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The Need for Competition in Trail Running

The Oxford language defines Competition as the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others. Competition is at the base of most human activities. Bankrupt your cousin during the Xmas Monopoly game at your grandma’s. Get the highest score in your admission exam. Be in the top percentile of your class. Guess the Wordle of the day before your friend does. Be the fastest runner at primary school. Humans can compete over anything. It is part of our nature. It pushes us one step further. For normal humans, competition ends here. For professional athletes, competition is rooted in their life.

Andreas Reiterer Robin Juillaguet Festival des Templiers
Andreas Reiterer and Robin Juillaguet sprinting for fifth place at last year’s Festival des Templiers. Credits: Alexis Berg

Individual sports sublimate competition. Athleticism and technique are combined with the mental aspect and dictate the final result. Running is one of these sports. The longer the distance the higher the complexity of the competition. Running 100 meters can be done in the blink of an eye without caring too much about your opponents who do not affect your performance directly. A 100-miler creates an inevitable relationship between opponents. Where are they? How are they doing? Are they going to stop at the next aid station? Will the run or power hike be the next climb? Shall I stay with them or keep going with my pace? Having the best athletes competing in this context over time will generate rivalries. Rivalries are part of each sport’s narrative and what attracts media, fans, and, consequently, money. 

Trail running is experiencing astonishing growth, but the debate about its competitive level is central. The numbers confirm that competition increased organically driven by better materials, nutrition, and training methodology. Course records are broken almost weekly. The Top 10 and Top 20 at Western States finishing times dropped massively in the past 20 years, both across men and women. Not only the top runners are getting faster, but the time gaps have become smaller. The winning time of UTMB from 15 years ago would have placed you in 10th place last year. The sport is evolving and everyone is getting faster. The tide rises quickly among pros and middle-of-the-pack runners.

Daniel Jung Philipp Ausserhofer Ultra-Trail Snowdonia
Daniel Jung and Philipp Ausserhofer crossing the finish line together at Ultra-Trail Snowdonia this year. Credits: gilly_photography

Everyone is getting faster. This is good. What are we missing then? We lack events bookmarked by all the top runners. “Oh yes, we have UTMB and everyone who matters something is there” While UTMB is the most competitive 100 miler, how many times during the last 10 years can you recall the top 10 trail runners in the world being at the start line together? This dynamic is intrinsic to the nature of ultra running. The training and the commitment to run UTMB are greater than in shorter races. An athlete has only a couple of 100 milers in the legs per year. So, he has to manage his calendar to get the most out of his training and ambitions. This is different if we look at shorter distances. The Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) has a higher percentage of elite athletes than the UTMB series: 6.2% vs 1.3% in 2022. Sierre Zinal, part of the GTWS, is the most competitive race in the world with 129 elites at the start line in 2022 (UTMB had 84). Top athletes participating in the GTWS face each other more often because of GTWS rules. This elevates the competitive level and entertainment. UTMB has not achieved this yet with its series and it will be a long path.

It is unrealistic to demand the competitive level of track and field where every event is held under the same conditions. Due to the smaller poll of elite athletes and the wider range of distances, this can’t be achieved. In addition, trail running is diverse. Every race is unique and times can’t be compared or standardized across events. Athletes’ adaptability and preferences play a greater role in choosing where to compete. Runnable or technical? Loop or point to point? Cold or hot weather? Altitude or sea level? As an athlete, you want the right balance between attending events where you know you can perform and test yourself against the best to validate your successes. All these variables act against an increase in competitive density. Don’t hear us wrong. Trail running is competitive at the highest level, but the competitive density is lower compared to other individual sports like track and field, tennis, or cycling. This is why rivalries don’t play a role in the narrative of the sport. The athletes’ media stories focus on their journey, struggles, and personal objectives. On the opposite, other sports lean more into the rivalry narrative. Bolt and Gay. Kerr and Ingebrigtsen. Nadal and Federer. Vingegaard and Pogačar.

The last thing to consider is the spirit of the sport. Trail running associates itself with community and positivity which are results of being a niche sport fuelled by grassroots events where elite and amateur athletes compete on the same course. A few sports offer this opportunity and it adds to its beauty. For most participants, the objective is to cross the finish line within the cut-offs. This is it. Finishing in 90th or 100th place doesn’t change anything to your joy. In ultra distances, this dynamic is more prominent. Wait 30 minutes for your buddy at the next aid station. Pace it together till the end. Cross the finish line hand in hand. If your goal is to get through the course, this makes sense. Then, why do we see professional athletes crossing finish lines at big events holding hands to secure a win - is it a win, if there are two winners in an individual sport? - or a podium and avoid competing?

A few weekends ago, we had two hand-in-hand finishes on the same day. First, at Ultra-Trail Snowdonia by UTMB, Daniel Jung and Philipp Ausserhofer were awarded both as winners after the whole race together. A few hours after and many kilometers south, Dmitry Mityaev and Tom Evans held hands to secure a second place at Transvulcania. Even though the sentiment on social media was majorly positive amongst fans, seeing these two events happening on the same weekend raised some eyebrows, especially among the ones who intend the sport at its highest level as a genuine competition till the last centimeter. In episode 13 of the Boulder Boys Show, Zach Miller reiterated his view on competing: if we are against each other we should give our best.

Elite athletes are the ones who should fight for the best placement possible. They have monetary and sportive incentives to do so. They should give their best till the end instead of playing it safe. Part of this is due to the limited number of ultra races in which an elite runner can compete during his career. This number is vastly lower than most sports because of the physical toll that running for long in the mountains requires. In this context, each result counts more, and a safe podium finish is valued more if going all in might lead to a lower placement or DNF.

Holding hands is not the norm and the media allocate less attention to it. Fans remember the all-out runs to secure a win or a podium. This is the beauty of sports and competition. More fans will remember the iconic sprint between Andreas Reiterer and Robin Juillaguet for fifth place at last year’s Festival des Templiers than Dmitry Mityaev and Tom Evans's hand-in-hand finish at Transvulcania this year.


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