Your Race Sucks

Genís Zapater is the prototypical [phrase redacted, October 26]. He’s standing before me wearing a giant puffy jacket and calf-length tights that seem to be painted on. He flips his long, dark hair to the side and rubs his beard as he talks, then puts one leg up on a chair so that the bulge in his crotch is even more uncomfortably obvious and starts playing with my water bottle on the table. “Yeah man, you know the San Juan Solstice [50 Mile]?” he says. “Yeah, I ran that, man, and it was like, so much running. I couldn’t take it.”

I assume there are three reasons he might be saying this: one, because San Juan Solstice is well-known among Colorado, USA runners for being one of the state’s hardest 50 milers and he wants to contrast that with his own version of hard, in which case he is affecting a false naivete in saying that the race is hard because it’s runnable, not because it’s steep; two, he knows I ran one of my best-ever races there and he’s trying to diminish me through that same false naivete; or three, he’s making simple conversation that he thinks I can relate to, and has no ulterior motive at all. But as I made clear with the first sentence of this article, I’m committed to thinking of him as the prototypical[phrase redacted, October 26], despite what eventually amounts to almost overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Genís’s conclusion about San Juan Solstice points at a general assumption in mountain running that is based on a spectrum from bad to good in which elevation change is inexorably connected to quality. Therefore, the worst possible race has zero elevation change, but there’s no ceiling to what’s good because more vertical is always good. Basically, more steep = more better. New races in particular have a tendency to rely on this value system, especially in Europe where they have both insanely steep mountains and lax management systems that permit races. A few examples off the top of my head are the Ronda dels Cims in Andorra (170 kilometers, 13,500 meters vertical), the Red Bull K3 in Italy (9.7k, 3,538 meters vertical), and the Glencoe Skyline in Scotland (52k, 4,750 meters vertical). Genís and his people also feel strongly that going “off-trail” is always a good thing, but since these super-steep races are almost always held in high alpine environments, that’s usually assumed.

By this definition, the San Juan Solstice 50 in Colorado really is puny by comparison. It only has about 4,000 meters of climbing in 80k, which ain’t shit compared to the previous examples. (Sorry about the metric, I’m trying to be consistent.) It does have the advantage of high altitude, but a well-acclimatized elite runner should in fact prove Genís right that SJS is actually very runnable. (Plus it’s on trails the whole way, my God!) My point is that being runnable doesn’t make a race necessarily worse. Despite being a mountain person who would get stomped in a road marathon, I nevertheless think of myself as a trail runner–key word: RUNNER–and I welcome the opportunity to leave the ground with both feet occasionally during my mountain runs. Genís’s definition of a good race relies on a quantitative value system that is actually quite materialistic, insisting on a more-is-always-better doctrine that disposes of ambiguous experiential opinions in favor of numbers. But numbers often have no connection whatsoever to memory or experience, which are two reference points that mean a lot to me personally. There are many criteria of quality to a trail race, and our collective inability to put these judgements into a box and sell it is one of the things that makes our sport so great.

But despite all this, the reason I’m talking to Genís at all is because I’m at a race that exemplifies his version of “good.” It’s called Els 2900, and that’s such a weird name that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize how straightforward it really is. The word “els” is a plural “the” in Catalan, and the point of the race is to climb seven peaks in Andorra higher than 2,900 meters. The race is called “The 2900.” Duh. And what makes this race unique, in addition to such unexpected cultural lessons, is that it has no course. You are required only to start and finish at designated places, and to reach nine different waypoints en route. Along the way there are two “bonus sections” (AKA exceptionally technical/aesthetically pleasing tidbits), which feel more like requirements to me because there’s no bonus for doing them, but you definitely get penalized with extra time if you don’t. Finally, you have to do all of this with a teammate.

Oh yeah, and to get to the start, everyone has to climb 1,300 meters (4,200 feet!) up to a refuge. That’s in order to start a race that averages 70k and 6,500 meters of vertical. Fortunately, you can get two meals–lunch and dinner–at the refuge, and they’ll even fill up your water bottles and sell you a beer before the midnight start!

Obviously this isn’t a normal kind of race. In fact, given the pre-race hike and the shared meals and the 25-team limit, this feels less like a race than a communal adventure, which is exactly what the race directors are going for. Matthieu Lefort and Carles Rossell intentionally created a race unlike any other in order to both share their favorite kind of adventure and to promote a specific mountain culture that they feel is lacking in European trail running.

“We feel that there’s too much hype and money going on in trail running now, and we want to get back to our roots,” says Matt. Apparently, those roots are related to the mutual values and camaraderie that prevails in many mountain refuges. “We want to create a special atmosphere for the runners that brings everyone together,” Matt continues. “That’s why we only allow 25 teams. If we wanted to make money, we would mark the course and make the race individual and have 250 runners, but that is not our vision.” In short, their version of a good race is one in which ambiguous qualities like sportsmanship, camaraderie, and respect take precedence over considerations of profit and popularity. They also revel in altering minor course requirements each year so that nobody can repeat the same route, which makes times and distances pretty much moot.

But their ideas don’t seem to be shared by many trail running brands, whose standards of a good race apparently are more about spectators and return on investment. Matt told me they actually turned down some sponsorships in order to preserve their sense of autonomy. “They want us to have helicopters to film the race and they want us to allow 10 or 20 elite runners of their choice and so on, but it’s not part of our vision, and so we said no.”

Matt has a soft French accent and uses the word “vision” a lot. “Even the country of Andorra told us outright in the last meeting that we are not part of their tourism strategy because we are so small and we refuse to start in the towns,” he said. The country does, however, contribute a small sum of money to the race, and Matt’s goal is to convince them that numbers are not the measure of success; instead, there are cultural values he wants Els 2900 to represent for the larger trail running world. He seeks to set a value standard through cultural prestige rather than size. Though to hear him talk about it, they haven’t had as much success in this as they would prefer: “I don’t know, man. It’s hard to have a race like this. It’s expensive.”

But it’s also awesome. My teammate was Nick Elson, the best Canadian runner you’ve never heard of, and we had a really good time running the race, as far as these things go. I mean, it was extremely long and hard, and the many off-trail, rocky, loose, steep, and sidehilling miles were often frustrating, and also we chose a route that had like 13k of pavement, and I kind of bonked going up the second peak around 3:30 a.m., and the wind up high got pretty cold around dawn, and we both fell down a few times… But yeah, besides all that it was great. We literally climbed all the highest peaks in the country in a single push, and at the end we got to traverse the “Malhiverns Ridge,” which I’m convinced has a few Class 5 moves, and the views were just stunning. And as Matt said, the camaraderie between runners and the atmosphere of the race in general were truly unique. It’s the kind of race designed to bring out the best in people, not through suffering alone but through sharing challenges. It’s difficult to distinguish between races that are hard for a reason and races that are hard simply because they can be, but I think Els 2900 does the first better than most.

After the race, I talked to Genís for a while and was frustrated to receive not only effusive congratulations on winning, but also several invitations to come stay at his house, to use his climbing gear, to have this food he was eating right then because I looked hungry, to learn Spanish with him, and more. Turns out Genís is the kind of guy who is easy to make fun of when you don’t know him, but now I like him and that makes generalizations more difficult. It’s the same with the races he likes–maybe he’s a bit overbearing about his presentation, but his opinions are no less valid than my own. Races are different everywhere; it’s what makes trail running so great. Whether a race is steep or runnable or friendly or profitable is not a distinction of better or worse. Those are just markers for people to use to develop their own opinions based on their own values. I know this doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but even that fact is good: I hope we never change the sport so much that it’s easy to explain. Just go do the kind of running you want.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What makes up a “good” race for you? Do you prefer short or long? Technical or nontechnical? A lot or a little elevation change? Big or small? What kind of atmosphere? Or, do different kinds of races suit you at different times?
  • Do you think there’s space in trail running for races of many kinds? If so, what steps do we need to take to preserve different kinds of racing formats?