Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) – A Volunteer Perspective

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last weekend was one of my favorite weekends of the year. In 2006 I ran the GEER 50k as a naive little ultrarunner, coming off a win at the Moonlight Boogie 50 Mile,  who thought that miles were miles and courses were all the same, give or take a few minutes.

And then, 7 very long hours later, I completed the 50K.

It was GEER that taught me the “truth” about ultrarunning while I fell  in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since that year, I have gone back to run (and win!) the 100k in 2008. I now make the annual pilgrimage down to Charlottesville in the last week of September not to run, but to volunteer at the race. I wouldn’t have made it through 2006 (easily one of my worst days) or 2008 (one of my best) without the volunteers.  It is my own contribution to give back to the sport that has given me so much. Oh, and Francesca and Gill (the RD’s) are good friends which is cool too 🙂

Before I tell about the actual race, I should mention that there has been an air of controversy around the concept of UROC, the Ultra Race of Champions, which GEER has morphed into over the past year. Gill and Francesca set out in late winter to create a “superbowl” of ultrarunning. A race where all the best can come – to be treated like the best – and compete against each other on one course. They collected a $10,000 prize purse as extra incentive. And (very importantly) also kept the “regular people” in mind – non-elites were welcome on the course as well (no lottery nonsense). The race would be top-notch all the way around, complete with a video and social media feed live (as well as coverage by irunfar.com) throughout the day. Before I get into my own day helping at UROC, I’ll tell you a little bit about my (and Ryan’s) feelings on the controversies. I chose not to speak up until now because I thought it was unfair to pass judgements on a race before it even happens. It is easy to see things on paper and say “this or that is not a good idea” but I think it makes a lot more sense to watch the race play out and see how it works.  After watching everything play out, I’ve taken some time to put some thoughts down about certain things naysayers were saying (in bold), and invited Ryan to do the same  (mine in pink, Ryan in blue):

1. Ultra-marathons are not triathlons. Ultras require shoes, water bottles, socks and food, not bikes that cost thousands of dollars. I believe this point is saying that adding the frills of UROC changes the sport.

You may not have to buy a $5,000 bike, I’ll give you that. But I will also say that the average joe triathlete would not buy that $5k bike, and if they did it would be a one-time investment. Race entry fees to 100 milers now rival that of an Ironman in many cases. Travel fees actually have the potential to be greater in ultrarunning….triathlons are usually held in cities where Econo Lodges and Motel 6’s are cheap options, and airports are nearby. The “cheap option” at a race that starts on trails often means an hour or two of a drive in the morning. And you’re lucky to find a major airport (i.e. cheap ticket options) in the vicinity as well. Many ultrarunners buy Garmins and satellite things that work in the woods == $$. Or they have plenty of materials for camping (tents, stoves, sleeping bags are easily as expensive as a bike) so you can spend a weekend training in the mountains. It turns into a tit-for-tat type scenario, and what it boils down to is that in any sport there will be the gear hounds and the tech-nerds who will spend their money on the latest and greatest. But, even in triathlon, there are the old-school athletes, racing in a speedo on a road bike. You are free to participate in whichever fashion that you wish – isn’t that why we all love the US of A? 🙂

I think the cost of ultra-running is just as much as triathlon, and you’re also looking at more than just dollar amounts.  You’re looking at everything – cost to travel, cost of time, cost on the family. Triathletes and ultra people are weird and are taxing on their family.  You lose an entire weekend to an ultra, no matter what, but in triathlon it’s often just the big ironmans that you lose a whole weekend to.  If you’re comparing ironman in this case to ultra, then this wouldn’t be a factor.  But the point about hotels and airports is dead on, they are almost always in normal places. Ultras are not.

2. Some say that ultrarunning should remain a “fringe sport” where everyone knows everyone and the only prize is a high-five. These arguments allude to the fact that those who race UROC or similar races are sell-outs.

I can see where this is probably a sore subject for those who have been around running ultras for more years than I have even been alive. So, I won’t argue it. But I will ask them to take a step back and be happy for those of us who are able to compete in the sport during this time of exciting change and opportunity.  The older generation of ultrarunning has been great to me and I would be sad if they do not want to partake in the new, up and coming races just because there are some more people coming out, enticed by the money. To feel like my character as a human is being judged because I would like to compete for money is silly. No matter if UROC remains the only race with goals like this – or if 20 more pop up next year – you will still have the fringe of the ultra culture to participate in. There will still be fat-ass races galore, and plenty of weekends filled with 50+ miles in the mountains and nothing else but maybe a handful of people and some jugs of water. If that’s your jam – by all means embrace it. But please, don’t judge those of us who are dreaming bigger than that for the future of the sport.

If I were an old-school runner, and I did not want to compete at UROC, then I wouldn’t compete.  But at the end of the day, it is the biggest and best.  You don’t see old-school triathletes saying “I don’t want to go to Hawaii because it’s too competitive”.  EVERYONE wants to go there.  Everyone wants to just be a part of the best.  Ultimately, what is it about an ultra that makes people come back?  Is it the shitty food and medal and belt buckle?  No, it’s the camaraderie.  If I want to go out and run 60 miles tomorrow, I’ll go do it and pat myself on the back.  If you’re really THAT hardcore of an ultra runner, then that’s what you do.  But if you’re an ultra RACER, then you go to a race and compete against others.

Additionally, what UROC is doing is helping attract perhaps people from the road who are fast.  Someone like Mike Wardian, who has qualified for Olympic Trials in the marathon, coming to this event is huge.  People are interested in what he does and want to emulate him.  Look at those Navy kids and how excited they were to get autographs from him and Devon Crosby-Helms.  They probably came because of them.  They were even more accessible than triathletes after the race, and hung out and talked to everyone.  It’s a small community, much smaller than any triathlon. 

3. There will be more “all or nothing” performances at races where money is involved (this wasn’t said in a negative way necessarily, more so an observation).

I would probably agree with this as a possibility. In fact, I was pretty tempted to jump into the race myself since I was fairly confident I could nab a top 5 position due to the lack of depth in the field, and walk away with a check. If I saw that slipping away and wasn’t in the shape to do it, I would have just dropped. After all, I would have rationalized it very easily by recognizing that I never really planned the race into my schedule anyway. No harm, no foul. But, again, I wouldn’t say that this has to be a bad thing. One can argue their perspective on integrity of a person who drops at the loss of a podium spot during the race – but in the end that is all subjective. If bringing money into a race will encourage people to TRY, to toe the line, to start the race, while you may have a few more drops I do believe that the increase in participation will still outweigh that.

4. Why was the women’s field so small?

I was a little confused when I saw this one because…umm…..newsflash…..we run ultras – there’s ALWAYS a small field of women!! But, I needed to back this up. So I took 3 other race (2 which are considered large and notable, 1 which would be more average participation) and crunched some numbers:

 *All data was gathered from Ultrasignup.com

*”elite” female finishers was a subjective call on my part. For Western States, I used the number of women under 23 hours + 1 for a round number, for JFK under 8:30, For Ice Age 50 under 8:30, and UROC number of women finishers registered as Elite.

Western States 100 Mile (2011) JFK 50 Mile (2010) Ice Age 50 Mile (2011) UROC (2011)
# of Finishers 310 1039 222 66
# of Female Finishers 60 232 52 8
# of Female “elite” finishers 12 60 3 4
% of Female Finishers 19.4% 22.3% 23.4% 12.1%
% of Female Finishers “elite” 20.0% 25.9% 5.8% 50.0%

Observations:
*UROC had a much lower finishing rate, male and female than the compared races.
*UROC was lacking in the overall number of female finishers.
*BUT of the female finishers, UROC blew away the others in having the highest elite-to-non-elite ratio.

Possible conclusions:
*UROC actually did a better job than most other ultras at recruiting female elites! Had the couple other women who were registered but did not start due to injury run the race, it would have been a landslide in this category.
*You cannot project that women shy away from “hype” and are not attracted to highly competitive races with money.
*As the race grows, there does not look to be a problem of attracting women to the course.

My take on this? I honestly believe that a lot of women are (unfortunately) scared. I don’t think that women don’t *want* to do it, but I think that unfortunately a lot of women believe that they shouldn’t want it. And then they don’t race out of fear of judgement/worry. Case in point? One of the female elites had to be basically pushed by her friends into the elite start as the seconds were counting down before the race. Her racing credentials backed up her ability to compete, her friends believed it, but for whatever reason, she didn’t. You didn’t see that with the men – rather, there were dudes salivating at the chance to race elite! And the result? Well, just ask Jon Allen who came in 5th. Believing in his abilities and starting with the elites paid off for him, though his write-up in the iRunFar pre-race men’s preview said “Aside from a fourth at The Bear 100 last year, it’s hard to stack him up against other top ultrarunners.”

I obviously think that women, in general, are just different from men.  It’s no different than triathlon, where elite fields for women are almost always half the size, and much less competitive, than the men’s side.  And the same with running.  It’s just the way it is.  You shouldn’t even have to argue that point.  But, UROC should be commended for at least starting to plant that seed.  Make people WANT to race ANY race where the best of the best will be there.  This will not be accomplished in one year, but the things such as the bags, jackets with their names on it, prize money, etc, will start pulling it together.

5. The course.

There has been a lot of discussion about the amount of road miles on the course. Again, to each their own. Not a single course in the history of race courses is going to be everyone’s favorite. I do believe that for a real championship, it should test the skills and abilities across the spectrum. The UROC course does just that, which is why I think the course is a great one.

We always invite other opinions so feel free to comment with your thoughts! And be sure to check out Ryan’s blog where he is always discussing something a little controversial (like his recent entry on the rising cost of racing, found here.)

Now that you know my opinion on those matters, I’ll tell you my story of the weekend. But first here’s a joke:

What do you call it when a giraffe swallows a toy jet?

We left Baltimore around 4 pm. I actually left work a little early with the intention of beating traffic. Unfortunately Baltimore was facing a flash flood that day and it took about 5 hours to get down to Wintergreen.  We met up with Francesca and Gill, grabbed a snack at The Edge (the latenight menu consists mostly of Nachos and Chicken and Waffles – who would have thought), and climbed up our tiny little steps (literally, they were the tiniest steps ever) to the loft where we would be staying for the weekend. And by staying, I mean hopefully grabbing more than a few hours of sleep over the next 48 hours.

After about 4 hours of sleep, we headed out to the start line to be ready for the runners as they came in. Ryan and I loaded my car with our aid station goodies, assisted with packet pickup (there is also a 50K and half-marathon, with a total of about 300 runners for the day) and fielded many questions for the nervous athletes. We watched the elite start, then the rest of the field take off, then we headed out ourselves for Sherando Lake. Our aid station would be hit twice by the runners, at 17.5 and then again a mile later after they looped the lake. This actually made it fairly complicated as we had to communicate that to them, as well as which direction to run (clockwise), and make sure they knew where to go after the loop (right where they came from). The 6 hours of aid station-ing flew by in a mix of bottles, sweat and grubby fingers grabbing at the PB&J’s. Ryan was impressive with his skills – you’d be surprised how many people I’ve had help me out before that made me wish I was alone! It isn’t as easy as it looks to run a smooth operation at an aid station.

It was neat to see the iRunFar crew come through, and I did my best to get in all the camera shots I could but I still haven’t found myself in the race videos 🙂 After the sweepers came through we re-packed the car (much lighter this time!) and headed back to the start/finish. For the next 12 hours we helped out with various finish line duties. Also included in these were running out to make sure the infamous turn that Mike Wardian missed was marked – it was, but we made it a million times more clear just in case, as well as glow-sticking the last few miles of the race once the sun set.  But the best part is always just being there to hand out a medal and hear some race stories from the finishers. After seeing how everyone was faring early in the race, it’s neat to see the “after” version of the runner. It also was really cool to be getting the live twitter updates from those out on the course and be able to watch the race unfold digitally through the videos. Seeing the elites come in was also pretty neat as usually I am stuck out there somewhere behind them still on the course 🙂

As Ryan learned, helping to put on an ultra can be just as taxing as it can be to compete. Just after the 17 hour mark hit, we were pretty much zombies and headed back to the condo to rest. A few hours of sleep later we were back up and on the road to get back to Baltimore – but not before a stop in C-ville to show of Christian’s Pizza and show him the great 64 University Way where I lived for 2 years! All in all, it was a great weekend and another superb Bad to the Bone event. I am looking forward already to helping out at  Bel Monte 50 mile this spring!

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