When Mother Nature Won’t Cooperate

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The swinging bridge on the Western States Trail damaged by the 2013 American Fire. Photo courtesy of USFS.

The swinging bridge on the Western States Trail damaged by the 2013 American Fire. Photo courtesy of USFS.

Rain, freezing temperatures, and sweltering heat are a given in ultramarathons. With trail events occurring year-round, there’s a general understanding that sometimes the weather is going to suck. Most ultra runners are used to training in adverse weather conditions and, let’s face it, no one wants to DNS a race they’ve been training for because of bad weather  (well, most of us, anyway). So when does a Race Director decide to pull the plug?

Safety is always a top priority in any ultra event. Muddy trails, creek crossings, steep overhangs and wet logs are all hazards, but none are reasons to cancel a race – they just make it more fun. But adventure can turn from fun to frightening in a matter of moments. Jeff Browning recalls being stuck during Hardrock in 2014 due to a thunderstorm, “As I dropped off the (Handies Peak) summit onto the short saddle, BOOM! Lightning struck the crag 60 meters in front of me. I immediately hit the deck on my hands and knees.” Hardrock’s course has an elevation gain and descent totaling 67,984 feet – and averages an elevation of 11,000 feet. With the highest point on the Colorado course being 14,048 feet, the chance of runners encountering a passing storm is pretty probable. Here is what the Hardrock Runner’s Manual has to say about lightning, “The long time limit is not only in recognition of the difficult terrain, but also allows runners to wait out thunderstorms or other life threatening weather. You can hunker down in a valley for 2-4 hours and still finish, but if you get fried by lightning your running career may end on the spot.”

While Hardrock warns competitors of potential encounters with lightning, other natural elements can force a Race Director’s hand beyond their control. This year’s Grindstone 100 in Swoope, Virginia sat in the path of Hurricane Joaquin, and Forest Service Officials pulled the permit in anticipation of torrential rain and gale force winds. Fortunately, Race Director Clark Zealand was able to get the permits reinstated and the race, which advertises itself as the hardest 100-miler east of the 100th meridian, was rescheduled for the following weekend.

And some races just fall on notoriously rough weather weekends. The Big Cedar Endurance 100-miler on Prayer Mountain in Dallas, Texas has only had 12 finishers out of 100 starters over the last two years. Flash flooding, a series of thunderstorms and hours of non-stop rain rendered the trails impassable 15 hours into this year’s race. Runners were held at aid stations once Race Director Libby Jones decided that the terrain was too unsafe to continue the race, “The weather worsened and within two hours, the fourth thunderstorm we experienced during the race decided to sit right above of us, flash flood warnings started, and we received a couple reports of knee to waist deep water – then suddenly chest deep water.”

While Mother Nature can be brutal with her rain and thunderstorms, wildfires have also forced the cancellation of ultramarathons (notably, Western States 100 in 2008). It’s these environmental threats we encounter in the world of ultrarunning that make the sport so challenging, not to mention exciting. And while ultra runners are as tough as they come, it’s up to the Race Directors to ensure their courses are safe without putting participants lives at risk.

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About Author

Amy Clark is a freelance writer and runner living in Bend, Oregon. In addition to running marathons and ultra marathons, she has parasailed in Baja, snowboarded in Big Sky and fought wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service. A native of Oregon, Amy is working on her first extreme adventure novel while living (and running) in Bend.

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