Your Race Sucks

Genís Zapater is the prototypical [phrase redacted, October 26]. He’s standing before me wearing a giant puffy jacket and calf-length tights that seem to be painted on. He flips his long, dark hair to the side and rubs his beard as he talks, then puts one leg up on a chair so that the bulge in his crotch is even more uncomfortably obvious and starts playing with my water bottle on the table. “Yeah man, you know the San Juan Solstice [50 Mile]?” he says. “Yeah, I ran that, man, and it was like, so much running. I couldn’t take it.”

I assume there are three reasons he might be saying this: one, because San Juan Solstice is well-known among Colorado, USA runners for being one of the state’s hardest 50 milers and he wants to contrast that with his own version of hard, in which case he is affecting a false naivete in saying that the race is hard because it’s runnable, not because it’s steep; two, he knows I ran one of my best-ever races there and he’s trying to diminish me through that same false naivete; or three, he’s making simple conversation that he thinks I can relate to, and has no ulterior motive at all. But as I made clear with the first sentence of this article, I’m committed to thinking of him as the prototypical[phrase redacted, October 26], despite what eventually amounts to almost overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Genís’s conclusion about San Juan Solstice points at a general assumption in mountain running that is based on a spectrum from bad to good in which elevation change is inexorably connected to quality. Therefore, the worst possible race has zero elevation change, but there’s no ceiling to what’s good because more vertical is always good. Basically, more steep = more better. New races in particular have a tendency to rely on this value system, especially in Europe where they have both insanely steep mountains and lax management systems that permit races. A few examples off the top of my head are the Ronda dels Cims in Andorra (170 kilometers, 13,500 meters vertical), the Red Bull K3 in Italy (9.7k, 3,538 meters vertical), and the Glencoe Skyline in Scotland (52k, 4,750 meters vertical). Genís and his people also feel strongly that going “off-trail” is always a good thing, but since these super-steep races are almost always held in high alpine environments, that’s usually assumed.

By this definition, the San Juan Solstice 50 in Colorado really is puny by comparison. It only has about 4,000 meters of climbing in 80k, which ain’t shit compared to the previous examples. (Sorry about the metric, I’m trying to be consistent.) It does have the advantage of high altitude, but a well-acclimatized elite runner should in fact prove Genís right that SJS is actually very runnable. (Plus it’s on trails the whole way, my God!) My point is that being runnable doesn’t make a race necessarily worse. Despite being a mountain person who would get stomped in a road marathon, I nevertheless think of myself as a trail runner–key word: RUNNER–and I welcome the opportunity to leave the ground with both feet occasionally during my mountain runs. Genís’s definition of a good race relies on a quantitative value system that is actually quite materialistic, insisting on a more-is-always-better doctrine that disposes of ambiguous experiential opinions in favor of numbers. But numbers often have no connection whatsoever to memory or experience, which are two reference points that mean a lot to me personally. There are many criteria of quality to a trail race, and our collective inability to put these judgements into a box and sell it is one of the things that makes our sport so great.

But despite all this, the reason I’m talking to Genís at all is because I’m at a race that exemplifies his version of “good.” It’s called Els 2900, and that’s such a weird name that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize how straightforward it really is. The word “els” is a plural “the” in Catalan, and the point of the race is to climb seven peaks in Andorra higher than 2,900 meters. The race is called “The 2900.” Duh. And what makes this race unique, in addition to such unexpected cultural lessons, is that it has no course. You are required only to start and finish at designated places, and to reach nine different waypoints en route. Along the way there are two “bonus sections” (AKA exceptionally technical/aesthetically pleasing tidbits), which feel more like requirements to me because there’s no bonus for doing them, but you definitely get penalized with extra time if you don’t. Finally, you have to do all of this with a teammate.

Oh yeah, and to get to the start, everyone has to climb 1,300 meters (4,200 feet!) up to a refuge. That’s in order to start a race that averages 70k and 6,500 meters of vertical. Fortunately, you can get two meals–lunch and dinner–at the refuge, and they’ll even fill up your water bottles and sell you a beer before the midnight start!

Obviously this isn’t a normal kind of race. In fact, given the pre-race hike and the shared meals and the 25-team limit, this feels less like a race than a communal adventure, which is exactly what the race directors are going for. Matthieu Lefort and Carles Rossell intentionally created a race unlike any other in order to both share their favorite kind of adventure and to promote a specific mountain culture that they feel is lacking in European trail running.

“We feel that there’s too much hype and money going on in trail running now, and we want to get back to our roots,” says Matt. Apparently, those roots are related to the mutual values and camaraderie that prevails in many mountain refuges. “We want to create a special atmosphere for the runners that brings everyone together,” Matt continues. “That’s why we only allow 25 teams. If we wanted to make money, we would mark the course and make the race individual and have 250 runners, but that is not our vision.” In short, their version of a good race is one in which ambiguous qualities like sportsmanship, camaraderie, and respect take precedence over considerations of profit and popularity. They also revel in altering minor course requirements each year so that nobody can repeat the same route, which makes times and distances pretty much moot.

But their ideas don’t seem to be shared by many trail running brands, whose standards of a good race apparently are more about spectators and return on investment. Matt told me they actually turned down some sponsorships in order to preserve their sense of autonomy. “They want us to have helicopters to film the race and they want us to allow 10 or 20 elite runners of their choice and so on, but it’s not part of our vision, and so we said no.”

Matt has a soft French accent and uses the word “vision” a lot. “Even the country of Andorra told us outright in the last meeting that we are not part of their tourism strategy because we are so small and we refuse to start in the towns,” he said. The country does, however, contribute a small sum of money to the race, and Matt’s goal is to convince them that numbers are not the measure of success; instead, there are cultural values he wants Els 2900 to represent for the larger trail running world. He seeks to set a value standard through cultural prestige rather than size. Though to hear him talk about it, they haven’t had as much success in this as they would prefer: “I don’t know, man. It’s hard to have a race like this. It’s expensive.”

But it’s also awesome. My teammate was Nick Elson, the best Canadian runner you’ve never heard of, and we had a really good time running the race, as far as these things go. I mean, it was extremely long and hard, and the many off-trail, rocky, loose, steep, and sidehilling miles were often frustrating, and also we chose a route that had like 13k of pavement, and I kind of bonked going up the second peak around 3:30 a.m., and the wind up high got pretty cold around dawn, and we both fell down a few times… But yeah, besides all that it was great. We literally climbed all the highest peaks in the country in a single push, and at the end we got to traverse the “Malhiverns Ridge,” which I’m convinced has a few Class 5 moves, and the views were just stunning. And as Matt said, the camaraderie between runners and the atmosphere of the race in general were truly unique. It’s the kind of race designed to bring out the best in people, not through suffering alone but through sharing challenges. It’s difficult to distinguish between races that are hard for a reason and races that are hard simply because they can be, but I think Els 2900 does the first better than most.

After the race, I talked to Genís for a while and was frustrated to receive not only effusive congratulations on winning, but also several invitations to come stay at his house, to use his climbing gear, to have this food he was eating right then because I looked hungry, to learn Spanish with him, and more. Turns out Genís is the kind of guy who is easy to make fun of when you don’t know him, but now I like him and that makes generalizations more difficult. It’s the same with the races he likes–maybe he’s a bit overbearing about his presentation, but his opinions are no less valid than my own. Races are different everywhere; it’s what makes trail running so great. Whether a race is steep or runnable or friendly or profitable is not a distinction of better or worse. Those are just markers for people to use to develop their own opinions based on their own values. I know this doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but even that fact is good: I hope we never change the sport so much that it’s easy to explain. Just go do the kind of running you want.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What makes up a “good” race for you? Do you prefer short or long? Technical or nontechnical? A lot or a little elevation change? Big or small? What kind of atmosphere? Or, do different kinds of races suit you at different times?
  • Do you think there’s space in trail running for races of many kinds? If so, what steps do we need to take to preserve different kinds of racing formats?

There are 27 comments

  1. Jill L Homer

    Loved this essay. I’m a hiker in the runner world, but even I feel annoyed at the seesawing between the European-centric sentiment of “more vert more better” and North American “you’re not even running.”

    I like walking 3mph, pulling a 50-pound sled across snowy frozen landscapes for days on end. There’s space for everyone here.

  2. Yusef

    Yo Dakota,

    Thanks for sharing. I grew up in Spain, know a bit about the culture, but became a “trail runner” in the Bay Area. From what I’ve witnessed in Spain, there is a very strong sense of community and identity in community that drives an “us” and “them” mentality when it comes to sports. If you’re a mountain biker you suit up and team up with other mtbers, you make sure that your gear is flawless and that everything is matching as it is an extension of the community of mtbers and you as a part of the community. Similarly in the mountain running community there seems to be very clear delineations about what makes a race a road race, trail race, mountain race and skyrace, the needed gear, the elevation requirements, technique, etc…. I still haven’t figured it out, but becoming a trail runner in California was more about me striking it out on my own and using running as a way to cope with my troubled mind, or just as a way to discover my limits when pummeling a downhill in the Oakland hills, or experiencing races as an individual.

    In essence my running was an individual exploit that i shared with my friends, and while i appreciated the community, it really was an extension of my individual effort, not the other way around. In other places I see a community mindedness that we don’t share, and some things are gained while others are lost. Which is why a shirtless, bearded, split shorted Tony Krupicka created such a stir in European races back in 2012. At the core how we experience our sport (s) is an extension of how we see the world. Totally agree with you, and I appreciate the diversity in perspective that can brew up races like the ELS2900 you mentioned, or Tor des Geants, or UTMB, or Leadville, or that microrace in Berkeley with only like 20 runners and way too much beer at the finish line.

    I’m now at a place where running around a flat loop for 12 hours constitutes a great race, and a 50 miler out and back too, and a mountain race and anything in between. For me its all blur in the cumulus of endurance sports or activities, and the best I can do is try to understand how others see themselves in their running exploits.

    Cheers and keep up the good write ups.

    1. Kevin

      ‘For me it’s all blur in the cumulus of endurance sports or activities, and the best I can do is try to understand how others see themselves in their running exploits’

      I echo this sentiment! Running, racing, and the nexus of endurance and mountain sport are lenses through which you can see and improve yourself, and perhaps begin to understand how others are doing the same.

  3. Markus

    I don’t think you can compare San Juan Solstice 4000k of climbing with a race in Scotland. Lake City is in 8661ft. So this race starts way above the highest point of Scotland Ben Nevis, 4409 ft.

    Altitude makes a huge difference but I am sure Dakota Jones knows that.

      1. David

        [eye roll] Markus was talking about comparability not which is “tougher”

        Respectfully, I think you have missed the whole point of the article and subsequent discussion.

    1. Beriba

      Being serious though is that not the point of the article? It’s pointless comparing races and making a judgement on which is “better,” “tougher” etc. Its a totally subjective thing. Run what you want to run as long as you’re having fun.

  4. Hans Stenfert Kroese

    I was born and raised in Aruba, Dutch Caribbean. The essence of running culminated for me when I did a lap around the island basically self supported in 95 deg heat at 70% humidity (75 km). It was a way of connecting with my roots after leaving the place 35 years before.
    Problem with running these days is how it dictates to us what we think should be our niche instead of finding what drives and motivates us to continue running far and for many years while connecting with the sublime. For some it is about racing and winning. For others it is about finishing.
    Dakota won the ELS2900 (amazing). I would do anything to be able to do that. Instead I create running adventures that take me to exciting places such as a solo ultra along the Dordogne river in France along Medieval castles, a solo run along the entire coast of Holand, etc. That is where I find my bliss and I do it alone.
    Thanks for sharing. I like your writing style.

  5. Alex

    The wonderful thing about trail running is that races can be SO diverse in the challenges they offer. I can’t imagine what it is like to run dozens or hundreds of road marathons – how can you even keep them straight? I clearly recall just about every trail race I’ve ever done – scenery, terrain, company – all unique and fantastic memories. Thanks for another great article, Dakota.

  6. Bruno

    I am an Euro and not native english speaker. I am interested in knowing the subtle differences between the Euro-douche and the American-douche. And whether douche is that subtle a word in the first place.

  7. Markus

    Yeah, it’s always easy to make fun of other nations. Especially if you don’t speak another langue.
    Maybe the whole thing was meant to be funny. Maybe it was a joke. Maybe a Spanish joke translated into another language does not work that well? Of course nothing somebody can grasp who does not speak any other languages.

    Euro Douche is not that funny, when you just read it and are not in the situation itself.

    Kind of interesting that writers for irunfar don’t have to use a non offensive language.
    Euro myself and I guess a typical Euro douche myself.

    1. David

      As European who has lived in the US for nearly 25 years and loves to poke fun at myself, I feel that I can say with authority: Euro Douche isn’t funny – in neither culture. It devalued the article. That’s not just on Dakota but also the editors of this website who published it.

      Great article (and website) – except for that comment.

  8. Meghan Hicks

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for your feedback on the word choice in this article. I really appreciate that you all delivered it constructively. It means a lot that you would take the time to put together negative feedback in a constructive way. With your feedback, I’ve decided to remove the phrasing from the article. I’ve invited Dakota back to share his thoughts on his word choice and your feedback. I also will share the thoughts I had about it in editing this article and choosing to publish the phrase. While I agree with the commenters that it’s not typical language for iRunFar, and if it was used in a malicious way toward a person or a population, I don’t think it would have been appropriate. However, I chose to publish the phrase because I felt that Dakota used it in a playful manner toward his friend. Thanks again for the feedback; this iRunFar thing is always an experiment of one and we grow forward together.

    Kindly,
    Meghan

  9. Prototypical Canadian-douche

    Enjoyed the column.
    I get tired of the constant comparisons of races. Whats hard, whats technical or not etc. There are cool fun, hard whatever races all over the place and i don’t see why a race has to hold itself up against any other for validation. Someone runs an amazing time at a race and immediately will be be jived that the course isn’t really technical, or as challenging as this or that race. A races difficultly level ( vert or otherwise) should not diminish the achievement of a good race, everyone who toes the line is running the same course so I’d love to see more appreciation of what elites are doing out there over a variety courses. Killian crushing technical mountain races = cool, Courtney crushing huge miles =cool, Jim talking about crushing shorter faster stuff next year =cool. There are amazing athletes doing ridiculous stuff out there every week it seems, so a “good race” to me is anywhere there are runners competing and pushing a races limits. I run far does a good job of this in weekly wrap up so keep it up, i want to hear it all!

    as for “phrase redacted, October 26”: I find it RIDICULOUS this had to be removed.

  10. Mike

    Of course the “offensive phrase” was meant to be playful. The author applied it to his new-found friend! And it should be clear to any attentive reader that the author later admits that his initial impression was mistaken.

    Again, I really liked the content AND the style of this piece, and I do hope that this instance of Orwellian political correctness gone mad won’t convince Dakota Jones to self-censure in the future.

  11. Dakota Jones

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for commenting and I’m sorry that I’ve offended some of you. My intention was to show that I actually admire Genís Zapater quite a bit, but our differences are such that it took me a while to understand how. In my head “euro-douche” is a harmless phrase that doesn’t marginalize any particular social or ethnic group (correct me if I’m wrong here) and I used it because it seemed like a fun way to introduce my own ignorance. In general, the story arc is meant to demonstrate that my attitude changed for the better by meeting these people and running this race. To make that point clearer, I exaggerated my own ego at the beginning of the story.

    Still, I reserve the right the use negative phrasing under the right circumstances. I understand that there are many versions of English and they all carry various connotations, but my experience with the phrase “douche” is that it is a silly way to poke fun at someone. The point of the article was to begin on a negative note and then use the rest of the story to transform that statement into understanding and respect. In that context, I believe I am justified in using a negative phrase because it’s in support of something positive. By adding “euro” to it, I’m referring to various generalizations about European runners as a whole – or stereotypes – so that I can then use the rest of the article to demonstrate that generalizing and stereotyping is actually a super ignorant way to think about the world.

    I think some of the misunderstanding came from the perception that I’m calling all Europeans douchebags, but I used “prototypical” in front of the offending phrase to indicate that a “euro-douche”, in my mind, is simply a character, not a real person. You could just as easily create a similar character from American stereotypes. And I used Genís Zapater because he’s a friend of mine and I know he can take it; we often make fun of each other in a good-natured way. If you read through many of my articles, you’ll find that I often use myself in the stories as an exaggerated character juxtaposed to whatever positive argument I’m hoping to convey. This was the same situation, but if that didn’t come across clearly, then I sincerely apologize.

    If there was any confusion about my intention with any part of the article, it can only reflect back on my own failure to convey the story well. I was hoping to explain how I like and respect Genís and the european running scene by using a full-circle argument, and that the real value of an encounter or experience lies beneath the surface. But if that didn’t succeed then I take full blame. I never had any negative intentions.

  12. Mat

    I’ve never commented on an article before in my life, but felt compelled to do so here… whatever your perspective on the rights or wrongs of that phrase and its redacting, I am totally in awe of this online community’s ability to have a constructive, measured, two-sided and calm discussion about it. So rare these days! Massive respect all-round. Reflects really well on this website, its publishers, and the people who visit it. Thanks for the article, all the thought that has subsequently gone into it, and all the great work and effort that goes into irunfar. Thank you!

  13. Markus

    I had to think about this for a bit.

    Dakota Jones article shows what’s “wrong” with irunfar.com. They are only covering a very small sliver of US ultrarunning. Mostly the fast young male view with some articles about women sprinkled in. Mostly young and fast too.
    All others are left out. Older age group runners men and women, mid packers, runners who came to ultrarunning late in life and most importantly all the non white runners in the US. Where I life we have a decent sized Indian population and some of them run ultras too. The majority of people are black but almost none of them are running ultras unfortunately.

    Region wise most coverage goes to “epic” races in the Western US like Western States and Hardrock. Sure they are important to cover but it would be nice to hear about some smaller races in the South or anywhere else.

    I get it, irunfar has limited resources but that shouldn’t be an excuse to get some local writers from different parts of the country who are not necessarily young fast sponsored athletes. There is so much more to cover in US ultrarunning.

    1. Brian L.

      Markus,

      It sounds like someone is trying to volunteer to write about “some smaller races in the South or anywhere else”. If you want to hear about such things, or share about such things, you should go ahead and provide it! I’d read it!

      I agree it would also be nice to hear some more rare narratives from the community, from non-typical trail runners (race, age, location).

      Finally, complaining about generalised statements and then using phrases like “Especially if you don’t speak another langu[age].” is a bit hypocritical, right? You’ve done the exact same thing that you accuse Dakota of doing.

      Dakota,

      Great writing! Liked this a lot. Your writing often seeks to generate a contrast between your personal preconceived notions and “the way things really are”. I appreciate your self reflection a lot.

      Maybe folks don’t understand the difference between the Euro-douche and the North American-douche, for me it boils down to appearances. European runners, like Yusef mentions, go around in super clean kit and seem to take themselves very seriously. I think this scares or surprises North American runners who often use running to find freedom from the strict rules of daily life. Like Yusef mentions, our carefree approach to trail-running (and clothing choices) is often similarly novel in a European setting.

  14. Chris

    Great article as usual Dakota!
    To me, it was 100% clear that Dakota was starting with ‘ignorant Dakota’ persona, so that, in subsequently opening his eyes and understanding Genis, he could have his preconceptions reshaped and become ‘enlightened Dakota’. This was just a playful, and IMO very funny, artifice to make a point. I have lived in Europe and basically grew up French, and I think this humorous article was fantastic, not offensive.

    I greatly respect Meghan and Bryon for allowing the article in the first place, because if this site becomes just a bunch of formulaic, predictable, boring articles, I’d probably stop reading.

    Maybe a quick note in brackets before the article would help mitigate reactions [Editor’s note: the following article is intended to ……. and not ….]?

  15. Mike

    Chris:

    Regarding your suggestion for an “Editors’ note”, I see what you’re saying. But at the same time, I think we as Americans (actually Franco-American here, donc bonjour Chris!) have to start resisting our culture’s widespread tendency to treat adults as children. When your country starts selling coffees reading “careful, best not to spill this hot coffee on your lap, it might hurt or maim” then perhaps questions need asking.

    As for your hope that this site avoids simply choosing to publish “just a bunch of formulaic, predictable, boring articles”, I couldn’t agree more!

  16. AT

    Man, you honestly can’t even use playful humor in a well written article without people crying themselves to sleep in 2018. It’s just ridiculous anymore. Shouldn’t have to come on here and apologize because some deep embedded insecurity came out from an anonymous reader that was “offended.” I pray some of you never experience real adversity in your life.

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