Governing Bodies

A discussion of the role of governing bodies in ultrarunning.

By on September 5, 2013 | Comments

Ultrarunning holds its values in high regard. In a sport like ours where people are fiercely proud of authenticity, the topic of money is quick to attract naysayers. Many people think the influx of money means that runners will start competing for the wrong reasons, that they won’t hold the same values as the core community of runners do today, and that the core community will become less of a community and more a field of war. Ultrarunning’s values are based so highly on things like camaraderie, friendship, integrity, and appreciation of wild and beautiful places. That fierce competition and an influx of money is often seen as a corruption of what is most dear.

This fear seems to be escalating with the creation of governing bodies within the sport such as the recently announced Ultra-Trail World Tour that are perceived to be motivated by profits and control of the sport. These governing bodies are sometimes seen as avenues through which powerful corporations will control our idealistic sport. The very best of ultrarunning seems to be at risk.

But you know what? I can fix this right now. I have the answers that will avoid all negativity and keep the sport the way people want it. I know the facts that will make all of this okay.

Fact 1: You don’t have to let any system take control.

Simple as that. The Ultra-Trail World Tour may be good and it may be bad. That’s your opinion. On the one hand, it may unify the sport and streamline the competitive races into a single series that will benefit both the fast runners and the fans of the sport. On the other, it may be a poison that attempts to incapacitate free will and force people to do things their way. Regardless of any of that, though, you don’t have to be part of that system if you disagree with it.

So you learned enough to formulate an honest opinion on the subject, and you hate what they are doing? The solution is to just not go to those races. There are hundreds of races in America and abroad that have nothing to do with any kind of governing body, all of whom would love to have you. I ran the Breck Crest Mountain Marathon just this last weekend on a whim, signing up the Friday before the race, and I had a great time! They put on a small event with great trails, great aid, great people, and outstanding views, and you have likely never heard of it. That’s because the Breck Crest is not part of any big series. And there are hundreds of other races just like that.

The bottom line: if you don’t want to support or be part of a particular style of racing, then don’t. Ultrarunning is a product of the people who take part in it. And that brings me to the next major point.

Fact 2: Your choice of where to race is a vote in the direction the sport should go.

Here’s a problem that could arise: what if your favorite race is part of the series that you don’t want to support? If, for example, a hypothetical runner doesn’t like the UTWT , but loves Western States more than his or her own family (not uncommon, I believe), he/she will have an ethical problem. On the one hand, he would do anything to run Western. On the other hand, if they doesn’t want to support the series of which Western is now a part, their decision to race is going to be very difficult.

My answer is this: since every person’s race choice is a vote, this person will have to vote for what he believes in the most. If he dislikes the series enough, he should abstain from running Western States until it is no longer part of the series. If enough people who feel similarly do the same thing, the race will get the message and revert to its former non-governed ways. But if he decides to run Western anyway, despite its association with the series, the race organizers will see no reason not to continue with their new course of action. The direction will be maintained. We must race in accordance with our values.

Fact 3: You can do exactly the same thing as any governing body.

The solution to these problems comes from the same source as the problems themselves. The Ultra-Trail World Tour is a big deal with a lot of powerful backers, and this makes them seem official and in charge. But if you look closely enough, you’ll see that they are nothing more than a group of people with similar views who wish to promote those views on a large scale. That is an admirable goal. What this means is that you can do exactly the same thing. If you don’t like something about the sport, if you think people are littering too much or competing with too much attrition or losing their values, if you feel that races are too big or expensive or any other of the million ways that any race, big or small, could be doing wrong, then start your own race. Explain how you feel and what you want to do differently. You will likely find lots of people who feel the same way.

As a personal example, I just started the Telluride Mountain Run with Reese Ruland. What really excites me about the future is that we can take our race in any direction we want. If we want to be part of a series, we’ll join right up. If we want to stand alone and act as a bastion of independent events, then we’ll just stay right the hell out of any governing body. We guide the future of our race with our values and beliefs and hopes, partnered with feedback from the people who’ve participated. Our race, like any other, is a result of the people who run it. Their vote counts the most, even if that vote is just to continue to be part of the event.

Another, albeit extreme, option is to quit competing entirely. You don’t ever have to race again if you just want to run in the mountains with your friends. That’s as admirable as any other course of action. The only difference is that by abstaining from racing entirely, you are also abstaining from your vote in how the sport should grow or change. If you have read this far down this article, I suspect that you have strong feelings about ultrarunning because you genuinely care. If you’re passionate about ultrarunning, then please, don’t leave us. To leave is to give up, and we need most the people who care.

Fact 4: Any governing body will only have what power we give it.

The UTWT is by no means the first attempt at a governing body within the sport of ultrarunning. USA Track and Field, the International Association of Ultrarunners, the Montrail Ultra Cup, all these and more have attempted to provide a multi-race structure. Probably the series which has taken root best is the Skyrunning Federation, which hosts several difficult races throughout the year all over the world. They feature a point system which allows for runners to compete with each other over multiple races for a grand prize at the end of the year.

Skyrunning, like most other governing bodies, is essentially a middleman. They partner with existing races and create an outside structure, but they don’t actually direct the races. But unlike some of the other series, Skyrunning hit the right chord with its demographic, which is mostly European. The Euros in general like steep mountain races, and Skyrunning is dedicated to partnering with the steepest, toughest mountain races in existence. Because of this, people can run races they would run anyway, but in doing so they get to compete for much higher stakes than if Skyrunning were not part of the series.

If the Ultra-Trail World Tour can really honor its stated goals–to bring together the greatest competition in beautiful places, honor different cultures through shared interests, partner with the most storied events around the world to showcase their different styles, and provide every type of runner the opportunity to do well on their preferred terrain–they could potentially do something amazing. The fear is that those high-flown values could be a front to make a few people a lot of money through control of the sport.

As a competitive runner, I expect I will participate in the series to some extent, if only to try it out, because I want to believe that they really are trying to do what they say. The quality of this series or the lack thereof will become apparent within the first few years. Right now everything is up in the air. This could go either way.

As the sport grows, attempts to create a governing body seem inevitable. Rather than a disjointed collection of races spread throughout the year, people want to see a streamlined series that will conduct runners into the most “important” races if they wish to compete against the best. This is an admirable principle, but it can be taken too far. Triathlon, for example, is so hindered by governing bodies that performances are often forgotten in light of arbitrary points systems that often seem based more on politics than ability. That sport has created a bottleneck with the Olympics, which are highly valued by competitive triathletes. The Olympic Committee is in charge of who gets into the Olympics, which gives them power because they control the only path to the goal. In a situation like this, personal biases and petty differences are quick to take precedence over actual merit.

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about mountain running in the Olympics (ultrarunning, perhaps, but long-distance road racing is only a small subset of the sport). Our playing field is still broad enough that no single organization can tell us what to do. One of the greatest things about ultrarunning is, as AJW put it, the “we’re all in this together” ethos. That’s why this is such a sensitive subject, most of us feel that we are part of something authentic and real in the world of ultramarathoning, and we want to protect its values. If you look at the stated goals of most governing bodies, they are only trying to further this ethos by creating stronger structures that bring people together. But they don’t get to say how people should race unless we let them. I would love to see the UTWT do all that it has set out to do. But at the end of the day, our choices will determine their success or failure. We are still the guardians of our own values.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Dakota wrote this article because he thinks our community needs to ponder the bigger picture of what governing bodies mean to ultrarunning and to remind us that we have a stake in what our sport is and should be in the future.

In order for Dakota’s intended discussion to occur, all comments must be civil and constructive. If you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face on a trail run, it does not belong in a comment here. Discuss; debate; establish logical courses of action. Please do all of this in a kind, respectful-to-all manner.

Additionally, we’ve had several days now to debate what we’ve learned about the Ultra-Trail World Tour, so this venue, Dakota’s article and invitation for conversation, presents a great opportunity to look at the idea of governing bodies from a more wholistic perspective. We, thus, encourage you to direct your comments to the idea of governing bodies in general and not the UTWT specifically.

Thank you!

  • Governing bodies are not new entities in the sport of ultrarunning, yet the introduction of the UTWT created vociferous response from the community. Do you think this is because it’s the first new governing body to introduce itself since the massive expansion of trail and ultrarunning began several years ago? That the others, which have been around for longer, are now accepted as status quo? Or do folks’ opinions originate out of some facet of the UTWT itself and its differences from other governing bodies already operating?
  • Governing bodies of all kinds seem to be largely oriented toward the top end of the field, though they have trickle-down effects into the rest of community. Thinking about the other, already established governing bodies out there, what trickle-down effects do you feel within our sport, if any?
  • In the past, there has been room for both independence and governing bodies in our sport and keeping this diversity is likely a concept our community values. What can we do to help maintain this diversity?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.