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Are Ultras The New Marathon?

A deep dive into the ultra running boom

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There has been a boom in the ultramarathon world.

Between more races stretching longer than the 26.2 miles covered in a marathon to more participation in those races, the sport has seen a substantial boom in both competition and notoriety in the sport.

The popularity of the longer, often rugged races raises the question if they will have the same trajectory as the road marathon, gaining momentum to attract the masses and crack unbelievable records.

In this article, we will explore this new boom in the ultra marathon world and delve into a list of causes of its rise in popularity.

Ready? Let’s jump in!

An ultrarunner.

#1: Growth by the Numbers

Since 2015, north of one million people run at least one marathon per year. This number has adjusted around 2-3 percent over the past several years but has otherwise remained consistent.

Ultramarathons, however, have seen a 345% increase in participation from 2010 to 2020, bringing the number to around 600,000 worldwide.1The State of Ultra Running 2020. (n.d.). Athletic Shoe Reviews. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running

In these changing statistics, more women and individuals under the age of 40 and over the age of 60 are participating at a higher rate. Though their counterparts outnumber both groups, the rise in popularity is making room for more diversity in the sport.

Professional road and trail runner for The North Face, Brittany Charboneau, recounts her recent experience of racing at the 2023 50k Road World Championship,

“Most of the top performances were by women in the 40s, many of them mothers. I have seen so many women crush it in the trail and ultra scene as well, I just hope that it continues to grow.”

In general, women are running faster than men in ultramarathons, though they post slower average times in the marathon or any shorter race.2The State of Ultra Running 2020. (n.d.). Athletic Shoe Reviews. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running

With both the marathon and ultramarathon distances growing in popularity, the average overall times for all distances are getting slower.

With more room for athletes to try something new, races are becoming more accommodating and understanding of athletes coming from a variety of different backgrounds and abilities.

A trail runner.

#2: Knowledge is Power

With the rising popularity of the ultramarathon, more research and subsequent data are available for the runners which is making the distances more mentally and physically attainable.

From books written on training to more coaches with science-backed training practices, there is a lot of opportunity to become more knowledgeable in the world of ultra running.

Kevin Goldberg, who is the head of the Coach Match Program at TrainingPeaks, says he has seen a big increase in athletes looking for ultramarathon coaches.

“When I started with the coach match program seven years ago, I would only get around one person looking for an ultra coach a month. Now, I get one or two a day.” 

According to a spring 2023 survey from the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) only 13% of trail runners reported using a running coach, with 3% considering it in the next year.3Hobbs, N. (2023, June 27). Spring 2023 Trail Runner Survey Results. ATRA. https://trailrunner.com/trail-news/spring-2023-trail-runner-survey-results/

While there was no data available for marathon runners using coaches, it is more popular in the sport of road running, where times and goals can be more predictable.

‌Whether a person is coached or not, there have been great gains made in the science of ultra running.

The finish line of an ultra race.

#3: Increased Competition

Both the marathon and ultramarathon distances produced overall slower times over the past ten years, according to Run Repeat.

The slowing paces are less about the individual athletes and more about the sports being more manageable and obtainable for a weekend warrior or everyday athlete, bringing in new athletes with growing abilities, as opposed to only serious runners.

That said, there is no denying races happening both on and off the road are producing faster winning times more consistently.

Since the 1970s, it has been common for marathon records to be broken anywhere from four to eight times in a decade; what makes the 2020s so unique is that the times are unbelievably fast.

In the early days of the modern marathon, there was still a great deal to be learned in regard to training science, nutrition practices, and gear, with mere seconds being shaved off a time to break a record, as opposed to the giant world record leaps that occurred when times were slower.

A woman ultrarunner.

With more women running marathons and ultramarathons than ever before, the female records are getting constantly broken by distance and course.

In comparing the road to the trail, Tigst Assesa broke the female road record by two minutes, which is considered an amazing leap, while Courtney Dauwalter took down the Hardrock Trail 100 course record by an hour. 

Ultramarathons and trail races can be unpredictable, and it is believable that runners are only beginning to achieve what is possible.

A lot can happen in two hours of running, during a marathon, but it is still an amount of time that an elite athlete can put themselves in an uncomfortable place for the entire race if needed.

In the ultramarathon, a mistake in nutrition or gear can add hours to an elite runner’s time, making it believable that there are only more gains to be made in the sport.

Another possible reason for the growth of competition in the ultramarathon world is the recent draw of athletes who were competing and thriving at other distances or sports.

A person running on the road.

Goldberg explains, “Popularity is bringing in fast people with different backgrounds (skimo, track, and XC athletes) with higher fitness. If you put a really fast athlete on the road, they will do well, but they are getting better at running trails.”

A big reason for this draw is the increase in sponsorship and prize purses. 

Charboneau, who has raced professionally on both road and trail, shares the dilemma of bringing the same financial motivation to professional ultramarathon running.

She says, “On one side, pros need opportunity, we are making very little money compared to the road running scene. There are lots of great runners who don’t have sponsors. But then it gets to be so competitive and takes some of the magic out of the experience. At the end of the day, the more visibility the more opportunity we can have.”

While making money as a road runner can also be a challenge, a major sponsorship or winning a big race can cover the cost of living for a year. A reason for this difference in pay is media coverage.

A trail runner.

#4: Media Coverage

When it comes to media coverage of endurance events, the United States is behind many European and African countries.

In 2023, the viewership of Comrades has increased 49%4MASSIVE GROWTH IN COMRADES MARATHON TV VIEWERSHIP – NIELSEN – Comrades Marathon. (n.d.). Comrades.com. Retrieved November 21, 2023, from https://comrades.com/blog/posts/86 to 3.5 million spectators worldwide; both in person and streaming coverage.

The larger audience brings more eyes to the sponsors as well as more money to the local economy (for those who go to watch in person.)

The first place runner of Comrades takes home R500,000.00, or $27,000 USD compared to the first place runner at the New York City Marathon, who takes home $100,000 USD, with a race that draws 2.9 million spectators5Research, C. E. (2013, September 28). New York City Marathon Fast Facts. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/28/us/new-york-city-marathon-fast-facts/index.html to the streets of New York alone (no number was given for online or TV viewership.)

With the increase in media attention and spectatorship, ultra running has room to become more lucrative for professional athletes, though it has a long way to go before it hits the level of marathon running.

Trail runners high-fiving.

#5: A Different Attitude

One of the biggest difference between ultramarathons and marathons are the people who choose to compete in them, and the attitude that they bring. While there is plenty of overlap with people who do both, the laidback nature of the ultramarathon running sets it apart.

Charboneau explains, “The trail scene is just a bunch of laid-back weirdos. It is people who are there because they love being out and the mountains. There is less pomp and circumstance in trail running than competitive marathon running, where there are cameras and media crowding the start.”

She goes on to say that the competitive nature of marathon running highlighted some of her insecurities as an elite runner, whereas she felt accepted immediately in trail running.

The relaxed attitude of those running ultramarathons will likely prevent the races from becoming the same kind of event as the always popular road marathon.

However, the growth of the sport will highlight what people are capable of and bring more money to the hard-working athletes who are dedicating their prime racing years to the sport.

Are you interested in training for an ultramarathon to see what all the hype is about? Check out our database of free ultramarathon training plans here.

People running on a mountaintop.

References

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Lexi Miller is a UESCA Certified Running and Endurance Nutrition Coach who has written for Trail Runner Magazine, TrainingPeaks, and other running sites. With a background of working in mental health, she prioritizes holistic health and joy in her company Wild Miles Running , where she works with distance runners, nordic skiers, backpackers, mountaineers, and endurance enthusiasts. On any given day, Lexi can be found playing in the mountains of Colorado with her toddler and dog.

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