Long-distance trail runners hope to follow a similar path in a bid to raise the profile of a sport that has experienced significant growth but has yet to become even a blip on the competitive sports radar.
Instead, ultramarathoning (any race of more than 26.2 miles) on trails has been characterized by sporadic and chaotic development. Events haven’t been able to keep up with demand, fields are limited by government restrictions on trail use, access for spectators and media is hampered by difficult logistics and there is no unified championship as there is in marathoning and triathlon.
“Anyone who is reasonably competitive wants to see [the sport] grow,” said Karl Meltzer, who holds the record for most victories in 100-mile races. “But for the mid-packers especially, it’s a bummer that people can’t get in because of the limited field size and how many join the lottery.”
According to the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), the number of trail races has more than tripled since 2000 to 2,400 events, and the number of participants has grown from 90,000 to 230,000.UltraRunning Magazine reported the number of runners who finished ultra-length trail races increased from 15,500 in 1998 to 52,000 in 2011. Though participation still does not compare with marathoning — 518,000 people finished U.S. marathons in 2011 — ultramarathon trail running has grown as much in the last four years as it did in its first 27.
A few of the most prestigious ultras — including the Western States Endurance Run in California and the Leadville Trail 100 and Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, both in Colorado — attract as many as eight times the number of applicants they can accommodate. Despite offering little or no prize money, they serve as unofficial championships.
Elites sometimes have trouble securing spots in lotteries because of the sport’s philosophy that races are not so much competitions between athletes as they are battles between the runner and the course. That has helped prevent a regular major competition between elites that might draw media attention and sponsors who could put up larger purses and support the sport’s growth.
Nancy Hobbs, ATRA’s executive director and chairperson of the USA Track & Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail Sport Council, has been working for more than 15 years to create national championships. But without sponsors, purses remain in the $1,000 to $8,000 range, and the events remain small.
“When you get into the ultrarunners, [some] run all the time, and others like to pick and choose events. Many ask, ‘Why not have one event?’ ” Hobbs said. “We don’t have the money to put there. . . . If there was a [large] purse of money we might have a different program.” A series of smaller races also allows for greater inclusion, she said.