Freedom With Responsibility

A discussion of the degree to which it’s a runner’s responsibility to know the course he or she is running?

By on March 30, 2012 | Comments

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.]

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.