Aargh – another DNF! (that’s Did Not Finish for my non-racing friends) For the first time, I didn’t make a cutoff time. I’m a slow runner, so I’m always chasing the cutoffs, and I have DNFed voluntarily because of illness/blisters, but I have never been out of a race because I didn’t make a cutoff. Damn!
We had perfect weather last Saturday – good temps, partly sunny, a little breeze – perfect. But just a couple days before we got over 4 inches of rain. Not good for trail conditions! First thing I was greeted by on the trail after our 5am start was a big standing pool of water at the tunnel to access the trail. I don’t mind mud and water on the trail, but this was too close to human activity for my comfort. Ew – what a way to start a race! Large sections of trail were sludgy with mud, and some of the hills had been turned into stream beds. The biggest problem was not so much the mud – you get dirty running trails, but the mud made all the rocks unstable (and there are a LOT of rocks here in Rockland County).
It was slow going through some sections. But still, I was moving well and feeling strong on the hills. And I was well within the cutoff time.
For people who don’t do trail or ultra races, many races have a set cutoff time. If you don’t cross the finish line by a certain time, you don’t officially finish the race – DNF. And there are often hard cutoffs at midpoints in longer races. If you come in to that point after the cutoff time, you are out of the race – DNF. This is usually for safety reasons; these are often hard courses on sometimes remote trails. Races need to make sure that runners have a reasonable chance of being off the trail by dark for their own safety.
But at the Bear Mountain Endurance Challenge, put on by The North Face, safety doesn’t seem like the reason for the cutoffs. North Face now has 3 hard cutoffs for the 50-mile race (there were only 2 when I ran this race in 2011). That’s 2 more than necessary if runner safety is the issue. Having 3 cutoffs can only be about their (the race organizers) convenience. They could easily have one cutoff at a midway point, somewhere between halfway and 40 miles, and still make sure all runners are safe. That gives the sweeper (the person running the trails after last runner to make sure everyone is off) plenty of time to check the trails, and time to clear the aid stations and get the drop bags back to the start. Lots of other races do it that way which allows more runners to run further.
Coming into the 3rd aid station, I was just slightly over where I wanted to be with time, but I had just come through the toughest section of the race. I knew I would make up time on the next section. But I was still on pace to make the cutoff at the next aid station. At the aid station, a couple of the workers confirmed that my time was good. The next station was 5.1 miles, and I was good to make it.
The next section started mostly downhill and flat, although muddy. I was able to pick my pace up so that I was definitely under the pace I needed. I knew I’d be chasing the cutoff, but was confident I would make it. And then my watch was getting close to the cutoff time. I didn’t see any aid station. The aid station was next to a road and I couldn’t hear any cars. So I kept running, picking up the pace. And I was within 5 minutes of the cutoff and still no aid station. Pick up the pace. And I’m at the cutoff time and still no aid station. Just keep going. And it’s past the cutoff time and still no aid station. Keep going. And I keep going 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes past the cutoff which I was on pace to reach. My GPS says I am well beyond 5 miles. I know what 5 miles of trails feel like. This is not 5 miles. I begin to wonder if I somehow managed to missed the aid station – was there a little out and back to the station, did I get off the trail and back on and miss it? I calm myself by telling myself I’m fine and have enough water and food to comfortably get to the next aid station wherever that is. But I am completely disheartened, and slow to a crawl.
Finally, over a half hour past the cutoff time, I hear traffic and see the aid station. I come in, give them my number, and am told to wait with the other runners who didn’t make the cutoff time. We are done. We had a beautiful morning run in the woods, but we are done. And there are a lot of us. When I arrive, there are at least 20 runners waiting. There are several more runners behind me. Once I get something to drink and eat, I start chatting with the other runners. Everyone felt like that section was nowhere near 5 miles. Everyone’s GPS clocks in between 2 and 3.5 miles longer. And it seems that almost all of that discrepancy was in the last section, from the 3rd to the 4th aid station.
Let me say right now that we are trail runners. We know that there is a margin of error with all GPS devices. We know that distances are somewhat approximate – we’re running trails. Over the course of a long race, there might be an extra mile or 2, based on the trails. And if we get temporarily off trail, we add our own extra mileage. A 50-mile race can easily be 52, 53, or 56 miles. That’s trail racing.
But here I was with 20-30 runners who were all completely surprised and confused about how they didn’t make the cutoff that they were sure they were well on pace to make. Not one person’s GPS was close to the distance stated by North Face. Everyone’s was well-long, far beyond the margin of error for GPS. I have no problem if the mileage is long, as long as the timing reflects that. If one section is 40% longer that stated, the cutoff time should be adjusted.
That section of the course had changed slightly since I ran in 2011. I have since found out that runners have been complaining about the discrepancies in distance/timing for at least a couple of years. And North Face has done nothing to change it.
But still, it was a beautiful morning run. I could have accepted that and been happy if not for what followed.
This is a hard cutoff where race organizers know they will have runners needing transportation back to the start/finish. We waited well over an hour for a bus. It’s a spot with no cell service, so none of us could call family or friends to come and get us. We waited, shivering in the breeze. Finally we’re loaded onto a bus to take us to the start. But no, we’re later told we’re being taken to the parking lot where we’ll have to wait for another bus to take us to the start. One of the race workers says to someone’s questions about why this bus can’t take us to the start, that it doesn’t make sense, “It makes sense, she’s got important things to do.” (!!??!) So we unload, get on another bus, and eventually get back to the start/finish. The next issue is our drop bags. There are 2 aid stations where we could leave bags with extra supplies/clothes/shoes. One is at the parking lot, so that’s easy to pick up. But one is at an aid station where there is no parking – harder to get. We ask race personnel about our bags. We’re told to wait, the aid station will close in a half hour and everything will be brought back to the finish. The bags don’t show up. We ask again. We’re told something different. Every time we ask, we’re told something different. And this is from race personnel working at the Information Desk. Had I been given something close to accurate information, I could have gone and hiked in to get my bag myself. After 3 1/2 hours, I finally am waiting for another bus to get back to my car to go home.
This is a big event: a lot of runners, a lot of races. But these are all issues that they know about. It happens every year. One would think they would have figured it out by now. But what is most unforgivable is that some of the race people were rude. Not the volunteers at the aid stations – they were all helpful and encouraging. I’m talking about the official race personnel. We were treated like we were nothing but an inconvenience.
But wait, there’s more.
The most distressing thing about this event was The North Face’s lack of stewardship of the land! When I ran this in 2011, I remember multiple emails about Leave No Trace, about being respectful of the land. We were told to carry our garbage with us. We were told explicitly that anyone seen littering would be disqualified. This year, there was only passing mention of anything regarding stewardship.
And the trails looked that way. I was shocked at how many packs of gel and candy wrappers I saw. So much worse – how much toilet paper I saw left at the bottom of trees or beside bushes! (If you must go, and must use toilet paper, carry it out with you! Carry a ziplock bag and put your waste in it. I don’t care if you think that’s gross, it’s not nearly as gross as having to run or hike through your toilet!) North Face, if you don’t tell people, and tell them often, they will be stupid and lazy. As the race organizer/sponsor, this is your responsibility.
One of the aid stations is at the top of my street. Sunday, after all the races were done, I walked out to the trail to take a look. The aid station had been broken down, the sweepers had come through, making sure all the runners were off the course. And there was garbage. Aside from the huge amount of orange and banana peels, which are biodegradable but take a very long time to degrade, there was garbage. This was garbage where it could and should have easily been picked up by aid station workers, or the sweepers – give a bag to the sweepers for them to clean as they sweep. (don’t worry, North Face, I did your job and picked up the garbage.) But then I found an ice cream container tossed off the trail – this would not have been from a runner, but from a volunteer/crew/spectator. This was actually over near my house where I had seen several volunteers/crew/spectators wandering in the morning. I also had the lovely (and I mean that very sarcastically) chance to look up from my morning coffee on my deck to watch one of the volunteers/crew peeing. North Face, you should tell your race workers that if they have to go to the bathroom, they should head into the woods, not toward people’s houses. Seriously, don’t want to see that!
My whole impression of the race this year is that it’s too big and complicated for The North Face to handle. It’s either grown to large, or they’re not focused on the details because they have too many races across the country, they’re just getting sloppy or don’t care, or they’re more interested in promoting their brand than running a race. It seems like everything is geared toward the front-runners and their sponsored athletes, and mostly toward selling their gear. Far more than just 3 years ago, this all felt like it was about branding, not making a race for everyone.
It’s too bad. This was my first real ultra when I finished in 2011. I loved it. It’s a great course. It was the beginning of a fantastic 3 years of running hours and hours alone in the woods, racing distances that I thought were not possible. Thank you for that, North Face. From that experience I had recommended the race to a lot of runners. I will not do that again. I now understand why so many runners I know say they will never run another North Face race.
In the pre-race material, The North Face tells us to make sure any crew we bring with us know the rules and proper behavior, that we runners are responsible for the actions of our crew and pacers. That’s good. But it holds true for you as well, North Face. As the organizer of this race, you are responsible for your race personnel and volunteers. And you are responsible for the care of the land. You are borrowing this land for your branding/race. You need to take better care of it.
I am responsible for my running. Conditions on the trail were tough sometimes; I ran slower overall than I would have liked. I didn’t make the cutoff. I could do better.
But you, The North Face, you really need to do better.