The Ultrarunning Calendar

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I bet you think this is an article about this magazine’s race calendar. Well, while the UltraRunning race calendar deserves a mention, the calendar has a lot more importance for the sport of ultrarunning than just that one application. As a matter of fact, the calendar is inextricably interwoven with the sport.

More years ago than I want to admit, the calendar was my first running “tool.” When I began seriously training with the intention of running a marathon, I needed a way to track my mileage. A simple wall calendar (ubiquitous in those days) provided a handy place to record what I had done, as I simply wrote in my total miles in each daily square, and tallied them by the week. The calendar turned out to be a tremendous motivator. It hung right over the kitchen table, where I was face to face with my results every morning at breakfast, and every evening at supper. I found out something about myself, that I share with most of you. I was driven to improve the numbers on that calendar. Every day, every week, I was compelled to increase those numbers. An ultrarunner has no better tool in his/her psychological tool kit than a compulsive personality.

A few years later the old Jim Fixx training calendar became my first running Christmas gift. There was a page for each day, rather than just the margins of a square, allowing the addition of the location of the run, various comments on conditions, or even commentary on the day. The key component, however, remained those numbers representing the tally for each day, month, and even the year.

These days, the old running calendar has become a part of social media. People can put their totals out there on the internet for the world to share, along with GPS maps of the courses run, and poetic commentary on their experiences. Somehow, I think the value still distills down to the same essential ingredients: the numbers and the compulsion to improve them; day by day, week by week, and month by month. We might be able to derive satisfaction from sharing our training experience instantly, rather than only talking about it on race day, but the key ingredient will always be the drive to satisfy ourselves. The day we run to satisfy others is the day that running starts to get old.

Of course, the training calendar is not the only application of calendars to running. The race calendar, of which the UR calendar is one, has inestimable value to us as runners. Other people make New Year’s resolutions; ultrarunners lay out their annual race schedule. Who needs a resolution to upgrade their healthy lifestyle, when there is that big race across the Eurasian continent looming on the horizon?

The race calendar has undergone a continuous transition during the establishment of the modern era of ultrarunning. Again referring to that time more years ago than I want to admit, the ultra race calendar for the entire United States could be easily compiled into a few pages. If runners of that era had the sort of travel budgets that are common today, it would have been possible to run most of them. The majority of the races were held during the fall, winter, and spring, as most were held on roads and aid stations were few and far between, mostly consisting of a few cups of water or electrolyte drink. At my first Atlanta 50 miler, the aid stations were unmanned card tables spaced 12.5 miles apart, with a few cups of Gatorade. The sport grew quickly, and the calendar fleshed out even faster. By the time UltraRunning Magazine came on the scene in 1980, a complete calendar of ultras across the country filled several pages in the back. In keeping with the annual dispersal of races on the calendar, the 10-issue magazine skipped a couple of summer months, when activity in the sport was at low ebb.

The explosion in trail racing fundamentally altered the distribution of races across the calendar, and the summer months have become the prime racing season. In keeping with the race calendar, it is the winter months that got skipped. In order to support this transition in the ultra scene, aid stations have grown to veritable all-you-can-eat buffets, manned by large and enthusiastic crews. Hearkening back to those long ago days when I started doing ultras, those races had no buckles, no schwag, not even a t-shirt. There were not enough participants to make it feasible to make all that stuff. And the $5-$10 entry fees would not have supported it. At a big-time ultra today, single aid stations are likely to feature their own t-shirt!

From a race director’s perspective, the calendar is also a vital tool. One of the early stages of planning a race is selecting the date. Experienced RDs will avoid conflicts with established events in the same geographical region. At one time, this meant any race in the same quadrant of the country, within the same month. These days, the calendar is considerably more crowded, and in the hotbeds of ultrarunning, it might mean the same weekend, within a region of a single state. And, with the hugely popular events that sell out early, it can even be a marketing tactic to offer an alternative on the same weekend.

Speaking of sell-out events, the calendar has also seen transition in its role in the announcement of events, and the collection of entries. In those olden days, the scarcity of events meant that runners would plan their race calendar a year in advance. The New Year was a key date in announcing an event, as a mid-year announcement would doom an event to a small turnout. And, in those days 50 runners was a huge event, so you can imagine what a “small” turnout meant. Even with the limitation of collecting all entries by mail, most ultra fields were fairly well in place months before the actual event. Budgeting and the purchasing of supplies for the race were fairly simple. With the passage of time, the number of events expanded much faster than the number of runners, and eventually the RDs had to operate against a backdrop of guesswork. With entrants to an event often waiting until the last minute to sign up, the RD had to estimate and make purchases based on that estimate. In addition to the greater number of events translating to less travel time as well as less financial commitment to reach an event, bad weather the weekend of a race could be catastrophic. The response was to institute accelerated fees for late entries in order to encourage the runners to enter sooner.

There came a time when the number of new events began to decline. Both available venues and open calendar dates imposed some restriction. In addition, the small budgets and low expectations of the era of $5-$10 races was a thing of the past. Between the numerous extraneous purchases, managing a large number of volunteers manning elaborate aid stations, and an increasingly demanding attitude from the governmental entities that control most potential venues, putting on an ultra was not the simple matter it had once been. The gamble involved in predicting the number of last-minute entrants added a level of complexity and financial risk that was a lot less acceptable. Between that, and the elevated status of the most popular events, the trend began to reverse itself. At least for the big-name events, we entered an era of lotteries and instant sellouts. The most important dates on the calendar transitioned from race dates to the date of the lottery, or the date entry opened for the first-come first-served events. Runners were driven to planning their race schedule for the year once again, much of it based on the contingency of obtaining an entry to one or more of the sell-out events. RDs of the smaller events saw the arrival of entries timed to immediately following those lotteries and entry openings of the sell-outs. Fortunately, the mail is no longer a major player in the collection of entries, as that has also moved to the internet.

It is fitting that the sport of ultrarunning is so closely tied to the calendar. Running is perhaps the oldest sport, a simple contest naturally springing from our own natural abilities. The calendar is among our oldest inventions, having been developed before the invention of writing, using fixed structures to follow the progress of the year. My own running calendars are a thing of the past. I had to give them up. While my physical capabilities are not what they used to be, the same compulsion to improve on my numbers each day, week, and month drove me to train past what my body could withstand. Despite giving up that one application, the calendar remains one of the most useful tools in my running. As an RD, it directs the timing of every step in putting on an event. The remarkable accessibility of such things as sunrise, sunset and moon phase calendars on the internet assist me in every stage of planning, both for the races I put on and the runs I plan for myself.

The ultrarunning calendar; you have to wonder where we would be without it.

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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.

1 Comment

  1. Paula Adams on

    Time and calendars have a totally different meaning to me now that I am a runner and racer. When I was just a mom/wife/regular person I made plans according to my family’s birthdays, holidays, season changes, vacations. Now I fit those things in around my races if necessary. I used to live in the moment and change plans on a whim. Now I am scheduling my whole year in advance and planning my training and travel! Running has not only given me more self-discipline than I ever had before, but it has given me the ability and desire to set goals and plan how to achieve them. I love the online and printed calendars for this purpose. Thanks for the article. I hope to meet you at a race in 2018.