Sunday, February 13, 2011

No HURT Feelings

This last weekend was Orcas 50K and 25K, which is by far my most favorite event of the year. Thanks to James Varner and Rainshadow Running, about 500 runners get together for socializing, eating, beer, a bonfire, fashion selecting and a bit of running. It was a great chance to see many people and show off my new HURT belt buckle. People congratulated me, but they were also upset on my behalf. In my last posting, I talked about the bandana incident—Meissner had a purple bandana tied to his pack and I held onto it as a way to keep me focused and on trail. We were seen by the course sweepers who misconstrued the situation and reported us to the race directors. In their eyes, I was either tied by or holding onto a rope and Sean was towing me. When I came into the aid station at mile 92 we were pulled aside by race director Jeff Huff who asked us what happened and informed me I was facing disqualification. Although I also wrote about the fact Jeff apologized, I don’t think I emphasized it enough. People told me they couldn’t understand why I’d been accused and why the race directors chose to tell me when they did. While I appreciate their indignation, it is wholly unnecessary. I want to clarify things and explain there are no hurt feelings (I’ll stop using that pun, I promise).

When Jeff Huff was told what the sweepers thought they saw, he wasn’t sure what to do. They, Jeff and John Salmonson never faced this sort of thing before and didn’t know how to handle it. There are rules against towing and certain kinds of assistance, but there aren’t any guidelines as to how to deal with violations or any defined consequences. They couldn’t simply ignore the accusation no matter who I am or how much they like me. They needed more information about what happened since all they had was the sweepers’ story. They needed to know my side as well as Sean’s. Should they wait until the finish line and talk to me while I was celebrating? Or should they warn me of what might happen before I finish? It was a difficult choice to make.

Let’s talk about possible scenarios. Scenario possibility one: they wait to talk to me at the finish. I continue the race without knowing anything might be wrong and potentially continue doing what might’ve been an illegal act. Then I finish, start to celebrate and wait to be handed my buckle. No buckle comes. Instead they pull Sean and me aside and tell me I might be disqualified. I’m tired, delirious, ready to no longer think about this race and all I want to do is lay down and go to sleep. But instead they’re telling me it’s possible none of my work mattered. Now they have to confer for who knows how long and I have no idea when they are going to decide. They have nothing to go on but our word versus the word of their sweepers. I could tell them what happened and plead my case, but they wouldn’t have any other evidence I deserved an official finish.

Scenario two (actual choice): they decide to warn me before my finish. They told me of the accusation at mile 92 and gave me the chance to tell them my side of the story. We showed them what we’d done and then I said I was going to continue. When I left the aid station I was determined to keep moving, yet knowing I could finish and it wouldn’t officially count was such a heavy thing to carry and it really slowed me down for awhile. It put my finish in jeopardy because I was pushing the cut-off time and couldn’t afford to lose much time. I pushed through, kept moving, sped back up and finished because I knew I was in the right. At the finish, Jeff talked to Sean and me again. He said the moment I stated I was continuing and turned away from him and kept going, he knew I was a true ultrarunner and had the aloha spirit he was looking for. He needed to hear my story and he needed that evidence so he could whether determine my finish should be legitimate.

I think they made the right choice. I can understand they needed to see how I would handle the news and that my subsequent actions would answer their questions. Had I cheated, I think I would’ve accepted defeat and quit right there. Yet I knew I’d done nothing wrong and showed them by going back out onto the course. Yes, their decision to talk to me during the race rather than after made the last miles that much more difficult to do because my spirit had taken a hard hit, but that’s what these races are all about. We fight for that finish line through everything that comes at us. I didn’t really need this race to be any tougher, but if I am indeed a true ultrarunner I’m going to fight even through emotional adversity. Hearing Jeff say I had the aloha spirit was almost as good as a buckle. I often question my motivation and whether I’m emotionally tough enough for this sport. It felt like being given the ultimate confirmation that I belong here, that I’m supposed to be doing this, physically and emotionally. I’m oddly grateful for the situation.

All of this calls into question what is and isn’t illegal for runners and pacers during a race. I think about when I paced Rich at Tahoe Rim 100 a couple of years ago. Because it was a USATF event, pacers weren’t allowed, but “safety runners” were okay as long as they stayed behind the runner at all times by a distance of 30 yards! Had anyone enforced that rule, every single runner using a pacer, including the winners would’ve been disqualified. I think about the numerous times someone handed me a gel from their own pack or how aid station workers put things in baggies and tell pacers to carry it for their runners. Is that muling? Pacers have steadied me on the trail when it looked like I was going to topple over. I’ve had my runners put their hand on my shoulder for awhile so they could close their eyes and walk for a bit. At Cascade Crest my pacer, Jamie had to pull me over a few big logs on the Trail From Hell. That’s all physical assistance, isn’t it? We’ve all done things like this, right? I’ve discussed some of these questions with many people and some have thought it should only matter for the winners. Is there a difference between those who are trying to win and those who are just trying to finish? Maybe, but where do you cross the line to determine the competitors and the mere finishers, top 5? Top 10? I don’t have the answers for any of these questions, but they’re something to think about and consider whenever one does a race. How much assistance can we feel justified in accepting and allowing?

I know they’re questions the HURT race directors are now considering. Jeff had explained how this was a learning experience for them and it showed them they needed to review their rules and guidelines so they’d be able to handle things better and differently in the future. He apologized for needing to use me as their learning experience. At the awards banquet it was very apparent Jeff and John wanted to let me know they were sorry and proud of me. I received multiple hugs and kisses on the cheeks from them. Sean and I were both given the documentary about the race. I got a big gift basket, another running shirt and the award for “which girl runner guys most want to see with tattoos on her body”—I’m most proud of that one! I love these guys and this whole community. It was a difficult situation, but it got worked out in the best way it could. Hopefully in the future they’ll be better prepared if something like it happens again. I fully accepted his apology and left feeling vindicated and completely satisfied with the entire experience. I bear them no ill will, so please everyone out there don’t feel you should for me.

Me, Mandi and Mom in Athens, Greece