This marks my 100th column for iRunFar. I have contributed an article every other Wednesday for nearly four years. It is hard to imagine writing 100 articles about long-distance running. At some point there has to be a limit to new ideas and perspectives that can come out of something so specific. There are times when it is hard to come up with ‘new’ ideas. However, it’s a reality that not only have I changed, but also the sports of mountain, ultra, and trail running have changed so much in this time that there are always new topics and ideas worth exploring.
I have written recently about ways in which I have changed as a runner in the last few years, but it’s been quite some time since I’ve explored ways in which the sport has changed. Thinking back to where things were when I began writing for this website, it is quite clear that the sport has, indeed, transformed. When I also consider the results of the recently announced UltraRunning magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year voting, as well as the discussions taking place around that voting (including on iRunFar in the form of another great contribution by John Medinger), it’s natural to make some observations about where things are now as compared to where they were when I began writing these bi-weekly articles in March of 2012.
One of the most prominent changes in this time is just how much deeper the top levels of the sport have become. I see this trend both within the number of top-level races as well as in the number of top runners competing in these races. This combined with a much higher rate of participation in international events by American runners has significantly changed the landscape of the top levels of the sport. There still seem to be a few events that carry a significant amount more weight than all others (none seemingly more so than Western States and UTMB), but beyond this it seems as though there are now so many top-level races and so many top-level runners that what it means to be top level has, in fact, changed. Four years ago there seemed to be at most a dozen top-level races and a dozen top-level runners who were generally placing in the top-few places at these races. Today it seems that these numbers have ballooned to at least a few dozen.
Consider that in the 2015 men’s UROY results, the top-five finishers won a total of nine of the 25 races they took part in. I unfortunately don’t have and have been unable to track down all of the historical UROY voting results, but my guess would be that this is almost certainly the lowest number of total wins for the top-five male finishers in the 35-year history of this award. I do know that in 2013 the top five won a total of 19 races, and I also know that in 2011 I won five races and didn’t even finish in the top 10 of the voting. Last year might certainly be a one-year anomaly in this regard, but it’s one I’d like to consider.
It might stand to reason that, as it’s become more difficult to win races, there would be more of a value put on winning races, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are also significantly more total races now than there were four years ago (not just more top-level races). In this sense, it might actually be just as easy as ever to win any race, but much harder than ever before to win one of the few dozen most competitive races. Something that illustrates this point is that the sixth- through 10th-place male finishers in the 2015 UROY voting actually won 16 races, nearly double the amount of the top five! It, thus, seems to have become more challenging, and thus more highly regarded, to finish in the top 10 at Western States or UTMB, or in the top three at a few dozen other top races than it might be to win a handful of lower-level races.
There is certainly no reason that it shouldn’t be this way. It is always the case that more depth in the top levels of any sport makes it harder for any one individual to win as many top races. It also, then, only makes sense for a second-place (or lower) finish in a top-level race to carry more weight than it once did.
I do think it is worth noting that these trends are somewhat exclusive to the men’s side. Things on the women’s side currently are much more similar to where things were on the men’s side four-plus years ago. The women’s sport has grown and developed as much or more as the men’s in this time, but it started from a place of so much less total participation that it certainly still lags behind in these regards. I think this in large part due to the fact that every ultra race I’ve ever heard of allows both male and female participation. The amount of races available to women is just as high as it is to men, but significantly more men currently participate in the sport. In this sense, many of the changing dynamics that I am referencing above aren’t yet playing out to the same degree on the women’s side of things. For example, the top-five women in the 2015 UROY won 16 of the combined 25 races they ran, numbers much more similar to where the men were three to five years ago. My guess is that the dynamics on the women’s side will be very similar in a few years to where they are on the men’s side now.
What, then, to make of any of this? Are any of these trends helpful in understanding where the sport may go from here?
I think most of these observations are simply fun things to ponder and that, at the end of the day, don’t really mean that much to the typical runner. I do, however, think there are changes that have occurred since I first began writing for iRunFar that have had an effect on all participants, and not just those competing at the top levels. I think there has been much worry and fear in the past five-plus years that new waves of sponsorship, prize money, and wider participation by higher-level athletes will ruin the traditional grassroots culture of ultrarunning. I do sympathize to some degree with people who feel that this is happening, or has already happened. There are many races that are simply not as low key and laid back as they used to be. Doping seems to be gradually becoming more and more of a relevant concern in ultrarunning. Getting entry into certain races has become nearly impossible.
In the time that all of this has happened, though, there has also been an even larger growth in the laid-back, grassroots aspects of the sport. There are not just more top-level races than ever before, but there are also more races that ‘no one’ has ever heard of. There are so many of these events nowadays that you will rarely have to wait more than a week or two before there will be another one in your area that ‘no one’ will have ever heard of anyone running. On the flip side, if you do take an interest in the high-profile athletes and events within the sport, there are so many of both of them nowadays that you will rarely have more than a few weeks’ gap between a high-profile event that is run by several high-profile runners.
Four years and 100 articles after I first began writing for iRunFar, it’s still a great time to be a part of this sport, no matter your interests, and I don’t really see any of this changing drastically anytime soon.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- How long have you been trail running? What changes have you anecdotally observed and/or experienced in your time in the sport?
- How does geography and sociology affect the changes occurring within our sport? That is, are there certain areas–defined by place or population or both–in which change to the sport is happening faster or slower or just plain differently?
- Change is one of the most persistently philosophized-upon concepts in human history. Though change is a normal part of human existence, why do you think our species spends so much time considering it?