::Sigh::

Yeah.. I quit blogging a few months ago, but I really feel that now the most important time in our sport for me to stand up and be heard. If you’ve never read anything of mine before.. you’re in for a treat (or not). If you have.. you’ll know to give yourselves ample time to suck it all in. Of all the posts I’ve ever written in 10+ years of Ultrarunning, of which I have written well over 600, this one right here.. is the most important one.

The sport of Ultrarunning is at a crossroads, and it needs your help.

This week, a number of articles were released across the inter webs about how the sport of Ultramarathon running is at a crossroads. I’m here to tell you that it’s not just for the reasons stated in those articles, it’s for a number of reasons. Most of those articles have centered focus around doping in our sport and here’s why.

In 2009, Ms. Elisa Desco won the World Mountain Running Championships. After the end of the race, she was drug tested and tested positive for EPO. Because of this finding, she received a 2 year ban from running competitively, which she served from 2010-2012. In the last year, Ms. Desco has been tested at the completion of two separate races and both tests confirmed that she is 100% clean. Ms. Desco tested positive in 2009, served a 2 year ban, and has since tested clean.

When she entered into this months The North Face Challenge 50-Mile Trail Championships in San Francisco, there was a uproar across the elite field and the ultra-media that the race had let her in. Truth be told, she signed up close to the event and race organizers had no idea who she even was. Just another name looking to run a race in a gorgeous location. Reportedly, a number of front runners wanted her out of the race, crying foul and that it’s unfair. Some of the Ultrarunning Media outlets released special statements on their coverage of front runners, they called for her to be removed from the event, and they condemned North Face Race Management. Ms. Desco start the run, and dropped out somewhere along her way towards the finish line, making it all a non-issue.

Yet it was made an issue.. mostly by the running media (URP, iRunFast, Competitor Magazine, and RunnersWorld). There is no doping regulations in our sport. I don’t know of many ultras that actually test for World Anti Doping Association (WADA) Banned Substances at these races. That’s because it’s never really been needed. Never been needed because prize money and “championships” have largely been absent from the ultra scene. As our sport has continued to evolve, and become more mainstream.. this is becoming more of a talking point, a concern, and a debatable topic.

What people are not talking about is how many mid and back-of-the-pack runners are using WADA banned substances. Many of them simply because they have no idea the substance they’re using is even on the banned list. This is especially true in states with marijuana legalization. There’s even front runners in our sport who have smoked weed (quietly) for years, and others who are openly doing it now (Running High). Yet we have come to this juncture where we are passing hypocritical judgements on runners simply because they’re vying for prize monies.

But that’s not the only topic at the forefront of this turning point. I turn to Gordy Ainsleigh.

Apparently two years ago the Western States 100 changed their standards for entry in that even those who are automatics must qualify to run in the race. This included Gordy Ainsleigh himself. For the 2016 running of the event, this is the first time that Gordy has been told by the Western States 100 that he would not be allowed to start the event due to the lack of a qualifier. As this topic spread like wildfire across Facebook today, I was shocked and saddened by the sheer number of runners who have no clue who Gordy even is.. so allow me to educate you.

It was 1974 when Gordy Ainsleigh decided to take on the Tevas Cup 100-Mile Endurance Horse Ride course… on Foot. Gordy ran from Squaw to Auburn, having hidden gatorade bottles in the woods for aid.. and with the bare minimum. At the completion of his run, in less than 24-hours, Gordy received the same belt buckle the horse riders were awarded for riding their steed the 100 miles.

Gordy Ainsleigh is a pioneer of the 100-Mile Ultramarathon.
The Western States 100 Mile-Endurance Run exists.. because of Gordy.
When you run 100-miles and receive a belt buckle.. that’s because of Gordy.
The fact that ultra-running even became a movement.. is because of Gordy.

Gordy is the very root of the 100-mile endurance run, the awarding of buckles, and the father of our sport as most of us know it. Requiring to run a qualifier in order to run the event he started, is the most asinine thing I have ever heard in my more than a decade in this sport… and I’m ashamed for those who implemented and enforce that rule.

Yes.. Western States only has room for so many runners every year.
But it’s Gordy Friggin’ Ainsleigh
Yes.. everyone else has to qualify then enter through the lottery.
But it’s Gordy Friggin’ Ainsleigh
Yes.. There are spots allocated for sponsor’s chosen runners to compete, and even they have to qualify.
But it’s Gordy Friggin’ Ainsleigh

All of this takes me back to the Leadville discussion..

I remember the 2011 Leadville Trail 100, where Lifetime Fitness (who was the new 2nd year owner) was allowing runners to preorder an IV, to jumpstart their finish line recovery, at $75 a pop. There was a huge uproar in the sport about how Leadville had jumped the shark so to speak. They ended up removing that as an option (Stopped selling them) and admitted they made a mistake during the pre-race meeting. But then 2013 came along.. and everything had changed again. I was, admittedly, one of the loudest opponents of Leadville based on what transpired in 2013.

Since 2013.. Leadville’s 50-Mile and 100-Mile Ultra has seen a decrease in the number of finishers, for both races, two years in a row. Not only that, but of the 626 runners who started last year’s race, only 85 were returning runners. That to me is the boldest statement.. that as the race has changed, so too has who has shown up. That’s right kids.. only 13% of those who ran in the 2015 Leadville Trail 100 was a returning runner to that race.

So yes… our sport is at a crossroads and that crossroads has been building for a number of years now. We’re there.. staring right into the face of the dragon. Where do we go from here? What do we want this to be?

It is no secret, that I started the Human Potential Running Series as a response to the 2013 Leadville 100. I started HPRS because I wanted Colorado to have a race series that accurately reflected the beginnings of the sport. That accurately reflected the very best that I’ve seen of the sport over a decade, and left out the parts that I felt were detrimental to the spirit of where we came from. Sure.. I can be a soldier for social change, more-so social “preservation” in our sport.. but we’re at a time and place where I can tell you 100%… that I can’t do it alone.

Our sport is changing.. and it’s time to stop the clock and turn it back. Darin Schneidewind has been running ultras for a number of years and he had this to say, “Let’s just go away from offering prize money. Then who cares if someone “dopes”. That’s what I loved about the sport when I started, was that every runner was treated the same and received the same award. It would not bother me one bit if there was no prise money ever offered. I would think 95% of the people in this sport are like me they only run against themselves and their own goals, and for the shear love of running.”

I agree with Darin 100%. We used to give the same awards to last place as first place. We didn’t have prize money to offer the faster kids. We didn’t need to talk about doping, and for the sake of this conversation.. Gordy was our god. We’ve turned our backs on what makes this sport great. I wholeheartedly respect what the elites are capable of in our sport.. but they too have lost focus. I remember when Karl Meltzer and Scott Jurek would sit at the finish line and cheer those behind them across the finish line. I remember when Scott gave credit to the back of the pack for their tenacity. Front Runners don’t do that any more.. Now they dress hip, smile for the camera, and give a great interview as if they drove around a Nascar track for a few hours.

This sport has lost its heart and its soul. I wholeheartedly and openly condemn the Western States 100 for their decision to require Gordy Ainsleigh to qualify for the race he started. They should be ashamed of themselves, as it is a total and utter embarrassment to our sport. I wholeheartedly condemn the increase of prize money in our sport, and the over glorification/objectification of the elite. I also condemn the corporate mentality that is taking hold.. where money talks, and big time sponsors makes the gears spin round. This sport was successful before on what it was built upon.. it’s up to all of you to get us back to our roots.

If you want to continue to pay upwards of $400 to run 100-Miles, or $170 to run 50-Miles, or $125 to run 50k… keep feeding the beast. If you want to continue to see the sport grow so that a lottery is necessary for more than half the 100’s you desire to run (and 50s for that matter).. keep feeding the beast. I call on the media outlets of this sport to get their heads out of their ass and start covering what really matters out there… The Community.. and EVERYONE who makes it what it once was, and what I hope it’ll continue to be. Otherwise.. this sport is going to go the way of Leadville… where we see a steady decrease in the numbers of those who keep with it and coming back. That.. will be detrimental what so many of us, and those before us, helped build.

::mic drop::

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13 thoughts

  1. Things are changing and always will. Change and growth is always awkward. I totally get how you feel. I’ve seen this coming for years. I know Gordy and Gordy not being able to run Western without a qualifying race is a crime and there is no way we should let Western States off on this one till they fix this. No Ultras shouldn’t have prize money. Sorry but this isn’t what we are about. I think many of our new 100’s need to take a step back and connect with their roots. For one thing awards shouldn’t be given out until after everyone has finished. There are thousands of new people coming in to Ultra running that’s true. We should welcome them all. As a group we have never excluded people and we should not start now. This is our sport for all of us no matter who you are, where you come from, or where you finish. To save our sport what needs to happen is those of us who have been here need to teach those coming in what we know. One of the first things I was taught came from Hans Deter who taught me you never pass a runner without a kind word and making sure they were okay. Our sport will survive the changes. We are a strong, stubborn, determined group. For those who have been out there for so many years welcome all our new friends. They are the future of the sport we love so take time to work with them and help them understand what it means to be an Ultra Runner

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  2. Mostly agree. A few issues.
    Leadville switching to a lottery may have more to do with repeat runner stats, probably not a fair comparison. I for example would have returned had I been selected. They don’t publish stats, so who really knows…

    Doping and prize money, agreed! A few dozen people can make a living off of this sport, and that includes probably only a few who do so by winning races regularly, year in and year out (or week in and week out as would be required to make a living off of the common ultra prize purses).

    At Leadville 2014 the dude that got first place high fived me just before I crossed the finish line, 13ish hours after he did. The guy who got second place walked up and congratulated me and we had lunch together. The guy who got third place that year was around too, though doesn’t seem as outgoing. So, I think that spirit is alive and well.

    Seems kind of like an opportune time to use other events to boost your events. Would be great to see a post about doping and Gordy without promotion, and it would be great to see a post about promotion without capitalizing on others.

    Gordy, also agreed! This sport is not so officious that rules are more important than humans. I’d love to have heard the conversation where it was decided that “if we let Gordy in then we are opening the floodgates etc”… I’d be surprised if the people who made such assertions have run 100 miles or followed the sport for long.

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  3. I wholeheartedly agree. I recently took up this sport for all the reasons you mentioned from days past. I love just showing up and someone yelling, GO! and finish the damn course. What can I do to help?

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  4. When flashy gear advertising combines with elites hawking this gear/experience combines with media pushing it all in a drool inducing, you need a piece of this adventure lifestyle package, this is what you get. Not much you can do about it other than walk away and go run with your buddies in low key/underground, hype free (non) events. The next Gordy is out there doing it and he/she’s not sponsored.

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  5. This has been a building issue since the early 2000s. When Andy Roth & I RD’d the iconic Baldy Peaks 50k [where winning times were on a par w 50-milers], we tackled the money issue head on. We had prize monies in the millions, if not billions. Yugoslav dinars, Zimbabwean dollars, etc. And the runners loved it.

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    1. I must remember this idea of awarding huge money prizes in Yugoslavian and Zimbabwean money. I’ll bet my oldest pair of barely-functional running socks that Jimmy Gabany would love this! What a perfect way to lampoon the economic opportunists who are descending on our sport. I do have a correction to make, however: I am not the fountainhead of all ultrarunning. Ultrarunning had been going on as a sport for maybe 100 years on roads and tracks before I started the trails branch in 1974. Now that branch is a substantial majority of ultrarunning, and has fed back participants into especially the multi-day track runs. Also I want everyone to remember that I am as blessed by your participation as you are by my originating effort: I can now buy a superb pair of trail-running shoes, that weren’t available in 1974. I had blood blisters all across the ball of both feet from wearing the best trail running shoes available in those days, the Adidas SL-72. Go ahead, just try to imagine the pain it took to run the last 40 miles! Our lives are so much better today because of this sport, the trail branch of ultrarunning.

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  6. When flashy gear advertising combines with elites hawking this gear/experience combines with media pushing it all in a drool inducing, you need a piece of this adventure lifestyle package, this is what you get. Not much you can do about it other than walk away and go run with your buddies in low key/ underground, media free (non) events. The next Gordy is out there doing it and he/she’s not sponsored.

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  7. Very well opined and spot on. Part of the problem: commercialized races. Honestly, as our society changes I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t have a problem with paid RDs but I do see what it breeds. Second the spillover to ultras from the (IMO) toxic Ironman mentality (yes I’m one, but not now) where the ends justify the means and its an event not a race. Everything changes. I am just glad I enjoyed Ultras when I did. Woofie.

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  8. You’re right about the direction of the sport. Previously I’ve watched some of my favorite hobbies go this direction as they all started out as sort of a no fanfare fringe pastime and then as gen pop caught on morphed into the beast as you aptly put it. It can’t be stopped but you can opt out find something new or organize in a new way like you have. I love trail running all day but i’m not signed up for any ultras in 2016. I’ve learned that I like small adventures with friends better anyway. This winter I hope to get more into back country touring on skis, so lame it’s cool :). At least you rocked it in the golden age of the sport. There’s so many more kinds of adventure out there though, good luck!

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  9. All the developing problems… I am in complete agreement that it is not the sport I want to participate in. But maybe that is easy for me to say, as I will never be “in the money”. As long as there are great ultras for “the rest of us”, I think the top end of the sport can develop into whatever it will be, as long as I can still run some awesome “local” events. I am surprised that 100 mile trail runs have not made it to the Olympics yet. I (foolishly) came very close to registering for UTMB a few years ago… glad I reconsidered. That is really not my kind of event.

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