I am fortunate enough to shoulder two worlds in sport, that of obstacle course racing and ultrarunning. Although my experience in ultrarunning is far less than that of obstacle course racing, I have immersed myself in both worlds trying to understand the history, culture and future of both. It seems that they are both growing at an incredible pace and one with which it is undeniable to want to watch. As I watch friends in both niche and fringe sports discuss their sports futures as they creep closer to mainstream I see many parallels in conversation.
Distance running and ultrarunning has been around for centuries however modern ultra running didn’t take hold in the American mindset until the 1970’s when the marathon craze began. Gordy Ainsleigh is known today as a father of modern ultramarathoning, he decided in 1974, instead of ride his almost lame horse the 100 miles of the Western States Trail Ride to run it. He acquired the appropriate permissions and was held to the strict 24-hour time cut-off the same as the horseback riders. Twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes later Gordy arrived in Auburn, proving that a runner could indeed traverse the rugged 100 miles in one day. Thus the modern age of the ultramarathon was born.
However, it wasn’t until the last ten years or so ultramarathoning has made it into the mainstream runners like Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek have introduced the casual runner to these longer distance races. More recently Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run introduced not only the casual runner to the sport but also the masses. With superstars like Killian Jornet gracing the pages of the NY Times you know the sport is making a mark in a large way.
The ultramarathon seems to be what the marathon was of the 1970’s. What once seemed like a mythical distance is now attracking athletes in numbers never seen before. Sponsors are literally following the footsteps on the trail and so to is prize money making its way into more races. Race directors are throwing perks to top athletes to get them to attend there races, and chatter has even started about Olympics, television coverage, and more. As ultrarunning is drawing closer to the mainstream, visions of where the sport is going next seem to be all around. One thing is for sure, everyone has an opinion.
Obstacle Course Racing
Obstacle course racing has been around for years, mostly relegated to military bases and the very fringe of sport for over two decades. It was not until 2010 that we saw the rise of three companies at about the same time Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash. All three were the first to enter the US market in a dominant way. Over the last three years the sport has grown from a small grassroots event, into a sport which now draws 10,000 – 15,000 to a race on a given weekend.
In the past year, sponsors have taken note of this explosive growth and started to flock to race series to get part of the action. Athletes are now sponsored by both outside companies and race series. People are now getting paid to race by sponsors and it seems television coverage is on the horizon as well as talks about it becoming and olympic sport one day. Sound familiar? Race organizations are starting to pony up large prize purses, in 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder paid out $15,000 each to the male and female winners of their race, Spartan Race gave away over $40,000 during their championship race in 2012 as well as awarded cash prizes to the top 20 male and female competitors at the end of their season. Other smaller races like Superhero Scramble offer cash prizes at each of there races as well as a points series. Spartan recently rumored that they will be giving out prize money at each US race this year. As well as newcomer to the sport Extreme Nation has already publicly announced they will give out $150,000 in prize money at their first race in June.
Race Organizations are working hard to keep athletes coming to races, Spartan Race recently started to sign athletes to represent the company as well as run a mandatory amount of races in their series a year in exchange for certain perks.
It seems both sports have a couple things in common, money, sponsors, television coverage, and finally Olympic murmurs. It is only common when a sport or emerging sport gains a certain amount of attention that companies and sponsors will come knocking. What better way to sell a product than to have the athletes promote them. This works great for the athletes as it helps them with racing and gear and it works great for the companies they have ambassadors to share their company and their product in a genuine fashion. Really everyone wins in this scenario.
It seems the other three things all somewhat work together, money, television coverage and finally Olympic aspirations. First off money, oh money, the root of all evil to purists and the only option for growth and legitimacy to others. Once you introduce money into a sport in the form of prizes something changes in the sport. It is no longer and activity to only engage in on the weekends for the casual athlete. No, once money is introduced the stakes go up, not only for the competitors but also for the race organizers.
I have been told before in the obstacle racing world, “the only way to get people serious athletes to come and try it is to offer real money” and “if there is enough money at stake, they [ESPN] can’t ignore it”. As I say this, I also acknowledge that I am an athlete who has received more than one check from a race organizer or sponsor, I am not one to shit where I eat. Prize money helps me pay bills and is important to my livelihood, but know many casual athletes and purists see it hurting obstacle course racing and more recently I have seen some of the same sentiments about ultrarunnning arise online and in conversations. The days of just going out to finish the distance are over, at least for the top dogs, now the top athletes are knocking down course records and pushing the envelope of human speed over long distances. Which has made it fascinating to watch as a newcomer to the sport.
Another trend in both sports is talk about making it camera friendly, the obstacle course racing community seems to be torn now, one camp thinks longer races are better and the other thinks they must be short in order to draw viewership. Recently I read an article commenting on ultrarunning, where the author talked about making more ultra events “looped” courses instead of point-to-points to make them more camera friendly and fan friendly. It seems both sports struggle right now with how to take the excitement of a race a runner feels and translate it onto the television. Some talks seem to be based around the idea that both sports need to be adapted in order to draw in television cameras. Both seem to be having an identity crisis between those that see the need for innovation and those that are purists.
The question is, does every sport need to be on television and “fan friendly” to be a serious sport? With the recent expulsion of wrestling from the Olympics due to accusations it wasn’t fan friendly and television friendly it seems these days the answer is moving towards, yes. Which finally brings up the last part, in both sports I hear murmurs in the back of the room about the Olympics, it is casually slipped into interviews and articles. Both seem to have a distant eye on that prize, the question is do either of these sports belong there? Do you have to be in the Olympics to be a true sport?
It seems that only time will tell for the future of either sport and for now I will remain in both watching them both progress. One thing is for sure, it is an interesting and exciting time to be a part of either ultrarunning or obstacle course racing. Even more interesting to see the exact same conversations, discussions, and issues arising in both sports as they continue to grow. Ultimately, no matter where these sports grow as long as more people are getting active, getting outside and learning to appreciate nature, beauty and the trails responsibly than we all win, regardless of prize money and television coverage.