Ultrarunning has long been a fringe sport. The individuals that participated did so for a variety of reasons, but most were not logical… at least to most people. David Blaikie perfectly summed up ultramarathons with this famous quote:
“Perhaps the genius of ultrarunning is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being — a call that asks who they are …”
The sport is changing, though. When running Bighorn this last weekend, I had a great conversation with Sherpa John Lacroix. We talked about the changes the sport has underwent since we became involved in the mid 2000′s. More people than ever are running ultras. The number of North American 100 milers has exploded from about 35 when I started to close to 100. Books like ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Ultramarathon Man’ have brought ultras into the public consciousness. More and more elite runners are taking the plunge to ultras, especially the short distances.
The net effect has been a change in culture. The low-key laid-backedness and camaraderie that defined ultras is being replaced by flashiness and a focus on cutthroat competitiveness. There are two disturbing changes that will forever change the nature of the sport, and one will be directly responsible for the other:
- Prize money: In the past, prize money, if offered, rarely covered the cost of entry. Ultrarunners did not run professionally. Even sponsored athletes made a pittance. The Run Rabbit Run ultras are offering a huge purse, which will shift the focus from racing for intrinsic competition to extrinsic rewards. This will have a direct effect on…
- Performance-enhancing drugs. The increase in extrinsic motivation promotes cheating. I expect to see a huge increase in the use of all forms of performance enhancing drugs in the very near future. In fact, the winner of the Comrades ultra in South Africa was recently busted. Prize money ruins sports.
I predict all of the things that made this sport great will disappear within five years. Ultrarunning will soon take the same path as triathlons and cycling. The rugged cooperativeness will be replaced by pretty boy douchiness.
I AM holding out some hope, though. Bighorn, the event I ran this weekend, is a family-run event with an awesome low-key atmosphere. Hopefully events like this will resist the move toward large purses and will continue to promote the atmosphere that makes ultras great.
What do you think? Are ultras in danger?