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Ultramarathon Events Showing More Than 1,500% Increase in Participation

18 Feb, 2020

By: Michael Popke

The number of ultra runners — those who run races that are longer than 26.2 miles, including trail and mountain runs — has increased a mind-blowing 1,676 percent over the past 23 years. That whopping statistic and plenty of others are highlighted in a new report from RunRepeat.com and the International Association of Ultrarunners.

“The State of Ultra Running 2020” explores the trends in ultra running between 1996 and 2019 and is being hailed as “the largest study ever done on the sport.”

“There have never been more ultra runners,” the report states.

Here are some key findings:

• Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of all ultra runners are women, compared to 14 percent in 1996.

• Female ultra runners also are faster than male ultra runners at distances over 195 miles. In other words, the longer the distance, the shorter the gender pace gap.

• Americans are not among the fastest ultra runners. That distinction belongs to South Africans (average pace: 10:36 minutes per mile), Swedes (11:56 minutes per mile) and Germans (12:01 minutes per mile). The average pace of ultra runners in the United States 13:16 minutes per mile.

• The average runner has added 1:41 minutes per mile to their average pace, which the report suggests is the result of “these distances are attracting less prepared runners now because the sport is more mainstream.”

• The average age of ultra runners decreased by only one year in the past decade — from 43.3 years to 42.3 years.

• The average pace for all age groups is around 14:40 minutes per mile, which RunRepat.com says is unusual compared to other distances.

• More than 10 percent of participants travel abroad for ultra running events, compared to just 0.2 percent for 5Ks.

• The average number of ultras per year has increased from 1.3 in 1996 to 1.7 in 2019.

• More ultra runners are competing in multiple events per year. In 1996, only 14 percent of runners participated in multiple races in 1996; today, 41 percent run more than one event per year — and 24.9 percent run two races per year, with 9.5 percent taking on three races.

But, as David Roche, author of The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer, noted on TrailRunnerMag.comlast year, “the distance [of the] run does not determine the value of the run. It doesn’t determine the value of the athlete. And it definitely doesn’t determine the value of the person.”

In 2018, RedBull.com listed five reasons “why ultramarathons are easier than you think.”They included “the scenery spurs you on,” “the pace is much slower” and “you get to eat LOTS of food” — and concluded that “[t]he eye-popping distance of an ultra … belies one simple fact: most runners are capable of completing one.”

Perhaps especially older runners. Last August, 40-year-old Ryan Smith and 46-year-old Magdalena Boulet won the prestigious Leadville Trail 100 Run, marking the second consecutive year in which both the male and female winners were over 40.

“Given the amount of stuff that can go wrong when you’re running 100 miles in the mountains, perhaps more ‘mature’ athletes might have an advantage when raw speed is less essential than psychological resilience,” suggestedOutsideOnline.com writer Martin Fritz Huber.

“Typically, success in these longer events is not about getting everything dialed next to perfectly, because that’s just so rare,” Smith told Huber. “It’s really about, when some issue arises and you’re faced with a challenge, how well can you react in the moment to overcome it.”

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