This is a subject that deserves looking in to in a lot more detail but this week a few things really started to ring through just how much our sport is growing.
When I started running in 2005, we entered the Marathon Des Sables for 2006 about 9 months before race day. Jim and I had plenty of time to make a decision, about 180 of the 200 UK places had been taken by the time we applied but there was no pressure to place the deposit down to secure the place. At that time Western States still operated a two time loser policy in the lottery and the UTMB had no lottery at all being only a few years old.
Bear in mind I talk about the above like it was a different era, this was only 6 years ago! On Saturday at about 7am UK time, the Western States lottery opened and currently, 1411 people are registered. That's an average of 18 people per hour so far and there are 11 days left to apply for a place. This doesn't sound like huge numbers compared with some of the big city marathon fields, but Western States is restricted to a 5 year average of 369 starters. About 70 of the places are taken by Montrail Ultra Cup winners, top 10 finishers for both sexes and sponsors. With one ticket in the lottery last year, the chances of getting a place were about 10%. This year, it is going to be way way down on that. They have got to do something about their qualification criteria ie. make it compulsory for someone to have finished another 100 before being eligible to apply. That way you boost the start up races plus you allow runners to gain experience at running 100 miles before they launch themselves into 41000 feet of elevation change and some extremes in temperatures all inside 30 hours. Western States is not the hardest run out there but it isn't toward the easy end of the spectrum either.
Hardrock, traditionally the hardest 100 out there had 427 people applied for 100ish places by November 5th. The projection is that they will have 800 applicants for those slots - and many of those will have more than one ticket. My chances of getting a spot? Way less than the 10% last year. And this is a race for which you may only apply if you have finished one of the 'mountain 100s' on their list!
UTMB are going to be forced into changing their policy next year because if they continue to allow all those who fail to get a place in the preceding year, a guaranteed slot the following year, they like Western States will find that in a years time, their field is full before the previous race is even run due to the number of lottery applicants. Their points system is sensible and they are lucky that they can cope with a massive starting field but the numbers wanting to and eligible to compete are growing exponentially. Selfishly I hope they don't change that policy until 2013 so that I can at least be sure of a place in the next 2 years to avenge 2010's abandonment at St Gervais following the avalanche.....
Lakeland 100/ 50 sold 850 places in under a month. This is a race which started in 2008 and had 12 100 mile finishers and about 40 50 miler finishers.
Dick Kearn who organises the Grand Union Canal Run which has become arguably the most prestigious UK ultra, had to turn as many people away as he let in through the lottery this year.
And finally our little old races. Brand new, no real heritage but I hope they appear reasonably well put together.... Astonishingly in the first 48 hours of the SDW100 being open, we had 31 applicants. Our Thames Path 100 which has never been staged before, sold out to 250 applicants 7 months before race day. I still can't get my head around that.
It is quite clear that there is heartbreak occurring all over the ultra world at the moment with people missing out year after year from gaining places in their dream races. I think more and more race directors are going to have to wake up to the necessity for more stringent qualification standards and staggered starts WITHOUT inflating the costs. The latter will only serve to form the beginning of the end of what ultra running is all about. Increases are acceptable but there is a limit. When I look at the entry costs for Ironman these days, it blows my mind and it quite obviously alienates those unable to afford the financial commitment that traveling to and from a race entails, let alone paying £400 for a one day race.
There is a poll on the website at the moment which I hope will give us some idea of how long those who stumble upon our page have been running ultras. I am expecting to find that the numbers have ballooned since 2009. A quick glance at the first 40 votes shows that this is likely to form the outcome.
Last but not least it's important to recognise that this is ALL POSITIVE!!!! More and more people are getting out on their feet and experiencing what it feels like to go long on the road or the trail. It is wonderful to see the races that began as small not for profit enterprises are starting to see some reward for their hard work and commitment. Who could possible begrudge them that? Too many great races died before this boom began: The Thames Meander, The SDW80, London to Brighton Road Race to name but a few. They all ended prematurely because they couldn't make ends meet financially or couldn't get the volunteer support needed to ensure safe running of the event. It is all of our duty as runners to give something back and so many more are now doing so. As a race director I know for sure we couldn't stage any of our races without that generosity of spirit.