Sport is littered with icons. It is awash with heroes and hard-working winners who inspire the masses. Andy Murray is the one who immediately springs to my mind. Kids all over the world wear Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo football tops. But these heroes are out of reach, they can only be seen from afar, and are rewarded so handsomely for what they do that they will not need to worry about finding bus fares for a long time.
Ultra running is different. I was thinking about it on a recent run. As I contemplated the mess the western world is in politically, with the politics of division standing steadfast against community, equality and fairness, ultra running remains a place where these things are much more important than heroes and villians.
2016 saw the controversies around Rob Young’s run across America, and Mark Vaz’s LEJOG, hullabaloos that the running community flushed out. On the periphery there were some malcontents who gloried in the catch. They demanded all sorts of punishment without thinking about why someone would do something like this, but at the heart of the hunger to prove these wrongdoings as just that was the desire to protect the integrity of the sport.
That got me thinking, of all the sports I love, ultra running has to be the most socialist of all. The community has a broad common set of uncodified principles which it lives by. Off of the top of my head, some of the key tenets are:
- Never litter, and always pick up someone else’s if you see it
- Always help a runner in need, even in a race and even if it is to the detriment of your aims on that day
- Smile, wave and say hello when on the trail
- Give your last gel away to a competitor even if it gives them the strength to beat you
- Thank the volunteers with genuine sincerity
- Celebrate last place with the same gusto as first
- Experience trumps time taken everysingletime
Then there is also the accessibility of the sports big names. There are few sports where the top bananas take the time to interact with the “general public”. Mike Wardian is a prime example of this, always happy to chat and answer questions on Twitter. In the UK, Robbie Britton is a regular poster on Ultra Running Community, happy to answer questions and even pose them to on the Facebook pages. You could rock up to a group trail run on the West Highland Way in Scotland bump into some of the top runners in the country, almost all of whom are more than happy to share a trail with you regardless of ability. At any big race in most countries, the chances are there will be what some folks regard as “elite” runners manning an aid station/checkpoint, or pacing someone or even sweeping at the back of the field. Some of the world’s best runners are also race directors, such as Killian Jornet, Emelie Forsberg, Karl Meltzer and Hal Koerner. I can’t think of another sport where this happens.
People in the community, whether elite or new, are happy to share ideas, time and even equipment for no material reward. Their payback is to know that they are part of a brilliant community.
Football is the prime example of free market capitalism in sport. It is a business where money rushes in and the vast majority is drawn out of the sport by a few overpaid players, agents and owners, leaving the façade of trickle-down economics to pretend that the lower leagues clubs and grass roots movements benefit too.
Ultra running is the antithesis of this, perhaps because there is no money in it. It’ll be a long time before someone becomes a millionaire for battering out 100 miles on a trail in the middle of winter just for the craic. It is a sport which can pitch a world class athlete against a middle-aged hobbyist and in certain conditions that office worker can equal her hero. The trail does a lot to level things, the sheer endurance of an event means your race is the only race that matters. The race within the race.
Ultra running doesn’t promote or accept division. It promotes equality, humanity and togetherness. The trail is everyone’s and there is little jingoism when it comes race, colour, creed, nationality or gender on its hallowed turf.
Of course, I may just be a misty-eyed romantic, but hell, I am happy with it. I am sure we could all cite examples where this naïve vision of running is not really true, but for every negative experience or individual I could retort with a cacophony of positives.
I do worry that the proliferation of money, the concerning rise of drug use in the sport and the call for some races to be more “elitist” will gain ground. But this is a sport which belongs to the people who take part in it, not big business. For the foreseeable future I expect that the sense of “one for all” will keep ultra running grounded and about the masses, not about the individual or the headlines. In this year of horrid events around the world, I kinda need that hope. I want that hope. I embrace that hope. Stay classy ultra running, stay socialist.