There are inherent tensions that naturally exist within any organization. Identifying these tensions and how they are resolved can be a useful tool to discover an organization’s values. If you are in a leadership position in the organization, this tool can be used to adjust and move the organization in a direction that is more in-line with where you want the organization to be. You may discover you are exactly where you want to be, or you may have to make bigger changes in one direction or another. I first learned of this tool from Frank Ratti, a ski patroller with whom I was tasked to define values for our ski patrol. We looked at tensions such as inclusiveness vs excellence and paid vs volunteer which you find within almost all patrols.
Similar tensions exist within the world of ultrarunning. I want to consider two of these tensions in this post: egalitarianism vs elitism and coddling vs self-sufficiency. It is especially interesting in this current boom of increased sponsorship, exposure, demand, and proliferation of new races and organizing bodies to look at them. As an RD and a runner, I find it interesting to look at races (especially popular ones) to see how they resolve these tensions, and how we as a sport are resolving them. I spend a lot of time looking at races that I am associated with, and using this tool to make sure these tensions are resolved in the way I (or my board) want them to be. And I am continually tweaking to make sure we’re right in the sweet spot.
Ultrarunning has deep roots founded on egalitarianism. We watch in admiration the last finishers of a 100 — the regular Joes and Suzies with full-time jobs and family responsibilities who struggled all day or multiple days to reach the finish line. It’s moving. These runners contribute to give a race character and depth. It’s the ethos of ultrarunning. To some, turning our back on this is offensive and totally out of line with the culture of the sport. On the other hand, it is a sport, and it’s hard to deny that having deep fast fields with great competition brings more attention and exposure to a race. This in turn may lead to greater demand, sponsorship opportunities, and relevance. Races resolve this tension in a variety of ways, and dare I say there isn’t a wrong or right way. Towards the elite side we have races such as UROC 100K and Run Rabbit Run 100M with prize purses and separate elite-only races. The desire to attract elites is of high importance to these races, and they make considerable efforts to do so. Other races such as Hardrock 100M or Massanutten 100M lean toward the egalitarian side. Their selection processes emphasize fairness and equality of each and every runner who meets their qualifying standards, regardless of how fast they are. An elite runner has little to no advantage of getting into the race over a 30+ hour runner. Races like Western States and UTMB resolve this tension somewhere in the middle. Some might argue (and have) that a race can’t cater to both elite athletes and the average Joe or Suzie, but I beg to differ. For most races, organizers have to find the sweet spot that reflects their value.
How close are the aid stations? Are pacers allowed? Are there safety patrols? Is the course extensively marked or not at all? We obviously want ultras to be challenging. Running long distances is in part satisfying because we do it under our own power. However, if there are aid stations every mile, the course is marked every 1/10 of mile with ribbon, or pacers are allowed to mule for runners, some would say these diminish the challenge of an ultra. On the contrary, if a race is too challenging, we may see very low finish rates or ill-prepared runners getting into trouble. The minimal expectation from runners is generally: well-stocked aid stations and well-marked courses. Don’t have those, and your race may get lambasted on the internet. Or not. A race like the Barkley Marathons has zero aid stations, no course markings, and the finish rate is abysmal (14 finishers since 1986). If you get into trouble, you are expected to “self-extract” as Laz told me last year. Yet demand for the coveted 35 starter spots is so high they have now implemented a Fall Classic shorter version. In contrast, a race like Western States has many more aid stations, an extensively marked course, and pacers are allowed for 38 miles (but no muling). That’s not to say it is easy, but without course markings, aid stations, or pacers it would certainly be a much more significant accomplishment. Of course, the race would attract a very different type of runner, and I doubt there would be 2700 people applying for the 270 lottery spots. On the flip-side if you added aid stations and course markings to Barkley, it would greatly change the experience. The challenge for most race organizers is finding the right balance between coddling runners and giving them a challenge that demands and rewards self-sufficiency.
We are at an interesting time in the evolution of ultrarunning, and there are a wide range of races from Fat Asses to World Championships. There is room for all types of races, and the inherent tensions will be resolved in different ways that reflect what the organizers value. As runners, we can choose to run races depending on what we value, too. If you can’t find a race you like or don’t think anybody has created that perfect race, then you are free to create your own.