Gary Cantrell on Rules


This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of UltraRunning Magazine.

Rules; who likes ’em? Nobody.

Who needs ’em? Everybody.

Running ultras is supposed to be fun. The last thing we want to deal with is having a bunch of rules to worry about. Unfortunately, ultrarunning is practiced by humans. And, without rules, some of those humans are bound to take liberties with what might seem innately obvious. Every race director would like to see rules kept to a minimum. Having rules just leads to two things; enforcement and interpretation.

Enforcement is unpleasant for everyone. A race director’s greatest pleasure is seeing the runners enjoy themselves. Runners in the course of being disqualified do not enjoy themselves. RDs start not enjoying themselves at the first report of a rules infraction, and the un-enjoyment of the day only intensifies through the fact finding, and deliberations. The actual disqualification itself is only icing on the cake.

Interpretation is not as much unpleasant as it is maddening. You might think I am referring to interpreting a potential violation, to see if it actually contravenes the rules. Actually, this part is simple. Actual rules are only an attempt to verbally describe clear concepts of right and wrong. Reducing a concept to words, however, is not as simple as it seems. For some runners, being given a tangible target, such as a written rule, only seems to bring out the desire to “beat the system.”

Most people start out by thinking that the only rule necessary is that you must travel the entire distance on foot. Experience teaches the RD that such simplification is filled with loopholes (real or perceived). Someone will ride on the tailgate of a truck, dragging their feet the entire way, and argue that they were “on my feet.” The problem is that rules are written by people who are focused in the intent of the rule, but are often read by those who believe that they were intended as word parsing riddles, which, by being solved, can open up easier ways of achieving the desired end result.

True futility is trying to solve the problem of interpretation by writing more and more detailed rules. The object of putting on ultras (if you recall) is to be fun, not to produce a set of rules that rival the tax code. And, it often seems that the more detailed the rule, the more loopholes are to be found. Despite the fact that it will create the issue of interpretation, it is best to stick with the minimum number of general rules and keep them short and simple; then apply them according to intent. As yet, ultras are not being adjudicated by lawyers and judges.

Be warned, however, the rules violator will respond as if the disqualification is your fault. And, you will feel the same way. That is just human nature. But the truth is, the person who forced this odious task on you is the one who is at fault.

The biggest surprise for a new rule enforcer is that the actual administration of justice pales in comparison to the handling of complaints. For every real infraction, there are five suspected transgressions reported by zealous guardians of morality. Runners can be quite suspicious of the motives and ethics of other runners. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, these reports can be very difficult to act on:

“There is a runner cutting the course.”


“I don’t want to say. I don’t want them mad at me.”

“Where, when?”

“If I tell you that, they will know it was me.”


“Aren’t you going to do something about it?”

A lot of our issues with rules stem from the difference in how we develop morally from how we develop physically. We all go through the same stages of physical development. We roll over, then we sit up, crawl, walk, and run, all in order. The ages may vary, but we all go through the same stages, and we all go through them all.

Our moral development is different. Stages exist, and they also follow an order, but some individuals can cease their moral development at any stage, and progress no further. We begin with results-based morality. Something is wrong only if we get punished for it. Basically, if we don’t get caught, it is not wrong. The stage one moralist places equal blame on the person applying the punishment as they do to themselves for the original breach. This is the general level of the most notorious frauds and cheaters in the sport. The response when one of these people is caught is often; “I don’t understand how he lives with himself.” The answer is, he “lives with himself quite easily.” In their moral compass, getting what they wanted was moral. The only sin was getting caught, and most of the blame for that belongs to whoever caught them. It was all good until that happened.

The second stage is the absolute stage. Obedience to the rules is paramount. The “justice” of the rules is of secondary importance. These runners are less likely to break the rules themselves, unless they can parse out a loophole. But they are anxious to see all the rules applied, at all times, to everyone. They will come to you with multiple reports of infractions, and want half the field disqualified. And they can become extremely frustrated when you try to explain that you did not establish the race for the purpose of punishing those who bent the rules.

The final stage is where the primary driver is “justice.” This is really the best application for dealing with rules enforcement. To quote Coach Mike, the head basketball coach at our school: “I don’t try to treat everyone the same, because everyone is not the same. I try to treat everyone fair.” Pacing may be against the rules of your race. But, you are not going to apply that rule to the blind runner, who requires a guide runner to participate. You are not going to be cracking down on the grandmother who has never participated in a competitive running event, and has family members helping her make it to the finish line. On the other hand, the world class runner attempting to set a record, or win an event, needs to be held to the standard. We need to take the individual situations into account.

However, just as every runner is not the same, neither is every rule the same. Some rules need to be universally enforced, for the greater good, regardless of how sympathetic the situation. Cutoff times and time limits need to be upheld. Those are set for a purpose, and if they are disregarded, then they do not exist. If you let a runner through five minutes over the limit, then how do you justify cutting people off at 10? If you count the runner who finishes 10 minutes over the limit, then why not an hour? And how do you explain it to people who stopped, because the cutoffs and limits had expired? Counting a finisher who did not run the same course as everyone else is wrong. It does not matter whether the runner got lost, or intentionally cut the course. It does not matter if the level of difficulty and distance could be argued as equivalent. They did not run the same race as everyone else.

The bottom line is, no one likes rules. Race administrators do not enjoy enforcing them, and runners do not always like being bound by them. But, they are necessary for any sport, even one participated in purely for fun, to proceed in an orderly manner, and with a minimum of disputes.


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. David Leeke on

    In times of stress, which is most of the time, I am so glad people like Mr. Cantrell are here among us shining like a beacon or glow stick in the darkness.

  2. It sounds to me that Gary found the need to explain himself due to the pressure of people who still do not understand the concept of normativity. It is rather important to set a standard to guide those who are prone to find ways to stretch the interpretation of a straighforward rule. It is rather unbelievable that there are runners like that. What’s the point to cheat?

  3. Brice Hammerstein on

    It’s really interesting Mr Cantrell notes “Be warned, however, the rules violator will respond as if the disqualification is your fault. And, you will feel the same way. That is just human nature. But the truth is, the person who forced this odious task on you is the one who is at fault.”

    There are rules in all of life. Immigration is a huge issue now but in it’s simplest form they are arguing about rules (federal law). Doesn’t matter what side of the debate you’re on. If rules don’t matter in racing then should rules matter fo daily living? Can I ignore traffic lights without consequences? We are at the point as a society many people are comfortable breaking rules and those who disagree with breaking of rules (laws) are branded as haters.