Ultrarunning Edge

100 Mile Race Sizes: Is It Time to Limit Crew?

Written by Bruce R. Copeland on February 09, 2009

Tags: crew, lottery, pacer, race director, races, trails, ultrarunning

This article is the first of two articles which examine ways to increase the maximum field sizes for 100 mile trail races. Three main factors limit the maximum sizes of 100 mile mountain trail races: trail impacts caused by runners (as determined typically by public land managers), availability (and access) of race volunteers, and aid station parking/road congestion associated with runner crews (see e.g. Sherpa John’s interview with Massanutten RD Stan Duobinis in “Are Lotteries Really Fair?”)

Of these factors, trail impacts should generally be the least significant. Trail runners—especially 100 mile trail runners—perform far more trail work than any other class of trail user, even when adjusted for trail mileage. This is a point we must continually reinforce in the minds of public land and forest managers. In the second of these two articles, I will address some aspects of service/trail work requirements and race volunteers as they affect maximum race size. Here I want to focus on the use of crew by runners and its relationship to maximum race size.

There are really two different components of crew: pacers and motorized food/equipment/medical support that travels from aid station to aid station. These two components have overlapping, but different, impacts on races. Pacers contribute (slightly) to trail damage, and depending on race rules may raise the number of aid station supplies and volunteers needed. Commonly, pacers also rely on motorized access to aid stations, but this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Motorized support crew contribute to aid station congestion, parking congestion, and sometimes traffic congestion on access roads. This latter can be an especially significant problem when cars share the road with runners (e.g. the 2-3 miles before Upper Big Water aid station at Wasatch).

Many 100 mile runners use crew (pacers and/or roving motorized support). Crew often help to keep a runner motivated. Some runners use crew as a means to involve their family in their running. A few runners use pacers as a way to train their runnning partners to ultimately participate in races. Some runners use motorized crew as a way to deal with the uncertainty about how they may feel or what they may need at different stages of a race. A few runners use motorized crew as a way to avoid having to plan drop bags or carry extra food/gear on the trail. First-time runners usually need crew, and I have often argued that every first time 100 miler should be ‘issued’ two experienced pacers!

Nevertheless in my experience, there are a significant number of runners who DO NOT rely on crew. This offers an opportunity to expand the size of some races in which crew access to aid stations is a primary limitation on race size.

For such races I propose capping the number of runners who are allowed to use crew (at specified places) and letting the total number of runners be determined by other factors (trail impacts, number of volunteers, etc.) Most races have plenty of aid stations where crew access is not a problem. In practice therefore most runners would be able to have crew—just not perhaps at every aid station they might desire. Many races already exclude all crew from certain aid stations that are difficult to access. Allowing crew, but capping the number simply provides a finer degree of control for the race organizers and shifts some of the limitations on race entry to limitations on use of crew.

Here is how this could work. Race directors would need to begin by determining a maximum race size based on factors OTHER than crew access. They would next need to determine the maximum number of crew they could accomodate (either overall or at specific aid stations). Race applications would also need a check box for entrants to specify if they want crew. Race directors would then accept runners as usual (including a lottery if necessary). They would then hold a very simple lottery for crew passes among accepted runners who desire crew. More complex scenarios are also possible—e.g. separate (perhaps mutually exclusive) lotteries for a few different critical aid stations.

I know firsthand that race directors don’t like to deal with a lot of extra complexity. Therefore to simplify all this, I am offering to write software that could be used to carry out the necessary lotteries with an absolute minimum of fuss. (In my other life I specialize in statistical computer simulations.) The software could be available for download or I might offer it as a service on one of our web servers. The same software could be used for either a main runner lottery or a crew lottery. It would require as input only a list of names, along with an optional weighting number (the famous or infamous number of tickets).

This approach would have a number of side benefits. Some crews would begin carpooling. Many runners would begin sharing crew. Some pacers might gain access to/from aid stations on foot. (When I paced someone last year at Wasatch, this worked fine; my wife dropped me off 3 miles below the Upper Big Water aid station before runners come onto the road.) Some runners who believe themselves dependent on crew might try running without crew. The software could also simplify the operation of existing lotteries. Race directors could even implement statistically better lotteries, by giving higher weights to runners who have been turned down more than just a few times. This could, for example, be important for older runners who might have only a few good years left to run something as challenging as Hardrock.

Although new 100 mile trail races appear every year, an increasing number of existing races find it necessary to limit runner participation through lotteries, caps, or very early registration deadlines. Capping the number of runners allowed to use crew for critical aid stations would permit many races to increase the overall number of runners allowed into the race. This would allow greater race participation for us all.