The Grounded Elite
Probably like you, I grew up playing and watching sports, putting posters of my elite idols on my bedroom wall, and reading intently about team dynamics, shattered course records, and the accomplishment of what seemed physically impossible.
In other words, in whatever sport I followed, the elite were a pack of immortals that existed solely on screen, in print, and on my pedestal.
In my 20's, when I started marathoning, I was turned on by the notion that I, as an amateur, would be able to compete in the same race, at the same time, as my heroes. In what other sport is this possible? Even with a few corrals separating us, I felt privileged to be sharing the road with professionals.
In my 30's, when triathlon had my attention, the thrill was even greater, because I was actually standing in the same transition area pre-race, readying my gear. I was so close to those I admired, I could see what brand of sunscreen they use. And often on an out-and-back course, I witnessed the battle for podium as they hauled ass back in my direction. Pretty exciting stuff for a sports nerd.
When I turned 40, I discovered the trails. Not only did it reinvigorate my passion for running, it introduced me to the intimate and relaxed community of trail runners. Many trail races look more like a weekend club run - starkly different from the event planning mega machines that drive the marathon and triathlon scene. When asked to describe my first 50K, I remember pausing in search of the right words, and finally saying "well, it was more like Burning Man than Ironman". Some participants had camped out or slept in their car near the start. The race director cupped his hands and yelled out the course description. Aid stations were sparse, few and far between. The winners sat next to me eating chili at a finish-area picnic table, wondering if they would need to pay for parking.
The commercial focus (read: big money) in marathon and triathlon has elevated the premier players to mainstream, celebrity status. If you've ever laced up a sneaker, you probably know who I'm referring to if I mention Lance, Macca, Meb, or Shalane. Quite conversely, the top echelon of the trail and ultrarunning world goes mostly unrecognized. If the others are considered rock stars, the trail elite would be the equivalent of the acoustic singer-songwriter at the local bar; every bit as talented a musician, but without the glamour and doting handlers. Maybe it's the lack of cheering onlookers and huge paychecks. Or maybe it's just the ever-presence of dirt. Whatever the reason, trail runners tend to be a fairly unpretentious crowd, and this attitude extends to the sport's elite.
Participating in the 2011 GORE-TEX TransRockies underscored for me this vast cultural difference. The six-day stage race format means that participants live together for a week. The people on the podium sleep in the same tent village as you, eat dinner with you, and use the same porta-johns. Except for the leader shirt, there is really nothing that separates the winner from the walker.
|No prima donnas here.|
Unlike earlier in my life, mere proximity to the elite was not the electrifying factor. At TransRockies I witnessed an elite-amateur interaction that I had not imagined realistic. I drank beer with pros, sat in ice-baths, consoled, and was consoled by, pros. I made fun of their bedhead.
There was simply no elitist bullshit.
In fact, the fast and the furious of the GORE-TEX TransRockies gave a tremendous amount back to 'the rest of us'. Imagine this: on a couple of afternoons, the elite racers relaxed in the back of a gear transport truck, mixed up drinks, and held Q&A sessions. Instead of sleeping or getting massages, they made themselves available to answer any questions ranging from training tips to personal life. This crowd was both approachable and forthcoming with their knowledge.
|That's a whole truckload of talent.|
|Ted hustling for us|
A few more examples of elite generosity at TransRockies:
A previous year champ, Ted Russell, whose pre-existing injury caused him to drop on Day 1, stayed for the entire week to help out. He handed me my cup of GU Brew at the finish line every day, shuttled racers in vans, and cheered on the course. When I asked him why he stayed, he said "because I am normally the beneficiary of great support. My schedule is clear for the week, so I am taking the opportunity to do my part. What I contribute here will be a drop in the bucket compared to the support I consume in a season." No elitist entitlement attitude here.
|Ross and Teammate Tim|
Another top racer, Ross McMahan, whose teammate became injured and therefore had to drop out, asked me at breakfast if I was going to run that day (my teammate, Paul, suffered a debilitating injury as well). When I said I was indeed running, he said, "Alone? If you want some company, I'll go with you". So despite having just eaten a plateful of pancakes, he changed clothes, and joined me for the stage. Only at TransRockies would something like that ever happen.
|Me with Mike and Jason|
Mike Smith and Jason Wolfe, winners of the Men's Open in 2011, were so proud of the large showing from Flagstaff, they cheered each of their hometown racers like proud parents. I have never seen race winners hang out at the finish to hug and congratulate mid-packers, and it gave me goosebumps to see that kind of reciprocal support.
As a relative newcomer to trail running and racing, I am able to look comparatively and objectively at elite culture across endurance sports. I suspect the remote setting, the anti-fanfare atmosphere, and the general population's limited exposure to the trail elite make for a much more humble and grounded attitude in the race environment. Add to that the special team- and multi-day structure of the GORE-TEX TransRockies Run, and you have the recipe for a very unique, camaraderie-focused racing experience.
|Paul with "Ultramarathon Man" Dean Karnazes|
The TransRockies elite are some of the most hard-core athletes I have ever seen. But somehow their feet remain firmly planted on the ground, and their hearts are in the right place. Their attitude and behavior during this rather exceptional event should serve as an example to the leadership in other endurance sports.
As demonstrated here in the Rockies, you can still be a badass and not take yourself so seriously.
|No flashy race kits. Max King rocks a skirt.|