Tuesday, 11 November 2014

"Ultra Running overtakes Angling as Britain's most popular participation sport"

Well, probably not just yet, but you'd have to agree there has been a real explosion in participation over the past few years in what we used to think was a bit of a fringe activity. And there have been consequences, both good and bad.

1. First, choose your race....

The first time I tried the UTMB in 2006, entries opened while I was on holiday. I entered when I got back home a couple of weeks later; no problem, I think there were still about half the places still available (and no qualifying points required in those days!). Nowadays you might be lucky in the draw, but you can only guarantee that you'll get a start within three years of your first application, and this is surely going to get worse. It's getting the same for all the well-known international events. For the Tor des Geants I think you have a less than 50% chance of success in the draw, for the Western States less than 20%, and so on.

A similar situation is either starting or likely with the popular UK races. This autumn, entries for the Lakeland 50 and 100 races closed out under an hour after opening, with over 1000 runners struggling to get their entry finally confirmed. I entered the Highland Fling a day or two after entries opened and was number 800 or so to register. It  seems inevitable that ballots will be needed for these events next year. A ballot has been necessary for the West Highland Way race for some years now.

It's great to see these races become so successful, and it must be easier for Race Directors to manage their budgets if they know early on that their target entry levels will be met, but I'm rather coming to the conclusion that this isn't a game I want to play. I'll probably keep my hat in the ring for the Chamonix events because for a number of reasons they're quite special for me in spite of their downsides, but other than that I think I'll not bother with races that are likely to be over subscribed in future. The flip side of the increase in interest in the sport is that many new and very worthwhile events are springing up which you can plan to run then enter in the knowledge that you'll get a place. Some of these are every bit as good if not better than the established "classics", so you can get your day out without any of the of the "will I, won't I" entry hassles.

2. There are a lot of people around.....

I guess the UTMB is the event that I have run in regularly that has the biggest field. It's a beautiful course, but with 2300 people on it you're not going to get a wilderness experience, you're rarely if ever out of sight of other runners. If you're happy with that and the organisers continue to manage it as well as they have so far, I don't think it's going to do Mont Blanc too much harm. It's mostly a hard surfaced track that sees thousands of feet a year anyway and the Alpine climate makes the mountains reasonably resilient.

I'm not sure that the same can be said of some of our local hills. Runners have been tackling the Bob Graham Round for decades but it's a tough trip and only a relative few are capable of a serious attempt, let alone a completion. "Bob Graham Trods" have appeared over the years where the best line covers previously trackless ground, but they are in general pretty unobtrusive. Compare that to the Lakeland 50 and 100 races; when I first got interested in these barely five years ago you had to navigate quite carefully to find your way over the less well trodden bits of the route. Now, after 300+ runners a year on the 100, three times that number over the 50 section and countless reccies by prospective competitors, there is an easy to follow track all the way round  -  the only parts you can get lost on are the bits that have always been rocky so the runners leave no trace of their passing. I'm not recording this as a criticism, just an observation of the effect that the events have had on the landscape over a very short period of time. The saving grace for the Lakeland events (which I have used only as an example) is that the formerly less well trodden areas (Seathwaite to Eskdale, High Kop, Blea Moss and so on) are not in particularly popular walking areas so the "damage" is less visible to the fell-using population at large.

We also have an impact on other users of the countryside. On the open fells and wider tracks exchanges between runners and walkers are likely to be pleasant and mutually encouraging, but it's clear that a stream of runners hammering down a narrow track on a rocky hillside is likely to make those coming up feel nervous and possibly less than pleased. And I wouldn't want to be walking the narrow and often tortuous path alongside Loch Lomond on the day that 1000 Highland Fling runners come past. In the early days of its similarly explosive growth mountain biking caused a lot of antagonism which has taken quite a few years and a lot of goodwill to ameliorate.

3. Let's stay safe out there.......

Although there is the odd news item about someone dying from a heart attack on a hot day in a city half marathon or suchlike, running is generally felt to be a healthy activity.  But in spite of the common view, statistics normally don't lie. The higher the population you have in any activity, the more accidents you get. Runners have died on mountain races, just not many so far. I don't want to appear elitist in any way here, but I'm often surprised by the rudimentary knowledge of navigation that I sometimes see in some runners I have met on events, and who clearly have to rely on others around them. Mountains, even our little ones, are not very forgiving of incompetence and a few bad incidents could have a huge effect on the public view of our sport unless organisers continue to be vigilant. I'm rather nervous of the emerging trend to mark courses with flags so that navigational ability is not required.............not until, of course, you lose the flags.

4. And then there's the money.....

When I started this game only a very few years ago, there was no such thing as kit specially for ultra running. One or two small companies made odd bits of lightweight gear for mountain marathons, but in general folk used kit from road running, fell running, climbing and whatever seemed to work. I ran all my early ultras in road shoes (well, rock climbers have always used "trainers" as they were generically called to walk up to pretty remote crags, so why not?). Helly Hansen vests with shorts or Ron Hill "tracksters" seemed to be the name of the clothing game.

Then as ultra running started to become more popular, more "establishment", the outdoor companies saw another potential market; one with a relatively cheap entry level. You didn't need to buy skis, climbing gear, or a bike, so you could afford to spend money on shoes and clothing. North Face started sponsoring the UTMB and we were on our way. Markets need to expand so we need more consumers, so we need to sponsor and create more races, to create more runners, to sell more gear, ever better and more specialised. Again, I'm not criticising, just observing what happens.

5, And the answer is.....

There is no answer. Because there is no question, just a natural progression. Over 30 or 40 years I saw climbing move from a lunatic fringe activity to establishment and on to big business. The same happened with mountain biking (yes, it did start that way, I can remember trips like High Street or the Walna Scar Road on a bike with no suspension whatever (and no helmet!)) but the evolution happened in maybe 20 years. And in ultra running, barely 10. That's the way of the world.

But the beauty is, that if you hunt around a bit, there are still enough crags, bike trails, and yes, even ultra races, to suit whatever your taste is for at least a lifetime.


Robert Osfield said...

I too am both encouraged and discouraged by the rapid growth of ultra-running and the rapid overfilling of the big events.

I've missed quite a few events simply because they booked up too fast. Waiting for ballot's isn't much fun either.

I squeezed into next year's Fling but the idea of sharing the trail with nearly a thousand runner doesn't fill me with enthusiasm - the first twenty miles will be pretty congested.

Thankfully, there are still cracking races out there that aren't over subscribed. These can cover just as beautiful countryside as the big races, can be just as challenging.

John Kynaston said...

Another thought provoking post Mr Cole. You are on a roll!

We have been running ultra races about the same length of time and I agree with your observations.

I have loved doing the Hardmoors Grand Slam this year as the numbers have been smaller and the route is spectacular.

I would love to do the UTMB one day but I wonder how I'll find it with so many running ... that's if I can get in!!

Thanks again for your post!