Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's time for the USATF to stop ignoring ultrarunning

Few may know that last Monday, Sept. 13, USA Track & Field announced the firing of its CEO. Here's the official release from USATF, and here's a Washington Post story. (Regarding the press release, don't you just love the white pickety fence approach big organizations take in announcing negative news? In this case, the USATF board announced that a new CEO will be hired, more or less glossing over the fact that Doug Logan has been axed for doing a really bad job.)

I'm no USATF insider, but it seems to me the organization is at a crossroads. Among USATF's biggest responsibilities is to field a highly competitive Olympic team. But the scope of the USATF goes way beyond world-class athletes and bringing home gold medals. The USATF is a member organization and, the more members it has, the stronger and more relevant it will be.

I'm a member of the USATF, and what do I get for it? Not much. USATF puts out a really crappy magazine that barely interests me because it says not a word about ultrarunning. The problem with the USATF is that it's failed miserably to engage its members--people like you and me. Consequently, the organization is stagnant. Others feel this way, too. And, the USATF really couldn't care less about one area of the sport that is growing like a weed--ultrarunning and trail running. Yes, road racing has exploded in recent years, but so has trail running and, in particular, ultrarunning. Because of a best-selling book, more than 800 entered this year's Leadville Tail 100. Your chance of getting into the Western States 100 the first time around is about as good as a snowball's chance of surviving a second in hell. Nearly every ultramarathon has seen huge growth, and every year we're seeing scores of new races. Is the USATF paying attention to what's happening on America's trails?

Despite ultrarunning's explosive growth, the USATF gives lip service to the sport, not celebrating its biggest stars, not telling stories of those who toe the line, and really doing very little to promote ultrarunning. Furthermore, the USATF applies a set of one-size-fits-all rules to ultrarunning championship events that are quite nonsensical. If that's not enough, the USATF ultrarunning championship races fail to attract all or even a majority of the sport's top talent.

I'm all for the USATF having championship ultrarunning events, but these events must attract the sport's top athletes (bigger purses, travel accommodations, etc.?) and they must have rules that lure ultrarunners of all abilities. Did you know that in USATF ultrarunning championship races, runners who participate in the championship cannot have pacers, nor can they wear headphones? Also, in a USATF championship race, you have to be a member of the USATF in order to participate in the championship, and thus you have to follow all USATF rules (including no pacers) or you will be DQ'd. If you aren't a member of the USATF, you can still run in the event, but you are not eligible for the championship, and you can have pacers and wear your iPod unlike the USATF runners. Gee, I wonder which set of rules is going to be more attractive to newcomers to the sport?

So in a USATF championship event, you have two sets of runners--USATF members and non-members--each with different rules.

I have no issue with pacers being banned at USATF 24-hour championship races since these races are usually on well-lit loop courses and held in a very controlled environment, but I do have a problem with pacers not being allowed at USATF 100-mile trail championships. Pacers in 100s provide safety, first and foremost. In the dark hours of night, it's a good thing for a wary 100-mile runner to have an extra set of eyes to help him or her stay upright and avoid danger. These vital functions of a pacer can be done without providing unfair aid to the runner. The USATF doesn't see it that way. It also thinks headphones provide an unfair advantage and are dangerous. Whatever.

For the newcomer to the sport of ultrarunning who has decided to take on a 100, why would they ever participate in a USATF championship when they can't have a pacer? Yet that same runner can have a pacer if they run the race as a non-USATF member. How is the USATF ever going to grow when its rules place it a great disadvantage in attracting new members?

I hope with its new CEO--whoever that might be--the USATF rethinks its approach to attracting new members, places an emphasis on promoting ultrarunning and applies a set of rules to ultrarunning championship events that make sense, further the sport and at the same time bring new blood to our governing organization.

As the USATF CEO search committee interviews candidates, two words should reign superior. RELEVANCE. GROWTH.


  1. I forwarded this post to the communications team at the USATF, and I haven't heard back yet. When you have a blogger who's lambasted your organization online, you should respond. Ridiculous.