Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Elite-ification of Ultrarunning

Ultra running faces many huge problems because of the rising popularity of the sport.  Doping, cheating and cash prizes at races are likely to further compliment all of this.

For elites 

If you follow ultra running at all your feed has been filled with panic stricken posts and articles about the state of our sport.  People like Ian Sharman (http://www.irunfar.com/2015/12/doping-and-the-effect-on-ultra-and-trail-running-what-to-do-about-cheaters.html), Ethan Veneklasen, Sage Canaday (http://sagecanaday.com/dopinginmutrunning/) and Katie DeSplinter have posted or blogged about it.

Two things brought this into the forefront currently: 

1) an Italian elite runner who was convicted of doping in 2009 (and served a 2 year ban) lined up at the North Face 50 in San Francisco (and failed to finish) http://running.competitor.com/2015/12/news/ultrarunning-at-a-crossroads-is-there-a-growing-doping-problem_141321 ; and 

2) Lance Armstrong won a trail race (corrected....I previously indicated it was a fatass event...that was incorrect).  http://running.competitor.com/2015/12/news/lance-armstrong-wins-35k-trail-running-race-in-california_141905 .

While reading all of the alarm on social media and the pleas that we keep our sport clean I couldn't help but feel like Lance and Elisa were treated a little unfairly and that the general ultra running population was tricked into thinking they should care as much as the elites do about this problem. Which caused me to reflect a bit on the following.

1.     Everyone deserves a second chance.  I've not made it a secret that I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.  That means that for a significant period of my life I lied, cheated, stole and generally mistreated everyone that loved me.  I'm glad that when I decided to right the ship people accepted my apology and let me try to make it up to them.  It would have been easy to say I am out of their lives forever.  What is hard, is allowing for the possibility that people can and do change.

2.     I don't stay up at night worrying about whether the top runners are cheating.  There's always been cheaters.  there always will be cheaters,.  Course cutters, PED users, etc.  There always will be, no matter how much testing is done (unless everyone is tested for every race, as well as outside of racing, which is impossible).  Cheating sucks.  It's bad.  I mean really bad.  I also feel sorry for the person that came in second.  I wish we could live in a world without cheating.

That being said, PED use in ultra running (while totally dumb because there is no money or fame in ultra running) only really impacts elite runners, for now.  So Sage or Ian gets second to a cheater.  The rest of us remain placed at somewhere between 30-400 and although the best athlete might not have won, in an overwhelming number of cases they don't care about us much at all (unless we buy their book, training plan, follow their blog, watch their youtube videos, buy their special gear, etc. etc. etc.)  Moreover, who is going to pay for this testing and regulation??  We all are.  In the form of increased race fees.

3.     Our sport isn't mainstream, becoming mainstram, or anything of the like.  Think on this: ESPN has 3-6 channels dedicated to sports around the clock.  They broadcast the entire hot dog eating championship from Coney Island.  They don't mention Western States.  Mention.  It's a fringe sport, with no prize money, which most people know nothing about.

4.     PED users have an unfair advantage.  True.  So do rich people, people that live at altitude, people with more talent, etc. etc.  Everyone has advantages.  This isn't about leveling the playing field.  Athletes do everything they can to tilt the playing field in their favor.  I don't have a cabin in the mountains.  Some people can't use caffeine, marijuana, some people are lactose intolerant, gluten sensitive, peanut allergy, etc. etc.  The use of PED's is the only avenue in which this level playing field argument comes up.

5.     The integrity of our sport is at risk?  I think not.  Two years ago I went to the Leadville 100 to crew and pace.  I saw Jimmy Dean Freeman running down the trail and come upon a girl that was struggling with her pack.  He stopped to help.  I attended the funeral of my best friend this summer who died of ALS.  You know who was there?  All the ultra runners.  We clean up trails and raise money for causes.  I don't know what it means for the sport to have integrity.  But whatever that is supposed to mean, believe me, ultra running has it.

This discussion brings up a much broader issue that I can't for the life of me figure out.  Why are we, as a sport, so obsessed with elites?  How did we become so convinced that what they do and say, the products they plug, the races they do, matters to the average runner?  True, some of these people are extremely cool and interesting people that are sometimes fun to follow.  Sometimes a neck and neck race between two athletes battling can be exciting to watch.  But social media has us convinced that they are the real interesting thing about this sport.  I think that's wrong.  I think a large percentage of us got into this sport to enjoy a nice easy run in a pretty place with our friends.  We tell stories.  We struggle through scenarios.  We see sunrises and sunsets and, or sad occasions, put each other to rest.

I didn't get into this sport because of [insert famous runner].  I don't really care what place I came in for my age group.  I couldn't name 10 elite marathoners.  Why is it that I can name at least 100 elite ultra runners??

The fact that the sport is moving from the everyday runner to the elite runner is exemplified by what has happened to our media.  Remember when Ultrarunning Magazine used to put all the results in the back of each issue.? Wasn't it cool to see your name and result?  That's gone.  Instead, you can get another coaching article from another coach who is sponsored by the company that sells your shoes, pack, watch or hydration pack. You can learn about someone who can run 50 miles twice as fast as you...including the details of what they eat and how they train.  You can learn about their latest book. You can go to irunfar and read articles by elites, for elites about issues that are important to elites and/or interviews with elites....or....when that gets old ....you can hear them being interviewed on a podcast about how awesome they are.

I'm tired of it.  The competitive, elite, famous, outrage, panic.  I want the focus of my ultra running to return to the reason I came here in the first place.  To jog some easy miles with my friends in pretty places.