Ultras are getting more popular, that much is obvious. A recent article in the Washington Post lists the number of “trail races” in the US as over 2400 in 2011, up from approximately 800 in 2000. With this increase in the number of races is a corresponding increase in participants, and a greater talent pool, vying for unofficial title of nation’s best ultra marathoner. The defacto championship in the United States has been the Western States (100 mile) Endurance Run, which is one of the oldest ultra marathons in North America (first run in 1974) and born from the 100 mile Western States Trail Ride. While it is a great race and attracts top national and international runners, due to its popularity operates on a lottery system that grants 369 entries annually. This has led to criticism of the system and the notion of it being a “true” championship due to the fact that many top runners do not gain entry, not to mention the mid-packers and bucket-list runners who want a shot a conquering one of the most infamous ultras in the world. Why, you might ask, is the entry limited at 369? This is a number imposed by the US Forestry Service and is based on criteria set to protect wild and natural areas, including their inhabitants.
In Europe, where ultra running is practically a religion, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc is the grand-daddy, and for all intensive purposes, the world 100 mile mountain running championships. It typically attracts the best racers, recently, with many top North American runners attending and placing well (i.e. Mike Wolfe 2nd place 2010). Alas, the UTMB is also a victim of it’s own success and has had to introduce a lottery as well, although the lottery is for ~2300 spots, although all lottery applicants must have a minimum of 5 points (acquired at an ultra race in 2010-2011; and 2013 will up the standard to 7 points). This cap is more of a logistical and organizational one. However, travel is prohibitive to many so it will tend to remain as more of a European championship unless sponsorship levels change greatly in the sport.
Most of us choose to run ultras in scenic and beautiful locations, so if we can’t get into one, we’ll simply find another and try again for the big-ones next year hopefully. Not coincidentally though, these areas are often protected as parks, wildlands, or wilderness areas and are managed by federal and provincial bodies, who often impose restrictions on the size of events that can occur. Until recently, I trusted that these restrictions were imposed based on research, and sound management of these areas that sought to balance the impact with the needs of the terrain, wildlife, and other visitors. Locally, we have races in K-Country, which is a vast and wild area west of Calgary. The field limits are 150 competitors, which has always seemed low to me, but I respected the park service’s assessment. Recent events have caused me to question this however. A notification was circulated through the Calgary outdoor community regarding a plan by a local sawmill to clear-cut over 700 Ha near West Bragg Creek. Not only is this area well used, it has also seen significant funds spent on trail construction and upgrades, which would be wiped out by logging. This is what is confusing me. How can a wild area be subjected to recreational usage restrictions, yet have the surface/timber rights available. Is this not a huge contradiction? On one hand, we are limiting recreational users who will impose the most minor of damage on the trail, while we simultaneously allow an area the size of ~1,300 football fields to be cut. That’s just wrong. So to get back to the main point, great races should have great fields, and if tiny field limits are imposed on race organizers, then these officials should impose the same regulations on surface and mineral rights. There is no room for contradiction here. If you can log it/mine it = big field; No logging/mining = small field. I can live with that.