Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ultra-racing Rules

Self-supported ultra-endurance mountain bike racing is losing its soul.

In the 2012 Arizona Trail 300, at least twenty percent of the finishers rode in cars. In the 2011 Colorado Trail Race, at least twenty-five percent of the racers chose to ignore an official National Forest trail closure. In the 2010 Tour Divide, a whole group of racers drafted each other from Banff to Mexico. All of these were clear violations of specific rules--and yet violators often begged for leniency and exceptions. Race organizers were inconsistent with their responses, with the majority refusing to mete out disqualifications or relegations.

Yet those are just a few of the most blatant examples of major rule infractions. There are many other instances of racers dabbling in gray areas. All it takes is a glance through race-report blogs to find examples if riders sharing gear and food. Even “trail magic,” a term once reserved to describe serendipitous moments such as finding an unopened candy bar on a tough climb, is now regularly invoked to justify begging for water and dinner from other trail users. Bystanders have even gotten into the act, handing out goodies to their friends and stashing coolers full of snacks in remote locations.

As the boundaries that define the spirit of ultra-racing are trampled and distorted through ignorance and entitlement, the sport is quickly becoming a free-for-all, where the final results justify the means. One racer even tried to argue that, since ultra-racing isn’t sanctioned, there aren’t really any rules anyway.

But there are rules, and there always have been. When John Stamstad initiated the ultra-racing genre with his pioneering individual time trial of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 1999, he established a simple set of principles, predicated on the concepts of self-sufficiency, self-discipline, and equal-opportunity. Racing utterly alone against the clock, Stamstad rode a defined route exclusively under his own power, and without any sort of support. He ate and resupplied only at commercial establishments, and never bummed goodies from other riders. And in doing so, he brought the essence of other self-supported races such as the Vendee Globe sailboat race to bicycle racing. In other words, he defined, by example, the spirit of ultra-racing. While I don’t personally know Stamstad, this quotation from him says so much: “…angst is quickly replaced with the adrenalin rush of knowing you are facing the trail, the elements, and yourself and nothing else—the world is simplified.”

Those who have followed in Stamstad’s tracks have attempted to recreate his original accomplishments and vision. In so doing, the “first” organized ultra-race, the Divide Race, codified Stamstad’s vision: “The overriding principle is simply do to it yourself. All of the pedaling, pushing, bike wrenching, food buying (and eating…), water filtering, suffering, and all logistical figuring.” Simple enough, it would seem, both in concept and execution.

But the devil is always in the details. While race organizers have tried to keep the rules simple, with the idea that a few basic principles will be properly interpreted to address a myriad of unforeseen situations, more specific directives have often been added for clarification. Indeed, the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race have a growing list of rules, and many pages of FAQs, addressing such issues as visitation, cell phone usage, alternative routes, etc.

So, why can more ultra-racers be cutting corners, when the rules are getting more complicated and specific? That's a hard question to answer. My best guess is that, as more people are drawn to the ultra-racing format, incompatible preconceptions are brought with them. For an experienced cross-country racer who’s accustomed to fully-stocked feeding stations, bumming some food from a fellow racer may not seem like a big deal. Further, the competitive landscape changes the picture drastically. While Stamstad always focused on the “adventure,” many racers now focus on winning. It isn’t that Stamstad wasn’t competitive (he was!), but rather that the rules of the event became a huge part of the competition: instead of beating everyone at their game, he made a new game that was stricter and far more committing. The behavior of too many racers today seems to be about bringing the race to their level, rather than pushing themselves to new heights.

Ironically, in order to move ultra-racing forward, we need to look backward. Not to replicate the past, but to recapture the passion that drove the sport to discover new boundaries in the first place. We need to rekindle the adventure of exploration, to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions--to rediscover what it’s like to depend only on our own skill, strength, planning, and independence.

The following is a proposed set of ideas, principles, thoughts, and rules that I believe will re-focus the spirit of ultra-racing so that it can continue to advance. It’s by no means an original work, but rather a fresh compilation of existing ideas. A resurrection perhaps. Nor is complete and comprehensive, but rather something that I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about--and that I intend to keep working on. If nothing else, it will define how I ride and race.

First, some principles:
  1. Self supported racing is just that—self supported. Do. It. Yourself.
  2. Organized events are exactly that: organized. If you join a race, accept the rules. If you're an anarchist, then go do your own thing. 
  3. Don't bring the race down to your level. If you find yourself unable to adhere to a rule, then quit honorably (or self-relegate from the race and start touring). Try again later, when you’re smarter, better, etc. After all, who truly deserves more respect: the guy who quit honorably, or the guy who cheated but kept going?
  4. First, racing is a personal commitment to yourself and to every other rider out there that you will act honorably and with integrity. Secondly, it's to see who can go faster.
  5. It’s OK to set higher standards for yourself, if you think that the race is too soft. Just don’t expect everyone else to follow your lead—although some will.
  6. Ride in a way that doesn't jeopardize someone's ability to follow in your track. For example, don't do things give land managers and/or land owners reason to dislike racers.
  7. A race means that you should try to ride fast and push yourself. If speed is totally unimportant, then tour the route instead.
Some specifics:

Move only under your own power
  1. Don't get in a car or other contraption. Ever. Not even if you return to the same place that you started. It’s a bike race.
  2. No drafting. Push the wind out of the way yourself.
  3. No pacers or cooperative tactics. This isn't a team sport.
  4. No devices devised to specifically capture wind energy.
  5. Areobars, fairings, and other devices and strategies to reduce wind drag are acceptable.
Follow the route (even when/if the route changes)
  1. No shortcuts. Follow the published route. If you miss part of the trail by accident (even a mile!), go back and ride it--or DQ/relegate yourself.
  2. No longcuts. If it’s not the route, it’s not the route.
  3. Missing ten miles, and then adding ten miles elsewhere doesn't count.
  4. If you're going to take credit for a ride, be prepared to provide proof that you rode it (GPS, Spot). Yes, people trust you. But they trust you more with proof.
  5. If the route changes mid-race (fire closure, trail crew closure, road construction, washed-out bridge, etc.), take a legal detour that gets you back on track as soon as possible. Let the organizer decide whether it counted or not.
Ride unsupported
  1. Nobody can bring you anything, anywhere, any time.
  2. Don't beg/buy/steal/swap food, gear, water, advice from other riders, or from bystanders. “Do it yourself” applies to bringing the stuff you need, and the knowledge to use it.
  3. There’s no difference between “inside” and “outside” support. All support is support.
  4. There’s no difference between “unplanned” and “planned” support. All support is support.
  5. Trail magic is unnecessary, and there are too many gray areas. Just keep it clean and decline. Trade words and memories, not Kit Kats.
  6. No caches, drops, etc.
  7. Traditional trail angels are OK, as long as they are available to all other racers and trail users. No race-specific angels. Don't accept food, showers, supplies, or lodging from strangers.
  8. Fix your own bike (unless at a bike shop). If you can’t fix it, then push, pull, or drag it to a bike shop.
  9. No mailing stuff ahead to anything other than an official post office. Once you are racing, nobody can mail you anything--although bike shops can order replacement parts if necessary to repair your bike.
You can’t ban bystanders, fans, etc.
  1. If someone wants to meet you on the route, fine. You can’t control where other people are allowed to go. But don't encourage them, and remind them that you are supposed to be doing it yourself.
  2. Bystanders can’t assist you in any way whatsoever, so you must refuse their offers of water, food, parts, and other supplies.
It’s OK to buy stuff in towns, and at commercial establishments
  1. Don't call ahead for services, hotel reservations, etc.
  2. OK to buy food and supplies.
  3. Eating in restaurants is fine. No trailside deliveries though, so don't call Dominos.
  4. Having your bike fixed in town is fine.
  5. Sleeping in hotels is fine, although camping is better style.
  6. It’s OK to trade stuff in towns with other riders to avoid waste--but only if exactly the same stuff can be acquired in that same town.
Pre-race planning is good
  1. Before the race starts, it's OK to read trip reports, borrow gear lists, create cue sheets, analyze GPX data, swap strategy secrets, etc.
  2. Once the race starts, you're on your own.
Casual information-exchange acceptable, up to a point
  1. If you’re riding an organized race with other riders, it’s OK to casually chat about the route and trade experiences--but mostly because it’s probably impossible to avoid it.
  2. Following tire tracks is fine--just be aware that they might go off-route, leading to a disqualification. 
  3. No "team" navigation. If you don't know where you’re going, read your own maps, GPS, etc.
  4. No "team" tactics. While riding with someone who matches your speed is acceptable, it's not OK to form a team (either before or during the race) that cooperatively shares tactics, strategies, etc.
Gadgets are fine
  1. This isn't the Tour de France--don't call friends or family for race-related information or advice.
  2. Taking and making phone calls (or e-mail) is fine, as long the purpose is not to arrange for support, locate other racers, or otherwise seek a strategic advantage. In other words, it’s OK to talk to your boss or tell your kid at bedtime that you love him, or even tell your spouse that you saw a moose. 
  3. Don't log into,, or other race-tracking sites. Not in towns or with smartphones. Need to find out who’s in front of you? Ride faster! Worried about someone catching you? Ride faster!
Don't break the law
  1. If racers break the law, races get banned. We are often racing below the radar, and the minute we give land-use agencies reason to stress, they will shut us down. It’s already happened once, and the Kokopelli Trail Race was shut down for good.
  2. Follow all NFS, BLM and other land-use agency’s regulations, restrictions, rules, laws, etc.
  3. Obey trail closures, re-routes, etc. If the route changes mid-race (fire closure, trail crew closure, flood, etc.), take a detour that gets you back on track as soon as possible—with missing as little of the original as possible.
Respect the trail and other users
  1. It's not a closed course. This isn’t the 24-Hours of Awesomeness. You are not any better than any other trail user, so respect the trail and other users.
  2. Yield to uphill riders, horses, hikers, and other non-motorized users.
  3. If you come across trash that you can easily carry, pick it up and earn style points.
  4. Don't cut switchbacks, lock up the back wheel, etc. Trails are delicate, and racing doesn’t give you a license to trash them.
  5. Close gates, if they are closed. Leave them open if they are open.
  6. Don't hog resources that other trail users need. For example, don't sleep in outhouses unless you're truly in danger of freezing to death (yes, someone may actually need to use it for its intended purpose).
Follow leave-no-trace principles
  1. No littering or abandoning gear. If you don’t need something, throw it in a trash can. If there’s no trash can, ride until you find one.
  2. Poop in a hole. Racer-crap is nasty, so bury it properly.
  3. Respect wildlife and livestock. They don’t care that you’re an epic racer; they were there first.
Don’t take performance-enhancing drugs
  1. Race on your own merits, not the merits of a pharmaceutical company’s latest concoction.
Don't risk a life (yours or someone else's).
  1. Don't become someone else's liability--plan for adversity, and self-rescue when possible.
  2. Help anyone who might need it. Golden rule, right?
Don't be a jerk
  1. Be kind to other racers, hikers, equestrians, etc. If people hate us, we’ll get banned from public trails.
  2. It won’t disqualify you to give other racers something (food, gear, etc.) But it’ll disqualify them if they accept it.
  3. Don't intentionally mislead other racers (navigation, resupply, etc.)
If you can't ride it now without breaking the rules, figure out what needs changing and try again
  1. Be honorable and accept personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.
  2. If you break the rules, disqualify yourself--don't wait or ask someone to do it for you.
  3. If you break a rule, it OK to finish the course. Just disqualify yourself first.
  4. A disqualification or relegation isn't that big of a deal in the grand scope of things, so take it like a grown-up. Just think of how good it’ll feel when you try again and succeed!
Support the route
  1. Trails don't build and maintain themselves. Support whatever organization(s) maintains the trail that you're racing by sending them some money, volunteering for some trail work, etc. OK, this isn't really a rule--but it's good karma!

OK, that’s a whole lot of stuff. Based on previous rules discussions, I’ve probably pissed some people off, and inspired others. It is worth noting that MOST people still race with great ethics--but that more and more people aren't. Please feel free to add constructive comments below.