Thursday, September 20, 2012

Feedback on Inaugural Run Rabbit Run 100

Grab onto the Festivus Pole.  It's time for the airing of grievances.

I've got plenty good to say, if you're patient, and I suppose if you read my race report, I had a fun time overall.

The Ugly
Course Flagging: Early in the course, the course markings were difficult to see -- yellow flags were tied to yellow brush going up ski hills.  It felt more like an Easter Egg hunt.  The most egregious problem was when we had to connect with the Chisholm Trail over to Storm Peak, when a flag clearly led us over to the opposite direction.  Of the early group of Tortoises (first couple dozen), the majority seemingly went the wrong way.  In this case, I do not believe there is evidence of course tampering or vandalism -- the most likely scenario remains that a yellow flag was put up mistakenly instead of a blue one.

A note on course flagging:  Some argue that the full responsibility for following a course resides with the runner.  This is a gross oversimplification.  The race course is defined by several communications methods: flagging/marking, course maps, and course descriptions.  All are susceptible to human error and interpretation issues.  Maps may not be sufficiently detailed, or even incorrect. When the majority, or even an appreciable minority, of people interpret something in the same manner, it is a strong suggestion of ambiguity, and it is a severe disadvantage to ignore what the majority is doing if you're taking a risk about being wrong.

The idea of "elites" taking maps, let alone everyone else, is laughable in big-time races.  While some navigation is required, the whole point of flagging and marking is to keep the flow going.  Signifiant navigation questions take away from the concept of a race.  Yes, some fast finishers in both races won't see the issue....because they pre-ran the course with maps!
I'm concerned about the worst and average-cases here -- people should have the chance to do well without having pre-run the course.

Course Signage:
The first sign on the course very distinctly pointed in one direction, saying "100 Milers."  I followed that sign, incorrectly.  If this sign didn't exist, I wouldn't have followed it!  And I wasn't alone.

Again, signs are meant to convey information, and can be augmented in ways that provide as much information as possible.  On the other side of the arrow, tell us where we're coming from.  Later, I saw a sign that pointed one way to Long Lake aid station, and another to Steamboat High -- this would have been the perfect information to be placed at the Fish Creek Falls junction!

I take responsibility for missing the turn, as I had the information at my disposal to have done it.  All I can say for sure is that I hadn't encountered such ambiguity in any previous races, and if I had the chance to save 160 people from making a mistake, I would feel more concerned about that than I do as an individual runner.

Course Mileage: Apparently the mileage was off appreciably -- race winner Meltzer had it around 110 (8 miles long) and others had it closer to 115.  It's one thing to meet the physical demands of running 110 miles or so when you know it ahead of time, but it's another thing when water and calorie needs are planned accordingly, or estimated arrival times at critical junctures and aid stations.

Course marking: As opposed to flagging and signage, some of the marking getting to/from the high school was confusing.  Chalk?  Glow sticks?  Signs?  We managed it decently, but I know it ruined some other people's races.

Cutoffs: Again, this didn't affect me, but I'm looking at the big picture.  Some cutoffs seemed to be enforced differently or affect people later after they were told they could continue.  I think some Hare money was won after the cutoff if I'm not mistaken.  Clearly this was confounded by marking and mileage issues.  I don't have all the information on this, but it's worth hearing the voices of those that were affected the most and giving them more weight.

Drop Bag Management:  They were dropped off overnight in Bear Country...and some bears got into them.  Didn't affect me, but potential bummer for some. 
After the race, drop bags were spread all over the place: some in various spots of The Bear Bar and Grill (sense a theme here?  just wait...), while others were outside at a bus stop, unattended.  Here, I should note that, immediately before entering the awards ceremony, we saw a bear in the parking garage!

Unattended food in bear country = bad.
People's expensive jackets, gear, etc. getting stolen when unattended = also bad.  (Luckily my gear is a hodge-podge of nearly worthless junk).

The Overrated or Unsatisfactory
Prize Purse/Competition: This was a big deal, and didn't affect me, so why bring it up?  I thought the prize purse was awesome and was really looking forward to seeing what it would bring out, but course marking issues and lack of a deep women's field took away from this.  I hope it's sustainable and that they can bring it back in future year's, because I do like the idea of good runners getting paid.

Split Divisions of Tortoise/Hare: I've heard that many folks raved about it, so if that's the majority, so be it.  My experience was a few folks raved loudly about it, and the rest of us focused on grinding out out our own races.  I'm happy to be wrong and follow the majority.  I thought it was cool to see the guys at night, but I literally saw the top 4 or 5 for about 40 seconds each.  This would be improved with a deeper, larger field, I imagine, and was confounded by other contenders dropping for issues beyond their control, as there'd be more visible action.

But as it was, I was in a bubble, netherworld in between Hares and Tortoises.  I'd rather run with as many folks as possible.  Splitting the field up makes that part harder.  Especially, when there are different rules on pacers...

Lack of Pacers:  I'm going to write this up extensively at some point, because I feel very strongly that pacers are a good thing for the sport in general.  Briefly, pacers do increase performance for everyone, and though some may call it "cheating" (I know there's a high-profile opinion or two against it -- I respect that) -- I call it 
  -- faster performances
  -- less DNF's from getting lost due to course markings
  -- more involved spectators on course
  -- better pictures and stories and thus more exposure
  -- interesting team dynamics from sponsors -- you don't think companies like PI love to have a couple jerseys in the picture when one guy's racing and another is pacing?
  -- great recon for runners to do it the next year
  -- a gateway for other runners to be introduced into the sport.
  -- a nod towards history of American ultrarunning, as much as it is a nod towards supported historic alpine efforts

  The crux of my argument is that attacking the concept of pacers is biting the hand that feeds the sport in multiple ways, and that allowing pacers provides for better performance.
My observation is that a lack of pacers, combined with course marking issues, combined with a split field, lead to less compelling competition and finishing rate than could have otherwise been achieved.

The Good
I wanted to end on the good note, so hopefully you got this far.
I was pretty upset immediately, and for hours, when I took a wrong turn after several marking issues, and then learned others had done the same.  If I had written to or talked to Fred immediately afterward, I'm sure I'd have more choice words.  Luckily I had a bunch more miles to work my frustrations out!

I thought more holistically about what goes into a race, and remembered the things I was initially excited about.  I know many things go into a race like this, and I remembered that many things, up until race day, went well.

Sponsors: Great sponsors led to many great things: a big prize purse, raffled-off schwag before the race, great beer afterward.  Work was obviously put into building these relationships, and I hope it's sustainable.

Profile: The race got immediate attention, it became a Hardrock Qualifier in its first year (definitely merited!)

Timing and Coverage: The race great coverage from Bryon at irunfar, and decent timing on ultralive.  (One issue: some checkpoints were missed, such as my Cow Creek and Olympian, despite explicitly calling out my number when entering and exiting at all times.  Others are missing splits, this is somewhat of a deal when your crew is racing, but some of the moneyed Hares are missing splits as well -- this could be a huge deal potentially in the future with all this money on the line!)

Time of year/weather: It's a great time of year in Colorado, I love having an option during the Fall Colour season.  Steamboat housing availability was reasonably available.  We had great weather this year -- not to be taken for granted, for had it been more like last year's 50, combined with the other issues for this year's race, I think consequences could have been semi-disastrous.

Overall Course: Get it closer to 100M, but I still liked it.  PG has some thoughts otherwise, but going through town was pretty cool and needs to be maintained (IMHO) if you want to build spectator following in the coming years

Charity: This isn't a corporation making money, it's local charities.  I'm a big fan of that still, and it kept my disappointment in check when I took a wrong turn and thought about asking for a refund!

Aid Stations and Volunteers: Everyone was awesome!  Things were a bit shaky at Long Lake in the morning, when people were getting things figured out and we were trying to communicate marking issues, but overall everything was awesome. Volunteers were kind, quick, and helpful -- food was plentiful and available.  I especially liked the Honey Stinger products and ate their waffles all day...drank Jameson coffee at night...and really dug the mashed potatoes!

We were "warned" that aid station volunteers might not necessarily be familiar with the course, but at night, we always asked for explicit instructions, and there always seemed to be a sort of "leader" that gave great directions.

Recommendations for Next Year

The mistakes were big, but counting it up, there are plenty of positives as well.  I would hope to take feedback from everyone, not take just the happy voices of those that finished "in the money" or Tortoises that finished well.  Let's try to find out the experience of everyone and not easily dismiss wrong turns as boneheaded runner mistakes (when they were made by many) or missed cutoffs as unprepared runners.  Some folks picked this race to run hard and try to win some cash, but missed out from course markings; other folks have full-time jobs and families and wanted a good race and run, but didn't get that chance.  We should look at it as a loss for everyone who was prepared to run but didn't get the expected chance, and move on.  Let's take a poll of everyone and see what the consensus is, rather than making assumptions.

My opinion is that multiple factors compounded to cause problems: too much complexity at the same time.  Simplify, simplify, simplify:

-- Fix the distance and get it closer to 100M.  
-- Better course marking -- ideally, courses are marked in the direction of the race, as it appeared to me that some markers were "hidden" from sight lines because they were possibly marked in the opposite direction.  Consider using a colour other than yellow!!!
-- Better map and description: The course "map" is actually a stack of maps.  The initial part going up the hill refers to some ski run names, so if you want to know that, you should look at the Steamboat ski map (keeping in mind that the run names won't help you on the actual trail because they're downhill-skier oriented).
Your best bet was to acquire the Steamboat Skyterrain map and get out some markers:

(I actually did this....)

Other folks were even more ghetto (I like it!):

Source: Steamboat Today
I'm not kidding about this.  Next year, there'll be a single map -- I'll draw one out!

-- More on-course information: Better signs that tell you which direction each aid station is, and possibly the mile.  Also consider the fact that flagging can be informative in other ways: striped flags before turns, or flags consistently on one side of the trail to suggest direction (e.g. always on the right your first trip on that trail).  More re-assurance markers.
-- More people running together: we were quite spread out, and people got lost.  One possibility is eliminating the separate divisions, but this gimmick is more likely to stick and admittedly does have other benefits (people finishing closer together or entering aid stations in a tighter window of time).  So my preferred suggestion is allowing pacers for everyone.  If not, I'd like to see a strong majority response to my list of benefits of pacers; yes, I'm curious if the majority of contending Hare runners (and possibly sponsors) think racing without pacers is the wave of the future.
It ain't my race, though -- just putting an opinion out there.
-- More cowbell: 'nuff said.

Overall, I'm excited about another 100M option, especially in Colorado, so I want this thing to succeed.


  1. No reason for me to pile on but I agree with all you've said. It's cute to have challenging course marking or a slightly underestimated course length, but in a 100 there are decisions made by the runner based on given information and those decisions could be the difference between enjoying a good event or dnf. I don't care if they have $1 million next year. It won't matter if they don't have these things ironed out. There are plenty of resources out there (I'd be happy to help, just like I offered to the folks at Zion 100 where similar problems occurred). Tired of hearing the "well, it's just their first year" excuse.

    Good write up on your part!

  2. First, you put together a pretty good summary of the issues. My two cents....

    The course marking was obviously a bit of an issue. But I think this was really made worse due to out and backs and loops. I have a feeling that if there were not loops (I think a lot of people went up spring creek instead of fish creek the second time through town) and an out and back people wouldn't really be talking about the course marking as it seemed pretty good for the most part otherwise. Signs and/or marshalls are really the solution to fix that problem at key intersections where you could end up on the wrong part of the course at the wrong time.

    I'd say leave the pacers at home if you want to race for $$. Provides for a more even playing field and does not put anyone at a disadvantage for not having a pacer. Also removes any ambiguity of potential muling.

    I didn't see the whole course so I can't really comment. Maybe some people thought it was too much road and not enough rocky singletrack. But you can't really please everyone.

    Seeing the 50 the next day showed that Fred and co. can definitely put on a great event. I have a feeling a lot of the issues will be ironed out for next year. One thing worth noting is that compared to a lot of other first year events it was actually pretty well run/organized.

  3. Here's my beef with the course:

    Why are we doing a 1/4 mi out an back to the first (and last) aid station? This has never been part of the course (the 50 course) in the past and was added to make the race harder? An extra 100'? Really? It makes no sense. I think if they were to use an out and back as part of the race, it'd be better to go up to the rabbit ears.

    The opening section of the course was fun, but it also cut out a TON of awesome singletrack. There are ways to get to the top of Mt. Werner that would make it 8-12 miles up with more climbing and would be singletrack, removing the road section.

    I would have to crunch the maps, but I think you could do something like this:

    Long way up to Mt. Werner saddle (10mi). Skip Long Lake aid, take the hard left at the 3 way down FCF to the highschool. I would set the aidstation at the street corner instead of in the parking lot. Then go up Spring Creek, Dry Lake, Summit Lake, Wyoming trail, Long Lake(Set the aid station at the trail/fire road jct). Out and back to Rabbit Ears. Then, back to Mt. Werner from Long Lake, same way down. I think that has to be close to 100, and would be much easier to follow.

    I don't think going through town did anything to add to the race. We didn't actually go through town either, rather, we went around town, but had to cross the main road. Having two major aid stations within a mile of each other was useless. Nobody around Oly Hall really knew what was going on as far as the race, but rather they were there for the Kickball tourney.

  4. Patrick - one note on the course. I think there may be some issues in terms of making the best possible route under the circumstances. I know Fred told me that the FS would not allow the 100 to follow the 50 route out to rabbit ears. This is too bad since this is some really nice trail. I assume this may have to do with the number of users if both races used this route. Going up/down the singletrack would be nice. BUT, it seems like this gets a lot of use? Not sure if that would be feasible with if a large number of other users are out there as well.

  5. Shame regards to the Rabbit Ears, though I don't understand why it would be any different then the rest of the course. I'd assume that that trail is far less at risk for issues of erosion etc.

    In regards to the singletrack on the frontside, there did not seem to be any (or very many) bikers on them whereas they were everywhere during Mt. Werner Classic there were 10X as many out, with no issues. Can't think that's an issue.

  6. Great ideas guys. I knew PG had some trail suggestions and experience. Interesting to hear about some of the potential FS issues.
    Regarding going across town: what's a good way to avoid the streets? I thought the point was to get from the Fish Creek stuff over to Emerald Mountain?
    Once I caught the flow of the route, I mostly liked it: Divide Rd/Buff Pass being the worst, but a good combo of different things, and especially liked all the final miles starting on the Wyoming Trail.

    "I'd say leave the pacers at home if you want to race for $$."
    Ding ding ding, how about Tortoise, Hares, Elites? I would have loved to start with the Hares, with a Pacer, and race for no prize money. I'm in the middle with wanting to run without the head start but really enjoy the pacer aspect, and wonder how many others are like that. As Fred observed, the women's field was pretty much all contenders; the men's field was a quarter or 3rd contenders, and the rest that wanted to race in that field but not really expecting to contend for the $. I think pacers overall add to the amount of excitement and crowd size around the race, but glad to hear other opinions. I'm also curious if the general opinion is the same/different for women overall.

  7. Tim, thanks much for your comments: especially valuable given your experience with numerous ultras, large and small; quality finishes; and RD experience.

    'Tired of hearing the "well, it's just their first year" excuse.'-- that I agree with, because the few things with the biggest impact will be relatively easily addressed. As Nick said, everything else was really well-done.

  8. So you are saying you would have preferred to start late but had a pacer and thus be ineligible for any prize money. That seems fair enough to me. I think there is some advantage to the different start times only in terms of making it so that everyone finishes during the daytime on Saturday.

  9. I really enjoyed the T&H format and think it's one of the best aspects of the event. It was great to see a lot of friends I normally wouldn't see at a 100 other than just once on an out and back course. I think I prefer the mass start like the WS100 where everyone toes the same line but the RRR100 format definitely makes for a unique, enjoyable, and worthwhile experience and I think they should keep it.

    I also had a hard time deciding which race to register for because like you, I'm not a tortoise or a hare. I support the idea of offering prize money for the winners but don't think this needs to be the main focus or reason to register in the hare division. And I generally hate the term "elite" in ultra running. I was reluctant to register as a hare because of this and kind of felt like an ass for actually committing to run with the hares. But the hare field had a really good vibe with a great group of runners - the type of folks that given the opportunity anyone would want to run with. I think they should work on building this field to attract experienced and capable runners and make it about the extra challenge with the shorter cut off, late start, and no pacers. The money will speak for itself and will attract a competitive field - there's no need to make a big deal about it.

    And I fully support the no-pacer rule for the hares. This further differentiates the events and I like the level playing field for the guys at the front. The best runner wins the prize and not the guy with the most pacers and crew. I do agree with your points about running with pacers and fully support having a pacer in a 100 miler. But there is some merit to running solo but it would be stupid to give up the advantage in any event that allows them. Up at the front of the pack, I think most hares were truly solo but where I ran, we all stuck together. I actually ran with more runners that I would have run with if I had a pacer with me. When you are in your own bubble with your own friends, it's harder to reach out and interact with other runners. Running most of the course with Leila, Melany, Donnie, Gavin, Aliza, and Bobby was one of the best parts of the race. It definitely would not have been the same experience if everyone had pacers or if I was one of the few runners choosing not to run with a pacer. Just like the T&H format, this is a unique and worthwhile aspect of this race. I highly recommend it.

    As for the distances, I'm in favor of keeping it at whatever the route works out to be as long as it's clearly mapped and runners know what to expect for aid stations and cut offs. This will be easy to fix for next year's race. And I've talked to Fred about different route options and there are a lot of restrictions on getting permits. It's really incredibly difficult to piece together a good quality 100 mile route that doesn't have a ton of silly repeats just for the sake of getting the distance (Nick and I have been searching for one in Northern Colorado for a while and it's just impossible). I didn't like the road sections but the overlapping loops of the course had a good logical flow to them. Fred will probably make a couple tweaks next year ...possibly cutting the Werner out and back and eliminating the High School junction with a direct route from Fish Creek to Olympian and back. He might not be able to use the Howelson ski slope again which is a bummer because I thought that bit was a lot of fun. Everyone wants another Western States or Hardrock 100 mile course but the point-to-point and loop courses on the best trails are really very rare. Western States predates the wilderness act so it would take an act of congress to get another race through a wilderness area. Knowing what it takes to get a race permit and plan a course, I think the RRR route was pretty good. If the final 2013 route is 105 or 115, I say keep it as is.


  10. Great comments, Pete, thanks -- and heckuva run out there!
    Great perspective on the T&H part. I still don't feel like removing pacers makes me feel like we're all on "equal footing," as I personally think it's still nearly all about the training and talent of each runner...I think things like gear availability (shoes, packs, nutrition...possibly prototypes) are a bigger difference than pacers, and I still don't think those differences are big enough to be concerned about. But yeah, at the very front, that's all a wash.

    But your perspective is eye-opening to me in a new way: now that I think about it, I felt more "alone" at Leadville and WS, because everyone is in their own little world of 2 people. What you describe is more like a typical 50-miler, with people sticking together and really only racing at the end if anything's left -- and that's a pretty fun way to go. And I agreed all along on the aggressive cutoffs -- 29 hours was always my "B" goal! If more people are enthusiastic about it, I'm coming around on the T&H thing for this race. I just didn't want to see it as a new trend for all races, as I think we'd lose something there.

    I, too, liked going up and down Howelson -- did you see the "trail" we ended up making by Saturday via hundreds of runners going up and down that thing?
    Hopefully something 100-102.5M or so can be worked out...115 seems a bit of a stretch to ruin the sanctity of the historic 100M distance! You have to appreciate races that nail the distance -- surely you guys could have made Quad Rock a 28/56M race or something else arbitrary. But I know the excess miles here weren't intentional, so hopefully some minor tweaks (Mt. Werner o&b, move Long Lake closer? Fish Creek Falls Aid station?) can help reign in the distance...