My running background is track(sometime in the 80’s-98) and then strictly road races until 2009, so the focus of my running has always been results. Those who know me know I never sign up for races just to run for “fun,” there is always a goal or result I am looking for. Like many other track and road runners Steve Prefontaine, and his gutsy style of racing sits in the back of our minds. In high school my track coach’s motto was a famous Pre-quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I know this sticks with me, and is at the heart of many other runner’s drive to race, and be competitive. It is a gift that many of us have a love and ability to run, and with that, the drive to do well usually follows. As a runner I gauge myself against others, and against myself and the part about running I love. I love seeing the results of long hard hours of training in my racing.
With that said, in the last two years I have met and been running with a great trail group that is made up of many runners who are out on the trails for the love of the sights, smells, and sounds of the woods and opened my eyes to signing up for races purely on the pictures or the elevation the website boasts. Whereas, in road running, the flatter the course, the faster the course is…hence the allure to many faster runners.
This slower, “enjoy nature” approach to running certainly makes sense to me, when trail running. For many people, trail running seems to have been more about testing your limits, enjoying your surrounding, and if you have a good race that is an added bonus. The races were picked by the views, and the terrain covered, not by how fast the race course was. Until more recently it seems that if a runner was after a fast goal, they were looking at marathons, and shorter sprint track races. In my observation, it seems that perhaps in the last several years, these fast road and track runners have moved over into the sport of trail and ultra running.
With the popularity of ultras and the blending of trail runners and road runners now in Ultra races, it makes complete sense that the focus would turn to faster times. As a matter of fact, there is a whole culture, and website devoted to fastest known times, or FKT’s.
Another trend that is gaining popularity are track ultra’s. Most recently Zach Bitter just broke the 100 mile track record at the Desert Solstice 24 hour race in Phoenix AZ. Meanwhile, at the same race, Pam Smith ran an amazing race as well, setting a new American and World 100 mile track record of 14:11:26. (She was also the female winner of the 2013 Western States as well) Previous American track best was Ann Trason’s 14:29 and World best was Edit Berces 14:25
With all these speed records being broken, its no wonder that faster people are being drawn to the sport, and when faster runners are drawn to a sport, the focus will follow suit. I think that what will further this trend in 2014 is the fact that the line up for Hardrock (one of the most well know 100-milers in the US) is packed full of fast ultra runners and should be very exciting. I am really looking forward to this coming year’s Hardrock!
Of course, while the faster and/or harder races and racers have gained popularity in the media, it doesn’t deter new people of all abilities to come out to trail races. With more people wanting to try a trail race, and qualifying standards becoming more difficult, it seems to have made the fat ass more and more popular. As a matter of fact, just this year alone, there are two local ultra Fat Asses (Sherpa John explains the history of the Fat Ass) that have popped up between now and March. Just last weekend I went with some friends over to Umstead Park in Raleigh to join in a 50k Fat Ass. This non-event was about as far removed from the Desert Solstice’s of the ultra scene. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure if anyone ran the whole 50k. Sure there were fast runners that took off leaving many of us in the dust, but most of them only ran 10 miles and then went home. For me it was my first long run sine Pinhoti 100 so I was just out with friends to have fun, and try to get my legs back. I was happy with 24 miles, just enough to be hungry for that evenings TrailHead’s Christmas party.
So in my opinion, no, there is not too much emphasis placed on competitive restults in ultra running, or trail running in general. Humans are competitive by nature, and the emphasis put on it just makes for exciting reading, and inspiration for many. There is still a wide variety of runners who sign up for ultras for the fun of it. Just the excitement of toeing the start of any trail race is still enough for many people, and being able to read about other’s who have been breaking records in “your” sport is thrilling.