ULTRA RUNNING 2020
Any person with a peripheral interest in the running world will appreciate the growth of ultra running over the past couple of decades. What was once a niche sport has changed into a category and lifestyle. Books like Born to Run published in 2011 took ultra running to the populous and we saw magazine publications, groups and ultra-running super stars start to shine.
To discover how much ultra-running has changed since the early days was a tasty opportunity for the data gurus at RunRepeat, the iconic shoe review site. In a collaboration with the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), RunRepeat took the data from 85% of ultra running events worldwide and started to crunch the numbers from the last twenty three years in the sport analyzing 5,010,730 results from 15,451 ultra running events.
ULTRA RUNNING: GROWING AND THRIVING
There is no denying, ultra running is growing. Participation in the sport has increased by 345% over the last decade alone. Last year topped out at over 600,000 ultra runners participating in events showing the sport is well and truly on a upward trajectory.
The data revealed the steepest growth has been over the last ten years which interestingly coincides with the leveling off in the participation in marathons. Could it be the most dedicated of runners are aspiring to bigger challenges of the mind as well as the body and to push themselves to extremes?
50K or 50+ miles? Both these ‘ultra’ distances are showing growth pattern, but the ‘entry’ distance to ultra running is where the majority of growth has logically occurred. But those athletes are not content in staying there and the growth suggests athletes continue to move up the distances.
ULTRA RUNNING: THE GENDER SPLIT
Who’s running ultra races?
When is comes to nationality, it is not surprising that France tops the list of the top 20 ultra running nations. With the historic UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) being the pinnacle of the ultra running calendar and trail running shoe brands have literally been born in the Alps, it’s hardly a surprise. The US of A is close behind with the biggest number of racers, followed by South Africa. However, if you look at ultra runners as a percentage of the population, France still comes out on top, but Japan and Switzerland follow in close pursuit.
We are all about more gender balance in all sports, and the data shows ultra running is attracting more and more women. More later on how women are performing at the ultra level, but over the last 23 years female athletes in the sport have increased 64% compared to 9% for their male counterparts. Female participation is now at 23% for races under 50 miles which, while still far from equal, is a step in the right direction given it was only 14% in 1996.
ULTRA RUNNING: PACING
A trend that has been seen in all running distances, as participation increases, runners also get slower. This has been talked about in RunRepeat’s State of Running analysis.
On average the pace of an ultra runner in races over 50 miles has increased from 11:31 min/mile to a 13.09 min/mile. For distances under 50 miles the pace has changed from 16:02 to 16:47. The paces for shorter distances are markedly slower than the longer distances. This makes sense given the shorter distance is the entry point to the sport as runners learn trail and fueling techniques alongside the endurance needed for the type of race.
However, breaking the mold amongst all the most common ultra distances (50k, 50miles, 100k and 100miles) the outlier is the 100k and 100 mile runners where paces have not slowed at all. Additionally, those runners are quicker than the other distances despite being much longer races. Quite surprising, but shows these races are attracting the athletes with the same level of fitness as those twenty years ago. Incredibly, runners of 100ks are running 9:59 min/mile and 100 milers a 9:46 min/mile.
When it comes to female athletes, what is most amazing in ultra running is the data clearly shows the longer the distance, the smaller the difference between female and male paces. In 100k races and above the pace difference is only half a percent and impressively women become faster than men at the extreme distances over 195 miles.
British ultra runner Jasmin Paris becoming the first woman to win the 268 mile Montane Spine Race in the UK in 2019 was an amazing testament to the data research that women are better at pacing than men.
The lesson to us women is to lace up, dig deep and run long.
ULTRA RUNNING: WHAT'S NEXT?
As an endurance athlete working in the running industry, it’s exciting to see the hard data analysis behind the growth in ultra running. It further proves the fact as humans we are explorers, always looking for ways to challenge ourselves.
It serves to remind us that pushing yourself beyond a comfort zone brings rewards that are intangible and keep athletes coming back for more, encouraging others to join them.
We should celebrate that females are taking to the trails and, with a more empowered landscape, are joining the ultra ranks even while they are the ones bearing and – let’s face it – majority raising children during their prime athletic years.
In short, we should all rejoice that runners are running and celebrate everyone’s journey to the start and the finish line.
To read the full ultra running report, head over to RunRepeat.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MELANIE MITCHELL
Melanie Mitchell is a triathlete with a gear problem. Having raced for more years than she cares to mention, she’s run in most shoe types at some point or another. Originally from England, she started running in the rain and now runs in the Colorado sun.
As JackRabbit’s resident tri-geek, her goal is to keep racing long enough to qualify for Ironman World Championships in her 70s through sheer determination over talent. As a freckled ginger, she’s also holding out for sponsorship from a sunscreen brand at any moment.
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