Race Directoring

Dakota Jones writes about what directing the Telluride Mountain Run means to him.

By on August 10, 2016 | Comments

Dakota Jones - Salomon column sponsorship[Thanks to Salomon for supporting Dakota Jones’s column on iRunFar.]

Let me tell you a little bit about the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, Colorado. First held in 1978, it is based on an apocryphal bet between miners in 1908. Apparently they got to arguing about how fast they could run from the bar to the top of 13,066-foot Kendall Mountain and back, and this argument escalated into a full-blown chest-pumping let’s-do-it-right-now sort of challenge. So they went for it. The miners were a strong bunch, and they went straight up the avalanche chute, which is not always easy to follow, especially if you’ve been drinking. Out of the many participants, one guy completed the effort in just over and hour and a half and won the bet. Several more took several more hours and had to pay out. One guy fell, hit his head, and actually died up there, they say. The run became a story so often told that it turned to legend, the legend inspired the race, and the race continues to this day. The only difference being that instead of going straight up the avalanche chute, runners now traverse the more circuitous road, which gets to the top in about six miles from town and features fewer potentially fatal obstacles.

There’s something about a story like that which gives a race a certain credibility. As if races need a reason to exist, and a hundred-year-old legend is better than someone trying to capitalize on a sport’s rising popularity. In one sense, I did the latter when I started the 38-mile Telluride Mountain Run in 2013, in Telluride, Colorado. There was a market, and I started a race. But there were a lot more reasons than just to make money. For one thing, I quickly found that putting on a race doesn’t really make you any money. But that’s beside the point; I wanted to organize a race that exemplified my idea of the perfect race. I wanted to combine the excitement and hype of the big European races with the solitude and self-reliance of the American wilderness. That’s why I started the race in Telluride–it’s a small town in big mountains, where we could start and finish with high fanfare on Main Street but run all day in remote mountains. Telluride has the infrastructure and the terrain for the perfect mountain race.

As with many ideals, this one began to change nearly as soon as I tried to implement it. The first issue, and still one of the most challenging, was dealing with the myriad agencies that manage the land. It’s actually quite difficult to wrangle a deal that agrees with about 10 different groups who work independently on overlapping land. The town of Telluride has a different agenda than San Miguel County, who works in tandem only part of the time with the town of Mountain Village, which is only partly encompassed by the Telluride Ski Resort, who has only a little bit to do with a host of mining companies in the area, and so on. The overarching authority is the US Forest Service, who needs permissions and insurance from just about every person who has ever lived in or lost a loved one in Telluride, and they have the authority to deny you the permit almost without notice.

It’s easy to demonize such bureaucracy, but it exists for a reason. Telluride is a popular place that sees a lot of tourism, and the people in charge are tasked with protecting both the land and the unique culture of the town. It’s a hard task, and that is what ultimately led to the major change of my ideals. I had compromised the first year and avoided the big downtown start because of time and money constraints, but I was hoping to get enough popularity and momentum to do that in the future. But after a year or two of starting at the base of the mountain with little fanfare, I realized that I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to host a big-deal mountain race that drew the world’s attention. At the Kendall Mountain Run this year, I walked up to the packet pickup 45 minutes before the start and got a number and a “good luck.” Then I ran as hard as I possibly could and got a good burrito at the finish. I found that I didn’t want anything more from my race experience.

That idea has persisted. I don’t want to arbitrarily celebrify the runners, or to excessively glorify the beautifully simple act of running in the mountains, all of which inherently constructs a barrier between runners and spectators. My goal is to get a lot of normal people together to do something really challenging in a beautiful place. Hopefully their accomplishments will inspire other people to challenge themselves in their own ways, which I think is best accomplished by creating a system that gives people the opportunity to do something inspiring (the race) in the most accessible manner possible (the low-key part) and then having everyone hang out together at the finish and get to know each other (the after-party.) I’ve come to believe that I don’t want my race to be much more than a great course and a fun after-party, with some free stuff thrown in.

This was really put into perspective for me while marking the course this year. I stood at 12,500 feet on the top of the third climb with my co-race-director Greg Poettgen and looked out over an extraordinary expanse of alpine tundra. The weather was uncertain all week, and the clouds swirled above us, dark and unpredictable. Below us ranged the detritus of human persistence–mines and mining towns now exploded by time and weather. “What did all this mining really accomplish?” asked Greg, and I had no answer. Through the mines snaked a road well traveled these days by jeeps and tour companies, who take people high into the mountains to see the wilds of the Colorado high country. Those jeep tours make a profit. Presumably the mining did too, at one time, or it wouldn’t have been undertaken on such a grand scale. Though small, the Telluride Mountain Run turns a profit as well. All of this is based on use of the land.

I could put on a high-profile mountain race that draws the world’s great mountain runners. I could partner with the International Skyrunning Federation and start our race downtown and attract sponsors to give out big prize money. The mountains and the town certainly have the potential to host a race that could in time be as legendary as the story of the Kendall Mountain Run. From 12,500 feet, though, that seemed silly. I want my race to glorify the mountains, not the runners. We search not for self-aggrandizement but to measure ourselves against a place that is much greater than we will ever be. I choose obscurity over an artificial egotism. I feel that this is the true spirit of the mountains–respect, challenge, and camaraderie in a harsh and beautiful environment. The Telluride Mountain Run is small on purpose.

So why host a race at all? This is a good question, and one that I have not been able to reconcile. Perhaps these ideas will someday lead to me phasing out the race altogether. But so far I can’t put out of my mind the looks on peoples’ faces when they finish–the simultaneous relief and pride. I can’t ignore the comments about this being one of the most beautiful and enjoyable races many people have ever run. Our runners gush about the Telluride Mountain Run, and that has little to do with our organization. The course, almost unique in the world, does all our advertising for us. This contribution to the mountain-running community, this example of my personal conception of the perfect race, even if it only affects 75 people each year, is enough to sustain me, for now. But my mindset has evolved a lot in the process of directing my race, and that won’t stop. At least I hope not.

There are a lot of things to consider in putting on a race, lots of moving parts. Aid stations, food, water, communication, marking, prizes, volunteers, and much more. This is the How. Before all that, there are a lot of things to consider about the reasons for organizing a race at all. Culture, environment, money, experience, people, and much more–this is the Why. The How of a race is by nature going to be based upon this Why, and this is different for every race director. For weeks before the race, I lose sleep worrying about all the important things I must be forgetting. I struggle to manage all the aspects of race directoring. The rest of the year, I struggle to manage all the reasons for race directoring. But right now, the big reason is this: the mountains give people a great sense of fulfillment. I get to provide the structure for that to happen, and it’s enough.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a race director? If so, what inspires you to do what you do?
  • What kind of experience do you strive to create with the race(s) you direct?
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.