A discussion about the challenges of having and enforcing rules in trail and ultrarunning.

By on March 20, 2014 | Comments

Of the many problems that can keep a race director awake at night, dealing with rules infractions might be the thorniest.

As an independent thinking, live-and-let-live kind of guy, I don’t like a lot of rules. But I also understand that even the freewheeling trail running community needs some structure. I’ve been on the Board of Trustees for the Western States 100 for the past 22 years, and boy, there are a lot of rules at Western States. The race program lists 16 rules for runners, 11 more for pacers, and yet another 15 for crews. Many of the Western States rules belabor the obvious (each runner must complete the entire course under his own power). Almost all of the others are the result of some overly inventive runner trying to create a competitive advantage (runners may not store supplies of any kind along the trail). Among Board members, these rules are often referred to by the name of the original offending runner.

The problem with a lot of rules is: once you have them, you have to enforce them. This is exacerbated by the inability to apply one of the basic rules of jurisprudence: the punishment should fit the crime. Race organizers generally only have disqualification–the moral equivalent of the death penalty–to fit any and all crimes.

At the recent Transgrancanaria 125k, a mountainous trail race in the Canary Islands, overly zealous race officials at first disqualified both the winner, South Africa’s Ryan Sandes, and ninth-place finisher Dylan Bowman of San Francisco for minor rule infractions. [Editor’s Note: To be precise, the disqualifications (and eventual reinstatements) came from the Federacion Canaria de Montañismo, the governing sports body for this race and other sporting events on the Canary Islands. In this race’s case, neither the race administration nor the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the international ultrarunning tour that this race is a part of this year, had say in or control over the federation’s decisions.] Sandes’s transgression was a failure to produce the mylar space blanket that all runners are required to carry. It turns out he did have it, but simply didn’t understand the request to produce it at one of the checkpoints. Bowman was initially DQed for not having his bib number showing at the finish line. His number had been torn from his jersey by a shrub (they obviously have some pretty aggro shrubs over there); he had it in his pocket, but it was not properly displayed when he crossed the finish line.

After appeals, both runners were reinstated. But suppose Sandes had inadvertently failed to carry his space blanket. Although one might reasonably argue about the necessity of carrying a space blanket on an 85-degree-Fahrenheit day, it is one the race’s rules. Most of the ultra-trail races in Europe have similar requirements. Sandes clearly deserved the win, coming from well behind to beat the runner-up by nine minutes. Disqualifying him for such a minor infraction would be like being thrown in jail by airport security for failing to remove the coins from your pocket before going through the X-ray machine.

Many years ago I was in New Zealand on holiday. My flight back to the U.S. was canceled and I was re-booked on the next available flight three days later. This turned out to be a stroke of good luck, as it allowed me to enter a 50k in Auckland that I had seen a flyer for–a run that was scheduled for the day after I should have left the country. Upon arrival at the start, I discovered that the race was the New Zealand national club championships. It was a small race and the local runners were all delighted to have an American in the race–they could no doubt tell with one glance that I wasn’t much of a threat. But the two officials from the national federation were altogether another matter. Both were older gentlemen, nattily attired in very official looking blue blazers with a prominent logo on the breast pocket. They had that officious self-important air of upper-crust public school Englishmen. I was able to produce a valid USATF card, showing I was a member in good standing of my country’s governing athletics body.

“And what club are you representing?” asked one. “Pamakid Runners Club of San Francisco,” I replied, hoping they weren’t going to ask for proof, as I had none.

“And what might your club’s colors be?” the other one asked, eyeing me skeptically. “Ummm,” I stuttered, looking down at my horribly mismatched outfit–the only remaining clean running clothes I had at the end of a three-week holiday. “Red and blue,” I said, and then looking down at my shorts, “and black.”

They went over and consulted a third official and I was allowed to run. As it turned out, the runner who finished one place in front of me was disqualified for wearing navy-blue shorts when his club’s uniform called for light blue. For the record, the Pamakid colors are green and white. And to this day, the 3:49:19 from that race remains my 50k personal best.

At the 2010 Lake Sonoma 50, Bob Shebest missed a turn off the main trail that should have taken him a quarter mile down to the first aid station and then back up to the main trail. (Runners getting off course are also high on the list of things that keep race directors awake at 3 a.m.) Not realizing his mistake, he continued on–now in the lead–until Hal Koerner caught up to him a few miles later. They chatted and Shebest realized what he had done wrong. He arrived at the 25-mile aid station where I was, certain that I would disqualify him on the spot. “Just do the out-and-back to the aid station twice on the return trip,” I told him. He did, and eventually finished third.

In 1990, Dan Williams finished Western States in 18 hours, in sixth place. Ferrying their small kids around on a very hot day, his wife drove down to the Rucky Chucky river crossing so the kids could cool off in the American River. She knew that she couldn’t actively crew Dan from there, but wasn’t aware that merely driving down the public road to the river crossing was a rules violation. The Board was openly split between feeling a need to enforce the rules on the one hand (“what if everyone drove to the river”), and the recognition that the punishment was far greater than the crime on the other (“no real harm was done”). Williams, a very popular runner who had already finished Western States six times, was disqualified by a 6-5 vote. This decision so rankled the minority voters that it was revisited four years later–with cooler heads, the passage of time, and a somewhat reconstituted Board–and Williams was reinstated. (One of those small kids playing in the river that day was Williams’ daughter Christina. Now 30, she finished Western States in 2013, and was paced part of the way by Ann Trason.)

The point here is that common sense should prevail. The problem is that most of the time race directors only have a choice between complete disqualification and ignoring the infraction altogether. I don’t think most of us have any problem with a disqualification for flagrant rules violations such as cutting the course or aggressively rude behavior. But failure to carry a space blanket? Common sense dictates something short–well short–of complete disqualification.

But what?

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

Before we begin our discussion, we want to make a call for civility. We expect that we will all have differing opinions and you are welcome to share them here. We ask that you speak respectfully with each other and about everyone referred to in this column, using constructive criticism and fair debate tactics should you wish to join the conversation. In advance, thank you!

  • Should the letter of the law be enforced or should other standards of justice prevail from time to time?
  • Should races create and state penalties other than disqualification for certain infractions?
John Medinger
John Medinger is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.