Some people express concern about this idea of a championship race. Concern that races which so definitively emphasize elite runners will have a negative effect on the experience of the 99% of ultrarunners who are not elite runners. I think there is some validity in these concerns, but I think it's important to keep in mind that what people are talking about is a desire for there to be ONE true championship race. I don't think anyone wants anything more than this. That means ONE race unlike anything we have now, and hundreds of races which would be the same as they are now.
At any rate, I think the discussion of what effect a true championship race would have on the sport is a moot point. I think that there is such a high demand for this that it is absolutely going to happen within the next couple years. It's a simple aspect of a free market that when you have a large demand for a product/service that is not available someone will provide a product/service to fill that void.
I think we can and have learned some things from the "what effect would this have on the sport" discussion, but I also think it's time to move forward and focus more on the discussion of what a true championship race should and likely will look like. It's been good to see (on blogs) and hear (from other runners or interested parties) a lot of talk about this in the past couple months. I couldn't begin to count the people that I've had quite detailed conversations with about this type of event in the past few months. The surprising thing to me has been how similar people's ideas about this are. There are several things which almost everyone I talk to about this agree on. My purpose of this post is to outline what I see (from conversations with others and from my personal opinion) as the primary aspects that any true championship race should have. I don't think that all of these are necessary for the emergence of a race like this, but I do think that most of them are, simply because any race that tries to emerge that is lacking in too many of these aspects will be replaced by a race that provides more of these things.
Here's the list of the most important things (in my opinion) for a race to include to become a true championship race:
- Entry guaranteed to any runner who wants to run the race who would have any chance of competing for the win in a race like this. There are many ways to do this. I think the best would be a combined system of invitees and auto qualifiers based on previous race performances
- 90%+ trail with at much of this as possible singletrack
- Single loop or point to point course (as compared to multiple loops or out and back)
- 100 miles - this seems to be the preferred distance among a lot of top runners, but I think a 50 mile or 100k distance could pull this off as well. The shorter distances would just have to put that much more energy into convincing top runners to show up because you will have a few that will not be inclined to take it seriously at first because it's not 100 miles.
- prize money - not necessarily a lot, but enough to make the race in the very front that much more appealing to the front runners and to spectators
- 150 to 250 ft/mile of elevation gain - not too little nor too much climbing
- Average altitude less than 7,000 ft. and high point less than 9,000 - you don't want to eliminate from the race those who don't have the time or money to acclimatize for several weeks before the race.
- Location within reasonable distance (less than 100 miles) from major airport
- Location in Western United States - there are places in the East that could work, but probably not any that would be as appealing as something in the West, especially considering that probably 75%+ of the runners who would be competing live and train in the West
- Race date no earlier than June 1st and no later than October 1st - you want competitors to be in top shape, not early season legs or late season fatigue.
- Stand alone championship event as opposed to an event which also tries to incorporate a middle/back of pack race at the same time OR permit space to accommodate 500+ runners in one event - probably a race in conjunction with a "standard" race. Maybe a week apart, or maybe just a day apart. I think, as many have said in comments that this would appeal to the masses more if you have non-elites racing the same race with the elites. I agree with this, but I think most places in the United States are hard to get large enough permits to accommodate this. If you have enough space to do both together than that will work fine but if you are ending up not being able to take on all the elites that want to run then you are simply ending up where Western States is now.
- Start/Finish area with very easy access and space to accommodate thousands of people, preferably in a large population center - opportunity for large amount of spectators
- Points throughout the race that pass through accessible population centers - same as above point
- High quality pre, during, and post race online coverage - I mean really high quality. This is where a race like this could stand to bring in the money to pay for all of this. With today's technology it wouldn't be hard at all to do WAY more than any races are currently doing in this regard. If you do it right you could charge viewers a small fee for access to interviews, analysis, race tracking, race footage, etc. A fee which I suspect thousands, if not tens of thousands worldwide would be happy to pay for in depth coverage.