Rules And Why We Have Them

An essay on balancing rules and the egalitarian nature of trail and ultrarunning.

By on February 2, 2018 | Comments

AJW's Taproom“We don’t much like rules around here and, as such, at this race, we don’t have many. In fact, the only ones we do have are here to keep you safe and to make sure we can have the race again next year. Aside from that, we don’t really care what else you choose to do in your run across these mountains.” These are the words of John Grobben, the long-time race director of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile, spoken each year at what has to be the briefest and most to-the-point pre-race meeting in ultrarunning.

Grobben has presided over Wasatch for the better part of two decades and has done so with understated grace and the rugged individualism that is common in his little corner of the American West. His general disdain for rules aligns with many of his peers in the Rocky Mountain region and is, in many ways, characteristic of the ultrarunning community in general. And that is what concerns me about recent events in ultrarunning. Events which have seen runners cut courses, hide out in port-a-potties, and degrade the environment. Perhaps I am naïve and these things have always happened and I just haven’t noticed. But, to be honest, before now, I erred on the side of the good hearted belief that I didn’t have to.

Certainly, over the years, we’ve had ebbs and flows with rule breaking in the sport, including switchback cutting, littering when gel packs first came on the scene, occasional misunderstandings about exactly where runners were allowed to be aided, and even what products, if any, were prohibited on course. But the recent rules breaches seem more like blatant cheating and less like the honest errors of newbies who don’t know any better. To be frank, it just feels wrong.

For as long as I’ve been in the sport, ultrarunners have largely policed themselves. We support each other when we go off course, engage volunteers so they can more productively do their jobs, and work with race organizers to not only provide the best running experience possible but also to perpetuate a culture of community which is, quite frankly, perhaps the most compelling reason increasing numbers of runners have joined our ranks over the last decade. All that being said, however, recent examples of premeditated course cutting, deliberate and sometimes elaborate schemes to subvert guidelines, and intentional environmental destruction has the potential to put our sport at risk. Ask just about any ultramarathon race director out there what the greatest risks to their events are and at or near the top of their lists would be having their permits revoked. It’s a brutally simple calculus, if the organizations and agencies who manage the lands through which we run simply decide they don’t want us there anymore, then they can just cut us off, immediately and irrevocably.

If the stewards of our lands are concerned about environmental costs, and most justifiably are, then why would they support events in which the participants don’t pick up after themselves? If the agencies supporting our races have reputational concerns, and most justifiably do, then why would they support a sport where basic rules like following the marked course or adhering to clearly articulated expectations is becoming more and more common? The truth is, we need these behaviors to stop, and we need them to stop now.

I, for one, am sad to see that the lists of rules and regulations at many of our events have become longer and longer. And what makes me even more sad is that the days of rules existing simply to keep runners safe and provide sustenance for future events seem to be long gone. Nowadays, unfortunately, many of the rules we’re forced to implement are there to protect the sport from corruption, cheating, and greed. That is not the sport I first signed up for back in 1992.

On the walls of every classroom in my school here in Virginia, we have posted a very simple, four-part honor code. It reads:

I will not:

  1. lie
  2. steal
  3. cheat
  4. tolerate the behaviors of those who do

As we attempt to navigate this new era in our sport, I am calling on all of us–runners, race organizers, volunteers, media, fans, and friends–to strive to not tolerate behaviors that run counter to our community culture. We have seen too many other sports contaminated by the ‘everybody’s doing it’ mindset and we should do better. We have always valued the collective good over individual excellence and while we all love our heroes, let’s please not love them at the expense of the rest of us. Ultrarunning deserves to be valued as the simple sport that it is. A sport for all of us. A place of unadulterated egalitarianism. An activity that enlivens us all from the first runner to the last in the shared love and passion for testing ourselves against ourselves in the cherished environment we choose to call home.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Funky Buddha Brewery Last Buffalo in the ParkThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Florida’s award-winning Funky Buddha Brewery. The Imperial version for their popular Last Snow Porter hit the shelves last year and is a huge hit. Last Buffalo In The Park Imperial Porter tips the scales at a whopping 11.5% but amazingly does not taste at all boozy. Rather, this smooth, smoky Porter is one of those that just melts in your mouth. Try to get your hands on one before winter is over!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Do you have ideas for how we all can effectively and empathetically navigate these issues going forward so as to attempt to eliminate them but to do so in a constructive way that fosters and supports our community?

[Editor’s Note: Since this is a topic of sensitivity, we invite you to read iRunFar’s comment policy before joining the conversationYou are welcome to debate and disagree, but we ask you to do so constructively. Thanks.]

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.