The growing popularity of ultrarunning that has occurred in the past few years has certainly had an effect on the sport in many areas. The overall number of races around the world has skyrocketed; the amount of prize money in the sport has skyrocketed just as much or more; and the degree to which every aspect of the sport is scrutinized in various online forums, websites, blogs, and magazines has grown even more. This is still a fairly obscure sport, but compared to just five years ago, the footprint that ultrarunning lies down behind it as it moves forward is larger than ever before.
I think most everything that could be talked about in relation to the growth of ultrarunning has been talked about (I personally plead guilty for having talked about virtually everything imaginable influenced by this growth.), but there is one thing that I haven’t heard any mention of (I’m sure it’s been mentioned, I just haven’t heard it.). Namely the effect that the new breed of runner coming to the sport will have on its future, and especially the future of events in the sport.
Ultrarunning is not just growing with more of the same people coming into the sport, it’s growing with a whole different type of “runner.” Obviously there are exceptions to these observations, but by and large I think that people are coming to the sport from a much wider spectrum of the population. Not that all ultrarunners were ever the same, but more than ever before I think there is no such thing as the typical ultrarunner. I think there are more high-level road runners coming into trail ultrarunning than ever before, and at the same time I think there are more people who have never run competitively in their life jumping on board as well. Two groups from very opposite ends of the spectrum, both very much a part of the recent, rapid growth.
I’ve written in the past about my belief that ultrarunning is in need of some more variety within its events, and I think it is this reality that so many new types of runners are becoming prominent in the sport that will make this happen at a rapid rate in the next few years. Currently any events that don’t fit into a certain mold are more or less obscure. Your race isn’t a 50k, 50-mile, 100k, or 100-mile: it’s pretty much obscure. Your race doesn’t have aid stations every five to 10 miles: it’s pretty much obscure. Your race doesn’t start sometime between 5 and 7 am on a Saturday morning: it’s pretty much obscure. You get the point: essentially people who have wanted popular, high-profile events have had to fit within this wide array of unwritten rules. Generally the only events that don’t fit into these standards have done so because they want to be obscure. This is where the important shift is beginning, and I think is going to continue to occur. Over the next several years I think these “obscure” events are going to start to become some of the more popular events in the sport.
Why would this happen, and why now? It goes back to the reality that not only is the sport growing, but in doing so it is bringing some very different people along with it. I think the current events do and will continue to accommodate the rapid growth among the fast road-running crowd quite nicely, as that seems to be what they were generally molded after in the first place (exact distances – something that actually makes sense if running on roads – plentiful aid stations, well-marked/well-defined trails, etc). The other demographic I mentioned above, though, this is from where I see the change coming.
From my observations there are countless people pouring into the sport who have never raced before, even many who have never run before. More and more people are skipping right over all other types of running and going straight to trail ultrarunning. Whether they’re like the guy I met this past weekend who got into running as a way to train to be a more fit climber/mountaineer, or whether they simply got into it because it seems like everyone else is doing it (Because let’s face it, this is how so many of us get into so many of the things we do.), they’re a new type of ultrarunner. A type that is perhaps more content to simply be out in the mountains for several hours at a time, and running just happens to be the most efficient way to do this. A type that doesn’t own a watch or a heart-rate monitor, and wouldn’t know how to use it if they did. A type that doesn’t know what their “PR” is – at any distance.
One amazing thing about this demographic is they aren’t, as you might expect, just middle and back-of-the-pack runners. Nearly every race nowadays it seems like there is some new runner in the top five or 10 that no one has ever heard of. In many cases these are fast road runners making the transition to trails, but in many other cases they are climbers, skiers, bikers, mountaineers, surfers, or adventure racers. In other words, they are athletes. Not runners necessarily, but simply athletes who have recently discovered that they are good trail runners. As this “new breed” becomes more and more entrenched in trail running it is their demands that will start to shape the events that are considered “popular” within the sport.
Any change like this is a slow process, and certainly I don’t see any of the current “popular” events dying off soon (After all, there is also growth within the more traditional demographic of the sport.), but I do envision several previously obscure events, as well as new events that don’t fit the standard mold, becoming quite popular in the next several years. I think this new breed is a bit more adventurous, a bit more curious, and a bit more willing to take risks (You could also say a bit more naïve.) than the traditional trail runner. I think in the next few years we’ll start to see a lot more events that are also a bit more adventurous and a bit more willing to take risks begin to rise more to the forefront of the sport than ever before. To me this is all a good thing, as I think this kind of variety will only make the sport of trail running even more appealing and more dynamic than it already is.