Friday, March 15, 2013

The Future Of Ultrarunning

The Future Of Ultrarunning
Hypothesis: The Parallel Paths Of Trailrunning, Fastpacking, and Thruhiking Eventually Intersect

Wherein I address the question, Is the introduction of bigger prize purses at trail races a positive or negative thing overall?

by Ras

     As I have been oft heard to quip, I am a backpacker who became a back-of-the-packer, although even that pedigree is dubious. But trail culture is definitely my foundation. The practices and accoutrements of road and track running are foreign to me, sometimes downright offensive. Give me a trailhead over a starting corral any day. (I live in cattle country, so I'm uncomfortable being corralled. Neuterdom and the slaughterhouse are two common destinations for which a corral is a layover point.) I pack it in and pack it out. Images of bulldozers pushing up mounds of plastic cups horrify me. 'Leaving it all on the course' is an alien concept to me. My worldview presupposes the need or desire to cover the same amount of mileage again this afternoon, and tomorrow.

     When you finish running or fastpacking or thruhiking a long trail, there is no one to cheer, no beverages and barbecue, and no lane bordered with colored flags leading to an inflatable finish arch, a novelty sized clock display, and a smiling race director. The tourists look at you sideways, wondering if you're safe to approach, and only you know what you have just accomplished. And no one hands you a check.

     Prize purses are a product of road and track running culture, as are many other common practices at trail races. I don't have a moral or ethical objection to using financial enticements to elicit elite performances, a carat on a stick if you will, but I take issue with the extremely narrow scope of achievement which is celebrated in road and track culture.  In a paradigm where speed is the only ideal, that end shapes its own means and defines the character of it's races.

     Distances have to be standardized. Measurements must be precise. Yes, 50k is an unnaturally round number (although 31 miles has a seemingly organic awkwardness to it), but standardized distances make it possible to compare times across the country, around the world, and on a variety of not dissimilar courses. (Try juxtaposing the results of the Boston Marathon, the Comrades Marathon, and the Barkley Marathons and you'll quickly see.) But whether it's a traditional 26.2 miles, a 5k, or a 100 miler, the measurement defines the marathon and the distance decides the course.

     Is this a positive or negative thing overall? Neither. It's just what it is. It's a factor, a shaping force in the evolution of trail running.

     Prize money can draw elite runners, and I'm the first to admit the excitement of witnessing the fastest of the fast face off. I love the long term strategy of a physical and mental contest that stretches out over hours and hours. And while races such as the Chucknut 50k and Speedgoat 50k have done an excellent job of using monetary prizes to bring top competition their way, not a few of the best showdowns in recent years have been at Western States, where no prize money is on offer.

     The reality is that the majority of trail runners, the bulk of the pack, the 99%, will never touch a podium, let alone cash a prize check. In essence, elite runners are playing a different game than most of us are. They are competing in a different sport: Competitive Running.

     Here begins the prognostication. I foresee a future wherein the trail running scene, through an accelerated form of natural selection, becomes apportioned into specialized niches. I believe we are already seeing this. 

     Competitive Running will continue toward homogeneity. As sponsors invest more and more money into athletes and races, they will expect those athletes and races to produce more and more money. This will be accomplished not by bringing the average person onto the trail, but by bringing trail running into the average person's living room via television and internet. 

     Multiple loop courses will become de rigueur because they facilitate broadcasting. The smaller the loop, and the more laps required to make the distance, the less race and media infrastructure will be needed to create a network quality sports show. A fleet of cameramen is far more affordable than a fleet of helicopters, which would be needed to film a point to point 100 miler. Profits will increase, and with them will come all the baggage and benefits of any professional sport.

     Conversely, Adventure Running, running for challenge, achievement, and experience, will follow its bliss away from the trappings and limitations of Competitive Running.  

     I foresee the advent of the Age of the Non-Standard Distance, organic distances based on geographic features. Classic trails, mountains, and rivers will define race courses. Upon completion of the 93 mile Wonderland Trail around the base of Mount Rainier, in Washington State, one doesn't think, "Just seven more miles and it would have been perfect." Running around The Mountain is enough, and if 93 is the number, then 93 is just fine. In trail culture each trail stands on it's own as a test piece. How does the Tahoe Rim Trail compare to the Rim to Rim to Rim? It doesn't. It doesn't have to. The trail, the environs, and the geographic features define the course. The measurement is an afterthought.

     New paradigms of achievement will arise. Speed will still be valued, but not at the expense of everything else, more in terms of efficiency. Style, in the alpine sense of technique or methodology, will be more highly revered. Sustainability in every sense will become a paramount ethic; not only in terms of making use of the natural world in a way that preserves it, but also in a way that preserves the athlete and promotes their well being and continued striving. Unsupported, self supported, and multi-day events will proliferate, allowing fastpackers and hikers to participate in some of the same events as ultrarunners and trail runners. Fastest Known Times, Only Known Times, Thruhikes, and Peak Bagging will capture the imagination and ambitions of greater numbers of runners. 
     But this is a trajectory that was plotted well before substantial prize money came into play. Large prize purses are a factor, a breeze, an influence, but not an evolutionary force in and of themselves. The real force driving this evolution is the human drive to push, to test, to challenge, and to find that elusive new thing under the sun.


  1. Wow! What a great piece, it brought back a perspective that I kind of lost. It doesn't matter how fast you travel because at the end of the day you all still covered the same piece and you get the same respect. Thank you for that Ras!

  2. I like your perspective on Ultrarunning. Great post!

  3. This was so refreshing to read, especially since this morning I read a range of opinions on the subject compiled by Trail Runner (see -- comments from bloggers on the effect of prize money on the sport). After nearly two decades of competitive road racing followed by trail racing/running, I look back on my best "race" and experience, at it was a non-standard-distance, multi-day, self-supported remote adventure (the Grand to Grand Ultra last fall) ... so I will likely follow you and your prognostication to Adventure Running rather than Competitive. Thanks for the post -- glad to discover your blog. (mine's at

  4. This was amazing to read, and somehow made me tear up just a bit....?
    Thank you.
    I came across this while researching thruhiking the TRT, it was a refreshing break from stats & logistics.