My Thoughts on the Growth of Ultrarunning, Media Exposure, and the American Dream

Recent discussions and comments on iRunFar have led me to reflect a bit on where we are and where are going as a sport, and, perhaps, as a culture. And, as one of the “editorial voices” here, I feel compelled to comment. But, before I do, please know that these remarks are entirely mine. With the exception of the usual proofreading eye that Meghan and Bryon lend to my weekly posts, everything written here is mine and mine alone. Think of this as just one guy’s ruminations on a fast-growing sport looking to find its way in the world.

Many of us look back fondly on the good old days of running and I admit, as an experienced ultrarunner, I am one of those guys. But, I also know that those days are the “old days” for a reason and we’ve clearly moved on from Montrail Vitesses and Gookinaid. Ultramarathon running is now a legitimate, mainstream sport with fully professional athletes, companies with large marketing budgets to promote the brand and the lifestyle, and global events that are followed eagerly around the world. The sport has grown quickly and along with that growth have come, well, growing pains. Let’s look at a few examples:

Several years ago, San Francisco’s Dean Karnazes was brutally scrutinized for “commercializing” the sport through the publication of his books, his 50 Marathons in 50 Days effort, and his aggressive promotion of The North Face ultras. And, say what you want about Dean, his efforts brought thousands out to the trails and mountains, many for the first time, to enjoy running in ways they never thought they could, or even should. His charisma and energy were contagious and gave regular folks permission to get out there.

Next, after winning the Western States 100 a record seven times, the legendary Scott Jurek appeared prominently in a bestselling book about a mysterious running tribe in rural Mexico and then went on to publish his own bestselling book about, of all things, eating and running! Jurek’s Zen-like attitude had tremendous appeal in the midst of the dot-com boom yet some belittled Jurek for capitalizing on his fame to promote an alternative lifestyle. Whatever your position, however, there is no denying the powerful impact of both Born to Run and Eat and Run on the collective psyche of the running public.

Then, working on a shoestring budget with no clear goal in mind, Reno filmmaker JB Benna produced a remarkable little film chronicling the 2010 Western States which featured the battle between eventual winner Geoff Roes, iconic Catalan mountain runner Kilian Jornet, and the enigmatic and enormously talented Colorado ultrarunner Anton Krupicka. The film thrust the race into the global spotlight and all three runners became celebrities in their own right, perhaps none more thoroughly than Krupicka. His look, his lifestyle, his intellect, they captured the imagination of a global public looking for a hero. Like it or not, atop windswept Colorado peaks, Krupicka appears heroic and living a nomadic lifestyle out of the back of his truck has inspired thousands of desk jockeys to dream of a different life.

Undoubtedly, Karnazes, Jurek, and Krupicka all share a love of running. They share a deep passion for the outdoors and, for some reason, with entirely different temperaments and significantly unique personalities, these three men have inspired a generation and fueled the growth of one of the most quirky, bewildering, challenging, and fantastic sports in the world.

Along the way one guy has been on hand to chronicle it all. After leaving his Washington, DC law practice in 2009, selling his house, driving across the country in his Prius, and settling into a doublewide in California (and now Park City, Utah), Bryon Powell slowly transformed his personal running blog into iRunFar. At first, the website was a fledgling attempt at an online publication to provide a venue for race reporting, gear reviews, and reflections on “Mud, Mountains, Miles, and More.” Just as Karnazes, Jurek, and Krupicka followed their dreams in the process of making their passion their profession, Powell did the same thing in leaving the comfort of his comfortable DC lifestyle for the uncharted world of online journalism and covering a sport that, quite frankly, did not know how to grow.

What is it, many have asked, that makes iRunFar so compelling?

I suggest it is the same thing that makes the worlds inhabited by Karnazes, Jurek and Krupicka so provocative. It’s that unknown, mysterious realm of possibility and wonder. A place with few rules and almost no guidelines. Just as Anton doesn’t always know what line he plans to climb as he conquers his next 14er, neither does Bryon necessarily know the next twist in the iRunFar road. However, what these guys both know, and what countless other American dreamers who came before them knew, is that anything worth dreaming is worth doing. Here’s hoping that they both keep doing just that!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Green Man Brewery in Asheville, NC. I was down there last weekend and picked up a six-pack of the Green Man IPA. Sessionable at 6% and 63 IBUs, it has a touch of citrusy sweetness that makes it wonderful on a sultry summer’s day!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Certain events and people are, indeed, turning points in the evolution of our sport. AJW’s examples (except for Scott Jurek’s first win at Western States) have all taken place in the 21st century, now going on 13 years where our sport has exploded in popularity as compared to the previous century. If we look even further into our sport’s history, are there other runners and events that you think have contributed to creating the sport we call trail and ultrarunning today?

Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (108)

  • The best Friday column yet, thanks.

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  • Globalization, Internetization, MediaNation, IncomeSensation, Marketization, BrandVacation, SponsorInflation, Commercialization....the list goes on and on.

    Love it or Hate it, doesn't matter, just gotta roll with it, and keep runnin'. Sometimes it's fun to run alone, sometimes with a few others, sometimes in a UTMB/Boston Marathon type atmosphere. It's all good. Only thing that's bad: Polarization...narrowness of viewpoints....it's all good.

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  • Excellent post! It's the nature of any sport. In 1950 gymnasts could stop and sit on one of the uneven bars in their routine to rest with no deduction. You could hand time down Hill Skiing. But now if your pinkie slips off or your 3/100's back you lose the gold.

    I could go climbing in Joshua tee and not have to get up at the ass crack of dawn to climb "Walk on the wild side" before lunch. Now forget it, don't even try on the weekend. I guess I should be mad at every climbing book and climbing movie, climbing gym for ruining it, But I'm not. I love it. I love to see more people enjoying nature and connecting with mother earth. (plus that sucker is runnnnn out, so now I have a good excuse to go for a run and not climb it.. "Dude it will be packed, lets skip it :)"

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  • Not sure exactly his role, but Eric Clifton has to be given some mention for the fashion sense of ultra runners!

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  • Didn't mean to post anonymously.

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  • Thanks AJW. Write on! My thoughts: running is free... the roads and trails are there for you, whether you were selected in the lottery or not. And, thank you Byron for iRunFar. Your work is a great gift to us.

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  • A not-directly-racer-related turning point: Greg Vollet.

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    • If we look to Greg Vollet, then we must also look at his predecessor in trail running marketing at Salomon, Jean-Yves Couput. JYC was much more behind the scenes, but he was directing things when Salomon moved into producing high quality trail running video vignettes a la Kilian's Quest. Arguably, other than Born to Run no other extrinsic factor (i.e., not the joy of running itself) has contributed to the growth of trail running and ultrarunning over the past five years than Salomon's and, now, others great trail running videos. His vision and inspiration go the movies, but they're the most concrete examples of his gift to the trail running community.

      Although "behind the scenes," JYC was heavily involved personally. When Kilian's Quest kicked off on the Tahoe Rim Trail in September 2009, JYC was there, for hours on end, lending support and mountain biking behind Kilian with a GoPro strapped to the handlebars. Furthermore, without his inspiration and support, I'm not sure that iRunFar would be here today.

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  • Great piece AJW. It is amazing at the development of the sport. There are now signature lines from UD, Salomon, Buff, etc.. With that being said, all of this "publicity" has done wonders for the sport such as better gear, more races, and of course, more blogs to read.

    Now the shoe and gear companies as getting into it. Just look at all the Salomon vinettes and now the New Balance ones. I know I look forward to when they come out.

    It is a shame that Dean took the brunt of the criticizm a few years back especially since some of those that were his harshest critics have gone on to do similar things.

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    • Steve, thanks for the comment. On your last point, as someone who knows Dean pretty well I can assure you he took the criticism in stride. He's a pretty thick-skinned guy (as all 10-day Western States bucklers are:)

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  • Well said Andy. It does seems like DK's Ultramarathon Man, Born To Run, and Unbreakable are the 3 major "events" that have opened the eyes of many a newbie and shaped the course of this sport the most.

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  • Ultras are very unique in the way they are learned and followed. It's not like mainstream sports where our dad's bring us to a game as a young person (some children get brought to ultra's now though!). For me, after reading Dean's book Ultramarathon Man, I found Anton's blog and was captivated by the sport. Ultra runners' blogs in general have had a profound impact on the sport. Bryon has also revolutionized the way we "live follow" races and he has done a tremendous job at keeping the sport as authentic as it ever is.

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  • it would have been more dramatic if you had written Bryon left D.C. in his Ford pickup rather than his Prius, but at least he did leave, good move Bryon.

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  • Amazing post - thanks!

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  • The first ultra book I read was Dean's "Ultramarathon Man". It wasn't the reason that I ran my first ultra, but it was the first book I read about ultra running.

    I was actually tricked into running my first ultra. I accepted an invitation to be on a relay team for Cody's Crew (a charity foundation for fighting Neuroblastoma) and run 17 miles over 24 hours. No problem I thought. I can handle that. Then at the pre-race dinner it was decided that we would all run 50 miles. I swallowed hook, line and sinker.

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  • Great observations, which I'm sure reflect the thoughts of many!

    I'd add that as the ultra community grows it's also important to consider the environmental impact of the sport. While many current runners live in rural areas and are actively involved with conservation, runners from other parts of the country becoming involved in the sport may not be as knowledgeable.

    Travel to races, for example, has a substantial environmental impact:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/sunday-review/t...
    Races attracting lots of out-of-state participants could either suggest or require anyone traveling by air purchase offsetting carbon credits.

    iRunFar could build the site, encourage community, and discourage air travel by adding local coverage sections for different regions. While smaller races don't need live coverage, readers might appreciate regional contributors. The current format (not a criticism of the excellent work by Byron & co!) is definitely western-centric and I think perpetuates the idea that "real" trail runners should be flying to Colorado, Utah, or California for races.

    WS100 has a service requirement, more races could partner with parks, the Sierra Club, or other organizations to support either trails or other ecological efforts.

    As the community grows, it's important to ensure trail running continues to be a sustainable and responsible way to enjoy nature. This growth is also an opportunity for the existing community to engage others in maintaining our natural resources.

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    • Your comments are very interesting and make me wonder why people in other regions of the US besides the mountain west haven't started their own versions of irunfar. Yes, irunfar could have regional sections, but why haven't more inspired easterners/midwesterners/southerners/etc started their own enterprises?

      About your "real trail runners comment": I used to live in Western PA surrounded by great trails, but I rarely saw people running them. When I did happen upon another trail runner you'd just give high fives because it was so rare to encounter someone else in the sport. Races were fun, but much less competitive. Then my husband and I moved to Colorado. He was used to finishing on or near the podium. It took him a while to adjust his expectations at races because the field had so much more depth. And now we see a dozen people running the trails during every training run.

      My point isn't that real trail-runners live in the mountain west. Really all I'm trying to say is that the "real" trail runners of the east could make a big impact by focusing on growing the sport in their own region instead of traveling to the west to test their fitness. Bryon lives in the west so it makes sense that he shares mostly news of the west. Why doesn't someone go cover the Vermont 100 or the Laurel Highlands Ultra the way that irunfar covered Cayuga? Why haven't there been any eastern Bryon Powell copycats? Maybe there are and we just haven't heard of them yet...

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      • Southern region has http://endurancebuzz.com/. It's exactly irunfar.com version of the South Midwest United States (TALON - Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico).

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      • I've often thought of that - there are some great races that could be covered in the East, but it takes someone with a special "something" (passion? insanity?) to put in the hours that Bryon does on a fledgling website.

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  • Oh, what I would DO to have the Vitesses come back.

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  • A really positive start to the weekend, loved this article!

    I am new to the ultra scene after stumbling upon it about 2 years ago and I understand the growth of the sport has some people a little unhappy, but what a world to try to hide from those who are truly passionate about the outdoors/running. Ultra running is definitely not for everyone, so there is more of a natural selection process that you don't always get with road running/marathoning - maybe.

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  • Like everybody else and their mom, I too read Born to Run and loved it. But...Dean Karnazes was the first one that planted the ultrarunning seed in my mind. Even is he is a shameless self-promoter, and even if he may not be one of the "best" ultrarunners, his passion and love for running shines through in his writing...and his actions. Thanks Bryon, AJW, and everyone else at irunfar for your constant passion and inspiration. Hope to see you in Steamboat!

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  • At 56 years old, it was Dean's book that gave me the inspiration to go out and try yet again what I never thought I could possibly do. I'm 59 now, training for my first marathon and I'm never looking back. Personally I think anyone who criticizes folks like Dean, Scott, etc. are simply jealous. Because of this boom, there are now many others who now inspire and motivate those of us who once thought running 5 miles was an insane thought.

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  • So many pioneers in this sport,Trason,Kouros,etc,and don't forget Ultrarunning Magazine,they showed that there were other crazies all over the world going over a marathon distance.

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  • Great post...

    ...that had me thinking...

    ...how empty it would feel if iRunFar disappeared.

    Where's that 'donate' link again? Oh, there...

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