Happy Place

Is the growth of ultrarunning slowing and, if so, what will be the effect?

By on February 12, 2014 | 14 comments

Ultrarunning, and more specifically trail ultrarunning, has been growing at a very rapid rate in the past several years. This is an undeniable fact that has been well documented on this website, as well as many other places. The sport is thriving like never before with impressive, top-level competition, as well as seemingly dozens of first-time ultrarunners finishing nearly every race. In this sense, I think it is fair to say that the past decade has been bringing in a ‘modern era’ of ultrarunning that is distinguishable and impossible to ignore. The look and the feel of the sport is simply a lot different than it was 10 years ago.

There are simple numbers you can look at that support this claim. It took until 2007 for there to be 25,000 annual finishes in ultra races in the United States. In just the seven years since 2007, though, this number has nearly tripled! It took 30-plus years to get to these 25,000 annual finishes, and less than four to get the next 25,000! It’s also easy to look at results of some of the oldest and most established races in the sport to see that the top-level performances are greater today than they have ever been. It’s nearly impossible to find any race whose course record was set before 2004 (major course changes not withstanding).

I think this kind of growth and development in the sport has been for the most part a positive thing. An ultrarunner today has so many more races and so many more types of races to choose from than ever before. A top-level runner can seek out at least a half-dozen races a year that will be guaranteed to bring in several other top-level runners. A middle-of-the-pack runner who doesn’t care about the top-level competition can find several dozen races to choose from that will almost certainly not have a single top-level runner on the starting line. Sure, there have been some growing pains, but in so many ways, ultrarunning is a more vibrant, more colorful, and more satisfying sport to be a part of today than ever before (in my opinion).

The question then becomes, how long will the sport continue to grow in this way, and what will it look like going forward after several more years of growth? In fact, though, I believe the rapid-growth phase I’m talking about here has already begun to come to an end. Certainly the sport is still growing, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, but if you look close you can start to see some slowing in this growth. Subsequently, I think that the sport has evolved to accommodate this growth such that in just the past year or two it has settled into a place that is much more stable and sustainable than it was three or four years ago.

There are also some simple numbers to support this claim. In going back to the overall finishes that I referenced above, I pointed out that the sport has nearly tripled in number of finishes in the past seven years, but it’s interesting to note that the growth by percentage from 2012 to 2013 was just 9.5%. This was about half of the average annual growth in these seven years, and about a third of the 28.2% growth that occurred during the fastest growing year (2009 to 2010). Unfortunately, I can’t find similar data for the number of ultra races in the United States, but, anecdotally, I feel like the same trend has likely occurred. Certainly there are still dozens of new races coming out each year, but it certainly feels like this trend has also slowed just a bit in the past year or so (would be great if anyone knows these numbers).

Another area where I believe you can see an example of a slight slowing in the growth and evolve-ment of the sport is through looking at top-level performances. 2013 was another year of amazing performances by so many capable runners, but it certainly was not the kind of onslaught of old-standing records that we’ve seen so much of over the past five-plus years. In races in the United States in 2013, there were only a total of three course records set in 100-mile races that have been around for more than five years (two women’s and one men’s). I don’t have the total numbers on this from past years, but off the top of my mind I can go back to any year between 2005 and 2012 and think of more than three for each year. Certainly I’m not saying that I think the top-level runners aren’t running at as high of a level now as they were a few years ago, but, instead, that many of these records have been lowered in the past several years to a much faster level than they were a decade ago, making it much harder now to set a course record in an old-standing race than it was just four or five years ago. The examples of ‘soft’ course records in races that have been around for 10 or more years are few and far between now. Is someone going to break a course record at HURT, Rocky Raccoon, Bighorn, Western States, Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch, or Bear this year (to name a few prominent examples)? Possible, but a lot less likely than was the case between 2005 and 2012 when each of these courses best times on the men’s side were lowered by huge margins. On one hand, there just isn’t as much room for improvement in many of these races now as there was just a few years ago, but there is also the reality that the number of new participants coming to the sport is almost certainly slowing down. As this occurs, we will almost certainly see a decrease in the number of course records being set (as we appeared to see in 2013).

Certainly there is more to the sport than 100 milers, and there were several prominent and impressive course records set in 2013 in ‘shorter’ races, but even in the shorter distances it’s looking more and more like things are leveling off. It’s slightly harder to gauge at the shorter distances because there seem to be fewer sub-100-mile races that have been around for several years and still have the same courses. Or perhaps the courses change just as much in the hundreds, but a slight tweak here and there doesn’t change the outcome of a 100 miler quite the way it does for a shorter race.

At any rate, at the sub-100-mile distance, I think it’s telling to look at what has happened the past several years at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship, arguably the most competitive race in the country. For the first five years of this event, there was a steady drop of about 10 minutes for the men’s winning time. (2010 was the only exception, but the course that year was about 1.5 miles longer than all other years, and it was a very muddy day. Without these variables, the winning time that day would have almost certainly fit nicely into this trend). Then came the 2012 race in which poor weather forced a major, last-minute change to the course, and so by the time the 2013 race rolled around, it had been two full years since anyone had raced this course. What would we then see? Had the level of these top runners continued to progress so much that it would take a six-hour time to win it, even though the previous best time was 6:19? Not to say that no one will or could ever run 6:00 on that course, but, instead,what we saw back in December was Rob Krar win the race with a time about two minutes slower than Mike Wolfe had won it with two years prior. The course there has always changed ever so slightly from year to year, but Rob and Mike essentially ran the same course. For the first time in the seven years since this event started, the bar seems to have been raised so high, and the growth of the sport seems to have simmered enough that we see a bit of a leveling off in terms of what it takes to win the race. This is just one example, from one race, but being that nearly every top runner in the sport runs this race each year, it’s certainly an interesting observation.

Certainly none of this is to say that the sport has stopped growing, and that it’s not going to evolve continually in the years to come, and that there aren’t faster and faster runners coming into the sport who are continuing to push the boundaries of human potential toward new and amazing course records, but I do believe that the growth and evolution of the sport has very definitely begun to slow down, and I think this will bring the sport into an even more solid, stable, and vibrant place than what it already is.

For a few years things were changing so quickly that it was hard to even tell what was going on. It is still at times, due to constant change, a hard sport and culture to understand, but in my mind, I feel like it’s become a little more predictable than it was a few years ago. It is still evolving more than enough to keep things interesting, but it also seems to have found a happy, stable place so that for the first time in several years, it’s a little easier to see where the sport is at, and where it is going. For the first time in the past decade I think we can stop asking, what is all this change going to lead to, and what is this new ‘modern era’ of ultrarunning going to look like? I think we have arrived at this era, and if we want to see where ultrarunning is at, and where it’s largely going to be for the next several years, we only need look in the mirror. Luckily the reflection is of a vibrant, sustainable, and healthy sport. Tragedy narrowly averted.

[Editor’s Note: Geoff used the January/February 2014 issue of UltraRunning Magazine as well as UltraSignup to tabulate his data.]

 Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you agree with Geoff’s thesis that the sport’s growth might be leveling off? That perhaps the 2014 growth numbers will be similar to 2013’s, and significantly less than the years prior?
  • What kinds of changes are you noticing on the level of your local ultrarunning community? Do you think the anecdotes of your local community mirror trends of the community as a national and/or international whole?
Geoff Roes
has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.