Freedom With Responsibility

AJWs Taproom“What happened out there?” I asked eagerly.

“I tiptoed over the cattle grate, took a sip out of my bottle, and ran down the road. Next thing I knew I was at the reservoir.” Tommy replied.

“Damn, you must have been pissed.”

“Yeah, I was. But getting lost is always the runner’s fault. I won’t do it again. Live and learn.

And so began my education into the way we do things in ultramarathon running.

In the brief exchange above, I was catching up with my good friend and mentor, Tommy Nielsen, outside the Placer High School Gym after the awards ceremony at the 2004 Western States 100. Tommy had several top-10’s to his credit by this time including a 2nd place finish and he was in excellent shape going into the race. Scott Jurek, of course, had other ideas and that year set the new course record in an epic battle with Dave Mackey and I, much to my surprise, managed to hold on for an 8th place finish with a slew of Oregonians on my heels. Tommy, as it turned out, had missed the critical right turn onto Cavanaugh Ridge shortly after Robinson Flat and went way off course. He hung on for a while, but eventually dropped out at Michigan Bluff. He would, of course, return to fight another day, but his words that afternoon have lingered with me ever since.

You see, the thing is, there are some things fundamentally different about ultramarathon running that need to be experienced in order to be understood. Getting lost is one of those things. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects about being out in the wilderness, driving ourselves under our own power, is the sheer autonomous nature of the entire endeavor. As such, we are respected and admired as the rugged individuals we like to think we are and we need to take vigilant responsibility for getting ourselves through forests, mountains, and deserts without any outside help or support. Certainly, when a race course is established and an event begins, it is fair to have a reasonable expectation that there will be some rudimentary course markings that will allow us to get from Point A to Point B. However, there is and never will be an absolute guarantee of this. Any clear thinking person knows that there are countless unpredictable factors in a race environment that can quickly result in a course becoming unmarked and as such it is incumbent upon all of the participants to maintain a thorough and working knowledge and understanding of the race course prior to the event that will not only allow them to successfully complete the race (or find their way back to their car) regardless of course markings (or lack thereof), but will also keep them safe in the often wild and capricious environment they have chosen to occupy.

For me, and I would imagine many others like me, it’s pretty simple: Register for an event, study the course, understand your position in the order of things, and run the event. No blame, no shame, no misunderstandings.

Let’s face it, we live in a world where it has become commonplace to shift responsibility and deflect blame. Nobody seems willing and/or able to take direct responsibility for their actions. Yet here we are, engaged in a sport where we must, at all times and in all conditions, take direct responsibility for our actions or face potentially dire consequences. We, above many others, can stand as beacons of responsibility in a world of moving targets and changing rules. While event organizers will always strive to make their events safe and fun, ultimately it’s all up to us. Always has been, always will be. Isn’t that why we do it in the first place?

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Otter Creek Russian Imperial StoutThis week’s beer comes from a small craft brewery in Middlebury, Vermont. Otter Creek Brewery’s Russian Imperial Stout pours dark and thick and is both free and responsible. I suggest drinking it with a few friends as its ABV tips the scale above 10%. As it comes from Robert Frost Country on the road between Middlebury and Breadloaf, you can rest assured it is “dark and deep” with a few “promises to keep” and at least “5 miles” before you sleep.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • To what degree do you think it’s a runner’s responsibility to know the course he or she is running?
  • When was the last time you took a significant wrong turn in a race? Had you taken a look at the course map and/or turn sheet before hand?
  • Aside from knowledge of the course, what else should a trail runner know – be it race-specific or general – prior to stepping on any course?

[Homepage and archive thumbnail of Ueli Steck and Bryon Powell by PatitucciPhoto.]

There are 64 comments

  1. Coach Weber

    Certainly, when a race course is established and an event begins, it is fair to have a reasonable expectation that there will be some rudimentary course markings that will allow us to get from Point A to Point B. However, there is and never will be an absolute guarantee of this. Any clear thinking person knows that there are countless unpredictable factors in a race environment that can quickly result in a course becoming unmarked and as such it is incumbent upon all of the participants to maintain a thorough and working knowledge and understanding of the race course prior to the event that will not only allow them to successfully complete the race (or find their way back to their car) regardless of course markings (or lack thereof), but will also keep them safe in the often wild and capricious environment they have chosen to occupy.

    All due respect, but I disagree … for the 2-3 dollars per mile that races charge, I expect much more than 'rudimentary' course markings. I agree that as trail runners we will encounter situations where we must know the lay of the land and need to go with the flow when we get lost. It's not a big deal, but I prefer to get lost due to my own lack of attention versus the lack of course markings (or poorly placed markings).

    I remember at one of the first Hardrocks, I got hopelessly lost and wandered for hours as the flagging had gotten eaten by the wildlife (who'd have guessed those 'irrigation flags' would be tasty treats.).

    1. Coach Weber

      … funniest marking I ever encountered was years ago at Wasatch (another race I have yet to complete) where a dead cow was laying in a pool of nasty water and someone tied some course marking ribbon to it. I laughed for miles and miles.

    2. Scott Keeps Running

      "for the 2-3 dollars per mile that races charge, I expect much more than ‘rudimentary’ course markings. I agree that as trail runners we will encounter situations where we must know the lay of the land and need to go with the flow when we get lost. It’s not a big deal, but I prefer to get lost due to my own lack of attention versus the lack of course markings (or poorly placed markings)."

      Agreed. I think it is important to note that there is shared responsibility between RDs and runners.

  2. Jeff

    That happened to me about a mile from the finish of the Oil Creek 50K. I turned left instead of right and headed back out onto the course instead of towards the finish. Lost about 45 minutes and probably 20 places in the finishing order.

    My wife was suprised at how well I was taking it and I told her it's just part of the sport, it's your responsibility to know the course.

  3. Speedgoatkarl

    Trail races should be marked well enough so we can follow the route without having to look at a map. Like the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes. When RD's say you should study the map,know the course beforehand, it's pretty silly to think that one can remember every corner, turn, creek crossing. Confidence markers should be present, wrong way ribbons present. If a runner doesn't see a marker for say a quarter mile, they turn around. If runner keeps going in that situation, that's the runners fault.

    How many times has anyone studied the "course map" and remembered every turn? Noone.

    I've run many 100s "blind", I don't bother with a map, I just pay attention to turns. RD's who claim it's the runners responsibility to know each route, should pay for 2 weeks reconiscance (sp?) ?

    Half ass marking to save money on ribbons is silly. courses should be no-brainers.

    1. Scott Keeps Running

      "When RD’s say you should study the map,know the course beforehand, it’s pretty silly to think that one can remember every corner, turn, creek crossing."

      "How many times has anyone studied the “course map” and remembered every turn?"

      Agreed. If it's required that the course should be this well-known beforehand, maybe there needs to be a "LOCALS ONLY" requirement to show proof of residence within view of the mountain?

      1. Candice Burt

        Runners must know the course for their own safety and to clarify potentially confusing intersections. Confidence ribbons are good, but can be deceiving. I once followed "confidence" ribbons up a mountain, following the wrong ones though (I was doing the 50k, followed the 25k ribbons, if I'd studied the course I would have known). Just recently Max King missed a turn at Chuckanut because the course had not been marked yet at that turn, now that is the race directors fault. All turns should be marked ahead of time. When participants run right past a marked turn, which always happens, that's their own fault. Although as a race director, I put arrow signs at intersections where a runner might run right past it (straightaways with sharp turns off of them).

        1. Brian Todd

          I disagree about the RD beign at fault on Max's and Sage's missed turn at Chuckanut. The course runs uphill right past that turn relatively early in the race, and then comes back to that spot relatively late. It's definitely easier to see going uphill than it is downhill, but not if you're looking for it. And "looking for it" is a responsibility of the racer — at least in the sense of keeping your eyes open, not in the sense of keeping your compass and topo map out.

          I was a first timer on the Chuckanut course this year, and was looking for that turn as I ran (shuffled) up hill because I knew I'd need to know it on the return. The turn was ribboned well when I saw it on the way up. I'm not sure what the turn looked like when Max and Sage got there on the return, but it was roughly marked when I got there (probably a good 30-45 minutes after them). It was missable, for sure, but I wouldn't lay all (or even much of) the blame on the RD there.

          1. Scott Keeps Running

            From what I understand, it wasn't marked when Max and Sage ran by. Unfortunately, they beat the course marshals to the spot. It wasn't that the missed the marking, the turn simply hadn't been marked yet.

            1. Brian Todd

              "wasn't marked" and "hadn't been marked yet" are inaccurate. The trail was marked — you could see the ribbons on the way up and they were there on the way down, too. The narrative course description also described the turn – with italics for emphasis – as a hairpin and was available, with the map, for months ahead of the race. So, in hindsight, maybe there could have been more obvious "turn here" markers in the snow or a volunteer there, but it's hard to lay much blame for that one on the RD, who does a great job with that race.

      2. Scott Keeps Running

        If participants will NEED a map to navigate a particular course, then by all means make it a requirement to carry one on race day. I don't think anyone would argue with this (they just might not sign up for a course that that requires self-navigation, or one that lacks confidence in its own markings). CAPS in lieu of italics — I'm not yelling. :)

        But most races aren't like this. People are paying a lot of money to run some of these races, and I don't think it's unreasonable for participants to expect a well-marked course. That's not saying the runner doesn't have any responsibility (they do), but as Coach mentioned nicely above:

        "for the 2-3 dollars per mile that races charge, I expect much more than ‘rudimentary’ course markings. I agree that as trail runners we will encounter situations where we must know the lay of the land and need to go with the flow when we get lost. It’s not a big deal, but I prefer to get lost due to my own lack of attention versus the lack of course markings (or poorly placed markings)."

        Sometimes the mistakes are made by the runners, sometimes the mistakes are made by the RDs; it's a shared responsibility.

        The fact is, most races are well-marked, and there are relatively very few huge mistakes make by RDs or runners. God forbid something happens worse than a lead runner running a few extra miles after missing a turn.

  4. Hone

    If a course is properly marked and I miss at turn because I am not paying attention then it is on me. If a RD is charging a price for the race then I have expectations that it will be properly marked (unless it states otherwise on the website before I sign up). There are some lazy RDs out there. RDs should assume that some of the runners are flying in from out of town and will not always have proper course knowledge.

    I know an RD that ran out of flagging and so he did not bother to mark the last few miles of the course and almost the entire field became lost. Since he knew the course…he just assumed that everyone else did as well.

    Crap happens out there and a lot of stuff is situational though. If an animal eats the flags or if some punks take down markings then there is nothing the RD can do about that.


    This is what Keira writes about her races. I recently swept part of her Ray Miller race and was running around with a full garbage bag because she marks the hell out of her courses. I wish every RD would put in the time and effort she does.

    1. Hone


      "As such, we are respected and admired as the rugged individuals we like to think we are and we need to take vigilant responsibility for getting ourselves through forests, mountains, and deserts without any outside help or support."

      this quote loses some credibility if the runner relies on pacers and crews to "hold their hand" during a race.

  5. Trail Clown

    I ran the Malibu Creek 50K in 2004 and course vandals removed the markers at the very first turn, and this had us going up a steep paved road within the first mile of the race. We all followed like lemmings on the asphalt, even though the race is a Trail Race. A race official got in a truck and drove up the paved road and turned us all around. I remember running back down the road and being passed by all the front runners. The last person to pass was Jorge Pacheco (who had won the race many years in a row) and he ended up still winning the race despite running the most "Bonus" miles (that's the one time it pays to be slow). A 50K soon become a 50+K but I didn't hear too much complaining on the course or after the race…because word got out that it had been course vandalism. But if we had all gone off course because of poor RD marking, then I bet the grumbling would have been pretty substantial…

  6. Andy

    Sounds like we've returned to a former topic: autonomy. In my brief ultra career I've been fortunate enough to run races with great markings and not get lost (though it was very close at UROC and could easily have followed in Wardian's footsteps — hours later, of course!). On solo runs and non-race adventures the getting lost and navigation are part of the fun/challenge. But I agree with Karl and others that at a race it's impossible to do reconnaissance and know a new course well, and that we should rely on markings. Well-marked courses are the RD's responsibility, while using your brain and common sense to stay on course (or backtrack quickly if you don't see a flag) is the runner's responsibility. If you want to get to the post-race brew you'd better keep your eyes open because there are, indeed, "miles to go before (you) sleep."

  7. Anonymous

    I've personally marked about 50 race courses from 50 km to 100+ miles and have had some of world's fastest marathon and ultramarathon runners follow those markings to include Comrades Champion Charl Mattheus and World Marathon Champion Mark Plaatjes. My goal was always that if the runners could find the start (which seems to be oddly challenging for some :-) the rest was my responsibility — to include anticipating vandals or challenging weather. No excuses. Ribbon is cheap as are signage and other acceptable markings. No excuses.

    Designing a course that can be followed is also a prime responsibility of a race director. Here in California whre I now live, I avoid races that look overly convoluted (the RD is trying to fit in 3 or more distances and has directions like: do the red loop first, then orange, then go backwards onto the pink loop and so forth … ).

    Now, some races are designed to be more of a challenge than others. I remember coaching Allen Belshaw when he went for a win and record at the Plain 100. He went to the course and meticulously entered in GPS co-ordinates … even then, I think he had some troubles. That format is fine as long as everyone knows up front.

    Good reading and keep up the good work IRF and writers!

  8. art

    as long as the race is honestly portayed beforehand, it doesn't really matter how well or how poorly it is marked. if you get what you expect … its no big deal.

    yes I study the map of every course I run, carry a map (and turn by turn description if it exists) with me in every race. it only weighs about 5 grams.

    when possible (not always) I will do a training run or two on a new course.

    then, yes, there are the vandals, those who hate us and ARE out to get us. you should be familiar with the course for this reason alone.

    those who expect an urban type course in the mountains or wilderness, geeeez.

    those elites who want to be totally catered to and just run run run, well every once in while one of you gets lost, and, well, its your fault.

    1. Brett

      I would like to respecfully disagree with most comments and agree with Art here. I don't think its the end of the world if a course isn't marked with ribbons strewn all through the forest. BUT (and this is a big butt…like the size of Rush Limbaugh's), the level of course markings needs to be prominantly conveyed. If ribbons are at every turn, but only every 1/2 mile on the trail, say it. If only ever 1 mile, say it. Some people are very low key with markings, and some people obsessively put them everywhere like Christmas trees. As long as it doesn't create a dangerous situation and a course map and most obvious things like turns are marked I don't see an issue. Of course, in an ideal world there would be plenty of markings so you could just run.

  9. Sara

    In addition to flagging/marking the bejeezus out of a course, another good idea is to have someone who knows the course well brief some of the runners who they know will be up front on any key/confusing turns to watch out for, and the general layout of the course. If the front runner/pack gets it right, chances are better that others will follow correctly. (And if there is prize money, it is an extra layer of comfort for the race to help people stay on course.)

    I've seen both sides, it's tough for everyone. In general most runners have no remote clue how much is involved in RDing (work-wise, stress-wise and expense-wise) even one race, let alone doing it year over year over year. (Whereas almost all RD's know what it is like to race, and most do a pretty good to amazing job.)

    1. Coach Weber

      I agree that RD'ing is a tough way to make a buck. But, when one goes 'pro' and moves up from no fee get-togethers with locals to attempting to draw runners from across the country and have them pay to enjoy/compete upon your course, well, responsibility is yours. I see the race director as a tour guide … (no offense! … I love tour guides) … I am paying that person to show me some sights / trails I might never have seen.

      I also think that when a race director goes pro — is attempting to make money on their endeavor … whether they do or not is another topic entirely – there are no excuses for anything. It is the RDs job to anticipate and to make things right when (some) things go inevitably wrong. It takes a strong person to say "No excuses … I can and WILL do better … here's your entry fee back. Is there anything else I can do to make this right? (versus … "It's your fault".

      I respect race directors and runners and our sport, but once you start taking money, you're pro … and being pro brings a whole new level of responsibility.

      1. olga

        I agree in general there is a difference between a volunteer RD (who still tries always to bring their best) and an RD doing it as business for profit (no ill feeling). I say here, in Central TX, Joe Prusaitis sure raised the bar with marking his courses in anticipation of runners getting "stupid" (trust me, I do it all the time) and wandering off. It is especially important here because the trail system is so intertwined and criss-crossed (no vast point-to-point or loops). I like the idea of "paying for the guided tour". I do enough self-guided adventures that when I pay the fee, unless it's advertised as "find it yourself" (see Plain), I don't study the map (besides, I can't read any map, hardly even a road one). I prefer following markers (or signs on the highway). I still get lost aplenty, but that is entirely my fault (either talking too much, or getting in the zone and spacing out, but surely not going too fast to miss a turn:)).

  10. Scott Keeps Running

    If I'm running in the mountains by myself or with a couple buddies, then of course it's our responsibility to know where we are and to 'know the trail' as much as possible (even if, and maybe especially, when the entire point of the run is to explore new trails in remote locations).

    But the moment our running shifts from ultrarunning/trail-running to ultraRACING, the moment we pay money to someone to run their course, then the responsibility shifts as well. And I'm not saying it shifts entirely. Yes, we're still responsible for being a alert runners, for paying attention to the course and the course markings, and for knowing our comfort levels on the trail and in the wilderness (meaning we may not sign up for remote orienteering races, or races that require us to carry a map to get from the start to the finish, or races that have some history of runners getting lost), and yes there are acts of nature or vandalism in trail races that are often difficult to deal with. But, at the very least we should head out from the starting line with confidence that there is a well-marked course.

    We can go run trails in Norther Oregon or Souther Utah anytime we want on our own time. But when we pay someone to run their course in a state we've never been to or on a mountain we've never stepped on, we're saying, "Hey, we've heard a lot of great things about this particular route you've put together. Here's some money to support you going out and marking that course again this year for a bunch of us crazy runners. Some of us are just coming for a guided tour through the rugged country, others of us are actually coming to compete and race. Either way, from all of us: Thanks, RD, for adequately marking the course for us."

  11. MDP

    Chuckanut was a very well and lovingly marked course, except for that one turn apparently. Ouch. And what do you do if you put Down flour, then it snows.

  12. Cookrunbeer

    If you've ever run a Horton race, then you know you are responsible for learning that course (and not because its ill marked) but because up front you are told "dont be stupid" those words resonated with me.

    1. Scott Keeps Running

      I think there's a difference between

      "You need to know the course to be able to effectively navigate it."


      "You need to know the course because there are huge climbs and lots of sharp/slick/big rocks and ice-cold water crossings and thorn bushes and exposed ridges and rattlesnakes and possible thunderstorms and mud, so you better come prepared and knowledgable about what you're getting yourself into."

  13. Craig Lore

    Unlike some of my running friends, I don't typcially study the course map or directions, relying, instead, on a well-marked course to get me to the finish line. But now that I've read this article, my thinking has changed. While I do agree that the RD should make every effort to mark the course well and anticipate which intersections or turns may be problematic, there is a lot of unpredictability in a trail run that can't be accounted for by the RD or the runner. From this point forward, I plan to be as informed as I possibly can so that at the very least I won't make a wrong turn because I blindly followed the person ahead of me. In this country many people have come to expect that everyone else is responsible for our safety and well being and that we have zero responsibility for ourselves. In Europe, as I understand it, races routinely require runners to pack survival equipment, including among other things rain gear, map, and compass. I'm not saying we should all study orienteering and take survial courses, but Americans used to be known for our ingenuity and individuality, but now, some, at least, are becoming better known for complaining and assigning blame.

    1. Trail Clown

      As many other posts in this thread have noted, runners usually (but not always) reserve complaining and assigning blame to situations in which they've paid alot of money….Also, re: our national character, When George Washington was surveying in Virginia in the 18th century, he probably had very few people to complain to if he got lost. Americans used to be known for ingenuity because they were trying to tame a wild country. I think that's what draws some modern runners to wild locales and relatively unmarked courses…and these runners probably don't complain as much as the weekend warriors who pay for a race and expect to just be able to keep their head down and power all the way to the finish and collect a medal. Some runners really do appreciate Bonus miles (unless their spouse is waiting for them) and like the possibility of getting lost. I think the point of AJW's post is that we need more non-complainers…however, with all the money coming into the sport, athletes will want to become more and more coddled. The crusty old ultra-marathoner of old is a dying breed. Old school is on the way out, and the new corporate, risk-management-type race is the new way of things. Brought on by the money. Can't have it both ways…can't have Daniel Boone and Donald Trump in the same race. This is part of the reason I've been against all these huge prize money races…because it's now going to involve not just spoiled elites, but spoiled mid-packers too. Everyone will complain if they don't get the perfect experience for the money.

  14. Mark Forehand

    I am Clifden, Galway Co., Ireland, about 36 hours from running the Conamarra Ultra Marathon. I've never been here, the course briefing is 45 minutes before show time. There was no course map other than a very pretty demonstration from the 2007 course.

    I wonder whether my expectations are too much to expect to have the course marked appropriately? Maybe I need to memorize the turns? Probably not really possible this late as this race, like most good ultras is in the middle of nowhere western Ireland.

    I think I choose AJW's approach. If I get lost, I should cherish the experience, even if I did spend a lot of money to get here from Ukraine. One foot after the other is probably the best I want to hope for.

    Maybe I'm just too skeptical to expect perfection?

    1. art

      in your case I'd say you have a right to expect a well marked course.

      in my mind, an RD who provides no course map and turn by turns, is more remiss than one who does not mark the course well.

  15. Phil Jeremy

    Last year I ran an ultra in the Alps and I remember thinking at the time how well marked the course was and I intended to mention this to the RD. 4 hours later, I was lost and ended up 20k's in the wrong direction.The flour markers at an important turn had been scrubbed out by everyones footsteps. I had studied the course well and even though there were no further markings I still'believed' I was okay. Sometimes a tired mind just plays tricks with you.

  16. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    I participate in ultra-bike events where courses are not marked in any way. Cues are distributed before the race and GPS units have become the norm. Between the two it's difficult to get lost. I prefer it, actually. I can't tell you how many well-marked ultramarathons I've taken at least one wrong turn in, but I managed 2,780 miles of an unmarked mountain bike route without once veering off the dotted line. It makes me wonder if this kind of technology will come into play in other races. It makes sense that runners don't like to carry handheld GPS units, but navigational units are consistently becoming smaller, and many runners use GPS anyway to track their pace. It would be tough to require GPS for race participation, but I think offering .gpx tracks along with course maps and the promise of course markings would provide a lot of value, and remove a lot of that mid-race navigational anxiety.

  17. Matias Saari

    Needing to run with maps and instructions should be reserved for orienteering races.

    I've run all of two ultras (Quad Dipsea and North Face 50 in SF), studied the map and turn-by-turn instructions beforehand, and learned that it is completely unrealistic to retain most of that information during the event.

    Several times I nearly lost the trail because I wasn't focused enough on looking for course markings. My fault.

    But it is a reasonable expectation (regardless of the entry fee) that a course be well-marked.

    "Getting lost" may be part of ultra-running but a race director's negligence or laziness shouldn't be the cause.

  18. olga

    What about people who refuse using gadgets for the race? I rather have a turn marked 9and don't care for confidence markers so much) than carry an expensive toy.

    1. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

      I wasn't saying I don't think courses should still be marked. But a .gpx track is fairly easy to make and the RDs could distribute them for optional GPS use. I often end up carrying my expensive toys in most races anyway just to look at the maps. I know I'd appreciate having a track for my own peace of mind, and I'd be more inclined to participate in a race where .gpx tracks were offered than one that simply promised "great course markings."

      1. olga

        Still, then, if few are carrying GPS (which nowadays they are), it makes field of different advantage and fairness. In my mind, it should be up to an RD to provide whatever he does equal to everyone, and everyone play by the same rules. Like no aid outside allowed AS, no drop-off's for food and water, no pacing beyond whatever is in description…GPS does give a hand up.

        1. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

          True. As far as I know GPS devices aren't disallowed in any major ultra races. A motivated geek could use map waypoints to create their own track of the course if they wanted. I don't agree that GPS devices provide an unfair advantage, especially because their use is open to everyone.

          Personally I'm skeptical of anyone who enters a $250 race and claims they can't afford a $150 device. That's fine if you don't want to bother with it or have personal oppositions to GPS use, but if I ever saw a race that banned them outright I would avoid that race. I don't have much patience for retro-grumpiness.

          1. olga

            It's ok, I am not about to ban GPS, or music, or whatnot:) I think the important part of this discussion is that the safety has to be offered by RD in whichever means he advertises: course marking, maps, or GPS coordinates. Once it's on the website and promised, we choose the race to our liking and shall expect things to be as described.

            When I come to a race, I come to see what my fastest time is from A to B on this course on this day in this condition. I don't want to carry neither map nor GPS, even looking at the watch is a task for me, and I don't bother starting a timer. I am old school (or old fashioned, or simply old and primitive), and the only thing in my opinion I pay the entry fee for is safety, which comes in 2 ways: not getting lost, and being offered water where promised (however far, as long as I am aware of it). Food, gels, melons, vegan and gluten free soups, volunteers, live feeds, etc. – are all inconsequential to my personal racing theory. Adventure wanderings will see me looking at the map, trying to use a compass, carrying a pack of food and dragging someone with me so the cougar doesn't eat me alone:)

          2. Larry

            I can assure you it's not about affordabilty. ;) It's about opportunity cost. For us, that $150 is better spent as a contribution to one of the many 529 plans we have putting 3 kids through college or, even, towards another race entry fee. Hell, it could go towards an upscale hotel room after the race. Any time I've been "lost" during a race has been my own fault. I suppose my choice is "retro".

  19. NickP

    Agreed! There is no way you are going to remember where that turn is 80+ miles into a race…

    I have certainly spent my fair share of time off course, and have always thought that if almost all of the runners in a race can follow the marking it is my own fault. I think in every case I have been off course the turn was actually marked relatively clearly. Of course it is a shame to see lead runners go off course like what happened at chuckanut (and UROC last year), but if the rest of the runners are able to stay on course it is hard to place the blame on the race organization.

  20. speedster

    Living in a major metro area with a big obvious grid system rusted out my 'onboard' nav system over the past decade+. Google maps with roads, Garmins, and good luck with decent human navigators also caused me to lose a good sense of direction I earned from orienteering classes in school and camps when I was younger.

    When I started ultra, my first few 50k's in my metro area were road, and my first and second 100's on different courses were idiot proof. Then I met my first 'real' trail race, a north face 50, and duely had my ass handed to me; just an odd assortment of other mitigating factors though, not through getting lost.

    So when I doubled down and solo'ed blind a 4,4 in the Wasatch, (though not Wasatch) I was a little destroyed when I repeatedly got lost because the tape was between a full 1/4 and 1/2 mile apart in the late stages of the race. I made it through the couse in some 37 hours, well past the cut-off, but only after I had resolved to see the damn thing through so that when I came back the following year I would know how to slay it like the beast it is.

    I was then convinced RD had stumbled onto a rather masterful method of 'rehashing' a one time sale;)

    Live and learn. Now I have a trail Garmin, notes, Iphone, AND study the hell out of any course. It's a war out there.

  21. Hone

    +1 unless it is a race like Crow Pass where part of the fun is choosing your own line and bombing it down the backside of the pass. Also everyone is well informed beforehand that if you are not local you will get lost at some point during that race (shoot even locals gets lost).

  22. AJW

    Dear Readers,

    Thanks so much for all of the productive comments. But, I can't believe none of you have yet offered an opinion on this week's beer! After receiving all the IPA Hate Mail I finally caved and recommended the best stout East of Dublin and nobody even noticed. That's it, next week, it's back to the 100 IBU's:)

    Have a great April Fools weekend! (especially those in East Tennessee:)


    1. Craig Lore

      OK. I guess I wasn't looking all the way through your posts, but I finally found the "this week's beer" columns. And I noticed a disturbing (for me) trend: nearly all of your recommendations seem to tip the scale at 9-10% alcohol. Sorry, but I can't follow you into this territory. Since you mentioned a stout and Dublin, I admit that Guinness is high on my list of favorite beverages. Yet, even though it only registers in the 4% alcohol range, it is not short on flavor or character. If you happen on a really great tasting beer that doesn't soar into the alcohol percentage stratosphere–for beer–then I will pay attention.

      1. AJW


        Fair enough, but there are several beers in the reviews under 6%. The Seattle beer from a few weeks ago, for example, is a great 5.5% I've got several more 5%-7% in the pipeline.


    2. olga

      Russian beer does come with a few notches on the high end of the degrees. So does vodka. Try Baltika for real stuff, delivered (sold in US at some stores), comes light and dark.

    3. Mike Hinterberg

      While I join those folks on the maltier side of the fence, a Russian Imperial Stout seems like a few months too late (for most of the country)! Save that for the dark and snowy days! Would have been more appropriate after skiing, or a snowy Fatass event.

      Since the temperature was solidly in the 80s (F) today in the Colorado Front Range with plenty of sun, O'Dell's Levity ended up being a solid choice.

  23. KenZ

    I kinda disagree with the way you stated it, but am sure we agree in spirit. I don't care if a course is marked well, poorly, or not at all. What I DO expect is that I the RD has properly informed me of what I'm going into. Expectation management. If they say it's a well marked course and that's all, then it damn well better be well marked. If they say it's likely well marked but sometimes markers go missing, then that's what I'll expect and if I go off course it's my own fault. In one of the races I did in the UK (Ultra Tour Lake District), there were effectively no course markings: and they told you that! Everyone was totally fine with that though because of the expectation management. And everyone carried a course guide, map, and compass.

    So my summary is: I don't care how much the race costs per mile, I care about truth in advertising. Well marked, poorly marked, might be/might not be marked, or not marked at all: doesn't matter. Just give me some understanding of what I'm setting off to do.

  24. Jim Blanchard

    I recently ran a FA event with minimal course marking. The course was safely marked but not overmarked. We had two first timers and many folks that were unfamilar with the route. I told the RD afterwards that I thought this was a great introduction to Ultras because runners had to team up with another runner and start to rely a bit on instincts to follow the course. Watch for blazes on trees, determine the difference between a heavily used single track and a game trail sort of thing. I have noted that even on "no brainer" overmarked courses, folks [myself included] step right over the markings and wander off, maybe because that trail finding part of the brain is shut off. As long as the RD doesn't lie to me, all the rest is my responsibility.

    1. Jim Blanchard

      I should add that the 2 newcomers had the time of there lives and are now hooked on the sport. The old school version anyway.

  25. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    All good points. I've long thought that GPS tracks of race courses would be an awesome thing to have, but never thought to advocate for them until I saw this article. In racing I use GPS as a toy, mainly for fun — to give me a sense of where I am in the world and also for peace of mind. I like to look at the maps and learn the name of mountains, streams and lakes that I'm near. When I'm really bored or tired I zoom out the screen to make myself look closer to the end. ;-)

    I can definitely understand why people wouldn't want to buy or carry a GPS unit. I love mine because it quite likely saved my life once (I was lost on top of a mountain ridge in dense cloud and it was 39 degrees and raining … might not have lasted the night if I had to spend it up there, which I might have if GPS didn't point me in the right direction.) I'll continue to log extra bonus miles on well-marked courses without electronic maps because that's just who I am, and it's absolutely my fault.

  26. Ben Nephew

    My personal favorite example was when there was an arrow turned at the end of a short trail race that led to me running a much longer and more difficult route to the finish. I came through the finish from the wrong direction, realized that the arrow was wrong, and ran back up the course in time to fix it by the time the second or third runner came through. My present for doing that good deed was a disqualification for coming through the finish from the wrong direction.

    I have a good sense of direction and memory, but with ultras I find it pretty much impossible to know a course from a map, especially when racing.

    Some of the multi distance events, like the North Face races, need to realize that having to find your ribbon color in a multicolor bunch of 5 ribbons at the end of a 50 miler is not ideal. Even though I know the course, I still have an anxiety attack everytime I get to the last few miles where all the courses overlap with the ribbon bushes. Was that orange, or pink, or maybe red??? Wait, what color is the 50 mile course, does is switch at the end? I didn't see pink in the ribbon bouquet (it was probably buried somewhere in there), maybe I should turn back?

    The best course markings were in Ireland. The trail course was marked with about 100 military uniforms containing real solidiers that were providing hand signals at every turn. I wanted to hug them in the last mile when they were steering us to the best path through the bogs.

  27. El Jacob

    I agree 100% with the article. While WS is expensive, it's STILL in the nature of ultra running to know thy course regardless of the cost!!

    Everyone needs to HTFU and go run! ;)

  28. srlopez

    On Olga's recommendation, I bought lighter and darker Baltika. Party time at Casa De Stevie Ray.

    As for getting lost in the middle of nowhere, I have two words for you: Badger Mountain.

  29. Mega Mo

    I've been lost many-a-time, usually my own fault. I took a 10 mile detour at Oil Creek 100 last year. After the first 50k loop a buddy and I were chatting and we turned and started loop 2 without checking in at the start finish (we turned left when we should've turned right). Apparently, many other people did this, but I think we were the only ones dumb enough not to realize it and keep running. When we got to the first aid station (it was dark the first tinme we were there so it didn't look familiar in daylight), we had to double back to the start finish. We added 10 miles and 2.5hrs to the course! On the bright side, I finished my first 110 miler…

  30. Rob Y

    Sure it's unreasonable to think you can memorize the entire course by simply studying a course map and description before hand. That's why you PRINT THEM OUT and carry them with just in case you do go off course. Unless it's a course you're very familiar with (a local or multi-time finisher perhaps) I think it's very unwise to not carry these tools with you. Even the best marked course in the world can still be subject to purposeful or accidental vandalism or other unreasonable acts.

  31. Jacob Puzey

    Thanks for the thought provoking commentary. I've only done a couple 50Ks and have somehow managed to take wrong turns in at least half of them. None have made a huge difference in place or time and in fact I think once I had realized I made wrong turns it might have actually mixed things up for me as I tried to race back to my position. I agree that the athlete should be responsible to know the course. Also from an RD's perspective I know that there is only so much marking and monitoring that can happen the night before and morning of a race and then you've got to hope that who ever is leading knows where he/she is going and that those following are close enough to see the turns and follow the breadcrumbs. This is what makes the sport a bit more adventurous. Those that don't like it this way should stick to the track.

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