Evolve Or Die

I have found myself wondering recently if ultrarunning has become a fad that will at some point in the future decline into obscurity? The popularity of any activity ebbs and flows over time, and without question there is going to come a time when ultrarunning isn’t nearly as popular as it is today. Whether this will ever happen is not at the heart of my question, but rather my curiosity lies in what the time frame of this unavoidable decline will prove to be? Will it burn out and ‘disappear overnight’ in true, fad-like fashion (think aerobics in the ‘80s), or will it continue to find ways to reinvent itself and endure over time such that it will still exist as a relatively common activity 30 or 40-plus years from now (think downhill skiing)?

The challenging thing about becoming a fad is that often when things turn in the other direction they take everything down with them, even the aspects of that particular entity that existed long before it became trendy. There are certainly many fad like aspects to the sport of ultrarunning today. Over the past five years it has become a trendy, somewhat mainstream, and ‘cool’ thing to do. Much of this stems from the reality that ultrarunning is a worthwhile, satisfying, and typically healthy thing to partake in; but certainly some of it stems from some inexplicable cultural patterns that I (and probably most people) fail to understand. Sometimes pop culture just happens without anyone really knowing way.

Maybe I’m going a bit overboard referring to ultrarunning as a trendy part of pop culture, but it certainly has gained a level of mainstream awareness, participation, and popularity in the past few years that simply did not exist for the previous 95% of the history of the modern version of the sport. The question then becomes, will ultrarunning find a way to maintain its vitality for years to come, even once it has lost its ‘cool’ status, or will it become virtually obsolete like so many other popular trends? I think this question will ultimately be answered by how much ultrarunning is able to reinvent itself in the next few years.

Modern ultrarunning has been around for well over 40 years and has a rich history and precedent to fall back on. It’s easy to want things within the sport/culture to stay more or less the same as they have always been. Ultrarunning has long been a sport that the vast majority of participants find great pleasure and satisfaction in. It seems reasonable to assume that nothing needs to change for this to continue to be the case. The problem is that the sport has exploded so much in popularity recently that I don’t think it is any longer possible to simply fall back on keeping things the way they have always been. What has worked for a few thousand participants will not likely work for hundreds of thousands of them, especially considering how much more diverse in age, nationality, and socioeconomic standing the population of ultrarunners has become.

The vast majority of people who have ever finished an ultramarathon have done so in the last decade. It’s now quite likely that more ultra races occur worldwide in a typical month than what occurred in the first three decades of the sport combined. If you think about this for a moment it seems pretty illogical and impossible to expect the sport to remain the same as it has always been. If it does so, it will almost certainly lose popularity as quickly as it has recently gained it.

Many folks may see this eventual loss of popularity as a good thing, but for those who want to see the sport continue to evolve, thrive, and develop in character and substance I think we must expect and demand athletes and events to take a progressive approach, and change in ways that will help the sport maintain a vibrant level of participation.

Certainly I get the point about not wanting to lose many of the good things that this sport and culture has developed over the years, but when you have something that has been around for more than four decades that suddenly multiplies in popularity by 1,000% or more, it’s not logical to expect the sport to continue to thrive by simply keeping things the same as they have always been. As much as we may want them to, popular trends just don’t happen in this way. Huge waves in popularity tend to have more clout than the activity that preceded the fad, such that when the trendiness wears off, the activity is often left in a less vital and sustainable place than where it started. Even if we do not like that ultrarunning is suddenly trendy, if we don’t accept that this is the case, then we may live to see a day when ultrarunning is essentially a non-existent sport.

What this all points to in my mind is a need to think more for ourselves and with less of a copycat approach. I think ultrarunning has always been somewhat of a copycat culture, but I think the prevalence of the internet has caused it to be even much more so in the past 15 years. Nearly all races seem to be very similar to other, older races. It’s rare to find athletes, ideas, or events that seem to truly be doing their own thing. This has worked well for a long time. There have been some high-quality events and athletes that have been closely mimicked by hundreds of other events and athletes. This has allowed for a long, slow, steady development of the sport. Now though, there are so many new people from so many different backgrounds who are a part of this culture that the sport is developing much more of a demand for variety and a quicker, more pronounced evolution than ever before. This isn’t to say that I think we need to abandon history and change everything about the sport of ultrarunning, but without being open to new ideas and approaches, ultrarunning will almost certainly become a fad that is essentially forgotten in five or 10 years by nearly everyone who has come to the sport in recent times.

Again, I think there are many people who would welcome this trajectory, but the problem with this is that if ultrarunning doesn’t change to be more representative of all the different people who are now a part of the sport it will quickly lose most of its new participants as it stops being a hip thing to do. You are then left primarily with a bunch of old timers who aren’t getting any younger, and are less and less likely to be introducing the sport to more than a very small handful of new people. After another decade or two (or less) the last holdouts are gone and you end up with an entire sport which has essentially become a thing of the past. This might all sound a bit overdramatic and unlikely to occur, but this has happened with numerous other things in modern pop culture, and could certainly happen with ultrarunning over the next several years.

In some ways I am implying that it is a bit of a curse to become ‘trendy,’ but if not responded to in the right way, the ebbing of any fad will bring most everything else down with it. In my opinion it is better to change with the times than to stubbornly refuse to do anything (and end up with nothing) because you miss the way things used to be.

Personally I hope there are enough truly innovative and unique individuals and events to allow the sport to reinvent itself and evolve in a way that is able to draw new young participants for decades to come. I think there is a decent chance there are, but currently I think the mindset of many people in the sport is focused so much on trying to keep things the way they have always been that it will be very hard for this evolution to occur in time to keep significant numbers of new people excited about ultrarunning.

Perhaps this is all for the better. Perhaps it’s just not possible for ultrarunning to thrive as a somewhat more mainstream sport, but I do think it’s entirely possible for it to continue to grow in quality, satisfaction, and vitality, even when it stops being such a trendy thing. I think it only needs enough people to take new and fresh approaches.

The copycat nature of this culture has worked great for a few decades of slow, steady growth, but the explosion of popularity that has occurred more recently has completely changed things. If this same, copycat approach remains the norm for even a few more years I’m not sure this sport will make it through the next 15 or 20 years.

Within ultrarunning today I think there is an excess of followers and a shortage of leaders. I think a lot of this has been caused by social media. It’s really easy through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to follow what anyone is doing, even people we have never met. It becomes easy to fall into the mindset of being a follower, and much harder to be a leader, or even to just do our own thing. There’s nothing wrong with this on an individual basis, and I even think there can be some value in this, but I think this dynamic has created a bit of a stagnant culture that needs more independence and less copying. We can all do our small part by being a little less prone to copying so much of what other runners are doing. Furthermore, our races don’t all need to copy the format of the original races, or of any existing race.

There is a lot that needs to be done in this regard, but I am optimistic though. I think there are a handful of very innovative events, ideas, and individuals within the sport right now. I just think we need a lot more of this. I think we all need to be more eager to try new things, and to blaze our own paths. The existence of our sport may depend on it.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think of Geoff’s argument that ultrarunning will have to eventually deal with being on the downside of being trendy? Do you think we face that in our future?
  • What are some examples of truly innovative aspects of the global ultrarunning culture? Who is marching to the beat of their own drum out there?