Diagonale des Fous, Ultratrail du Mont-Blanc, Tor des Géants… for the past few years, trail running and more particularly its most extreme form, the ultratrail (more than 80 km of race with elevation gain), has fascinated the public. Popularized by young athletes who are very present on social networks, like Kilian Jornet, this discipline, still favored until recently by a male sports elite, is gradually becoming more democratic, observes Olivier Bessy, sociologist of sport and tourism, professor at the University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour. For the author of Running from 1968 to today (2022, Cairn editions), the second volume of which will be published this summer, the ultratrail is a “avatar of hypermodernity” where self-transcendence, need for recognition and paradoxical relationship to nature mingle.
How do you explain the success of trail running and in particular ultratrail?
If we analyze the evolution of followers of the ultratrail or even the marathon, we realize that in their relationship to themselves, there is a search for excess in performance. The harder it is, the more rewarding it is, the more it is sought after. We can draw a parallel with the myth of Sisyphus: the ultratrail is a form of hypermodern fiction where we want to explore its limits. Riders make sacrifices because they feel the token benefits are worth it. We feel a great need for collective recognition at a time when living and working conditions are increasingly difficult, with multiple tensions, uncertainty and vulnerability. This year, for the Diagonale des Fous [course mythique de 165 km pour 10 000 mètres de dénivelé positif, à la Réunion, ndlr], there were 25,000 registration requests on the internet in less than an hour! Paradoxically, more and more runners are also looking for a form of harmony, balance, measure.
The trail was until now rather privileged by profiles of men, forties, CSP +. Is it evolving?
Women are still under-represented (12% of participants in the Diagonale des Fous in 2022). Some think that it is the physical qualities, the physiological differences, which explain this difference, but this is a false representation. Women are better endowed with slow fibers and therefore more able to perform long races. In my opinion, the main explanatory factor is cultural and linked to gender stereotypes: they are not educated to think of themselves in extreme practices, they internalize a form of powerlessness and limit themselves. On the practice of trail running in general, the rejuvenation of the population is very clear. On the other hand, on the ultra it is relatively weak, despite the Kilian Jornet effect [qui a remporté l’UTMB à 20 ans en 2008]. Trail running is no longer an old-fashioned sport, even if young people are rather attracted by more hedonistic and playful practices such as extreme skiing and freeriding.
Despite a slight drop, people in their forties remain overrepresented: 49% of participants in 2000 compared to 38% today on the Diagonale des Fous. The 31-40 year olds were at 36% in 2000 and 30% in 2022. The most notable change in the age pyramid is the aging of the population: the 51-60 year olds go from 8% in 2000 to 20% in 2022 . For what ? Because they want to prove to themselves that they are still capable, still alive. It is also linked to an extension of the duration of sports life cycles in general. Before, at retirement age, we stopped running to start walking. Today people run marathons.
The Paris marathon also attracts more and more neo-marathoners.
This is the “capital” effect. It’s the most spectacular marathon, the most publicized, the runners take a selfie under the Arc de Triomphe… One would have thought that, given the current anxiety-provoking context, between the economic and environmental crises and the war in Ukraine, people were going to withdraw into themselves and that the Paris marathon was going to decrease. It was the opposite effect. In this period of gloom, people need to treat themselves to a slice of dream to escape through exceptional moments of high intensity. However, these events, because they increase the communion between the participants, generate happiness, pleasure, a desire to share.
Runners are looking for a new relationship with nature and are often made aware of its preservation. Isn’t this paradoxical in view of the environmental impact of major competitions?
Ultratrailers have an ambivalent relationship with the environment. On the one hand, the aesthetic and immersive dimension is paramount for them, and on the other they seek to tame the natural elements to make the best performance possible, using all the technological means at their disposal. However, for ten years, the economic drift around these competitions has increased. The UTMB has thus become an avatar of hyper-modernity: ultra-globalised, ultra-mediatized, ultra-commodified. Some runners are even starting to boycott it. In ten years, we have gone from 4 to 8 races, from 4 days of competition to a week, from 5,000 runners to 10,000 and from 50,000 spectators to 100,000. many people in the same place this inevitably generates extremely perverse side effects for the territory, even if the economic and political actors of the region benefit from it. Some runners are aware of the excesses but they accept their contradiction. For them, it is the dream of a lifetime.