Ultimate XC: Vermont Edition-The Cutoff Dilemma

Every race has its challenges. 

I was merely an observer at the Jay Mountain Marathon (Ultimate XC: Vermont Edition) this year, but my running partner, Debbie, competed for the third time. I’ve done the full Jay Challenge in the past. I’ve done the mountain bike race only. I’ve done the trail running race only. So, I’ve been around Jay and friendly with Race Director, Dan DesRosiers, for several years. 

I was surprised to find out that there was fresh controversy over the race cutoff times and how this was handled. The race forum is filled with comments and concerns about the future of the event. 

Debbie is the Race Director of the Soapstone Mountain Trail Races, and President of the host club, Shenipsit Striders. I’ve been an active participant in every aspect of that race for nearly 10 years. In each of the last two years, we have had issues with runners refusing to leave the half-marathon course after missed cutoff times. After last year’s troubles, stern warnings were added to both the race flyer/registration form and the pre-race briefing. Apparently people don’t read or listen.Both times, the volunteers felt guilty enough to remain on the course waiting for the last folks to come through. The discussion about leaving them out there to fend for themselves was a short one. Six hours for a 24km trail race is a long time. When you are last on the course, you don’t have the benefit of a lot of other runners around you to help if necessary. 

As a co-captain of Team Horst Sports, a member of the Horst-Benidorm-PRC Masters Cycling Team, and its various incarnations over the past 11 years, I’ve directed or co-directed more than ten cyclocross races, including the now defunct, Frank-N-Horst Cross in Keene, New Hampshire; and the ongoing Southington (CT) Cyclocross race. Cross doesn’t have cutoff times, but we have had our fair share of issues. Amateur cycling is plagued with bad attitudes and a lot of issues that the trail/ultra running community doesn’t have to face. After eight consecutive years of running Frank-N-Horst, we had enough. There was griping about the fees, the course, the prize list, parking, categories…just about everything. It is hard to sustain an event. When a race gets to 24 years, like Soapstone, 25 like the Nipmuck Trail Marathon, or 30, like Western States 100, what are the determining factors? 

Race direction isn’t easy. 

Whether you are in it for a little profit or if it is purely a not-for-profit/charitable venture (like all the races I’ve directed or been involved with), it isn’t any different, but I would argue that the big budget races have it more difficult. The higher fees create higher expectations. Witness the disappointment of the 400 runners who flew to Squaw Valley for this year’s Western States 100 Endurance Run. The event was cancelled due to forest fires after most competitors had arrived. Talk about disappointment. That makes a DNF or the potential for a DNF seem pretty insignificant by comparison. 

There was a backlash in April following the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain. I wrote about that race at the time. They had some serious issues with their cutoff times. It was a first time race and none of the organizers had pre-run the course in its entirety. The course was much tougher than they expected. I didn’t run it, but Debbie did (the 50 miler). She says it is harder than Jay. Jay winner, Leigh Schmitt also ran it, and he also said the Bear Mountain course was harder than Jay, especially the first half. Yep, harder than Jay. From the race accounts, it seems that even the 50km version is as hard, if not harder. Their cutoff times were way too aggressive and a lot of runners were irate. The mass DNF’s created chaos even while the race was going on. The aid station volunteers were confused about the rules, and the rules were being modified on the fly. After 10 hours manning their stations with limited communication, they were besieged by runners who didn’t know if they could or should continue running. The overlapping 50km and 50 mile courses caused further problems.  The fact that the North Face race was so early in the season posed additional challenges. There was less daylight, colder temperatures, heavy rain, and a lot of runners who weren’t quite yet in 50km/50m shape. 

As for Jay…Dan DesRosiers puts more passion into his events than almost any race director I know. This doesn’t automatically qualify the race as a great one, but it is a major contributing factor. Ultimate XC has clearly developed into a big budget category race. In contrast, the events in the New England Grand Tree Series and sister snowshoe series are low key and grassroots by design. It doesn’t get more low key than the Nipmuck Trail Marathon, which saw a full field this year on its 25th anniversary. RD Nipmuck Dave is equally as passionate about his “baby” as RD Dan is about his, but in a much different way. 

An RD’s #1 priority is the safety of the participants. Dan has made that clear over and over again. I heard his pre-race speech again this year. Despite his usual bombast and playful taunts, he is very serious about safety. But, how can you make a 33 mile race safe? How can you have volunteers and spotters covering the whole course? You can’t, and that is why the runners themselves need to look out for each other. There really isn’t a code of conduct and with so many newbie’s running tough ultra trail races, you can’t necessarily rely on the other guy to help you in a pinch.  At times, a friendly co-runner can make a big difference. A perfect example of this was eloquently described by several writers in the July issue of Ultrarunning magazine. A runner had collapsed at a California race and if it wasn’t for the clear thinking of both the runners who came upon him, and race volunteers, then he would have died. Their actions and the actions of the medical personnel who eventually reached him, saved his life on a remote part of the course.

This year, I was only able to watch Jay from a handful of spots. The river crossing had two EMT’s and a third race volunteer. It may have been overkill, but it was still smart to have someone there. Interestingly, there are other spots on the course (e.g. the streams and bog) that pose far more danger. I recall last year that some of the isolated stream running sections were pretty sketchy. I imagine that this year the current was stronger. You could drown. That is not a typical challenge in a normal trail race. We are blessed that someone like Dan has pulled together the resources to allow runners to register and partake in these unique challenges. 

Nothing is perfect when it comes to a race. I heard that some folks were cutting across the fields in the last three or four miles. Is this against the rules? Unethical? I know for a fact that it impacted the results. This was a major issue in the 2007 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc race where the Europeans have a different race culture/ethics. They always take the shortest distance from flag to flag even if it cuts the course or goes off trail and/or damages the environment. Debbie was at that race too and saw this behavior first hand. 

See, I could go on and on. Every race has its challenges. It is a shame that the behavior of a few could ruin it for the rest, but that is always how it goes. I’m much more laid back in my approach. I think I’ve mellowed after years in business and a few years as a father. I don’t let these little things bother me as much as they used too. Then again, I wasn’t one of the runners impacted by the cutoff rules. This year, I was merely an observer. 

I always argue that the two most important things needed to make a great trail running race are:

1) The course

2) The volunteers

My final observation is that the Ultimate XC: Vermont Edition is a fabulous event with a great course, great volunteers, and a dynamic race director. 

Now, for a few more images of Jay. Aren’t these folks having a blast?

 

  

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