Ultrarunning Edge

100 Mile Race Sizes: Can Service/Trail Work Requirements Help?

Written by Bruce R. Copeland on February 19, 2009

Tags: race director, races, service requirement, trail work, ultrarunning, volunteers

This is the second of two articles that examine ways to increase the maximum field sizes for 100 mile trail races. In the first article I noted three main factors which limit the maximum sizes of 100 mile mountain trail races: trail impacts, availability of race volunteers, and aid station parking/road congestion. The first article focused on limiting crew (somewhat) as a way to control aid station parking/road congestion and thereby allow larger race sizes. I also noted that trail impacts really SHOULD NOT be a huge issue limiting 100 mile race size because of the amount of trail work that ultrarunners do. Here I want to take a closer look at how service and/or trail work requirements affect 100 mile race volunteership, and to some extent trail impacts.

A multi-group work project (courtesy http://www.brwcouncil.org))

A multi-group work project (courtesy http://www.brwcouncil.org)

Service (including trail work) requirements have been part of 100 mile races for a long time. Some races require service; some do not. Races which DO require service vary considerably in what they require. Some races allow either trail work or volunteer service at another (typically ultra) race. Some races require trail work specifically, and there are even races that require trail work to be done on a 100 mile race course. Races also vary considerably in what they accept as proof of service. At least one race requires another 100 mile race director to sign off on any trail work done. It has sometimes been argued that service requirements are ineffective because the work should be voluntary. I’m not going to get into the argument about mandatory versus voluntary service, except to note that the overwhelming majority of ultrarunners I know DO or WOULD DO service regardless whether it is required or not.

How does all this play into the issue of volunteership and trail impacts at 100 mile races? By far the most common (and certainly the ultimate) limitation on race size is availability of race volunteers. Consider this: a typical smaller trail race (ie. 50K) requires one volunteer for every three runners, and a 100 mile trail race requires an astounding one volunteer per runner. If you doubt this, add up the number of volunteers you see at a typical aid station on a 100 mile race, multiply by 15 and then add another 10 to 30 people who work behind the scenes (marking course, etc.) It can sometimes be incredibly useful to have race volunteers who are also trail runners (or better yet 100 mile ultrarunners). On the other hand, successful races need plenty of people with large 4wd pickup trucks, canopies, large camp stoves, ATVs (for search and rescue), medical training—things many trail runners do not have! Furthermore many races simply do not have enough local trail runners to meet all their volunteer requirements. Successful races therefore manage to fill their volunteer needs by building coalitions/rapport with other trail user groups and other sources of volunteers!

This is a really compelling argument for permitting 100 mile runners to fulfill their service requirement by volunteering at shorter trail races (or even—gasp!!!—road races). Runners in such races provide a substantial pool of potential volunteers for 100 mile races, especially if we can get race directors at such shorter races to publicly recognize the service of 100 mile ultrarunners and encourage their own runners to reciprocate.

There are nevertheless some bona fide reasons to want service in the form of trail work. Many public lands have a hodge-podge of short (3-8 mile) trails that don’t really connect in any effective way to allow travel for an extent of 50 to 100 miles. This is a good reason to have trail work parties build relevant connecting trails.

Even so, we need to think carefully about how such trail work should be structured if it is going to accomplish anything positive. First, such projects need to be done with work parties, not solo workers. Single trail runners doing their occasional solo trail work service are simply NOT going to produce effective full-fledged connecting trails. Second, if we hope to use our trail work to convince public land managers to allow larger races, it is far more effective when ultrarunners participate in public (and publicized) group projects where other types of trail users are present. Public land managers certainly remember and appreciate any trail service we perform. However these managers ultimately answer to the public at large. On race day when some hunter is complaining loudly about not being able to hunt on trails, a public land manager’s arguments that ultrarunners do so much trail service is likely to ring hollow unless that hunter has seen those ultrarunners doing the work first hand.

Where I live, we are extremely fortunate to have a local environmentalist who is stunningly effective at getting disparate groups (4wd groups, ATV groups, mountain bike groups, hunters, bird watchers, ultrarunners, hikers, Forest Service, etc.) to  work together on projects in the backcountry. Huge amounts of very visible progress occurs in a single day. At the same time, working side by side with representatives from these other groups gives trail runners a huge network of potential (and in my personal experience) very willing volunteers for trail races.

So with all this in mind, here are some suggestions for race directors and race steering committees to think about when setting service requirements (or even if simply encouraging service):

  • DO create service requirements or guidelines that encourage activities and projects which will have high visibility and will include non-runners.
  • DO use service requirements or guidelines that will encourage coalition building and lead to greater volunteership at all trail races.
  • DO make service requirements that are feasible and practical for runners who may not live near a 100 mile race course.
  • DO produce/participate in local service projects that will help you build coalitions/rapport with non-runners and increase useful volunteership for your own race.
  • Do NOT set service requirements that put unnecessary burdens on other race directors.
  • DO talk to other race directors about what is useful to them (and therefore to you).
  • Do NOT set service requirements which perpetuate the misimpression that 100 mile runners care only about their own longer races.

This and the previous article suggest a number of things we might do to effectively increase the maximum sizes of 100 mile races. Hopefully these articles will stimulate some thought and discussion. More than anything, I want race directors and runners alike to re-examine what we do, how we do it, and how we think about it, with an eye towards increasing the size and quality of all our races—especially 100 mile races.