I first joined the culture of Ultra Running in 2005. I can't recall how many ultras there were in the country back then but I can attest to the fact that it was certainly a lot less then we entertain now. This was in a time before Dean Karnazes had written his book Ultramarathon Man. In the latest edition of Ultrarunning Magazine, the numbers are in from 2011 and I must say; that I'm not surprised by the continued growth of our sport. However, I think that perhaps the speed of our growth has indeed surprised others.
Ever since Dean's book first came out, the conversation has labored on about how this sport will continue to grow. Much of the "old school ultra guard" defended that the growth in population of our sport during 2006 and 2007 was merely a blimp on the screen. A flash in the pan where some marathoners read DK's book, decided they too could run 100 miles, would eventually complete the distance and fade out into the past as quickly as they appeared in the present. Boy were they ever wrong...
Ultrarunning Magazine (March 2012) tells us that by 1980, 2,890 individuals had finished an ultra. By 1998 it was 15,500 individuals. After the initial flux of the DK craze, Ultras had reached 25,842 individual finishers by the end of 2007 and 30,789 by the end of 2008. Let's not make this difficult. In the 18 years from 1980 to 1998, Ultras entertained 12,610 individual finishers. Over the next 10 years 15,289 more. If you look at the increase in popularity of running in general over that time frame, you'll notice similar numbers. So from a practical approach.. Dean's Book didn't affect our sport that much, nor more so then did the popularity of running itself.
There was a huge uproar in Ultramarathon running about how it was undeniable how Dean's book was changing the face of our sport forever. Dean was blamed, for lack of a better word, for muddying the waters of a sacred culture. "Because of Dean's Book," Western States was forced to hold a lottery for entries into the race. "Because of Dean's Book," other races began to fill quickly and the prices for these races began to soar through the roof. But did Dean really change the face of our sport? Like I said earlier.. I don't really think he did to the extent that people blame him for.
Enter Born To Run, a book written by Christopher McDougall in 2009. By the end of 2009, Ultrarunning had reached 36,106 individual finishers. By the end of 2010, over 46,280 individuals had ever reportedly finished an ultra marathon. This makes more sense to me. People read Born To Run in 2009 and took on their first ultra in 2010.. the numbers jump exponentially. By the end of 2011, 52,027 people have completed an ultra. That's right, Ultrarunning Magazine tells us that it took until 2007 for Ultrarunning to reach it's first 25,000 finishers, and only four more years after that to reach it's next 25,000.
Yet people jumped all over Dean Karnazes case. They called him out on his hyperbole and I of all people certainly don't deny that there is plenty of that in his book. But what about McDougall? How come he gets off so scott free? Dean's Book 2006-2009 (3yrs) = 10,264 finishers. McDougall 2010-2011(2yrs)= 15,921 finishers. Born To Run is also filled with Hyperbole. It also makes a litany of bold claims and scientific proclamations without one single citation. Yet, McDougall is celebrated. The barefoot movement has taken off. Leadville now has a limit on the number of runners who can enter and it fills quickly. Ultrarunning itself has ballooned and people not only direct races to make money, but they run races to win money.
Let's face it. The face of this sport has changed. In 2005, it was a humble sport comprised of a community of tight nit runners. I knew everyone when I went to a race. Now.. I know next to no-one. In 2006, Dean's book came out and the furor began while many proclaimed that Ultra-Running would never become as popular as Marathons or Triathlons and our sport would never succumb to prize monies, big time sponsors or regularly filled races. I bet none of them thought 25,000 people would finish an ultra in 4 years either.
When you consider that many ultras are run on trails that limit the number of heartbeats that can be found on that trail on any given time.. Ultrarunning has indeed entered a time which no one thought it ever would. The biggest issue... protecting the culture that was built from the early days of our sport through to 2006.. our culture is getting lost by the number$.