Earlier this month I headed out with my buddy Zandy Mangold to New Jersey for my first ultra trail race race of 2012: the Watchung 50k (or, if you decide to take the ‘scenic’ route as I did a few times, the Watchung 55k). I tried doing this race three years ago, but wound up with a nasty pelvic stress fracture about 15k in and had to tearfully drop out (…after another 15k hobble on broken bones, of course). The Watchung 50k was and is the only race I have never finished and I was equally apprehensive and eager to tame the beast.
It was an absolutely BRILLIANT day out – the sun was shining, the temperature was in the 50s, and above all, my pelvis stayed intact (bonus… or bone-us? *snicker* sorry). The best part about the race, however, had nothing to do with the weather or with my own race performance. It didn’t have anything to do with the honey-glazed donuts, mini-butterfingers, or doritos chips that were available at the aid stations. It didn’t even have to do with the fact that I avoided chafing (a rare occurrence for me – score!). The best part about the race was the brilliant company I was racing with.
This race made me start to think about one of the main reasons why I was attracted to ultras in the first place. I had done marathons before – okay fine, one marathon – but it seemed so, I don’t know, competitive to me. Everyone was standing on the start line with their headphones in, bouncing up and down nervously, and trying not to talk to anyone in order to “get in the zone”. I, on the other hand, would try to chat people up, crack a few jokes, even do a few crazy lunges while twisting my body from side to side really quickly to try to ham it up a bit. Little did I know that marathoners are NOT there to make friends. Oh no, they are there to get a PB (personal best)…. to religiously check their watch every five minutes to make sure they are on pace… and if they start falling off their intended split times, well, watch out for those elbows because they will poke you in the ribs if you get in their way! Yikes.
No, marathons were not for me. I wanted a race in which I could take my time getting warmed up. A race that took my eyes away from my watch and onto the trails. I wanted a wonderfully chilled out and competitive race. For me, that is ultras. Sure, they are intense and competitive at times – but in a fundamentally different way than marathons.
Like this girl and I at the Watchung race. We were neck and neck for pretty much the full 50 km. She was ahead… then I was ahead… then she was ahead… then we ran together… If we had brought a marathon mentality to it, it would have been exhausting. Quite simply, there is no room for that out on the trail! We chatted, we encouraged each other, we talked about other races we wanted to do… We were each running our own race, and we didn’t get caught up in the competition of it.
I realized afterwards that we had both followed the unspoken etiquette rules of trail running and that is why we meshed so well. Yes, like the cycling rules in the Tour de France, there are some key rules I’ve been able to discern over the years for happy (ultra) running on trails…
1. Running with others
DO: Suss out whether the person(s) you are running with want to talk, or whether they just want some silent company. If you are nattering away and getting grunts for responses, your running partner is either telling you to be quiet, or is so tired he/she has lost the ability to speak
Take turns taking the lead. It is more tiring to be out in front because you have to do all of the navigating, but some people find it harder to be in the back because they feel like they are mentally behind. Switch it up to keep things fresh.
DON’T: Clear your nose to the same side as your running partner, or if anyone is trailing behind you. Seriously gross.
Don’t go overboard with the ‘ultraspeak’. Ultrarunners get carried away when they are in packs… nothing wrong with it – and it can be darn funny – but it can also alienate the rookies and come off sounding completely obnoxious. For a HILARIOUS example, watch this (it had me laughing on the floor!!) (“I don’t even warm up until mile 30″ – yes, I have said this…)
2. Passing others
DO: In the words of my umbrella-toting diva, “to the left, to the left!” Give out a little warning when you are coming up behind a runner and shout out “on your left” (usual passing lane) or if you must pass to the right, “on your right”! I have to say though, after running in both North America and the United Kingdom, I think the running passing rules follow driving. If you pass on the left driving, do the same in running. So in the UK, “to the right, to the right!”
Give some words of encouragement, but don’t go over the top (or you’ll sound patronizing). A simple “good job” or “keep it up” or “how are you doing?”
And people pass you, definitely tell them “good job”. Try to feed off their strength, rather than resent the fact that they are passing you.
DON’T: Sneak up behind people. As funny as it is to make someone dive into the bushes, it is just not cool.
Don’t make physical contact when you’re passing, if possible. While runners are comfortable getting all cozy with other racers on the start line of the NYC marathon, trail/ultra runners prefer their space. A light pat on the back or shoulder is okay though (aww….)
Don’t wear headphones in both ears if you are on single-track trail. It makes it way too hard for you to hear people coming up behind you, and you won’t be as aware of what’s going on when you are getting ready to pass someone else.
3. Coming into aid stations
DO: This is an important one. If you’re running into an aid station with other people, generally try to keep the same order that you’ve been running in for the last little while. So, if you’re generally running in second place in a group of five, don’t try to sprint at the last second to reach the aid station first. That’s a quick way to lose friends FAST.
Say thank you to the volunteers. They often just get an earful of grumbles and complaints, so it helps to recognize that they have been standing outside in the snow/heat/rain all day just to serve you!
Exchange pleasantries with other runners if you haven’t been speaking on the trail. Come on, spread the warm and fuzzies.
4. Struggling runners
DO: Stop to help runners you see on the trail that are really struggling. You might be in first, you might be on your way to your best trail/ultra race ever, but you’re not going to win a lot of points with the trail running gods if you pass someone in need. I’m not saying you have to drop everything – 15 or 20 seconds is all you need to stop, make eye contact, and gently ask “hey buddy, you doing alright?” We all hit a low point at some stage of the race, or at some point in the season, and sometimes it makes a world of difference just to know that someone else is reaching out. That might be just enough to get that person through a slump.
Offer food. Offer water. Offer electrolytes. Offer whatever you have. You’re in a better state, and somewhere down the line someone else will pass on the favour.
DON’T: Make light of what a runner is going through (unless you can tell that person really needs to laugh at him/herself!).
Don’t do what a girl did in a race I was in a few months ago…! – and a runner actually stepped over my sprawled limbs and kept going with a cursory “oh you’re okay?” over her shoulder as she sped off. I’m not one to hold a grudge, but seriously?? Sigh. Hmph. I might think twice about offering her one of my gummi bears next time I see her in a race…
DO: Finish strong, but if you’ve been running with someone(s) for a while near the end of the race…
DON’T: …try to rush ahead and sprint to the finish. It’s just not really fair (unless you both cheekily decide to gun it – then that can be F-U-N). If you’ve paired up with someone and you guys are within sight, it is a nice thing to wait for the other person. Come on, it ain’t the Olympics, right?
I’d be really interested to hear any of your etiquette rules/tips for happy running – comments welcome!