Footprints of an Ultrarunner

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What does your footprint on ultrarunning look like?

Naturally, when you think of footprints, you think about the pattern of a shoe sole. The tread, grooves and lugs that leave a distinctive mark in the mud. But, that is just a temporary mark on the ground; gone with the next rain, or the next shoe that strikes on the same place. The footprint you leave on the sport is something very different. It is the result of how you ply your trade as a runner.

Ask any race director and they will tell you that dealing with a field of elite runners is different than dealing with a randomly selected lottery field of runners. Elite fields are easier to deal with, and the difference is not genetic. We all know that picking the right parents has a lot to do with just how much potential we have in athletics. However, not every gifted athlete succeeds, and not every successful athlete is gifted. Obviously there is more that figures into being successful than just talent. And that difference is what creates your footprint on the sport.

The first difference is that successful athletes prepare. Preparation does not just mean purchasing every item of running paraphernalia known to man and bringing it all to a race. It means training. Random fields have a huge dropout rate. Not during the race, before the race. The number one reason for withdrawing before a race is the failure to train. “Life got in the way.” “Family first.” Well, successful runners also have lives and families. They, however, do what it takes to get the training in. They train early, before the rest of the world is awake. They train late, while the rest of the world is watching TV. They train at lunch, they train on weekends. If they have a race to prepare for, they prepare.

The second difference is that successful runners are thorough. Ask any race director and they will tell you; the questions drive them crazy. It is not questions that bother them. It is being asked the same question a hundred times when it is stated clearly on the signup page, and covered in race emails. We want runners to have the information they need to participate. But we signed you up to run a race—we did not adopt you. Successful runners ask questions, too. They read all the information that is made available, and if something is not clear, they ask about it.

Successful runners show up. At any given race, as much as 20% of the registered runners simply never show up. That would make race directing more profitable, if the RD could act on that assumption. However, there is something of an obligation to be prepared to provide for every registered entrant. Boxes of t-shirts are left to find a home or storage. Perishables have to be discarded, and nonperishable food items become residents in the “snack food” section of the pantry. Successful runners also run into situations where they have to miss an event: a bicycle wreck with broken ribs a week before or a death in the family with a funeral that conflicts with the race. They give notice. I don’t think it crosses their mind to do anything different.

Of course those are just a few of the ways you establish your footprint. Do you show up on time with the supplies you need? Can you hang onto the registration materials, or do you show up at the start without your bib? Do you pass through aid stations efficiently, grabbing what you need and moving on, or do you hang around interminably as if waiting for the time limits to expire? Do you move to the side to let faster runners pass, or do you spread out and block the trail as if you were the only person who paid an entry fee? There are a myriad of ways that you establish your footprint on ultrarunning.

We cannot all have the talents of elite runners, but there is nothing that prevents us from approaching the sport with the same professionalism. And you might be surprised to find that if you take pride in how you approach your ultramarathon career by attending to the details of approaching your races the same way the successful runners approach theirs, improved results will follow.

You will leave your footprint on ultrarunning, one way or another. Leave the footprint you want those who follow to see.

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About Author

Gary Cantrell writes the “View From the Open Road” column. Gary has written for UltraRunning more or less continuously since his column “From the South” first appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 back in May of 1981. He is perhaps most well-known as the founder of the Barkley, a trail race in eastern Tennessee. (Although some would comment that it isn’t really a race, and others would add that those aren’t really trails.) He is also the founder of the Strolling Jim 40 Mile and periodically organizes a 314-mile run across Tennessee, the Vol State Road Race. He is currently the race director of the Backyard Ultra. In the real world he works as an accountant.

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