“O Espírito do Trail: Cultura, Popularidade e Prémios Monetários nas Ultramaratonas”


Esta crónica é inteiramente composta por excertos selecionados de um interessantíssimo artigo que aborda a cultura do Trail de Ultra Endurance e os seus desafios atuais.

Gary C. David and Nick Lehecka

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By your endurance you will gain your souls
 (Luke 21:19 New Revised Standard Version)

 “What we seek is the truth. Not the truth shaped by human knowledge, but the Truth: harsh, unwritten and startingly real.”
  - Jill Homer

“What is the culture of ultramarathon running?”, or as we call it the spirit of the trail.

This paper explores this topic of ultramarathon culture through a broader demographic analysis, attitudinal questions, and questions about training and identity. This paper is aimed at providing an initial exploration into the nature and culture of ultramarathon running, along with an examination of the changes being brought by increasing sponsorship, popularity and professionalization.

“During foot races over distances longer than the traditional marathon length, the experience of competing with one’s self, the weather or the distance surpasses the experience of competing against the opponents” (Nowak 2010:37). Ultimately your chief rival is the voice in your head telling you that you cannot finish, cannot cover the distance, and in fact should not even try.

A major moment in the growing popularity of ultrarunning came with the publication of two books.

The first book was Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner (2005) by Dean Karnazes.

The second book was Born to Run (2009) by Christopher McDougall, which not only further increased the visibility of ultrarunning but also can be said to have revolutionized the shoe industry through the introduction of the minimalist shoe movement.

(...) ultrarunning has long been populated by what can be considered ordinary people doing extraordinary things. By this we mean ultramarathoning has not been dominated by the professional athlete, a person whose athletic abilities allows him or her to make their living from a sport. While this is changing in contemporary ultrarunning to some extent, it continues to be the case that “Ultras are for everyday people, and they’re not wired differently. What they share is a desire to push boundaries” (Greenwood 2012).

“Over the past couple of years, competitive trail running in the USA has gone from an underground community of extreme athletes to an immensely popular extreme sports venue,” ranking as the sixth most popular extreme sport in the US (Burgunder 2010).

Ultrarunning is a changing culture. The growth and transformation of ultrarunning is not a necessarily welcomed event for those who are part of the “old school” of ultrarunning, those used to smaller fields, less attention, and no concerns over prize money.

We might be able to then say that competitiveness per se is not an overriding factor in ultrarunning culture.

Generally speaking, the emphasis on becoming a better person and having a unique experience that facilitates that transformation is given higher priority than outcome and meeting a personal goal.

There are then these additional elements which one must possess in order to be seeable as an ultrarunner. So then to the question of ‘what is ultrarunning,’ the overly simplistic answer is running longer than a marathon. The culture of ultrarunning, or ‘the spirit of the trail,’ would involve more than just completion of distance; it would involve possession of an ethos and culture that is unique to that activity.

(...) it is more common to find that no prize money is offered for winning an ultramarathon. For instance, the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning involves four 100 mile races: the Western States Endurance Run, Vermont 100, Leadville 100, and Wasatch 100. No prize money is awarded for winning any of those races. In fact, there is no prize money associated with winning the Grand Slam, accomplished by accumulating the lowest total time running all four in one year. These are not exceptions. What’s more, “[f]or many elites, the modest payoffs don’t even cover travel costs to an event” (Seiss 2012). In other words, it costs more to do them than they get for winning. In conversations with elite ultrarunners, it is not uncommon for them to lose money on racing, spending more than they win or make through sponsorships.

In that way, elites are like the amateurs, trying to balance work, family, friends and training. This can be an important element in the identity of the ultrarunning community, and speaks to part of the more egalitarian ethos that permeates. The elites are just like us, only faster.

Taken together, for respondents elites do not factor as an important element when choosing a race, and should not be given preferential treatment.

Wilkins divides the argument over prize money between “purists” and “pragmatists.” The purists, he states, “argue that the introduction of prize money to ultramarathon running would only serve to corrupt our otherwise clean sport and could lead to such unsavory things as cheating, performance enhancing drug use, and corporate greed.” The pragmatists, on the other hand, “suggest that the addition of prize money would increase competition, bring increased attention to the sport, and add an air of professionalism to a sport that has been rather loosely organized and administered for over 30 years.”

The 2013 edition of Leadville has been highlighted as what is becoming wrong about ultrarunning, an event that is increasingly attracting the inexperienced who are merely seeking to do an ultra to say they did an ultra

Finally, as more sponsorship and attention is given to ultrarunning, there is the concern of whether more and more races will go the way of Leadville, and whether the price of popularity is worth the cost of culture.

(...) struggle and endurance is viewed as a gateway to self-discovery that is accomplished by going into a realm that today’s modern society is constructed to actively avoid. Within ultra comes a kind of purity of existence in that moment, where all of the things that can plague us every day are stripped away and focus is turned toward just keeping moving forward.

“What we seek is the truth. Not the truth shaped by human knowledge, but the Truth: harsh, unwritten and startingly real.”

The journey does not begin at the starting line, but in the course of training, immersing oneself in the day-to-day struggle to even approach the starting line with a sense of preparedness. Or, as ultrarunning great Scott Jurek (2012:Ch.12) has found, “The point was living with grace, decency, and attention to the world, and breaking free of the artificial constructs in your own life.

It often is in struggle that people can unite for a common purpose, allowing difference to be shed for a shared goal and experience.

As was shown in the survey results, community and identity are important elements of the ultrarunning culture.

“At every endurance event, there comes a time when you’ll say, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ And you’ll say, ‘This is what I do’.”

The concern now is whether the growth and increased commercialization of the sport possess a threat to the spirit of the trail, and the ethos that became established in ultra.

As ultrarunning continues to grow in terms of race size and market share, more will be needed to be done to examine whether it can achieve a model of economic, environmental, and cultural sustainability.


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