Monday, December 28, 2015

On the State of Ultrarunning

So this is going to ramble a bit. Accept it for what it is--a post that goes in many directions: PEDs, "Gordygate," etc.
It's hard to believe that this blog launched some nine years ago. In the past probably two years, I've been challenged to think up good, compelling content for posts because--well, to be honest--I'm not sure writing about what I do with my running is all that important or interesting. In some respects, blogging about one's self seems kind of narcissistic, and over the years the exercise has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Then again, as a writer, I believe in the virtues of journaling. There are some journal-style running blogs out there that I read daily and find great interest in because, in my eyes, they have value in their content. So, what I ultimately tell myself when I'm questioning the value of this blog is that it's probably reaching at least one person in a positive way.

Speaking of this blog, when I started it, I was 34 years-old, had been running for about three years, and was on the cusp of my peak. I had two really good years by my own standards--2008 and 2009--where I mostly achieved my goals. This graphic from Ultrasignup tells some of the the story but not all of the story because it excludes races shorter than ultra distance.

It's impossible to ignore the drop-off after 2009, when I stopped running sub-3-hour marathons (the sub-3 is in my mind the greatest indicator of my fitness level). I think the drop-off can be traced to at least three factors.

First, there's aging. I am slower today than I was in 2009 (but not a lot slower).

Second, my volume has dropped. I don't run 100-mile weeks anymore unless the time is there, which it rarely is.

Third, moving out West in early 2010, I started running in ultras with much deeper fields. My first big realization that the game was being played at a whole different level than what I'd experienced back East came in July 2010 when I ran in the Barr Trail Mountain Race, which goes part way up Pikes Peak and then back down. I ascended the trail just fine but then on the descent was passed by scores of runners who seemed to just float down the mountain. It was astonishing.

That was a long time ago. I'm now older, far more patient, and a bit more reflective. I've also made a ton of mistakes that proved to be great learning opportunities. The biggest lesson I've learned over the years is that, while I still do OK at shorter races like 5Ks and 10Ks, longer events are my friend and I have to run my own race. At Javelina, because I ran a smart race by my own standards, I passed a ton of runners in the final 25 or so miles. In ultras, it's not how you start; it's how you finish. The runner who's still running in those final 25 miles of a 100-miler will make up a ton of ground on most of the folks in front of him/her. This is where my plan for Western States in 2016 begins and ends--run smart from the start and finish strong. Details like strong quads late in the race and heat management in the canyons are tactics within the larger strategy.

So, now for some rambling. There's been a lot of talk about the state of ultrarunning. Two issues come to mind.

First, there's the "PED issue." PEDs in ultra have gotten some extra attention after the recent North Face 50-miler in San Fran, which included a known doper who'd served a ban, and Lance Armstrong's revelation that he wants to run an ultra. A lot of folks want a testing system. I would love to see testing and would gladly take part in it because I think there should be zero tolerance when it comes to PED use. You use PEDs and you're banned for life. Period.

But what is a PED and where does one draw the line? How come caffeine is OK when it's a known performance enhancer? What about ibuprofen? How about marijuana, which a growing number of ultrarunners use in training and racing as it can help ease stomach distress and promote appetite? Where do we draw the line? If we want PEDs out of ultra, then we might need to say no to all of them, not some of them. Something to consider?

But it's next to impossible to implement such a system in ultra when there's no governing body and when races are very grassroots in terms of their organization (in most cases, it's a lone RD who already has a full-time job but somehow finds the time to get the necessary permits and round up volunteers to make a race happen). To do good testing, you need a unified system that allows for a central repository of test results. You also need enforcement. This wouldn't be cheap. With that said, the issue of testing seems to be a non-starter since you have a sport that's so grassroots and unstructured. As of now, it's a dog that won't hunt.

Bottom line: A system for PED testing will likely never come to ultra unless some big sponsors make it happen. We have to self-police as best as we can.

Second, there's the Gordy Ainsleigh situation, which could be called "Gordygate." Gordy, as many of us know, started the Western States Endurance Run and is essentially the founder of the 100-mile trail race. He is not really the founder of modern-day ultrarunning; we can give that distinction to Ted Corbitt. But there is no denying that Gordy has made a huge impact as a pioneer. When I saw him at Javelina, I thanked him for "making this happen" in the first place. Anyway, as the 2016 Western States approaches, Gordy faces the prospect of not being able to run in the race he founded. The reason is that he's not qualified (yet).

The Western States board, as I understand it, has said to Gordy that all he needs to do is finish a qualifier and he's in the 2016 race. He's not subject to the lottery; he'll always have a spot so long as he qualifies. They even extended his qualification window to include a few qualifiers in early 2016.

Some people think Gordy should have a lifetime spot without the need for a qualifier. Others think Gordy should have to qualify to access his spot. Both camps have legitimate arguments and this is certainly an issue on which reasonable people could disagree. I happen to fall into the latter camp. I think Gordy should always have a spot--always!--but I also think he should have to qualify for it just as the rest of us do. That's where the Western States board landed and I think they got it right.

Interestingly, I know a lot of long-time ultrarunners, who could be called "old school," who think Gordy should have to qualify. I also know lots of newer ultrarunners who think Gordy should have a spot for life. Where you stand on the Gordy issue has little to do with how long you've been in ultra and probably more to do with your general outlook on life and maybe even your worldview.

In ultra, no one is better than another. Some of us may be faster than others but ultimately we're all equal. We love the stories of Scott Jurek, "back in the day," winning Western States in 15 hours and change and then hanging out at the track and congratulating all of the runners as they came in. We loved hearing that Rob Krar ran the last mile of the 2015 Western States with Gunhild Swanson, who finished the race with seconds to spare and, in the process, became the story of that race.

We love those stories because they speak to the essence of ultra: though we come from different places and have different perspectives, and though some of us are fleet-feeted while others of us are cut-off chasers, an ultra brings us all together as like-minded folks who enjoy running a long way. To give special privilege to some and not all goes against what ultra stands for.

Have a very happy New Year!


  1. Thanks for the plug. My blog started as a running journal but has morphed to be more of a basic journal of daily events around work and the family, things I am thinking about, my running. I have thought of dropping it because it sort of doesn't matter - but I realize I am logging it more for myself than anyone else.

    I think Gordy has not done himself any favors as his "personality" on some affairs seems to be a bit "fringe." I am fine with folks having a free life time entry without qualifying (Pikes has this for prior race winners), but am also fine with a race having rules that state you have to qualify.

  2. When it comes to Gordy I could go either way. As we talked briefly on our run the other morning I'm down with him having the lifetime entry without qualifying, but I'm not upset one bit that he needs to. By the sounds of it, based on what you wrote, they've even given him a little leniency with it.

    Not that I agree or support what he's put on his Facebook or other social media pages (I don't know the details other than what I heard Gary and David state on Elevation Trail nor do I care enough to go look it up), but I don't think that should come into play one bit with the decisions being made regarding him and his running of WS.