By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
You train for months leading up to that goal race, but in the days leading up to the event, Mother Nature has other things in mind. Next thing you know, there’s a discussion happening with regards to if the race is going to happen or not. All of your hard work, countless days and nights, 4am and 5am alarms, weekends away from friends and family, could bear fruitless if the race is called off.
I’m one of the few people in the sport of ultrarunning who has the opportunity to look at the situation from a few different angles. As an ultra runner for 13 years now, and having at least one race cancelled on me (mid-race) due to weather, I know all too well the disappointment that comes with a race not happening and the emotions that stirs up inside. As a race director, I understand FULLY the many facets that goes into making the decision to continue the race, or call it off. As an outdoor professional (Bachelors in Outdoor Education and a minor in Recreation Management), I am also able to look at an entire situation from a risk management perspective.
With all of that said, my intention with this post is to inform you about everything that has to be considered when a race director makes the worst call they has to make; not having the race. I also want to help runners figure out what to look for, when deciding a reputable race company/director to run with. Not all race directors are created equal, not all race directors put in the same work or have the same foresight. Come to think of it, not all land managers are equal either and they too, play a role in this. So, let’s take a closer look..
It should first be noted that it’s not just runners who are upset and potentially devastated by a race not taking place. There are typically countless hours of hard work and determination behind the scenes to even secure the permits for an event… and that’s really just the beginning of race planning for a director. There is a veritable mountain of work that goes in to getting a well-run event of the ground. Cancelling a race, through the eyes of a Race Director, has the potential to be devastating to the business. It’s literally a disaster on our front. Yes kids… race directing, whether some want to admit it or not, is a business. There’s a whole host of risks, responsibilities, and liabilities involved with hosting a race.
When I first came into Ultra in 2005, I seldom heard word of a race being cancelled or shortened due to conditions. Part of that is because we didn’t have twitter, or Facebook back then and the transfer of information from one runner to another typically happened face to face (imagine that). Perhaps global warming is also playing a role in the frequency of incredibly poor weather conditions that force a race to be called.. and no, I don’t want to argue the validity of Global Warming, just noting that the weather “appears” to be more erratic as of late.
Over the last 5 or so years however, it feels like the frequency at which races are being called is on the rise. Off the top of my head, I can think of the snow at the 2015 Jemez 50 in New Mexico, which forced race organizers to cut the race short. The 2014 Zane Grey 50 in Arizona that was cut short due to Snow. The 2014 Mogollon Monster being cut short due to severe weather and flash flood conditions. Western States being called off less than 48 hours before the race in 2008 due to local fires. Most recently, the LOVit 100 in Arkansas was called by the land managers due to the weather forecast. I can also recall a year at the Vermont 100, where during the middle of the race a micro-burst descended upon the course and the local Fire Department almost called the race because the main command center (start/finish) almost collapsed due to the winds, and numerous trees were reported down across the course.
WHY do they cancel or call a race?
I’ve seen the argument a handful of times now. Ultrarunners who have trained for months for their moment, show up prepared to take on every condition they could possibly face out there. They have rain gear, puffy coats, extra shoes and socks, and an unwavering will to complete the task at hand regardless of what the world throws at them. When the race get’s called or cancelled, a torrent of anger comes down on the race director, with runners arguing that they’re the most prepared to handle anything and everything and the race should go on.
But it’s not all about you. As race directors, we very much understand and appreciate the people who have signed up for, and show up to, the race. We know that you very much are likely the most prepared people in the woods on that day. But we also know that not all runners are created equal. Some of you do show up unprepared, or lacking the true ability to assess the risks of what you are about to take on, and frankly, they need to be saved from themselves. (Think of the guy who shows up to run in a blizzard wearing short shorts and a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. That guy has liability written all over him. A hero he is not).
Race directors need to also consider all of the volunteers, spectators, crews, and pacers. While you and I both know that the runners and pacers are well equipped, in all the ways, to take on whatever mother nature throws at us.. crews, spectators and volunteers have a tendency to not be as prepared. With that in mind, those individuals are also now a liability.
QUESTIONS race directors ask before making the call
There’s a lot of information swarming around in the head of a race director. It’s non-stop on race weekend, and even in picture perfect weather the job is exhausting. Our number one job during the race is putting out fires, making sure everything is running smoothly and attending to issues as they arise. When conditions dictate, there are questions that we routinely (should) ask ourselves.
Is it safe? Can I initiate an evacuation of a runner if need be, and would that evacuation be timely and efficient? Can I safely initiate the timely evacuation of ALL runners if need be? Is there a potential for volunteers to get stuck, or potential for us to not reach them, should conditions deteriorate any further? Does continuing the event possess a health and safety risk to ALL involved (runners, crews, pacers, spectators, volunteers, etc)? If I need to call 911 for any reason, will the conditions inhibit their ability to respond in a timely manner, and/or effectively?
Those are some incredibly heavy questions, and tend to all be asked and answered by ONE person.. the race director. Think of the pressure! But sometimes, we get the unsolicited help (albeit, sometimes solicited) from the land managers as well.
THE LAND MANAGERS role in all of this
Frankly, land managers care about two main things:
1.) The Resource
They’re constantly asking themselves if holding the race would do more harm than good to the overall management of the resource. If there’s a downright deluge on race day, chances are 200+ runners traipsing along the trails are going to do a considerable amount of damage to those trails.. aka. The Resource. Many runners are quick to say, “Well.. then we’ll volunteer to do trail work to fix the damage we do.” But let’s be honest, so few runners do trail work that it’s actually a bit sickening. HPRS hosts multiple trail work days a year and we seldom get more than 3 or 4 runners per trail work day. As a race director, I field constant complaints from runners trying to get out of the 8-hour trail work requirement. So this idea that runners will come out and fix damage done on race day… land managers know that they can’t rely on that notion.
2.) Their Ass
We live in an incredibly litigious society. Just as the race director is making solid decisions to protect his time and investment (Business Preservation), the land managers are too. They understand full well that if they allow a race that a reasonable person would/should have cancelled to take place, they run the risk of being sued by almost anyone in the event of an accident or other emergency. They know that the spectators, volunteers, pacers, and crews all have the potential to sue them for negligence of their own duties. This is precisely why they step in from time to time, and make the difficult decision for us. They’re asking the same questions that the race directors ask themselves, and when a Race Director is not acting responsibly in their eyes; they’ll step in and make that decision for us.
Race Directors and Land Managers should be consistently doing a risk management assessment for each event. “If we do this.. what are the risks versus if we don’t do this?” Doesn’t matter if it’s a blue bird day or the seventh level of hell. The assessment is measured and goes on. But again, not all race directors have this mentality, and a very serious situation could (and dare I say, eventually will) arise from their negligence in their duties.
WHAT to look out for
Each race should have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). This plan outlines, in great detail, the actions that will take place in the event of an emergency. The plan should also outline the course of action in the event of severe weather, forest fires, and/or injury to a runner. The plan should also be considerate of the various areas a course covers. For example: The HPRS Emergency Action Plans for our races in Fairplay include details on where Helicopters can land in the event someone needs to be medevac’d from the event. We have this plan in place because we’re an honest 45 minutes drive from the nearest medical facility from town, and easily 1:30 from various points on the course. In a case where that is too much time, we have a plan for calling in “a bird” to air lift a patient to the facility within 30 minutes total.
I believe that it is your right to request, and receive, a race directors EAP prior to the event so that you can read it and be sure that the race is being held with runner safety in mind. If an RD refuses to afford you the opportunity to see such a plan, or one does not exist.. you now know where safety ranks with this RD.
Each race should also have a policy on their website which outlines the refund/credit procedure in the event of an emergency, postponement, or cancelation. This policy should also outline, in detail, the reasons why a race might be cancelled and who has the ability to make that call. Look for it, and if that information is not available on their website, you should ask the RD for their position. Have an answer in mind that is suitable for you. What is going to make you feel comfortable, and like the RD has really thought of these things? If you don’t get that answer, don’t sign up.
Lastly, if a Race Director is handing out Ibuprofen at their race.. run away! This, to me, is a tell tale sign that the RD knows very little about our sport, and the unintended but very real consequences of their actions. An RD handing out Ibuprofen typically lacks any understanding of risk management. This is negligence.. PERIOD.
All of this is to say, that the next time your race is cancelled, or called mid-race, please take the time to consider the various angles at play before that decision was determined. We do have your best interests in mind, and the old adage comes into play “Live to race another day.” Many of us sign up for races we know and love, and when it’s that race in particular that is called we get exceptionally salty about it. It’s our favorite race! I for one, however, would much rather the race be there for years to come, rather than the RD losing his permits due to negligence in the face of elevated risk.