Friday, December 9, 2011

Ultrarunning as an Egalitarian, Outlaw Sport

I ran my first ultra in 2005 and was quickly hooked. Over the past few years, I've taken to learning as much about ultrarunning as I could. I've read nearly every book about ultrarunning that I could find, including a few--like this one and that one--that are exceptionally good. I've watched several ultrarunning films (this one and that one remain the best I've seen to date). One thing I've learned about ultrarunning--or at least I think I've learned--is that this sport has a long tradition of being egalitarian and outlaw in nature. What do I mean by that?

We all know about the running/jogging boom that swept the nation in the 1970s, during the time of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. At about this same time, when many folks were getting into recreational running, modern-day ultrarunning began taking root through the work of pioneers like Ted Corbitt of New York City, Gordy Ainsleigh of California and others. What followed was the development of a sport that directly contrasted with the proliferating jogging movement and big-money road racing. Ultras were held across the nation, attracting next to no attention. The sport largely existed in the shadows, and that was OK to the few who toed the line in races.

Ultrarunning's growth in the 80s was never really about money; it was about people wanting to test their limits and go the distance on trail and road. Even today, most races are still put on by volunteers and operated on a shoe-string budget. In an era of million-dollar professional athletes, the prize for winning an ultramarathon has traditionally been squat, save a buckle if it's a 100-miler, maybe a medal, and in some cases a trophy like the famed Cougar at Western States. Which is to say the sport has traditionally treated its winners (elites) no different than its mid-packers and back-of-the-packers. In fact, many races celebrate the last-place finisher, like at the Mohican 100, which awards a hand-made "Last of the Mohicans" trophy. Another example of the sport's egalitarian nature can be seen in the legendary Hardrock 100. Hardrock makes everyone enter its lottery, with no reserved spots for anyone--not even the best mountain runners in the world--except those who have previously finished the race. A lottery is unfortunate, but I applaud Hardrock for its ability to create a system that favors no one except its own. I think somewhere along the line the egalitarian nature of ultrarunning wasn't an organic, "accidental" phenomenon, but rather an intentional goal.

Most incredible about ultrarunning is the fact that its participants are a humble lot. This is extraordinary. To run distances of 100 miles or more and yet maintain a humble nature says a lot about the average ultrarunner. I think it says that when you reach the depths of your soul, as many of us do in long races, you find out what really matters in life--perseverance, belief in self, family, and, for me, the knowledge that true strength comes from something far greater than I (dare I say God?). As is often the case, after an epic race we're back in the office on Monday morning and say nothing of what we did over the weekend.

I voice these thoughts because they're really on my mind (maybe this is what happens when you're injured like I am right now with Achilles tendonitis). With the steady emergence of prize purses, feature-length documentaries spotlighting elite ultrarunners, and Tour de France-like racing teams bankrolled by corporations, I can't help but wonder if the egalitarian, outlaw nature of the sport is becoming a thing of the past. I hope not. My greatest hope for ultrarunning is that we never lose sight of what makes this the greatest sport of all: the fact that we're all like-minded, united and equal, regardless of skill or talent level, in our love of testing our limits by running a long way on road and trail.


  1. I'm not an ultra runner but I admire them. Great post.

  2. Great post. I'm not an ultra runner but I admire what you guys do.
    love your blog too.

  3. Nice post Wyatt. WS 100 was on the ABC wide world of sports 25+ years ago, and they had prize money. Imagine the intensity of the dialog and the defense of tradition back then! They even had prize money at WS then.. Did the sport devolve since then?
    The sport will always be grassroots and uncorruptible: it takes too much soul to run 50+, 100K, 50 mile, 100 mile, and so on.. This is not a spectator sport; everyone is bashing through the woods and over yon hills, rarely in sight of the camera. This won't ever sell product, so sponsors won't ever latch on too deep. No worries; the more things change the more they stay the same.
    Nice blog, BTW.. Dave

  4. I'm new to the sport (one 50 Miler) and have been reading up as much as I can on it, including this current debate about whether money can corrupt it. Its hard for me to imagine it though, given the distances can so quickly humble the participants. I think the big money sponsor out there wants a sure thing (Ie: Usain Bolt) and Ultra-Running just isn't a sure thing. But, who knows, I don't think anybody would have expected a book like Born to Run to succeed so well so maybe the sport could eventually truly grow big. But, I doubt it.

    Great post, enjoy the Blog.

  5. On a bit of a side note on the egalitarian thought...I'm curious about the demographics of the participants. My interest in ultras and trails brought me to the blogosphere. It certainly seems to be made up of a decidedly narrow demographic. I guess this makes some sense. But are the actual participants (surely not everyone blogs) as narrow in scope?