Monday, May 12, 2014

On entry requirements for ultras

Following up on the need for entry requirements from my post below…
I got this comment that if a race allows “anyone” to enter, without qualifying criteria, what’s to prevent exactly that from happening: Mr Anyone, who has little race experience, signs up on a drunken bet and ends up being a burden on the organization because he is woefully unprepared? (That and comments on overcrowding.)
Seriously, how often is that going to happen? Certainly not often enough in my opinion to use that as an excuse to put up blanket qualifying rules. And who knows, perhaps that ‘lout’ will surprise you? I ran alongside a British pilot during the long stage of the marathon des sables who had done exactly that. One evening in a pub he was the documentary on Chris Moon (a guy who lost an arm and a leg as a landmine clearance expert and went on to run the Marathon des Sables in 1996 with artificial limbs—the main reason for the explosion of popularity of the event in the UK) and boasted to his buddies that he would “do that race” the following year. There he was. And yes, he finished (while a pompous 28-year-old triathlete working for one of the first online TV channels blew out at the end of the third day).
Actually, why am I using someone else as an example? My dad signed me up to the MDS as some way to have a bonding experience and in the hopes of prompting me to clean up my lifestyle in Los Angeles. I had one year to prepare and no idea what I was getting into (and my dad wasn’t much help, despite having participated five times) but figured that I should be able to finish if my 65-year-old dad had finished three times. Still, I hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a pint glass in over ten years and almost nothing athletic since my failed attempt to make the tennis team my first year in college. I did curtail my worst habits but didn’t actually completely quit smoking, drinking or any other bad habit you can indulge in on a Saturday night in LA. I figured I should run a marathon at least before going out to the desert, and at least LA provided great heat and hill training, but I hobbled to the end of that first marathon in November due to a pinched sciatic nerve, and was unable to do anything (except party) until I came home to Geneva in February and started walking for hours at a time, three or four times a week, with a 20-pound backpack. I think I was mentally prepared to do whatever it took, however, and was so desperate to rebuild my self-esteem that I did finish.
So I am dead against entry requirements. (The only race to my knowledge that has understandable requirements is Spartathlon because of the speed aspect to the race - and even then, only the part about running 100k in less than 10.5 hours makes sense.) Read Finding Ultra by Rich Roll: he steamrolled his way into the Ultraman, arguably the toughest triathlon in the world and up there with the toughest events period, with almost no former experience—and almost won!
Are “qualifying points” required to attend Burning Man or any other multi-day music festival/happening/whatever the name for this kind of thing is? And yet how many people out there end up at the emergency room because they dropped ecstasy and drank vodka + energy drink all day and forgot to hydrate? If qualifying requirements are put in place to make sure people know what they are getting themselves into then they are pointless, because no-one really knows how they are going to react on a particular 100-mile race, even those who have done it dozens of times. Competing in a few 50-mile events won’t get you any closer to understanding what will happen on a 100-miler, so what exactly should the requirements be? It helps you test your food and gear, but you can do that on a training run. But still, everything’s different on race day. And there are some things some people will never be able to simulate: desert or high-altitude training are two I can think of. Does that mean a Scotsman shouldn’t be allowed to compete in Badwater, or Floridians in Leadville?
[Talking about Leadville and on the issue of self-sufficiency and babysitting runners—I just read that not only are you allowed pacers but that your pacer can carry your bag for you!]
Ultra running—running in general—is all about given everyone the chance to challenge their limits, discover stuff about themselves, etc. It’s about giving everyone their chance… In 2006, Ozzy Osbourne’s son competed in the MDS. He dropped out at the end of the second day. Maybe he wasn’t as fit as he could be, but he wasn’t treating it as a joke. At least the race got him back in shape, he’ll go into his next event that much more prepared, and to be fair four times as many people dropped out in the first three days in 2006 than the usual average for the entire race.
As for being a burden on the organization… Again at the MDS, Cyril and I ended up spending a lot of time during the long stage with an MDS veteran (only because we were moving along at about the same speed)—one of the those Frenchman who’d been coming back almost every year in its (then) 20-year history. He wouldn’t stop complaining at every water station and was constantly asking medics for an IV. He wasn’t particularly dehydrated but he knew it would give him a burst of energy. I remembered him from 2000 and 2001—nothing had changed. Talk about a pain in the ass… At every ultra event there are runners who get dehydrated, hypo- or hyperthermia, massive cramps, eye infections, kidney problems,… Their experience has little to do with it—sometimes it is the more experienced runners who have the most problems because they think they “know better” or can get away with it. What are the percentage of experienced runners popping ibuprofen like M&Ms then wondering why they kidney issues?
Also, never having had issues in past ultras is no guarantee that something won’t happen on the very next one. That’s the whole point of an ultra: anything can happen. Success can make you complacent. I remember on the first climb of the TDS in 2012 someone asked me what my time estimation was. I said: “Oh, just to finish. Always just to finish.” And I believed myself. Truth is, I had a secret time in my head that I wanted to finish in—nothing extraordinary, and nothing wrong with that, but I realized later that it meant that I didn’t actually believe that I wouldn’t not finish. I was being falsely humble. After all it was my 13th ultra, i.e. more than 40 miles, and I’d never failed to finish. I’d hit bad spots before and I thought I had all the answers. But 2/3rds of the way through I got into a downward mental spiral due to the endless rain and quit.
Perhaps quitting was actually the right choice. I had all the mandatory equipment and more, but I had used up three changes of clothing; I had no crew and drop bags were not allowed in 2012 at Cornet de Roseland where I stopped; night had fallen and I was afraid of falling off the mountain from fatigue and the cold, or getting hypothermia at 8,000 feet in the middle of the night—which would have entailed a delicate rescue mission. So if I had sat out (or eaten my way out of) my blue funk and latched on to some other runners, chances are I would have made it to the end, but there’s also a fair chance I would have been a real burden on the organization. But that’s the risk they take.
I think what I’m saying is: let everyone take responsibility for themselves and trust them to do so. There won’t be many clueless people signing up for a 100-mile ultra, and if there are some, well the experience will certainly sober them up. It might give them a taste for the adventure, it might disgust them completely, or they might actually surprise everyone and tough it out to the end. If that’s what they want to do, let them.
The main reason why “qualifying requirements” piss me off is because I don’t even think for the most part it’s to make sure that participants know what they are getting into—which as I have said is pretty much impossible and just another way of saying “we need to make sure you’re good enough”, which is merely pretentious. I think it’s actually to heighten the perceived appeal/toughness of the race (“this is really tough because not everyone can compete in it”) and to find an optimal balance in the drop-out rate. It needs to be high enough to be able to boast about the difficulty of the race, but also not so high that people don’t sign up or don’t come back.
Neither is it really about limiting the demand for sold-out races—or at least it shouldn’t be, since the cost is too high as entry requirements (as I argue in post below) change the nature of ultras. The problem with overcrowding—and this just proves my point about a shift in mentalities—is that a lot of people are signing up for particular races because of the prestige, not because of the race itself. And that is no different from wanting to do the London or New York marathon rather than the one near where you live because you don’t think it gives you the same bragging rights. I go on about this in “UTMB vs UT4M”. There are so many races out there now that new rules should be instated for those that are overcrowded, i.e. you can't compete if you've already finished unless you're part of a team. This would allow people enter races that are particularly sought-after because of their beauty, difficulty, etc. and give everyone a chance to get in. (I'm joking for the most part--I don't even know if this would solve the problem; just trying to get my point across...)
I don’t disparage anyone their success in completing any ultra, no matter the distance or the support provided/allowed by the organization. I’m really just talking about mindset here.
I suppose what I would like to see is that instead of entry requirements, just make the races more self-sufficient. Make it less about speed and much more about endurance. Mental resilience and race planning. I’m looking forward to competing in the UT4M which allows two drop-bag points but at the same time I know it’s going to be mentally easier. It makes it easier to cut the race up in pieces, it can also compensate for poor planning.
No pacers, no drop bags, no crew. Provide water and let the runner deal with the rest. If that means lugging a 20-pound backpack up the hill, then so be it. You can run with a lighter pack and take some risks, or load up and feel covered for every emergency. Each participant makes the choice for him/herself.
When the start gun goes off, each runner is on his/her own until the finish line—but everyone’s in it together. That’s how it should be.

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