Mountain Ultra Trail Running In The Olympics

Summary

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now.” - Chinese Proverb

One day, 100 Mile Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Running will be an Olympic sport. 

This essay riffs on what it might look like to accomplish that within the next decade. 

Why should we go for it? Because the benefits of Olympic status are huge. 

  • There is no bigger stage to demonstrate the sport to the world.
  • A surge of interest and participation in the sport usually follows in the years to come.
  • Access is granted to public and private funding for performance and research in the sport.
  • Amateur and professional athletes in the sport realize more business opportunities.

If our goal is to grow the sport and create more opportunities for male and female athletes, coaches, race directors, and any other relevant parties, there isn’t a more noble pursuit than the campaign for Olympic status.

The Scene

“The way I attack the downhills... I will break your quads and you won’t be able to jog the flats anymore. Find your 2:05 guy, give me a couple hours in the canyon, I’ll be the first one out.” - Jim Walmsley

Imagine this for a moment.

The year is 2034 and Salt Lake City, UT is hosting the Winter Olympics. 20 years earlier, a rule was instituted allowing the host city to trial a sport in the games. Recognized as the hub of American trail running, local officials have chosen to include the 100 Mile Mountain Ultra Trail Running event. The course, suitable for the winter conditions, is the Bonneville Shoreline - a trail weaving north-south along the foothills of the Wasatch.

16 hours into the men’s race, cameras converge on mile 94 where Jim Walmsley (USA, 44 years old), is being chased by Killian Jornet (Spain, 46 years old) on the muddy climb out of City Creek Canyon. Both are at the tail ends of illustrious careers. And both are anticipating a  “one and done” showing at the Olympics. Given how much the competition has improved in the last two decades, leading the race is a testament to the timelessness of their talents. 6 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation change separate them from the finish line. They are digging deep, implicitly understanding this moment to be the capstone of their careers.

The drones zero in.  Walmsley is breathing hard. Billows of white smoke cloud his face. Little has changed from the early days. He has charged from the gun. It’s anyone's guess whether he will make it to the finish line. 
Jornet confidently passes him near the top of the 3 mile climb. A scorecard on the left side of the screen shows biometric readings from the sensors on his gear. He has incurred significant muscular damage in his legs, but has clearly fueled well. His glycogen stores are in check and he is well hydrated. The announcers have patched in his coach who comments on the preparation Jornet has done in the months and years leading up to this moment - particularly the work on his mind. 

After a 60 second montage summarizing his training in the Grand Canyon, one of the drones moves closer to Walmsley so the announcers can ask for a comment. Walmsley waves it off. He has been an open book for most of the race, but won’t entertain the pundits at this time. The only thing that matters right now is keeping up with Jornet, who has already put a 30 second gap on him. 

The screen moves to the leaderboard and then pivots to another drone’s footage. Just 3 minutes and a quarter mile behind Walmsley and Jornet is a physically battered, but hard-charging Dylan Bowman (USA, 47 year old ). A veteran of photo finishes, he is mentally prepared to drain himself over this final rollercoaster 10k and add to the drama. A last-minute alternate addition to the American team, no one expected Bowman to be in contention this late in the race.

At the finish line, event organizers are ecstatically watching the theatrics play out on a jumbo screen. The race has stayed close and hard-fought from start to finish. The story lines have been compelling - particularly the ones for Bowman, Jornet, and Walmsley remaining competitive so late into their careers. And it’s all been amplified by the high-quality live data and footage, and commentary from coaches and sport personalities. Skeptics thought this would be boring. On the contrary, it has been thrilling, like a reality TV show.

Why It Deserves Olympic Status

There are at least 5 reasons why Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) running deserves Olympic status and a trial run in the summer or winter games.

  • MUT running is another opportunity to spotlight and champion the amateur sportsperson.
  • MUT running permeates every human culture. It has ancestral roots.
  • MUT running has the “cool” factor to help turn the younger generation on to the Olympic institution.
  • MUT running builds on one of the original Olympic sports, cross-country.
  • MUT running has doubled participation from 4M to 9M runners over the last 15 years

Furthermore, changes to the Olympic games menu are commonplace. The program only has 25 “core” sports. The rest are fighting for spots every 4 years. To facilitate new events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discontinues certain sports in order to admit new ones. And since 1980, over 100 events have been added.

How To Achieve Olympic Status

The standard route is time and resource-intensive. It starts with IOC recognition, but then there is a high global participation bar, among other criteria to meet, and campaigning to IOC officials can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. New Olympic sports like climbing and surfing followed this route. It took multiple decades of advocacy and concerted effort by their respective leaders to secure inclusion.

The alternative route is for local organizing committees to push favored sports and introduce them in the years their countries host the games. This process was formalized in 2014 and Tokyo will be the first to take advantage of it in 2021.

I advocate for the latter route. Given the possibility that Salt Lake City will host the Winter Games in 2030 or 2034, we could mobilize enough resources and build a solid infrastructure to encourage the local organizing committee to trial it then. There is no tried and true playbook. We would be inventing it as we go.

Envisioning Olympic Status

The biggest question mark here is the sport’s entertainment value to spectators. 

The race might not translate well on television, especially when runners are separated by huge margins on the course and the finish line is 14 to 24+ hours away. Likewise, the excitement and drama is usually very subtle (like reaching a key check point on the course) or drawn out (like when a runner gets passed late in the race after miles of pursuit). Given the enormous challenge to the human attention span, we should create a unique and entertaining experience. Here are some ideas to facilitate that.

The course has to be spectacular, dynamic, and spectator-friendly. 

  • Lots of single-track, climbing, descending, and altitude.
  • A point-to-point or loop style course.
  • Key landmarks are easily accessible by fans, media, and support teams.

The latest health, gear, and media technology needs to be utilized for up to the minute status updates for every runner. 

  • Drones and camera/mics attached to each runner will be used to capture the best footage and commentary straight from the runners to their coaches, competitors, crew, commentators, and themselves. 
  • Shirts, packs, shorts, and shoes will relay biometric data to the audience showing the physical and emotional toll on each runner over the course of the race.


The media coverage has to include next-level analysis and storytelling for fans to better identify, follow along, and root for the athletes.

  • With all the data and footage at their disposal, commentators would have compelling talking points to share with fans. They would also call in coaches, fellow athletes, legends of the sport, family, and others to share in the conversation.
  • Multiple interviews would be conducted with each of the runners well-ahead of the race during key points of their training. Then played out during the race.
    Documentaries would be built around each of the runners, displaying their backgrounds, personalities, thoughts on the sport, key racing moments, where they see themselves going in the future of the sport, as well as their general hopes, dreams, and fears. These would also be played out in clips during the race too - similar to the format in LOST with flashbacks and flash forwards.


The fan participation has to include next-level access and innovative formats.

  • Fans wanting to periodically check-in or catch up on what they missed in a frictionless way, would be sent text alerts updating them on major changes in the race. There would also be dedicated journalists for every runner posting text and video updates as often as possible on each of the social platforms. 
  • Fans attending the race would be allowed to get on course, follow runners, cheer on runners and provide their own user-generated updates and opinions to the social platforms too in order to expand the reach of the media coverage.

Some Work That Needs To Be Done

There are two big question marks here. 

First, how do we convince more top runners to defect from the track and roads onto the trails? 

Olympic Dreams? In the short-term, one of the incentives will simply be the prospect of making an Olympic team. On the men’s side, there are a lot of 2:11 - 2:15 guys who will narrowly miss making it in the marathon, that might see mountain ultra trail running as another viable pathway. The same goes for women in the 2:28 - 2:32 range. 

New Challenges? That said, 100 mile mountain ultra trail marathons are not as straightforward a test of physiology as shorter events. As distances get longer, differences in other factors like mental toughness help separate the field. Jim Walmsley has gone on record saying that a 2:05 marathoner wouldn’t be able to keep pace with him in these types of races. So another incentive might be to prove the naysayers wrong and show that fast road runners can convert their talent in the mountains.

More money? Finally, more money is coming into the sport as the largest brands get involved and that will help raise the talent-level of the ranks. If you build it and put money on the table for more runners to go pro, they will likely come in, specialize, and create a whole new generation and caliber of top runners in the sport.

Second, how do we funnel the sport’s top runners into as many of the same races as possible? 

Competitive Depth? The biggest competitive issue plaguing the sport right now is the spread of top athletes across too many events. Outside of notable races like Lake Sonoma, Western States, and UTMB, it is rare to see more than a handful of top men and women on the same start lines. There are many reasons for this. Some athletes prefer going after FKTs, others like to mix it up at different race distances, and those who are focused on going or staying pro (rightfully) see the biggest stage and best opportunity as being over in Europe for most or all of the year.

American League? One solution might be to create teams in major mountain hubs across the country and have them compete in the equivalent of “Major League Ultrarunning” here in the United States. It could be built on top of the existing Golden Ticket series for Western States. Over the course of, say, a 10 month period, members of these teams would line up for 6 or 7 golden ticket races. They would accumulate wins and losses and the season would culminate at Western States, which would act like the championship event. The hometown and team elements would encourage more athletes to stay home, compete here, and get on more start lines with all the best American runners.

Then, every 3rd or 4th year, Western States could double as the trials event for the Olympics. Like, the top 3 men and top 3 women finishers would represent the country in the next Olympic event.

I am just riffing here. But you get the idea. We need to increase the talent pool and get more competitors on the same start lines. This is just how I might do it.

Conclusion

We are far away from being recognized and included as an Olympic sport. But we have to start somewhere. In the near term, a trial in the Salt Lake City games is our best shot. How cool would that be? The Wasatch on the world stage. Think about that for a moment.

In the long-term, we need to build a training center, expand research opportunities, support coaches, and build our stables of athletes. In the short term, there are a couple of low-hanging fruit opportunities we can address in the next few years.

  • Getting more younger athletes involved. Here, I propose creating a feeder system from the college ranks - educating runners on the opportunities to pursue careers on the trails instead of the track. Their examples would inspire more people in that age bracket. 
  • Getting more female athletes involved. Here, I propose simply featuring more women in the sport’s marketing. On the Olympic track, we have a responsibility here. Brands play a pivotal role too. This is a friendly call-out to Altra, Hoka One One, and Salomon among others. 
  • Getting more countries involved. Here, I propose adding more races in regions like South America and South Asia to influence and encourage the local populations to mobilize.
  • Getting the sport more professionalized in America. Here, I propose the formation of a true professional league. As I mentioned previously, we could call it “Major League Ultra Running”. 

So, this is a call to action. If you feel the same pull as I do, get in touch! 

What did I miss here? What needs to be expanded on? finnmelanson@gmail.com is my email. Let’s get to work.

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