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Rules And Why We Have Them

“We don’t much like rules around here and, as such, at this race, we don’t have many. In fact, the only ones we do have are here to keep you safe and to make sure we can have the race again next year. Aside from that, we don’t really care what else you choose to do in your run across these mountains.” These are the words of John Grobben, the long-time race director of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile, spoken each year at what has to be the briefest and most to-the-point pre-race meeting in ultrarunning.

Grobben has presided over Wasatch for the better part of two decades and has done so with understated grace and the rugged individualism that is common in his little corner of the American West. His general disdain for rules aligns with many of his peers in the Rocky Mountain region and is, in many ways, characteristic of the ultrarunning community in general. And that is what concerns me about recent events in ultrarunning. Events which have seen runners cut courses, hide out in port-a-potties, and degrade the environment. Perhaps I am naïve and these things have always happened and I just haven’t noticed. But, to be honest, before now, I erred on the side of the good hearted belief that I didn’t have to.

Certainly, over the years, we’ve had ebbs and flows with rule breaking in the sport, including switchback cutting, littering when gel packs first came on the scene, occasional misunderstandings about exactly where runners were allowed to be aided, and even what products, if any, were prohibited on course. But the recent rules breaches seem more like blatant cheating and less like the honest errors of newbies who don’t know any better. To be frank, it just feels wrong.

For as long as I’ve been in the sport, ultrarunners have largely policed themselves. We support each other when we go off course, engage volunteers so they can more productively do their jobs, and work with race organizers to not only provide the best running experience possible but also to perpetuate a culture of community which is, quite frankly, perhaps the most compelling reason increasing numbers of runners have joined our ranks over the last decade. All that being said, however, recent examples of premeditated course cutting, deliberate and sometimes elaborate schemes to subvert guidelines, and intentional environmental destruction has the potential to put our sport at risk. Ask just about any ultramarathon race director out there what the greatest risks to their events are and at or near the top of their lists would be having their permits revoked. It’s a brutally simple calculus, if the organizations and agencies who manage the lands through which we run simply decide they don’t want us there anymore, then they can just cut us off, immediately and irrevocably.

If the stewards of our lands are concerned about environmental costs, and most justifiably are, then why would they support events in which the participants don’t pick up after themselves? If the agencies supporting our races have reputational concerns, and most justifiably do, then why would they support a sport where basic rules like following the marked course or adhering to clearly articulated expectations is becoming more and more common? The truth is, we need these behaviors to stop, and we need them to stop now.

I, for one, am sad to see that the lists of rules and regulations at many of our events have become longer and longer. And what makes me even more sad is that the days of rules existing simply to keep runners safe and provide sustenance for future events seem to be long gone. Nowadays, unfortunately, many of the rules we’re forced to implement are there to protect the sport from corruption, cheating, and greed. That is not the sport I first signed up for back in 1992.

On the walls of every classroom in my school here in Virginia, we have posted a very simple, four-part honor code. It reads:

I will not:

  1. lie
  2. steal
  3. cheat
  4. tolerate the behaviors of those who do

As we attempt to navigate this new era in our sport, I am calling on all of us–runners, race organizers, volunteers, media, fans, and friends–to strive to not tolerate behaviors that run counter to our community culture. We have seen too many other sports contaminated by the ‘everybody’s doing it’ mindset and we should do better. We have always valued the collective good over individual excellence and while we all love our heroes, let’s please not love them at the expense of the rest of us. Ultrarunning deserves to be valued as the simple sport that it is. A sport for all of us. A place of unadulterated egalitarianism. An activity that enlivens us all from the first runner to the last in the shared love and passion for testing ourselves against ourselves in the cherished environment we choose to call home.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Florida’s award-winning Funky Buddha Brewery. The Imperial version for their popular Last Snow Porter hit the shelves last year and is a huge hit. Last Buffalo In The Park Imperial Porter tips the scales at a whopping 11.5% but amazingly does not taste at all boozy. Rather, this smooth, smoky Porter is one of those that just melts in your mouth. Try to get your hands on one before winter is over!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Do you have ideas for how we all can effectively and empathetically navigate these issues going forward so as to attempt to eliminate them but to do so in a constructive way that fosters and supports our community?

[Editor’s Note: Since this is a topic of sensitivity, we invite you to read iRunFar’s comment policy before joining the conversation. You are welcome to debate and disagree, but we ask you to do so constructively. Thanks.]

Categories: AJW's Taproom
Andy Jones-Wilkins :finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (38)

  • While I haven't heard the stories alluded to in AJW's post, I can imagine what they might be. Personally, I like the limited rules of many races. Just recently I was reading the rules (I think there were three) for the Lake Sonoma 50 to my 11-year-old. I was explaining to him how ultras are a place for everyone and, while some runners are "pros" and, accordingly, have to take race-day very seriously, most are weekend warriors out to challenge themselves and have fun. The novelty of having few rules is due to the general character of those who show up to run, I told him. Yes, some people may try to cheat, but I explained they're in the minority. I wholeheartedly hope this remains true.

  • Races without rules wouldn’t be races. You need rules to ensure fair competition. Cheating in races is nothing new, also not in ultrarunning. I saw it happening at the Spartathlon and National Championship 100k races. Since there are so much more ultrarunners, then in the past, I would think there are less cheaters around than there used to be. Now they just blow up bigger in the internet with marathoninvestigation.com or letsrun.com.

    The portapotty guy also missed a lot of checkpoints at the Leadville 100 races and didn’t got disqualified from the RD. It seems impossible to being missed at the check in’s at Leadville unless you were not there at all. So that is actually part of the problem, that RD avoid confrontations to keep their customers. Obviously that is changing now. Portapotty guy got a lot of his results scratched from several RD’s.

    All these cheaters will have an impact on how the public looks at our sport. So to think ,we just should look the other way, is just wrong in my opinion.

  • Bigger profiles, more money, higher stakes, and social media affirmation. All these seem to be factors in why folks might cheat.

    Difficult problem. I hope our sport can stay clean and pure...in so many ways. I’m cautiously optimistic.

  • The three rules at Lake Sonoma 50:
    1. No littering. Zero, zip, nada. Carry it in, carry it out.
    2. Be nice. Be nice to each other, be nice to the volunteers, be nice to other trail users.
    3. Have fun.

    • So course cutting and muling are allowed? PEDs? No cut-off times?

      Fun runs don't need rules. Races do. There's nothing wrong with either activity, but they are different things.

        • Nope. It's not. And different places do have different interpretations. There is a well-known example of this at Speedgoat where a well-respected runner was DQed for not following the course in the "American" way of following the course. If you want to later enforce the rules, there have to be actual rules to enforce.

  • It's too simplistic to say all competitors should follow all the rules all the time. If the pacer of a back-of-the-pack runner holds the runner's bottle while he ties his shoe that's technically unauthorized aid, but it is certainly not the same thing as a front runner cutting the course. I think most of us would be horrified if the back-of-the packer was DQed or if the course cutter was not.

    Now it's possible to construct an argument along the lines of "if X is OK then Y must be OK too, and if Y is OK Z is OK" and so on starting with the slimmest, technical rule violation and working up to something truly egregious. We could even go beyond running until we've argued that accepting the tiniest infraction in an ultra leads to a total breakdown in society. (one could do the same thing with something like the drinking age - "if it's OK for someone 21 years old to drink, why not someone 1 second less than 21 years old")

    This is a paradox (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox) with no easy solution. RDs will need to apply their judgement and realize that some people will be dissatisfied.

    • I've often wondered if there should be a different set of rules for competitive ultrarunners and those there to enjoy the experience and personal challenge.

      To make competition equal for those racing:
      -no pacers
      -no team support
      -no help outside of aid stations

      As all those things can give a competitive advantage.

      Those not competing could have access to those three things, maybe even muling. What do you people think?

      • Every race is a competition and if you sign up for it you are competitive already and therefore rules have to be followed.

        I am all for the no pacers thing. But that ain't happening in good ole USA.

    • Paul, I am not sure if this is a valid thought. With your logic we couldn't have rules or laws at all.

      I don't think anybody ever thought that the pacer of a back-of-the-pack runner holds the runner’s bottle while he ties his shoe needs to be disqualified.

  • Why participate in those "circus" type events at all? The mountains are not going anywhere and there are plenty of smaller local events to keep it real!

  • As anyone who's been paying any attention sort of knows, we generally live in a world that is, ethically/morally speaking, almost indefensible -- but, at least for me, there was this one thing that was still simple and pure and clean and true...a big fu to those who have taken that from me!

    Still, statistically speaking, this remains the place where the best people are --

    JV

  • One of the reasons why I love this sport so much is that a majority of people I have met within the community have great moral character and care about honesty and the environment along with valuing personal achievement. I try to pick up trash on trails as much as possible when I am on training runs or in races as I am sure many of you do as well. Once I saw someone in a 50K throw a cup on the trail about a quarter mile after leaving an aid station and I called them out in front of all the other runners around us. It's hard to believe that people don't know what they are doing sometimes is wrong but they are out there. I hope the integrity of our community holds up because it seems like it's the only sane environment to be in these days. You are right though, it's a bummer that we have to have these rules. Cheers AJW!

    • I also called someone out on the course for cutting switchbacks. It was my first 50 mile and the runner would literally cut every single one! I didn't quite get the point, we were in the fun run pack, he had no reason to cut them, people are odd.

  • As just a interested follower of irunfar, I don't know if there is any central organizational group that these races and directors are members of or governed by. But why not have a basic standard set of rules that is adopted by all, and a secondary set of rules that are generated by the individual race director that can be race-specific, or that can loosen a particular basic rule for that race. This provides uniformity and expectations, while preserving individuality and the need for adjustment to particulars. In the real estate world, this basic set /secondary specific standard arrangement is being adopted for most closing procedures.

    • For ultras and trail running I don't think uniformity is the answer. Every race is different. Some require permits and some don't. Some have entry limits, some don't. I do not think the recent highlighted behavior is the norm. Creating a central rule making organization would take away one of the things I like about ultras and trail running. It doesn't need more rules, just enforcement.

  • The idea that ultra running needs more rules is absurd. If anything, the recent high profile incidents of rule breaking show that cheaters eventually get caught and the sport is capable of self regulation. For 95% of ultra running participants finishing is the goal. The three Lake Sonoma rules pretty much cover all of the rules for 95% of these people. For those wanting to podium or win the race perhaps extra rules are needed because they will be trying to gain a competitive advantage. One comment states that every race is a competition. In ultra running I don't think that encompass the sport. If that is your thought process go road race and thrown down your best PR as an individual. For 95% of ultra runners finishing is being part of the community and if the ultra running community starts thinking that every race is a competition I may need to rethink my participation in the community.

  • A simple set of questions can usually determine whether an infraction is worthy of disqualification: Was it egregious? Was it intentional? Did it affect the outcome of the race? If any of these is true, a DQ is in order. If none are true, then probably not.

  • I don't understand cheating. Surely whatever gains a runner gets from cheating will sit uneasy with them because they were ill-gotten.
    I love the ultra community and how kind, supportive and appreciative runners are of each other (I should maybe qualify this by saying I tend to run small events). Rules don't make it that way, ultra running just seems to attract lovely and interesting people. To me, those who cheat at ultras aren't true ultra runners.

  • Spot on AJW! Coming from the PED/drug side I've always stated that top level, sponsored runners competing for podium spots have no excuse when it comes to not knowing what substances are against the rules (and at what level). If a race falls under the WADA/IAAF banned list umbrella (which most should as the list is heavily researched and supported and uniform for pretty much all top level distance running events across the world), it is pretty easy to check that list. The rules of course apply to every one in a race, but obviously the sponsored runners can have a bigger financial stake (as well as the vanity of 'social media attention')...so more temptation to cheat.

    Obviously if anyone is taking EPO or steroids etc. they are cheating very deliberately. Ultimately if someone is taking heavy hitting PEDs (or cutting switchbacks) they are cheating themselves....that can't feel good. #cleansport

    • Good luck with the "clean sport" trope. Sports have not been clean since....sports began. As drugs grow ever better and more easy to obtain, the "problem" will grow worse. Cudos to you for being clean, but let's not kid ourselves: doping is only going to grow worse with time, not better. If someone wants to compete, they should understand this and plan accordingly.

    • Thanks for your comment Sage! Your knowledge and understanding of these issues is very helpful for entire ultrarunning community and I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise. I hope your 2018 training season is off to a good start. I hope to see you somewhere out on the trails this year. Lake Sonoma perhaps???

  • There is portapotty guy and hong kong 100k guy.

    What other recent incidents of cheating are we responding to here?

    A little point I'd like to add to this is: even if there were, let's say, a dozen more clear incidents of cheating in the last couple months, a right-sized response to a measured threat will serve us crazy folks best. One way to advance the conversation, to educate and contribute more acute awareness to the issue of cheating is to practice how we as individuals internalize these events and how we deliberate our opinions.

    We all want to get closer to root causes of this gunk. We want to be stewards of our sport. But like it has been said, we are all fallible. I am a bike courier for work, and often times I am nearly hit by cars with bumper stickers that read "I look for bikes" or "Namaste" or even "> 26.2". We all cheat in little ways here and there and we are capable of having empathy for those who cheat without condoning it. It will all be ok, or it won't, but I appreciate you. Happy trails

  • Rules exist either for those who don't think for themselves, or believe that said rules apply only to others.

    The comments here demonstrate exactly why races "need" rules. It isn't the race that needs the rule, it is the pedantic and tiresome behaviour of its participants.

    Aberrant behaviour is becoming more prevalent. Not just in races, but on trails generally (at least in my local experience). It is endemic of generally escalating entitlement.

    • No, you need rules to define what the race is about.

      Sounds stupid but it's not. If you have a running race, you have to run the distance you signed up for and you have to run it on your own feet.

      I really find it amusing that some people really think that trail runners are better people. No they are not. They are just people like everybody else.

  • Never lie, steal, cheat, or drink. But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love. If you must steal, steal away from bad company. If you must cheat, cheat death.
    - Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens (as portrayed by The Fresh Prince...er, Will Smith)

  • Sadly the increase in cheating is function of the money now involved in our sport. Yes there were always cheats but the increasing prize money and sponsorship for the successful runners brings in an incentive to cheat as well as attracting those with an inclination to cheat into our sport. If there is a reward for cheating, either in terms of prize money or the opportunity of getting a sponsor, then some humans will always cheat. There are two alternatives, remove the incentive to cheat (no prizes) or establish rules and police them.

    Where races offer any sort of prize money they need to pay out for drug testing and design their event to make it difficult to cheat. The sport has been way to slow and weak on in and out of competition testing. The other runners need to take responsibility as well by challenging their peers when they see unacceptable behaviour like short cutting or littering.

    We are likely to see more cheating as we get better at detecting it. Our sport has sponsored athletes and money so there will be cheats and there is no turning that back to the good old days. Race directors and fellow runners need to make it as hard as possible for cheats and when discovered ban them for life.

  • One of the things that drew me to this sport was the pureness and innocence I saw in it. That is gone, and that sucks. But, Hell, I knew we were going downhill when the Cross-Fitters started showing up. :)

  • It is not necessarily money, it is the sport's popularity. Once the sport grows beyond a certain size, it attracts from a broad range of folks, many of whom were not steeped in the ethos AJW is referencing. I have witnessed cyclists cheat (including doping) at amateur events with no prize money at stake (including getting in a car and reappearing later over another mountain pass, but crossing each timing mat). I have run with runners who ended up cheating .... dopers are in our midst and if even a biological passport does not catch sophisticated cheaters in pro sports, the minimal controls in ultrarunning will only catch unsophisticated cheaters. Cheaters gonna cheat .... it sucks but honestly it has nothing to do with my race, my training, or my joy on the trails. Let's hold on to as much of the ethos as we can, and hold each other accountable.

    • Thanks for the comment Jeff. Indeed, let's hold on to what we can, what we value, and what we love. It does sadden me that our sport has taken this turn. And I, for one, am unwilling to cynically accept it as the norm.

  • Hmm, so if you didn't get it on your Garmin then it ...shouldn't count??
    Oh, and my personal addition to that is if I don't capture heart rate and water stops then it doesnt really count and I cant use it to get hyped up for an unrealistic pace. Even capture it and pace off of it for ultras :) I love data

    Maybe in 20 years gps will eliminate cheating?

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