Lately I’ve been wondering a lot about the growing popularity of ultrarunning. I think we can all agree that ultrarunning is rapidly advancing toward the mainstream and there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not that inevitable and whether or not that’s even a good thing. I have a thing or two to say about those topics and I’ll cover them in an upcoming series of posts.
For now, though, I wanted to establish a baseline that could potentially tell us something about how ultrarunning is viewed by the general population. I think it’s probably of interest to study how race participation has grown over recent years (and I’m fairly certain that is has) but that’s also a topic for another day.
Let me begin by saying that this is a totally unscientific and almost certainly a wildly inaccurate way to measure pretty much anything. Drawing conclusions from this data for anything remotely important would be a pretty dumb thing to do, so please don’t. With that disclaimer, on to the results!
I wanted to look at two primary areas. First, I wanted to see how ultrarunning is covered in print and secondarily, how’s it’s covered online. To do that, I used two tools — Google Trends to view web searches of various terms over time and Google Ngrams to search for the same terms appearing inside printed material.
I used a single set of terms for both searches. There are of course many more which would be interested but for simplicity’s sake I selected ultramarathon, ultrarunner, ultrarunning and trail running. I figured that these would give a pretty good indication of how the sport is written about overall. I left out the world ultra because it doesn’t necessarily denote our sport.
As you can see, the term ultramarathon while once popular is now on the decline in the printed text. As one might expect, however, trail running has exploded in popularity. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily correlate with ultrarunning, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Now, let’s take a look at the data available online. One thing to bear in mind here is that the data from books and magazines is only available up to 2008 which the online data extends up to the current year.
Here we see a gradual uptick in trail running but not much activity in the ultra- set of words. I find this sort of surprising, since I’d think that there would be a much larger increase in these terms over the past five years but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
So, what can we conclude from this data? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader (and statisticians, please be kind). There are a few items that I find fairly interesting:
- The term ultramarathon made a pretty big splash in the news reference part of the online graph for the first time during the summer of 2011. This was also indicated just by the total volume of searches. This could indicate that online sources are treating ultramarathons as something to be reported as news. Additionally, more people searched for that term in 2011 than ever before.
- I find the increases in the term trail running across both printed and online material to be telling, especially as they relate to relatively flat data on the other keywords. Hard to say what that means, exactly, but it’s clear that trail running (even exclusive of running ultras) is becoming more popular.
- In the summer, we care a lot about this stuff and in the winter, not so much. The spikes in the summertime are no surprise, but interesting nonetheless.
- The ultra- set of terms didn’t really appear much online until 2005. Ultramarathon appeared first and then it took about 3 years before ultrarunning started to register. All this despite the obvious data showing that the terms appeared in books and magazines well before then.
At any rate, this was just a quick and dirty experiment that I threw together. I’d love to hear what other people think. Perhaps somebody with far more knowledge about these sorts of things can suggest some other fun experiments we can do.
As the great Karl Melzter says…Now go run!