The New Global Picture

Mountain ultrarunning has undoubtedly become a much more international sport in the past several years. A decade ago, American runners pretty much raced in North America, with very few options to race internationally, especially if they wanted to stay on trails in the mountains. As much as ultrarunning has grown in popularity in the United States in the past decade, it has grown even quicker in other parts of the world. In my opinion this trend is most certainly a good thing for the sport.

Runners from around the world are racing each other all over the planet and everyone is learning how to be better runners along the way. There are different styles from region to region, and as runners spend more time running with those from other parts of the world, they pick up on things which other cultures are doing that seem to work effectively.

Modern day ultra distance running has been prominent outside of the United States for decades, but this has largely been flatter, smoother, road-type events, or more adventurous overland-type events (think fell running). However, the collective energy and culture of the current style of trail ultrarunning was once a decidedly American thing. Now, though, it is an entirely international thing, and in the process has become a much more refined, talented, and competitive entity.

Despite all these positive things about this trend toward a more global sport, I do, however, think there are a few things in this process which have the potential to subtly undermine these benefits.

The first thing, I will only mention briefly, not because it’s not important, but because it’s so definitely a concern that it really doesn’t take any extensive explanation. This is the ecological impact of runners traveling half way around the world to do something so basic as to run in the mountains. Also, beyond the ecological impact of this travel there is also the physical and emotional stress that this much travel puts on anyone trying to perform at such a high level. Ultimately I think these factors will limit just how extensively international this (or any sport) will become. People are certainly going to continue to race in far away places, but they are also going to continue to race closer to home a lot more often, as it’s simply a lot less stressful on our bodies and a lot less stressful on the environment to race in our hometown than it is to race thousands of miles away.

Another thing which seems to be showing up more and more as the sport becomes more and more international is that different countries and different regions seem to have very different desires to promote and encourage the sport as an international event. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, and is almost certainly an unavoidable thing, but I do wonder what effect this may have on the sport in the coming years. Trail ultrarunning has been around in the United States for a long time; there is a very established culture around the sport here, and many people (perhaps most?) within this culture see no reason to do much of anything to promote the internationalism of the sport. On the other hand, in Europe, Asia, and other regions of the world where the sport as it is known today is a much newer thing, there isn’t nearly as much of an established culture and is therefore a much stronger desire to promote their athletes and their events to the rest of the world, most specifically to the United States. In a nutshell, it is the “new kids on the block” trying to be sure they are taken seriously by the “old guard”. It’s no coincidence that the two trail ultrarunning series’ that are most actively trying to promote themselves as specifically international events are both based in Europe (Skyrunning, and now Ultra-Trail World Tour).

What’s the problem with any of this you ask? Perhaps nothing, but from an American perspective, I do see the possibility of the modern international changes in the sport essentially passing right over the “old guard” here in the United States. In some regards, this is already happening. Mountain running (on very steep and rugged terrain) has been popular in Europe for many years, and as ultrarunning has gained popularity, it has been greatly influenced by that style of running. As a result, the typical course in Europe is significantly steeper and more technical than a typical course in the United States. This wouldn’t be a problem for things here in the U.S. except for the reality that the majority of people inherently like things which are bigger, more rugged, and more challenging. As the sport becomes more and more of an international competition, the style of races here in the U.S. will either need to change, or we will find ourselves and our events being taken less and less seriously by the larger international aspect of the sport.

It’s not by accident that hundreds of American runners have gone over to Europe to race UTMB in the past six or seven years while no more than a handful of European runners come to the U.S. for any of our races. Yes, some of this has to do with the fact that many races in the U.S. are so hard to get into, but I think it has more to do with the reality that, outside of Hardrock and a few other similar races, we don’t have events here that take place on the type of terrain that large numbers of people are going to travel thousands of miles to be a part of. At least not with the direction the sport is moving as it becomes more and more of a worldwide event.

On the other side of this you have the “new kids on the block”, especially Europe and Asia, where they are trying hard to embrace and promote the worldwide aspect of the sport. There is an eagerness and a rawness to these young ultrarunning cultures that is refreshing and inspiring. They do a lot of things for the right reasons and there is an excitement among the general public about the sport that you just don’t find in the United States. Again, you ask, what then is the problem?

Again, the answer is that there may not be any problem, but a concern that I have, and a concern that was increased by the announcement of Ultra-Trail World Tour, is that the culture of the sport in Europe (and to a lesser degree Asia), and thus to some degree the larger international energy of the sport may be beginning to overlook the U.S. as a significant part of the picture. One could argue endlessly whether this is more a function of the U.S. being a stubborn, grumpy, old man or whether this is a function of the new kids being brash and independent (it’s probably a little bit of both), but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t something that is, in fact, beginning to happen.

Not to say that the Ultra-Trail World Tour is the entire voice of international ultrarunning, but it is one of the only events in the world that is specifically intended to be a series of races that promotes and encourages a more worldwide view and dynamic within the sport. This being their intention, I find it interesting that they are currently planning to include only one North American race in their first season. Racer’s standings will be based on their three top performances within the series, and with three races occurring in Europe (as well as another just a short hop away in Morocco) a European runner won’t even need to leave the continent to take part in the so-called “world tour.” There are probably still more trail ultramarathons in North America than the rest of the world combined (although this will not be the case for long), so it’s a little hard to take a “world tour” seriously that has essentially four European races and one North American race (especially when the one, Western States, is nearly impossible to gain entry into). It reminds me a bit of Major League Baseball using the term “World Series” for its championship event which only includes teams from North America. In the case of baseball, though, when the phrase was coined, the sport was essentially only played in North America. It may just be an accidental oversight by one, small group of event organizers, but I do think the events included in this “world tour” do say something about a shifting dynamic in the sport, as well as something about how most Europeans view the sport as compared to how most Americans view the sport. To be fair, the Ultra-Trail World Tour has said that their current schedule is tentative, and that more events may be added later. I certainly hope they include another (or two more) North American events. I think this would go a long ways in making this series a legitimate world tour.

In the end, none of this may really matter. The majority of runners and races in the United States may happily move forward largely separate from the larger international energy of the sport. The new worldwide dynamic (led primarily by Europe) may move in their desired direction without much need or desire for involvement or input from the United States. This would not automatically mean either one would be any worse off without the other, but I do think this is a possibility. I think there could be a lot to be gained by moving ultrarunning in the direction of a truly worldwide sport with truly international events on the calendar, but I think we are at a point in which much more effort will need to be made by all sides involved to make this happen. In the end, this will probably happen if the demand is legitimately there, but certainly it’s going to take more than what is being newly offered by the Ultra-Trail World Tour. This is of course a brand new event, and a fairly new concept. Maybe starting out with a lot of room to improve isn’t necessarily a bad spot to be. Let’s hope so.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

We’re really grateful that Dakota’s column last week incited a civil conversation in its comments section. Thank you! As we move forward with discussing Geoff’s thoughts this week, please continue to comment in a constructive, respectful-to-all manner.

  • What are your thoughts on the globalization of trail ultrarunning? Have you raced abroad and felt some of the cultural mixing that occurs when runners of multiple countries come together? And, what do you think of some of the consequences of the sport’s globalization to which Geoff refers?
  • What do you think about Geoff’s hypothesis that American trail ultramarathons need to become more like European trail ultramarathons, in terms of their technicality and elevation change, in order for the U.S. to remain relevant to international racers? Does this present concerns about homogenization and loss of the U.S. trail ultrarunning tradition? Does this open up opportunities for U.S. runners to try new things closer to home? Do you think this will, in fact, make U.S. races more attractive to non-American runners?
  • Finally, what is your present interest in trail ultrarunning? Do you want to stay close to home, experiment internationally, race little races, run with the best competition, run without entering races at all, or something entirely different?