Friday, September 16, 2011

The Ultra Running Band

There's a lively debate in the Ultrarunning world right now about the future and direction of the sport. Not just in increased corporate influence, but also with the way the media/blogs are becoming more critical in their coverage of individual runners. The evidence that a major commercial shift is happening is certainly clear (Leadville 100 was bought by Life Time Fitness last year, the North Face 50 miler series -and all its prize money- has grown in each of its 4 years, etc.), but the debate that's raging on amongst the runners right now is whether these changes (and the resulting, often critical, media exposure of the runners) are good for the sport.

Inside Trail posted an article a couple days ago (which has subsequently been taken down) that many have reacted to quite passionately.  The article took a critical look at Geoff Roes, AJW, and the Ultra Runner of the Year voting process. Lots of thoughtful comments and debates have arisen from the resulting give-and-take on the posting boards, and rather than add my two cents on all the various issues, I wanted to pass along the first thing that popped into my head when reading all of this.

Tim Long, one of the writers/creators of Inside Trail, and a heck of a runner in his own right, points out (correctly) that just about all of the media/blog reports out there on ultra-running are more "sunshiny" pieces that don't dig in and discuss the more controversial topics that Inside Trail has started to do. Many ultra folks don't believe we need the same level of critical analysis professional athletes endure when even the best ultra runners pretty much all have day jobs and just run these races as a hobby (a somewhat time-consuming hobby, sure, but a hobby nonetheless). Tim mentions these debates and controversies are a necessary step in the evolution of the sport (and its coverage) by saying: "to gain clarity, you need to go through the pain.".

Regardless of which side of the debate any of us support, we all have to agree that changes will continue to happen in this sport. The beauty of ultra running is that, while it is certainly growing by leaps and bounds, it is not a professional league like the NFL or MLB. There are no league-wide changes that a Commissioner says every runner has to follow. We're all Free Agents in this sport. Some will chose to run only races with prize money and media exposure. Others will prefer to only run solo trail adventures and pause to photograph the priceless sunset on top of a mountain along the way.  Some will stay up late arguing who should be the Ultra Runner of the Year in chat rooms, and others will continue to run remarkable under-the-radar performances and not care who knows about them.

We all don't have to agree on which way the sport is heading, we just have to agree that not every change will agree with us. As long as our own reasons and outlets for enjoying the sport remain (and you'll always be able to run solo on a trail somewhere), the sport can expand in any and all directions without it negatively affecting you.

As silly as it sounds, the very first thing I related this whole issue to when reading the Inside Trail comments was the feud between John Lennon and Paul McCartney after the Beatles broke up. What triggered this thought was Tim Long's response to the idea that people don't want to read any controversial comments against specific ultra runners or the sport in general (as Inside Trail has proven it is inclined to post). He said, "If folks want those sunshiny race reports (i.e. “I lined up with 200 other lovely, smiling people and throughout the race I felt love in my heart and only felt happiness in my blistered feet”), then move on."

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of McCartney's response to Lennon's critical comments about Paul's lack of depth and meaning in his solo songs ("He writes too many love songs."). McCartney's 1976 song "Silly Love Songs" was pretty much the best response he could have possibly given. The fact is, there's no harm in writing silly/happy songs, just like there's no problem lining up with 200 other lovely people and enjoying the fun of a 100 miler without real concern about who wins, or what sponsors were involved, or what someone might write on a blog about you after.

Having the passion for running to fill your heart (Paul) is just as rewarding as having the passion for running to feed your brain (John). We clearly have ultrarunners in both camps in the sport today, and lucky for us, the trails are plenty wide enough for us all.

...and since I'm a "Paul" runner, I'll leave you with Mr. McCartney proving that there is real purpose in writing Silly Love Songs: They make people happy.


Jeff said...

"We all don't have to agree on which way the sport is heading, we just have to agree that not every change will agree with us." That's pretty much what it comes down to. Well put.

UltraBrad said...

I'm so happy I unsubscribed from the Ultra list this past January. Drama free and can do whatever I want...

Just run, baby, just run!

Casseday said...

I think there are actually far more folks out there that just want to run and enjoy the experience of ultras than the flip-side. The folks that want ultras to become more competitive and compensative, simply are making more noise in the present day. Just like you said, "the trails are plenty wide enough for us all." No matter how you cut it, it's an exciting time for the sport!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Run and let run.