The Cost of Doing Business

The effect of increased demand on expectations at ultramarathons.

By on August 30, 2013 | 42 comments

AJWs TaproomOn the eve of the world’s largest 100-mile trail race and in the aftermath of the Leadville 100, the largest 100-mile trail race in North America, I have been thinking about ultramarathon races and money. And, in particular, how the growth of the sport has both impacted cost and altered expectations.

From my perspective, as the number of runners entering the sport has increased, the impact on the sport has been overwhelmingly positive. Marketing dollars have been infused into trail running which has increased exposure and inspired thousands. Awareness of wild areas has increased exponentially as, quite simply, more people have taken to running in the woods. Individual runners have been able to devote themselves full time to training and racing as companies have started to provide modest income to elite runners. And, perhaps most significantly, high-profile events have hit the mainstream, making ultrarunning more accessible and less the realm of a subset of the general running public who some consider, quite frankly, a bit off. In short, the benefits of this explosive growth are extensive.

However, these benefits have come at a cost. Pressure on the environment has caused many to reconsider the impact of large trail running events. The cherished egalitarian, we’re-all-in-this-together culture that has characterized ultrarunning for a generation is, in the opinion of some, under siege as a result of growth and change. The corporatization of some events has created a backlash to what some perceive as a faceless, nameless, business mindset where once there was an old guy in shorts with a megaphone, some yellow streamers, and a bag of flour. Growth, in all of its forms, has stretched the culture of ultrarunning. And, in the midst of that expansion, the issue of money deserves a place in the discussion, perhaps at the top of that discussion.

Certainly, there are many places where runners can still show up on a random Saturday, plop down a few bucks, and run an ultramarathon trail race with a marked course, a few aid stations, and a nice post-race party. These events, in fact, still form the core of the ultra experience for many and will always be a part of the sport. That said, there is no doubt that a subset of marquee events have come to represent the gold standard and many of those events have seen demand far outstrip supply in ways that have, paradoxically, threatened the sustainability not only of those events but perhaps of the sport itself.

To put it simply, as demand has increased, so have expectations. And, along with those high expectations, these marquee events face challenges that many of us on the outside looking in have no knowledge of and, in fact, may not really care about. From a runner’s perspective, if we can run the race on a marked course with some aid stations, perhaps receive a medal at the end and a bit of swag, we’re good. But perspectives on the sport have changed dramatically, and along with the growth, expectations vary tremendously from runner to runner and from event to event. Therefore, in many cases, particularly in the marquee events, expectations management costs more money. And, this is a massive conundrum facing several of our most storied races.

Not a season goes by these days where a discussion emerges among ultra participants about race entry fees, application surcharges, quality of aid station, food, and swag. While most of these discussions are typically respectful and good natured, from time to time they get ugly and begin to threaten the we’re-all-in-this-together ethos. In the end, the equation is simple, the larger the event, the more difficult logistics become. Then, a bigger challenge emerges which impels race organizations to manage those logistics through an influx of some combination of time, money, and man hours. It may not be fair but it’s the truth: the bigger the race, the bigger the cost and, thus, the bigger the threat to our cherished community.

As a long-time participant, I don’t have an easy answer to this problem other than this: as we experience this growth and the bumps in the road inevitably occur, the same values that have drawn us to this sport should, in my opinion, inform our constructive dialogue. Little change will occur as a result of poorly informed, anonymous criticism or back-room deals. The way to move our sport forward and grapple with the growth and change that has inevitably come upon us is for open, transparent, and clear discourse. Considering the pros and the cons of all situations and understanding that, while we all have vastly different opinions of what we want and need, the values underlying those are perhaps our most common trait and we are much better working through these issues as a unified whole rather than a fractured bunch of wayward wackos. Remember, that’s what the general public thinks we are anyway!

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

Bells The Oracle Double IPA AleThis week’s Beer of the Week is Bell’s Oracle Double IPA. A whopping 10%, it somehow is not boozy and tastes quite smooth. It’s certainly a sipper’s beer that requires a measured approach but is really worth it in the end.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In light of AJW’s encouragement toward “open, transparent, and clear discourse,” what do you see as the main pros and cons of trail and ultrarunning’s rapid growth?
  • And, where do you think our community needs to direct its attention in the near term so that we stay on a sustainable path?
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.