Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Hardrock 100 and the Worsening Problem of Race Demand Outstripping Available Supply

Today I looked over the roster of entrants for the 2011 Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run, along with the list of the 100 wait-list runners. The lottery drawing took place last weekend. My understanding is that those who are on the wait list have good reason to be hopeful. Congratulations to the lucky few!

Those weren't the only Hardrock lists I looked over. I also reviewed the list of the several hundred would-be Hardrock entrants whose tickets weren't pulled in the lottery. Damn, that's a lot of unlucky people who got disappointing news. I didn't count, but it looks like far more people didn't get in than did get in or at least make the wait list.

Running in the Hardrock 100, like the Western States 100, is a personal dream of mine. Hardrock is generally considered the #1 most difficult 100-mile race in North America, unless you want to throw Barkley into the mix. Hardrock brings a combined 68,000 feet of climb and descent--all at an average elevation of 11,000 feet with a high point of 14,048 feet. It takes place in Colorado's spectacular San Juan Mountains, which I haven't yet visited (but will hopefully this summer). I've heard people say it's the ultimate mountain ultra...and inconceivably hard with never-ending killer climbs, quad-busting descents and plenty of thin air. But Hardrock has something else--tradition, community and uniqueness.

Because Hardrock is so difficult, my plan was to work up to it over a period of a few years--first trying to nail Leadville a few times. Unfortunately, based on what I saw with the huge list of Hardrock lottery rejects, it looks like I may be waiting for a long, long time to get a crack at this storied, legendary race. By the way, even if you're elite, you still don't get special treatment with the Hardrock lottery. There are some amazingly talented runners whose name didn't get drawn. In a way, that gives me hope, because then I know my lottery ticket carries the same weight as that of the elites.

This issue brings to light the larger issue of demand outstripping supply in ultrarunning. I got into the sport in 2005, when demand was starting to sore soar (spelling corrected per reader comment). But now demand and supply are so far apart that you have a situation where people may have to wait years before they get into a race, unless they don't get in at all. The odds of getting into Hardrock and Western States are getting worse every year. Lots of big races are selling out in less than a day.

So what to do about this situation? Some options to consider--and please chime in with your own:
  • Tighten the qualification standards, especially for Western States. This will reduce the number of entrants and ultimately enhance the quality of the field. You should have to complete a 100-mile race within a certain time or win a qualifier to get into Western States.
  • Have multiple wave starts over a period of hours a la the Boston Marathon. For example, let the elite guys and gals start at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, with the non-elites starting in waves an hour or two later. This will allow more people on the course, provided the "authorities" sign off (more on that below). Granted, more people on the course isn't possible for some races, such as those in pristine alpine environments. Wave starts isn't a novel idea; the Boston Marathon does it and they have it down to a science. Technology can make wave starts very feasible.
  • For the above to work, you have to bring the forest service and related agencies to the table and get their buy-in on increased capacity. This is a tough proposition on two grounds: 1) The government is rife with backward, status-quo thinking and it's hard to get access to the "right" decision makers. 2) These are the same folks who assume trail runners are going to trash the joint. They need to know that most of us really respect nature and would never do anything to harm the trails or environment (unfortunately, littering was apparently a huge problem at the 2010 Leadville 100, though I didn't see much discarded trash). We are truly stewards of all things green and races actually work to nurture respect for the environment and increase awareness of our wonderful parks system. But for those jackasses who choose to litter, have stiff penalties for intentionally throwing crap on the trails, such as a lifetime ban from the event and a stiff ticket from the park service (I say "intentionally" because sometimes things can accidentally fall out of our pockets during a race). When I won the Mohican 100 in 2009, a few times I stopped--while in the lead--to pick up stuff (wrappers, etc.) I accidentally dropped. We're all bound to do that.
  • Add more races. This is already happening and it's probably the #1 tactic right now for trying to meet demand. But this tactic doesn't solve the problem of deserving runners not being able to get into the Western States 100, Hardrock 100 and other big races. On this point, I go back to the idea of wave starts. Also, there's an unintended consequence to adding more races. More races are going to work to water down the competition, which might irk a few. I can see how elites would be opposed to more races. They want to square off against each other on the biggest stages, get into whatever race they so choose, and contend for big prize purses. This exposes another huge issue in ultrarunning--the conflict between the wishes of elites and the wishes of the rest of us. I don't want to see ultrarunning fall victim to what's happened with Ironman triathloning, so I think ultrarunning should side with non-elites in the spirit of the best traditions of the sport. Which means I think more races should be added--but maybe we could have a Super Bowl of races for the elites.
Unlike a few out there, I ABSOLUTELY am 100% against raising registration fees to reduce demand. That is the worst possible idea. Ever. We want ultrarunning to be accessible to people of varying economic means. I can afford increased registration costs, but maybe the next guy or gal, who loves the sport just as much as I do, couldn't. We need to keep the costs of racing down and think of other innovative solutions for bringing demand and supply in better sync with each other.

Until then, my dream of one day running in the Hardrock 100 may just remain that...a dream. An unfilled dream bcause I wasn't lucky enough for my name to be drawn in a lottery.


  1. Seems like all races are getting more crowded. It's a good thing, your solutions seem reasonable to me.

    Freudian slip:

    "...demand starting to sore"


  2. Not sure if this is more a tangent than actually related ...

    I am learning more (or perhaps relearning) that the folks in the government are really folks like us. They don't see their thinking as backwards - but instead have a love of the land, much in the same way that runners do.

    It comes down to what different parties think is acceptable use.

    The most obvious local example I can think of this is Boulder's current debate of the bikes on West TSA. It ain't about whether bikers love the land more than hikers or runners or horse folks or dog folks anyone else. It is just that the same people who love the land can have very different views as to WHO should use it, IF AT ALL, and UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS.

    I get what you are proposing for spreading the use, but I am sure those folks who love the land there are thinking that if they allow a 1000 for this, spread across two days, they are going to have to do it for this other thing, and this other thing ... and they prefer to avoid that because they see it as loving the land to death.

  3. How about giving a psychological test to the race applicants. That way all those wishing to run a hundred miles in the mountains would have a fair chance. Only those absolutely off their rocker, or stone cold nuts, would be accepted into the race. Anyone sane, if any, would be excluded.

  4. I think Leadville is a prime example of why you do not want to have 800+ runners trampling a fragile alpine ecosystem. The damage that is caused by hundreds of runners traveling over a fragile ecosystem (Hopes Pass) is detrimental. In addition, the amount of trash I saw last year at LT was good evidence that ultrarunners are not good stewards for the environment. I can't imagine the damage 1000 runners would do to the HR course, not to mention all of the family and crew. I have applied for HR twice and am 0/2. I am more than happy to keep applying until I finally get in if that means that HR has a manageable number of runners.

  5. Paul: Thanks for the correction!

    George: Good points. Wave starts and more runners wouldn't be appropriate for all courses and events. Loving the trails to death--good way of putting it. But this is public land....

    Anonymous: There has to be a little bit of craziness in someone to want to run 100 miles, and even more craziness to actually do it.

    Gangels: Your point about the 2010 Leadville Trail 100 is well taken. I think maybe wave starts and more runners aren't appropriate for some fragile alpine environments. I know it takes years for tundra to come back from trampling. I don't think Hard Rock should allow thousands of runners...but I do think we need to find a way to break the log jam. Also, I think for alpine races like Leadville, Hardrock, Wasatch, etc., runners should receive some education on being good stewards of the environment--and there should be stiff penalties for littering and damaging the environment. I think littering at Leadville in 2010 was a problem because--and this is a theory--you had so many runners out there who read a certain best-selling book, didn't really understand what ultrarunning is all about, and attempted a race they should have worked up to without any real knowledge of what it means to ne a trail runner and ultrarunner. Many of these runners probably DNF'd. I can tell you that any dedicated ultrarunner I know would NEVER drop trash on the trail. It is shameful, immoral and unsportsmanlike. All things I know you agree with based on your comment. Thanks!

  6. Another thought: What if at every race runners had to sign a PLEDGE not to litter or damage the trail or surrounding environment and to turn in anyone they see breaking these rules? Call me naive but I believe a pledge means something to people. Bottom line: People need to be empowered and educated to do the right thing.

    Another thought: Each race gives away 2-3 free entries to designated sweepers who run the event, but agree to pick up any trash along the way. I could see this role being very appealing to older ultrarunners.

  7. Leadville is a tough place to use the "trash" issue. Wyatt makes a great point, that many read the book and wanted to try running 100 miles. Many of them likely road runners who run 10k's, drop their plastic cup after the aid station and don't think twice about it. Pikes Peak Marathon is another place you see a ton of trash because these people (not all of course) are used to dumping their garbage on the road where the volunteers pick it up.

    We dont' see garbage at Mt. Blanc, 2300 runners and nothing, because these people are ultrarunners, and have to qualify with a points system to get in the race. They are stewards really.

    Leadville is also known to me as one of the races that is money hungry and will take more and more if they can get a permit. No prize money with all the entry fees in my opinion is evidence of that. Western States is the same way.

    Go to Hardrock and you will not find a lick of trash on the route, in an aid station, anywhere. HR is the leader in stewardship which all races should follow.

    More runners at Hardrock would not necessarily "damage" the trail, it would create one where we currently step on some tundra. Some of the route is "cross country" and is unavoidable to walk or run in an area that is sensitive. They keep the numbers down because if there are only 140 runners going over these areas, they grow back quick. Having 1000 runners in my opinion would create a trail that everyone would stay on, much like Mt. Blanc. Noone walks on the tundra because they follow the beaten path. Just my two cents.

    I pick up wrappers too, and I"m sure I"ve dropped a few without knowing it. If we all do our part, it would be a perfect world.