The Road (Ultra) Not Taken

What draws you to the trail?  The fresh air, the mountains, the night sky chalk full of stars?  Are much of your thoughts (conscious or not) consumed by a particular mountain?  Why?  What draws you to the trail?
Following a younger life of intensely competitive sports, I started triathlon back in 2002-ish, then decided to just run, did some road stuff, waddled my way to a 1:30 half marry, got hurt and ended-up on the trail.  For good.  Discovering the mature trail/mountain running culture was a little mind-blowing.  Running up and down mountain trails seemed so logical.  But why?  It’s not that way for everyone, as you all know.  In my case, the appeal started when I was a kid.  A few church camping trips turned into more camping trips.  Then I joined the Boy Scouts.  We hiked the Grand Canyon 2-3 times, hiked the Onion Valley to Mount Whitney route, consisting of about 5 x 10 miles a day, topping out at about 14,500ft.  We had numerous other trail adventures to solidify my “natural” appreciation for the wild.  But that’s just me.
What draws YOU to the trail?  Do you feel like you possess a particular mountain, or ever feel like a mountain possesses you?  I am reading a book right now, Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane, that explores this concept.  After all, the author reminds us, they’re just rock and dirt and ice.  What is so alluring about that?  The book’s argument explains that we have made the mountain meaningful through our own perception; we’ve infused massive rock formations with parts of our imagination.  That’s what makes them, makes the trail, so captivating, which has been enough to die for.  I can more or less trace my own life’s meaningful relationship to the trail and mountain.  Macfarlane and others have traced the relationship in much broader strokes.  His study begins in 1624.  George Mallory’s letters to his wife Ruth during a 1921 reconnaissance expedition to Everest are certainly part of Macfarlane’s proof.  One particular day started at 3:15am and finished at 8pm.  The men climbed across miles of glacial ice and rock, witnessed massive breakages of ice, the men transfixed by the scenery that would surround Mallory’s death three years later.  He ended this particular day writing a letter to Ruth, describing the day’s exploits and saying at one point, “Everest has the most steep ridges and appalling precipices that I have ever seen.  My darling . . .I can’t tell you how it possesses me.”
Indeed, this is a story about humanity.  This story of trail and mountain obsession has no borders or boundaries, no particular citizenship; it discriminates not at all.  Likewise, trail running and racing is about the human condition, and we have talked a lot about the international ultra and mountain running culture (that has been around for a long time). I have gone out of my way to make a case for the most recent wave of international competition that is taking place, especially in big events, the ones most of us eagerly anticipate, and follow, where most likely the various established trail and ultra media outlets are perched and ready to tweet.
So how long has this popular sport of American trail and mountain running been around?  We know, right away, that the American version of the sport is not very old.  In fact, the American trail ultra is a fairly new phenomenon.  That’s what I want to explore here in the rest of this article and perhaps more in the ensuing discussions.  What prompted the collective move to the trail in this country for ultra racing?  In terms of American off-road racing, everything else we’ve all been talking about – increased corporate sponsorship, international competition, awards and championships, governing bodies – is a corollary to what is happening at the most basic cultural level.  Specifically, what prompted the move to the trail?
To be honest, the Chicago Lakefront 50 and reference to Bruce Fordyce’s world record there in 1984 got me thinking about the road versus trail culture and the fact that in all of these discussions of the best ultra runners, etc., the road ultra (what’s seemingly still breathing) is severely subordinate to the trail and mountain ultra in the public’s perception.  I wasn’t compelled to undertake a significant research project, but I thought I’d do a little poking around to learn more about the road ultra.  Besides, I had wondered why there aren’t more road ultras that at least make the “headlines,” the discussions “we” all have.
Again, I’m talking primarily American, specifically north American.  There doesn’t seem much to deny this trend.  You have to find this a little puzzling, don’t you?  Unless you’re resigned to say that money is the root of all evil 😉
The road up until the 1990s seemed to dominate much of the North American ultra race calendar.  That’s interesting.  Just looking at the records compiled by UltraRunning Magazine for each of the popular ultramarathon distances creates a pretty clear chart of the popular American ultra running culture.  The 100 mile records for men and women were set in 1997 (Andy Jones 12:05) and 1991 (Ann Trason 13:47).  The 100k records for men and women were set in 1995 (Tom Johnson 6:30) and 1996 (Trason 7:00).  50 mile records were set in 1980 (Barney Klecker 4:51) and 1991 (Trason 5:40) and 50k records were set in 2011 (Josh Cox 2:43, which broke a 35 year-old record) and 1983 (Janis Klecker 3:13).   By the way, I am aware that the magazine refers to these numbers as “bests,” and that I have only included the more typical ultramarathon distances that we see on the “race calendars.
Most accounts I’ve heard suggest that as the trail began to see more race organization (we might just say as a general growth in the sport), runners almost immediately made the migration and the road ultra was soon left to wallow in the mountain trail’s shadow.  Amongst the fairly constant off-road chatter, I have heard fans practically yearn for a designed return to more road ultras on the premise that this surface facilitates a more even playing field, a better test of sheer running speed and endurance.  The mountain or trail, as the argument goes, integrates other variables that benefit certain kinds of runners and vice versa.  I suppose one could simply point to Josh Cox’s 2011 50k “best” to suggest that more of these records would fall if the track stars and marathoners would line-up to take a shot at a few of these long-standing records.  But the money is at the 26.2 distance and below.  Be that as it may, money or no money, if someone mentions the word ultra these days, he/she almost certainly is referring to a mountain/trail ultra.
Race directors can certainly comment on the inherent cost of road race logistics.  Population and sport growth make this kind of event very costly.  Imagine organizing a 100 mile road race in and around even a smaller to medium-sized U.S. city.  Given that so many people are riding the wave of ultra marathoning, a company would need to block traffic for upwards of 30 hours; police costs alone could apparently exceed $200,000.  Is this logistical and financial difficultly what pushed ultra racing off-road?  Or was the migration more meaningful, calling to mind a genuine love and (now trendy) appreciation for the environment?  No doubt, the pull of the mountain is for real and people have been getting pulled to its bosom for generations.
So, back to the original question: What draws you to the trail?  This has to be one of the more interesting questions posed to a demographic getting abused daily by a mountainous addiction.  Secondly, what happened to American ultra racing that it so definitively moved from the road to the trail about 20-25 years ago?  The mountain and trail has captured our collective human imaginations for centuries.  The mountain and trail ultra race seems to have captured our American imagination for a better part of a quarter of a century.  Is the story not quite that simple?  Am I overlooking some significant pieces to this puzzle?  Sure.  But often a mere glance is enough to give one a sense of what is happening, even at a deeper level.
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