By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
“It is ultimately up to the runner to know the course.” Some of you may have heard this uttered before, and some of you haven’t. It’s an old school rule within our sport that for many a race director, still applies. I get it; for many runners, you started out on the roads and eventually found your way over to the trails. In road races, courses are marked with expert precision, and EMS volunteers line the streets blocking not only traffic, but you from going the wrong way. When you entered into the sport of trail and ultra, you need to recognize that you left the “comfort” of being able to run mindlessly along the roads for 26.2 miles. In trail and ultra, you actually need to pay attention. In this post, I want to discuss expectations.. of you the runner, and us the race directors.. and reflect on a few situations that have occurred over the last year within our sport.
Expectations of the Race Director
Every one of you has an idea for a great place to have a race. Those favorites runs in your neck of the woods that you just want to share with everyone, or simply see how everyone would fair on such a gnarly route. I know this because I get countless emails, and have countless in person conversations and phone calls, about the ideas many of you have shared. While I cannot deny that just about every place that has been suggested would be an awesome place to host a race, as a race director it becomes my job to sift through the literal mountain of logistics necessary to make it happen.
It is a more difficult task than most imagine, to map out a course that is exactly 100-miles, 50 miles, or even 26.2 miles in length.. especially on trails. Take our Indian Creek Fifties for example. That event, specifically, requires verbal or written permission from five different land managers. If any one of them says no, then the entire event has to be re-routed or cancelled. When first conjuring up the idea of a race in that area, I had mapped out a proposed route that I submitted to the land managers. If any of those land managers said no, I had to go back to the drawing board and re-map the entire event to once again get it as close to 50k and 50-miles as possible. It was the 6th iteration of the proposed mapping of the event that was ultimately accepted, and even then I have a alternate route in the event that one of my land managers says no as they periodically do.
So permitting aside, as a race director it is one of my responsibilities to provide my runners with some kind of map of the event, suitable for navigation purposes, they are running in.
As race weekend approaches, I need to prepare to mark the course. At HPRS I use a variety of methods to mark a course at a level that I feel confident prevents runners from getting lost on. I use any variety of colored surveyors tape, laminated signage stabled to sign posts that are also hammered into the ground, pin style ground flags, and spray paint. I then rely heavily on volunteers to come on out and help us mark the course using the tools I’ve outlined above. This has typically been one of the hardest volunteer tasks to fill for any given event, until I decided that from now on.. course markers and course sweeps will earn an automatic complimentary race entry into a future HPRS event. Voila.. volunteer positions filled..
There are so many things that need to be accomplished on race weekend that I cannot possibly also do the course marking single handedly. I rely heavily on volunteers to show up and help. Some races start marking their courses weeks, and sometimes months, in advance. I don’t have that much faith in humanity, as HPRS has fallen victim to course vandalism (other land users removing, or relocating, ribbons prior to or during an event) in the past, so I mark our courses as close to race day as humanly possible. Because course marking is done by volunteers such as yourselves, it is not done perfectly. I know some of you are thinking right now, “How hard could it be?!” Come on out and see for yourself! It’s a high pressure job that literally NO ONE could ever do perfectly.
As a race director, it is one of my responsibilities to ensure that the course is marked. With that said… As a race director I cannot guarantee that the course is marked perfectly, or that it remain free from vandalism. Especially if the course covers a considerable amount of land. Take the Silverheels 100-Mile Endurance Run for example: This course utilizes more than 60 miles of roads and trails. It is completely impossible to police this much ground, in the days leading up to an event, or even in the hours during an event. Shit happens.. some of which is out of my control. As a race director, it is my responsibility to be on site and ready to jump into action to put out any fires that come up, like course vandalism.
As a race director, it is one of my responsibilities to get the most up to date course information from those who are marking the course, or from my own personal boots on the ground, and relay that information to you in a timely manner. You know that pre-race meeting you never go to? That’s the place you gain knowledge of updates such as these.
In review: It is the race director’s responsibility to map a course and acquire all necessary permits, to actually go out there and assess the course with an eye for risk management, to provide runners with a map of the route that can be used for navigation purposes, to find volunteers to mark the course and mark the course, to pass any updates or areas of concerns on to runners as soon as possible.
Expectations of the Runner
The biggest expectation of you as the runner, is for you to do your homework. It is indeed ultimately up to you to know the course. You should make it a habit of printing out course maps, and studying them. If you don’t actually know how to read a map (far too many of you don’t), you need to learn. It is unconscionable to me that so many runners have no idea how to read or use a map when they willingly put themselves in wilderness settings, running as we do in ultras. It is possibly the most irresponsible thing you can do as a runner. Don’t just look at the map and marvel at the tightness of those sexy contour lines. Know exactly what you’re looking at and what that means, it’s not sexy.
It is an expectation of the runner that you’ll actually print out the map and bring it with you on race day. You can easily laminate a map using clear packing tape on the front and back, and keep it in your pack. Refer to it many times during the race as you navigate the course. If you find yourself off course, and no other runners off course with you, you could end up relying on that map to get you back on track.
It is an expectation of the runner that should you go off course, you will return under your own power to the exact place you got off course before continuing on with your adventure. Don’t look at your map and see that you can be, “back on course if I just bushwhack over to this spot and keep going.” THAT’S NOT THE RULE! The rule in our sport, always has been and always will be, that should a runner get lost you must return to the last place you were officially on course, under the power of your own two legs, before continuing on. Any other variation will result in disqualification. Why? Because you didn’t run the route, as laid out, in it’s entirety. You’ve cheated. PERIOD. If you’re not going to run the route as laid out, if you’re going to cut switchbacks or make up a neat detour to take a few miles off… then why the hell did you even sign up!?
It is an expectation of the runner that you become familiar with how the course is marked, and that during the event you will look for and follow the appropriate course markings. If you get to a junction where it is not as clearly marked as you’d like, this is where your handy course map comes into play again. It is up to you to know the course. “I missed the turn because it wasn’t mark well enough,” unfortunately is not a valid excuse in our sport. It is your responsibility to know the route. I cannot police every mile that volunteers have marked on my courses. I don’t have that kind of time with everything else that needs to get done on race day. Even if I did, for some of you, what is perfectly fine course marking for me… is horrible for you, because you wish to be able to navigate the course blind.
It is also the runner’s responsibility to report any discrepancies to the next race volunteer that you see. If you have serious concerns about the lack of course markings through a particular section of the course, you should report that to the nearest volunteer so the situation can be rectified. If you suspect that the course has been vandalized, and markings have lead you in a direction no course map intends you to go, inform race volunteers ASAP is the situation can be rectified.
Examples of Course Marking Challenges
A few weekends ago was the 2019 Georgia Death Race. Word spread like wildfire throughout our sport that about 40% of the runners in the event, went the wrong way at one particular spot on the course. This spot is where the United States Forest Service had marked/flagged a reroute of an old trail. The flagging used by race organizers was the same exact color as the USFS used in flagging the new trail. (NOTE: It’s not the forest service who used the same color flagging as the race, it is the race who used the same colors as the USFS). The 40% of the runner’s who took the wrong route, ended up going .3 miles longer with 400 feet less climbing, on much less technical trail.
It is up to the runner to know the route. The race director could have easily disqualified 40% of the field, but he instead allowed everyone to finish and added a time penalty to the final time of those who made the error. It is also the race directors responsibility to make mention of this tricky area to all runners, so they’ll be on the look out for it, to educate runners on what to do in that section, and for he and/or his volunteers to mark the course in such a way that prevents runners from going the wrong way.
This entire situation has stirred up quite the controversy within our sport and it’s pretty needless. As a runner, I understand the sentiment that the race organizers should have marked this section more clearly.. but I also believe in personal accountability, and know that if it had been me that went the wrong way.. it would have been my own damn fault. As a race director, I would expect my volunteers to mention this tricky area to me, and I would have mobilized a plan to prevent anything from happening in that area. After all, as the race director, it’s part of my job in managing the risks of my event.
Our Tommyknocker ultra used to be a 100k and 50k event held in Woodland Park, CO in 2014 and 2015. Both years, the course was subject to vandalism by other land users in the area. During one of those years, upon hearing that the course was vandalized and many made a wrong turn, I immediately mobilized myself and other volunteers to head out and find every runner. We got everyone turned around and back on track, and we fixed the marking discrepancy to prevent other runners from going the same errant way. Still, the 5 men who were running in the front of the pack, went the wrong way and once they discovered their error, they decided to just bag it and run back to the finish. Upon arriving at the finish line, they each complained about the vandalism and 3 of them demanded I provide them with a comp entry to a future race for the error… THEIR ERROR, because it is ultimately up to you to know the course. This is unfortunately the current status of entitlement that exists in our sport that many race directors, such as myself, will only continue to push back against.
At last year’s UTE 100 in Utah, and the High Lonesome 100 in Colorado, grazing cattle literally ate course markings after they’d be hung by volunteers preparing for the event. In both situations, volunteers were remobilized to rehang ribbons on the stretches of course that this cow-vandalism occurred. The cows ended up eating even more ribbons despite the best efforts of race organizers, and in both cases the organizers and their volunteers should be commended for their effort. It is ultimately up to the runners to know the course, especially in the event that cows eat the ribbons.
Finally, at last year’s Sangre de Cristo Ultras in Westcliffe, CO; I set out with a volunteer on a rented ATV to mark the course the day before the event. I literally had ZERO volunteers sign up to assist with course marking, and marking the course was the last thing I even had time for. So we rented an ATV to get the job done. Less than 2 miles out on the course, and the trail gave way causing the ATV to begin to roll. I stood up on the machine and shoved my volunteer as hard as I could off the back, and then I went careening down the side of the mountain with the machine. The machine and I both stopped some 60-70 yards off the trail. The machine was nearly totaled, and I was incredibly lucky to escape another brush with death as an RD.
I never hung a ribbon on the course. As runners arrived for the event’s pre race meeting the night before, and again the day of, I reiterated what had transpired. I also implored runners, like the many of you who are reading this, to PLEASE VOLUNTEER. Our races do not happen without you. I informed my runners of the situation, what was marked and how it was marked, how to best stay on course (on a course that is incredibly easy to navigate) and of the more than 60 runners who showed up, only 2 got lost. We’re all lucky on that one.. and it’s because we all took our responsibilities to heart to make it happen.
In conclusion, we all have responsibilities; to ourselves and to each other. Before we can pass blame on any one individual, or group of individuals, for our plights during an ultra.. we must first be willing to pass blame onto ourselves. It is up to the race directors to take on the very serious risk management responsibilities of the job, to provide our runners will all necessary information to allow them to navigate the course safely, and to be ever present with the direction of our events so we may jump into action should need arise. As runners, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. It is ultimately up to the runner to know the route, to communicate any discrepancies, and to improve our skill set to allow us to safely adventure through the mountains without having to be coddled.
Be safe out there..
Photo Courtesy of Tracy Thelen