Often, experienced ultrarunners tell new runners that they shouldn’t run a race that is in its first year. So much goes into both running and hosting a race, and the fewer things that can be left unknown, the better for the new runner. Nerves are always high, especially if a runner has put six months, or more, into training for one day. If that one day goes poorly, the runner could be left with a debilitating case of the what ifs. The new runner doesn’t know how much blame to place on themselves, and how much might need to be directed at a poorly run event. All in all, the advice is solid for those looking to run their first ultra. However, as ultrarunners, we are adventurists at our core, so don’t discount the first year races completely.
Recently, I ran the Do Stop 12 Hour race, in Bremond, Tx. The race offered 3,6, and 12 hour options, on a beautiful two mile loop of southeast Texas pastureland, at the peak of wildflower season. Having completed two 50k distances, and because my husband told me not to, I signed up for the 12 hour option. Do Stop is based on the premise that every other race has volunteers there to help you fill water, lube toes, and pat you on the back. When the going gets tough, you have workers there to wish you well, and say nice things to you. The Do Stop volunteers (both of them) were there to tell you to stop. They reminded you how hot it was already, and how much hotter it would be getting. They reminded you that beer was waiting, and would be coldest for the quitters. They sat languidly in chairs, waving at you as you passed, shaded by tents, and cooled by iced beverages.
March 18 in Texas is either the first level of Hell, or a last minute Winter snap. This year, Mother Nature chose Hell. The morning started beautifully, with a breeze and cloud coverage. Then around the third hour, the clouds parted, and the sun beat down on the open pasture land. The field of wildflowers seemed to laugh as runners passed by. The few sections of woods became a sauna instead of a solace. The Race Director (and volunteer numero uno), Chris Adams, silently belly-laughed as each exhausted runner made “one more loop”.
This was the scene you’d expect from a Race Director who is also the first American to complete the Unogwaja challenge in South Africa. Adams is not one to go easy on those he respects, and he respects trail runners. He is there to push you, and push you harder than you thought possible. While cycling 1000+ miles across South Africa in ten days, he learned that humans are capable of more than we think. Then, on day 11, he ran the Comrades, and learned that we are capable of giving to others more than we think we have to give. He brings these qualities to his race directing. Running, he knows, is for everyone. Running is the answer to mankind’s most intimate questions.Therefore, his race-with-no-support had to include options for shorter distances. He had to hook people who are searching. And, because he has a hidden servant’s heart, it had to have support, while appearing to not have support. Because that’s Chris. He cares.
From placing the trail markers on days before the race, to working the wee hours of packet pick-up, acting as the aid station support, clean up crew, maker of awards, and fixer of snacks, Adams was effectively a one man show. He filled bottles, opened gu, boiled potatoes, and, if you looked closely enough, even gave out smiles from beneath his Grizzly Adams beard. For more than just the 12 hours, Adams was present, physically and emotionally, to support the newer runners. But why? Why name a race “Do Stop” and boast of a lack of emotional support if you are there to support? According to Adams, “the hardest part of an ultra is the will to continue. The temperatures had been higher, creating a more volatile situation. Everyone pushed their limits, and the more experienced runners received much less attention [than newer runners]. We have a handful of new ultrarunners created out of the event and that is something everyone in the sport can be happy about.”
It is in that final sentence that you see his truth; Adams loves this sport, and knows that ultrarunning is a gift. By sacrificing his time and energy, and offering specialized support to each runner, based on their individual needs, he is able to share that gift with the world. However, no gift is free. Adams expects you to work your butt off for the reward that comes with going beyond your perceived limits.
The well-known races are usually huge, boasting hundreds, if not thousands, of runners. The elites start up front, radiating excellence in their tanned, sinewy muscles, and sponsored kits. The aid station food is equally shiny and sponsored. Aid station volunteers are so nice and helpful, and it’s a sight to behold! Every detail is thought out, and executed by tons of individuals acting as one machine. It’s truly an experience to run these races. But there is a charm and brotherhood to a small race, especially a new one. It’s like you’ve stumbled into a secret club. You leave the race feeling like you had your own personal support crew, and with a medal you can treasure. All feelings of imposter syndrome melt away, as you are treated as one of the elites. Plus, maybe you just ran the “first annual” of the next big thing. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get interviewed in 25 years for the documentary over this well-kept secret. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can say Chris Adams gave you a shot of whiskey at mile 20, and a nation of ultrarunners will die of jealousy.