Great Expectations

Okay, everybody, I am afraid it’s time for a little rant here in the Taproom. I have been ruminating on this for a while and I think it’s time that I offer up a little challenge to our ultrarunning community in 2015. I know this may rub some people the wrong way but I need to get it off my chest. And, there is no time like the present to do it. So, here goes:

It’s high time we all reduce our expectations. Big time.

When I came into the sport in 1995, it was a simple time. We showed up for races, paid our entry fees, and ran the races. We expected a reasonably well-marked course, aid stations every couple of hours, and a little appreciation at the end. We also knew that there would be volunteers out there supporting us, typically a beautiful environment to provide sustenance, and often a race director working his or her butt off to make sure everything ended without incident.

It was the culture that mattered.

Call me old fashioned, call me a curmudgeon, and call me elitist, but I ask that we strive hard to not lose that culture. I fear some of what I loved when I got here is slipping away. Therefore, in that context, I challenge all of you to do your part in 2015 to sustain and maintain the culture those of us who’ve been around awhile have grown to love. Yes, I am asking you to listen to us old folks!

Too often over the past couple years I have been struck by the entitlement and greed that has crept into our sport. Too often it seems to be less about what we can give than what we can get. From race swag, to course markings, to aid station food, to post-race entertainment, we have become victims of our own success. And, nobody is immune. Sponsored athletes expect more appreciation, race directors expect more understanding from parks officials, volunteers expect some kind of specific reward for their labors, runners expect to be fully catered to, and even iRunFar followers have come to expect better and better race coverage. And, worst of all, when our expectations are not met, we are increasingly willing and able to openly, crassly, vociferously, and anonymously criticize whatever it is that has failed to meet our expectations.

From where I sit it has, quite simply, become too much.

I ask us all to take a step back. On the shoulders of those who came before us, I ask that we all take a good, hard, long look at what it takes to do what we do. What it takes in terms of money, man hours, environmental consequence, and societal impact. Then, I suggest we all find one thing, one simple thing, that we can do now, today, to support and sustain this extraordinary culture that is ultramarathon running.

Sure, the growth in the sport has been great. It has driven thousands into the mountains and allowed our heroes to make a living doing what they love. It has made a lifestyle into a life and made the improbable possible. In fact, that is the root of what we do. And, if we’re not careful, mindful, and thoughtful, it could be lost and the probable could become impossible.

So, in 2015, let’s celebrate the roots and the leaves of what makes ultrarunning great. What can you do as a start, today?

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

For the first Beer of the Week of 2015, I am going with a Lagunitas Brewing Company favorite. From their little brewery in Petaluma, California, these guys produce a great beer called Lagunitas Sucks, a Brown Shugga Substitute Ale. To be honest, I don’t even know how to describe it, but it’s good. At 8% ABV and 63 IBUs, it’s balanced and honest, like the sport I’ve grown to love. Happy New Year everyone.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

As AJW said, his thoughts might incite debate, and that’s great. Disagreeing opinions are welcome, however, we do ask that you do so in a constructive way. In advance, thanks so much!

  • AJW wants us all to do one thing today to help ensure that trail and ultrarunning stays the sport it started as. What will you do today?
  • And, what will you do in the coming year to help our community continue down this path?
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 (42)

  • I would agree, in part. This is somewhat inevitable. Look at tri's. You can watch them on TV. It seems like everyone I know is doing them. Soon they will be just like a half marathon, 10K entrants each weekend. But with ultras there is at least more of a barrier that can't be faked, I don't see 'sprint-ultra's' coming to your neighborhood anytime soon.

    But I would like to use your platform for a rant of my own, that somewhat supports your rant.

    I love running. I am great at many things, I am a published author in my field, I make an insane amount of money to do my job, most of which I would do for free. I have a wonderful family and life. But I love running for its purity. There are no gears helping me up the hill. I have no handlebars to lean on when my shoulders are exhausted. There is no seat. It's only me. The thing I love about ultra's is that after a certain point I feel closer to God. My ego has given up control, at least until the next aid station. I have managed to prove to my ego that it really isn't the source of Divinity and it lets go, and then I get dry heaves in its final retaliation. This closeness is not something I can achieve until I prove to my ego that I CAN keep going even after it has told me another step will kill me, which I only feel running ultras.

    Now for my rant.

    I spent last year trying to fix a nagging injury that is about five years old. So I didn't run a single race, but I did volunteer at several. All inter-state ultra races. I volunteered to work aid stations and to sweep. I have to say that most of RD's do not appreciate the value that volunteers provide. Some of the bigger races here in AZ treat volunteers as if they should pay for the privilege to be a volunteer, others do a great job at supporting their volunteers. One race in particular turned me off to volunteering ever again. Part of my injury is related to my EDL, and dorsiflexion of my foot. So to drive for two hours one way at 4AM to find out only hours later after driving back home that the race was called during the night was really upsetting to me. But the attitude and excuses I got afterwards was something I will not forget. I was basically told we didn't have time to notify the volunteers, and then another RD from CO on Facebook told me I needed to 'calm down'. That cemented for me. I won't mention the race name because I know people that like it, I even paced at it the year before and it is great challenge. But the attitude from the RD's was something that I will not as person put up with. Honestly, if either of them would have said what they did to me in person I would have reacted violently, and I don't say that to be a tough guy but because I know how I am and how passionate I am. So the holier-than-thou attitude by some RD's needs to be put in check. My wife volunteered at all of the aid stations with me and she loves it, we get to spend time together and she loves acting zany and meeting new people so she is perfect for aid stations. But we won't volunteer at any races other than Aravaipa. Jamil and Nick are more experienced but you get from both of them the appreciation they have for the volunteers, at least we did.

    I haven't been doing this since 1995, but if this disease continues to spread people like yourself will find something else to challenge them and Nissan or Rangar will take the place of Zane. There needs to be some humbling and more appreciation for what the runners like me do, who no one knows their name and only one person is really clapping for, or most people who can do something else, will and it will become something we no longer recognize.

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    • Having no RD experience to back myself up but from having run for a while, I can say that RD's sometimes need to make a decision for the well being of everyone, even if it's not popular. The RD you mention (anyone who knows anything about AZ running knows darn well which RD and race you are describing) needed to make a decision, and quite possibly a minor cluster*&^ may have ensued, but in the chaos of such an event it's understandable. Maybe some people's egos were bruised and feelings were hurt, but I'm sure nothing was personal and the right decision was made. In the end everyone made it home safe and sound. I think it's less of a 'holier than thou' attitude (which would be way out of character for this guy), and more of a leader making an unpopular decision and a few people getting their feelings hurt.

      Second, sounds to me like you have some issues, dude. It seems like you need to listen to AJW's advice, eh?

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      • I'm the Colorado RD who told you that you need to calm down. And.. now that I've read what you've written here.. I'll say it again.. you need to calm down.

        We as RD's appreciate the hours of support volunteers put in to support our races. Races cannot and DO NOT happen with the dedicated few. I agree, some races make it sound like volunteers should be paying them for the honor of supporting other runners. However.. I ran Mogollon Monster. The RD was stationed at Washington Park. This location had absolute ZERO cell or internet reception. His MAIN priority was to ensure that all runners, volunteers, and spectators were safely cleared from the course. He, or his assistant RD, never even got into town (cell and internet service) until well after midnight and I'm sure his last thought, was to make sure everyone else knew the race had been called, but by then.. you could have discovered that information pretty freely on Facebook.

        I agree with Hillrunner above.. you need to listen to AJW's advice. This sport is about the greater community. EVERYONE. The safety of ALL. Not catering to what each and every single individual wants and desires. Because with so many people here now.. it's entirely impossible.

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  • Good post AJW...I've been in the sport a long time, ran my first ultra in 1986, 1st 100 in '98. What Deb and I do to help preserve the originality of ultrarunning is we put on many free, no frills gathering of runners in the mountains and woods. Sometimes this is all it takes....organize a run and they will come.
    Happy New Year!

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  • I've only been doing ultra running for a little over six years but the sport has changed a lot in that time. And I think the issues you bring up are unfortunately a general symptom of the entitlement society we live in. But I have also found there are plenty of people and events who 'keep it real" (Wasatch 100 comes readily to mind). I think integrity wins out in the end. Look at all the upheaval with Leadville. It's good to ask the questions about how we want the sport to look. Thanks for bringing up a point I have heard talked about a lot the last few years.

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  • Excellent article!

    I love the low-cost/free, low-key events, as I really enjoy getting together with my ultra friends to play on the trails and roads. I organize a fun race at quite a bargain price. I don't think I've raised prices in about 5 years.

    Cheers to old-school ultrarunning!

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    • I completely agree

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  • LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, AJW HITS THE NAIL ON THE HEAD ONCE AGAIN!!!! Well done, sir. Well done!!!

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  • Gratitude helps keep it real - from me to you and you to the next person, if they are a volunteer, runner, CEO or the RD's kid - just keep it real with a smile and a "thanks". Oh, and all the swag, I don't want any of it. I don't need any of it and you can keep it or even better donate it to some worthy need of the world. Thanks to all who put on great races, RD's and Volunteers and general vagabond who hangs out at the race and claps for every person.

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  • I would love to hear the name of just one sponsored runner who feels they deserve more appreciation than what they are getting. Time and time again we all read that some elites have an entitled attitude. I've only met a tiny handful of sponsored runners, but every single one has been extremely gracious and I have not gotten an entitled vibe off any of them. With how social media works now days, we can all pretty much get an idea of the type of personalities of all the elite sponsored runners. I have yet to witness a single entitled attitude from any of them and I'm kind of an elite ultra runner stalker. Can we please stop adding the sponsored runners into the rants of how the culture is changing into an entitlement attitude. Thanks. Now as for the rest of the pack, maybe it's just a West Coast or Mountain change going on. I'm new the last few years into ultra running, but in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan (where I have raced), the only entitled runners I see are a very small percentage of the "old school" ultra runners. The runners who won all the races in the 80's, 90, 00's. Not a lot, just a tiny few who come off as having the attitude that they are better and deserve the attention or special treatment. Other than that, in our area there doesn't seem like a greedy entitlement feel at all. A little tongue and cheek reference, maybe it's the same attitude that keeps all the trail race series West of the Mississippi. Maybe we should feel lucky the greedy entitlement community hasn't affected this area. Every race I've run, the volunteers, race directors, and fellow runners have been spot on.

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  • "And, worst of all, when our expectations are not met, we are increasingly willing and able to openly, crassly, vociferously, and anonymously criticize whatever it is that has failed to meet our expectations."

    Your own expectations have not been met; thus your post becomes a self-fulfilling example of the critical environment about which you write. It seems to me nothing has materially changed since the 90s, but for the fact that there are more runners, coupled with social media. The vast majority of folks are cool. The trails remain open to the fast, the slow, and everything in between. For most runners, this is all that is needed. The rest is noise.

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  • So, what's the problem here? Really, I don't know what it is. If it's just a plea (wrapped up in old school folklore) to stop complaining so much to RDs, well then okay. But has anyone reading this ever heard of anyone complaining about "post-race entertainment"? And isn't SWAG more about company promotion, and a selling point for the RD, than all but a few runner's desire for it?

    Having run only 15 ultras, maybe my scope isn't broad enough for input here. It's just that I've never seen anything but a bunch of cool people gathering together and really getting into their experience. And the volunteers are beyond amazing!

    So it may not be like "the good old days", but it's still now, just like it was then.

    Anyway, just babbling. A sweet year to all! :D

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  • Thanks for going out on a limb - a good rant makes for a good read!

    There were indeed some provocative thoughts; here's what came up for me - - -

    "When I came into the sport in 1995, it was a simple time."

    I ran my first ultra distance in 1968. It was even simpler then - I'd never heard of an "ultra" or of anyone doing anything of the kind - near as I could tell it was only me.

    But so what?

    It can still be like that. Don't like "commercialization"? Then don't partake in it. Don't like "greed"? Then don't be greedy. Personally, I don't like crowds, so Peter or Jared and I will go off someplace where we don't see anybody all day - we're usually relieved when we finally do! The sport of ultrarunning is exactly what we make it - it is our own choice, every minute of every day - to think it's something that exists out there and it's wrong and we need to fix or control it is not correct.

    The tone here seems to want to harken back to a golden age of ultrarunning. Of course there wasn't, isn't, and never will be any such thing. Maybe there was a golden age for you. That's understandable, that's great, I've felt that way before, but please note that the word "entitlement" could be applied to criticizing others who do not share one's own world view based on ones seniority.

    "Yes, I am asking you to listen to us old folks!"

    Speaking just for myself - and I'm so old I sat next to Confucius in the third grade - I do not ask that. I ask that young people to do what successful cultures have done for millennia: Find what is true for them. Then I want to listen and learn from them, less so the other way around.

    Everyone reading this will create the "sport" of ultrarunning next time they go for a run. No one can dictate our own experience; once we realize it's our choice, we simply need to make it a good one. If I were to be so bold as to make one suggestion in order that everything we all care about will turn out fine, it would be this:

    Understand, respect, and be kind to nature, your community, the person next to you, and your own heart.

    Best Wishes for the New Year! BB

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    • You get it, Buzz. It's probably why you don't write a column! Please do keep the sage observations coming in one form or another. When older dudes speak and it's interesting and not about them or their vision of a "perfect" world (i.e. their world) and not about their past exploits, we learn, laugh, and smile.

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  • When has running become so much of a drag? Seriously, why can't people just go out and run and enjoy being active. When I go to a race the only expectation I have is that I am going to run no matter what.

    I personally haven't seen anyone complain except the usual "That hill sucked" or "Damn, it's hot".
    Lets use common sense and thank the people that work so hard to make races happen.

    I have no point to make, just trying to say that people should just calm down and run.

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  • This was a very interesting post to read. Having come from the triathlon world back when it was weird and humble and all about community - and having left that world when it became about bikes and bank accounts and better than - I look a the ultra world and see the possibility of the same thing happening. It makes me wonder if MUT can keep its roots and not become the new CEO brag-de-jour.

    Fortunately, as Buzz said, you can be a MUT runner and never do a race in your life. You can just go out and run somewhere that you love, you can try and set an FKT if you're a fast guy or gal. You can make it what you want it to be.

    If you like racing then just don't give money to races if you don't support their ethos. If you want to see a certain version of the sport flourish, then support the races that represent those values - regardless of their prestige - and don't pay money for races - regardless of their prestige also - that don't align with your values.

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  • Seems like you're just taking yet another angle on the "changes in ultra running" topic. Just let it go AJW. It's pretty obvious by now that iRunFar is progressing with its coverage and scope, and as a weekly writer you are part of that. So, there are going to be changes that are in parallel with this progression. As a "new ultra runner" myself, I have to admit that it gets a little offensive when we are repeatedly subjected to this proprietary attitude towards the old days, as the language can be interpreted as exclusionary because you were supposedly there first. It's like skiing in a big resort town...just do what you love and give it you're all and drink your beer instead of worrying about all the fancy people in their fur coats bitching about the quality of the seafood in a mountain town. Worry about what you and you only are able to control.

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  • Oh, you're worried about greed in our "sport"....well, I hope you never turn on the flat rectangle also called TV where they display what they call "football", "soccer", "basketball" where some player earn more per year than some africa's countries GBP !!!
    Let's all please have a little bit of relativity here, we're talking "trail running", not some kind of very popular sport.
    I am not surprised to see that some people expect "too much", the trail running population is only the reflect of our modern society, just like in every other sports. What's the surprise here ?

    So now what's your "perfect" trail running community ??

    Yes, I can also rant about things!

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  • Last year at Hardrock I was sitting in the Ouray Hot Springs the day following the race when I saw Jeff Browning (one of my favorites). As I was getting out I spoke to him and told him that I enjoyed watching him run. He thanked me and asked if I had ran. I told him I was just watching and doing a little running getting ready for Wasatch. After we talked a while I explained to him that I was concerned about my quads being that I don't live in the mountains. Jeff gave me some advise and I went straight home and began putting it to use. I think his advised was the reason I was able to finish my first 100.
    My point is in what sport do you get to approach the guy that just finished 4th overall and 1st American (I think that's right) in one of the sought after races in the world. I hope the young guys keep this same attitude as the sport progresses. Thanks Jeff!

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    • What was the advice?

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  • People run for different reasons. While "culture" may be something you care about, I doubt many who entered the sport in the last ten years know what that is or give a s$&@ about what's important to your running experience.

    This sky is falling bs has been around much longer in climbing, and the good news is that the younger generations ignore the old whiners and re-invent the game as they see it. Always have, and always will, as they are do-ers. And the "old guys" ( not 40 something year olds) will still keep complaining as they get left behind.

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  • At last year's TJ100k the RD gave out a bottle of beer as swag. This year it better be an entire case... and I expect Mick Jagger and Robert Plant to be singing a duet of "in the eye of the tiger" when I cross the finish line. See you in March Andy!

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  • I've also been running ultras since the early 90's. I think that if you look, you will discover that "the good old days" are still here. What we are seeing is an increased diversity of ultra running experiences that is the inevitable result of the increase in its popularity. There are several popular and well known ultras that, after having paced at them, I decided I didn't care to run myself because the associated hoopla wasn't my style. No disrespect meant to those who enjoy the hoopla, but I'd rather run the smaller events that feel more like most of the events felt when I started. And there are still many of them out there. I think this increased diversity is a good thing for ultra running, even if I don't like every event it has spawned. But I certainly agree with AJW that we all need to show some love to our volunteers!

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    • There's something for everyone.. and that's a good thing.

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  • I like the topic. Nothing in this world can be great without the people involved be supportive and generous and having consideration for others, including offering well-intentioned critiques rather than harsh criticism.

    I guess I haven't seen firsthand a lot of the complaining and great expectations. Of course, running with the VHTRC I am ridiculously spoiled! Incredible, selfless people sure make our sport a joy.

    I did hear some complaints about the aid at a certain fall 100 miler. However I think that runners counting on having fluids available at every aid station and some food other than cookies after running all night is a far cry from "expecting too much."

    For my part, I will continue to volunteer at races throughout the year, express my gratitude to everyone involved in making the races I run possible, give out smiles freely and host a free fat ass 50k in the beautiful West Virginia mountains with my co-RDs as a way of giving back. Hope to see you there, AJW!

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  • I think if you read through the comments AJW, youi're going to see that Ultrarunning hasn't really lost its way with the culture or grown into a crazy monster, but it may just be you that have lost your touch with ultrarunning.

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