I started running trails and graduated to ultras in the mid-2000s before Facebook, Strava, iRunFar, Instagram, Ultrasignup and Born to Run. I had a habit of leaving a note in the kitchen describing my route for my husband, years before we got used to texting and tracking. Back in those days, I got information and race results from monthly issues of UltraRunning, Stan Jensen’s run100s.com listicle site and an email network.
Amidst that now-archaic media and tech landscape, Scott Dunlap published his blog, “A Trail Runner’s Blog,” which he started in 2004. It emerged as an exciting way to connect and inform the ultrarunning community. Scott had a knack for taking photos while running fast (fast enough to be named USATF Master’s Ultrarunner of the Year in 2010 and clock sub-2:45 marathons), and then he’d publish those photos with upbeat reports and news about the sport on the Blogger platform. You can still read hundreds of his archived posts at: atrailrunnersblog.com.
I often crossed paths with Scott at races and, being the same age (we’re both 53), I felt inspired by his blogging and running. But as someone who is slow to adapt to change—tech or otherwise—I never fully related to how he evangelized gadgets and mobile apps.
In 2013, for example, he was testing Strava on Google Glass and giving talks on the “Infonautic Age,” telling us we’d be running with sensors woven into our socks and shirts. He also was the first person I ever saw using a drone to follow and film him while running, years before drones became common at races. I didn’t like the prospect of tech affecting the experience of Mother Nature.
And yet, here I sit in 2022 looking at my Garmin Fenix 7—equipped with the kind of skin sensors that Scott predicted—to check my “body battery,” and I can watch a livestream to follow races in real time.
Wondering if the sport and its culture have completely changed due to this media and tech environment, and how much more it will change over the next two decades, I reconnected with Scott.
He now lives and runs internationally in Austria, specializing in developing new digital experiences as part of his work as a leader at Adidas. We talked about how the iPhone, which mainstreamed apps like Strava and Instagram, affected the sport and fueled its growing popularity. “Everyone had a camera, and social media made it even easier to share routes and results and give or get feedback on content. But it also brought high expectations on how that content was digested—shorter stories, all in near real time and a lot of ‘competition’ for your attention. But I also see a lot of unique voices doing superb storytelling and diversifying the way we experience the sport. That's very powerful.”
Here I sit in 2022 looking at my Garmin Fenix 7—equipped with the kind of skin sensors that Scott predicted—to check my “body battery.”
As for drones, he found their personal use too noisy and intrusive for everyday use, “but you'll see this technology working for self-driving cars in the next 1–3 years. Perhaps having your electric car come meet you when you come off the trail will be the feature we really want.”
What hasn’t changed about the experience of running and racing trails? The community of runners who share their enthusiasm and support each other. “The approachability of the sport is one of its greatest assets,” Scott said. “It's an amazing community, sharing advice and journeys freely, keeping the original spirit alive.”
I agree, and I’m grateful that classic ultras such as the Western States Endurance Run have kept their spirit and sense of community intact while modernizing. Plus, “old-school” ultras continue to thrive. At the San Juan Solstice 50, for example, scores of volunteers prepare homemade food for aid stations, runners are tracked manually instead of electronically and cheering crew members at aid stations make every runner feel recognized and supported. In that race, running through rugged and remote mountains with other ultrarunners feels as natural, friendly and exalted as it ever did.
“In the end, what I take away is that ultrarunning is foremost a spiritual journey,” Scott said. “Enjoy every breath, every step, every view and let it become you. Do this, and it is impossible to finish a race less inspired than when you started.”