November 11, 2013

Hardrock Speaks. Should Leadville Listen?

Ok, the following is a little more than I expected to write. If you can make it through, please take a minute and leave a comment.

I read today that the Hardrock 100 is phasing Leadville out of its lineup of qualifying races. Beginning in 2015, Leadville Trail 100 finishers will no longer be “qualified” to run Hardrock. What I find interesting is the reason behind this decision. Here is the text taken directly from the Hardrock website:

A note about the 2013 Leadville 100: The Leadville 100 includes many of the features that are important for a HR qualifier: high altitude, long climbs, potential for mountain weather, and more. However, the 2013 Leadville 100 ignored other traits of importance to the HR: environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport.

I think the Hard Rock organizers are overreaching here. And, yes, I’m fully aware that this isn’t the popular position to take. Bashing Leadville has become a sport within our sport. I get that. I also get why. The Leadville trail 100, despite being one of the oldest 100 milers in the country, has become the equivalent of an outcast kid in a class of buttoned up Ivy Leaguers. Its bulging size (943 starters in 2013), its NYSE listed corporate owner, its lack of a trail-service requirement, its olly olly oxen free philosophy of no qualifying race required because, after all, everyone is qualified to run 100 miles, all these quirks, big or small, make Leadville something of a outcast among its peers.

I understand that there were some serious missteps by the race organizers at the 2013 Leadville 100. Most of these were the direct result of too many runners combined with too many crew members and inadequate logistics. What ensued were traffic jams at Winfield, Twin Lakes and other aid stations, a shortage of supplies for runners, trash on trail, confused aid station volunteers, etc., etc. It probably doesn’t help that Life Fitness, the NYSE owner of the race, is not, heaven forbid, a non-profit organization and does have to justify its existence with profits to its shareholders.

That said, all of what went wrong in this years Leadville 100 can be fixed if Life Fitness listens to the feedback that is flowing like the Mississippi their way. But are they listening? I have not talked to the corporate brass at Life Fitness but I would love the opportunity to do so. If given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to inform them that they need to pay attention to these details or the past 30 years of good will that this event has engendered with the Leadville community and the ultra-running sport at large is in jeopardy.

Which brings me back to the Hardrock organizers’ decision to throw their cross state brethren to the wind by “phasing” Leadville off their qualifier list. This, as I said, is overreaching. Why? Because it sets a bad precedent. It would be kind of like the Boston Marathon saying to the NYC marathon (or any marathon for that matter) that its runners can’t qualify for Boston because the race is too big, too corporate, too harmful to the environment, too crowded, etc. It is not a perfect analogy but the concept is relevant. If NY is singled out, should London, or Berlin or LA also be excluded? Along these lines, if Leadville is singled out, shouldn’t UTMB as well? That race (2,300 entrants) dwarfs Leadville, Western States, AC and Hardrock combined. Can you imagine the impact on the environment from that event?

The problem is illuminated by asking one question. Where does one draw the line? What does it mean to be environmentally responsible? Is smaller better? How small is small? And where does one find a clear definition of a “positive impact on the health of our sport?” The more I think about this last one the more baffled I become. One thing I’ve learned about running 100s is that crossing the finish line is the single most gratifying part of our sport. How does one apply this gratification to a definition of a “positive impact on the health of our sport?”

The thing that gets me is that there seems to be a little bit of elitism seeping through the veins of this whole subject.  Who among us runners can say what another runner should want or value? When I showed up to Leadville this year I too was aghast at the number of runners on certain sections, the amount of cars on the streets, the disorientation of certain volunteers. I was also extremely impressed by the volunteers that I personally interacted with. Never had I been so well taken care of at a 100 mile race. I’ve also never experienced such a positive vibe from other runners on the trail (I'm not sure reducing the number of runners is the best solution). To me the Leadville 100 was the best experience I’ve had in the six 100 mile races I’ve completed. Was it perfect? Of course not. But I didn’t sign up for this sport to experience perfection.

When I was a little boy, I used to get embarrassed when my mom did something that was different. Like when she drove her yellow Volkswagon Thing down the sidewalk on her 40th birthday. Or when she would talk to total strangers like they’d been her best friend since grade school. And, when the principle at my high school told me not to take my hat off at graduation, it was my mom who asked me why on earth I would hide my new haircut – a mohawk – on such an important day.

My mom taught me a thing or two about conformity. The first was that conformity leads to intolerance. And intolerance leads to a lot of what is wrong with our society. It is important to keep an open mind about people and things. Leadville is not Hard Rock. Nor should it be. It’s bigger. It’s corporate owned. Any adult can enter it, regardless of experience.

My hope would be that the Hard Rock race organizers reverse their decision to phase out Leadville as a qualifier, and give the Leadville race organizers a chance to right their ship. Sure, they messed up this year. But give them a break. After all, Leadville has been part of the ultra family for 30 years.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post and honest opinion. Our community is somewhat caught in the middle of the good, the bad, and the money!

Anonymous said...

Maybe not get so into politics and.....just run and breath!

Mountain Mayhem said...

Awesome, Will! Well said. More upbeat then the podcast of two guys sitting in a bar in Boulder making meth lab references to LV ;). Plus it's coming from a solid businessman yourself! It was great to see you up in Leadville this summer and hope to see you again!!

Will Cooper said...

thanks Cindy. i look forward to seeing you guys or in CO!

Markus said...

I think that the comment from the HR100 Board regarding Leadville 100 was unnecessary. Everybody who is familiar with both races know that they are worlds apart in atmosphere and challenge.

With a lot more races to choose from then 10 years ago it makes sense to cut Leadville from the list of Hardrock qualifiers. Leadville is high but that's about it. You run on some roads, the trails are non technical and you can have a lot of interaction with your crew. AT HR100 you are out there on more technical trails which much less support interaction not to mention all the elevation you have to master.

I never really understood that hype about Leadville but I think the biggest draw was always that you didn't need to qualify for it. And that's why the finisher rate in Leadville is so low. Because there are just inexperienced runners at the start line.

Hardrock 100 on the other Hand one of the more difficult courses in the country has a very high finisher rate which speaks for the great selection of the running candidates.

Will Cooper said...

Markus and brandan: thank you so much for your comments. I totally agree with you that Leasville pales in comparison to HR in terms of difficulty. But that isn't why HR is phasing leadville out as a qualifier.

Olga said...

I thought good thing they phased them out...without comments would have been cleaner transition though.

Flamin' Mo said...

I disagree. This was not the first year with issues, not the first year that Lifetime ran the event. I and others I know of wrote them letters after the 2011 and 2012 event describing issues related to the # of entrants and their handling of crews/traffic/ etc. I inlcuded several options to mitigate the issues - shuttles at winfield, crew limits, and others. Lifetime has had a chance to "right the ship" and instead each year they have increased the # of entrants, they have not stressed the importance of respect (for environment, volunteers, or host communities).
Lifetime doesn't have to "listen" to HR. There is no NEED for them to be an HR qualifier. They can have the corporate race atmosphere.
I think HR board was reasonable in saying that a runner that completes LT100 is not HR qualified - a success at LT100 does not demonstrate that the runner is likely to respect the environment, appreciate and support the hosting communities. (While not cited by the HR board, I also agree with the other poster that said the technical nature of the trails at the two races are vastly different.)

Will Cooper said...

FM, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is commendable that you wrote to Life Fitness with your ideas about improving Leadville. I appears that there is lot of negative feedback flowing their way and if they can't implement a few simple changes next year (shuttles, limits on crew etc) shame on them. At that point I would say they are asleep at the wheel and heading for a cliff. As to HR, again, there is no mention on the website that Leadville is being phased out for lack of difficulty. On the contrary, as stated in the section I copied in this post, HR says Leadville "INCLUDES many of the features that are important for a HR qualifier..." My point is that if they are phasing leadville out for reasons of respect as you put it, such a reasons are a slippery slope, and the question must be asked where does one draw the line. UTMB, with 2300 runners and hords of crew, in my humble opinion, is a greator violator of the "other traits" HR finds important. Yet, UTMB remains a qualifyer.

Matthew @ My Little Eye Surgery said...

Awesome post!

Jill said...

Loved the post! I thought it was pretty unprofessional how HR went about their decision - finger pointing and all. Wyatt Hornsby had a really good post up about this same subject, too. In case you missed it:

It makes me want to run Leadville 100 next year, out of spite. Well, almost! :)

Will Cooper said...

Thanks Jill. I know how you feel. It is kind of a rush to judgement...even though I understand why they are judging.