Nearly two years ago when URP began, one question we consistently asked guests was “where do you think ultrarunning will be in 5 years?” Our guests generally answered a few ways with races, money, vibe, and competition being dominant factors.
Now that we’re getting close to the halfway point, let’s examine where it is and where I believe it’s going.
Races: In the past few years, we’ve seen an influx of new events, race directors, and “championships.”
Obviously, as the sport grows, the available events will grow as well. Some of these have been welcome additions, while some companies buy the rights to out of town events and organize them from a distance with the only goal of turning a profit. On the flip side, some MUT hotbeds around the country have multiple companies putting on dozens of events each year all while keeping the vibe we all appreciate. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve got 9 different events (with nearly 25 distances) in the short month of February. I’m sure there are some I’m not counting. Seattle, Virginia, and Los Angeles also enjoy deep calendars.
In addition, just a very few years ago, most US ultrarunners focused on domestic events both in terms of interest and “bucket lists.” Now UTMB has emerged as the preeminent event in the world, garnering the most coverage and landing on the majority of bucket lists.
Money: The persistent fear is that giant mulitnationals will burst into our sport, throw money around (causing rampant steroid use) and turn every cool event into a Rock-n-Roll Marathon.
There is more interest in our sport, but I think most would argue that allowing our top athletes to focus on running is a good thing, developing innovative products is a good things, and having extra events to choose from certainly benefits everyone. The market works. Events that used to be hallowed ground and “must stops” on the ultra circuit have grown too quickly and lost their lustre. Meanwhile, small events with top-notch competition and sponsors have quickly risen up the ranks of importance. Money is there, but it’s not controlling anything.
UROC offers big cash, TheNorthFace offers money, Speedgoat kicks down to winners, but there really hasn’t been a credible accusation of the steroid use we were/still are fearing. Instead, there have been solid, high-brow discussions among all levels of MUT runners on protecting our sport from this scourge.
Vibe: Has the vibe changed all that much? Yeah, there are more roadie converts at events and some of the obstacle course events muddy the water (excuse the pun), but for the most part, runners are able to choose from a whole variety of event vibes and plan accordingly.
We’re still a weird little subculture of the running subculture and most likely we’ll stay that way.
Competition: Predictions were spot-on here. Competition is getting more fierce, stout records that “could never be beat” are being torn down, and we’re seeing some post-collegiate runners who are changing the way we look at mountain running. Have the East Africans dominated the sport? Nope.
We still haven’t made it on to the front page of a major newspaper, certainly not come close to the Olympics, and still struggle to form a governing body that could organize a true “championship” event, but some websites have established themselves as voices for our collective group.
Where do I see the next few years taking ultrarunning?
- I think teams will be more cohesive and play a larger marketing role. Think Salomon for New Balance, Brooks, Inov-8, etc.
- I think there will be some crazy lawsuit that puts us all back on our heals. MUT races have been pretty relaxed on liability concerns and sadly someone will exploit that.
- We’ll still have no governing body.
- Prices will continue to rise. As more and more races offer jackets and expensive swag, prices will follow.
- The obstacle course craze will die within two years, OR the companies (Tough Mudder, etc) will buy up existing MUT events and make some hybrid-type sport.
- Timed events will grow in popularity, as will mixed running/climbing events.
- Most big events will offer prize money. If another hundo takes place in late June that offers cash, the topic will dominate our sport and races will need to adapt to stay influential.
- Records will continue to fall.
- A few “slower” East Africans will make the transition to US ultras.
So is that what the next few years will hold for us? More of the same, just faster and bigger and more frequently? How has MUT running changed in the time you’ve been running? What changes do you predict in the next few years?