This question was posed on our Facebook page a few days ago by one of our readers, Dion Milne. So we thought why not put some thoughts down in a more formal article and ask the question? Are there too many ultra races now in Australia or indeed globally? Over the last few years we’ve seen an explosion in the number of races in Australia and around the world, mixing commercial operators with non-commercial clubs and groups. Both in my view have their rightful place in our sport, but will they both survive?
Before we kick off, I’ll outline a couple of things. I’ve labelled this article ‘opinion’, which means I am going to give some opinion about this. People may agree or disagree, that’s only natural, but what we’ll also do with this article is present the case for and against so that we have an appreciation of both sides. There are, I believe, positives to be taken from either side of the argument. Like everything in life, opinion is subjective and individual. All we ask is that people remain respectful of one another’s views and appreciate them, eve if we don’t always agree.
Don’t be silly… there are not enough races as it is!
If we don’t have more races, then how can our sport grow? Recently, we’ve had six major ultras take place over the course of two weeks. Now globally, among our international readers, that might not sound like a lot. The US for example is inundated with an ultra calendar as long as your arm. But you see here in Australia, we have a population the size of London. While we’re a big old land mass, 90% of it is just big, hot, dry dusty desert.
As I looked at the amount of previews I had to write for the coming weeks, I admit my heart sank a little at the prospect of researching thousands of names on my trusty ultra marathon statistics website. Yes believe it or not, I spend hours researching all those names I’ve never seen before entered into the races. I don’t just pull this shit out of my arse, despite what some people may think 🙂
But what struck me as I piled through the names is the huge amount of local runners running local races. And it begs the question, if these races hadn’t been set-up, then would we have such a plethora of weekend warriors pitching up to do some good for themselves? This theory was further confounded when I headed down South to race and report upon the Surf Coast Century. It was in the main, local runners trying their hand at an ultra for the first time – I thought to myself, ‘this is a great thing’, and while I know many races want to grow their numbers with Interstate runners, we shouldn’t forget what’s right in front of our eyes at home.
It was at Surf Coast that I started to change my mind somewhat about whether we did have too many races. You see, the massive positive of a full racing calendar is that it provides opportunity for people. Sure, most people might not want to run 100kms or even 100 milers, but what we’re seeing many race directors do is offer up short course versions so that people can in effect, graduate. TNF100 and indeed, Surf Coast offer up 50kms versions, and I bet a fair proportion of those who complete the 50km will have finished that race and said to themselves, ‘what next?’- The logical choice is to move up and move through the system.
Races are no longer about one event, they’re a weekend experience. Even the most hardcore of events are answering to consumer demand. The Buffalo Stampede is pound for pound one of the toughest ultras in Australia at 75kms long and just under 5,000m of vertical. It’s on a par with some of those nutter races in Europe for vertical gain. Yet, organisers Mountain Sports have had the foresight to realise that this kind of stuff is really only for a relatively niche market right now. So what do you do? Put on a 26km short course version. Be inclusive and give people a taste of what’s required so that in a year or two, those people will be on the startling line for the full monty. That’s how we grow the sport and entice more and more people into the world of ultra running.
The large numbers of races gives us the consumer much choice about where and when we race. Right now, it’s hugely beneficial for the runner.
There are too many races, it’s getting stupid!
There are two main thrusts to this argument.
The first is that too many races in Australia will mean that some races will simply die due to lack of demand. For commercial operators, this is an issue. If they die, they don’t make any money and they’re out of a job. No-one likes to see that. For the non-commercial operators, that’s not so much of an issue as they’re not in it to make money, but they do have to cover their costs. On a personal front, I’m a massively staunch supporter of non-commercial races, in particular the Glasshouse 100s, Six Foot Track and Bogong to Hotham. I will go out of my way to race them, purely for what they stand for. Some of them might not be the most scenic of races compared to others around the country, but beautiful scenery is just one part of the racing mix.
Glasshouse is a classic example here. It’s a hot dry dusty 4WD track for the most part through forestry lands. Is it pretty? Not really? But the land on which the race is run has significant culture meaning and value. Most importantly, the community up there thrive around the race.
While we all have visions of grandeur, never forget where you’re from and the significance of ‘local first’. These races are the backbone of our sport here in Australia, steeped in heritage and history. I do fear that there could be a day when one of these races could disappear and that would be a tragedy for our sport. Of course, these types of races shouldn’t be complacent and ride off their history, they need to adapt and change with the times too, and that starts with the product i.e. the race itself and everything around it.
The second side to this case for is the potential to dilute our top talent. I say potential, but it’s already happening to some extent. The fields are being diluted because of where people chose to race, including outside of Australia and in the US and Europe. Now a lot of this depends on your point of view. Should it really matter who wins what race? Do we need to be that competitive?
If we do care about keeping the top end competitive, then surely we need to have a race or a few races where these guys and gals all come together in a who’s who battle?
Enter the Australian National Championships… Many of you might not even know that we have a National Championships for ultra running here in Australia. I could write an entire article about this, but suffice to say that if the goal of a National Champs is to ensure our best gals and guys are competing in one race for a title of the best of the best, then let’s be honest, the system isn’t working right now. Why? Because very few of our top talent both to race it.
The taste of success and the prizes offered elsewhere offer more reward and potential, which kind of brings into question the validity of actually having a National Championships – particularly when the most pre-eminent criteria for winning those championships is not your talent, but whether or not you have paid your membership, as we saw recently at the Centennial Park Ultra.
But what has the dilution of fields got to do with the saturation of races in Australia? The short answer is that we arrive at a situation whereby locally we’re not seeing our best runners win the race titles (because of the spreading of fields) and we could end up celebrating mediocrity.
Now, before the lynch mob come out with guns a blazing proclaiming my elitism and snobbery, I am not for one minute putting down the achievements of those everyday runners – you can only win what’s put in front of you. I would classify myself as one of those runners. I’m lucky enough to have finished in the top 5 of some races in the last few years, but am I a great and leading runner? Heck no! I do well in respect of who I am and I am proud of my achievements. But I simply regard myself as a weekend hack that just loves running for the hell of it. The only person I compete against is my own head.
I’m no Brendan Davies, Stu Gibson, Ruby Muir or Beth Cardelli. Those are the gals and guys with the real talent that could compete on an international stage with some of the best, and when I say best, I mean podium. I would get slaughtered at races like WSER100 and UTMB. If a goal is to keep fields competitive and maintain high standards within our sport, then some structure that brings everyone on board needs to be in place. The irony is that three of the most competitive races in Australia in terms of their fields (6ft track, TNF100 and Buffalo Stampede) have no ‘National Champs’ aligned to them anywhere at the time of writing. Now that could change, but one might think that one would nominate those races – just a hint to add a vague sense of credibility please.
The final word…
Credibility is at the heart of the conversation I have with race directors when they ask me to cover their races. The first thing I say back to them is that they have to get the talent at the race. If we’re going to put people into the public limelight with nice pictures of them winning a race, along with showcasing the race as being one of the best in Australia, then it needs to be credible and something that shows the rest of the world why Australia is producing great ultra runners. I don’t get paid to cover races, I go based purely on the talent that races. Why? Because that’s what people like and it maintains my credibility as someone who reports on the top fields at races. If you don’t believe me, then why does a picture of Brendan Davies winning a race garner 300+ likes on the Ultra168 Facebook page? That’s the market dictating what it wants and that’s what we cover.
To be honest, I could write reams of information about the cases for and against whether we have too many races here (I’ve already written too much), but I simply wanted to get the ball rolling and offer up some thoughts in the first instance before handing over to our readers for a bit of debate.
Finishing off, and just to add a little bit of personal opinion, I do think we’re right at the point of being full right now as far as the amount of races we have here in Australia. At last count there are 92 AURA sanctioned races, and while I love the fact that there is a lot of opportunity for people, we need to make sure that some races don’t wither way and fall by the wayside. Of course, all of this is determined by demand. If the demand is there, then the races will continue, but I can’t help thinking (and seeing) races being set-up by people who are very good at logistically putting on a race, but very little idea as to how to actually then market that race. Ultimately, they will cease to exist, which would be a shame for those concerned.
As consumers of those races we have a choice, and while we should all support out local races, I would encourage people to get out and see other races around the country if you can too. To race directors, don’t be complacent about your race. I do think that many see the success of TNF100 and think they can simply ‘copy/paste’. Wrong. Organisers Tom and Alina spent years building that race before it even turned a profit. They also got there first… think about what your ‘first’ is. Make your race special and don’t just rely on people turning up, because one day, they won’t.