Young Blood

I first met Dakota Jones in September of 2009, when he was 18. I had just finished racing The Bear 100 and randomly ended up catching a ride back to the start in the same vehicle as him. I was exhausted, and don’t remember much of our conversation on that car ride. The fact that he was only 18 years old stuck with me much more than anything we talked about.

I had been running ultras for a few years at that point and had not met a single other ultrarunner under 20. I was 33 at the time, and the majority of the people I knew in the sport were older than me. Dakota was just getting into racing then. He hadn’t run the race that weekend, but he had run an ultra or two earlier that year, and talked about how he really wanted to do a lot more of them. He seemed to have an interest and a motivation in the sport that I had rarely seen in anyone. But again, the thing that left the most impression on me was his age.

Fast forward three or four years, and now I feel like I meet ‘the next Dakota Jones’ at nearly every race I go to: a talented, motivated, energetic, teenager who is in the process of jumping into a sport that has historically been dominated by people twice their age. Certainly, there have been a handful of people in their teens running ultras for decades, but the number of people doing so today seems like it has grown tenfold in just the past few years. Beyond seeing this at several races in the past year or two, I have also seen in it in the people signing up to attend my Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. This summer will be my fourth season doing these camps. The number of people under the age of 25 signing up for camp has gone from zero the first year, to two the second year, to three or four last year, to half a dozen so far this year!

Admittedly, these examples are of a small sample size, but to me it seems likely that the number of people under 25 (or even 30) participating in ultrarunning has ballooned by several hundred percent in the past three or four years. Yes, the sport as a whole has been growing rapidly for nearly a decade, but the current growth by percentage in the younger age groups seems to be dwarfing the growth of other ages. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any research or statistics that I can point to that back up these statements, but from an anecdotal standpoint it certainly seems like this is most definitely the case.

What, then, are the potential influences that this wave of youngsters are having, or may have on the future of the sport?

Conventionally, endurance sports are considered to be dominated by ‘older’ athletes. We all know that we are more capable at shorter distance athletics when we are in our teens and 20s, but for some reason in endurance athletics it seems to be the norm to see people excelling in their 30s, 40s, or beyond. What, then, will this mean to have more and more teenagers and twentysomethings taking up endurance sports like ultrarunning? Will the average age of the top racers still tend to be in their 30s and 40s? Will the bulk of the racers still tend to be in their 40s and 50s? And will these ‘kids’ taking up the sport at such a young age continue to grow and improve as runners for the next couple decades or will it still only be those who start much later in life who are still running strong as they move into their 40s or 50s?

This last question is the one that I think is the most interesting. Typically, it seems like ultrarunners tend to have a ‘shelf life’ of time in which they can perform at or near their top level. For the average runner this seems to be somewhere in the five-to-ten-year range. Now and then you get someone like Karl Meltzer who seems to have been able to race at a high level for 15 years and is still performing nearly as well as he ever has. Karl is certainly the exception though. For most runners, their performance seems to drop off quite considerably after five-to-ten years of consistent racing (especially so among those racing near the top of the sport). In many cases this seems to simply be a function of age, but often times you see this occur between the ages of 35 and 40, a time when many folks in endurance sports seem to be just coming into their prime. In this sense, it seems like your peak-performance years might have more to do with what age you are when you started running ultras, and not as much to do with what age you are at the time.

Because of this, I think it will be very interesting to follow what occurs with this new wave of runners coming into the sport at such a young age. Are we going to see the majority of them start to fade after five-to-ten years in the sport, such that just as they are coming into the age that historically most people have started to run ultras, they are beginning to slow and fade from the sport? Or rather, are we going to start seeing several folks a decade from now who are barely into their 30s, and who have already been running ultras for 10 or 12 years who are continuing to grow and improve as runners because they are just barely coming into the age that seems to historically be the most capable at endurance sports? Twenty or even 30 years from now, will we see ultrarunners who have been racing for two or three decades who are still able to perform nearly as well as they ever could (something which is more or less currently unheard of)?

Obviously, not everyone will fit into one distinct pattern, but I do think we will see some trends start to form. I have always been a believer of the ‘shelf-life’ theory as to why so many of the top ultrarunners seem to be in their 30s and 40s. It’s not that 35 or 40 is the prime age for ultrarunning potential, but rather that many people don’t historically start running ultras until they are 30 or 35, and that it takes five or so years to make all the micro-adaptations one needs to make to reach their full potential as a long-distance runner. Unfortunately, the five years of consistent running and racing that is typically needed to reach this potential also takes a large toll on the body, such that in another five or so years, most runners start to see fairly distinct decline in their performance ability. Again, it’s not so much about the age that you are at the time, but rather just a function of how long you’ve been doing it.

In subscribing to these beliefs, then, it should play out that as more and more people start to jump into the sport in their teens, we should start to see more and more runners in their low to mid-20s performing as some of the top athletes in the sport (not unlike Dakota is doing right now). Conversely, if this ‘shelf-life’ theory proves accurate, we might also start to see a lot of runners whose performances start to decline around age 30–the age that historically has been such a common starting point for many of the top runners in the sport.

Only time will tell what will ultimately prove to be the case in this regard, but the large wave of young runners coming into the sport will undoubtedly have an impact on these trends in the next five-to-ten years. We will almost certainly either see a shift to a much younger age at which people seem to reach their potential, or we will see a shift in the amount of time that people conventionally seem to be able to remain at or near their top potential.

The way Karl Meltzer has been going strong for 15 years is most certainly unusual in the sport today, but perhaps 15 years from now we will think of this as fairly normal, and have a whole bunch of folks who have been going strong for 15 years and are just coming into their primes between 30 and 35. In my mind though, we will be a lot more likely to have a new idea of what the prime age is. I think a decade from now 25 will be the new 35, and we will have a lot of runners who at age 30 or 35 are unable to run anywhere near the level they were when they were 20 or 25. I think Karl’s longevity as a top-level runner will prove to be unusual for as long as this sport exists, even if there are more and more runners coming into the sport who are 10-plus years younger than Karl was when he started.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think of the trend toward competitive ultrarunners in their late teens or early 20s? What might be the reason behind it?
  • Anyone out there start running ultras young (say before age 25)? What’s been your evolution in the sport through the years?
  • What do you think of Geoff’s ultrarunning shelf-life theory?