On my college track team we had an athlete who was naturally gifted. She almost always placed well in her event, bringing points that were at times critical to our wins. It required very little effort on her part, and in all honesty if she had put in some hard work she may have been a great athlete. Shortly before our regional meet one year she was involved in an incident that was clearly disrespectful towards the coach, the team and the intense effort that was being put forth by fellow athletes. Our coach kicked her off the team, but then realizing his athletes had as much at stake in it as he did, he brought it to the team for a vote. Sitting in our small locker room we were given a choice. We could bring her back on the team, or, we could uphold the ban, knowing that it would certainly impact our points and to potential for victory at the most important meet of the year. We unanimously voted to not have her back, deciding that we would rather lose with integrity. The other athletes put in great efforts at the meet, many of us doing additional events to help pick up points, and we won the meet by a narrow margin. The way that we won was much more important than the win itself, or the trophy that came with it.
I’ve thought about this incident recently because of the cheating that has come to light in ultramarathons. Now, I know that the number of runners involved in these incidents are small, and I also know it’s likely that cheating has happened in the past, but it’s coming more to light in the age of technology (and with all the track runners) and with the help of social media to spread the word. I think what bothers me is that it’s so in contrast with the reasons that I run ultras. In my mind, if you cheat in an ultra (or any race really), you’re really cheating yourself of the intrinsic value of completing the challenge.
Just like my college team’s integrity was more important than a regional title, the real value of ultras is much deeper than a win or a PR, or the cool trophy you get for finishing. It’s the joy of an honest effort. The understanding that very often the person who finishes DFL has put in the same, if not greater, effort as those who stand on the podium. It’s enjoying the wilds that connect to the wildness in each of us, and also what bring us peace you can’t find elsewhere.
Cheating is also at odds with the whole ultra running community. First place runners wait at the starting line to cheer in the remaining finishers, and everyone is celebrated for their efforts. We accept all types and abilities. Also, let’s be honest, as much as I love our community, we’re really not the “cool kids.” We are the high school cross country team of the grown-up world. You can break records and win competitions, and you’ll still take a back seat to even the most embarrassingly bad football or basketball team. Very few people outside of our community even understand what we do, let alone care.
Be that as it may, I think the smallness, weirdness, and insular nature of our group is what makes me love it so much and want to protect it so fiercely. I think many others feel the same. So, I’m calling on the entire ultra community to help protect this beautiful quirky thing we’ve created. Hold yourself to the standard of the race. Respect other runners, volunteers and spectators. Don’t be afraid to call someone out for their poor behavior (in a friendly, respectful way). Remember, it could be that they honestly didn’t realize they cut the course, or maybe the gel pack fell out of their pocket. And if someone points out an error you’ve made, respond graciously and honestly.
Let’s all remember that this thing we have is much more important than titles and finishers buckles, and treat it and our fellow competitors with love and respect.