Just a few decades back, marathons were small, obscure races run by a handful of hard-core zealots, nearly all of them men. The idea of big-city mega-races that attract tens of thousands of participants and millions of spectators had not even been conceived.
But then came the running boom of the 1970s, which popularized the sport and transformed marathons into televised, inclusive events that feature elites from around the globe competing for large cash prizes, running alongside men and women pursuing only their personal goals.
Long-distance trail runners hope to follow a similar path in a bid to raise the profile of a sport that has experienced significant growth but has yet to become even a blip on the competitive sports radar.
Instead, ultramarathoning (any race of more than 26.2 miles) on trails has been characterized by sporadic and chaotic development. Events haven't been able to keep up with demand, fields are limited by government restrictions on trail use, access for spectators and media is hampered by difficult logistics and there is no unified championship as there is in marathoning and triathlon.
"Anyone who is reasonably competitive wants to see [the sport] grow," said Karl Meltzer, who holds the record for most victories in 100-mile races. "But for the mid-packers especially, it's a bummer that people can't get in because of the limited field size and how many join the lottery."
According to the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), the number of trail races has more than tripled since 2000 to 2,400 events, and the number of participants has grown from 90,000 to 230,000.UltraRunning Magazine reported the number of runners who finished ultra-length trail races increased from 15,500 in 1998 to 52,000 in 2011. Though participation still does not compare with marathoning — 518,000 people finished U.S. marathons in 2011 — ultramarathon trail running has grown as much in the last four years as it did in its first 27.
A few of the most prestigious ultras — including the Western States Endurance Run in California and the Leadville Trail 100 and Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, both in Colorado — attract as many as eight times the number of applicants they can accommodate. Despite offering little or no prize money, they serve as unofficial championships.
Elites sometimes have trouble securing spots in lotteries because of the sport's philosophy that races are not so much competitions between athletes as they are battles between the runner and the course. That has helped prevent a regular major competition between elites that might draw media attention and sponsors who could put up larger purses and support the sport's growth.
Nancy Hobbs, ATRA's executive director and chairperson of the USA Track & Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail Sport Council, has been working for more than 15 years to create national championships. But without sponsors, purses remain in the $1,000 to $8,000 range, and the events remain small.
"When you get into the ultrarunners, [some] run all the time, and others like to pick and choose events. Many ask, 'Why not have one event?' " Hobbs said. "We don't have the money to put there. . . . If there was a [large] purse of money we might have a different program." A series of smaller races also allows for greater inclusion, she said.
For many elites, the modest payoffs don't even cover travel costs to an event.
"Am I making money running races? No," said Meltzer, who has consistently won some of the biggest trail races each year since 1996. "Even if you win them all, you would still only be making about $30,000 a year. . . . It's sponsorships that make it possible for the elites to travel to the races and eke out a living at the sport."
Meltzer believes big-name sponsors such as XTERRA, Montrail or La Sportiva, who have the marketing capability and funding to offer substantial prize money and draw media attention, may have to put on the championships themselves.
"The North Face 50 — they've become a big championship race. They could put something together," he said.
Ultrarunner Russell Gill, owner of the Charlottesville Running Company, has created the Ultra Race of Champions, a 100-kilometer race with a $10,000 prize that is designed to attract elites and generate national and international interest.
Mountainous trail races present a challenge for the media, and may require innovation when it comes to coverage and broadcasting. But the event could be recorded and edited, then shown later, like the Ironman Triathlon race in Hawaii.
"I think ultra can pack the same visceral punch that triathlon does if covered properly," said Tia Bodington, managing editor of UltraRunning magazine.
Social media may offer new options for coverage. "In just the last few years, there have been huge gains made in the media aspect of the sport, mainly via following races on Twitter, and in the production of various films," said Anton Krupicka, who has won numerous 50- and 100-mile races.
Not everyone in the sport wants to see an explosion of participation and media, Krupicka noted. "I totally see their point of view, but I think the sport is big enough to accommodate both kinds of races: those with large fields, media, prize money, and a focus on the sharp end and those that are more low-key and grassroots with no fanfare. I enjoy both types of events and hope that both continue to exist and proliferate."
"Because of the small field size, there's still that low-key kind of feel," Meltzer agreed. "There's still that camaraderie. We're all friends. . . . I want to see the sport grow, but at the same time I don't want to see it become all about competition and money. I like to go out there and have fun. . . . I think a balance can be struck."