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On Learning from Experience

Posted Aug 19 2011 12:00am

The world is not simple, and not black and white, but to state things as simply as possible, there are good mistakes and bad mistakes. Good mistakes are the ones you learn from. Bad mistakes are the ones where people get hurt. And somewhere in between, that can go either way, are mistakes you don't learn from the first time, despite having the information and resources to do so.

People do make mistakes. It's human nature. Ultrarunning requires a person to think critically, and use common sense. People usually do learn from their mistakes, and I believe in individuals taking responsibility for themselves, but when someone points out an error that involves runner safety, I think it's prudent to seek out information and advice, and resolve to do better next time.

Anyone, at any stage of their running career, can make a mistake, have a bad day, use poor judgment, or just space something out at an aid station that results in a serious problem a few miles later. Just last year in a 50 mile race I made the simple mistake of rushing through an aid station and forgetting my warm clothes in my drop bag. I had some food in my stomach, then an unexpected storm blew in suddenly.

Within a few minutes I was shivering and headed toward hypothermia. Fortunately my friend loaned me her jacket and stuck with me. She could have easily run ahead and finished an hour ahead of me, but she didn't. That's what ultrarunners do, and that's what makes the sport so great.

The lesson: never rush through an aid station. And never assume you're safe in an ultra even if you've run the distance hundreds of times. One of the most talented, experienced runners in the entire field at Badwater this year, not to mention the entire world, ended up in the hospital for days, in acute renal failure from problems she was having before the halfway point in this year's race, one of the cooler years in the race's history.

Nearly 20 years ago, as a new ultrarunner, I made the mistake of inviting a senior member of the ultra community to a low-key local event I was holding. My friends and I had already done a few of these training runs ourselves and decided to invite others to join us. His response to me was flat-out harsh and abrupt. "You people who put on these unofficial events are ruining the sport! You're screwing things up for the rest of us who put on legitimate races!"

He went on and on about people advertising their unofficial events in places where everybody and their nutcase cousin could see, and then they'd show up and do something stupid to jeopardize the sport. We didn't have Facebook in those days, mostly things were advertised by word of mouth or in magazines like Ultrarunning and locally produced, free publications. But the point is the same today as it was 20 years ago.

At the time, I wrote him off as an egotistical, insensitive jerk, but after a while, I realized that his response, as abrasive as it was, was motivated by a fierce love of the sport, and a desire to avoid ruining the future of it. If something bad happens, or you fail to get the necessary permits, or someone complains, it will reflect badly on the entire community of runners.

You do not want someone to be injured or die as a result of the event you hold. If an event is held on public lands, first of all, the agency managing the public lands where you held the event will not want to touch you or your sport with a 10 foot pole, and it will put a damper on the chances of any other entity putting on an event in that location. Then there are the legal issues, which I can't even comment on, because they are way beyond my knowledge and comprehension.

Even in the case of a completely official event, where all your bases are covered, and you have permits, insurance, waivers, official medical personnel, and a stellar record of things going smoothly, you still need to be prepared for the worst.

The moment the press gets wind of someone being seriously injured, ill, or dying at a running event, every journalist and his uncle will be calling the race director, and anyone they can get hold of connected with the race, wanting to know why it happened. There will be articles published in major newspapers all over the country and all over the Internet about the controversy over safety in the sport of ultrarunning. The press loves that sort of thing. I can promise you, if someone dies of heat stroke in an event in little ol' Fort Collins, the New York Times will be calling. And if not New York, then LA, or Chicago.

But worst of all, if you are a race director or part of the staff, are the questions you will ask yourself if someone does get seriously injured or dies, the weight of it on your conscience, and how much it will impact your world and your own running. In 2003, I was co-race director of Across the Years, in Litchfield Park, Arizona, and we got word that one of the competitors had been found dead in his hotel room the day after the race. We heard from everyone, including the New York Times, before we knew the cause, and weeks before the results of an autopsy were released.

Even if it turns out it had nothing to do with your event, you do not want any of these things to happen in connection with your event. It was devastating and long-lasting, for the entire race staff. That's the kind of thing that sticks with you, for a long time.

No ultra is safe. An individual can decide to take risks by running an ultra, but for the race organizers/director/staff/agencies involved, it's a different type of risk. There are things that need to be considered beforehand, because they are taking on the combined risk of everyone who participates, and more. Add a few extra things, like heat, rain, cold, road construction, inexperience, and the omnipresent human factor of stupidity, which also applies to motorists, spectators, and any other two-legged creature on the planet, and there is even more risk.

There is always the potential in every event for something to go wrong. As I mentioned above, you can't even assume that the people who finished intact that year are all safe once they finish. As a race director, thinking about these things is what keeps you up at night for weeks or even months before the race.

It's a big mistake to assume that an event is safe because no one had problems. They potentially could have: it's even more dangerous to make assumptions about the safety of an event based on good luck. Just because nothing happened one year, or two in a row, or 5 in a row, doesn't mean nothing bad will happen in year 2 or 6 or 30.

Not long ago I wrote a blogpost that obviously struck a few nerves. I suspect I hit someone's thumb that was on the head of the nail I was hammering. The experiences I have described above are what drove me to write that original post.

I'm human. People aren't going to agree with everything I say and that's fine with me. I don't like checking my e-mail and finding nastygrams, that makes me mad, especially when people get so caught up in taking the small insignificant stuff personally, that they don't even see that someone is watching their back, thinking about the more important picture: their safety.

It's a great time to be an ultrarunner. The sport is well-established, even if most people still don't understand the draw. More and more people are getting it, though, because of all the good attention the sport and athletes have received in the media. There are so many great places to run long, with lots of potential for events in the future. The sport is growing and is being viewed more favorably than ever. Let's keep it that way.
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