The Frontier of Ultrarunning

Posted by relhats in Commentary on Oct 18, 2011

The Significance of the Frontier in American Ultrarunning.

Motivated by the 1890 census that stated there was not a distinct frontier line any longer, Fredrick Jackson Turner wrote and delivered his thesis “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in 1893.  In one reading in one afternoon, one man essentially closed the frontier and, further, blurred the meaning of “frontier” and civilization and called into question the meaning of being “American”.  The dynamically forward morphing of becoming American and, thus, more and more different than England (and Europe) suddenly ended.  This self-awareness of Americans’ development, becoming more “American”, as the line pushed westward made not only the line of the frontier but both what lies beyond (savagery) and what lies behind (Americanism) a slippery concept to grasp.

Is this where we are in American Ultrarunning?  Are we at a stage of self-awareness and examination where we search for the frontier line that no longer exists in this sport in America while we gaze backwards hoping for clarification of where we are now?  Is this the reason for the seemingly schizophrenic realm where we pine for simplicity yet yearn for established meaning?  I don’t know; that’s why I’m asking.  Turner asserts, “In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.”  We, the followers and practitioners of our sport, must bend ourselves to fit the expansion of ultrarunning.  We enter into and try to understand the growth and development of the sport and try to fit into it the best we can.  In time, though, we ourselves influence and even create the evolution of the sport in our own unique manner, much as Americans did with the frontier as stated by Turner, “Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”

There are many ways in which the sport of ultrarunning in America resembles the wild west in my view of it.  There are rules, sometimes firm and sometimes loose.  There’s a sense of wildness, an untamed environment, especially in most 100 mile events, where the level of the perception of wildness, both in physical nature and the sport’s structure, is dependent upon one’s background, daily existence, and media influence.  It’s similar to the perception of the “wild frontier” in America in 1893.  A second generation pioneer (a bit of an oxymoron, I realize) in, say, Nevada or Arizona would most certainly have a different perception of the frontier or west than a banker in Pennsylvania.  Likewise, the perception of the boundaries of ultrarunning, both literally and idealistically, is different for the local Medford, Massachusetts road runner and the Silverton, Colorado born trail master and all layers in between.

Also, just as the American frontier absorbed more and was in fact driven by more immigrants and people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs as it expanded westward, we too must accept (embrace) the diversity of perceptions, opinions, and backgrounds as our sport grows.  Turner states, “The [East] coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands.”  The narrow view of a few men (primarily) in our sport in its origins has blossomed to include mainstream populations and their influences that will continue to shape ultrarunning.

How is ultrarunning like the wild west of the 19th century?  At what point is the demarcation of American and international ultrarunning dissolved and we allow, embrace the merging?  What are some key indicators this has begun?  What will we see next year in terms of new, different outcomes and changes showing that the frontier line has disappeared?

To be continued…