Why We Keep Reading (and Writing) Race Reports
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Why We Keep Reading (and Writing) Race Reports

Jun 12, 2023

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

The first thing I did after finishing my first 100-mile race, Ohio's Mohican 100, after sleeping for 16 hours, was write.

Something had happened to me in those 32 hours of rain and mud, and documenting it seemed like the best thing to do. I'm a writer, so perhaps that wasn't surprising, but what was surprising to me was how so many other runners of this race also chose to document their experiences in race reports. Not only that, but many shared them far and wide--suggesting that if the story wasn't shared publicly, the work wasn't finished.

But was anyone actually reading these race reports? Why do runners create them in the first place? Are race reports simply navel gazing, or is there more to it? Setting out to answer these questions took me on a fascinating journey through the technological history of the past 50 years. Here's what I found.

In 2010, when I started running, blogs were de rigueur for race reports. Since then, the landscape has changed tremendously. With digital media, a variety of race report formats emerged, from vlogging to TikTok to Strava recaps. During ultras today, runners often capture and post footage on smartphones, while GPS watches chirp like birds.

The race report has officially hit the media multiverse.

Today, we associate race reports with the internet, but that wasn't always the case. This introduces a number of challenges in chronicling the history of race reports. After all, the race report is a form of storytelling, and storytelling is as old as humanity. Running is even older than humanity, and not all runs are races. Do FKTs count? What about the Tarahumara running traditions of Rarajipare and Ariwete? Or Kipchoge's sub-two-hour marathon? In the end, people have always run and told stories about it.

When it comes to the modern sport of ultrarunning, race reports have been created and circulated using the changing technology of the day, from printers and the U.S. Postal Service to smartphones and Strava. Here's a look at the three main leaps in its format, in the past 50 years.

1. Print (1970s-1980s)

Some of the earliest "official" modern race reports were typewritten or dot-matrix printed and circulated among enthusiasts in the 1970s. (Certainly if we trace the sport's history back to 19th-century pedestrianism, it was through the newspapers of the day that race reports were circulated.)

Then, in 1981, UltraRunning magazine came along. A major draw of the magazine was that it published the full results of ultramarathons, listing every single finisher.

"People used to get the magazine solely so they could get their results and keep a physical copy of the results," said Amy Clark, editor of UltraRunning. Before the web, this was the only way to access them.

Along with race results, UltraRunning also included race reports. The earliest race reports were brief, one- or two-paragraph summaries from a third-person perspective. They offered a synopsis of the race, but not any particular runner's individual story. In those days, race reports were almost exclusively text. The magazine did include black-and-white photos, sure, but only one every few pages on average.

UltraRunning remains an independent print publication. Today, the race reports found in UltraRunning are longer and much more personal, and they typically include multiple photographs. These race reports are editorially selected and polished. The goal, says Clark, is for each report to present "a beautiful spread of photography and words."

On the other hand, Trail Runner founder Brian Metzler strategically veered away from publishing race reports in print, opting for more third-party race coverage. "When I started Trail Runner magazine in 1999-2000, we purposely did not include any race reports in print. We did, however, write journalistic-style stories about runners, elite and recreational, and their experiences in races."

Whether the race reports were published or not, trail running grew more and more popular in the United States. Now there are dozens of ultra events each month and more emerging all the time. Fortunately, now we have the internet.

2. Early Internet: Email Listservs, Blogs, Social Media (1990s-2000s)

One of the race report's earliest internet innovations was through email. The first email was sent in 1971, and many organizations adopted email in the 1980s. By the 1990s, it started to become common for individuals to have personal email accounts. One use of email was for mailing lists. In the days before web browsers existed, mailing lists were essentially email-based social networks. There were--and remain--mailing lists for every topic under the sun, including ultrarunning.

The ULTRA List was created in 1994, and it hosts archives going back to 2004. Today, the list has just over 1,600 subscribers. The ULTRA List was a popular place to share race reports; they were text-only, but they were easy to distribute and save.

Throughout the 1990s, web browsers emerged and became easier to use, internet bandwidth increased, and the web gradually became festooned with images and multimedia. Blogging was born.

In the world of ultrarunning, blogging meant that any runner could publish their own race report with photos for free. And with online search, runners could easily find race reports for events they might be considering, even without following any particular runner's blog religiously. For those who did follow particular runners--such as champion ultrarunner Anton Krupicka, one of the first major digital media stars in the ultra world, who began blogging in 2008--blogs offered an ongoing drip of ideas for races to run.

Social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram followed on the heels of blogging in the early 2000s, and these also became natural places to share race reports. Reddit, one of the most visited websites on the internet, hosts millions of communities called "subreddits;" r/running and r/ultramarathon are among them. Race reports have become such a mainstay of these Reddit communities that members have created templates and generators.

3. Smartphones, Strava, Multimedia (2010s-2020s)

The past decade has brought a profusion of new formats for race reports, thanks, in large part, to the rise of smartphones. In 2010, only 20 percent of the U.S. population owned a smartphone. By 2018, that number was 70 percent, and today 85 percent of American adults use smartphones.

The advent of Strava, a social network for athletes founded in 2009, was another major milestone in this history of running documentation and storytelling. The centerpiece of Strava is activity tracking: making use of smartphone sensors, users share data, photos, and comments from their runs and races with their community.

For some, these capabilities took the place of traditional race reports, while for others, smartphones enabled video race reports. These often combine live race footage with after-the-race commentary by the runner. One professional runner who has made use of this format for over a decade is Sage Canaday, 37, who shares video race reports, as well as training vlogs and advice for other runners on his YouTube channel, which has over 200,000 subscribers.

Other runners, including lesser-known ones, may not post as frequently but still demonstrate a growing audience for video-based race reports. And besides YouTube, in the past few years Instagram and TikTok have also become venues for post-race video updates, with ultrarunners such as Andy Glaze, 45, building large followings.

Most recently, we have seen the emergence of audio race reports in the form of podcasts. An estimated 38 percent of Americans over age 12 listen to podcasts on a regular basis. UltraRunning launched its podcast in 2020 alongside other newer entrants like Freetrail and Singletrack. These joined the handful of longstanding podcasts in the space such as Trail Runner Nation and Talk Ultra. Among other topics, these podcasts include interviews with runners in which they recount their experience at a particular event--in other words, race reports. A slew of other running-related podcasts have appeared in the past few years and are poised to continue to grow.

As new media technologies have come along over the past fifty years, ultrarunners have continually made use of them to create and share race reports. Why is that? Why do we create race reports at all?

First, creating a race report is a path for closure, processing, and decompression after an ultra--or any mammoth ordeal. Reflecting on his first ultra, Patrick McHenry, 62, of Jamesville, New York, said of his first ultra, "There was a lot to mentally process. Writing about it was cathartic. It also helped to capture lessons learned, and to create a record I could look back on, to remember the experiences better in years to come."

Second, race reports are a form of journaling, and psychologists have long established that journaling provides numerous benefits for mental and emotional health, from mental clarity and improved memory to enhanced creativity and problem-solving. Journaling is particularly effective for processing and learning from difficult events.

RELATED: How Journaling Can Improve Your Life

To this end, it has been heavily studied in contexts from education to clinical therapy. Social psychologist James W. Pennebaker explains that journaling works because organizing our ideas into concrete form offloads some of the weight from our minds, freeing up the brain to do other work such as healing, mood regulation, memory formation and learning.

Doing so can be especially helpful early in one's ultrarunning career, while we're still figuring things out. That particular need may lessen with time. McHenry found that his itch to write "faded in importance, and I stopped investing the time in writing race reports. I guess that's because there was little new for me to process each time."

Another experienced ultrarunner, Bob Hearn, 57, of Portola Valley, California, said, "I still write them (but less often) to record what I've learned for my own future reference, and because people tell me they like to read them. Sometimes I learn something really important at a race that I think is worth trying to capture in words."

Third, race reports often offer a service to readers. Ultrarunners use others' race reports as an information source for choosing races, in training and preparation for specific races, and for coming to grips with a new distance or race format. More generally, race reports can be a treasure trove of wisdom for newcomers to the sport. Gear suggestions, nutritional strategies, training advice--it's all there.

Ultrarunner Miriam Diaz-Gilbert of Voorhees, New Jersey, illustrated this well in recalling her first encounter with a race report. "When I began training for my first 50 miler, the JFK 50 in 2005, I searched the internet to learn more about JFK 50, and a couple of race reports came up. I found them very helpful. They eased my anxiety and the unknown about running my first ultra," she told me. "I like to read race reports because they can be inspiring, encouraging, insightful, and relieve any doubt or anxiety a runner might have."

Paying it forward, Diaz-Gilbert, 64, now publishes her own race reports on her website.

In this light, it's clear that race reports, despite their format, have continued to offer a great service to the running community. In ultrarunning, it's become part of the culture.

It may feel like the world is awash in race reports, and you will likely scroll past most of the ones you encounter. Your friends and family might not keep reading yours. But that doesn't mean they're pointless--and it doesn't mean they're going away. As the sport of ultrarunning continues to grow, the sport's knowledge base is growing and solidifying, too. There are now handbooks and broad agreement on training advice. Running 100 miles is less of an unknown than it was 20 years ago. What is the role of race reports now?

Clark reminded me that there are always new races appearing. Courses change. Weather fluctuates. There's always going to be a role for written race reports, even beyond personal journaling, as a way to prepare for a particular event.

"Even if there's a bad race report out there, it still might give you a bit of detail about something you might not know about," Clark said. "I think that's just based on our desire to have more knowledge about something we're about to attempt that's not an easy thing."

That said, the zeitgeist is shifting away from long, text-heavy race reports, and toward shorter TikTok and Instagram reels--much like the broader media landscape. These formats are no better or worse, just different. They still serve the purposes of sharing new races, telling stories, giving advice, and cultivating interest in the sport, and they still give their makers an opportunity to process and decompress. Yet even as the zeitgeist shifts, the internet is vast enough to accommodate all race report formats that have come before. Longform text and audio aren't going away, as the success of podcasting and continued book sales show us.

This may be a moment of encouragement, to continue writing race reports, or making them in whatever format you enjoy--as a way of processing something meaningful and paying it forward to those who might follow in your footsteps. And don't worry about readership or engagement, even in a world of likes and kudos. Because just like covering the distance of the race itself, the personal transformation is enough.

Tim Gorichanaz, PhD, is an assistant professor at the College of Computing & Informatics at Drexel University. He writes on the intersection of running and technology.

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1. Print (1970s-1980s) 2. Early Internet: Email Listservs, Blogs, Social Media (1990s-2000s) 3. Smartphones, Strava, Multimedia (2010s-2020s) RELATED: How Journaling Can Improve Your Life