaps what this conversation is leading us to do is not slot people a convenient label or category but try to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of everyone.

  12. Scott S

    Interesting topic…

    Whether we want to label people or activities or not, we can be sure that the people and activities will be labeled. Yes, I know lots of people will refrain from the practice, but that doesn't change the fact that it will happen. So, that leaves us with the question of do we want to be a part of the process or not? My guess is that Geoff want to be part of the process.

    Even though I've run the marathon (and slightly beyond) distance, I've never considered myself a marathoner, but I have conceded that I am a runner once I got to the marathon distance just last year. Mostly, I think of myself as a trail runnner (that only runs on the roads during the week due to time constraints).

    my 2cents anyhow…

  13. @ultrailz

    Interesting article, I have to admit that when people ask what kind of running I do, I tell them I like to run….long. I've done a lot of trail ultras but only a few road ultras but I think in the end, we are all just runners….I like the term "ultrarunner" in general but I only call myself that after feeling like I have done enough to earn the distinction. I think an ultra runner is someone who is focused on 50mi, 100mi, and longer events and using road marathons as long "training' runs. I know a number of folks who call themselves marathoners but have completed a number of ultras. In the end, I think it's based on the events you are training for.

    What I find as a really good distinction is the growth of ultra-running….which I find it great that more people are learning to try to break the standard marathon barrier. We humans are capable of so much but often times limit ourselves due to mental stopping points.

  14. Colin Matthews

    Love the article, hate the title!

    I agree with most of what you said; However, even though ultrarunning has enjoyed undeniable growth as of late, I still think it's presumptuous to think it's at a level where it's necessary to divide it into sub-categories.

    Realistically, these designations are for the benefit of the general, non-ultra-running public; Anyone running ultras, on roads or trails, will know the difference anyways. A sport like snowboarding, to the non-snowboarding public, is just that-snowboarding. To snowboarders, it might be half pipe, border-cross, slalom, etc. but at the end of the day all those athletes identify as snowboarders.

    Cheers!

  15. jared

    when asked, I tell people I run really far and really slow in the mountains.

    I am much more drawn to the trails than I am to the distance, and even to running in general. I love being outside, I love discovering new places and being alone – running is just the medium. If I was in a flat, trail-less place, I would probably just play soccer.

  16. Jim

    I tend not to use the terms ultra/ultramarathon as I've found non runners don't understand and other runners think you're bragging. I run for the pleasure of running. I often don't take a watch/gps with me or listen to music. I used to compete in triathlons and shorter distance run events. I found that the competitive nature didn't suit me. Ultra distance events seem to be more sociable with runners more willing to help others if needed, instead of running on to keep to their own target pace. My only worry is that with the increasing popularity of longer distance running, we could get more 'competitive' runners which will change the nature of the sport.

  17. Peter Andersson

    Track and Field is devided into sub-categories more than any other sport – would you say that's working out good in these modern times? ;-)

  18. Serena

    I just consider myself a runner. I prefer trail to road, but I still run road races. I would never run a road ultra though unless it was Comrades.

  19. Andrew Guitarte

    Geoff,
    I agree that ultrarunning is dead. At least the stigma & mystery associated with the term is passé. Hikers, joggers, walkers, sprinters, climbers, mountaineers, triathletes, barefoot runners, minimalist runners, and runners in general can now call themselves ultrarunners when they officially finish an ultra distance. What's the big deal here? Nothing really. Except perhaps the loss of innocence, awe, disbelief, wonder, magic, oomph, wow, hero worship that I so longed for when I decided that I'll be an ultrarunner someday.

  20. olga

    What do you do when an ultra, or any race for that matter, combines both trail and road? UROC, anyone? Why separate, isn't it like all the wars started, "I am different than you and thus potentially better"? I love trails, and ultras. But I run it all. Roads are harder – the effort, the cut off's, the mental part. I love it as a challenge and don't do it often because I am too scared of it. Why there is more growing in trail ultras? It's accepted to walk, talk, don't give it "my all", because, "Oh, we're in it for camaraderie and a scenery only". I am exacerbating, but in a nutshell, I still have no clue what was the purpose of this article. So that majority that only runs trails and avoids at all costs roads as evil can beat in a chest proudly, and the road folks would try and be defensive? Well, that is achieved.

    I rather have folks do whatever, roads, trails, short, long, bike, skip, dance, but be active, and if it's outside – great, in the mountains – lucky bustards. But, common, do we need definitions to be full of ourselves?

    Personally, I say I run a lot. But it rarely comes to asking. Those that know me, know that. Those who don't – don't care enough to ask.

    My self-importance is not based on the name. It probably used to, when it was new and oh, so rare. Now, I simply do what I like to do. That includes running. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

  21. Mark Forehand

    I'm intrigued by the phrase "vastly different demographic." This is the same group of people who have the benefit of living on or near "trails." I lived on or near "trails" until I moved to Europe and started living in large cities. Of course Tallahassee, FL, home to some amazing trail running, has "trails", but not the elevation changing joy rides that people think of when you say "trail ultra marathon". Which makes me wonder, is a Florida 100 miler run completely on trails with little to no elevation changes, still a Trail Ultra?

    I was introduced to running by my father at the age of 8, 1973. I ran 3 laps around the Florida State University track with a my dad and two guys named John Parker (Once a Runner) and some dude who my father described as "man who one a foot race in Germany" Frank Shorter.

    In all that time I've seen fads in running come and go. At one point in the mid 80's early 90's there were about 15 running magazines. That went away. There was any fad created by Nike running, the waffle, that thing before they invented "air" that cost $50 dollars in 1980 that gave my mother a heart attack when she saw the price ("For a pair of shoes?!") and on and on.

    I don't think Ultrarunning is dead, I think it is a fad for some people and joy for other people, the fad will die, the rest of us will stay and keep doing. The US is a country of fads this one will pass and we can go back to calling ultra running if we want.

    Or, you can tell your friends when they ask what are you doing this weekend? "I'm doing a foot race."

  22. Andy

    Geoff, I agree completely with your view that the vast majority of today's "ultrarunners" (me included) are runners who have traditionally gravitated to trail and the rugged beauty of the outdoors, which always begs for greater distance and more exploration. That aspect has little to do with running per se (thru-hike the AT or PCT anyone?). And although I will run the roads when I have to (or the rare road marathon just for some semblance of speed), I would rather hike thru the wilderness than run thru an urban jungle. Although there certainly folks who run both trail and road ultras and specialize more in distance than terrain (Michael Wardian comes to mind), I agree with you that the majority of folks running trail ultras today just love the outdoors and are looking for a challenge and a way to get off the roads. Like others, I eschew the ultrarunning label (most people have no idea what you're talking about anyway and can't conceive of anything beyond the marathon). When asked I just tell people I like to run ridiculous distances thru the mountains.

  23. boisean

    Andy says: I agree about your statement about how most people can't fathom any distance past the marathon, but actually would take it a step further and say that despite how commonplace and seemingly understandable kilos to miles is, most people still have trouble even understanding what a 10K distance is!

  24. Ian Corless

    Whats important is the running and the bond that we all have in one of the purist and most simple modes of transport. I run 'ultras' and they may well be on the road or the trail. It's funny how often the 'pure' trail runners shun the road runners… I don't know why! Each to his own and if you want to be a great runner I think some road will help all you pure trail runners and vice versa.

    Let's embrace running and lets embrace ultra running as anything beyond 26.2.

    For me, the bond, the friendship and the fun all far out weigh wether I am a trail runner, road runner or ultra runner.

    I run ultras; simple!

    1. Jared F

      Well said Ian! I think you summed it up well. To me, there are so few road ultras that I think saying "ultra" usually means trails since there simply are not many road ultras. However, I do understand Geoff's thoughts on the purist side and how defensive those types can be about being classified with road races. I still like the road, still run road marathons, but am also mixing in more trails, so for me "ultras" is a perfect term for anything longer than 42.2k (for Ian).

  25. Vanessa

    The labels confuse me. I'm also confused as to why in the hell anyone would want to run an ultra distance on a road?? I'm pretty happy with running for a really long time in the mountains – whatever that's called :) And if I see you on the trail, it doesn't matter if you're hiking or running or sprinting or doing cartwheels… you can be my buddy and we'll share a few miles.

  26. DDDDDDavid.R

    I will be switch my focus to the sprint. Mainly the 100m and 200m. Given that everybody is running ultras now I think I might have better luck in these events. Also the competition is a bit soft at this distance right now.

  27. Charlie

    A fast running 10k specialist friend of mine would argue that ultra trail running should be called "bushwalking":)

    I would say that there are plenty of ultra trail runners who run road ultras as well – think Greenwood, Wardian, Sharman, Semik. Comrades is the largest ultra in the world and it posesses all the positive attribute that most trial runners want.

    The thing I dont get is the 6 day races around a 400m running track!

  28. Andy

    Wow, ultra-tough crowd all around! Clearly when people spend obscene amounts of time on their own — on road or trail — they either lose social grace, or seek out the solitude because they never had it to begin with. Lighten up people, and run happy wherever and for however long you choose.

  29. Michael Whitenton

    I've decided to avoid the comments above, given Andy's comment. :) For my part, I can say that I have seen the shift Geoff refers to from a different perspective. I'm an ultra-hopeful trail runner, but I totally blew up at a trail marathon this past weekend. Heat indexes of at least 110 F at Joe's inaugural Pandora's Box of Rox resulted in severe dehydration and heat exhaustion. Long story short, I was immediately taken in by the ultrarunners (most of the runners of the full mary) and did not feel like an outsider at all. We were all out there running trails. We were trail runners.

  30. Donald beuke

    I had no idea there was such a thing as a road ultra. That is news to me in my short running career. I am finally running my first road marathon. I prefer the mountain ones. The cool thing is I get to PR by 2 hours on my first road marathon. Trail running is where it is at…mountain running is the ultimate.

  31. Predator

    Love this post. Geoff has again struck a chord as reflected in the varied and heartfelt responses. Bryon and IRF rock, and I will be watching the race feeds, but I am heartened by the response to Geoff's post vs Transvolcano Sponsors Announce Attack on Espanero Pequeno 2012…. I have never run any road race, don't imagine I will. Am certainly an ultramover at best, who uses races as an excuse to run far in training. The energy of a race is incredible and it is great to connect with runners and volunteers regardless of what they call themselves, but a long unsupported solo training run is to me the peak experience. Usually w AJWs disembodied voice hauntingly asking, "did I take that wrong turn to escape or discover….."

  32. Jason

    Comments are great, a little confused about the article though. If anyone runs farther than 26.2 miles why does it matter what they are called? "Ultra" runner sounds good to me- although as stated by other folks here I don't refer to myself as an "Ultra Runner" from fear of being labled a "braggart".

    Who really wants to run a 50 or 100 on the road? I didn't know that there are that many around- so that's where my confusion in this article comes from.

    Let's just run long and forget the labels- we know who we are and what we do :)

    1. Rob Youngren

      Plenty of folks want to run 50 or 100 miles on the road. Why?

      1) To cover the distance as fast as possible. Typically you'll be able to RUN a faster time at a road event than a trail event.

      2) To cover the distance as easily as possible. Some folks don't have the coordination or the skill to cover a trail route within the cutoff times, or don't like being on the trails all alone. Also being on a road the frequency of aid is something else to consider, can travel a lot lighter.

      3) To cover the distance in unique places where there may not be trails. For example, Badwater Ultramarathon, Spartathlon (153m), Strolling Jim 40, Comrades Marathon, etc… Just as trail events take you to and through interesting areas, so to can many road events.

      Yes, there are a great many road ultras out there, do some research. In fact the largest ultra in the world is on the roads: Comrades Marathon.

  33. Todd

    I am new to ultras, running a 50K this year (road) and hopefully a 50miler next year (trail). One thing I have noticed is that the "trail"ultra runners are kind of snobby and seem to have liked it better when ultra running was a small community of close knit runners. Just like this article where the trail community wants to keep the designation separate between trail and road. I happen to live in a very flat part of the world (Ks) so trails are far and few between. I just love to run and run far, I don't care about titles. I know that the training for >26.2 is vastly different and doesn't matter much if it is on trails or roads. When I hear ultra, that is what I think is important and what differentiates ultrarunners more than trail vs. road.

    1. art

      have to disagree with you on this one.

      I have found the ultra trail community to be the nicest, friendliest, most helpful, of any I've seen. much more so than the climbing, tri, or road communities.

      yes some of us do prefer the smaller more casual days, when it was easier to be more personal. I was doing trail work last weekend rubbing shoulders with a couple elites and, yes, they were real people.

  34. barry

    Being honest, the typical civilian would classify us as some flavor of “crazy”. Not sure necessary to list the sub-categories of Road, Timed-event, Flat-Trail, Hilly-Trails, and Hardrock. I see the term Ultrarunner as describing a culture more than an event; people who love/addicted to running, value helping over finishing time, do not wear an iPod and check split every mile, socialize during races, etc. So long at the culture of 26.2+ remains, the term Ultra sounds good…so disagree that Ultrarunning is dead. I did enjoy the thoughtful article and the string of comments.

  35. Stuart Blofeld

    All I can say based on the response to everyone on this thread is that ULTRA RUNNING IS ALIVE!!!!! It has never been more alive!!! We are all ambassadors of our great sport and surely want to see to grow and grow. I dont understand Geoff's reasoning for saying it is dead. The whole road vs trail argument is extremely boring and very unhelpful. Why try to break up a sport that we want to see succeed. And anyone that thinks or refers to themselves as puriests are usually the complete opposite in that their views are often very narrow minded. Let's embrace everything that is great about our amazing sport 'ultrarunning'!!! You can not redefine what is now mainstream so let's instead come together and celebrate.

  36. Trailrutger

    In my modest opinion we should just do what we do.

    Because we love/like to do what we do.

    And not worry about what it's called because it doesn't change what we do.

  37. Alison Gittelman

    Ooh, that's a nice can of worms! My first (and so far only) ultra was a 50K, but to be honest I won't really feel I've earned the ultra title until a run a 50 mile, since a 50K is only a bit more than a marathon. The major difference, as you noted, is that it was on trails whereas all the marathons I've run have been on roads. I have absolutely no interest in running a road ultra. I like running far on trails for the reasons you stated, whereas I dislike running far on roads. I think distinguishing road ultra and trail ultra does make sense because they are very different beasts, just like the track is different from the road.

  38. ken michal

    Great, thought provoking topic, Geoff!!

    To me, ultrarunning is a style of running. The distance dictates our speed and effort level. There is no way any of us will run a 10k (sprint) and a 50M (ultra) at the same pace… but I keep trying! ;) Heck, we won't run a 100 as fast and hard as a 50 either!! I think the biggest distinction is where we run out of muscle glycogen. This is the essence of ultras (and why a lot of folks don't consider 50k's true ultras)!! The fun doesn't really start until we've "hit the wall"! After this point, the run is different from any other athletic event I can think of! This is what sets ultras apart from shorter runs, not terrain. Along this line, the way we run is different as well. Hiking is a great strategy for pacing… Not so much in an anaerobic race!!!

    I've done a few paved ultras. Sure, the challenge is a little different but the essence of the event (above) is the same!! Heck, the pain factor even kicks it up a notch!!

    What would happen if in a few years, the trend shifted to 100 mile treadmill runs (which would certainly be more bad-ass!)? Would we need a third distinction for treadmill runs?

    About the ultra hiking comments: Hiking is part of the game!! This is another one of the things that set ultras apart from shorter distances. I guarantee you that Geoff himself hiked a significant part of the uphills at HURT100 when he set the CR! I know for a fact that Gary Robbins hiked 100% of those uphills when he broke that CR!!! In ultras this is called running smart! On a side note, I'm running my first 200 in exactly two weeks!!! I'm already planning on walking no less than 20 miles of it. I may even do a mile or two on my hands or knees if I need to!! At the end of the weekend, when I have that buckle in hand, you can bet your butt that I'm going to call it both an ultra and a run!!!!

    All Day!

    ~Ken

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