By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
Out of Touch: (metaphor) no longer in contact or communication. Oblivious to how others think or feel or what’s really happening.
Tone Deaf: (adjective) an insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.
I believe, as humans, we have three primary objectives in life: to belong, to love and to be loved. From the moment we recognize these needs, much of our existence is focused on making them a reality in our lives. We love our family and friends and hope they love us in return. We seek out tribes of people like ourselves, or we seek to create our own new tribe(s), so the need to belong is met.
My running personality is split. First and always, I’m a runner and belong to this tribe. I found ultrarunning in 2004, ran my first ultra distance in 2005 and have yet to look back. It was the ultra tribe, the community, which attracted me to this sport and has kept me loyal to it for more than 14 years. It’s what I love, and it’s what allows me to love myself and to love others. I also belong to the tribe of Race Directors, a role I adopted in 2007. This role also affords me the unique opportunity to build community among countless others to love, and from whom I receive love. Directing races has become my purpose, my life’s work and what feeds my soul on a daily basis.
In my 15 years in ultrarunning, I’ve watched it morph and grow. I entered a sport of bare bones, grass roots events that focused solely on the adventure and the tribe. It was a sport so niche that you literally knew just about everyone you met, at every race, in any place across our country. I watched the first influx of participants following Dean Karnazes’ first book, and I watched the second influx and the birth of modern ultra with the release of Born to Run. I’ve witnessed the shift in age of ultra runners. It’s now hip to be young and run incredible distances. But early on this sport was for those who had become too slow or old for marathons. Further was not only more feasible but more epic.
Another observable shift in our sport saw the rise of the elite. Suddenly the race mattered, and the who’s who of ultrarunning was born. Gone were the days when we marveled at the performances of a young Hal Koerner and a seemingly ageless Eric Clifton. Back then we viewed and treated each other as equals. With the rise of the elite we placed the ‘immortals’ on pedestals; Jurek, Meltzer, Roes, Krupichka, Greenwood, Kimball, Olson. Where once “the race” was something cool to marvel over, our tribe suddenly viewed it as everything. The “ultrarunning media” was born, as well as a focus on performance, talent, breaking records and fastest known times. As a result, a vast majority of participants felt alienated and invisible, but that’s finally changing.
In my opinion, the era of the elite is dead.We certainly still marvel at the performances of those ‘best of the best’. We still acknowledge and celebrate the FKT’s, we root for our favorite runner to become Ultrarunner of the Year, and we celebrate and discuss outstanding performances. But the present and future of our sport is now undeniably focused on Inclusion, and “The Why.”
(Some of you reading this article may assert that my intention is to bring others down in order to build up my brand. As stated above, I am both a runner and a race director. My entire existence is intertwined with this sport, and we’re all entitled to an opinion myself included. My intention is not to disparage others. I’m simply sharing the best examples I can find to make a point and shed light on what continues to be a delicate topic. We don’t have to agree, but if we disagree, let’s focus on content and facts, not the messenger or the delivery.)
For the last year and a half, our sport has wrestled with the topic of gender inequality. A number of op eds by a unique array of ultrarunners have been written tackling the glaring discrepancy between numbers of male and female participants. We’ve struggled to understand this disparity and have suggested and tried various creative ideas in order to attract more women to our sport. For example, we’ve discussed the offering of women’s specific race shirts, securing generators to allow the use of breast pumps at aid stations, offering daycare at races, hosting women’s only events, and more.
Yet as articles continue to be submitted to the ultra audience, it’s evident to me that not every race director is ready to do the work to insure gender equity, inclusion, or accessibility. Here’s a brief snapshot of what I’ve seen in the last 6 months, evidence that the issues we face as a sport are real, and the conscience of the majority is being ignored.
Recently, Jim Walmsley was not selected via lottery to run in one of our most storied 100-milers. After Jim responded on twitter, he was immediately invited to take part in the race by organizers who made this announcement in front of a few hundred runners who were also not selected in the same lottery, some for the 6th or 7th year in a row. A few weeks later, the same 100-miler announced they are selling a new VIP package for their race. In addition to the $350 entry fee, an additional $550 will buy you the VIP package. This new perk includes the earlier private packet pick-up party with bar and snacks, a VIP parking space for your crew and pacer at one of the races’ most prominent aid stations, a heated and catered aid tent for VIP’s only, and more.
As prices in our sport continue to rise, accessibility declines. For over a decade, countless runners have argued that ultra will soon turn into Ironman, where significant numbers of runners will be “priced out” of participating. In some places, the cost to run a 50k has risen to $150, and many are paying $500 or more for a hundred miler! Trends like this are dangerous because they cater to the elite, thus shutting out “everyman/woman”. Unless you have the $900 for the “all-inclusive”, you end up with “less than”. Rather than inclusion, the focus becomes the bottom line and, as some would say, elitism.
“At a corporate race you’re a customer. At a local race you’re a friend.”
– Jim Skaggs
Another 100-miler recently said they were giving women in their “slow” division an extra hour to run their race, and if they’d like, the opportunity to “run with your husband.” While their intention was inclusion and bridging the gender gap, the unintended message was socially tone deaf. Not all women have husbands. Not all men have wives. Our ability to give and receive love should not be bound by archaic societal norms. In our more progressive world we love who we love, regardless of skin color or gender identity. As many say, we don’t want special treatment, we want fair and equal treatment.
In another event that seems to cater to the elite, large prize monies are meant to be the attracting factor, though less than one percent of the field has an opportunity to win and even fewer in the field care about that enticement. This event divides their participants into two separate divisions… “fast and slow”… further alienating other non-elite participants. Their rationale for providing “slow women” an extra hour to complete their event was based on responses they got from “elite female athletes” when asked for ideas on bridging the gender gap. However, most females made the point that elite’s do not speak for their gender or their ability class, thus indicating, once again, that these race organizers are out of touch with our sport as well as its place in time.
Much of the conversation around gender inequality in our sport is based on our need to belong. All athletes want to be accepted and recognized. All want a level playing field and to be treated as equals. As I’ve listened to women discuss the issue of inequality in ultra, most have stated they don’t want preferential treatment, or to be coddled, or to be given advantages like the ladies’ tees on a golf course. What they do want is to belong, to be supported, to love and be loved.
Recently I was taken aback in a race director’s group when another RD shared an email he’d received concerning his pregnancy deferral policy. The female respondent stated his policy was “sexist” because it offered a one year deferment of her entry instead of 2 years or more. Some of us agreed that one year is not enough time for a 9 month pregnancy, giving birth, physical healing, completing maternity leave and starting or resuming training once a child is old enough to be pushed in a jogging stroller.
It’s easily 16 months or more from conception before one can feasibly train for an ultra. Do I agree that race director’s policy was sexist? NO. Deferral policies are not mandatory. Most race directors have them in order to be more inclusive, accommodating and human. Yet as the conversation in this group continued, it became clear that not all race directors (mostly men) are clear about how to make inclusivity a reality. In fact, many of their attempts border on being tone deaf and out of touch.
“We as race directors can accommodate or alienate. The choice is ours. Ultimately not everyone who runs with us has loads of discretionary income to spend on running. We should do more to make our sport accessible to all user groups, and not just the ones who will give us their slips of green paper.”
~ Sherpa John
Last summer, another historic 100-miler in our country announced that while they would be celebrating the top ten men, as usual, during their awards ceremony, they would be celebrating only the top five women. Their explanation was based on historical data relating to the general performance (or lack thereof) of women past the top 5 in their final results.
While the intention was for the race organizers to clarify their decision, it didn’t take long for our tribe to denounce it and demand equal treatment for women. It’s simple to buy five more awards and celebrate the top ten females alongside the men, which they ultimately did. It also highlights the fact that ongoing work is needed so that all race directors become sensitive and responsive to the need for inclusivity and gender equality in this sport. Surprisingly, this particular race director is female. Less surprising is the fact that she’s an elite athlete.
As the conversation on gender inequality continues, we ignore the elephant in the room. We have an inclusion problem, considering that the majority of trail and ultra runners are white and have expendable income. We lack real diversity, and the outdoor industry as a whole continues to neglect real solutions for this issue. Clearly we have a long way to go. As we discuss the gender gap and transgender policies in our sport, we need to recognize the race directors who are on the front lines of inclusion and accessibility. We also need to make our collective voices heard, including with our wallets, concerning those who fail to help move us forward.
It’s clear to me that race directors who are focused only on the results (“the race”, the elite, the bottom line), and not the total experience, (the tribe, caring about everyone, love for the sport and each other) are the ones who are most out of touch. You don’t have to dive too deep into the online comments about the policies and decisions described above to see that the focus of our sport has shifted to accessibility and inclusion.
Yes, we still marvel at and celebrate the immortal performances of the elite. But over the last few years I contend that our obsession with those elite is waning. Most folks aren’t interested in discussing Killian’s performance. We’re discussing Killian’s journey; his upbringing, his environment, his training, his love of life. We marveled at what Rob Krar can do, but the bigger story became his openness about his battle with depression. And when Jim Walmsley got lost at Western States or failed to break the record again the following year, we didn’t obsess about his performance one way or another. Instead, we obsessed about why Jim goes about his race the way he does. Our focus became, “Who is Jim?” and “Why does Jim run?”
I’ve seen a handful of podcast hosts ask their listeners, “Who do you want to hear from?” Responses such as, “Anton, Walmsley, Meltzer, etc” are so incredibly small compared to just 5 years ago that one could fail to recognize their sport at that time. The suggestions that are pouring in include the names of everyman and everywoman, race directors, streakers, folks with staggering numbers of 100-mile finishes, and none of them with winning finish times.
People want to hear stories about those who are similar to themselves, those to whom we can easily relate, those who we can love and be loved by. Why is it so easy to cheer for and support Courtney Dauwalter? Because she’s the sweetest, most humble, elite athlete in our sport who didn’t burst onto the scene as an immediate phenom. She was one of us, she worked for it and rose through the ranks…and she’s still one of us.
One of the most popular and recognizable figures in our sport right now is Mirna Valerio. Mirna is from Vermont and has been trail and ultrarunning since 2012. She’s not what most people would describe as a typical ultrarunner. To some, she doesn’t “look” like a runner, she doesn’t perform fast enough, and guess what?… she provides breathtaking diversity that our sport desperately needs.
It’s through Mirna’s example that we can see the shift in our tribe’s focus. We’re much less obsessed with the performances of the elite than we are with those to whom we most closely relate. We want to understand why people run so we can deepen connection within our tribe. Mirna has broken every single stereotype within our sport and has shown us what grace and humility look like in the face of social adversity.
It doesn’t matter where you participate in an ultra. Wherever you go you’re bound to hear a few stories of the folks who are out there. If you’re part of a tribe in your area, chances are you personally know the stories, the WHY, of a half dozen runners in your community. It’s important for you to listen to these stories and remember who is out there and why. Chances are, someone has listened to you and they know your story, your WHY. This knowing and caring is what’s allowed our sport to grow into what it is. It wasn’t built on performance, prize money, or elitism. It was built on INCLUSION and THE WHY.
This is my call to all race directors to continue the good work of making our sport more accessible to everyone, not just white, men with money. This is a call to my fellow race directors to wake up and focus our intentions on real inclusion; not elitism, sexism, or the kind of inclusion you support just to satisfy. Inclusion is not a bandaid you slap on a hot topic, it’s an actual shift in the social fabric of a community. Stop putting on band aids and chasing the bottom line. Do the right thing. After all, race directing is not about you, it’s about your community.
This is a call to my fellow runners, to wake up and let your time, energy, passion and wallet speak for what you want and don’t want. The conversation has just begun, and we have a long way to go. We’re going to accomplish the inclusion our tribe deserves by working together towards that end. Support local races where you’re treated like more than just a bib, and make a stand against the corporate machine. Yes, there’s something out there for everyone and that’s great, but what we choose to support as runners will continue to shape the fabric of our sport and our collective conscience for decades to come.
Prize monies, VIP packages, catering to the elite, alienating individuals based on their lack in ability to perform at “elite levels,” and driving the prize to participate ever higher… will not do well in contributing to our sports growth. Continuing to focus on the roots of our sport will. Those roots are based on Inclusion and The Why. As race directors we can accommodate or alienate. It’s long past time for us to move on from the “good-old-boys club” mentalities. As race directors we all need to come to realize it’s not about us, but about those we serve. As runners, we have the immense power of allowing our participation determine the direction that our sport will take. Be on the right side of history, and let’s do the good and noble work, of creating a sport welcoming, accommodating, and accessible to everyone.
Finally, I want to support and commend the recent work of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run for tackling these sensitive subjects with us. Together, we’ll accomplish creating a more inclusive sport where everyone belongs and experiences love.