I’ve run several ultra trail races in the past seven years. Not as many as some people, but enough to get a pretty good sense of what the typical race is like. I’ve run some of the oldest, most well established races on the circuit: e.g., Western States, Wasatch, Mountain Masochist, and American River. I’ve also run several very young races that are trying to establish themselves as “instant classics”: UROC, Run Rabbit Run, and The North Face Endurance Challenge. Beyond this I’ve run a dozen or more races that fit somewhere in between these classics and newbies.
Having run all these different races the one thing that jumps out at me when I compare them to each other is how much they are all alike. Virtually every ultra I’ve ever run has either been 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, or 100 miles. They’ve pretty much all had aid stations no less often than every 10 miles (typically in the 4-7 mile range). Nearly every one of them has started between 5-7 am on Saturday morning. Every race has a few minor things which make it a bit different from others, but for the most part, you could roam around the country running a new race every week, and after several weeks you would likely start to feel like you were running the same races over and over.
There is, of course, a reason it’s like this. There are some key components which were born in the beginning of modern-day ultrarunning that have been passed along and emulated over the years. In almost all cases these components have become tradition because they make a lot of sense. Right? That’s what you would think would be the case, but when you look closer at some of these things it’s actually hard to find logical reasons (other than tradition) for the widespread similarities in all these races.
Is there any reason why it makes more sense to run 50 miles as opposed to 44, or 56, or any other distance that a desired route happens to be? In track or road running where you can typically compare times from race to race it makes a lot of sense to have various common distances. But in ultra distance trail running why does there also seem to be this kind of consistency in race distance? Due to the variation in terrain you can’t begin to compare one race to another, and, if anything, many race routes end up being compromised due to the “need” to make them one of the four common distances. Is it just that we like to be able to say that we ran a nice round number of miles? Does running 50 miles really sound more bad ass than running 55? Certainly, if you’re going to run 92 miles, it’d be nice to tack on 8 more and make it an even 100, but when it’s said and done, doesn’t it seem to make more sense to just run the 92 as opposed to running an out and back stretch on a road to make up the extra mileage (something that I’ve done more than once in 100-milers)?
What about aid stations? Running 50 kilometers or more takes a ton of calories, water, and often a lot of emotional support – all of which we get a lot of from aid stations. C’mon though! If we can run 100 miles can’t we also run stretches of 15, 20, even 50 miles without aid? I get the point that running these distances are really, really hard so we need all the support we can get to help us do it successfully, but is this such a necessary thing that virtually every race in existence should have no fewer than one aid station per 10 miles? Does it really make it that much harder if we need to carry several extra gels in our pack, or stop a few times during the race and bend over and actually get our own water out of a stream? And does harder make it any less appealing? If that were the case why wouldn’t we just run a 5k instead of 100 miles? I also get the point that we are paying to do a race so that we can receive the kind of support that goes along with all of these races. When you think about what you are getting for your money at most of today’s races it’s actually a pretty good deal. This said though, why do they all need to be this way? Wouldn’t it make just as much sense to have many races with significantly fewer aid stations that could thus charge significantly less for entry? Again, not a very novel idea, but one that virtually no races seem to adopt.
Anyway, no need to ramble on any further on every single thing that races seem to do similar to other races. Obviously tradition and trend play a huge part in these patterns, and many new races adopt these patterns without even thinking of it. I, for one, though would love to see some change in this regard. I think the “typical” races are really great, and make a lot of sense, but they aren’t the only things that make sense. In the same way that I think more diversity among the participants in our sport would make the sport richer for everyone involved, so, too, would more diversity among the events in our sport. To anyone out there looking at starting a new event (and I assume there are more than a few reading this who fit into this category), do you really want to start another event that’s more or less the same as the 99% of races already out there?
I don’t raise these points to criticize anyone for creating new races that are modeled so closely after the vast majority of current races, but, instead, to hopefully plant a few seeds for something a little different in the future. I’m still at least a couple years away from putting on a race of my own (if ever), but you can bet if I ever do it won’t be shaped with the same cookie cutter as all the races I’ve run in the past.