Ultrarunning And Change

AJWs TaproomAs an independent school administrator, I spend my days in one of the most change-resistant cultures I know. In my experience, schools thrive on tradition and stability. As such, in many cases, anything that disrupts the status quo or threatens the established order is often met with skepticism and opposition. Over a 25-year career in such an environment, I have come to accept this reality while attempting to subtly and deliberately make the changes I think are necessary. In many ways, knowing when and how and why to push the envelope on change is one of the leader’s most essential skills.

I have reflected on this in the context of the last five years in ultrarunning and I think I have gained a bit of insight as a result.

Undoubtedly, the much-discussed changes in the sport of ultrarunning over the past five years have been transformational. It seems that not a week goes by when we don’t hear another set of statistics about this latest boom. Whether it is changes in the industry, events, or attitudes, the past five years have seen change happen in our sport at a dizzying pace.

At the same time, as with many institutions, some in the established order, some of the grizzled veterans of the trail, have bristled at these changes and worried about what they mean for the future. Questions abound from this camp about what explosive growth, economic impact, and constant change mean to the sport they have grown up on. At times, these debates about the old and the new have gotten heated and have even threatened the cherished we’re-all-in-this-together ethos that has been the foundation of ultrarunning for decades.

As I see it, with the perspective of an educator working for change and an ultrarunner who has been in the sport for 20 years, I see this as a classic conundrum. On the one hand, in order to be measured, we are required to consider the dizzying array of changes on a case-by-case basis. To truly have integrity about our ideals, we must weigh the pros and cons each time a new change comes down the pike and then react accordingly. On the other hand, we must keep our eyes on the big picture and take a proactive stance where possible. Certainly, there are many out there who do not spend hours and days worrying about the future of this sport that is more or less a fun hobby. But others, like me, do. In that context, we must take the long view. In so doing, we can maintain a focus on what matters and calibrate the impact of what doesn’t. In addition, as change washes over us, we must practice the cherished ultrarunner’s art of patience, for remaining calm in the midst of chaos is one of the things we do best.

Reflecting back on 20 years in this sport, I have to say that the greatest gift running has given me is the ability to hone in on what matters and push away what does not. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There is nothing like a good run to clear my head, focus my mind, and still my heart. In the midst of change and uncertainty, whether good or bad, lacing them up and getting out the door helps. It doesn’t always solve all the problems, but at least it sorts them out and helps us zoom out to take the long view. That, alone, makes it all worth it.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Queen City Brewing LTD in Staunton, Virginia. I made a trip out there earlier this week for a meeting and stopped by the brewpub. The owner recommended the Falstaff’s Revenge and it did not disappoint. Strong and full bodied, it had a unique flavor and distinctive finish that you really have to taste to believe.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about AJW’s tactic of honing in on what matters and ignoring what doesn’t as the trail and ultrarunning world evolves around us? Do you think this is an effective way of sifting through change and finding the path we want the trail and ultrarunning community to take?
  • What are some of the aspects of our sport that you think we really need to hang onto, that we need to support and allow to flourish? And how do you see our community doing this?

There is one comment

  1. Mic_Med

    I'm almost bored of the "changes in Ultrarunning" topic. Sites like this, AJW's popularity, Hal Koerner selling a book, none of that is possible without a boom in the Ultra community. WIth a boom, comes more races and more money. More races and more money mean more competitors and more quality. It's what happened, it's not complicated and it's surely not unexpected. Want to just be a dirtbag runner and not run races, go for it, don't complain. Want to just run Fat Ass races cause it's "the old school way"? Go for it, but that doesn't make you better than Mr Joe Schmoe who just got into this sport and wants to run TNF Endurance Challenge 5k in his new compression socks, iPod, sunshades, visor, AK pack, Salomon shoes, etc. That dude wants to be on the trails too. Who really cares? I love that on a Saturday morning I can watch soccer on the television, and follow Elite athletes LIVE through sites like iRunFar! That wouldn't have happened 20 years ago and I love it!

    1. fealitall

      even though it seems blunt there is a lot of truth to what you're saying Mic. I don't even know if AJW's discussing the type of change you are referring to here but it's funny how much trail running (and ultra) running are just like surfing and rock climbing–two sports that have gone through a similar growth cycle at different points in the half century or so. first it was a bunch of eccentrics hanging out on the fringes like they always do in their own little happy places. then other, more "normal", people started getting into it and waves of popularity will come and go but the result is it's much more mainstream and here to stay. you also touched on the lifestyle (or "soul") participants vs. competitive participants dynamic which is ever prevalent in surfing and rock climbing realms as well. It is important to remember that there is room for everyone and it is just running so keep it simple!

  2. Sarah

    AJW Your post resonated with me, not just because I've been observing these changes the last decade, but also because I'm a trustee at a 125-year-old independent secondary school, so I appreciate your analogy! Unlike the previous comment, which seems to suggest we should just shrug off these changes, I think it's worthy of the kind of reflection you're giving it. To continue the school analogy, I could almost see a strategic planning process and board retreat! (Haha not really… But it would be nice to devote some time in a group to talk about the pros and cons of all of this, and discuss whether there are any guidelines or principles that could be agreed upon for ultrarunners to endorse and follow.)

  3. runsnotsofar

    I am relatively new to the ultra scene. By "scene" I mean as a participant in races. I've been running up and down hills on trails for quite a while, just wasn't really aware of how many organized events there are. So, in a way I am part of the "change" because now I am drawn to it partially by reading/watching stuff about the elite guys and gals (here on irf.com and where ever I can find it).
    In my experience the veterans are dealing with the change and newbies in a great way. Everyone at a race (I am more tempted to call it "event"), is excited, chats, helps each other out on the trail if need be, encourages, cheers, hangs out, has a beer. It's just awesome. And I feel like as a relatively new guy I can contribute to this great scene by just being relaxed and enjoying people's company who have many many more trail miles and events under their belt than myself.
    The way I see it there's one thing that won't change – at least not in any foreseeable future: everyone from elite to mid-packer to poor DNF-guy will be on the same course at the same time. This leads to my favorite running anecdote. During NYC marathon a guy told me he beat Haile Gebrselassie twice; in Berlin and in New York. Because Haile dropped and he finished. As simple as that.

  4. JxanderW

    Change is constant. Nostalgia for the way it was yesterday makes for great fiction. The reality is that there is no "ultra" running scene – just like there is no "small town America".

    We each contribute to a race through our attitude, our determination, our values, this is what we bring to the table; some are cool, some not so much. The "pioneers" of this sport – just like surfing or climbing – may have had a moment where solitude was part of the appeal but that fringe only lasted a moment – then others start to say "oh, hey that is cool!" (because is is and you can't keep it like a secret).

    When you moved to the town you live in, if it was relatively small, I am sure there are people who thought "there goes the neighborhood!"
    The best we can all do is to be genuine in our pursuits and use the material/commercial goods to help us achieve those pursuits. Don't let the material/commercial side define it – define it yourself through your actions (that is whats cool about running!).

    Each race I participate in is unique and has a feel just like a small town that is a culture all its own. It is fun to participate and be a part of that "town" for a bit.

    As a "community" this subject is taxing too much brain power. Culture's are not preserved they change and once you start talking about "preservation" then you might as well put it on the shelf in a jar.

    And also there are almost 7 Billion people on the planet. Given the ultra running stats I would say this sport is still far from "mainstream".

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