Ask any race director what the number one issue with today’s runner is, and most will respond: “They don’t know the rules.”
People sign up for races, do the training, yet fail to “get educated.” They don’t read the race website, or they fail to attend or listen to the pre-race meeting. So they show up at races and, for better or worse, behave how they feel is appropriate: their rules. Most of the time, this is effective. Common sense usually prevails. But sometimes, it does not. Much of the negative behavior comes simply from not knowing what is acceptable and what is not.
This is especially true about the sport’s most prized asset: our “ultrarunning culture.”
Ultrarunning is growing. Growth is good, but growth can be painful. With the rapid growth of trail ultrarunning, there is a confluence of forces: on the lands that support us; on race directors who balance the needs of the trails, the volunteers and the runner; and on the runners themselves to commit, train, prepare for and ultimately execute what everyone tells them will be a Zen-like, transformational experience.
Pressure creates tension, and tension—
when unmitigated—can warp attitudes and behaviors. Suddenly, a yellow streak appears in the warm welcoming waters.
Somebody’s peeing in the pool.
The stories mount: of runners acting like unruly children at aid stations, launching outrageous post-race complaints (“The aid station didn’t have my quesadilla!”), profiteering race directors selling post-race medical treatment—before the race.
Complaints about the tainted ultrarunning culture are now as frequent as the naughty behaviors. Snarky, thinly-veiled jabs against groups—or even individuals—on social media are nearly as commonplace today as the hashtag sponsor-bombs of supported runners.
But, like the product placements, are these criticisms productive? Are a few old-schoolers and their passive-aggressive social media policing any better than the few pool-pee-ers? Or are they only making it worse?
Fire does not put out fire.
Cultural norms are learned behaviors. They must be modeled, and social theory tells us the best way to do so is within a close-knit social sphere, where behaviors are directly observed and mirrored, often unconsciously, among friends.
That said, perhaps the solution to a widespread cultural issue lies by addressing it locally: in our own running communities. Here are some ideas for what you can do:
Adopt New Ultrarunners
New ultrarunners aren’t difficult to find: they’re at our favorite races, trails, running stores, restaurants and cafés. Engage new folks. Invite them to share the trails with you and your friends. Or hang out and include them in your post-run or post-race chatter and banter—one of the best settings for ultrarunners to share and connect.
Adopting new runners into your group is a way to demonstrate your own presence in the community, and it gives you a starting point toward modeling positive community values.
The gift of a sustainable sport like ultrarunning is the presence of veteran runners. Although they eventually lose elite speed, veteran ultrarunners maintain a vast and valuable wealth of knowledge. And within the nuts-and-bolts of geography, training, nutrition and gear also lie the essential elements of positive culture.
It’s incumbent on those veterans to step up and actively mentor new runners. Not simply to run well, but so they can run—and behave—with integrity from the beginning. Share knowledge and share values.
Elicit Positive Values & Behavior
Veteran runners should model and promote positive behaviors in the local community. This means everything from being friendly and helpful to runners and non-runners alike, to picking up litter and clearing trail debris. It means volunteering at races and at trail work events, or offering to crew or pace another runner.
Positive citizenship in the local community promotes the multi-dimensional culture of ultrarunning: exposing runners to the fact that yes, indeed, there’s much more to ultrarunning than just running.
On the flip side, it’s incumbent on local runners to address bad behavior. Few of us run in a vacuum, and no one can run a race without the aid of a race director and volunteers. See a negative behavior in your backyard? Address it: tactfully, but firmly. In doing so, you are educating, and perhaps halting a problem behavior early, before it becomes widespread, or worse: accepted. Small acts have big impacts—like bending down to pick up the gel top that fell out of another runner’s pocket.
Craig Thornley, ultramarathon veteran and RD for Western States 100 and Waldo 100K, is known for saying: “If you want to help the sport, get trained, so you can take real responsibility.” Our sport has many people willing to help, but relatively few trained to lead: as a trail builder or sawyer, an aid station captain, a ham radio operator or medical staff. Becoming skilled allows one person to lead possibly 10 to 20 others, and it allows their leadership to grow within a race community.
But implicit in the skill is leadership: the opportunity to model and promote positive values in the community. Just because you’re not fast doesn’t mean you can’t have mad skills with a saw, a McLeod or a radio. Leaders reflect the brightest, and there’s no limit to positive leadership in ultras.
Want to cultivate positive culture? Your garden is your own backyard. Adopt, mentor, model and lead.