by Gary Cantrell
Directing ultramarathon races provides some fascinating insights into the people who participate in the sport. Well, actually it only reveals some of their more interesting behaviors. True understanding and insight is reserved exclusively for those with a more complete comprehension of the naked ape than mine.
Dichotomous is the only word to describe ultrarunners. They are, at once, thoughtless and considerate, greedy and selfless, stubborn and cooperative. Ultimately their inexplicable behavior drives a race director mad and makes the entire effort worthwhile.
To begin with, many runners have little understanding of the budgetary restraints an ultra faces. As a RD, I confront a daily question of what to do about the messages on my answering machine. I assume that the calls are being made from work to spare the runner's home telephone bill. Then they leave the RD with a long distance telephone number to return the call. Now, a few calls might not matter, but a few every day are insupportable. We want to spend our race funds on the race and RD's spouses are notoriously sensitive to racing inroads into the family budget. Therefore, we are left feeling rude to those we want to treat hospitably, because the calls are not returned.
Once on site, some runners seem more bent on getting their "money's worth" than completing the race. RD's learn quickly to keep race supplies stored out of sight and release them only as needed. Otherwise the slow, or non-greedy get left out. If the supplies are left unattended, there are those runners and crew who will transfer them in bulk to their own stores. Coolers will be filled with race ice and packed full of the race's food. Water will be loaded into the individual runner's car, container and all. Tape, paint, pencils and pens, even toilet paper, there is nothing that is not subject to being transferred to the possession of a single runner.
My favorite story was the runner who went to a post-race BBQ chicken picnic and within minutes had consumed three entire chocolate pies. His reasoning, "I didn't want any chicken." Apparently he never wondered if anyone else would want dessert!
Other runners, after entering then failing to show, will call afterwards and request a refund of their race fee. Attempting to explain that their funds were used to provide for them at the race (whether they attended or not) seldom mollifies them.
As soon as the RD in me is ready to throw hands up in despair, I remember the others. Runners who notice shortages and go out and buy supplies with their own money and quietly add them to the race's stockpile. Others who donate funds beyond the entry fee just because they know it is needed. Ultrarunners may be selfish, but they are as readily generous.
Likewise, ultrarunners create unnecessary extra work for everyone. When paper cups of drink are handed out, the runners who discard them in litter containers are rare. Many will carry the refuse for miles before tossing them carelessly aside. At any race function, most litter gets the same treatment, simply being abandoned where it sits. For no reason other than the failure of runners to toss their own trash, cleanup is one of the major considerations for any RD.
Time, like money, is a precious commodity for the RD. However, the runners, sending in entry forms, must believe that a device to stop time is standard RD equipment. They don't put their address on the entry form. Surely we can look it up on the envelope (or even get it off the check). In place of listing their previous times, I frequently see the message, "You already have this from last year." I often wonder if I am the only person so disorganized that I cannot instantly produce any bit of data that I have ever possessed. Unfortunately, I am sufficiently challenged just to keep track of the current race's entry forms.
Yet, the same runners will immediately pitch in. For years I filled the water jugs for the Strolling Jim 40 Mile myself. All I had to do was start the task within sight of the registering runners and within minutes, there was a volunteer workforce helping. Not only are the runners generous and selfish, they are also inconsiderate and helpful.
What makes the whole thing most perplexing is that there is no separate "Goofus and Gallant." These are the same runners. It is easy to find examples of both sorts of behavior from any of us. As Scott Adams says, we are all idiots sometimes. So it isn't as if all the race directors could share a list of nincompoops to blackball from racing. Every one of us would be on it. (Yes, I'm certain that list would include me!)
Incidents that could be frustrating are also entertaining. We all know that ultrarunners represent an intelligent and educated segment of society. At least that is the assumption.
How, then, do we explain the routine practice of filling out an entry form, then attaching a list of questions (all of which are answered on the entry form) and sending in the whole thing. And what about the safety pin issue? Almost every race uses numbers and it is rare that we are expected to super-glue the number to our flesh or tie it on with chest hairs. Nevertheless, it often seems that 20 percent of the field casually tosses away the packet without ever looking for their pins. The most frequent question, five minutes before the start is "Where are my safety pins?"
If you are wondering why we don't just omit the pins from the packets and leave them available at the start, then re-read the section on supplies. I have tried that and it quadruples the number of pins required. Like you, I assumed that there would be little reason for runners to use more than the necessary four pins. I neglected to account for the "set it down and wander off" syndrome. That is also the phenomenon that means that anyone who takes flyers to set out at a race needs to take about four flyers per runner unless they want the flyers to run out before half the runners have shown up!
The abandoned property does not just belong to the race. After any ultra, it is astonishing what race gear can be found during cleanup. Anyone who can't afford to buy running gear, could stockpile supplies with all the latest, just by cleaning up after races.
However, we can't accuse runners of being unconcerned with their gear. Soon after the race is over, you start getting the calls and letters inquiring as to missing stuff. Naturally, one might expect the sought after items to include the $150 shoes, or the $100 fanny packs. Instead, it is usually, "I left a shirt from the 'Run it Up the Flagpole Five Km'. Did you see it? Both sleeves were cut off, it has a lot of holes in it and there are large black oil-spots on the front. I hope you found it, because I really love that shirt." Is it better to just say you did not find it, or should you admit that you mistook it for a rag and used it to clean the toilet? Not only are the runners careless with their property, they are very particular about it.
Ultrarunners have a unique view of many things associated with a race. Unless the race starts at a local landfill, the RD invariably faces a "pee crisis" every year. I am a southerner, myself, and as any good country boy knows, porches were invented so that pee would not splash on your feet. Even I understand that the 97-year-old lady who lives next to the start is going to be unhappy to look out and see 40 men lined up peeing on her Begonias. And when some "equality" seeking woman chooses the same spot, the resulting furor can be memorable.
Who can possibly explain why ultrarunners who seek out 100-mile challenges are so diligent in their search for ways to shortcut the course? For those of us who came from track backgrounds, where three steps on the apron of the curb means disqualification, the propensity for cutting switchbacks, through yards, or across any traverseable short cut, is a mystery. What is the possible point of running 98 and a half miles of a 100-miler? On loop courses, I keep expecting to see someone simply run a 30-foot circle around the start/finish line and await their acclaim for clever route finding.
These are but a sampling of the mysteries of the ultrarunner's mind. They can only be expected to make you laugh and cry, to frustrate you and reward you. And, without fail, to do things for which the only possible response is... "Say what?"