A Dying Sport? Some Responses to Sally Edwards


This article originally appeared in the October 1983 issue of UltraRunning Magazine

The article by Sally Edwards ( Ultramarathoning A Dying Sport?) in the September issue of Ultrarunning elicited considerable response. Some of the letters follow; additional comments on the subject or on other aspects of ultramarathoning are always welcome.


To the Editors:

I think many of Sally Edwards’ ideas are apropos mainly to the elite in the sport. It’s unfortunate that the likes of Mittleman, Choi, Schwam, et al are currently unable to achieve Olympic glory and reap financial benefits from a sport in which they excel. What she is advocating is a carry-over from her successful work in promoting the sport of triathloning, which is apparent in her book on the sport and in articles in Triathlon magazine (she predicted such a glossy, color magazine would spring up).

But what about us with lesser talents? What about the needs of the middle of the pack runner, the last place finisher? These athletes with less talent were fundamental, by sheer numbers alone, in the successful running!marathoning boom of the 19705. Without the essential element of masses from which to profit, shoe companies could not afford to sponsor elite athletes nor could race promoters reward winners with trips overseas. Will these athletes, who constitute the backbone of the sport, benefit by following her action plan?

The fall ’83 issue of Triathalon (pg. 41) has a picture of one of 46 swimmers succumbing to cold 59.5° water in the recent Ricoh “Iceman” championships. Is selling TV rights to be done without regard to the safety of the competitors? Perhaps this is an aspect of “the danger in the pernicious influence that money will have.” The promoters see green, we see
blue bodies on TV.

Sally also worries about ultrarunners who “cannot pay their own way into athletic competitions” and that there are not “impressive numbers” of race entrants. A friend and I ran in Sally’s Fleet Feet Challenge Cup 50 Km last year a beautifully conducted race limited to 75 runners (concurrent with a 50 mi). We were lucky to make the limit, but with a $50 fee I’m sure there weren’t thousands of people breaking down fences to get in! The limited field allowed us to have ample space and plenty of drinks, and made it a quality experience. Frankly, I’m tired of scooping water from the bottom of garbage cans in marathons crowded with 8000-10000 runners. Perhaps the average race has “only 26 finishers,” but by how much could this be realistically expanded in, say, a 24 hour or 6-day race, if safety and quality of experience are paramount?

Bob Slate Mountain View, Calif.

To the Editors:

I was disappointed to read Sally Edwards‘ article in the September issue. First, I’ve been under the impression that ultra events and participants have been enjoying a steady increase in numbers; this is supported by following the listing in Ultrarunning, knowledge of regional events. AMJA’s race director Noel Nequin’s appraisal of available statistics, and Nick Marshall’s Ultradistance Summary. Second, and of more importance, is the relative i-nsignificance of media awareness, prize money and commercial exploitation of ultra events. If that is what ultrarunners want, it will come; but I would be hurt to the quick if this sport which I love became slicked up by commercial involvement.

Bill Barker Davenport. Ia.

To the Editors:
Last month’s article and editorial on the status and future of the sport was quite interesting, with a number of interesting points being raised. If ultramarathoning is to be a sport where it is considered a sport more than a spectacle of queers or freaks running ‘around — it must be organized to a point, at least so that distances are certified, courses are defined and results are reported accurately. In the past six months I have run my first two ultras in over ten years. (Yes, they existed ten years ago.) The second the Ice Age 50 was a race that I’ll never forget, with a challenging course, a well marked trail, with every possible precaution taken, and immediate results. A model race. My first ultra, the Columbus Run For Life Ten Hour Run, was a disappointment. Since the race was advertised as a ten hour run, I was led to believe that the contestants would run for ten hours with the places being assigned according to how much distance was covered in the alloted time. This was not the case. Craig Leitner and I, who covered 60 miles in ten hours, were assigned 5th and 6th places. But the people who covered 64, 63, 62.14 and 62 miles respectively ran for longer than ten hours! This “race” serves as an example of a poorly defined contest. Distances or time limits must be set in advance and be clearly defined if the sport of ultrarunning is to gain any credibility. This responsibility lies with the race directors.

Dr. Thomas Balon Boston, Mass.

To the Editors:

Let me see if I understand Sally Edwards‘ article correctly:

1. Because ultramarathoning is not a large sport, it is a shrinking sport.

2. Because it is shrinking, it is dying.

3. To cure this fatal ailment, it is necessary to take drastic steps to get media recognition, sponsorship, prize money and Olympic competition for the sport.

4. It’s entitled to Olympic status because a few thousand Americans participate and an ultra in South Africa can attract thousands.

5. Most ultras have small, friendly fields, and an increasing number of ultras actually has diminished the average size of the field of a race. But this is bad. It means traditional also-rans like John Kenul can actually win events based on sheer stubbornness and determination and even slower alsorans can make decent showings, and almost everyone can have a good time.

6. We need an association to promote ultrarunning something like The Athletics Congress which almost everyone curses but feels forced to join. (I have a name: Trail Runners and UltraMarathoners Association TRAUMA.)

7. We need promoters to write up the joys and health wonders of ultrarunning, perhaps assuring potential participants that no ultrarunner has ever died of a heart attack a claim which can be ignored once it too has proven as false as similar claims for marathon runners.

8. We need to gear the sport more to the superjocks and less to those of us who think finishing, and maybe improving and overcoming a few challenges are victory enough: we need a sport where finishing in the lower half means snickers from friends and acquaintances rather than where finishing is awe-inspiring; we need a Park Barner model running shoe, Don Choi nose pad for glasses, Stu Mittleman running shorts and Marcy Schwamsuits: we need sponsors who will either clear the snow from the Western States Trail or postpone the race as the Baltimore Marathon sponsors will do; we need more competition to make the rest of us appear even slower than we already are.

I don’t mind all this. I’m just concerned about what event we then have to move up to to get back to small and friendly fields and a generally casual approach to competition.

Paul Blackman Arlington, Va.

To the Editors:

For some reason I feel compelled to respond to the viewpoint expressed by Sally Edwards in the September issue even though, as a rule, I neither write to magazines nor take exception to the rumination of my fellow ultramarathoners. Her rhetoric, however. is somehow reminiscent of march monitors back in the protest days. How many times did we hear those persons say: “Let’s organize! What we need is more committees, more organization, more publicity. . .”?

Don’t hear me wrong. I do not object to the mainstreaming of our joint activities, or changing with the times when it is warranted; but the world is NOT one big sports market to me. I want no part in any effort to transform ultramarathoning into a game, for it most assuredly is a real extension of the remainder of my life. Before I begin to question her motives, perhaps I should question my own. What do I/we really want ultramarathoning to me that it is not already? More popular? Faster times? More professional? What are the trade-offs which we accept if we place heavy emphasis on this?

I guess I should begin by pointing out that there are distinct cultural differences between our outlooks. I’m a Mississippian living in Steens which is so rural that a significant number of local residents still think that I run in my underwear (of this and other personality aberrations they are strangely tolerant, I confess). On the other hand, Ms. Edwards lives in California which, I take it from her article, is teeming with sports enthusiasts of all kinds. There are probably more polo players or luge enthusiasts in California than there are marathoners, much less ultramarathoners, in Mississippi. However, the ones we do have are special; we are proud of every single one of them.

Maybe in California it makes better sense to talk about ultramarathoning as a sports product to be consumed by some prospective market. Here in Mississippi that sounds pretty offensive because ultramarathoning is still something we do with our friends, perhaps because we have nothing better to do. Anyway, it’s not for sale here. Part of the reason for this lies in the very nature of our lives in this part of the country. I guess ya’ll know we don’t get much ”real-time” information about running at all. Sally’s arguments may take hold more easily in a thoroughly modern sport like triathloning, where I understand she is already receiving some of the attention and recognition which she deserves.

I can’t understand why she wants to waste her time on organizing our “dying” sport, which
does not lend itself to being organized. First of all, I can’t think of any other sport with more rural people involved, except perhaps bowhunting or bass fishing. Besides, ultramarathoning as a sport doesn’t conform to the modern success formula: it takes too long; not enough technical equipment; doesn’t lend itself to spectator involvement. I certainly don’t count support crews among the spectator group.

I am also aware of the impact which the media coverage secured by the NYRRC (an organization after Sally’s heart, for sure) for its recent six-day race can and will have on ultramarathoning events. While I concede that such coverage raises the public’s awareness that people are engaging in these activities with greater frequency, I’m not at all sure that we can count on network news pieces or even the sacrosanct New York Times to legitimize what we do. Recognizing the limitations of time and space in the media which are involved, is it likely that such coverage could or would encourage many more athletes to engage in ultramarathon events? Maybe. but I don’t think so.

There comes a point in athletics. as in all other pursuits. beyond which imitation for its own sake is no longer possible. “Monkey see, monkey do” may apply to marathons and triathlons, but does it apply to ultras? What is ultramarathoning anyway? To me, the most straightforward meaning is “beyond marathoning.” Many of us take this to mean more than just “beyond the standard distance associated with the marathon.” Perhaps for others, as for me, it means “beyond the motivational standard of marathoning.” We are, after all, pioneers engaging in the adventure and mystery of breeching great distance through psychological and physical effort.
And like pioneers, we are uniquely dependent upon each other for insight, expertise, and mutual support in time of trouble. We are, therefore, partners in a way which probably does not apply in most other sports.

I read what Gary Cantrell said in the same issue about the Weston six-day, about camaraderie. Why is this such an essential part of our activity? Maybe some people cannot conceive of a sport where competition in the strict sense is somehow only a secondary consideration. Maybe we should quit pretending that this is really a sport at all in the traditional sense if sport means that some persons watch while others do the work. or if sport means the sole measure of who wins is determined by who gets to the finish line first. Athletes’ associations, Olympic Games. extensive media promotion, K.rolewicz on a Wheaties box…who are we trying to kid?

If, for example, Ultrarunning were to adopt the proposal of Ms. Edwards, I doubt quite seriously whether this magazine would retain a place in race results for run of the mill ultramarathoners like myself. Like Sally, I too am working hard here at home to involve my friends in ultramarathoning. And like many of you I’m trying to get subscribers for this magazine as well as for Nick Marshall’s Ultradistance Summary. 1 personally believe that the most effective way of popularizing our sport without distorting or cheapening it is, as Nick recommends, by the time-honored means of word-of-mouth. This much each of us can do.

I have no real qualms about centralizing authority for sanctioning and standardizing ultrarunning, provided that I’m the one who’s going to run the whole show. I suppose that I just don’t trust the organizers among us, who would run the universe by committee if it could be arranged. We’ve already got an outstanding records center, a responsible, well-packaged magazine and annual journal, national events…: the glass is half full not half empty. Granted, ultramarathoning may be an anachronism among the American mass sports of the 80’s, but if our sport has reached a numerical plateau, this does not mean that it is mortally wounded. That kind of thinking is certainly inappropriate here in Mississippi and I believe that quality, rather than quantity, is paramount in other areas as well.

Numerical measures have their place as one means of providing a meaningful standard of reference for performance. Numbers of participants, finishing times. and mean incomes have their place but I cannot measure the relationship which ultrarunning, and particularly ultrarunners, have on the quality of my life in terms of these arithmetic proxies alone. As the world “ultra“ conveys, it goes BEYOND these things.

I do not think of myself as an iconoclast, although admittedly we’re all a little bit weird. However, if the organizers of the world do somehow manage to commercialize some of the lesser distances I, for one, will keep on trying to move out beyond the promoters‘ reach. Many of us have done this before; however, I’m sceptical concerning the prospects of mass exploitation of ultrarunning. After all, you have to have a pretty good reason (or none at all) to persist in this pursuit for very long.

Ray Gildea Steens, Miss.


1 Comment

  1. I think a lot of people missed where it says “This article originally appeared in the October 1983 issue of UltraRunning Magazine”. Ultra running, on the trails, was less than 10 years old at the time. I like that they reprinted it because it shows just how far we have come as a sport.