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What the Next Ultrarunning Boom Will Mean for You (and Me)

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

I’m bullish on the future of ultrarunning. During a time where many ultrarunners are loathing a fall and winter devoid of racing, suffering from flailing motivation and a peering into the prospect that 2021 will be more of the same, I’m optimistic. If trail and ultrarunning were a stock you could buy and sell, I’d be backing up the truck and sinking every last cent I have to invest in the inevitable growth.

And I’m doing just that.

We’ve made the decision to hire new ultrarunning coaches by the end of the year as well as a coaching development director that will oversee the entire coaching department. I’m smack in the middle writing the 2nd edition of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning and have committed to an audiobook version, too. I invested in a converted Ford Transit van to better support athletes for their upcoming adventures. 2021 camp planning is in full swing and I am actively clearing my plate for upcoming races, camps and adventures.

And fact is, trail and ultrarunning is perfectly set up to not only thrive, but expand post-pandemic. Already, trail running races are among one of the first mass participation events to restart, as they are perfectly set up for social distancing, have small footprints, and are easier for local agencies to permit. Traditional road races and triathlons are poorly equipped to manage these variables and will have longer roads to recovery. As a consequence, road runners and multisport athletes faced with a longer path back to racing will naturally gravitate to the trails. Despite more people walking and running while they were working at home and gyms were closed, shoe sales were down between 50-65% in March 2020. The bright spot? According to NPD, Hoka One One and On Running sales were increased in March 2020, and the Deckers Outdoor Corp’s third-quarter earnings call reported that, “HOKA brand global sales increased by 64% versus last year to a record $93 million.” Growth in participation and trail shoe sales does not simply mean more lottery entrants and crowded trails to navigate. It also means development, innovation, competition and progress. All of this is good for you, so long as you are open minded and play your cards right. So, here’s how you can thrive alongside this ever-changing world of ultrarunning.

Races will innovate. Tag along.

Let’s face it, the races are hurting. Many race directors cancelled their events this year, and many more will forgo their 2021 edition. Some races have already seen their last edition, choosing (or having been forced to) to close up shop entirely rather than wait out the pandemic. Of the races that can and choose to operate, they are, shall we say, a bit odd. Start times are staggered. Crews are discouraged. Other ‘races’ don’t even have everyone run the same course at the same time. Yet, the races still happening still have waiting lists, despite the (sometimes necessarily) over-contrived formats. The demand is there, and it will continue to grow.

The silver lining around the current race situation is that runners and race directors are being forced to be more creative. The traditional notion of preparing for an event where there’s a common start line, communal finish line, standardized route and formal timing is being disrupted out of necessity. And, this innovation will be good in the long run. Already, we’re seeing a flood of FKT’s (see recent attempts on the Colorado Trail and Nolan’s 14) and interest into non-traditional race formats.

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What does this mean for everyday athletes? You will have greater choice, different outlets and more things that inspire you to challenge yourself. So, I encourage you to go along for the ride. Try out a virtual race, design an FKT to do in your backyard stomping grounds, or plan on doing a race without pacers or crew. Some of these you’ll inevitably find inspiration in, some will not be your cup of tea. But you won’t know until you try!

Larger organizations are coming into the mix. Play ball.

Trail and ultrarunning races, particularly in the US, have historically been a low-key affairs. Largely reliant on small mom-and-pop type operations, the barriers to entry are relatively low and rely on elbow grease and inspiration as opposed to financial capital and strategic planning. It’s an infrastructure that to date has been difficult to corporatize, demonstrated by the fact there are many small race organizations and very few larger ones. But this is changing. Obstacle race powerhouse Spartan is running trail and ultramarathon races within select Spartan events. Ironman recently purchased ultrarunning icons Ultra Trail Australia and Tarawera. The writing is on the wall that more and more larger corporations are going to want part of the ultrarunning pie. This is a good thing.

Competition, whether in athletics or business, is a good thing for the end user. And, ultrarunners are going to benefit from this competition. Runners will have their pick of large, small, overly hyped, and humbly low-key races. All of these have different benefits and drawbacks, but the sheer variety will be good for the sport. So, let’s play ball.

Once most of the races come back on-line expect the mix of large, small, hyped and humble to look slightly different. Larger race organizations will (at least partially) fill the void left by smaller ones who will not be able to scale as quickly to meet rising demand. And just as I think runners should explore new formats, I think runners should explore these new race set ups as well. You might find your cup of tea and you might not, but do yourself a favor and at least see what they are all about.

Equipment will get better. Get some.

With the rise in demand, equipment manufacturers are going to have to keep up. Hydration vests, shoes, lighting and poles will all see dramatic degrees of variety and customization to capture the expanding audience. If you have never found a hydration pack that fits just right, or a pair of shoes that does not cause your third toe to blister, you likely will in the coming years. Gear will get more functional and comfortable at the same time. Watches will last longer and be more accurate. And better mapping capabilities will enable runners to safely explore more of the outdoors than before. The great thing here is that all you have to do is explore some and enjoy it! Smile when your pack is so light you’ve forgotten you had it on or when you have forgotten to charge your watch for two weeks. Let out a little giggle as you shred down a new trail, confident in that you have the right amount of traction.

These upcoming changes will be good for you and for the sport as a whole. They won’t happen overnight, but they are inevitable. When they come around, we should embrace them. They will be here to stay, and so will we.

Comments 10

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  3. What is so important about “growing” the sport, making it bigger, getting corporations involved? Trail and ultrarunning is fine just the way it is!!! Growth is not always better, in fact it usually causes more problems…

  4. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Wed, Sep 23 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  5. Sadly ultra running will become overpopulated, run by business and end up being full of weekend warriors…exactly where Ironman was and is!

    1. Darren, I get where you are coming from, but running is the great equalizer. Wealth does not make you run better. I have seen more people at local trails since March 2020 than I have ever seen. But our trail running “product” can certainly be spread around. Put in other words, there can be no caste system in ultra running when the currency is in the pockets of those willing to put in the time and work. We will always be able to choose the races we want to run, but I bet ultras—in the long run—will bring more people together for the right reasons. That is better for all of us. Let’s hope so, at least.

  6. The van is one bad ass piece of gear!!! And I love gear. Who’s the conversation company?
    Will you have specific coaches for us old masters guys because you know we’re a different breed….and increasing? I’m 63

  7. Best news this year. Thanks.
    Can you share ant details about the trail/ultra running coaching certification piece, you are working on? Is it USATF?

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