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The Future of Ultrarunning

Posted by on Jun 20, 2012 | 36 Comments

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?

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36 Comments

  1. Seamus Foy
    June 26, 2012

    I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think there will be more than a few big money events. If there are an avg of 9 or 10 100 milers per month, how many will have big purses? I think it’ll be a long time before there is more than 5 or 6 big money races per year. The vast majority will still be laid back events.

  2. Henry A
    June 24, 2012

    I’m not sure why people have such a strong hate for triathletes and cyclists, especially when it is based not in fact but in false portrayals of both types of athletes. There are douches everywhere, no matter the sport. We should be welcoming more people at ultras not turning them away because they’ll put ultras “in danger.” That’s just elitist, ignorant, and foolish.

  3. BF in AZ
    June 23, 2012

    Well, I hope all you fast people don’t ruin the sport before I get a chance to attempt an ultra this fall :P

  4. Charl
    June 21, 2012

    Nice conversation. I think it’s worth thinking about for us new comers, but the comrades comparison is way off. you cannot liken comrades to off road ultras, and besides comrades has always offered a sizeable purse.

  5. Ashley Walsh
    June 21, 2012

    Excellent read!!! I have been saying the same things a lot lately! In the southeast, performance enhancing drugs in ultras are becoming common- and we don’t even have prize money around here! Some people have even gotten in cars during races to win them! It’s pathetic. The lone wolf mentality I craved when first encountering this sport is dying out. Since I realized this, I stopped racing so much to avoid it, and simply run my own ultra distances in beautiful places.

  6. BrianWC
    June 21, 2012

    I could care less about WHO it attracts. I just care about how MANY it attracts. As one who’s yet to get into any of the marquee races, I’d hate to continue to get shutout b/c of all the money chasers. I know you pros have to eat and I respect that. But heck maybe it should be done like the trials and have the pros run one day and the rest of us the next??? I realize the conditions of special use permits with the Forest Service et al not withstanding…

  7. ramzev
    June 21, 2012

    I’m doing my first ultra in Sept. There’s no doubt I’m in it for the money. I’m working on an Oreo’s sponsorship.

  8. Thurs, June 21 | UltraRunnerPodcast.com
    June 21, 2012

    [...] The future of ultra running, by Jason Robillard. [...]

  9. Anguish
    June 21, 2012

    A good post and a very good way to start a debate, but overly pessimistic in my view. The low key/fun races will survive in the same way that they do for shorter distances.

    The mention of the Comrades and the recent news that the winner used a banned substance is also not the best argument for the following reasons:

    1) The substance in question – the stimulant methylhexaneamine – is one which is in various normal medicines so there is the possibility that this was a mistake on the part of the runner – albeit a potentially costly one(see http://www.runnersworld.co.za/news/methylhexaneamine-rears-its-controversial-head/ for controversy surrounding the substance.) That said, it is true that the race has seen other drugs/cheating controversies in the recent past…..

    2) The Comrades prize money for the male winner is fairly low by international standards (I believe R 300,000 – i.e. $35,000). By low I mean that one would expect it to be much higher given that one needs to be able to run a very hilly 56 miles in around 5:30 (i.e. fast) to even have a chance of hitting the “jackpot”. The prestige with which the event is held in SA is arguably more of a motivator. Basically, if you win you are a national hero….but if you want to make money running 42k marathons makes more sense

    3) In my experience of (slowly) “running” the race, the prize money has no impact whatsoever on what you call “rugged cooperativeness”. It is a mass event and there is a genuine feeling of fun and “we’re all in this together” (certainly at the back of the pack). I have also found the elite runners who I have had the opportunity to speak to to be very humble and friendly (many of them are part time athletes). So, no pretty boys. And intriguingly, because it has a 12hr cut-off the person who comes in last is also viewed as somewhat of a star

    4) Even for the elites it seems to be a fun, but very competitive event. See the following blog posts re this year’s race: http://elliegreenwood.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/intensity.html
    http://devoncrosbyhelms.com/

    Ok – this post is far too long. But basically, (and no doubt some will disagree) I think the Comrades is a good example of a mass ultra, with prize money, which (for most) is about much more than getting across the line first. It is obviously all on a road :( but is one to put on your bucketlist ….

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I’m not necessarily concerned about ultras today; I have only run one race where the culture has been ruined by flashiness… and that was a pretty isolated case. There’s a great camaraderie along the entire field in every ultra I’ve run.

      However, big prize money will change this… not because it will change the current crop of ultrarunners. Everyone in the sport is clearly here for intrinsic reasons. It will change the sport by attracting a different element- people interested in making a ton of cash.

  10. Mary
    June 21, 2012

    This smacks just a little of cliquishness and snobbery to me – as if all those newbies who are “finding” the sport thanks to Born To Run and Ultramarathon Man aren’t cool enough to hang with the “real” ultramarathoners, the ones who Came Before. The thing about ultramarathoning that attracts people is exactly that *lack* of cliquishness that you find with people running shorter distance races, the ones with their heads down, earbuds in, who don’t even nod or say hello as they pass you or you pass them in a race, and to whom speed and pecking order are everything. I’d say the middle of hte pack ultrarunner is always going to be a different kind of person – it just takes one to do the kind of training and endurance required. If they want to give the ultra-hard-core racers some money, fine by me. But there’s no sense in looking down on other runners just because they came to the sport recently, inspired by Dean Karnazes or Born to Run. I’d say we should be happy that more people are finding their tribe.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Mary, the new people coming to the sport that have been motivated by McDougall and Karnazes are the exact people that will maintain the current culture of ultras. They’re entering for no tangible gains other than the intrinsic motivation to finish and do their best. That describes all ultrarunners today, even the elites.

      It’s the people that enter the sport in search of riches that worry me. This element may not exist today, but will in the very near future.

  11. Angie bee
    June 21, 2012

    Sure they are in danger but the great ones won’t dissappear. Just like there are still lovely rod races that have not turned into rock and roll. They will be the small guy local hometown races still.

  12. jracecar
    June 20, 2012

    I think you are being overly pessimistic. I am part of the new wave of popularity following Born to Run. I ran my first two marathons last year. This year, I have registered for my first 50k and 50 mile races. I hope to run my first 100 next year, but maybe I will run one or both of my races this year and say that I have seen enough.

    What I do know is that I am not going to win. Ever. I embrace that. I will cheer on anyone who passes me. I will not use PEDs. I will not be spoiled by the prospects of prize money, nor will I let my experience be spoiled by those who are in it solely for the cash. I am in this to race against the clock and against myself, and I am privileged to be able to do so.

    At the end of the day, ultrarunning necessitates doing something the overwhelming majority of athletes simply aren’t interested in doing. A few of the big races might get really gross for a couple of years, but the fad will pass and the money will fade. The big dollars will stay with true spectator sports. No matter how large ultrarunning grows in the short-term, no one can take away your pack, your friends or the vast miles of trails no one is racing on today.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I don’t think the unsavory changes will come from the new people entering the sport from the midpack and back. I think the changes will come from the new breed of elites that are entering the sport for money. In fact, I think the new non-elites will be what ultimately preserve the grass-roots feel of the sport.

  13. Speedgoatkarl
    June 20, 2012

    Prize money is great for the sport. It drives competition to new levels. The NF 50 is the prime example. We had Mike Wolfe edge out Dakota Jones last year, and guess what, everyone went out to dinner afterwards, had a few beers, told war stories, bonking stories. Wolfe won 10k, but like all the rest of us elite athletes, we’re all friends and shared the wealth.

    Professionals should be able to make money doing what they love. Don’t b-ball players make millions, and you/we pay their salaries? Damn right you/we do. Are you saying Ultrarunners should have a full-time job so they can support their habit? Why should they, folks like myself,who has been in the sport for 15 years, still don’t really make squat compared to the last guy sitting on the bench. It’s sad really.

    In all the 115 ultras I’ve run,not once have I met a person who talked down to anyone else because they were better than them.

    Steamboat having a 35k purse, was assisted by me, along with the Speedgoat 50k having a good purse, UROC, NF50. these races will attract stronger fields, but you won’t see us toeing the line all aggro, it’s all in good fun, even up front.

    Drug testing, yup, some folks will cheat if the purse’s get too high, but who cares, let em’ hurt their own bodies. Its just running, as Dakota puts it, and the best in sport should be able to make a living through it.

    5 years is getting way ahead of yourself. Not a chance. Bring on the cash purse.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I like the competition aspect, and I like that ultrarunning is more competitive than at any point since it was revived as a sport a few decades ago. That part is great. I also like that the elites can make a living doing this. I would argue ultrarunning is the most taxing sport in the world. I’d love to see an elite-only race with a field of 100 where every runner had a legitimate shot of winning. I made a few comments about this here: http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2012/06/03/a-pissed-off-response-to-great-races-deserve-great-fields/

      My biggest objection has little to do with those that are in the sport today. I’m more concerned about the people this may attract. Look at the f-ed up world of cycling and the Tour de France. I’d hate for that type of environment to spill over into the ultra world.

    • Ashley Walsh
      June 21, 2012

      Prize money for competitive ultra runners is pretty great bc they do deserve to be paid- however, it seems that serious runners could start coming out of the woodwork to race our current elite American runners due to the drive of money… Why wouldn’t a 2:05 26.2 Kenyan start training his butt off to win a 100 mile if it offered himthe same fame and money a marathon did? As well as any other professional marathoner? It’s not like they don’t have the ability to do it, but rather there is no serious need to go farther than they do right now. Just a theory, but a possibility I guess.

  14. Derek
    June 20, 2012

    To be Devil’s advocate…what’s wrong with wanting to get paid for something you love to do and are great at (running ultras, coaching, consulting for shoe companies, etc.)? Though ultra-running’s complexion may change, the camaraderie doesn’t have to. I can run 50 miles on the trails some weekend with some friends…for free…with all the camaraderie, friendship, etc. we are each willing to bring. That’s still ultra-running…just not racing.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Derek- I’m not opposed to the money, I’m opposed to the effect money has on motivation. Why do people race ultras? Right now, that motivation is primarily intrinsic. There are very few tangible rewards. Huge prize money moves the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic, which attracts a different crowd. That different crowd can change the culture of the sport.

      • Derek
        June 26, 2012

        Your point is well taken, and one that I didn’t consider. It’s probably also easier for me to see that point of view having just finished reading your blog post about materialism :) Money definitely can have some serious negative effects on our motivation, but after keeping up with the amazingness that unfolded this past weekend at WS, I have a hard time believing that people like Timothy & Ellie will ever do races for anything other than the intrinsic rewards they expreienced.

  15. Shacky
    June 20, 2012

    Although I’ve only been running ultras for 2 or 3 years now, I have already seen a change in the culture. Some of it good, some of it bad.

    Popularity – like me, runners get bored with marathons and want a new challenge. The majority will either take up ultras or move into the Tri world. Ultras are selling out faster and faster every year. Even the local small-time trail runs are selling out now.

    Catering to the masses – Shorter distances are being added. Finish times are being pushed back. More bling.

    I’m curious if the old school trail runners wish to keep culture as it once was or if they are embracing the changes.
    And I agree with the race money thing. I think the negatives will outweigh the positives.
    It will be interesting to keep an eye on and see how things progress. We’ll have to start a new sport. I’m thinking a Pajama Shopping Cart Race Series should do the trick.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Shopping Cart PJ races… I’m in!

  16. Rob Y
    June 20, 2012

    I respectfully disagree. While the marquee races will probably go the way you describe (already see this at some of my old favorite events, Hardrock 100, Western States etc..) and other cash and carry, glitzy races will emerge (think: North Face series et al) I don’t think the whole sport will go this way. No way. One simply has to look at a current race calender and then look at a race calender from when I started in the sport back in 1995 to see that there are a TON more races and events this days compared to back then and MOST of them are indeed the small time, small race field type events that we all know and love. And there are more of them popping up everyday. As the sport continues to grow so to are folks interested in showcasing their local trail systems thus the rapid emergence of all these new events; most of which are run on a shoe-string budget. So while the marquee top end of events may go the way of the Ironman and other big corporation owned events; that is just a drop in the bucket compared to all the other low key stuff that keeps cropping up. There are plenty of opportunities now available to get out of this sport what you want; high competition for fame and fortune ;) or small family run events where camaraderie is the name of the game. It’s all there and will continue to be.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Rob, I think you’re right. The situation I describe isn’t likely to trickle down to most races… especially as more and more people seem to be doing adventure-type runs like we’ve discussed before. I think that will eventually lend itself to a proliferation of more and more low-key and fatass events.

  17. TheRunningBran
    June 20, 2012

    I would think this would just mean those not in it for the fame and fortune should simply stay out of the races that offer the big prizes, but if those happen to be your favorite courses, I can see where a problem might arise. I wonder if there has been thoughts of doing two of the same race on a course, one for prize money and the other not…a professional/amateur option for racers?

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I like this idea a lot.

  18. Kevin
    June 20, 2012

    Though I only started running ultras 2 years ago, I’ve been wondering the same thing, but with less of the “before” perspective you have.
    I was thinking about it because many of the ingredients seem to be there, not just in prize money, but in sponsorships (*cough*:) as another extrinsic reward, increasingly astounding records being broken (not every new record, but every time I see a new sensational record set, I can’t help but wonder if the winner was then taken aside for a blood test), increases in media attention, larger fields of competitors (only way to get to the TOP!), etc.

    But I don’t know that I share the 5-yr predictive pessimism. Not yet. I’ve been interested in ultras for 20 years, but only started running them 2 years ago. I came in on the current wave of public exposure and popularity. And so I’m optimistic on that piece–that ultras are enjoying a wave of popularity that can’t sustain itself due to the inherent ruggedness of the sport. I’d also be interested in seeing some statistics on how significant the increase in consistent ultra newbies is, not just those that do a single 50k and then leave the sport. A drug-use comparison to other fringe sports might be informative, too. And lastly, I guess I have to ask, how do we know performance drugs aren’t already used? I’m guessing they are, because cash prize incentives or not, there will always be that one competitor who wants an added boost and has no moral qualms about it. Couldn’t an “increase” in drug use just be perception due to an increase in actual testing?

    Interesting topic.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Interesting observation, Kevin. I would assume most wouldn’t be using PEDs if there’s no tangible reward… though winning some events (Western States specifically) can make a career.

  19. Andy
    June 20, 2012

    Just like music, art, literature, film making, etc. could all be seen to have been consumed by the mainstream, corporate world, there is still hope. All of the above have vibrant, unique DIY components to them. It takes passion and patience to find these secret societies, but they’re out there and they’re strong and they’re awesome. I believe that if and when the ultra world gets fully co-opted, those of us who choose to will still be able to find small low-key races and runs aplenty. You can’t stop the corporate juggernaut (joggernaut?) but you can always find ways around it.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      Good call Andy. ;-)

  20. Kenneth D
    June 20, 2012

    I hope for everyone’s sake, that these predictions do not come to fruition.

    I am a very late comer to the sport, and it is the very things that you talk about disappearing that drew me to the sport to begin with.

    • Chris Gkikas
      June 20, 2012

      Couldn’t have put it better, myself.

    • Jason
      June 21, 2012

      I suspect the comments several people have made will ring true- there will always be a grass-roots feel to most ultras. The flashiness will most likely be reserved for a select few races.

  21. Markthetrigeek
    June 20, 2012

    IMHO, and just like in Tris, you will lose a few races to the glitz and glam but will retain the local low key stuff. That’s where 1/2 the field not only knows each other but can pick out each others spouses and kids.

    On a related tangent, I hear the same thing is happening to Cyclo-cross. I’ve been told the hippisters have arrived. Gone are the days of old frames, crazy out fits and of course, beer. Now it’s $6K frames and $2K spare wheelsets in the pits.

    As well, such is life I guess. ;-)

  22. Bare Lee
    June 20, 2012

    “I predict all of the things that made this sport great will disappear within five years.”

    Darn, I was planning on running one in five years’ time.

    No matter what you do, it was always better before. We’re using up all the planet’s finite resources, including ultra-running.