By Sage Canaday
I’ve been training and racing year-round for 15 years. In the last year and a half I’ve been competing as a professional Mountain-Ultra-Trail Runner, and in that short time have become fascinated with the culture, community and history of this sport. I’ve already learned a great deal from long-time ambassadors such as Buzz Burrell and Scott McCoubrey, whose trail running roots go back to before I was even born. Guys like these, as well as super-star ultra runners like Scott Jurek (amongst many others) have helped pave the way for what the sport is today. I greatly respect and appreciate these individuals’ contributions to US ultra-trail running, and their stories of the past have provided me with context to understand how the sport is evolving now.
I believe that the sport has recently undergone some dynamic changes. A new kind of runner has emerged … a type of runner that will break course records, compete internationally, and rely heavily on support from sponsors as well as prize money from races. This is what I call “the rise of the MUT Runner”. What is this person’s background, and what are the concerns and benefits of this development?
(“MUT” is actually an official term of the United States Track and Field Association, used to designate all “Mountain”, “Ultra”, and “Trail” running activities).
Road or Track Background
Many athletes that make up this new breed of MUT Runner have backgrounds in racing cross country and track as well as successful careers running road races. Take for example last weekend’s North Face 50 mile Endurance Championships in San Francisco (which many consider to be the national championships of ultra-trail running at 50 miles). Both the top two runners in the men’s and women’s races have backgrounds in racing on the roads and/or track at shorter distances:
1. Rob Krar: ran a 3:44 1500m for Butler University and also a 1:05 half marathon on the roads.
2. Cameron Clayton: competed for the storied University of Colorado athletic programs in both cross country and track.
1. Michele Yates: 2:38 marathoner who competed in the US Olympic Trials twice.
2. Magdalena Lewy-Boulet: 2:26 marathoner who competed in the 2008 Olympics.
These MUT Runners are examples of athletes with a diverse range of backgrounds who have competed (or are still competing) in events ranging in distance from 1 mile to 100 miles on a wide variety of terrain. I believe that as the sport continues to grow, more and more of these MUT Runners will come on the scene, pushing the pace and setting new course records.
For decades numerous road and track runners were paid to run, while almost no MUT runner did so; there are now numerous people trying to make a living doing what they love. The “professionalism” of such top MUT Runners, as well as the influence of sponsorship, international race series, and prize money are changes that concern many in the sport. For most ultra-trail runners in the US, rising entry fees, difficulties gaining entry to events, and environmental impacts from a growing number of race participants are tied to “commercialization” in the sport. Many question (and fear) that the tight-knit community of trail runners who used to gather informally to run an ultra, eat hearty food, and drink craft beer is now being threatened. Many ultra runners see some of these changes in the sport leading us towards events for “the masses” such as large-scale road marathons.
Furthermore, with top MUT Runners competing for prize money, world rankings, and sponsorship opportunities, there is a concern that athletes may be tempted to use performance enhancing drugs. The discussion of drug-testing at events seems to make many uncomfortable as comparisons are being made to what has occurred on the road, track and of course cycling scenes.
I think these are all legitimate concerns (and personally I’d like to see out-of-season drug testing), but I also think that this evolution of the sport has many positive attributes: So far, from what I’ve experienced in the past 1.5 years, the Mountain-Ultra-Trail running community is still a close knit group of caring individuals. The support both in person at races and also on social media, is full of inspiration and motivation. As ultra runners we are all still (and will always be) united by the challenge of the sheer ultra-distance and humbled as a collective by the climbs and terrain. There will also still be post-race food and beer drinking, and the passion that many trail runners possess for the outdoors will help keep environmental concerns in check.
Also, compared to the mainstream professional sports, the access of communication to top MUT runners is very open. We all still toe the same starting line, and have the same feelings of exhaustion (and elation) during a race. Blogs of epic long runs, FKT efforts, and live race-day coverage all fill a niche on the web and are often shared generosity across social media platforms by fellow runners. I believe all of these changes in the sport are positive.
When sponsors invest marketing dollars in an athlete, invest in a person instead of an advertisement, that helps that individual to perform at a higher level, ensuring that he/she can compete against other top runners around the world.
Finally, the MUT Runners are working symbiotically with their sponsors to create innovate gear and new products. Most of the Ultimate Direction products that I use for example, were created in collaboration with a top-level runner.
These improved products from such sponsors help make the sport more enjoyable for every runner, and help them to get the most out of their running. For the MUT Runner moving through an aid station quickly, new innovative (and often light-weight) gear can make the difference between winning a race or finishing as a runner-up as margins of victory are now often be measured in seconds rather than minutes.
MUT FIlm Project
This evolution of the sport in terms of this new breed of MUT Runner, (along with the influences of prize money, and corporate sponsorship) has fascinated me so much that I’ve started work on producing a documentary film about the topic.
Here’s the trailer for this video project:
I hope you like it, and please post your Comments and suggestions below!
Ultimately, we have the power to shape the future of the sport ourselves, through what we do, what we say, and where we spend our money. We can pick and choose which races and brands to support and we can continue to remain outspoken with our opinions. I believe that the future of mountain-ultra-trail running is in good hands as long as we follow our hearts.
See you on the trails,