How Pro Endurance Athletes Became the Internet’s Hardest Working Creators
The Pacific Crest Trail is a sliver of land that stretches through California, Oregon and Washington, from the Mexican border to Canada. It crosses some of the most imposing terrain in the country – scorching desert basins and steep alpine passes. Most hikers who set out to complete the whole thing give up, and those who finish usually take the entire snow-free season, a little over five months.
Between June 1 and July 22 of this year, ultramarathoner Timothy Olson completed the full 2,650 miles of the PCT. Some nights he was able to travel to an RV with his wife and a small support crew, but others he simply lay in the woods to sleep. He covered the route fast enough to claim the fastest known time, or FKT, of 16 hours – an effort that saw him average 81km per day for 52 consecutive days.
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Olson’s effort was not part of a race or some kind of competition. No league or other organizing body oversees races like this. But it was largely the work of a professional athlete, and it was presented as entertainment for an audience. Olson’s Instagram posts, a mix of hype videos and front-camera vlogs (which were careful to shout out Adidas Terrex, the brand’s outfield line and main sponsor of the race) captured plenty of athletic spectacle. : Olson is an all-time great at the 100-mile distance, but that longer effort pushed his body close to breaking point. “There’s never been a day, other than maybe the first, where it all went well,” he told me. He suffered from tendonitis in his shin, while “every step was the most excruciating kind of pain, a knife in his leg”. And for the tens of thousands of viewers tuning in – big for the ultramarathon – there was also a human drama: when the race was almost over, Olson revealed that after several miscarriages, his wife was pregnant at 35. weeks. At times, he acknowledged the reality TV feel the race had taken on: “Sometimes I feel like I’m on The Truman Show,” he said.
Olson isn’t alone: In the past year, some of the most exciting and inspiring feats of endurance haven’t happened during the Olympics or big-city road marathons. Instead, these were solo efforts on wild French trails and back roads that were tagged and raved about on Instagram, YouTube, the Strava activity-tracking social media platform, and the websites of rudimentary GPS tracking.
These days, the world’s top endurance athletes can perform — and gift eyeballs to their sponsors — just about anywhere, thanks to the same forces that have made YouTubers and Twitch streamers hugely famous. Just as social media-enabled influencers and creators are changing professions like boxing and journalism, this change could make the world’s most talented runners and cyclists more like podcasters and TikTok dance teams than traditional professional athletes.