Opinion: Are we at ‘ultra’ saturation point in Australia?

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 πŸ™‚

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.

We have some big races in each of our local States, which in turn attract a plethora of local runners to its ranks - Surf Coast Century is just one example down in Victoria.
We have some big races in each of our local States, which in turn attract a plethora of local runners to its ranks – Surf Coast Century is just one example down in Victoria.

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 - hot, dry and dusty. I also had many a tough time at this race, which is why I return back there as much as I can.
Glasshouse – hot, dry and dusty. I also had many a tough time at this race, which is why I return back there as much as I can.

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.

Alex Matthews won the Centennial Park Ultra 50kms, which also billed as the Australian 50km National Championships... yet he didn't win the title of 'National 50km Champion'
Alex Matthews won the Centennial Park Ultra 50kms, which also billed as the Australian 50km National Championships… yet he didn’t win the title of ‘National 50km Champion’

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.

Dan

17 thoughts on “Opinion: Are we at ‘ultra’ saturation point in Australia?

  1. Very interesting article and I’ve been wondering the same thing here in the United States. When I started running ultras 15 years ago, there were 31 100-mile events, most drawing around 100 runners at best. At last count there are 133 100-mile events, (including mine) here in the Untied States. Indeed, in my state of Utah, where there was one (Wasatch 100), there are now 12, more than any other state, including California. When I started my events 10 years ago, I was one of the “first” here in Utah you mention and my events have thrived…so far. I work hard at them, and have a great time doing it. I see many other local ultras that draw a few dozen runners and I wonder how long some of them will be in operation in a few years. It’s great to see our sport growing, but perhaps we are running ahead of the runners.
    Regards,
    Jim Skaggs
    RD Antelope Island Buffalo Run
    http://www.buffalorun.org

    1. Great comments Jim and thank you for your contributions, we really appreciate it. I agree, on the one hand, it’s great for the sport and runners alike that there is so much choice, but that places more pressure on RDs like yourself to ensure the great events shine through. It’s simply market economics in that we’re getting to a point of excess supply I feel on a global scale, which is where differentiation will start to come in. Ultras and non-ultras are being merged into the same event to create that ‘experience’ I mentioned in the article. I’m all for this… it gives people a taster. At the end of the day, running a miler takes huge amounts of hard work and dedication that takes months of preparation. It’s a very niche audience still… Thanks again Jim.

      Dan

  2. I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say that there are too many events on the calendar, but not enough quality, well-managed events. I’ll leave you to your own thoughts as to which category events fall into given we’re out in public πŸ™‚

    Cheers

    Alun

  3. Great post, with most of these questions pondered during many a long run. So, for what it’s worth:

    1. Number of Races: More is more. The sport is growing and the calendar needed to provide more races that were accessible to newcomers. Every year, the popular races report record numbers, so I don’t think we have reached the ceiling yet. The prestigious and long running events in Victoria like Bogong to Hotham and GOW100 have limited entries available, and sell out well in advance, so they seem to be also benefiting from the growth. Similar story for Cradle in Tassie. In any case, the nature of many of these older races don’t lend themselves to the inexperienced runner, and nor do they claim to. But there are two issues probably not given enough focus in the article: Value for money and economic climate. For the newer events, unless they are providing a great experience at a reasonable price, then they will be forced to lift their game. I love the Big Long Run events in Vic (Two Bays, Rollercoaster), because you know exactly what you are getting: a well marked course, drop bag service, start-finish transport, plenty of online race information, a reasonable cancellation refund policy, and a killer race medal (including for volunteers)! The consistency of this experience cannot be underestimated, and it’s no coincidence that not only do they sell out, but they have to turn away volunteers. The races that will struggle are the ones that think they can charge a TNF-like fee, for an unmarked course and little support. If I want to read a map and fill my pack with a day’s worth of water, I’ll take up orienteering or fastpacking. For the question of whether more local races are reducing interstate entrants, I think that as real wages drop, and unemployment rises, people are being asked to work longer hours for less money, and the ability to regularly travel interstate to race will not be as great. How many of the runners at Surf Coast Century would have traveled GNW100 or Glasshouse if it wasn’t on? Probably very few.

    2. Dilution of Elite Fields: A real issue, but one that also has an upside. As more races jostle for position in the hearts and minds of the community, there will be competition to secure one or two elites to boost the race’s profile. Enter the “Race Ambassador”. Not being completely versed in the nature of these things, I assume it means something along the lines of travel & accommodation expenses for the race, and possibly an additional trip for a course recon and Facebook photo op. Personally, I think this is great. It’s a synergistic relationship that allows the event to get a boost, and the athlete gets a bump in visibility which will hopefully keep them in the eye of potential sponsors. I’m certainly not one to decry someone wanting a little commercial payback for the dedication it takes to perform at that level. And the more races, the more of these opportunities, and the stronger the racing will become at the top end. As far as the weakening of each race is concerned, well, all roads lead to Katoomba. In some ways, it increases the anticipation for the showdown. As the top runners notch up wins in various races around the country over summer, speculation will mount about who will be the one to beat when it’s time to throw down at TNF100 in May.

    3. National Titles: I think it needed to be made clearer earlier in the post that we are talking about the “AURA” National Titles, which is simply one organisation’s take on the way these things should work. So to bring Six Foot Track and Buffalo Stampede into the argument is a bit misleading. The last time I checked, neither race appeared on the AURA calendar, and I will go out on a limb and assume the reasons they are not sanctioned are the Race Organisers’ and not AURA’s. So how could AURA possibly appoint one of their championships to a race that doesn’t bother to go though the accreditation process? Besides, I don’t even see how either race would benefit from being bestowed such an honour, apart from the questions of suitability. Six Foot is popular & prestigious, but is a downhill 46k event popular with road marathoners, and Buffalo has the Skyrunning cachet, but, well, it’s Skyrunning. Which is, after all, more walking than running. I agree though – the titles are fairly meaningless without a deep, elite field, and nothing short of a big wad of cash is going to change that. But it serves no one to criticize the good people at AURA who are simply trying to reward the members and races that support them. However, as I have said before, all roads lead to Katoomba. In the eyes of most, TNF100 represents the pinnacle of ultra trail racing in Australia. The fields are deep and talented, yet the race is accessible to newcomers. The organisation is amazing, the location is stunning, and there’s a chunk of prize money. Personally, I would just award them both the short and long course titles in perpetuity, until they provide any reason why they should no longer hold them.

    Again great post, and raises many issues that should be at the forefront of discussions for both runners and RD’s alike.

    Cheers.

    1. Nick,
      I will make a more general comment on the article later, but just on your ‘national titles’ gripe:

      As former RD of 6FT, I never accredited myself nor the event with AURA because AURA needed 6FT, not the other way around and there was never ‘anything in it’ that would have enhanced the prestige of 6FT. It was already bursting at seams, and would draw great runners irrespective of whether the event was an AURA (national?) Title or not. Their decision. The only time(s) that it was, was because 6FT had ‘temporary membership’ bestowed due to taking out cheaper liability insurance premiums through them. Hope that explains.

      Your general comment on ‘National Titles’ being actual ‘AURA Titles’ is valid, and I may address that in later post. However the following comment by you : “Six Foot is popular & prestigious, but is a downhill 46k event popular with road marathoners, and Buffalo has the Skyrunning cachet, but, well, it’s Skyrunning. Which is, after all, more walking than running.” is extremely rude to people that have run and perfomed well at those events. I wont ask what your performances are.
      For 6Ft one can argue perhaps pedantically and in a ‘elitist’ way that “It is just 4 km over a road marathon”, but ‘downhill’ is the same as saying Comrades is ‘downhill’– I suppose you dont rate that either? Ask anyone who has done 6FT, what the ‘exertion rating’ over the course would be. Hey, accept that it is technically an Ultra, and bloody hard to win as well as to just finish.
      As for Buffalo Stampede, mate I saw the efforts of both the winner Dakota Jones and the back markers. You must be taking the p**s

  4. The nature & difficulty of finishing an ultra from 50 kms upwards on the flat, let alone with hills & mountains, mean most can only compete successfully in a small number per year. Ultra running is not your Saturday morning Parkrun. With so many events to chose from, then some very good events may not attract enough entrants all the time to make them viable. After all, RD need to cover expenses, and commercially run events need to make a profit.

  5. To paraphrase a wise old ba***rd who taught me kickboxing many, many moons ago in Croydon (London): “[Races] come, [races] go. What more can I say?” Rome wasn’t built in a day… and neither did the Six Foot Track Marathon Race achieve its status overnight. Every Ultra in Aus. with an inception post-dating 6ft (1984) should use 6ft as its measuring standard. To say that once more and once better: The SIx Foot Track Marathon Race is the standard by which every Ultra in this country should be measured. Now, to directly answer your question: ‘Are we at Ultra saturation point here in Australia?’ WIthout an exhaustive list of Ultras I can’t really answer that question. Do you have one? I’d like to see one. That’s not rhetorical by the way, I do think it would be really useful, and not just in answering this question, but in shedding a bit more light on the Ultra scene.

    In the interim, here’s some more poetical shit, think of it like topical lift music: It’s a small world, and in spite of it’s land mass, Australia is a small country, and the Ultra ‘community’ is kind of like a quirky little village pub. Shit, sometimes you’ll walk in and the music stops and everyone stares at you in silence like in ‘An American Werwolf in London’ Just putting it out there, but this village pub really needs a few live bands, a karaoke machine or an open mic night. This is one reason I’ll be shifting the planets about so I can get to the Glowworm Marathon next year, for example. In fact, I’ll probably forego TNF100 so I can be in good shape for Glowworm.

    Cheers.

    1. “… is kind of like a quirky little village pub.”

      Love that. Coming from Wales, as I do (and no doubt Dan feels the same considering his origins), I can totally relate.

    2. “WIthout an exhaustive list of Ultras I can’t really answer that question. Do you have one?”
      Have a look at “http://www.ultramarathonrunning.com/races/index.html”. Scoll down to Australia.
      I don’t think it’s exhaustive e.g. it doesn’t have Big Red Run on it but had a few I didn’t know about

      1. It’s mentioned in the article, but there are 92 sanctioned AURA events… not to mention what else is out there… you’re probably looking at around 110-120+ ultras in Australia I’d say… roughly.

  6. I can’t speak for Australia, but I can comment – you guys have HEAPS of races for your relatively small population. Here in Thailand we have very few ultra-running races beyond marathon distance. That’s a good thing because apparently few Thais want to run anything longer than a marathon. There is an ultra on Oct 18th here in the mountains in the north around Chiang Mai. Out of 124 fifty kilometer runners there are just 44 Thais. Out of 49 one hundred kilometer racers, just 17 are Thai.

    I think everyone wants to start an ultra. I do. I want to create one in Krabi, Thailand in the south. There’s nothing down here like that yet. I have a great mountain to climb up… sure a bunch of villagers died as the result of a landslide from it and they closed the entire mountain down for two years, but, two years is over and I’m considering putting in the effort to get it done!

    The pros are racing far too much for their own good. Probably a good deal of noobs are racing too much for their own damn good as well. I am ramping up to ultra distance myself. I want me some of what Tim Olson and Rob Krar are talking about. I want me some of that PAIN CAVE experience. Low points. I want that kind of thing. I think the allure for runners across the world is there. We want to be warriors, not tippy toe across 5K’s. We want to sweat blood, not participate in corporate challenge 10K team races.

    Anyway, I’ve been reading the hell out of your site for a while now and will continue. Cheers man!

  7. Watching the triathlon scene that has gone through a huge expansion and now possible contraction, (some of the larger events aren’t selling out in a few mins) and applying this to ultras (I’m not sure this comparison it is entirely the same) it seems to me that there will be a rotation of smaller lower cost local events with the bigger more expensive events starting to up their quality to compete. There will be a few Noosa like exceptions where quality could drop below other events and people will still flock to do the iconic event, but if that happens the old timers who are just in it for the personal challenge may stop coming back.

  8. Bogong to Hotham, 6 Foot Track and Cradle are all similar vintage. All 3 still sell out but field sizes range from 54 (?) to 100 to 850. And the level of support ranges similarly from almost none, to some to plenty. While 6FT thrived and Cradle, with its meagre limit, always sold out, Bogong nearly didn’t survive. During the mid 2000’s the organisers at the time shifted to the multi-distance model with multiple start times to attract more entrants as the number of volunteers was starting to exceed the number of runners. This worked but created many logistical problems and many more potential safety problems. It also detracted from the essence of the pure, gritty, mountain race that it had once been. It has now been returned to its traditional format and still sells out (however, much more slowly now) but the level of competition from new events and the vagaries of marketing from more commercial entities means its future is never guaranteed. The growing pressure of sustaining a small field on a relatively small budget makes such races very tenuous. The same could be said for GOW when faced with the direct competition of a big commercial event set-up so close geographically and close on the calendar. While the GOW course speaks for itself, not all potential entrants will see that and the glitz and glam of its competitor will eventually win out.

    Despite how altruistic non-commercial race directors might be, if the race isn’t paying its way it won’t survive. As an RD and as a runner, I want to see safe, quality events. That does not always equate with more events. And unfortunately the correlation between survival, safety and quality does not always align. I could name a big international race organisation that comes to mind.

    Caveat emptor.

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