100-Mile Races Are More Competitive—and Popular—Than Ever

More runners and longer distances spark the explosive growth of ultra-marathons.

On July 9, 1993, during the second ever running of the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, ultrarunner Margaret Heaphy descended from Virginius Pass into Telluride, Colorado, at mile 75 (kilometer 121), feeling good and in second place.

“The aid station was in the middle of town and I was hungry,” says Heaphy, now 60 years old. “There was a bar right next door, so I sat down and ordered a burger.”

She ate about half of the burger and then left the bar to chase after the first-place woman and the previous year’s champion, Nancy Hamilton.

“As I was giving my fries to my pacer I realized that I left my water bottle,” says Heaphy. “I had to run back to the bar to get it.”

She would eventually catch and pass Hamilton on the climb up Grant Swamp Pass to win the race in 41 hours, 38 minutes.

Times have changed—quite literally—with last year’s female winner, Anna Frost, covering the course in 28 hours, 22 minutes.

It’s estimated there are some 60 million runners in the United States, with 17 million of them competing in a running event in 2015. Though the number of recreational athletes competing in road races has declined for two consecutive years, ultrarunninng—races longer than the traditional 26.2-mile (42-kilometer) marathon—on trails is booming. There are now more than 145 100-mile (161-kilometer) races available in the United States.

There is even a spate of longer distance races, some measuring 200 miles (322 kilometers) on trail. However, our gaze has remained transfixed on the 100-mile ultra-marathon distance.

Pushed by the growth, our country’s iconic 100-mile races are now flooded with applicants. First-time lottery entrants often see a less than 2 percent chance of actually getting in to races like the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run and the Hardrock 100. Demand has pushed the sport into an uncomfortable growth spurt.

Silverton, Colorado, a town with 500 year-round residents, more than doubles in size during the Hardrock weekend, and last year the race brought about $310,000 into the Silverton economy.

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“The biggest change we’ve seen over the years is the amount of interest,” says race director Dale Garland. “In 1992 [the first running of the Hardrock], if you had a pulse, you got into the race.” This year, there were 1,639 applicants for the available 152 race entrants they are permitted to have on course.

“We have this conversation a lot, but you’re either growing or you’re dying. If you don’t you become irrelevant or curmudgeony,” says Garland. “But there is a way to change with integrity and vision and not lose what is special about the event.”

The competition in this year’s race will be fierce, with both of last year’s champions, Catalan Kilian Jornet and New Zealand’s Anna Frost, returning for another spin around the iconic 100.5-mile loop with some 66,100 feet of elevation loss and gain in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Rest assured, no one in the top 50 will be stopping off for a burger at the local bar.

The 24th annual Hardrock 100 will begin at 6 a.m. on July 15, 2016.

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