Tensions

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.

16 Comments

  1. Good post about tensions of an organization. I am a soon to be graduating masters student in an Outdoor Recreation and Education program – we deal a lot about leadership in organizations. We read and studied Bolman and Deal and their 4 frameworks of leadership within an organization; they are structural, human resources, political, and cultural/symbolic. Good read if you want to learn more about it.

    Western States can be a great case study in all four frameworks. The political framework is mostly all about tensions within an organization and this post really touches on some of the key tensions within ultrarunning. What is more important to analyze are the downstream and upstream implications of each decision, how it is affecting each of the four frameworks, and whether they are worth implementing.

    Nice that you contrasted such two different cultural events within ultrarunning (Barkleys and WS). These are two highly symbolic events within the core (elitists or not?) ultrarunning world.

    • This^ Although I think there is still a problem of people wanting to participate in a race (perhaps due to its status as a “tough” or “classic” race) without wanting all that comes with it. When I ran Pine to Palm in 2012 I heard numerous runners complaining after the race that the aid station cutoffs were too stiff; of course, the RD had clearly stated the cutoff times on the website so one could assume all the runners knew about them, but that didn’t stop them from complaining. Some people are easy to please, others aren’t so much.

    • What Mark Swanson said. The cardinal sin of race directors is not communicating what runners should expect. That communication might include maps and turn-by-turn directions posted on the web site, information about flagging on the course, aid station mileages, drop bag locations and logistics, course conditions, and pacer regulations.

      In this age of electronic communication, having this information on the race’s web site is easy. If the race director wants to say “I don’t provide mileages, and the course isn’t well marked, and there are a bunch of fallen trees that haven’t been cut, so keep your head up and prepare to fend for yourself”, that’s totally acceptable, but withholding information is a bad option.

    • Jim, thanks. This has been brewing in my head for more than a year. Finally got the time on plane rides to and from the east coast last week. As for making it required reading for WS applicants, not sure I want to take the idea of adding Performance Rule 19 to the board :-)

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  3. Great post Craig! Well said!

    Though I did smile a bit when you used the example of Hardrock being egalitarian and wrote, “An elite runner has little to no advantage of getting into the race over a 30+ hour runner.” I would argue that anyone who can finish Hardrock in only 30 hours might actually be considered elite, or at least semi-elite :)

    John

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  5. Craig-

    Great commentary and absolutely the right thing for THE senior manager of an organization to be thinking about. I run a large company and spend lots of time thinking about these things also, from time to time. I firmly believe that an organization needs to have clear and transparent mission, vision, and values in order to resolve the inevitable stresses that arise, especially during times of change.

    The WS vision: ‘The Western States Endurance Run is committed to strengthening our tradition as the world’s preeminent 100-mile trail run’, as well as the related goals and values are exactly the framework that is required to make sure that the train doesn’t get too far off the tracks. Certainly, everybody reading the WS Mission will have their own interpretation as to whether or not they agree with the race’s policies and actions within the context of this Mission, but that doesn’t really matter so long as the race’s Board and Management use it as the guiding principle for implementing change.

    Keep up the good work, both in managing your race and setting an example for what your counterparts should also be thinking about.

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  7. ‘We are at an interesting time in the evolution of ultrarunning’

    Even that sentence is interesting. I have my reservations about the direction that our sport is taking. It is fun to see the growth that has transpired over the last decade but with it comes growing pains. Craig, while you bring a lot of expertise and enthusiasm to the table I seriously doubt that you or anyone else for that matter can keep the atmosphere that once was.

    There once was a day that I could get into WS simply based on the amount of volunteer work I’ve done directly for WS. Now that doesn’t even get me into the lottery.

    There was a day that I could get into WS simply based on my running background. Now that doesn’t even get me into the lottery.

    There was a day that I could get into WS simply based on the people associated with the race who I knew. Now that doesn’t even get me into the lottery.

    So it still irks me when I meet people with far less experience who only meet the minimum volunteer requirements get into the race itself. I am referring to those who volunteer simply out of necessity not for the love of being out there. For many of these type of runners the event was over the day they found out they made it in. For them that was the finish line.

    So while I was upset about not getting my 5 tickets into last years lottery I have come to think that you did me a big favor. I choked on your comment to me last November, “It wouldn’t be fair to the others.” but in essence I’ve gone back to running just for the sake of it.

    I will run WS this year but outside of this post I will do it quietly and for the love of it. I will make the 24 hour cut off and I will do it without the aid the other entrants receive. I will do it not in its current trendy style but in a fashion that I think would make Gordy, Ken “Cowman” and the other originals proud. For that I thank you Craig. I feel a lot less tension already.

    And yes, you can still count on me to volunteer. Heck, I have too many friends in the race again this year.

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