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.