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Introducing Major League Ultrarunning

Summary

The competitive landscape in American Mountain Ultra Trail Running is fragmented. Most start lines are thin on talent. And there is no organizing theme linking the majority of races - almost every event exists on its own island. So it’s no surprise that many of the best male and female runners head overseas to seek out the best competition the sport has to offer. 

To make American ultra races more compelling to elite runners, I propose the formation of “Major League Ultrarunning” (MLU), which:

Read the full post below. 

*Disclaimer: this post is written through the particular lens of competitive Mountain Ultra Trail Running. It does not consider all the other elements that make this sport great.

Introduction

The lack of structure and standardization in American Mountain Ultra Trail Running is frustrating. Think about it. How many races (large and small) and event brands (corporate and cottage) do we have in the United States? There are a lot. 

From a competitive standpoint, it’s a problem. Rarely do we have more than 3 or 4 competitive women and men on any given start line. There are, of course, a few races with significant depth that come to mind - mostly those affiliated with the Golden Ticket series. Otherwise, it’s bleak. 

Saturation and disarray aren’t the only issues. Most elite runners simply don’t associate this region of the world with the best professional and competitive opportunities. They instead go overseas, to participate in events logically connected within more formal systems like the Salomon Golden Trail Series and Ultra Trail World Tour.

A few questions are worthwhile to address from all of this:

Furthermore, is this initiative desirable...or are we satisfied with the status quo?

Start By Expanding The Golden Ticket Series

I’m certainly not satisfied. That’s why I’m writing this post! So, I propose the following.

We start by testing the waters. In the first 2 to 3 years of this initiative, we build on top of what is already working and take small, but progressive steps towards the formation of a professional league. In my opinion, the most exciting competitive space in American Mountain Ultra Trail Running is the “Golden Ticket” series held over a 4 month stretch every year from January to April. So, we capitalize on that.

The Golden Ticket series, listed below, is currently composed of 3 races where top 2 female and male finishers secure automatic entry into the Western States 100 that year.

I propose expanding the field from 3 races to 10 races and pushing the start back from January to July of the previous year with the series still culminating with a championship event at the Western States 100 the following June. This expanded field of races would be geographically comprehensive, including more of the Southeast, West Coast, and Mountain West. 

It might look something like this (incorporating more distances true to the final race as well):

Initially, the series would retain the same rules. The top 2 male and female runners from each of these races would secure automatic entry into Western States, increasing the number of golden tickets from 6 to 40. This move would deepen the competitive field at Western States and give the American ultrarunning community an exciting competitive narrative to follow year-round.

So, we start with that. For at least a couple of years, we operate on an expanded, more geographically and competitively inclusive Golden Ticket series that features 10 races over 10 months instead of 3 races over 4 months. Then we study the results. Some interesting questions will naturally arise. For example:

It will be interesting to see what happens. Of course, the answers, especially to the final questions here, will determine whether there is enough momentum to move forward with a full-fledged league.

If Expansion Is Successful, Establish Major League Ultrarunning

Assuming the success of this trial series expansion, we move forward with the creation of a full-fledged league. For the sake of this article, let’s call it “Major League Ultrarunning” *(MLU). 

Once I publish this article, I will read the feedback and incorporate what makes sense into this vision. For now, here are some ideas.

1. All of the premier trail running locations across the United States would get a team. There would be 10 to start: 

2. Every city/region would host a women’s and men’s team with 7 members on each roster. Each team member would have to be located within the metropolitan area of the city. Denver and Colorado Springs runners, for example, would be rolled into the Boulder team. Park City and Provo, for another example, would be rolled into Salt Lake City.

3. Each member would be required to participate in at least 2 of the MLU events, in addition to the championship race, (3 total) in order to accumulate points for the team and keep standings throughout the regular season. Some variation of cross-country points scoring would be used. 

4. There also would be a minor league/farm team competing in each city in a parallel league with it’s own season, 7-person rosters, and set of regular season and championship races. Here is what I am thinking:

5. What would make this minor league particularly interesting is that, at the end of every season, the 4 highest performing female and male runners from the minor league championship teams  and the 4 lowest performing female and male runners from the last-place major league team would swap teams. This would be similar to how the European Premiership soccer league promote and relegate entire teams at the end of every season. It would serve as an interesting motivating factor for players and celebrate true meritocratic ideals of competition.

Altogether, there would be interesting competitive dynamics in both the major and minor leagues: 

There would be interesting professional dynamics: 

And there would be interesting business dynamics: 

Conclusion

Imagine having upwards of 40 competitive women and men on any given start line in this league. Imagine what that could do for individual performances, and generally for the competitive-side of the sport. Imagine the second and third order effects for fans, race directors, sport-related brands, and local economies supported by these races.

Of course, what ultimately I like about the concept of Major League Ultrarunning is that it standardizes competition and creates an exciting new format and paradigm for the community to rally around. There is an annual, coherent organization of competition that logically includes the best runners and most captivating races across the country. It also gives runners something to compete for beyond themselves - now they have a team and a city to represent. 

But this is just an initial idea that I felt compelled to get out there on the internet. I want to hear from all of you. What are your thoughts? Is this something worth pursuing? How can we make it better? Looking forward to the feedback.

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