How Things Have Changed Over These Past 100 Articles

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?

There are 6 comments

  1. Tropical John

    Fascinating analysis Geoff. Women’s participation is slowly but steadily growing, it was 32% last year up from 28% five years ago. But that still means that there were a bit more than twice as many men as women running ultras. Overall participation is starting to flatten out after explosive growth for a decade. But perhaps the most significant thing to me is that our sport has become much more mainstream and this attracts more and more runners with a high level of talent.

    Highly competitive races are still the exception though. In the US only Western States, The North Face 50 and Lake Sonoma had more than a handful of elite runners. Internationally, there were several others like UTMB and the World 100K championships. I expect most voters focused on these races, where a lot of the top runners were competing head to head.

  2. Martin Thorne

    I find it sad to continue to read and hear about elites (David Laney- Ultra Runner Podcast, etc) in our sport who have to choose to live in their vehicle to be able to save to afford go to to oversea races. It is hard to understand how we can have billion dollar companies and brands that enjoy our business but they are unwilling to provide a living wage for the top 5% of our athletes. If each of the major brands (Nike, North Face, Hoka, Gu, Clif Bar, Etc) that enjoy the brand building of Ultra Running would give back just 1% of their net sales or profits, we could afford to drug test the top 5 winners (both sexes) at majors and provide a living wage so that they would not have to make decisions that affect their comfort and food choices on a daily basis. I would like Nike to give just 5% of the money to Ultra Running they invest with their track and marathon horses.

    Until Ultra Running elites can focus on training, Ultra Running will stay a small niche hobby for trail runners. Sponsor companies should do more for their athletes than give them free gear and a very small budget to enter races. The large companies are enjoying a lot of exposure for what they are giving back to the sport and their runners.

    1. Mathieu Boucher

      Our sport is niche as so is the market for major brands in the field of ultra running. I don’t blame companies who are actually quite supportive of a lot of races, who without them probably wouldn’t be in business. I don’t have exact numbers but the support given to athletes has got to be limited by the money they make.

      May it also stay that way, the day races are extremely unlikely to be won by non-elites, I will lose interest in the sport. A lot of people are pushing for a less elite-minded focus for ultra running and sharing sponsorships to more instead of a select few is a way to do that I believe.

    2. Brian

      For the record, Nike makes 13-14% operating profit before tax, 10% after tax. And that is on all of the gear, shoes, clothing it sells across all sports (basketball, baseball, running, etc). The amount of the company’s sales and profits from ultra-running is a tiny fraction of that. It is not realistic for a company to spend an additional 1% of sales. This is just to add some perspective on what is realistic for companies to invest in the sport of ultra-running. There are huge ramifications for a company like Nike to have a drop in margins in the order of 7-10%.

  3. Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs

    In the 11 years I have been participating in the sport it has gotten much harder to get into desirable races as they have mostly moved to lotteries. It seems to me that it would be much more difficult for talented newcomers or those not already sponsored (filling reserved race spots) to even get into these more competitive races and get recognized as an “elite” in the first place.

  4. Markus Mueller

    Has ultrarunning changed? I would like to think that it has changed not much. 30 years ago there were no books about ultrarunning and the internet wasn’t really invented yet. Sure there are way more races then 5 or 15 years ago. There is a little more hub, hub about the “elite” runners today and a lot call themselves professional runners but I would really like to see their tax income statement to understand if they can actually live a normal lifestyle just from their running related activities.

    Ultrarunning is a niche sport and that probably will never change. There is no money to be made from fans and media coverage like soccer or football. Sportswear companies make their money selling “athletic” fashion products to everyone. Selling a couple pairs of running shoes to ultrarunners is just a tiny sidekick, probably not even visible in the yearly company report

    Around 2000 I think there were 23 100 milers in North America. Now there are around 140. A lot of them just got started in the last couple of years. There is definitely more hub, hub about ultrarunning. Outdoor wear and running shoe companies have discovered that interesting niche market and created a lot of products and running teams.

    According to there a 141 100 milers in North America and I find it kind of sad that a lot of runners “need” to get into Western States or Leadville. The huge demand exists only for a couple of 100 milers. For the most part you can get into most races if you commit yourself and sign up early.
    The US is a big county so getting all the best ultrarunners into one race will be probably impossible unless you offered huge prizemoney and travel allowances. This probably will never happen. Even the IAU International Association of ultrarunning has problems to find host for their World Championships events.

    I think the real dilemma is that trail races are very unique events and you can’t compare any results which each other. Not even from the same event, since trail conditions might be quite different from one year to the next. Also most events have participation caps from the Forest Service or BLM, so with all these lotteries in place you will never have a real competitive running field.

    The solution would be certified road ultras for the 100k, 100 mile and 24 hours. But that ain’t gonna happen in a country that has 90% of trail ultrarunners.

    For my part as a normal ultrarunner that all does not matter much. There will be always races I am able to enter without jumping to several hoops. And I will always enjoy the low key approach of our sport.

  5. Aaron

    Costs have gone up a lot. Where once I might have registered to run (not race mind you), I find myself thinking that I’m better off keeping that $150 to $200 in my pocket and doing my own thing. I can still find cheaper camping and registration fees with the Minnesota Voyageur 50. But that’s pretty much it for my part of the world outside of the few remaining fat ass runs. I mostly see the sport now as a venue for sponsored racers and people with lots of disposable income.

    Established trail routes and independent or small group efforts, not unlike brevet rides in randonneuring circles, seems to be the better way forward for recreational runners.

      1. Meghan Hicks

        Olga, FYI, we were having problems with the plug-in we were using for our comments feature, Intense Debate. We’ve shut off the plug-in for a while until we have a chance to sort out the issue. So we’re back to old-style commenting for now. Thanks for leaving yours! :)

        1. Olga

          Gotcha! I thought it was for us to stop being lazy utilizing “like” instead of participating in a debate:) Hey, it worked for me!

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