Just what the sport of Ultrarunning needed, another pissing contest between races.
Last week, after a tremendous show at the Western States 100, the Hardrock 100 stole the thunder by publishing a letter titled, “Why We Won’t Pay: UTMB, ITRA and the “pay for points” racket.” (Note: the letter was later edited to include all co-signing races) Now to be fair, Hardrock published this letter on behalf of a handful of other iconic North American Hundred Milers detailing why they won’t pay ITRA to become UTMB qualifiers. (If you haven’t read the letter, a quick Google Search will provide the result to set you straight. It’s also easily found on the Ultrarunning Magazine Facebook page)
This week ITRA published a detailed, and point by point, response to the aforementioned letter ensuring they left no stone unturned (also found on the Ultrarunning Magazine Facebook Page). Suddenly, the North American and European Ultrarunning scenes are tossing bombs across the Atlantic. And for what? For what is beyond me, because as much as the ITRA is indeed “a racket,” those who wrote a letter calling them out are far from innocent themselves. So, let’s be real for a minute in the hopes that this sport can get back to the community it once was, and those races who have been here long enough to know to lead by example, can get back to indeed leading by example.
As a race director in Colorado, I made the very EASY choice to become an ITRA (International Trail Runners Association) member. I pay a once a year $114 USD fee to become a member of this organization. As a member, I can have as many of my races (of which I have 8 races through five events) “evaluated.” ITRA takes each race’s gpx track and matches it up against their own algorithm, determining how many points the race is worth. Once my race is evaluated and certified by ITRA, I then pass that evaluation and certification on to UTMB, which they then accept as a qualifier for their races with the given point total. In total, I pay $114 USD to have four of my races become UTMB qualifiers. I would do the same if I had only ONE race.
I do this without thinking much. Actually, my thoughts are focused on the community of runners that I serve, the community of runners that I too am a member of. Because that’s “the Spirit of Ultrarunning” isn’t it? I know full well that there are a number of my fellow runners that have a dream to run in UTMB, or other associated European races, and they need to acquire points in order to do so. Who am I to deny them, when I can be one who helps them reach for and achieve that goal? If I get just one runner to sign up for one of my races in order to obtain some of their points, I have essentially made my money back. As a business owner, every hopeful UTMB runner who signs up for my race after that is gravy. This all seems like a real no brainer to me. I pay a small fee, get evaluated and certified, have points available to my community of runners, I serve my community of runners, they’re happy, I’m happy.. we continue to relish in the sport that is so freakin’ amazing… Ultrarunning.
Now I get it. I’m with you. ITRA is a racket. So is the ATRA, which I have also previously been a paying member of. Some of the races that co-signed the letter about not paying ITRA, willingly pay ATRA. Why are you willing to pay one but not the other? Both of these organizations advertise that they provide similar services, and promote a set of standards, to the trail running community. The reality being, that neither organization does much follow-through.
As a race director, and as a runner, I have never seen ATRA or ITRA show up at a single ultramarathon to ensure that a race is operating under the standards they put forth. Never has any of my races had their safety plan evaluated, never have my courses been verified as being accurately measured or marked, never have I been monitored for providing timely and accurate results and awards, that I abide by entry limits, that I have obtained necessary permits or insurance, that I am environmentally friendly to the land, or that I describe event details in some kind of entry booklet. Now, while I do all of these things mentioned.. the fact is, no one from ATRA or ITRA has ever been at one of my events to ensure that I do. So I ask again, why do you pay and support one, but publicly decry the other?
For the last three years I provided the Hardrock 100 with an incredibly detailed request to have my Silverheels 100-Mile Endurance Run be a Hardrock Qualifier. Every year for the last three years I have been denied. For three years I have asked for feedback on what I can do to better my race, to increase my chance of their turning their “no” into a “yes,” and each and every year I receive NO response. The Silverheels 100 has an average elevation of near 11,000,’ second to only Hardrock itself. Hardrock outlines on their website the criteria which they use to determine if a race should be a qualifier or not. The Silverheels 100 meets or exceeds all of the outlined criteria. Yet, we still receive a no and no reasonable explanation for why. Our runners, our community, has requested this race be a qualifier, it meets all of your standards, yet you deny and don’t even offer feedback.. even if it’s “You, as the RD, have a big opinionated mouth and we don’t like it.” To which I could now say.. “Takes one to know one.”
So as Hardrock goes out on a limb and cries “politics” and “profiteering” of ITRA and UTMB, I have to tell you all that they’re no less guilty. Remember that Hardrock has conducted its lottery illegally for the last few years. When they were finally called out on it in a legal filing, they decided to discontinue the lottery and offered runners a refund if they so choose. That’s not some kind of “profiteering” at all, even if that money went to a fundraiser (making entry fee dollars that would normally go to the fundraiser now available to the race itself). Some on the “in circle” at Hardrock have told me that in order for Hardrock to welcome a new Colorado qualifier, they would have to consider eliminating the other Colorado qualifier, Run Rabbit Run. Yet, they won’t do that because they receive free legal counsel from the RD of Run Rabbit Run. No, that’s not “politics” at all (dripping sarcasm). Then there’s the reality that the Hardrock entry lottery is heavily swayed in favor of race veterans, and designed to be damn near impossible for any fresh blood to get a chance to run the race even once. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Again, many runners who have finished the Silverheels 100 have asked, “Why isn’t this a Hardrock qualifier?” and as more than a handful of Hardrock Veterans have finished Silverheels have stated, “There is no reason why this shouldn’t be a Hardrock qualifier,” with many of them even taking the time to write personal letters of support to the Hardrock Board urging them to include Silverheels. It’s simple, Hardrock puts their criteria out there for considering a race a qualifier, and like UTMB and ITRA they do as they please. It’s their race, their rules, their whatever. Please forgive me, I’m sure some of you are sitting there saying that I’m just crying sour grapes. Fair enough, but it’s also a pretty good example of the hypocracy at play. For opening my mouth and having a voice, I’m guessing Silverheels will be denied qualifier status for a 4th year in a row. That’s not “politics” at all.
In regards to UTMB writing Hardrock requesting they become a qualifier in order for Killian to compete in UTMB, the answer is simple. THE GUY SUMMITED EVEREST TWICE IN A WEEK. HE QUALIFIES. But hey, at least UTMB is pretty clear cut about how a race becomes a qualifier for their event, and they follow through.
Finally, in their letter something struck me deeply and I’ll spend the remainder of your attention that I have focusing therein, “Even if American races could, many would choose not to, considering it contrary to the spirit of ultrarunning.” Meow hold on just a minute because I’m going to ask you point blank, what “spirit of ultrarunning” is it that you speak of?
I started running ultras in 2005, and I ran my first 100-miler in 2007. Since then, I have found the finish of a 100-mile or more run 21 different times (hopefully 22 next weekend in Vermont). I have been a race director in some form or another since 2006. I directed the first trail 200-miler in North American in 2008. Ultrarunning is the one constant in my life. It is not just a hobby for me, it is the thing I have chosen to literally breathe. With all of this in mind, I can tell you that your co-signed letter proves undeniably to me that the “spirit” you speak of has gone lost.
A fellow RD once told me that “in order for our sport to advance itself, we need prize money.” I cried bullshit and since then, bullshit is exactly what this sport has received. Because of prize money, a division has been created in our sport. A division that your letter does nothing more than to deepen. Because of prize money we have some in the ultrarunning media previously denouncing runners simply because they once upon a time tested positive for PED. Because of prize money we’re now drug testing at Western States. Because of prize money, we have the “ultrarunning media” putting their primary focus on their top ten runners at a race like Western States, only to end up having a top ten list that caused someone to title a post on the ancient Ultra List Serv “Who are these people?” Proving that it’s still the mountains that we are up against and NOT EACH OTHER. Because of prize money and sponsorships, there was an online campaign (last year) focused on allowing the father of the modern 100-miler to run in the very race he himself started. Hell, we even have people calling out others in our sport as “fakes and phoneys” simply because they don’t have a strava track for every long distance run they compete. They actually allege that folks are out there staging pictures of a dog tired runner, in some desperate locale, and “claiming” they did what they said they did. We even have people pretending to set FKT’s just to get some of the spotlight. This is what prize money gave us.. not progress… Regress.
The “spirit of Ultrarunning” that I learned over a decade ago and continue to promote, celebrates all runner’s as equals. When a runner tells someone they ran Leadville, and the return question is, “How’d you do?” the answer is “I finished,” not some telling of a finish time where the boys can now compare their cup size to. No one really cared about the front runners, or “the race,” because it was universally understood that the race was between yourself and the mountain (or yourself and yourself). Getting in to a race was black and white, it was easy.. either you qualified or you didn’t, and politics (or a races desire to be a “good ole boys club) certainly didn’t interfere with a runners desire to accomplish something indelibly great.
Simply put, prize money and politics has put the focus in our sport on the wrong things.. our focus is now on politics, profiteering, and prick waving.. and less, on the every man or woman. Consider if you will, the undeniable lack of coverage on the Western States 100 woman’s race after it was touted for weeks as having a “ridiculous field.” Weeks.. WEEKS.. of hype of an incredible women’s field, where an amazing female athlete won and the one that got most of the pre-race focus, the pixie ninja, was in the end nearly forgotten. First, kudos to Ms. Bradley for her gutsy performance, which wasn’t covered nearly as much as it should have been. Cat smiled at every aid station, cracked jokes with her crew, and found time to smooch her man. The “spirit of Ultrarunning.” The pixie ninja, who was down and out.. who could have pulled “an Anton” (or now I guess we could even say “a Jim”) and quit knowing she wasn’t going to win.. instead rose to her feet and fought to a more than 24-hour finish. THAT is the spirit of ultrarunning. Everyone in it together. You versus the mountain. Winning not being the primary focus. The focus not being on profits, or politics, but on human perseverance, and the guts to solider on in the face of adversity. The focus, on doing it as a community. Yet none of this was covered as it should have.. they were both nearly forgotten, because a braggadocios man chasing a record lost his lunch. You have prize money and politics to thank for that. Sorry ladies.
Then, in the days that followed.. when we should have been celebrated the 269 who survived prolonged temps over 100 degrees in the canyons of Northern California, we were blessed with a letter about “a racket.” It’s time for the RDs in this sport to do the same as the runners should be doing.. taking a good hard look inside themselves and determining what they want this sport to be. Ultrarunning is in trouble.. in your letter you last said, “We recognize that as our sport grows, increasing commercialization and a desire to monetize the sport’s popularity may be inevitable, and indeed, for better or worse, UTMB and the “Ironmanization” of our great sport might be the unavoidable future.”
Look at the numbers.. for the first time in nearly 15 years, our sport saw a decline in the number of participants in 2016. Looking across the board in 2017, we are indeed on track for another decline year. RunningUSA put out a report last month indicating that once again, the number of half marathon and marathon finishers will also once again decline in 2017. That is startling, as it indicates that the pool of individuals from which our sport grows is also shrinking. The bubble (The “Born To Run Bubble”) has burst, we’ve plateaued. As more and more new RDs are joining us to provide their community with runs in amazing places, you (the large and old races) have the responsibility to lead by example and this is the example you chose? Politics? Keep in mind that some races are actually taking out ad space on Facebook in order to find volunteers for their races… and those same races have paid the $114 USD to be a UTMB qualifier. Do you see the real disconnect here? Simply put.. there are more races than runners. Ultrarunning has a real problem. We should be focusing less on what ITRA or UTMB wants and more on how to fix it. We should be focusing more on what our runners want and need and less on what we want and need as RDs. We should focus less on the politics, less on money, and more on the realities of inclusion. We should focus more on these things, and what our community needs.. because THAT is the “Spirit of Ultrarunning.”
Damn it… I’m going for a run. If I see anyone in our community out there.. I’ll be sure to say hi and ask them what they want and need. Just like I would in any aid station.. and then I’d give it to them. Even if it cost me $114 USD.