Most people tend to track the popularity of ultras based on number of finishes or number of races in a given year.  And based on these metrics, ultra popularity rapidly increased after the year 2000 and is at its peak.  This makes sense to me.  The book Born to Run came out about 10 years ago helping boost the visibility of the sport and has been followed more recently by the rise of social media, which this article partly blames attributes to the rapid rise.  More and more people are entering the sport.

Anecdotally, this meshes with my experience.  I didn’t know a single person that had completed an ultra when I started out four years ago, yet a co-worker just ran a 12 hour race a week ago and a neighbor is running his first 50k in less than a month.  My wife’s co-worker knows a guy from high school that runs 100s.  Heck, my wife herself has even finished a couple ultras even though she doesn’t like to run much.

But what if we’ve gotten things reversed.  What if ultras aren’t more popular because more people are running them, but simply because there are just more races available.  We could have a higher number of ultra finishes with the same level of interest (i.e. popularity) if the barrier to entry was low enough.  You’re probably not going to burn a whole weekend to jump on a plane to run a 50 miler, but maybe you’d sacrifice a Saturday to hop in a car and drive an hour for a 50K.

This thought occured to me when I stumbled across Google Trends for the first time earlier today and did a (very) little bit of research.  This site ranks the Google search results of words/phrases with an index of 100 being the highest.  I expect to see a similar chart to the first one with a trend up and to the right with the value of 100 within the past year or so.  Instead I saw this:

Source:Ultramarathon on Google Trends

Head scratch.  That can’t be right.  Ultramarathon as a search term is only half as popular as they were back in 2005?  Let’s try another one.  Here’s the popularity of 100 mile run:

Source:100 mile run on on Google Trends

Wait.  What?!?!  That’s almost identical to the first one.  I know.  I bet if I search for Western States Endurance Run, I’ll get a much different chart.  It’s well documented that this has become a much more popular race over the past 10 based on the ever increasing size of the lottery.

Source: Western States Endurance Run on on Google Trends

This one’s even more counterintuitive and ultimately lead to my above conclusion.  If the most popular 100 mile race in the US based on it’s ever expanding lottery isn’t getting more Google searches, then something else must be going on.  I think it must be the increased opportunity that’s driving the higher number of finishes, not necessarily increased popularity.  I’m sure this will be welcome news to those who feel the influx of the hoi polloi has negatively impacted the ultra community in recent years.  They shouldn’t be worried about their favorite races doubling and tripling in size over the next 10 years.  There might be more races and those races might entice a couple more marathoners to step up in distance, but these race will never be popular in the common sense of the word.  This is and will continue to be a fringe sport due entirely to the time and dedication it takes merely to get to the starting line let alone to finish one of these races.  And if you’re one of the hundred thousand or so ultrarunners out there this year, you’re probably OK with that.