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Everybody’s Doing It, So Why the Hell Should I?

Everybody’s Doing It, So Why the Hell Should I? This is Andrew Shelly’s 2nd post on his series of posts that follows on from his Race Entry Fee Chart. His first post ” That costs how much?” got some good comments and is worth a read if you haven’t yet. Here is his 2nd post-

Andrew Shelly on the start line of Molesworth 10 years ago

The tagline of my previous post noted that participation in trail- and ultra-running in New Zealand is soaring. More trail- and ultra-runners means more trail and ultra events, more specialist gear, more cool people to meet before during and after events, more “buzz”. That can only be a good thing, right?

To use a great kiwi-ism: yeah, nah, maybe.

Part of the human condition is that we have a need for acceptance. Most people will achieve this by conforming to the behaviours and expectations of a wider group of people. But that means we are being accepted for behaving like someone else. A smaller group of people find that this rubs them the wrong way and want to be accepted for who they are. Those people might even specifically seek to be different so that they can stand apart from the group. Their need for acceptance might not be any less, but when they are accepted they know that they are accepted quirks and all.

Earlier this year Grant Guise introduced a post on Ski Mountaineering on his Ski Runner blog with the quote:
“You guys are so underground, you’re what bouldering wishes it was.”

So-called “underground” events or sports have a certain cachet or cool factor that often appeals to those outside the sport. Whether it be ski-mountaineering, bouldering, base jumping, these are cool sports that many admire but few ever do. For some reason there seems to be a natural barrier to these sports that keeps them as the preserve of the truly dedicated or quirky. The people who participate in these sports do so as part of a lifestyle.

When I first started running ultramarathons 10 years ago fields could number anywhere from 4 to 10 people. As the race unfolded it was usually just you and your support crew out on the road (sealed or gravel) for hours on end. My blog post for my very first ultra notes:
As is usual for ultra-distance races, there was only a small group of us running this event. There were seven solo runners and two two-person teams. With such a small gathering, we all introduced ourselves at the start of the race briefing.

My next ultra, the Molesworth Run a few months later, had four starters. And the Marlborough 50 the next year was similarly small. This was out there, well beyond the edge of normality. This was a lifestyle.

Trail-, ultra-, and mountain-running also have a cool factor. There is the gear that you really should have: no more polyester beanie from Farmers’, you need a genuine buff. And what aspiring runner hasn’t watched the exploits of Kilian Jornet as he tackles his latest mountain project? Unlike ski-mountaineering, bouldering, or base jumping, we can do something about that! New events are appearing at a phenomenal rate, and fields and filling up and selling out.

Ultramarathon and trail running is emerging from the world of being a niche sport to one that is substantially more mainstream. There are books and movies, and motivational clips on youtube and vimeo, circulated widely on facebook. And as that mainstreaming occurs, a change in culture also occurs.

A recent blog lamented that change in culture as ultramarathons become more popular and commercialised in the United States:
The low-key laid-backedness and camaraderie that defined ultras is being replaced by flashiness and a focus on cutthroat competitiveness.

And from AJ’s Taproom on iRunFar.com:
along with the exponential growth of our sport has come a challenge to our values. New, larger events are putting a strain on the wild places in which we run. Relationships have become strained as money, sponsorships, and marketing allure have created wedges in the sport that previously did not exist. And, increasing levels of competition, expanded exposure, and increased media coverage have made race rules more stringent and the challenges to our freedom more acute.

Events change from being pitched at the “lifestyler” to being pitched at the “eventer”. And what is an eventer? Someone who is looking for the full “event” experience: online entry, the flash registration with expo, the timing chips, flash finish gantries, maybe helicopters in the air, perhaps a resort town, an associated breakfast and dinner. And most essential of all, the dedicated high quality website.

So how about it, is Gin Wigmore right? If “everybody’s doing it” does “the sport” change so much that the very things that made it attractive disappear and it’s no longer what it once was?

Maybe.

There’s still some great events out there that haven’t changed a huge amount in the last 10 years, are not commercialised, and have relatively small fields. To find them, go back to chart 1 in my previous post, and take a look at the lower-priced events. There’s some real gems in there. There’s a few that I’d specifically like to mention: the Tararua Mountain Race, which was around long before mountain and trail running was cool and is run on awesome technical mountain trails; the Great Naseby Water Race, which has only been around a few years, but epitomises the laid-back camaraderie of trail ultras; and the Molesworth Run, which has been around forever and provides a genuine point-to-point ultramarathon experience on high country roads. Rumour has it that the Molesworth Run was where the Back Country Runner’s Grant Guise first discovered that he’s not too shabby at running ultras.

But should I be telling you about these events, or will doing so potentially risk inundating them with eventers? I think the nature of the beast is such that eventers will typically flock to those events marketed as the full event package, and the lower key events will continue to exist for lifestylers.

What do you think?

Andrew Shelly has been running (and) walking for about 11 years. I was first attracted to running by the rugged Tararua Mountain Race (TMR). As part of my build up for that I started running road marathons and shorter trail races, then after the TMR moved into ultramarathons and rogaines. Andrew’s current tally is 30 ultra-marathon finishes (after Great Naseby Water Race on Saturday), approx. 30 rogaines (from 2 hours up to 12 hours), 25 marathons (mostly road), and countless shorter races including 5km, 10km, ~8km cross country, half marathons, etc. You can find Andrew at andrewwalking.blogspot.co.nz – If the blog title/url confuses you it’s because Andrew both runs and walks events of all distances, and hold the NZ walk records for 50 miles, 12 hours, and 100km.


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5 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I can confirm that Molesworth was the 1st foray into Ultra’s for the former 2:50ish 800m runner. He was late to the shotgun start then kindly ran with me for 30k before ditching me for the 1st time. I caught him on Jacks Pass before he dumped me again, caught on the down hill and he dumped me again for the last time. I finished 2 minutes back, it’s the closest I’ve been.

    All this while our wives were getting to know each other while the cars leaped frogged each other. Good times.

    • 2:50ish!- mid 1:50′s, gezz- even you could run a mid 2:50 matt ;-)
      yeah was good fun, loved how low key that race was and a great intro to the scene. A balance between the “lifestyle” events and the “event” events is key.
      Might even have to go back to molesworth one day- what do you say Matt?

      • I started thinking about it again this year but it really makes a mess of the Kepler. I had a huge blowout after that with pussy toes and fatigue.

        I’d prepfer to take you on at Northburn. At least I know I can finish that.

        • careful what you wish for Matthew….

  2. I have only been doing Ultras a few years and the thing that keeps me going is how friendly the events are – yes it is a race but everyone seems to help everyone else – I completed the Kepler and thought it was great, but I then did Naseby and was hooked – what a great bunch of people from organizers to competitors – my wife had no interest at all in my running until she helped me at Naseby, now she is a fan and even is going to try and run herself – I have tried different events but very quickly am making return visits to the FUN ones and so often they are the smaller fields and cheaper prices, skip the hype and tackle the cool trails with cool people – cheers for the articles Andrew it makes you think about why we do what we do

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A Backcountry Running Community for New Zealand trail, mountain and ultra runners- We want this to be the place you come for all things trail running including race previews and reports, interviews with New Zealand runners and hopefully a whole lot more! Our aim is to provide as much original content- previews/reports/interviews on New Zealand trail, mountain and ultra races. We can't be everywhere- so feel free to get in touch if you have the scoop on a race or event.

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