Monday, March 17, 2014

Ultrarunning culture: we need this growth.

There's been a great deal of buzz lately about changes to trail and ultrarunning culture, and most of that buzz has been negative.  Many people are complaining that new ultrarunners are somehow ruining the culture, and that we are in jeopardy of "losing something".  Most outspoken about this is Bob Crowley, who has gone on several podcasts with a call to arms for preserving the supportive nature of trail and ultra culture through new runners learning from and listening to the older runners.  You can find some of his podcasts here and here.  I don't mean to pick on Bob Crowley, as he's done amazing things for our sport, and he correctly identified some wonderful things about the supportive ultra community.  I've heard the same sentiments from people other than Bob, so the ideas are knocking around all over.  But I disagree that it is changing for the worse, and I disagree with what needs to be done to preserve the best parts. 

Wonderful though it is, the ultrarunning community isn't perfect and could use improvement.  I don't think that the way to improve it is through impressing some ideology on newcomers, though.  I think we need to work on some of our problems from the inside, and make the newcomers feel more welcome.  

The Problems: 


The "problem" isn't the new runners; the "problem" is with the older runners.

And the problem, if there is one, is that the older runners are a homogenous bunch.  They tend to be older white males with advanced degrees.  Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a middle aged white man with an advanced degree.  As they say, some of my best friends.... 

The problem lies in reaching a younger generation of ultrarunners that are demographically different.  They may not gravitate towards the established ultrarunners, because they might not feel that immediate kinship.  If older runners wish to preserve some aspects of culture for the next generation, they'll need to step up efforts to reach out to newcomers that seem, at a first encounter, to be different from them. 

The ultra community is stifling and cultish.

What is it about ultrarunning that makes people like long, unkempt beards, IPAs, and poop stories?  How about nothing.  I love IPAs, personally, but I bet some ultrarunners are drinking them just to fit in, while secretly harboring an affection for some other type of beverage.  To what extent is anyone free to be him or herself within our community?  I think it's limited.


 The ultra community is inherently temporary.

Some communities make a lot of effort to give cradle-to-grave support to their members.  However, in the ultra community, the members are always going to move in and out as their health allows, and I would think that being a member for 20 or more years is an exception rather than the rule.  It changes faster than anyone would care to admit, and it's always going to change quickly.  Reflecting on this,  I have a hard time believing that there was ever a coherent community ethic in ultrarunning.  Is it just that nobody noticed when one white male software engineer swept in to replace the one that just left due to increasing job demands or chronic ITBS?  

The hard reality is that your time in the ultrarunning community is most likely going to be short.  Once you leave due to health or life, you're not taking the community with you.  Maybe you'll leave with a couple of close friends, but that's about it.  This community is not as strong as anyone makes it out to be. 

Moving Forward:

Here's what I think we need to do as a community to improve the culture of ultrarunning.


Keep any message to newcomers simple and on point.

Let's just acknowledge that the community changes quickly and we can't transmit every bit of lore to to the next generation of ultrarunners.  Let's pick the most important.  How about "Don't litter"?  Let's start there. 


Stop pushing things that aren't so important.

Let's make room for more ways of being an ultrarunner.  The IPAs are not required, and we're shutting people out that love the trails but don't love the beer, for whatever reason.  We shouldn't have to be closet lovers of Bud Light.  Think about other parts of the culture exist that are less important than the love of the trails.   How about swag?  I think we can make room for people that like swag.  And heart rate monitors.  We can make room for people that like to train with heart rate monitors. 

In doing so, we'll all be a bit freer to be ourselves.  In the short time that I've been in the sport, this is something that has already started changing for the better. 


Reach out more to those that seem like they don't fit the mold.

The easy path is to run with the newer people that we click with automatically.  But I think we need to be actively trying to go out with people that are NOT like us.  I think we'll find that many of them do indeed love the trails as we do, but perhaps just express it a bit differently.  Also keep in mind that there are active ultrarunning cultures in Asia, Europe, and Africa.  That recent immigrant might not even be a noob.  

Appreciate that newer members are bringing in a skill set from outside our community.

Nobody squirts straight out of womb and onto the starting line of Western States.  What does the new person know that you don't?  A lot - a lifetime's worth of knowledge.  We have a pretty good idea of what marathon runners, triathletes, and hikers bring to the table.  But I know ultrarunners that have backgrounds in skydiving, dog sledding, hunting, snowmobliling, freediving, and orienteering. What do they know that we don't?  Don't talk AT them.  Listen.

We can even pick up non-running related info from other people, like the name of a butterfly, the history of land use on our favorite trail, or our new favorite trail food.  While I love hearing stories of old-timers using Aunt Jemima bottles as handhelds, that story is nowhere near as useful to me out on the trail as a pack of Parle-G biscuits, which I only began using as a trail food after seeing someone eating them at his first 50k. 


 Strengthen our connections with the hiking and conservation communities.

This is important for more than one reason.  First, we don't do enough trail work or enough volunteerism to support our local trails.  We all know that.   Currently, I know that the local kennel of the Hash House Harriers is far more involved in the trail community than the ultrarunners, and kudos to them for that!  Rather than mobilizing the ultra community to do trail work, we should mobilize the ultra community to join other groups.  We don't need to reinvent the wheel here. 

Secondly, this will strengthen our community by providing more support for us as we move in and out of our ability to run ultras.  How often have you come upon a bench or a monument installed in memoriam to someone that dedicated his or her life to the local trails?  Many hiking and conservation communities even endeavor to provide trail access to people with physical disabilities.  They are far more supportive of their members as they transition through different phases of their lives.  Realistically, the ultrarunning community cannot provide this kind of support, but we can partner better with those that do.

I think that the ultrarunning community suffers from some pretty significant weaknesses.  It's homogenous.  It has a high turnover.  The only reason it seems like it's even been the same for a while is that it keeps attracting the same type of people.  That's changing, and I think it's an improvement that will ultimately strengthen us.   But we need to accept and embrace that in order to grow from it, and transmit the information that's truly important.