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The future of trail and ultra running

Eric Schranz’s love of trail and ultra running is unquestioned. Like many endurance athletes, he started as a youth and continues running as an adult.

Not only does Schranz train, race and volunteer, he is among the most prominent ambassadors for the sport. His weekly podcast and daily e-newsletter keep trail runners from newbies to elites informed, inspired and educated about — as he would say — “this crazy sport of ours.”

I had the pleasure of turning the tables on the Ultra Runner Podcast host and asking him the questions. What follows is our conversation about trail and ultra running, with an eye on the future.

Question: So starting off, big open ended question: What fuels your passion for the crazy sport of ultras?

Answer: Aye yai yai. That's a really tough question, Henry. What fuels my passion? I've been running my whole life, so I suppose that it's just part of my identity and part of what I've been doing for 35 years. I really had no choice. I really, really enjoy being outdoors, and I like being alone outdoors, and I like being social outdoors. So this sport kind of fits. I like pushing myself really hard and seeing what happens kind of as an experiment. And I like the competition. I mean I am competitor. If there's a starting line and a finish line, I'm gonna compete, generally against myself, but I'm going to compete.

Question: What are some words that come to mind for you when you're thinking about today's state of ultra running and trail running?

Answer: Burgeoning. Changing. I'm going to go with a lot of these same words. Metamorphosis, you know there's a lot of these. We're going through a big change right now. And if I was to expand on that, that change is going from a rag tag group of people across the country with all different training plans and ideas and all sorts of different stuff, to a faster, more commercialized sport with more attention and media. I think it's turning into a sport more than just an activity it has been in the past.

Question: Would you say those changes are positive or negative or somewhere in between?

Answer: They're certainly both. The common complaint that “it's great, it's growing, but we want all these people to be running, but uh-oh now I can't get into my races.” Or there's people coming into the sport trying to take their ideals from their last sport or activity, or way of life and put them in our sport. And that doesn't always work that well. This has been going on kind of the same way for a while and too much change freaks people out.

But most of the changes are certainly for the good. A lot of them are still yet to be determined. I mean there's more money in the sport right now. Does that necessarily mean that people are going to be cheating to get that money? I don't know and I don't know how to tell. But there's no doubt that we're going through a big change right now.

Question: If it's up to the races to weed out the cheaters, then there's an impact there that entry fees may go up. That would diminish a lot of runners who are looking to do these races to begin with.

Answer: Sure. I'm not convinced that money brings cheating at all. I think if there is no money at all, we'd still have nearly as many cheaters as you have now. People like to stand on top of the podiums, say they won and you know, get a free pair of shoes. Many people will go to crazy extremes to do that. But I don't think that our sport has much of a drug problem at all, I don't want to imply that.

Question: Are we headed to — or are we at — a saturation point with the number of races and the number of runners, or do you see it continuing to go beyond?

Answer: Every time I have this conversation with friends they say there can't be any more races, right? Another race company pops up. And there's more and more races. So I'd like to say we're at a saturation point but I think we're still growing. In California, there's not one weekend that goes by where there's not a 50K within one hour of me. Every single weekend of the year. And generally there's two. There's 50K, 50 mile, 100K. Where it's even getting to bug me a little bit because I'll go to a park or go and train on a hike or something with my family and, oh look there's a race again. And there's parking and there's runners all over the trail. And it's bugging me even.

It's great that there's this many people in it and there's this many people interested in it. It'll be interesting how it shakes out in, let's say five years, who's left? But is it going to be the grass-roots companies who have had a following for a long time and put on no frill events, or are the larger companies going to capitalize and drive all them out, and that's what's going to be left? I don't know but, it's really interesting to watch and see how different people are handling it. It's pure capitalism and innovation. Whoever has the best products and can appeal to the best audience is going to win.

Question: That's a perfect segue to the next thing I was going to talk about. A lot of what we've seen recently is more promotions by our bigger name companies, brands, sponsors. How concerned are you that they're going to crowd out the little guy, the race, the small community, maybe an old school race that's been doing it for so long, but doesn't have the resources to compete with some of these bigger brands?

Answer: I'm not concerned at all with that. There's a huge market for both. I think the people who are in to the smaller races are going to stay with those smaller races and they're not going to have any interest in participating in these huge, huge festival events. And I think there's a lot of people who want to go to these huge things and see a band, be there for two days and get all the swag and everything like that, who would be really, really bored with going to little grass-root events. I don't think there's a problem with that at all.

Question: Let's change gears a little bit and talk about women in ultra running. Your daughter, Sunny, has been tagging along with you and running some of her own races. How important is that to you to share that with your daughter?

Answer: Well, sharing my passion with my kids is obviously one of the most important things in my life. I am a runner. I love doing this. I've made a vocation out of it and I want to share that with my kids. If it were cooking, if it were sailing, something else, it would be the same thing. I want to impart that passion and all the good that comes with it onto my kids. On that sense, Sunny's not really running right now. She hasn't run for real in probably a month. And she doesn't want to. She's playing soccer right now and that's fine. I have no interest in pushing her.

But it's very, very important that my kids are doing something. Running specifically is a sport that's very accessible to kids where they can see something going on and they can talk to that person. To me that's hugely important.

I mentioned it in a post a few months ago I wrote, when I was a kid I met Rafer Johnson. He was a decathlete in the 1976 Olympics or something like that. I met him and I knew this guy was one of the best in the world in his sport, and it had a huge impact on me. And I probably met him when I was 9 or 10 years old. And I want both my kids to find people like that. To kind of stick in the back of their head and go, I met that person, they're the best in the world, they're a normal person. It's not some person you see on TV, not really sure if it's real or not, I met that person and they're doing something that I can do too.

If we're going back to the question about women, I'd say specifically girls in the sport to show that independence and that ability to run out and get dirty and to break that mold is really important to me.

Question: So how do we do that? And who's responsible for making the sport more appealing, inviting to girls, young women, any female, and how do we go about doing that?

Answer: Oh boy. We can stop making excuses and stop the line of, “There's all these barriers for women to enter the sport.” I don't believe there are barriers for women to enter the sport. I don't know why people say that. There are no barriers to women entering the sport. Sign up for the race and run it. If you want to influence kids, get involved and influence them. And if you want to have more women in the sport, and girls in the sport, get involved and do something. Sitting behind a computer and complaining is not going to do anything. It's not going to do anything except preach to the audience you already have. Get out and actually do something.

Also, there’s been a lot of attention paid over the past year to safety of women in our society and on the trails. And while that’s very much a real issue, I don’t think it helps anything to freak out about what’s still a very few occurrences of violence or harassment while trail running. I talk to a lot of women locally as well as internationally in what I do and I rarely hear anything about being scared out on the trails. Of course even one issue of harassment is awful, but I think by focusing on what’s still a very few instances, we’re dissuading girls and women from getting involved in what’s still a very friendly and safe sport. Does that make sense?

Question: There are not only fewer women runners but we're also seeing fewer in some of the bigger, more high-profile races. These disproportionate numbers — how big of a problem is that and what's the best way to alleviate that?

Answer: I would love to see more women and girls racing, absolutely. I'd love to see that. But artificially fixing results by controlling who enters doesn't make any sense at all. All the doors are open for women and girls to run and race. We just need to push them and then have encourage them to do so. But I am completely against artificially controlling results. I'd love to see more women and more girls out there. But if they don't want to then I don't think we should force it.

Question: Among the changes, certainly since you started running, is social media. Have you seen the influence of social media on ultra running as a positive, a negative or a somewhere in between?

Answer: That's a good question, Henry. I'm going to have to hedge and say some somewhere in between but I think I would be leading more toward negative actually. I'm going to take that in two ways.

The commercialization or the artificial views we get of runners on social media, all these amazing Instagram pictures, all these amazing Facebook pictures, don't really show what a lot of us see on regular basis. And it just makes it seem not accessible and artificial. It seems like it's a commercial for something, rather than real life. And then I don't see a lot of positive brand building for individual athletes on social media. There's certainly exceptions, there's a tremendous amount of exceptions of people who are building their brands on social media for the good, I'll use Mike Wardian for example. I mean the guy's just positive, this is all great, everything's good.

When people are doing it and using their influence in sports to try to talk about politics or religion or something like that, I tend to think that as a negative. I know there's a lot of people who like that and wish more people would do that. I don't like that I think that running specifically the trails should be something that is apart and that is free from politics.

Question: Let’s look into Eric's crystal ball.

Answer: Oh boy.

Question: What are we going to see in ultra running in say five to 10 years? What changes are we going to be talking about at that point?

Answer: I love having this discussion and it's a tough one. Let's take five years. That puts us at 2023. I think we're going to be seeing more of an extension of what I think we're going to be seeing the next year, so I'll just take next year and push it out for the next five years.

I think to be a competitive male you're going to have to be post collegiate. You're going to have to be somebody who ran competitively in college and have that raw leg speed. There's a lot of people who can run at that level, who did not run in college. Of course those people exist but for the most part, they were college runners. And now they're going to be moving into the trails.

And for women, it’s different I think. For women the speed is important but what we're seeing is a lot more women performing at the top who did not compete in college. I mean look at the guys. The guys you've got Jim (Walmsley), Cody (Reed) and the Cowboys all ran in college. And lots of women, you look at the top and they just did it for fun. They weren't competing hard and it's a weird separation in the genders on what it takes to win. And I think that's going to be pushed out over the next five to 10 years.

In terms of commercialization and money in the sport, and drug testing, man, I have no idea. I should go back and listen to URP episodes from five years ago when we had this discussion about what I think we'd see in five years, and see how accurate we were. I think that there's going to be some kind of testing for something, but I don't think it's going to be accurate. It's going to be just a feel good type of testing. And I think we'll see more brands involved in the sport, in a money way. And hopefully not just an ambassador way. I hope that we're seeing more of our athletes actually able to make a living. Not going to be a big living but actually make a living off their training.

Question: As you were talking about the influence of the Cowboys that made me think too about the women's side and how there's not, at least right now, as much of a transition from that college to really competitive 20something on the women's side. Some start careers, start families, which takes them out of competitive running for a certain duration of time. Do you see there being a really competitive 20something men's field and then maybe the women's field is really competitive among the 30-, 40-somethings?

Answer: Oh absolutely. If I were a female top athlete, I would be scared to death of early 30s post-baby women. They're fierce. It's an interesting thing to look at in our sport and without trying to draw all sorts of crazy conclusions, it's really interesting. I mean guys hop out of college and are in the prime of their life, boom, boom, boom. Use the speed you earned in college to run and women seem to take it slower and get these other things lined up. And then power in their early 30s and hell into their 40s, where by that time most guys are done with.

Question: Let's look at 2019 and pick out a couple of athletes that we might be looking at who are under the radar now but are primed for a breakout next year.

Answer: That is a really, really tough one. I've thought a lot about this. Let’s take women first. I would add a few names that most people are familiar with but who just aren't, for whatever reason, considered the top and surprise people when they do well.

That's going to be Kelly Wolf, who had a hell of a year and is just an outstanding athlete. Sabrina Stanley who keeps winning things but everybody still seems surprised when she does. Kaytlyn Gerbin and then Ailsa Macdonald from Canada/Arizona. Kelly Wolf this year won Tarawera, won Lavaredo and started Transvulcania. Those are three really tough mountain races. At Western, is she going to do really well? I don't know. But in really tough scrambles and sky races, she is outstanding and I don't think she is getting her due.

Sabrina Stanley was third at Western last year. She won HURT, she won Hardrock, she just won whatever that the race third overall in Italy, I think with 40,000 feet of climbing or something.

Kaytlyn Gerbin. She's from Seattle and Kaytlyn just flies under the radar. She's been what? Second at Western, second at White River which is always a competitive race, and won the Bear 100. She doesn't seem to be at the top of a lot of people's lists.

And then Ailsa Macdonald. I'm just kind of obsessed with Ailsa. It was not her year at Western but she got her golden ticket at Western by accident. I think she finished second overall (first woman) at Black Canyon in a golden ticket race — second overall, absolutely bananas. She works on an oil rig in the Canadian Arctic for days at a time, gets helicoptered in and then trains her butt off and then spends half the year in Arizona and trains down there as well. She did Kona this year, she's a hell of an athlete.

For guys it's a lot less interesting in my answer. I think pretty much everybody out there who we know and who's getting attention. Only name I'd add to that is Chris Brown. Chris is a Santa Barbara guy who works his butt off. Trains extremely hard. Trains really smart. Races well, doesn't overdo it on races, and who I think can have a real standout year next year.

Speed drill

Name: Eric Schranz

Hometown: Grew up in Southern California, but have called Northern California home for the last 25 years.

Number of years running: I think I started track in about third grade and ran youth track. Started performing well in high school track and cross country, took 10 years off after high school, then really hit the trails in 2008.

How many miles a week do you typically run: Anywhere from 5-80. I like to keep it around 40.

Point of pride: My kids, easy. Nothing comes close.

Favorite race distance: I’d have to say the 30K, but I also liked timed events. I’ve done a few self-supported 12- and 24-hour races and they really give me a good dose of hurt.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Generally a burger the night before a race, but I abstain from alcohol and caffeine a few weeks out.

Favorite piece of gear: My FlipBelt or my Brooks Green Silence shoes.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Under the Pressure by The War on Drugs.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You paid for this, dumbass.

Where can other runners connect or follow you: Website: Twitter: @ultrarunnerpod

Instagram: @ultrarunnerpodcast

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