The Running ‘Hype’ Cycle – Commercialisation, Considerations and Discussion

If there’s one thing we’ve noticed in the last year or two in the Australian, and indeed global ultra and trail world, it’s the increase in the number of ultra and trail races taking place – due in part to increased commercialisation of the sport. There’s no doubting that we appear to be in a boom period right now, but when will this boom peak? Will we see a ‘bust’? And what role does commercialisation have in all of this?

The current boom in our sport reminds me somewhat of a notion that is quoted in the tech world as the ‘hype cycle’ (developed by analysts, Gartner). The hype-cycle graph characterises the over-enthusiasm or ‘hype’ and subsequent disappointment that typically happens with the introduction of new technologies. While I wouldn’t be applying this to the letter of the law for trail and ultra running, it’s an interesting comparison to make. Could trail/ultra running be following a similar path, or are we talking utter rubbish?

While none of us want to see any form of disillusionment with our sport, are we starting to see it? In the last few weeks we saw a situation unfold here in Australia where four major ultra races were set for the same weekend. In a country of little population density and an even smaller pool of runners too, this doesn’t make sense in the slightest. Regardless of how this has come about and what will happen as a result, it got us thinking about the boom and the role that increased commercialisation, and indeed popularity plays.

Commercialisation creates boom?

This is a slight bone of contention in the ultra/trail world, and where it can be little at odds with itself – I personally still see this as one of the greatest ironies our sport has to deal with.  We have a sport that was founded on simplicity and ‘getting away from the crowds’ – one where measuring the minutes wasn’t important, and where everyone was out for a good time – in short it was out of the mainstream and in the domain of a few left field people. Ultimately this was its appeal.

But word of mouth is a powerful thing… just think for a moment how you got into the sport. Was it something you read in a paper or saw on TV. For me it was reading Chris Moon’s book about his MDS adventure. So I signed up, and the rest was history. But it was this first sentence that got me into it all “I read a book”… i.e. the commercialisation of the sport. Commercialisation has already happened.

This guy was the reason I started ultra running
This guy was the reason I started ultra running

You only need to look at the number of races being set-up and the fact that some are aiming to make a living out of the sport to see that it’s here to stay. Do we embrace the fact that people wish to make a living from putting on races, or should we support the community style events where the aim is not to turn a profit?

Or do you shun races altogether and simply follow your own adventures? Ultimately both sides can exist (an example is Kilian), and while I personally love supporting the community style of events, I also do not begrudge anyone who wants to try to make a living from our sport either – competition helps to further boost and increase standards too – survival of the fittest they call it. But that survival can also take out the wrong people too, as we’ve seen with the CP Ultra recently here in Australia.

However, take one look at how well the North Face 100 is doing and what it has done for Australian trail and ultra running. It has attracted the likes of Kilian and Ryan Sandes to our shores and put us on the map as a destination to come and visit. Sure the companies behind this have deep-rooted motivations to sell more gear, but should we begrudge them that if we benefit too? The flip-side is that ‘brand Australia’ is also enhanced as a destination for people to come and visit too.

Sean Greenhill, owner of commercial operator Mountain Sports comments, “More people (at least in NSW) would have started running because of the City to Surf than any other single factor- and of course the City to Surf is a commercial event, run by a private business.” So there are some very obvious benefits to commercial ventures – if more people start running, then surely that’s a good thing?

Some would also argue that the setting up of Ultra168 and other websites is helping to promote the commercialisation of ultra running through the gear reviews. At it’s very basic essence, you could argue this to be true, however the flip-side to this is that we’re also interested in helping to provide information to people who are new to the sport, such as safety information and well-being on the trails through training advice. Coupled with this we’ve been involved with numerous fund raising activities.

Ultimately it’s about balance. Commercialisation it can be argued, has helped us on the road to the so-called boom we’re seeing now. The flip side is that we have to be careful not to go too far the other way so that we become disillusioned with what the sport has become and resent it. Embrace change, but never forget the roots of where our sport has come from.

One company that gets this message and sentiment spot on is Salomon. While some may think we bang the Salomon drum too much, it’s done with very good reason. Sure, they’re here to sell gear, but the essence of their message is about the beauty and love of our sport. They create the balance perfectly – they are what I would regard as true thought leaders in trail and ultra running. Whether you’re for or against the boom in commercialisation, there’s one thing that binds all of us who want a play a role in the sport, be it race directors, website owners or participants, non or for-profit businesses. We are involved in the sport because we have a passion for what we do, and passion unites us.

Commercialisation cutting down competition?

While commercialisation may have helped create a boom, could it in some ways be bad for the sport? Has an increase in the racing schedule led to a decrease in competition? Both in terms of athlete performance but the potential for races to drop off the calendar, as mentioned above with the CP Ultra?

Australia in particular suffers from the tyranny of distance and a small population, meaning that the ultra running population is even smaller in comparison to the rest of the world. With races springing up left, right and centre, are we at the point where there is almost too much choice? On a recent visit to Hong Kong and speaking with a couple of local trail runners, it seems as though that could be happening over there. There’s no doubt that this offers more choice to the runner, but maybe not so much for the race director who’s worrying about getting numbers and covering basic costs.

But is it really that good for the runner? While they may win races, is it good for their overall performances? Are they being pushed enough?

Races such as TNF100 have been great for the local ultra scene in Australia, bringing in international talent for our Aussie guys and girls to pit their talents against
Races such as TNF100 have been great for the local ultra scene in Australia, bringing in international talent for our Aussie guys and girls to pit their talents against

The more races there are, the more choices people have. With more choices, there could be the potential to dilute the competition and that could mean the gun runners aren’t pushed as hard as they might have been. We’re not saying that we’re at that point as right now, far from it as we’ve seen a number of record performances on some of the major trail races in the last few years. However it’s a potential outcome that we could see if we fail to get some perspective on actual numbers of participants in our sport, or if some race directors are out to make a quick buck without proper due diligence.

Similarly, with an increase in commercial operators, what we don’t want to see is the community-style of events lose their relevance and position too. The clash of races happening now in September 2014, raises the question as to whether some races will survive, and indeed we’ve already seen the unfortunate removal of the Centennial Park ultra as a result – a crying shame for what is a fantastic event. Commercialisation may not just be affecting competition in terms of performance, but also in terms of competition in terms of the number of races too, something Sean Greenhill adds:

“When I ran my first 6FT in 1998, it had about 200 people and you could enter the day before. Apart from 6FT, other trail ultras in NSW were Brindabella Classic (54km), Brisbane Water Bush Bash (48km) and the Royal National Park 50K. These were pretty much ventures by clubs or individuals, and got 100-130 people or so. One was vaguely aware of Glasshouse, Bogong and Cradle Mountain interstate, and that was it.

“In subsequent years, increasing demands for public liability insurance, risk assessments and traffic management killed off a lot of events because they were beyond what a small club or private individual could afford. Certainly it is getting tricky finding gaps in the calendar now, which is very different to, say, 2003… but that’s market forces reacting to increased demand.”

In an ideal world, we’ll see more and more bitumen bashers that focus on 10km, 21km and marathon distance move over to trail and ultra running over the coming years – and we’d welcome them with open arms. 🙂

What next?

Regardless of your views on the above, it is still a very exciting time to be involved with trail and ultra running in Australia and across the world. More races are opening up to participants, there’s new and exciting gear to play with, but there’s also a chance to give back and do some good too and on a personal level, I love being involved with the more community-style of events. But the key is balance. Appreciate and honour the roots of our sport and respect them, but embrace change as positive and an opportunity to grow our wonderful sport to a wider audience too.

This is how many other sports have dealt with the impacts of commericalisation, and trail/ultra running can certainly learn from some of their mistakes and opportunities. What do you think?

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

14 thoughts on “The Running ‘Hype’ Cycle – Commercialisation, Considerations and Discussion

  1. All I know is that my local marathon in chamonix (of which the half marathon has been going for a long time and never filled up) now has a 25,000 euros prize purse and normal people like me can no longer get on it. It sold out this year in minutes and the system crashed due to the volume of entries!

    Is this good? I don’t know. From a personal stand point it’s not because I cant run it. But for CHAMONIX it’s great because every tom dick and Harry will be in town for the weekend spending money! Is that what trail running is all about these days? Making money. Seems so.

  2. There is no doubt the sport of trail/ultra running is booming, and where the masses go, so too do the corporations. And whether we like it or not, organisations have a right in a free country to make their money in whatever lawful way they choose.
    Your post seems to be largely inspired by the demise of Centennial Park, which you mention three times. But the fact is, the more popular events will take the desirable spots on the calendar, and so they should. As you say, “survival of the fittest”, and it is up to every event to produce the most compelling offering they can. But please, spare me the hand wringing over CP. They could have moved to a different date and retained their status as a “community style event”.
    You can’t tell runners which events they should support. If an event is well-priced, on a good course, with sustainable numbers, it will succeed. If organizers start to gouge on price, or have too many runners, then it will quickly gain a poor reputation. An obvious example is the challenges facing Leadville in the U.S. at the moment. At the end of the day, market forces will decide, and there will always be smaller events for people that don’t like the crowds.

    1. Thanks for your comments Nick, some good points there for sure. What I will say is that CP Ultra is highly constrained in terms of dates that the race can be held and is by and large dictated to by local authorities. I know this because I’ve also looked to hold an event there and it’s not only difficult to get a date (only certain dates are allowed), but also extremely expensive in the grand scheme of things.

      Incidentally I wrote this post around 9 months ago (prior to the removal of the CP Ultra from the calendar), but I didn’t like it first time around, so took a bit of a draft to it recently (25 revisions at last count :)… While I do mention the CP Ultra a number of times it’s certainly not intended to be the core focus for the article by any means… commercialisation of the sport is a topic that I’m passionate about and thought it would be a good area to explore both the benefits and potential pitfalls it could bring. Thanks for adding to the debate though, its appreciated and good to hear people’s views.

      1. Cheers Dan. Wasn’t aware of the CP availability issue, so I take that on board. And despite my “market forces” comments, I also share concerns around the commercialisation of the sport. Mainly the impact unscrupulous RD’s could have on the sensitive environments in which these races take place. It is certainly an issue worthy of debate, and well done for raising it.

    2. No worries Nick. What I didn’t want to do with this was debate the specifics of a race, but appreciate that without the wider picture or facts these things can seem unclear too. Thanks for adding to the debate and pushing it along.

  3. Another interesting example is the addition of Trail Fest in Sydney putting their event on the same weekend as the still relatively new, but growing in polarity Mt Solitary Ultra.

    I will be interested to see if two events targeting this style of runner are able to coexist. Not just in terms of runner numbers, but also with the need for service providers like remote area first aid, that is required for such events.

    Would be nice of organisers to talk a little. I think it is in everyones best interest, particularly in a relatively small community such as ours.

    1. Cheers Ben. I’d say that Trail Fest and Solitary will appeal to very different people and ability levels – not to mention that one is run by a not-for-profit and the other is more commercial/charity led. Each have their place as long as there is some form of differentiation.

      I must admit though, what amazes me is that with so many races on the calendar, are the organisers and RDs actually spending any time working out if its what their audience wants? Part of me think that quite a few races are just dreamt up by people with little consideration as to whether they will take off or not. For the not-for-profit community races its not an issue, but for some of the commercial operators, are they really taking time to study, research and evaluate what runners want? To be honest, the proof of this is in the numbers these races attract. If a commercial operator is putting on a race and getting less than 50 people… well you have your answer. Rule number one of business, give your customer what they want, and if you don’t know… find someone who can tell you.

  4. The road marathon is just another race and a time/result for the history books. The terrain ultra as recorded on your GPS-watch is the eqvivalent of a “selfie” (Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year). So are the files you bring home on your Garmin or Polar or Cell Phone Runners App from your off road trips during training, whether you put them up on the internet for others to see or just keep them to yourself.

    The regular road marathon has a strict “hierarcy”, whether you’re a three hour guy or a four hour guy you know exactly where you are in the mold, and road training “selfies” as well as road race results always show that in unarguable terms.

    Going off road on the other hand, especielly with a bit of elevation in the mix, now that technology has brought so many new ways to measure to the wrist of the common man, brings multiple angles for discussion about if afterwards with your friends.

    Comparing road marathons with off-road ultras are like comparing a simple plate of pasta with an all you can eat buffett!

    So yeah, I think we’ll see still more people transfer to the ultras and the off road scene, we are nowhere near the peak yet IMHO… 🙂

  5. This is timely. Even here in the Philippines, the boom of ultra-events has kicked off this year. A lot of what you’ve said has gotten me nodding in the points you raised. Guess change is inevitable even in ultramarathons.

  6. Interesting to see Mountain Sports comment in this article. I believe they’re part of the commercialisation problem. Their events are too expensive. And as someone who lost my entire entry fee on this year’s Kanangra Classic, I’m annoyed that they more than likely made a profit at the expense of all those people who paid to enter and were then forced to cancel due to the bushfires that were impacting the area. Sure, that’s not their fault, and it’s great that they (allegedly) donated some of the food they had already bought to the firies….but surely they had insurance to cover their costs? And would it have killed them to give us at least some of our money back – or allow us to enter another event free of charge or even give us half-price entry?
    I for one won’t be entering another MountainSports event – and neither will the half-dozen of my friends who had also entered and got burned (no pun intended.)

  7. I guess it all depends on what you want to get out of the sport. To me, runs like the La Sportiva series are now much more appealing as I’m looking for a personal challenge in proper wilderness (sorry but CP ultra has absolutely no appeal whatsoever to me!) and mostly without the crowds. I say mostly, because I have just entered north face for the 3rd time but somehow it’s in a different category because it’s so well organised and meets all the other criteria for me!!

    It would also be interesting to look at the affect this commercialization has on races with very limited numbers. When I first entered Cradle in 2005 it didn’t fill up. Ever! Now it’s full in seconds. Same with Bogong to Hotham. It seems that now there are so many sponsored runners, they need to achieve certain results and enter a certain number of races so a big portion of these runs is now filled with these runners. Which is great for the competition and promoting the sport, but in my opinion it really changes the feel of the run and makes it less appealing for us average runners to take part. – but that’s just me!

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