Ultramarathons in the Olympics?

Track and field events have begun this week at the Olympics.

Like many ultrarunners I watch and wonder: "Why aren't ultramarathons part of the Olympics?"

Ultramarathons have long been international events, particularly the 100k and the 24 hour. Although the 100 mile trail mountain ultramarathon originally became popular in the US in the 1970s, it has since spread to many countries.

Ultramarathons have a long history. In the 1800s six day races were extremely popular. The participants were called pedestrians. They ran, jogged and walked as they pleased to cover the maximal distance possible from midnight Sunday to midnight the following Saturday. The tradition of multi-day events continued with the transcontinental races of the 1920s before fading into obscurity.

Evidence suggests that the Greeks were running ultra distances long before the marathon distance was added to the Olympics in 1896. Many believe that the mythical original marathon runner,  Pheidippides may in truth have been more accurately described as an ultrarunner than marathoner. One of the world's greatest ultra events, the 152.8 mile Spartathon, is run in Greece. The world's greatest ultramarathoner, the true "ultramarathon man" if there ever was one, is Yiannis Kouros of Greece.

Part of the problem is that ultras have little or no commercial support. You could say that because of this ultramarathons should be considered the ultimate amateur non-professional sport. No one makes a living from ultramarathoning (unless you write a book about it). Of course, that is a reason why ultras are not likely to ever be added to the Olymipcs: they would be unlikely to make money for sponsors. Only a handful of dedicated invdividuals participate and compete in them.

The other issue is that quite honestly watching an ultra is less exciting than watching paint dry. Unless you are or have ever been a participant, ultras can be pretty boring to watch. Only rarely are there dramatic photo finishes as in other events. Often the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishes are minutes or even hours apart. In our short-attention-span and media driven world, that is also big problem.  

Thus, it is pretty unlikely that ultras will be ever made into a regular Olympic event. However, that's probably OK.

Part of the attraction of ultrarunning is its obscurity and lack of overcommercialization. Many do not know that such events even exist. Because of this, ultramarathon races are much more down to earth and friendly affairs.  

Despite some ultrarunners complaining about the lack of attention we get compared to other more well-known running events, most of us, including myself, prefer it that way. We have had our share of controversies but in my opinion, this has been lessened by the fact that there are no high dollar incentives or media coverage.  Ultrarunning is quite simply, just about the running as well as the community and the comraderie. It is not about fame, money or one's ego. 

Many say that ultramarathons are where marathons used to be in the 1960s and 1970s before marathons were "discovered" and since become mainstream events.  Being on the fringe and even a bit misunderstood is not necessarily a bad place to be. Indeed, many of us kind of like it that way.

If you dream of becoming an ultrarunner, we welcome you to our small and somewhat eccentric tribe with open arms. But please leave your big ego, search for media fame, and greed for money at home.  Just come and run with us.  This is the essence of ultrarunning.  

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11 responses

  1. Well said Ultra. I eagerly await my first low-key crossing of an ultra finish line… and I appreciate the heartfelt welcome – I already feel like I belong. I'll be thinking of you next weekend – 6 more days!!

    August 16, 2008 at 11:56 am

  2. Thanks! Ultras truly are about the experience and not about our time or place. Even the last place finisher gets cheered. We never forget "To finish is to win."

    August 16, 2008 at 12:03 pm

  3. Very nice commentary. I'll say even being a spectator for a HalfMarathon i about as exciting as watching paint dry. I recall the Marathons of the seventies. My Dad was the runner and My Mom and sister and I were the spectators. People were really friendly and wanted to know who was our Daddy and helped us cheer him on. Nowadays the crowd seems to be the racers. Luckily, if one looks, its still possible to easily find a smaller more runner friendly Marathon!!!

    August 16, 2008 at 3:09 pm

  4. Very cool. Ultras are just so hard to convert into an interesting TV format whereas even marathons can be fun on TV because of pack running, etc. Ultras are a blast if you're a runner/crew/volunteer, i.e. if you *participate* but not so much if you spectate.

    August 16, 2008 at 9:04 pm

  5. I was just thinking as I watched the Olympic marathon that these long distance events are the ones that truly test the spirit and mettle of the individual. For that reason alone I think Ultras belong in the Olympics, whether they are boring or not.

    August 16, 2008 at 9:16 pm

  6. Hear, hear! Well said. Hope our fun little sport stays underground while continuing to welcome the awesome folks who enter the fold.

    August 17, 2008 at 6:13 am

  7. Yes… that's totally correct, to "participate" doesn't require you to run. All involved in the sport are part of the our family, and that includes not only the runners but crew, aid station folks, the runner's family members, pacers, race organizers, trail maintenance people, medical staff, other volunteers, and everyone else.

    August 17, 2008 at 9:37 am

  8. I agree, adding some extra information and background could make these events more interesting. I think that these races test the spirit of an individual more than any other event, but I am biased of course.

    August 17, 2008 at 10:07 am

  9. Yes, I hope that our sport continues to remain unknown.
    Often, after being introduced as a marathoner, I must clarify: "No, I'm not a marathoner…. I'm an ultramarathoner…. marathons are for training."
    Then, when they ask the inevitable next question: "So what's the difference?" I tell them.
    They look at me incredulously, not sure if what I am saying is true. Many do not think such a physical endeavor is even possible. Some say, " Heck, I couldn't even run five miles!" when in truth they probably couldn't even do 1 mile.
    However, what these non-runners do not realize is that with training and dedication, even the most out-of-shape couch potato has the potential within them to run an ultra. Our ancestors were two-legged running-walking-hunting primates from the African savannah after all.
    They do not know and cannot comprehend that ultramarathoners come not only from the most elite of athletes. There are many very average, non-naturally physically-gifted runners out there completing these, myself included.
    This fact is what I most amazes and inspires me.
    I certainly admire what the elite do. But of all of the other runners I've met, it is that smiling 84 year old gentleman I once met running a 50k trail ultra who sticks in my mind the most vividly.
    I hope that someday I can be like him!

    August 17, 2008 at 10:30 am

  10. As usual, I enjoyed the thoughts of the ultrathon community. I am not surprised the ultrathon is not in the Olympics. For argument, I compare some other endurance events. Triathlon is in the Olympics but only Olympic distance, not the ultrathon equivalent, the Ironman distance.

    August 17, 2008 at 10:04 pm

  11. Tim:
    You are absolutely correct in your observations, as usual. Why is badminton an Olympic sport? What makes an activity a "sport" anyway and not a game? Why don't we have bowling?
    Actually, bowling, billiards as well as tug of war are all officially "recognized" Olympic sports, even though they are not contested at the games.
    Whatever that means…
    Of course ultrathoners relate to marathoners. As I said, marathons are perfect for training, plus they can be a short strenous race for the more fleet-footed among us. All marathoners are potential ultramarathoners. Once a marathoner realizes that running is not only about pace or PBs, (or that they may never exceed their past PBs and need a different challenge) many move up to ultrathoning.
    Indeed, one might argue that some 26.2 mile marathons could be considered "ultra" if they offer something beyond the traditional marathon. For instance, a marathon run up the side of a mountain has more in common with an ultramarathon than with the traditional 26.2 mile road event, even though it is technically shorter in mileage than a true ultra.
    However, what we do not want is to be confused with the all-too-common 40-something who decides to register and run a marathon because of a mid-life crisis or some other reason, and then after succeeding, who never runs again, if even for fun or for health.
    I guess one marathon is still better than nothing. Most people don't even get far enough off their couch to try a 5k. Even one marathon (or a half or any other race) is something to be proud of.
    But running is more than just a race.
    We ultrarunners don't care what others think of us, or if they even understand what it is exactly that we do and why. All we ask is please don't call us a "marathoner."
    Wish you were coming up for Lean Horse.
    Maybe in the future?

    August 18, 2008 at 7:41 am

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