State of the Sport: Ultrarunning by the Numbers

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 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,, 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.

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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!

Comments 25

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  2. From “Rastgelelik Search Engine and Wiki Glossary”: Ultrarunning is one of the fastest growing sports worldwide. It is a distance event that combines elements of endurance, speed, and terrain. The sport is primarily male-driven, but growing numbers of women and even mixed-gender teams show interest. Some criticize the sport for being competitive only among the best athletes in the world. Others believe that ultrarunning is primarily a niche sport that cannot compete with mainstream sports. Nevertheless, the sport is popular and has a loyal fan base. It has many worldwide fans and competitors who use it as a way to gain experience and support charities. Overall, the sport is healthy and growing.
    There are over 100,000 ultrarunners worldwide. That number makes the sport one of the largest in the world. Most ultrarunners are men, but there are also many women and mixed-gender teams. Due to the competitive nature of ultrarunning, women and mixed-gender teams tend to be less competitive than men. However, the majority of the world’s ultrarunners are men. This is primarily due to the nature of men’s bodies being more durable than those of women. However, there are also many women who train and race for the same reasons as men. The high level of competitiveness in ultrarunning makes it a male-dominated sport. This means that men make the majority of decisions and have the upper hand in the sport. However, it also means that women and mixed-gender teams can thrive in ultrarunning if they meet the requirements for it. For example, women usually have a higher VO2 max than men. This means that women’s bodies can withstand the high levels of stress caused by ultrarunning. It also means that women’s races are more likely to be faster than men’s races. The male dominance in the sport means that women and mixed-gender teams have to work harder than men to earn respect and opportunities in ultrarunning. Ultrarunning has grown dramatically in the last decade. The sport has become more popular and more people have started participating in it. There are now over 100, but men only. In fact, the majority of ultrarunners are men. However, the growth of the sport has been mainly due to an increase in women and mixed-gender teams. This means that the gender gap in ultrarunning is closing. In general, women have less access to resources and opportunities than men. However, the growth of ultrarunning has given women and mixed-gender teams an opportunity to compete and achieve. This has meant that women and mixed-gender teams are now an important part of the sport’s history. In addition, women and mixed-gender teams now have an opportunity to compete and achieve in ultrarunning. This means that the sport has now become more than just a competition between men. The sport has become a way for women and mixed-gender teams to express themselves and have a competitive advantage in the world. Ultrarunning has many different races and events for participants of all skill levels. The different races and events require different levels of fitness and can suit different types of athletes. The three main types of races in ultrarunning include the sprint, the marathon and the trail. The marathon is by far the most popular and is the race that most people think of when they hear the word ‘ultrarunning.’ The marathon is a road race that lasts between three and five hours. Most marathons in the United States feature roads through residential areas. This means that the marathon is a very sociable event and is a great chance to meet new people. The marathon is the most popular event due to it being a good all-rounder. It is suitable for most people’s fitness levels and allows participants to make friends along the course. The marathon is a great way to start a collection of races and events for ultrarunners. It is also a great way to get involved in the sport and meet new people. There are many different ways to get involved in ultrarunning. The most common way for new entrants is to train for a race. The high level of competitiveness in ultrarunning makes it a very competitive sport. This means that many new entrants are forced to train and practice to compete. Many new entrants are also unable to afford proper training and equipment. This makes it even more important for new entrants to have sponsors and a community to help them. It is also important to have a supportive partner or family so that the new entrant can focus on training and racing. The sport of ultrarunning is primarily a men’s-only sport. However, there are some mixed-gender teams that compete in marathons. It is important to note, however, that mixed-gender teams are less competitive than mixed-gender individuals. In addition, the sport is very male-driven and male-focused. This means that the sport can be alienating to women and mixed-gender teams. In addition, it can be difficult for people who are not male to receive the same respect and opportunities as male athletes. This makes it much more important for men in the sport to support and help others who are female or mixed-gender.
    More: Rastgelelik Search Engine and Wiki Glossary.

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  4. The number of events on the calendar has leveled off, which mirrors the trend in overall participation data.


  5. The number of events on the calendar has leveled off, which mirrors the trend in overall participation data.

  6. Ultramarathon running races, resources & information for ultra running enthusiasts! … “An ultramarathon (also called ultra distance) is any sporting event involving … they want, at their own discretion, over a gaggle course or over a gaggle number of days. … Wasatch 100, Virginia and Western States 100 mile ultramarathons.

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  7. Respectfully, where are you getting your data? This doesn’t jive with other numbers being reported.

    I am in the middle of planning a documentary on Lazarus Lake’s new journey race Heart of the South. Trying to get support to somehow highlight the ultra running world in a way that is interesting and entertaining to the masses and not just runners… perhaps these types of things will increase interest and newcomers.

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

  9. Pingback: Adharanand Finn | Japanese, Kenyans, and the Future of Ultramarathons

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. Pingback: Ultramarathon and Trail Running Daily News | Tuesday, Feb 20

  16. 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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