Growing PainsThe sport is booming. But are skyrocketing demand, escalating race fees and other issues threatening the core of trail ultrarunning?
Recently bursting onto the ultrarunning scene with impressive wins and course records, young guns Tony Kupricka and Kyle Skaggs join for an early September training run near independence Pass, Colorado. Photo by David Clifford.
This article appeared in our December 2008 issue.
Most trail ultrarunners find beauty in the sport’s simplicity. Count Joe Prusaitis as one of them. The 53-year-old from Austin, Texas, fell in love with trail ultrarunning nearly 15 years ago. It was the sport’s low-key, just-run nature that drew him in.
“I went to races that had 20 to 50 runners,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s 300 to 400 runners.”
Prusaitis fondly recalls the Tumblebug 100K in Bandera, Texas. The RD would get Hanes plain cotton tees, and hand-draw a tumblebug on each one. “And he was not an artist,” says Prusaitis. “We didn’t care. We just wanted to pay our money, run the course and have water put out for us.”
At many races, Prusaitis says wistfully, “Aid stations were just water jugs under a tree. Sometimes they still stunk of Dr. Pepper.”
Today Prusaitis directs the Rocky Raccoon trail ultras in Huntsville, near Houston. This year, the Raccoon drew 411 runners to its 50- and 100-mile courses and those diehards were greeted with aid stations more akin to smorgasbords. What’s more, they went home with more than a tumblebug drawing. “Runners expect a lot more now,” says Prusaitis.
But the sport’s changes go far beyond aid stations and schwag.
Bursting At The Seams
More than 403,000 road-marathon finishes were recorded in the USA in 2007 (www.marathonguide.com)—an increase of over 100,000 since 2000. That figure represents yet another growth spurt from previous road booms. For decades, roadies have devoured the pavement to the applause of millions of fans.
Through most of road running’s success, trail ultrarunning relaxed on the fringes, watching from the comfort of a camping chair. Athletes continued to complete distances of 50K, 50 miles and 100 miles to the sound of 10 people clapping.
Fact: Trail ultras will never equal the turnout at the most modest road events (the country’s largest “trail” ultra is the JFK 50 in Maryland, with 1300 runners covering a mix of singletrack, gravel and asphalt). A primary reason is that participant numbers are essentially capped by the event permits issued by bodies governing the open spaces, national forests and BLM lands that races tread.
And what happens when you force a swollen size 12 foot into a size 10 shoe? It bursts at the seams.
The evidence lies in hardcore races such as the Massanutten Mountain 100 (Virginia), Western States 100 (California), Miwok 100K (California), Vermont 100 and many 50-milers that reach their caps quicker every year. Some do so in a matter of minutes via online entries.
With the increasing demand, new races are popping up like wildflowers on a high alpine trail. In 1996, there were 17 trail 100-milers in the United States. In 2008, there were 49 (see sidebar), with more rumored to be in the works.
“Some believe we might be into our second running boom. Others think it’s the whole fitness, green, active lifestyle that’s being drummed into us,” says Tim Twietmeyer, Western States 100 Board President, who has been running ultra distances for almost three decades. “All I know is that the events that I’m around, the demand is at an all-time high.”
How Did We Get Here?
Trail ultrarunning, as most know it, is 34 years old. 1974 was the year a wild-haired lad named Gordy Ainsleigh, then 27, tackled the 100-mile Tevis Cup horse race sans equine. Prior to that, there had been occasional long-distance races with trail sections-—the JFK 50 included—but Ainsleigh’s run broke new ground for the sport and, four years later, became the Western States 100.
“I never dreamed trail ultras would get this big,” says Ainsleigh. “I thought we might have three or four 100s around the country.”
But, as more runners have looked for alternatives to joint-obliterating pavement and many road marathoners have turned to trails, the greater supply of trail races has not kept up with demand.
From 1990 to 2005, Western States and other trail ultras saw steady growth. The Wasatch Front 100 in northeastern Utah’s rugged mountains, had 122 runners in 1993. By 2003, there were 217—with a lengthy waitlist. The revered Angeles Crest 100 in Wrightwood, California, had 63 runners in 1996. By 2000, there were 167.
The last five years have launched trail ultras into a higher orbit. Tia Bodington, Race Director of the Miwok 100K, a race in the coastal mountains north of San Francisco, recounts the last few years:
2005-—We did mail-in and online entries. Everybody got in by race day.
2006—Mail-in and online, filled in a couple of weeks in January.
2007—Online only, filled in two hours.
2008—Online only, filled in 10 minutes.
The huge spike in race demand has caused some new problems for the sport and shed a fresh light on others that have sat dormant until now.
Lottery Ticks And Online Clicks
At precisely 8 a.m. Pacific Time on December 10, 2007, Rob Evans and his wife, Kate, intended to hop on active.com to register for the Way Too Cool 50K, held March 8 in Cool, California. Problem: only one of them could be on their computer at a time. So Rob called his parents and attempted to navigate them through the process.
Evans explains, “Kate got in, my parents tried to register me but were not quick enough.” The race filled in a little over 11 minutes.
In the end, Evans ran the race—he was wait-listed and gained entry one week later. He was one of the lucky ones.
Way Too Cool, which has taken as little as seven-and-a-half minutes to reach its 450-runner limit, is the poster child for high-demand trail ultramarathons. Bill Finkbeiner of Auburn, California, who has run every one of the 12 Way Too Cool races, remembers the race’s humble roots: “It was put on by a local couple, just as a fun run … they never intended it to mushroom into a huge deal.”
And, while many races use online registration or first-come-first-served mail-in entries, others have resorted to lottery systems in an attempt to give runners a fairly weighted chance of entry. In some lotteries, every entrant is given an equal chance of being picked. In others, entries are weighted according to a number of factors such as previous race finishes (with bonus points for top placing), race volunteering and whether they have been unlucky in previous lotteries.
“A FCFS [first-come-first-served] system would unfairly penalize those who are farther away or have inefficient postal service,” says Blake Wood, Vice President of the Hardrock 100 Board of Directors. “Our foreign runners would be particularly impacted.”
Even elite runners encounter problems getting into the big-name races. Karl Meltzer, who has won more than 15 trail 100s, struck out in the 2007 Western States 100 lottery. Scott Jurek, who won the 2007 Hardrock 100 in record time, was wait listed in the race’s 2008 lottery. So was Darcy Africa, previous winner of the prestigious Wasatch Front 100. Some Grand Slam hopefuls (those attempting to complete the country’s four oldest 100-milers in the same year—Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch) admit that it’s easier to get an entry through the Grand Slam “loophole” than via the lottery.
And past champions aren’t shoo-ins, either. At Western States, says Twietmeyer, “There is no specific past champions rule as the number of champions is also growing. If runners are worthy of being included in the field, they’ll get in through special considerations, as long as they enter with everyone else before the lottery.”
Even 23-year-old wunderkind Kyle Skaggs, who in 2007 set a new course record at the Wasatch Font 100, could not gain entry into the 2008 Hardrock 100, landing eight spots deep on the wait list (he didn’t win the lottery in 2007, either). Skaggs eventually got in and crushed the course record, but 161 other wait-listed hopefuls never saw the starting line. (Editor’s note: Beginning in 2009, Hardrock will change its policy, allowing automatic entry to past champions.)
The best solution may be for racers to eschew the “name-brand” races, and sign up for the plentiful, less-popular—but high-quality—races. This scenario played out in 2008, when several runners turned to the nearby Tahoe Rim Trail 100, a stunningly scenic ultra around Lake Tahoe from the Western States starting line. Several other runners, including eventual top three TRT finishers Erik Skaden, Mike Wolfe and Nikki Kimball, turned to the race after Western States was cancelled due to forest fires. The TRT subsequently filled up—and the positive post-race buzz and reviews have some runners already ruling out Western States and looking at TRT for 2009.
“[Western States] is off my radar now,” says Sam Thompson, an accomplished endurance runner from Seattle. “I find myself looking for obscure races that aren’t going to fill 24 hours after they open their website.”