In Stride

The culture of running

Reality Check: Ultrarunning Is Still Not Mainstream

Despite growing popularity, the much-talked-about sport remains on the fringes of the endurance world.

Ultrarunning is undeniably more popular than it was several decades ago. Nonetheless, those who fear the sport has become mainstream aren't seeing the full picture. (giorgio1978/iStock)
Photo: giorgio1978/iStock ultrarunning

Despite growing popularity, the much-talked-about sport remains on the fringes of the endurance world.

Ultrarunning, or running any distance longer than a marathon, has grown in leaps and bounds since the 1974. That’s when Gordy Ainsleigh, a logger and construction worker, decided to take on 198 horses as the sole runner in a 100-mile race between Squaw Valley and Auburn, California. Ainsleigh completed the course in 23 hours and 42 minutes, laying the first footsteps on what would eventually become the storied Western States Endurance Run.  

Since then, the sport has mostly lived on the fringes of endurance, growing a small but loyal community of people who like to be alone with their thoughts and with nature, eschewing the common features of commercial events: Blow-up arches; MarathonFoto; Big corporate sponsorship. But the increase in participation and overall interest has some veteran ultrarunners grumbling about the changing vibe of the sport. We’re here to say: Calm down. Ultrarunning is still pretty damn counterculture. 

To be fair, ultrarunning has certainly become more mainstream since the 1980s, when Ultrarunning magazine pegged the total number of ultrarunners at 2,980. Due, in part, to the successes of Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, and the book Born to Run, ultrarunning has grown considerably in the past ten years, bringing in a more diverse group of participants—notably more women and younger runners. Races fill up quickly and popular races like Leadville and Western States have had to institute a lottery system to select each year’s participants. Both lotteries fill up within days of their opening dates.

There’s also growing corporate sponsorship in many events. The North Face now sponsors several of ultrarunning’s biggest races, including The North Face 50 in San Francisco, and The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 100-mile race in France.  Lifetime Fitness, a large fitness conglomerate, purchased the Leadville racing series in 2011.

All of those changes have long-time ultrarunners concerned. For Ashley Arnold, winner of the 2013 Leadville Trail Run, the increase in participation has had a few negative results. “I worry that wilderness areas aren’t always respected,” she tells Outside, “and more people on the trails has affected the solitary experience of running.” 

The bite of overcrowding is mostly felt by the average ultrarunner, as demand for spots in iconic races like the Leadville Trail 100 and the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) has far outstripped supply. (For the WSER, the chances of being one of the lucky 270 drawn in the lottery will soon be below five percent.) Elite ultrarunners are able to bypass the lottery as the top 10 male and female finishers of the WSER and other elite athletes are given automatic entry into the race.  

Josh Colley, race director for the Leadville Trail 100, believes that ultrarunning’s popularity is fueled by runners looking for something more. “People are naturally drawn to the next big challenge,” he says. 

But here’s the reality check, ultrarunners. While the number of finishers in U.S. ultras rose from 15,500 in 1998 to 69,573 in 2013, it still falls well short of the 541,000 runners that finished marathons last year. In fact, an entire year’s worth of U.S. ultra participants is barely more than the 60,000 runners that participate in Atlanta’s annual Peachtree 10K Road Race. 

Ultimately, many think the growth of the sport will do more good than harm, says Dean Karnazes, the ultrarunner often credited with—and blamed for—bringing the sport into mainstream consciousness, even appearing on shows with David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. “Sure, I might have attracted more people to the sport, but that’s opened up a whole new level of opportunity for others to be part of something they are passionate about,” he wrote in an email.

“Ultimately,” Karnazes says, “ultrarunning is still a confrontation with self, a battle of you versus you and that spirit is still alive and will always thrive by virtue of the sport being so physically and mentally demanding.”

Filed To: Running / Ultrarunning