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A Pissed-Off Response to “Great Races Deserve Great Fields”

Posted by on Jun 3, 2012 | 7 Comments

Canadian Running Magazine online recently published an article about the participant limit typical in many ultramarathons. The article had two themes- 1) field limits should be increased if the same protected land is used for something like logging, and 2) more of the available slots should be designated for elite ultrarunners.

I completely agree with the first point. If government agencies are limiting fields to protect the environment, don’t lease the land to companies that will do far more destruction to the same land!!!

My friend Vanessa made a point on Facebook about field size- she enjoys smaller crowds on the trail. I agree. I don’t necessarily want the field limits to be eradicated. I would rather see more protected land… well, protected. Grow some balls, government agencies. Don’t let corporations exploit our few remaining natural habitats!

I completely disagree with the second point. The author used Western States as an example. I regularly hear the same criticisms from other sources. It hit home because I ran WS in 2011. It was an amazing experience. I strongly believe any ultrarunner that has a reasonable chance of finishing the race (by qualifying for WS) should have a chance to run WS.

First, Western States (and many other ultras with lotteries) has methods that allow elites to gain entry. The first and second place male and females in the nine Montrail Cup races get an automatic entry. Also, the top ten male and female finishers of the previous year get automatic entries. That’s up to 56 possibilities for elites to get in. FIFTY-SIX! Think you’re an elite ultrarunner and bitch about the lottery? If you can’t win (or place second) in one of the NINE Montrail Cup races, you’re probably not an elite. Go train more.

Second, I REALLY dislike the idea of races being limited to elites. It just feels like a douchey concept. It’s not elite, it’s elitist. Ultrarunning is one of the few sports where the elites and the people that finish last can hug, talk about their shared suffering, then drink a beer in celebration. Do we really want to draw a definite line between the god-like elites and the “commoners?” Look at sports like road running or triathlons. The animosity between the winners and last place finishers in those sports is toxic. Suggesting that the middle and back-of-the-packers don’t deserve a chance to run an event should disgust anyone that’s been around our sport for awhile.

Part of what makes Western States special is the variety in the field. Yes, it’s great watching those 50+ elites battle it out for the win. However, I disagree that it’s the defacto US championship. It’s a lot like the Indy 500… the winner gets a lot of press, but they’re not crowned the Indy champion. The real beauty, though, is watching the rest of the 400+ runners experience the magic that is Western States. To me, that’s what ultrarunning is all about.

I’d love to see an actual championship race pitting hundreds of the best ultrarunners in the world. An event like this should be specifically designed as a championship, though. The Mont Blanc system described in the CRM article would be an adequate culling system to determine the entrants. Make the course tough (Western States is relatively easy). Use the current USATF 100 mile trail championship rules. Bring in sponsors. Televise it on Spike. Open up betting in Vegas (I’d totally put some money on my favorites). THAT would be a true championship.

What are your thoughts?


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  1. Kenneth D
    June 4, 2012

    The whole reason I have been drawn to the Ultrarunning scene, is because of two reasons:

    1. The fact that it gets me closer to nature by spending time out in natural places


    2. Like Jason said, the camaraderie between runners.

    In my mind, Western States is one of those life changing events that anyone who can qualify for should have a chance to experience. I like watching the “elites” race these events too, but Western States (and a lot of the other big events in ultrarunning) are a lot more than “just another race”.

    And to the folks saying they don’t see any animosity in road running, you’re the lucky ones. It is incredibly common to see comments spouting that “if you can’t run a 3:30 marathon, then you shouldn’t be allowed to enter, and that your should give up running altogether”.

  2. Adam Lawrence
    June 4, 2012

    One of the things that’s drawn me to this game is its persistant openness to amateurs, and the blurryness of the line between amateurs and elites. That will probably change as Capital becomes more invested in endorsements, and perhaps even in televising these things, but for the moment it seems like the barrier of entry (in terms of professionalization) is much lower for ultrarunning than for most other sports (especially, of course, competitive team sports, the most lucrative kind, but also cycling, road running, swimming, and so on). People who have a regular day job can win Badwater and be crowned “elite.” There are probably several reasons for this: the relative historical youth of the sport, the minimal economic gear investment necessary to compete, the comparatively small number of people interested in punishing themselves this way, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that it’s an real outdoor sport. Many hardcore outdoor sports- backpacking, rock climbing, mountineering, kayaking- remain largely non-competitive, perhaps in part b/c the first priority during any of these activities is not dying. Mountineers, probably the world’s finest all-around athletes, certainly have a sense of who the elites are, and they struggle to touch untouched summits and ascend un-ascended routes, but nobody would dream of having a “mountain climbing race” or posting their time up and their time down.

  3. Daren
    June 4, 2012

    only you can prevent forrest fires

  4. Bare Lee
    June 4, 2012

    If the general public wasn’t allowed to run in these races, would anyone besides the elite care if the elite ran them?

  5. Alex
    June 4, 2012

    I wasn’t aware of any toxicity in road running. The winner of the last road half I participated in almost certainly holds nothing against me for only running it in 1:25, fully 20 minutes behind. I’m sure there are plenty of assholes, both fast and slow, on road and trail. Road races simply bring 20,000 entrants, rather than 200, and thus more of every temperament.

  6. Rory Gilfillan
    June 3, 2012

    I agree with you for the most part however, the following really has no backing to it:

    “Look at sports like road running or triathlons. The animosity between the winners and last place finishers in those sports is toxic”.

    I don’t think that the men and women who win road races have a whole lot in common with the people bringing up the back of the pack. I don’t imagine that either groups even consider each other.

    Road running used to be a community too but this was when it was relatively small group of people engaged in the sport. Things change when numbers increase.

  7. Wiglaf
    June 3, 2012

    Who will protect that same land from drought and lightening strike caused wildfires?