Thoughts on the Trail Running Boom

AJW contemplates the reasons behind trail running’s growth.

By on December 7, 2012 | 58 comments

AJWs TaproomLottery season is upon us and along with it comes the annual conversation about the exponential growth in the popularity of our sport. To wit:

The Western States lottery has more entrants than ever before, the Vermont 100 filled in less than 30 hours, it looks like the Hardrock 100 will, in the first year of their new tripartite lottery system, have over 800 entrants in their lottery. Additionally, many shorter distance races are instituting lotteries for the first time this year and several races are seeking new venues that will allow for expanded fields. It is astounding that just five years ago the number of 100-mile races listed on Stan Jensen’s website hovered around 40. Today, he lists 107!

Why such tremendous growth in what was, not long ago, a quirky fringe sport? Five thoughts:

1. Corporate Marketing – Over the past two years the number of companies competing for trail runners’ dollars seems to have exploded. Along with that, large companies are investing significant marketing and advertising dollars in print and online media. Furthermore, we are seeing more and more companies providing financial and logistical support for athletes to, essentially, become full-time runners apparently in exchange for brand promotion and product development. All of that seems to point in a positive direction for the growth of trail running. What I am curious about is if this marketing and promotion has led to as significant an increase in sales as it has in participation. While I have a hunch it has, I also can’t help but observe that many of these companies and their campaigns seem to be selling a lifestyle along with a product and in many cases that lifestyle runs contrary to that of the typical consumer.

2. Event Promotion – Just last weekend the Western States 100 launched their extraordinary new website. Along with all of the informational content typical of most race websites, the new site features a dizzying array of additional information on the history, culture, and ethos of the race in a crisp and user-friendly format that can be easily accessed from any device. In short, finding information about the race is now easier and more comprehensive than ever. Other ultra events will undoubtedly follow suit. Additionally, through social networking platforms, events are now able to consistently and inexpensively promote their races to target audiences and shape the messages about their races through the participants themselves. This seems to appeal to people as it takes the otherwise far-out idea of running a trail ultra seem accessible and cool. And, it sure beats putting paper flyers under windshield wipers!

3. Books and Movies – If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I read “Born To Run” I could buy Bryon that private jet he’s been asking about. Seriously, the incredible commercial success of Chris McDougall’s Born to Run and Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run along with the cult following behind JB Benna’s film Unbreakable, seems to have significantly pushed ultramarathon running out of the shadows and into the mainstream. My guess is that the increased exposure these projects have provided to potential runners combined with the “buzz” they have created have, consequently, dare I say it, made ultramarathon running seem just a little bit more normal and, therefore, something people might want to try.

4. Culture and Society – The last decade has been a tough one for many. The economy has been volatile, the United States has engaged in two long, difficult wars, the political landscape has been increasingly divisive, and daily life has become seemingly more and more complex, stressful, and frustrating. At the same time, the pace of life has increased tremendously as a consequence of improvements in transportation, technology, and communication. In that context, it’s no wonder that more people have been seeking ways to “get away from it all.” Perhaps for those with the means, the interest, and the training, running an urban marathon is simply not as attractive as running a 50-miler through the Rockies or a 100k along the coast. Maybe the stresses of life are pushing people out of their comfort zones and onto the trails.

5. Thirst For Adventure – One of my favorite little text codes that kids use these days is YOLO (you only live once) and, I must say, over the past ten years this mantra seems to have crept into our collective conscience a bit more assertively than in the past. In popular culture, sports, business, and politics, this notion of making every moment count and living life to its fullest has achieved a currency that cannot be ignored. Hence, I believe this is the fifth factor leading to the exponential growth in trail running in general and 100-mile racing in particular. Because, after all, if you only live once, you might as well take your daily run in beautiful places and compete in special events that will provide once-in-a-lifetime memories.

I have to say, regardless of which factors have contributed to the growth of the sport and why, it is a fundamentally good thing to me that more people than ever are out of the trails, lacing ’em up, and enjoying the simplicity and wonder of a run through nature.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Bear Republic Racer XThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg, CA. The sponsor of John Medinger’s Lake Sonoma 50, Bear Republic is a running-friendly brewery. In fact, they are so runner friendly, that they provide a 22-ounce bottle of Racer 5 to every finisher at Lake Sonoma. This week’s beer is the “Big Brother” of Racer 5, Racer X. This annually produced Double IPA is a tangy treat that tips the scales at 8.3% ABV. For IBU’s the guys at Bear Republic simply say, “lots.”

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think is driving the growth of ultrarunning?
  • Is that growth a good thing?
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.