State of the Sport: Ultrarunning by the Numbers

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By Jason Koop
CTS Coaching Director, Author “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”

From an insular position within the sport of ultrarunning it can seem like everyone is running 50k and 100-mile events these days, so I really appreciated reading the participation data from Gary Wang at realendurance.com compiled from the early 80s through 2017. There is a lot of interesting info in the summary, and I think it provides a useful snapshot of the “State of the Sport”. In my view, these are the top 3 takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Fewer New People Are Entering The Sport

In 2017 I attended 18 races supporting athletes. If I happened to see you at any of these, you likely heard me (lovingly) say ‘It’s just the same group of idiots at every race’. Turns out, there’s some truth to that. There has been little change in the number of total finishers between 2014 and 2017, the number of events has leveled off after a period of growth, and the number of first-time finishers has declined the past two years. Assuming the overall finisher rate remains relatively constant from year to year, all of this indicates fewer new athletes are entering the sport. This isn’t necessarily cause for alarm; the sky is not falling, but it illustrates an important point about ultrarunning: There is no current catalyst for growth. The last catalyst that spurred a surge in new participants was Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run”. The tricky thing about catalysts like a book, movie, or charismatic personality is that they are nearly impossible to predict or orchestrate. These catalysts have happened in other sports, too. There was a surge in archery participation after “The Hunger Games” movies were released. During the early years of his career, Tiger Woods’ success spurred growth in golf, particularly from a younger and more economically diverse demographic. Ultrarunning cannot necessarily manufacture our next catalyst for growth, but we can keep our collective eyes open and be opportunistic when it presents itself.

The flip side to any large catalyst is that it eventually the effects will come to an end. While many races, equipment companies and even coaches have ridden this last wave of participants into ultrarunning, time will only tell if they are around two or three or 10 years from now. If history is any indication, the strongest, best positioned entities with the best products and services will be left standing. This is good for the sport. Over long periods of time, quality reigns supreme and weaker payers, previously buoyed by the rapid influx of participants, eventually are weeded out.

Takeaway #2: Event Promoters Must Focus on Quality

The number of events on the calendar has leveled off, which mirrors the trend in overall participation data. During the nearly 10-year period of rapid growth in the number of ultrarunning events, there was enough participant demand for promoters to throw a new race on the calendar and attract a field large enough to make the event economically viable (not often profitable, but at least viable…). Now that the participant numbers have leveled off and new participant number is down, event promoters must compete for a stagnant or diminishing number of runners.

The pressure on promoters to put on a high-quality event is increasing. With a stagnant audience, ultrarunners will gravitate towards events that suit their values. Events will need to be properly permitted (which should always be the case), care for the environment (there’s no excuse not to have a cupless race), offer up a challenging and aesthetic course, and hopefully in most cases, support their local community.

Takeaway #3: Ultrarunning is not mainstream (yet)

This may not be earth-shattering news to you, but it is still an important point to remember. Many of us spend the majority of our time and focus on ultrarunning, either professionally or personally, or both. It can be easy to lose sight of the sport’s true position in the public’s consciousness or on the sporting world’s radar. The reality is, ultrarunning is a very small sport. According to RealEndurance’s data, there were nearly 127,000 ultramarathon finishes in all of 2017. That sounds incredible, until you realize there were 141,977 finishers in just the TOP 4 marathons in the United States in 2017 (NYC Marathon: 50,766; Chicago Marathon: 44,508; Boston Marathon: 26,400; Marine Corps Marathon: 20,303).

The good news about being a small sport is that ultrarunning has a vibrant and engaged community. You see that in the plethora of Patrons supporting content creators such as irunfar.com, ultrarunnerpodcast.com, Billy Yang and the Ginger Runner, to name a few (go support them, by the way). A great community is the foundation of any successful sport, and the ultrarunning community is one of the most supportive, positive, and encouraging communities in all of sport. The not-so-great news about being small is that the sport hasn’t reached a critical mass where growth progresses on autopilot. About 20% of the unique ultramarathon finishers in 2017 were first-timers. By itself that sounds pretty good, until you realize that if the overall finisher count is stagnant, we’re losing about as many ultrarunners as we’re adding. The next time you’re on the start line, look at the 10 people around you. Two of them weren’t ultrarunners last year, and two of them won’t be ultrarunners next year.

Summary

The sport of ultrarunning is at an important plateau. At times of rapid growth or free-fall decline, there is little time to plan ahead or consider what you want the future to look like. There’s only time to react. With the number of participants, events, and finishers relatively constant right now, the sport of ultrarunning is just jogging along. The key to getting back to a stronger pace is to engage our vibrant community to improve retention (keep the runners we have from stopping) and increase recruitment (give runners a reason to bring new runners into the sport).

If there is one quality ultrarunners have in spades, it is resiliency. We persevere irrespective of the current conditions or future forecast. It is this quality that makes me confident our sport will continue to thrive, continue to improve, and then subsequently continue to grow. In time there might be another catalyst that leads to a surge in participation, but until then it’s up to us!


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Comments 14

  1. Pingback: Rob Goyen | Race Directing and the MUT Industry

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  3. Really interesting! Thanks! – I think to notice a tendency in comments above to equal trail running = ultra running. That is not correct. An ultra is any running event, regardless of course surface, longer than a marathon (>42.195 km/26.2 mi). A trail run is a running event primarily run on a non-paved surface, a trail, regardless of distance.

  4. I wanted to add that it seems like race fees have doubled in the last 8 years or so and all the bigger races have lotteries and are much more expensive than most city marathons, which is very discouraging to new comers. Millennials especially just don’t have the excess spending money to put into 2-5 races a year after hoping they get in to the ones they want.

  5. I would like to point out that another possible explanation for a leveling off of the overall finisher count could be that as runners get more experienced many come to realize that running fewer races per year is more sustainable. The common desire to run longer races as an ultra runner gains experience adds to this effect. Thus, we may not be losing 2 ultra runners for every 2 that come into the sport. Frankly, I don’t know a single runner who has abandoned the sport entirely, but I know several that race far less frequently. Finally, a lot of runners came into the sport for the community that surrounds it and not for the racing side of the sport. As a race director, this was an interesting article nonetheless, and I agree with the recommendations about putting on quality events.

  6. That may be true for America (States, Canada and Mexico) but definitely not true for Europe. Unless of course you limit the sample size to Ultramarathons, but even then road races are probably stagnant, mountain and nature environment races literally exploding.
    More races (multiple every weekend) and more participants. Trail, Mountain and Sky Running are among the fastest growing sports.

  7. Muy buen articulo.
    Creo que es responsabilidad de nosotros los entrenadores, en formar atletas capaces de afrontar este tipo de carreras. Estoy co vencido que el motivo del abandono de una actividad que te apasiona son por dos motivos , lesiones y agotamiento mental. Ambos están relacionados con una llegada rápida a estas distancias, me refiero con rápido a que el se quemaron etapas y no se logró la adaptación anatómica funcional y tampoco la suficiente madurez deportiva.
    Un abrazo a todos

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  9. Thanks for the heads up Jason. Here, in Quebec, it looks like we are still on the growth period. Road running seems to have reach a plateau a couple of years ago and the number of events starts to dwindle. On the trails, there are new events and/or new distances every year. We are always a bit late to the game. Maybe because the French versions of books like Born to run are always published a couple of years later than the originals. We also got 2 books written by Quebecers published two years ago that brought attention to the ultrarunning scene. I would be curious to see the stats for ultrarunning in Quebec over the last 10 years. It will only by my fourth year running ultra, so I’m still a newbie but, like you, I see the same bunch of idiots at the start line every time and it’s comforting. 🙂

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