Growing Pains - Page 2
Ultrarunning women's fields have deepened in recent years. Petra McDowell treads the Continental Divide en route to victory (ninth place overall) in the 2007 San Juan Solstice 50-Miler, Colorado. Photo by Brian Solano.
Along with sheer racer numbers, race-entry fees have crept upward. During the recent economic downturn, such costs have grown especially apparent, when many athletes are already feeling the pinch at the gas pump and everywhere else. But has it mattered?
“If Western States decided to have a $750 entry fee, I bet it would still fill,” says Greg Loomis, a veteran ultrarunner living in Falls Church, Virginia.
Loomis may be right. Despite the rising cost, demand for trail ultras has not waned.
In 2008, the JFK 50 stunned many when the entry fee hiked up to $135—a major price tag for a 50-miler, which typically runs in the $75 ballpark. Email discussion groups lit up with vitriolic rants. Some turned personal, even dredging up the RD’s reported income for managing the race. But more than three months before race day, the event still reached its cap—the earliest in its luminous 43-year history.
Are entries truly reaching the point of being unreasonable? Compared to road marathons, the answer is “no.” The Chicago, New York and Los Angeles Marathons average $124 each for entry fees ($110, $166 and $95, respectively)—a whopping $4.72 per mile.
By contrast, look at the cost of trail 100s. Recently, Mike Mason of Charlotte, North Carolina, summarized all trail 100-miler entry fees (see www.irunfar.com). The average entry comes to $174. The $1.74 cost-per-mile makes the road marathons look like highway robbery—quite literally.
Even the highest-priced trail 100s—Western States, Leadville and Hardrock—average “only” $238, or $2.38 per mile.
Still, trail ultrarunners balk at the cost and are looking for bargains. Says Loomis, “All I know is that the Rocky Raccoon costs about one-third of Western States and offers good or better aid, course markings, buckles, awards, pre and post-race feeds, website, results and goody bags … You tell me where the extra money that Western States charges goes!”
“It costs us much more than $295 [the Western States entry fee] to get a runner to the finish line,” explains Western States Board President, Twietmeyer. “If we had to charge for all the time and effort put into the race, the entry fee would be in the thousands. We manage the run to break even every year.”
Buzz Burrell, manager of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team, holds a hardball opinion: “Is a race making money? If so, then some should go back to the runners. Most ultras are labors of love … but the few actually making money should share it, because without the top runners bringing recognition to the event, the sponsors would shy away, and they wouldn’t be making that money.”
With more and faster runners entering the sport, the talent pool has deepened, and records are crumbling quicker than melting Patagonian glaciers. At the same time, racers are clamoring for true championships. After the 2008 Western States lottery, when several elite runners failed to gain entry, discussion snowballed at www.wasatchspeedgoat.com. The main driving force was the desire for a true championship-caliber race featuring all the top runners, lottery and qualifiers aside.
Helping to fuel this issue is a changing competitive landscape. Kyle Skaggs, who shattered the Hardrock 100 record in 2008 by over two hours, and a tsunami of others who have stormed onto the scene in recent years—are redefining what is possible. They bring collegiate cross-country pedigrees and beefed-up training regimens to the sport, and that’s quickened the pace at which records are falling:
< Anton Krupicka, 24, churned out two of the top three fastest times ever at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2006 and 2007, plus new records at the 2007 Collegiate Peaks 50-miler (Colorado) and Moab Red Hot 50K in 2008 (Utah).
< Not to be outdone by his brother, Kyle, Erik Skaggs, 26, won the prestigious Quad Dipsea 28.4-Miler, coming within 38 seconds of the “untouchable” record [set by Carl Anderson in 1992].
< A fresh crop of women runners like 24-year-old Jenn Shelton (2008 American River 50 winner) and more seasoned newcomers like Susannah Beck, 39, and Anita Ortiz, 44, are giving traditional favorites a run for their money. Beck took the 2008 White River 50 USATF Championship—with a course record, no less.
With due respect to the sport’s fresh blood, the latest rush of new records actually began to pick up the pace five years ago, when sub-2:30 marathoners like Uli Steidl, Greg Crowther and Matt Carpenter embraced the sport. On the women’s side, stars like Nikki Kimball and Kami Semick—perhaps reacting to more competitive race fields—continue to break record after record.
“Suddenly, so many of us feel really slow,” says 30-year-old Bryon Powell from Washington, DC, host of the popular blog www.irunfar.com.
So what’s the problem with runners ripping it up? Well, with so many races vying for attention—from USATF Trail Championships (for 50K, 50-Mile, 100K and 100-Mile distances) to The North Face Endurance Challenge events to any Montrail Ultra Cup race—it’s difficult to (1) find a consensus on a true championship race, and (2) provide a big enough carrot to attract enough elite runners to make one crown legitimate.
The biggest carrot thus far has been The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, a 50-mile dash for cash that awards $10,000 to the winning male and female and $4000 for second place. Although this is still an event in its infancy—2008 is its second running—it’s already drawn some never-before-seen matchups, including an epic showdown between Matt Carpenter and Uli Steidl in 2007. Other “championship” payouts range from a few hundred dollars to $1000 for a USATF Championship to $2500 cash for the Montrail Ultra Cup.
Burrell has long been an advocate for elite competition. “We need to recognize the people who have dedicated their lives to running really long distances,” he says.
Yet even some elites aren’t sold on the idea of one singular championship as a cure-all for the sport. Take Jasper Halekas, who won the 2007 USATF 100-Mile Trail Championship and finished third at this year’s 50-Mile title race. “I can’t decide whether the ultra community would really be any better with one universally recognized championship,” he says. “I guess it’s better for the one person who wins that race, but does it really do anything for anyone else? Especially given the iconoclastic, do-your-own-thing ethic that seems to pervade ultrarunning.”
One idea posed by Burrell is to create an ultra version of the existing World Marathon Majors, where the top several ultramarathons form a circuit that awards points, culminating in a true championship that changes hands each year. To ensure the inclusion of top racers, the races would either allow only elite runners or would agree to set aside a generous number of entries for elite runners seeking entry at any time.
And then there’s the issue of whether other runners actually care about the top level in the sport—and those who have a realistic chance of carrying home an oversized novelty check. Do middle-of-the-packers care about a true championship?
Even Kyle Skaggs, who stands to win money at championship races, says, “That’s not the biggest concern for me. I do it because I love it.”
Not Gary Knipling, a 65-year-old runner from Mason Neck, Virginia, with over 75 finishes under his belt. “I would guess less than 10 percent of runners actually pay attention to championship races,” he says. “They don’t have any meaning to me.”
The sport’s long-timers argue that the good old days ended when events starting filling up. They claim the casual, quaint, low-key charm of trail ultras is endangered.
Ainsleigh waxes poetic about the earliest Western States 100 races. “Back then, from Foresthill [Mile 62] to Auburn [finish line], I wouldn’t see a single other runner,” he says. “There are just so many people out there now.” And, for Ainsleigh, that’s too bad. “There’s a valuable experience to running through the night-time wilderness alone—one that brings growth and virtue.”
One year, Ainsleigh stopped at an aid station and talked to a guy for 20 minutes. Why? “I was lonely,” he says.
“Ultrarunning was much more of a social event in the 1980s, with post-race dancing and partying to all hours,” he says, remembering races like the Cow Mountain 50 near Lake Mendocino, California. “We competed like hell, but it’d never get in the way of a good party.”
“I might differ with Gordy,” says Knipling. “I don’t see that much change,” he says. “That’s the thing I look forward to at Massanutten Mountain 100—my incentive to reach the finish line is being able to yuck it up with my buddies.”
Whether the sport is irretrievably changed depends on perspective. “The good old days are still easy to find,” says Greg Loomis. “My club [Virginia Happy Trails] has an average of one Fat Ass event per month free of charge to club runners. We use three real races as fund gatherers for the rest of the year’s events.” Fat Ass events, completely informal and often non-competitive runs, have become a fun alternative to the intense environments of the big-time, high-demand races.
Paul Melzer, a 51-year-old ultrarunner from northeastern Maryland who co-directs a few low key runs in the mid-Atlantic region (www.traildawgs.com), also advocates lower-key races. “I’ve lost most interest in attending the ever more bloated, formal races,” he says. “I have no interest in seeing the sport continue to grow.”
Finally, Ainsleigh offers sage advice to anybody longing for the sport’s days of yore. He says, “Go to one of the lesser-known mountain 100 milers, and you’ll get the same experience I had in 1978.”
But, despite the crowds and some other growing pains, it’s still tough to find a bigger advocate for the sport than Ainsleigh. “The trails are still there, the rattlesnakes, bears and mountain lions are still there,” he says. “We have the best sport in the world … we really do.”
Garett Graubins is former Senior Editor of Trail Runner.