(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
January 1999. John McGee spoke while still under the influence of his longest run ever. He didn’t finish the 50-mile race that he’d conceived in Edmonton, Alberta. But he went far enough to feel elated over the day that took him well beyond what his training should have allowed.
“The ultras could be the future of running,” he said while sat watching other runners continue their five-mile loops. “They pose a new challenge for all of today’s marathoners who are looking for something new and different.”
I didn’t disagree at the time. You don’t argue with a lawyer, even a tired lawyer – which McGee is and was.
But thinking about his statement later, I’d say that ultrarunning as now conducted is less the future of the sport than its past repeating itself at new distances. Today’s ultras bear a strong resemblance to yesterday’s marathons – small, obscure and peopled by the sport’s fringe element.
Most ultras go unnoticed beyond the pages of their own magazine, Ultrarunning, just as marathons went unreported outside of Long Distance Log a generation ago. Ultrarunners are seen as eccentrics and extremists even by lesser runners, just as marathoners once were.
Some runners prefer to be abnormal. They like to go where the crowds do not, to the courses less traveled – which means both far different and much tougher than the norm.
“Normal” ends today with the marathon. The runners who flock to these events are attracted by the crowds and the excitement they generate, as well as by the chance to run a course proven to be fast.
But we have always had a certain, preferably small, group that refuses to do what everyone else does. When running was largely confined to track and cross-country for school athletes, the dissidents broke away and ran on the roads. When shorter road races grew popular, they moved to the marathon.... then to road ultras, then to off-road treks.
To find an exclusive race, a runner must now search for one that is very steep or very long – and usually both. Hundred-mile mountain races spread across the country from Vermont and Old Dominion to Leadville and Western States now satisfy the urge to be different.
Their starting size is often limited by qualifying standards and by how many runners the trails can support – which suits the entered athletes just fine. They want their club to stay exclusive.
If ultras are to grow into “the future of running,” they must take a different course than ever-longer, ever-tougher. They must go in a different direction from the avant garde of ultrarunning — to, if these two words can go together, easier ultras.
For ultras to grow, someone would need to provide more races that are more accessible steps up from the marathon, such as 50K to 50 miles. Someone would need to bring ultras down to the flatter trails and roads, which emphasize running and not mountain-climbing ability. Some would need to create a North American counterpart to the 54-mile Comrades in South Africa that everyone wanted to run.
I don’t see any of this happening. Then again, I never would have thought in the 1960s that marathons would go where they’ve gone.
2018 Update. Trail and ultra races have grown in number and size since this column appeared, but not explosively so. The degree of difficulty might always keep these events relatively exclusive compared to traditional road races. Trail/ultra runners seem to like it this way.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]