The Hype Machine

A look at the hype surrounding ultramarathons and how the sport’s growth adds and detracts from the experience.

By on May 2, 2012 | Comments

“You take the things you like, and try to love the things you took.”

– Regina Spektor

I’m going to fly to the Canary Islands next week to run fifty miles. That’s right, the Canary Islands. If you haven’t paid attention to geography since high school, you should know that the Canary Islands are geologically part of Africa. AFRICA. To run fifty miles. Does that seem odd to anyone else?

Let me start over. I’m an ultramarathon runner, meaning I run races that are longer than marathons, typically of the fifty- or one-hundred-mile distances. These races are usually held on trails in areas with lots of elevation change. The people who are attracted to these races tend to be experienced outdoors-people with strong legs and short memories. I got into the sport because I saw a cool race and wanted to do it, so I took the steps to do it. I run in mountains. Big deal.

But people want it to be a big deal. The sport is growing dramatically and as a result the number of participants has increased rapidly over the past five years. A “scene” has evolved online where people discuss races and racers, gear and places, nutrition and strategy. The fast runners have become pseudo-celebrities among their peers, indistinguishable to the untrained eye but near deities to those informed. Blogs, websites and interviews have flashed across the internet, hyping up the competition beyond its normal scope. Many runners have now quit their “normal” jobs to take running full-time. Such is the sport of ultrarunning.

I seem to be right in the middle of it, which distresses me in some ways and excites me in others. I’m not going to deny that I’m flattered when people tell me my run at Race A was “super impressive,” but I will deny that I’m doing anything other than running a lot. Similarly, you can let the exorbitant amount of money and hype surrounding the Tour de France convince you that riding as hard as possible around France for three weeks is the most important thing in the world or you can realize that it’s just a bunch of amazing athletes riding bikes around Europe really hard. What they are doing is incredible, but relax dude – it’s just a bike ride. In running, Kilian’s Quest is a high-end example of strategic marketing. He runs up and down mountains. Nothing more.

But at least he does that really well, and for the right reasons. He’s not running up and down mountains to be this “Kilian Jornet” figure that has been hyped up to the media – he’s running up and down mountains because he loves it. He has an important stake in winning races because that is how he makes a living, which certainly adds a key incentive to his training. But training to race ultramarathons at the limit of a person’s abilities is impossible without a true love of the sport, whether that person is Kilian Jornet or Joe Regular.

So next week I’m headed off to Africa to run fifty miles. People are going to conjecture the results in long diatribes. “This guy has this strength, but this guy is from this place, but this guy has done this already, but this guy has a beard” and so on in that vein. The point of it all will be to get overexcited about something that will affect few and soon be over. We build a bubble which we then burst and try to convince ourselves that it had meaning which still remains. On the other hand, ultrarunning is a supremely personal and unproductive activity (in the Western sense of the word), which we have morphed into a way to make money. With money we can take the sport to new levels, allowing us to do more and greater things. Companies see our sport as a lucrative venue for business, which translates into fantastic opportunities for everyone. Those of us in direct communication with said companies receive express and obvious benefits, but the people at the bottom of the food chain also benefit in the form of more races, more people, greatly improved gear and much wider acceptance of the sport. Still, the “sport” has nearly become separated from the running. The scene has morphed into its own entity that is sometimes only marginally connected to its subject. In this way running has become a vehicle for the scene, and I find that silly.

But I also find great meaning in the acceptance of my peers. I race because I love to challenge myself against others and be part of something greater than myself. The scene allows me to join a group of people with similar interests in an activity that provides me with a lot of meaning. I revel in sharing the beauty that I find on the trails. And beyond that it’s just running. Nothing more.

I’ll be putting my cat through dryer cycles if you need me. See you in Africa.

Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.