Well… what kind of “damage” are we talking about?
Direct Impacts to the Trail.
Let’s first consider the most obvious type of physical impact to the environment – direct trail damage due to foot traffic. I don’t see any cause for concern here, as the physical damage from an individual racer won’t be greater than a single runner out for a training run or someone out for a hike. Races simply bring more people to the trail on a particular day, just as hiking clubs, scouting troops, large family hikes and any other organized group outing would do. So unless we’re willing to impose daily usage caps (on all users) on our trails, racing shouldn’t be viewed as unnecessarily damaging.
Whenever there’s a genuine risk to the physical integrity of the trail (such as very muddy conditions after heavy rains), the responsible land managers always have the option to close the trail – to everyone. We trail runners probably shouldn’t get any special considerations in this regard, but we shouldn’t be treated worse than other trail users.
Negative Impacts to the Surrounding Environment.
What about the second level of damage? I consider this type of damage to consist primarily of trash left on the trails and damage to the surrounding infrastructure. I think this concern can be easily dealt with – racers and their supporters just need to follow the rules to avoid negative impacts.
Litter is probably the issue that comes up most often, although I have to say that in my experience of running trail races I’ve never noticed this to be a significant problem (even though I’m often running behind most of the other racers). I suppose the issue isn’t whether trash ever falls to the ground during a race – after all, wrappers will sometimes fall out of a person’s pockets or backpack, even when they’re just out for a hike.
The real issue is how long that trash stays on the ground. Most race organizations do a great job at sweeping the course the next day, and they pick up any telltale trash when they’re removing flagging. So I’d suggest that any evaluation of this type of environmental damage of a race be done a day or two after it’s done. If after the cleanup it’s not readily apparent that an event occurred just a couple days prior, then I say “no harm, no foul.”
When it comes to the other trail infrastructure, we all just need to behave as we would if we were a non-racing trail user. Use the established toilet facilities or porta-potties, and respect the other facilities (and their limitations) at the start/finish area. Paying a race fee doesn’t entitle a racer to be an inconsiderate slob.
The “Environment” Includes Other Trail Users.
The issue we should probably be most concerned with is the broader concept of “damage.” Our trail “environment” includes other trail users, and we need to remember that participating in a trail race doesn’t give us the right to act like jerks.
Don’t park in “no parking” areas, for example, and use whatever shuttle and carpooling options are available. If the race is long and you have a crew or other supporters, then make sure they’re following whatever rules and guidelines the race director has put in place. Chances are the RD knows a lot more about local customs, expectations and sensitivities than we do, so heed their guidance.
Furthermore, we should always remind ourselves that trails are rarely closed for races, so we’re probably going to encounter non-racers along the way. The issue is how we’re going to act towards those other trail users, and again I think the solution is straightforward. Just consider how you’d behave during a training run on a popular trail on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Would you barrel down the trail, yelling “heads up” in an effort to force a clear a path in front of you, refusing to slow down or share space or ever step off the trail to let others pass? Probably not.
So we shouldn’t act differently when we’re racing on those same trails. The fact that we paid our entry fees doesn’t give us the right to exclude or prevent others from using the same trails according to the normal rules of trail etiquette. If you want your fee to buy you a closed course, and you don’t want to share space, then perhaps you’d be better off racing on the roads.
At the end of the day, it’s not the races that have the responsibility of good trail behavior, it’s us racers.
Unless I get the sudden urge to travel somewhere over the upcoming Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays for a race, I’m done with my big events for 2013. (I was planning to finish the season with a 50 miler earlier this month, but the flooding on the Front Range led to a rescheduled Bear Chase Race and I wasn’t able to run on the rescheduled date.) Since this year is winding up I thought it’d be useful to take a look back at the four events and see if I can learn anything that might help me in 2014.
Although none of my races were particularly far from home, they varied greatly in their atmosphere, their speed and terrain, and especially in their elevation profiles:
(Graph Note: I was willing to sacrifice a bit of accuracy for the sake of getting a clearer picture on a broader level. The graphed data are not precise, but they’re close enough to be useful for my inexact review.)
I noted a few interesting things when thinking about how these races (and my experiences at them) compare to one another:
Terrain Matters (duh!): I’m not talking about the elevation gain/loss, but the nature of the footing. For example, while there were definitely some rough sections on the Breck Crest, those sections were generally quite short. I think the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty had more sections of rough terrain (and that certainly impacted my pacing), but the biggest challenge for me this past year was the unfamiliarity of the off-camber footing on the slickrock trails of the Red Hot 55k. I think my takeaway point is that I should never shy away from the opportunity to run/train on trails with poor or awkward footing.
Fueling Matters (duh! part deux): I got another good reminder of how important fueling is (and the corollary that you’ve gotta take care of yourself!) at the GGDT. I wasn’t able to get carb-gels at the last two aid stations, and felt a little draggy heading up Windy Peak. In contrast, I fueled pretty evenly and steadily at the Greenland 50k, and it kept my energy levels fairly constant. I probably took in about 150 calories per hour at Greenland, but I think my stomach could have handled a bit more, so pushing in the calories a bit more is something to experiment with next year.
Not All Climbing is Created Equal: Perhaps long sustained climbs and descents don’t tax my legs as much as a more frequent up and down. The climbs at the Breck Crest were long, but didn’t seem to tear down my legs as much as the more undulating nature of the GGDT. It’s true that the GGDT has, on average, about 20% more vertical per mile than the Breck Crest (at least according to my GPS watch), but the cumulative stress of the GGDT climbing felt more than 20% harder to me. I think I need to seek out more of that kind of vertical in 2014.
Pacing At the Beginning of a Run is Important (and Uphill Pacing is Doubly Important): Paying attention to uphill pacing (specifically, not pushing it too hard) matters a lot. I certainly know this in the rational part of my brain, but it wasn’t until the Greenland 50k that I was actually able to use that knowledge (rather than just saying “screw it… it’s a race! Go ahead and push yourself on the uphills!”) By shuffling/jogging along in a controlled manner during the first lap uphills, I was able to conserve energy that I was very grateful to have later in the race.
Knowing the Course Helps Me Stay Calm: This was my first year running the Red Hot 55k and the Greenland 50k. I was probably a bit too conservative on the Red Hot 55k, simply not knowing where the tricky parts would be. (For Greenland, since it was a 4 x loop course, I was able to use the first lap to get a sense of the trail, so only 25% of the course was truly unfamiliar). Having previously run the Breck Crest and GGDT I knew what parts had kicked my butt before, so I wasn’t surprised (and didn’t waste too much emotional energy) when the tough parts came. I hopeful that if I can get a spot in the 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail 50m I’ll be able to remember enough about the course that I’ll be able to run it a lot better than I did in 2012. (Although I’ll never forget the climb up Diamond Peak!)
Don’t Get Worried or Excited – Just Learn to Run by Feel. Of these four races, I’m probably happiest with how I ran at the Greenland 50k. I was able to push myself without pushing too hard and crashing. I think a big part of doing that was being able to take an honest assessment of how my body felt as I was running. I had a vague time goal for the race (a 5:30, which I considered to be a bit aggressive, but do-able, based on my 6:53 at the Red Hot 55k), and found myself far ahead of that pace after the first quarter of the race. But rather than get worried try to calculate what pace I should slow to in order to be maintainable, or get excited about how well I was doing, I tried something different. I ignored the numbers and just tried to figure out how I was really feeling. Could I continue run at this effort level for another four hours? And every few minutes (between those wonderful times in a race when your mind floats away in a river of random thoughts) I took a quick status check: Am I going too fast or too slow? Am I letting my posture get lazy? Am I breathing from my belly and not my upper chest? Not worrying about how fast or slow I was running, and instead just paying attention to HOW I was running, was pretty awesome…
Don’t get me wrong, I like my GPS watch, and I often run with a heart rate monitor. I enjoy having the numbers to look at – I rarely do anything particularly useful with those numbers, but I still like having them. But being able to do that race primarily by feel opened my eyes up a bit to what might be possible if I look inside more often than I look at my watch.
The first issue that comes to mind in considering whether kids should be allowed to run ultramarathons is probably liability. But while liability is certainly a real hurdle for race directors (like getting the proper permits and other “behind the scenes” work), we shouldn’t let it be the deciding factor.
The truth is that some ultras have been able to secure insurance coverage and legal protections to allow younger runners. So let’s move beyond that issue and examine some of the other objections to allowing participants under the age of 18.
Ultras are Too Dangerous for Kids.
Dangerous compared to what? Is running – even when we’re talking about an ultramarathon distance – more of a risk than football or soccer or cheerleading or lacrosse or softball? There isn’t much data for ultramarathon injuries among high school aged runners, but if we compare those other sports with the injury rates for track and cross country, then the answer (particularly when it comes to arguably the most dangerous and long lasting injury – concussions) is clear. Running is a lot safer.
We already have time cutoffs, medical checks and other safety procedures in place at virtually all ultras, and these should be enough to protect all runners, regardless of age.
Young Runners Aren’t Ready for Ultras.
Aren’t ready how? Mentally? Physically? Not all young runners are ready for an ultra, of course, but neither are all the adults who enter.
Mentally. The motivation to run an ultra must come from within, since there’s going to be very little peer pressure (within any age group) to participate. In fact, we’ve probably encountered the opposite; friends and family who try to convince us we shouldn’t run ultras. If a 16 or 17 year old has a desire to run ultra distances instead of going out for their high school football or basketball team, then we should respect and acknowledge that desire. Isn’t a big part of being ready to run an ultra the desire to do so?
Physically. While there aren’t many ultras that currently allow minors, we do have data from the oldest and largest ultra in the U.S. (the JFK 50). That race has had at least one finisher age 16 or under in each of the last 5 years. In total, over that 5 year period there have been six 17 year olds, six 16 year olds, four 15 year olds and one 13 year old who have finished the race.
There are even young runners capable of finishing longer events. At this past summer’s Run-de-Vous 100-mile race in California, a 13 year old finished in the top half of the field, in less than 24 hours. Clearly there are kids out there who can handle the distance.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of arguing that because most kids aren’t going to be ready to run an ultra, no kids should be allowed. After all, I’m 44 years old, and I suspect that most 44 year olds would have a difficult time completing an ultramarathon.
Ultras are Already Too Crowded.
I suspect that this is one of the core reasons some would argue against allowing young runners into ultras. But to those who bemoan the downsides of the growth of our sport, or who long for the “good old days” where they knew most of the other people lined up beside them at the start line…. it’s already too late. The beautiful secret of ultrarunning is out, and we can’t expect it to ever return to the way it was (or the way some imagine it to have been). While there are sure to be bucket-list braggarts or “one and done” runners at your next ultra, there’s going to be more who are just starting to love the sport in the way you have for years or decades. Some of these might even be under the age of 18.
And let’s be honest, most kids aren’t going to be interested in running an ultra. If anything, they’re going to face bigger obstacles in getting to the start line than adult participants (e.g., race entry fees, transportation to and from the race, and convincing the parents to sign their waiver), as well as the aforementioned peer pressure.
Anyone who still wants to run after facing those additional burdens should be recognized as someone with the heart of a true ultrarunner – potentially a lifelong ultrarunner – and I say we should welcome them into the community.