The 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 Krupicka and Kyle Skaggs join for an early September training run near Independence Pass, Colorado. Photo by David Clifford.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published 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.
While ultrarunning has radically grown in the past years, once you’ve snagged an entry, out on the course, it’s all about gritting it out. Duncan Callahan and his pacer cool their heels during the 2008 Leadville 100-miler, Colorado. Photo by Rob O’Dea.
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.”
Ultrarunning women’s fields have deepened in recent years. Petra McDowell treads the Continental Divide en route to victory (ninth place overall) in the 2007 San Juan Solstice 50-Miler, Colorado. Photo by Brian Solano.
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.
Don’t let the logos fool you. Ultrarunners aren’t making a living plying their passion. Hiroki Ishikawa takes on the burly 2005 Hardrock 100-miler in Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Topher Donahue.
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.”
Ask ultrarunners why they do it, and you’ll frequently hear it’s for the camaraderie. 2008 Leadville 100-miler winner Duncan Callahan and his crew celebrate post-race. Photo by Rob O’Dea.
Along with sheer racer numbers, race-entry fees have crept upward. During the recent economic downturn, such costs have grown especially apparent, when many athletes are already feeling the pinch at the gas pump and everywhere else. But has it mattered?
“If Western States decided to have a $750 entry fee, I bet it would still fill,” says Greg Loomis, a veteran ultrarunner living in Falls Church, Virginia.
Loomis may be right. Despite the rising cost, demand for trail ultras has not waned.
In 2008, the JFK 50 stunned many when the entry fee hiked up to $135—a major price tag for a 50-miler, which typically runs in the $75 ballpark. Email discussion groups lit up with vitriolic rants. Some turned personal, even dredging up the RD’s reported income for managing the race. But more than three months before race day, the event still reached its cap—the earliest in its luminous 43-year history.
Are entries truly reaching the point of being unreasonable? Compared to road marathons, the answer is “no.” The Chicago, New York and Los Angeles Marathons average $124 each for entry fees ($110, $166 and $95, respectively)—a whopping $4.72 per mile.
By contrast, look at the cost of trail 100s. Recently, Mike Mason of Charlotte, North Carolina, summarized all trail 100-miler entry fees on iRunFar.com. The average entry comes to $174. The $1.74 cost-per-mile makes the road marathons look like highway robbery—quite literally.
Even the highest-priced trail 100s—Western States, Leadville and Hardrock—average “only” $238, or $2.38 per mile.
Still, trail ultrarunners balk at the cost and are looking for bargains. Says Loomis, “All I know is that the Rocky Raccoon costs about one-third of Western States and offers good or better aid, course markings, buckles, awards, pre- and post-race feeds, website, results and goody bags … You tell me where the extra money that Western States charges goes!”
“It costs us much more than $295 [the Western States entry fee] to get a runner to the finish line,” explains Western States Board President, Twietmeyer. “If we had to charge for all the time and effort put into the race, the entry fee would be in the thousands. We manage the run to break even every year.”
Buzz Burrell, manager of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team, holds a hardball opinion: “Is a race making money? If so, then some should go back to the runners. Most ultras are labors of love … but the few actually making money should share it, because without the top runners bringing recognition to the event, the sponsors would shy away, and they wouldn’t be making that money.”
25-time sub-24-hour Western States 100-miler finisher and WS 100 Board President, Tim Twietmeyer (pictured at the 2006 WS 100) says demand for races is at an all-time high. Photo by Luis Escobar.
With more and faster runners entering the sport, the talent pool has deepened, and records are crumbling quicker than melting Patagonian glaciers. At the same time, racers are clamoring for true championships. After the 2008 Western States lottery, when several elite runners failed to gain entry, discussion snowballed at www.wasatchspeedgoat.com. The main driving force was the desire for a true championship-caliber race featuring all the top runners, lottery and qualifiers aside.
Helping to fuel this issue is a changing competitive landscape. Kyle Skaggs, who shattered the Hardrock 100 record in 2008 by over two hours, and a tsunami of others who have stormed onto the scene in recent years, are redefining what is possible. They bring collegiate cross-country pedigrees and beefed-up training regimens to the sport, and that’s quickened the pace at which records are falling:
- Anton Krupicka, 24, churned out two of the top three fastest times ever at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2006 and 2007, plus new records at the 2007 Collegiate Peaks 50-miler (Colorado) and Moab Red Hot 50K in 2008 (Utah).
- Not to be outdone by his brother, Kyle, Erik Skaggs, 26, won the prestigious Quad Dipsea 28.4-Miler, coming within 38 seconds of the “untouchable” record [set by Carl Anderson in 1992].
- A fresh crop of women runners like 24-year-old Jenn Shelton (2008 American River 50 winner) and more seasoned newcomers like Susannah Beck, 39, and Anita Ortiz, 44, are giving traditional favorites a run for their money. Beck took the 2008 White River 50 USATF Championship—with a course record, no less.
With due respect to the sport’s fresh blood, the latest rush of new records actually began to pick up the pace five years ago, when sub-2:30 marathoners like Uli Steidl, Greg Crowther and Matt Carpenter embraced the sport. On the women’s side, stars like Nikki Kimball and Kami Semick—perhaps reacting to more competitive race fields—continue to break record after record.
“Suddenly, so many of us feel really slow,” says 30-year-old Bryon Powell from Washington, DC, host of the popular blog iRunFar.com.
So what’s the problem with runners ripping it up? Well, with so many races vying for attention—from USATF Trail Championships (for 50K, 50-Mile, 100K and 100-Mile distances) to The North Face Endurance Challenge events to any Montrail Ultra Cup race—it’s difficult to (1) find a consensus on a true championship race, and (2) provide a big enough carrot to attract enough elite runners to make one crown legitimate.
The biggest carrot thus far has been The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, a 50-mile dash for cash that awards $10,000 to the winning male and female and $4,000 for second place. Although this is still an event in its infancy—2008 is its second running—it’s already drawn some never-before-seen matchups, including an epic showdown between Matt Carpenter and Uli Steidl in 2007. Other “championship” payouts range from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 for a USATF Championship to $2,500 cash for the Montrail Ultra Cup.
Burrell has long been an advocate for elite competition. “We need to recognize the people who have dedicated their lives to running really long distances,” he says.
Yet even some elites aren’t sold on the idea of one singular championship as a cure-all for the sport. Take Jasper Halekas, who won the 2007 USATF 100-Mile Trail Championship and finished third at this year’s 50-Mile title race. “I can’t decide whether the ultra community would really be any better with one universally recognized championship,” he says. “I guess it’s better for the one person who wins that race, but does it really do anything for anyone else? Especially given the iconoclastic, do-your-own-thing ethic that seems to pervade ultrarunning.”
One idea posed by Burrell is to create an ultra version of the existing World Marathon Majors, where the top several ultramarathons form a circuit that awards points, culminating in a true championship that changes hands each year. To ensure the inclusion of top racers, the races would either allow only elite runners or would agree to set aside a generous number of entries for elite runners seeking entry at any time.
And then there’s the issue of whether other runners actually care about the top level in the sport—and those who have a realistic chance of carrying home an oversized novelty check. Do middle-of-the-packers care about a true championship?
Even Kyle Skaggs, who stands to win money at championship races, says, “That’s not the biggest concern for me. I do it because I love it.”
Not Gary Knipling, a 65-year-old runner from Mason Neck, Virginia, with over 75 finishes under his belt. “I would guess less than 10 percent of runners actually pay attention to championship races,” he says. “They don’t have any meaning to me.”
The sport’s long-timers argue that the good old days ended when events starting filling up. They claim the casual, quaint, low-key charm of trail ultras is endangered.
Ainsleigh waxes poetic about the earliest Western States 100 races. “Back then, from Foresthill [Mile 62] to Auburn [finish line], I wouldn’t see a single other runner,” he says. “There are just so many people out there now.” And, for Ainsleigh, that’s too bad. “There’s a valuable experience to running through the night-time wilderness alone—one that brings growth and virtue.”
One year, Ainsleigh stopped at an aid station and talked to a guy for 20 minutes. Why? “I was lonely,” he says.
“Ultrarunning was much more of a social event in the 1980s, with post-race dancing and partying to all hours,” he says, remembering races like the Cow Mountain 50 near Lake Mendocino, California. “We competed like hell, but it’d never get in the way of a good party.”
“I might differ with Gordy,” says Knipling. “I don’t see that much change,” he says. “That’s the thing I look forward to at Massanutten Mountain 100—my incentive to reach the finish line is being able to yuck it up with my buddies.”
Whether the sport is irretrievably changed depends on perspective. “The good old days are still easy to find,” says Greg Loomis. “My club [Virginia Happy Trails] has an average of one Fat Ass event per month free of charge to club runners. We use three real races as fund gatherers for the rest of the year’s events.” Fat Ass events, completely informal and often non-competitive runs, have become a fun alternative to the intense environments of the big-time, high-demand races.
Paul Melzer, a 51-year-old ultrarunner from northeastern Maryland who co-directs a few low-key runs in the mid-Atlantic region, also advocates lower-key races. “I’ve lost most interest in attending the ever more bloated, formal races,” he says. “I have no interest in seeing the sport continue to grow.”
Finally, Ainsleigh offers sage advice to anybody longing for the sport’s days of yore. He says, “Go to one of the lesser-known mountain 100 milers, and you’ll get the same experience I had in 1978.”
But, despite the crowds and some other growing pains, it’s still tough to find a bigger advocate for the sport than Ainsleigh. “The trails are still there, the rattlesnakes, bears and mountain lions are still there,” he says. “We have the best sport in the world … we really do.”
AGAINST ALL ODDS
The nation’s toughest race entries
- Western States 100 | Auburn, CA (2008: 1,300 people in the lottery. 369 got a bib)
- Way Too Cool 50K | Cool, CA (2008: filled in under 12 minutes)
- Miwok 100K | Sausalito, CA (2008: online registration booked in 10 minutes)
- Hardrock 100 | Silverton, CO (weighted lottery: 2008 saw 354 applications for only 140 spots. First-timers have an especially difficult time breaking through.)
- Mount Mitchell 40-Miler | Black Mountain, NC (Only 125 slots issued for this historic climb up the East’s highest mountain)
- Massanutten Mountain 100 | Front Royal, VA (In 2008, all 160 race slots filled in two hours)
BACK IN TIME
Want to know what Western States was like before it became, well, Western States? Try these trail ultras where a casual vibe thrives. Better yet—you don’t need much luck to get a race bib.
- Arkansas Traveller 100 | Ouachita National Forest, AR | www.runarkansas.com
- The Bear 100 | Preston, ID | www.bear100.com
- Superior 100 | Two Harbors, MN | www.uppermidwesttrailrunners.com
- Headlands Hundred | Sausalito, CA | www.pctrailruns.com
- Hellgate 100K | Natural Bridge Station, VA | www.extremeultrarunning.com
- Vermont 50 | Brownsville, VT | www.vermont50.com
- Mohican 50 & 100 Miler | Loudonville, OH | www.mohican100.org
- Moab Alpine to Slickrock | Moab, UT | www.mas50.com
- Speedgoat 50K | Brighton, UT | www.karlmeltzer.com
- Run Rabbit Run 50 | Steamboat Springs, CO | www.steamboat50.com
- Dick Collins Firetrails 50 | Oakland, CA | www.firetrails50.net
Garett Graubins is former Senior Editor of Trail Runner Magazine.