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Way Too Long

Posted Feb 17 2011 10:53am
I may be beating a dead horse here (although based on the conversation that seems to follow anytime this topic comes up I feel like the horse is very much alive), so if you're bored with conversations about the current growth of ultrarunning and some of the questions this growth raises then you could simply opt to stop reading here, as this post will likely bore you to death.

Ultrarunning is growing in participation at an amazingly fast rate. Each year there are dozens of new trail ultras all over the country, and still almost all existing races are filling up quicker each year. Several posts I have written in the past few months have touched on various opportunities, concerns, and challenges that this growth has created. Whether it's the question of race selection process', prize money, performance enhancing drug use/prevention, championship races, potential mainstream interest in the sport, etc. - all of these things (and countless more dynamics) are on the table as valid and worthwhile conversations primarily because of the rapid growth in this sport.

Of course no one knows the exact numbers, but to me it seems like at the current rate participation in ultrarunning is doubling every few years (based simply on the fact that the number of events seem to have doubled in the past 5 years, or less, and most of them have had no trouble getting participants). Obviously this increase in popularity isn't going to continue forever, but I think that it has been drastic enough already that it's unrealistic to expect ultrarunning culture to remain the same as it has always been. When anything grows in popularity this quickly there are growing pains and there are changes which occur. In my opinion this is inevitable and therefore these conversations are inevitable and necessary. I think the approach (that a few seem to take) of denying that these challenges exist and/or blaming individuals for creating these challenges is out of touch with reality. I have heard some response to these conversations along the lines of (obviously paraphrasing to make a point here), "hey, stop trying to taint my sport by talking about prize money, championship races, and questioning race selection process'/motives."

I do believe that ultrarunning is still small enough that an individual, or a few individuals, can be a catalyst for certain changes in the sport, but it's much too large of a thing for individuals to create change. The changes are created by the overall growth and the natural challenges that occur when you are working to meet the demands of hundreds of thousands of people as compared to a few thousand people. The modest increase of money into the sport for example (specifically prize money and sponsor money) has happened/will likely continue to happen not because individuals are talking about whether this is good for the sport or not, but because of the huge growth in the sport in the past few years. Races which focus primarily and/or entirely on the competitive nature of the sport are working their way into the sport (and trust me, they are working their way into the sport) not because of the conversations that have arisen about how best to approach/structure these kinds of races, but again because of the rapid growth in the sport. Individuals who are talking about how best to deal with these changes are simply taking a proactive approach to responding to these changes. A sport with 5 or 10 times as many participants as it had 20 years ago (again a total rough estimate to help make a point) just isn't going to have the same culture that it had back then. Utopian societies work great up to a population tipping point, and once they go over that tipping point a new approach is needed. One which draws from the aspects of the Utopian society which are still possible with the larger population, but also finds logical and creative ways to work these aspects in with the challenges of the larger population. In my opinion Ultrarunning has gone beyond the tipping point of being capable of being the "Utopian Society" that it once was. I think it is now in the process of finding the best ways to blend the most desirable (and plausible) aspects of the Utopian roots of the sport in with the challenges/opportunities that have arisen due to the growth in the sport.

So, if you're still with me here I'll assume that you agree in principal to at least some of what I'm saying. Basically all I have said to this point is that Ultrarunning has been and will continue to go through some growing pains so long as it continues to grow in popularity as rapidly as it has the past few years. I have also said (in way too many words) that it is my belief that it makes a lot more sense to talk about, debate, and find ways to best work through these growing pains than it does to simply deny that they exist.

This isn't to say that everyone has to believe that these "growing pains" exist. I have heard from some people who genuinely believe that, despite the rapid growth, ultrarunning can simply remain Utopian as it has always been by collectively doing nothing. Personally I wish I believed this to be true, but as I've already said, I think we've gone well beyond this point.

Thus, with all of this said, I would say thank you to those who have had these discussions with me (and each other) here on this blog about some of the challenges in ultrarunning right now. I hope we have all learned from these conversations. I know I have. There have been some themes to various conversations, here and in other places, that have made a lot of sense to me, and then there have been others that have made little to no sense to me. Overall though, I think that these conversations (agree with the details of them or not) are an essential part of the process that ultrarunning is going through right now.

And therefore I want to go back to some of these conversations now and touch on some of the things I have thought about in response to some of these challenges/opportunities which have been brought up (gosh this post is long and getting longer, but I think it would be hypocritical of me to write a novel about the importance of talking about these things and then not talk about any of them).

The first thing I want to touch on is the Hardrock 100. A lot of people seem to think that it's a travesty that Hardrock doesn't do whatever they could to ensure entry to all top runners who want to run the race. Others think it's an affront that anyone who hasn't paid their dues to Hardrock over the years should possibly be given any kind of preference based on performance potential. Although a compelling conversation that could probably go back and forth forever, I don't think it's a very important one because Hardrock has made it clear that they are not going to change what their event is, simply because there is a steady and growing demand (by some, certainly not by all) for them to do so. As I said in a comment to my post titled, "Western States It Is," I have a huge amount of respect for the Hardrock race organization for having an idea for an event, implementing that idea, and then sticking to that idea.

The interesting thing which the Hardrock selection process highlights though, and the main thing I was trying to convey in my above mentioned blog post, is how many people (front, middle, and back of pack runners alike) seem to want a seriously rugged and challenging race like Hardrock to emerge as a race focused very seriously on the competitive nature of it. This isn't to say that everyone wants this. Of course they don't, but I think so many people do that it's inevitable we will see this soon (actually I know we will see this soon, it's not a matter of if, but rather when and where).

In the days shortly after the Hardrock lottery I received dozens of emails from people saying how bummed they were that (as we all knew and could have predicted) that Hardrock would (as always) not be a race of the top runners who wanted to toe the line on July 8th, but rather a run of the lucky 140 who were selected, mostly at random, to do so. Some of these emails were from previous Hardrock racers, some of them were from non-runners, some of them were from the select group of 140 that will run Hardrock this year, Some of them were from race organizers/directors of some of the most grassroots events in the country, and some were from other top level runners who also hoped to toe the line on July 8th. A couple of them had a tone of anger at Hardrock specifically and I responded to these with an abridged version of what I'm writing here. The vast majority of them though had a tone of frustration with what the Hardrock lottery seems to highlight most every year now. A frustration of having this sport which is growing in huge numbers, a sport which is practiced in the form of a race (which is by nature competitive), but somehow collectively holds onto this idea that it is taboo to truly emphasis the top-level competition of the sport.

Now, right here I think there is a very important somewhat divergent point to make so as to avoid some confusion which has come up within this conversation in the past. I, nor anyone I have talked to about this has any desire for all ultra events to put a strong emphasis on the front of the pack competitive aspect of these races. I have run some of the most famously grassroots, low key events out there and I believe there is a huge value, depth, beauty, and satisfaction from these events and the culture they foster. I, like most think it would be absolutely tragic if events like Hardrock were all replaced by events focused primarily on the front of the field competition. This said, I have no idea how me (and others) talking about the demand (that has been created by the extreme growth in this sport) that currently exists for a handful of championship type events is going to effect the 500 (again, random number to make a point) or so existing events which have little or no true focus on the race at the front. It would be a different story if anyone were trying to say that every race should be like this, but there just isn't the demand for that, and there never will be. In my opinion there is space right now for about one "championship" type race at each of the common distances (50k, 50m, 100k, 100m). That's 4 races. 4 races that are primarily or exclusively focused on the race at the front of the pack, and 500 that aren't. I'm just not sure what real threat those who are only interested in the 500 existing races see from these 4 potential races.

I think a good comparison for this is the current marathon racing scene. Does the fact that there are several marathons around the world that invite, pay, encourage, and/or limit their race to top level runners undercut the health, integrity, popularity, or grassroots feel of the tens of thousands of marathons worldwide who don't? Unless I'm really missing something I'm pretty sure the local, small town marathons are thriving, both in participation and in spirit. Is there actually a city out there that doesn't have a marathon, the vast majority of which are very low key and grassroots by marathon standards?

I've talked about this in the past, but I'll mention it again because of it's relevancy here: I think that the creation of events focused on the front level competition will not only not harm existing (and future) grassroots or low key events focused equally on all level runners, but rather strengthen them. Races may be forced a little bit more to choose an identity. To me this is a good thing. It's always been the races who know what they are, and embrace what they are, that have been the most appealing to me. It's worth noting that of the dozens of races out there that really seem to have a true strong identity that is really emphasized by the race and deeply understood and appreciated by the participants they are all in the direction of being really grassroots, laid back, low key events. We don't, to my knowledge, have a single trail ultra in this country that identifies itself, and embraces their own identity as a race primarily emphasizing the competitive aspect of the sport. We have a lot that try to straddle between the two (several that even do this very successfully), but certainly none that go anywhere near as far in the direction of competitiveness as Hardrock goes in the direction of non-competitiveness. Why is this? I do not know. A fluke? An oversight? It's certainly unique among competitive sports (including all other types/distances of running) in this regard. It's certainly the only sport I know of where you are likely to get criticized for saying that you are interested in competing against as many top athletes in your sport as possible. In most sports this is simply inherent. This said, I do think the abundance of non-competitive, low key events is actually what draws many new people to this sport, but I don't think this abundance would be negated by a handful of highly competitive events - again, think of the current marathon running scene.

Mentioning that I think there is space for a championship type event at each of the 4 common distances reminds me of one of the most common responses opposed to this championship race idea that I have read here on my blog as well as other places. This is the USATF argument. It generally goes something like this: "The USATF already has trail national championship races at 4 ultra distances so why don't you fast runners all get together and actually show up to the championship races that already exist?"

On the surface (as long as you don't scratch it at all) this sounds like a very logical response.

First, before digging a little deeper into the USATF thing though, I would also say that this isn't about a handful of fast runners who could simply make a plan to show up at some race and effectively turn it into a championship race. This is already happening (Rocky Raccoon a couple weeks ago was a variation of this). It happens all the time that a few fast runners decide to run a race and then several more jump on board because they want to run against other fast runners, or in many cases because their fast runner friends talk them into it. That's not what this championship demand is about. This is about having a race (or a few) that focuses on getting as many top runners as possible from around the world to race each other on the same day. Not simply an exclusive bunch who are "in the know," but instead a race which (as we see in just about every other sport in the world) hopes and works to encourage anyone who has a legitimate chance of being competitive to participate. If it sounds like a lofty aim, think about all the other sports in this world that are known about worldwide almost entirely because they have a true national or international competition exclusive to the very top athletes in that sport (think obscure Olympic sports). People from a wider audience really like following some pretty fringe sports when they feel like they are following the best who participate in that sport.

Anyway, back to the USATF point: The USATF "national championship" races are a gimmick akin to the ice cream shop I have been to in Alaska that has a sign out front that says: "World's Best Ice Cream." This sign was enough to get me to stop in there one time on a warm August afternoon. The ice cream was pretty good, maybe even one of the other flavors would have been great, but as I walked out the door I saw the Sysco restaurant supply driver unloading tubs of ice cream into the back door of the shop. We see this gimmick all the time in marketing products. Rather than working to create the best possible product companies simply state that they have the best product, when in fact what they have is the same thing everyone else has. The result: people try it once or twice and then go elsewhere looking for something better. Eventually when there are enough people demanding something better, supply rises to meet this demand.

Right now in ultrarunning we are in the midst of the supply rising to meet the demand phase. If USATF (or WS or Hardrock or Leadville or on and on and on) opted to try to rise up to meet this demand they would have a great head start (although the time may be already up for this) at being the eventual consumer's choice in regards to this particular demand. In other words just slapping the label "national championship" on a race doesn't mean it's going to happen that way if you don't also do the work to create a more appealing product than what everyone else is already putting out. I think the recent history of these USATF races has more than proven this point.

Okay, I think this touches on most of the things that I've been thinking about in terms of all of this in the past several days. If you actually read all of this, what the hell is wrong with you? If you read all of it and you feel like I have way too much time on my hands, you are probably right. If you read all of this and didn't think it was funny (regardless of whether you agree or disagree with some of my points) then I suggest reading it again (if you have another few hours to kill) knowing that I am writing most of this from a very light, ironic place with a bit of a smirk on my face. I take none of this as serious as it might seem if simply read at face value. At the end of the day, I, nor any of us as individuals, can do anything to "change" ultrarunning. Nor can any of us do anything to ensure that ultrarunning doesn't change. It's just running... for a long time. All we can really do is go out for a run.
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