This is going to be one of my periodic bouts of philosophy and I think it might go on for a while, so if you're not up for it then this is the moment to change channel. I'm going to tackle a couple of subjects that more experienced people in the ultra-running world will know far more about than me, so I'll stress at the start that these are just my personal observations as an unspectacular middle-to-back-of-pack runner who nevertheless loves this rather crazy game we play.
A discussion developed on the WHW Race forum about the ups and downs of supported and unsupported races, and the volume and diversity of the contributions set me thinking about the whole thing. To start with and just to be clear, a "supported" event is where each runner has a back-up crew to meet him from time to time, provide food and drink, clean clothes and encouragement as and when required, run with him in the later stages if necessary, and go out and find him if he fails to show up at a checkpoint. An "unsupported" event is where no back-up crew is used, the runner carries everything he thinks he will need from the start, but food and drink may be available at aid stations provided by the organisers at regular points along the route and/or the runner sends his own pre-prepared "drop bags" to these points. The drop bags are sometimes retrieved (ie the runner gets the bag returned to him at the end of the race, allowing him to discard used clothing and equipment in it), or they may be just one-way bags containing food and drink and once the runner has used them they are thrown away by the organisers. Some folk have proposed that "crew-supported" and "organisation-supported" are more precise terms for the two types of event, but I'm happy with the original terms.
Now it seems to me the debate surrounding these different genres can be distilled into two main themes, namely what impact does the choice of style have on the runner from (a) the overall quality of experience, and (b) the safety viewpoint.
The overall quality of experience is completely subjective; what will appeal to one runner may be a total turn-off for another. I have enjoyed enormously the supported events that I have run; there is a feeling of being part of a team, you have to carry far less stuff with you, and I have no doubt that the individual encouragement and support pushes you to better times than you would achieve unsupported. Back-up crews get to know each other as the race unfolds and this adds to the overall feeling among everyone of having been part of something special. But there are two main downsides. First, the runner has to find a back-up crew to give up some of their precious free time to indulge his passion. I've been very fortunate in three (hopefully soon to be four) trips along the West Highland Way in persuading my grown-up children that another sleep-deprived, midge-infested and probably wet weekend in the Scottish Highlands will be fun, but my luck won't last forever. The main reason that I have only entered the excellent Devil o'the Highlands run once is that I don't think I can justify asking a crew to cover two events in the same year. I know many people rely on long-standing friendships but for others it's tough to get a crew the first time, especially when they don't know what they're letting themselves in for. The second downside is that back-up crews need motorised transport, ultras tend to cover ground serviced by few roads and fewer parking spaces, so having a crew means fewer competitors can be allowed into the event than if it were unsupported.
On the unsupported side, I know many runners feel the challenge is greater without a crew to cater for their every whim, fairer for everyone, not the F1 type experience where a good pit team can seriously advance the competitor's chances. I've enjoyed these races too; I don't find them better or worse experiences, just different, and when you send off your entry you know what you're getting into either way. I would personally be wary of trying to persuade any race organiser to change his style unless he already wants to. As this post was prompted by the West Highland Way (a supported race) discussion, I would just add the particular observations that moving it to an unsupported or partially supported event to increase numbers would not necessarily (a) improve its popularity and status as an event (many events are a bit of a lottery to get into - the UTMB and more dramatically the Western States for example, but the potential suitors know the score and accept it), nor (b) secure an increase in the number of finishers - the WHWR has an impressively high finisher percentage compared with other "100 mile" events, probably because it is supported.
Anyway, that's all about the quality of experience and as I said at the start it's totally subjective - if you don't like the conditions the organisers set, then don't enter the race! The safety aspect is more interesting and potentially more serious; I have seen some discussion on whether an unsupported race gives rise to more or fewer safety issues than a supported one. I think it's not just a question of comparing these two styles, it's much more complex than that - stick with me for a bit longer and I'll try to justify that statement.
First let's look at some of the underlying facts:
1. Ultra races often cover wild and mountainous terrain, which by its nature attracts frequently bad and rapidly changing weather.
2. In the longer races some runners will face a lot of this territory in the dark.
3. When runners have been in continuous action for 24 hours or so their physical and mental reserves can start to get pretty low (for example, night-time hallucinations are commonplace - I thought this was just a story until I experienced them)
4. Compared with other users of this type of terrain, runners are wearing/carrying very little.
5. There has been a huge increase in the popularity of ultra-running in the last 3 or 4 years, so the ratio of newcomers to seasoned campaigners is fairly high.
Before going into more detail on the actual risks and how they are managed (not avoided), let's just consider two other questions:
1. Is ultra-running considered a high-risk sport by its participants? For many years I have indulged in two pastimes, mountaineering and off-piste skiing, where there is an acceptance that serious errors in judgement or technique can cost you your life - there are many others of course, motor racing, cave diving, many aerial sports, etc, etc, the list is long - but the common point is that participants are aware that what they are doing is potentially dangerous and it is up to them to gain sufficient experience to practice their passion with an acceptable level of safety (though by its nature this is something of a Catch 22 process which has to be mitigated by a degree of prudence if you want to survive). Does the average ultra-runner set out with this at the back of his mind?
2. Is the general public (inadequate term I know but I can't think of a better one), probably influenced by the media, ready to accept that serious accidents in ultra running might happen? Think back a bit, a climber dies in the Alps, a motor cyclist in the Isle of Man, a short item halfway down the news, sad but these things happen. The Mountain Marathon experiences rain and flooding in the Lake District and there is a fairly prolonged outcry.
I was once out running in the hills a year or two ago, people knew roughly but not exactly where I was, on a cold, damp, misty day, when I started out fine but then began to feel a bit cold, then gradually a bit colder. Stop for a Mars bar, carry on, the cold gets colder. Nasty wind, keep going, don't want a drink, I only have cold water. I know I've a dry layer and a waterproof in my backpack, but can't be bothered to stop now, too cold to stop, can't really feel my hands and feet now, just carry on, very cold. I made it back to the car and sat shivering inside with the heater full on for nearly half an hour before I could drive off. I'd only been out 4 or 5 hours, classic case, first onset of hypothermia affecting decision making. On a full-on climbing trip I'd have recognised the symptoms, but I was only out for a half day's run. It won't happen again but you only need to be unlucky once.
My conclusions from all of this are as follows:
1.Ultra running can occasionally create life threatening situations. If you cannot maintain your body heat by movement with all the clothes you have with you (you twist an ankle, you get too tired to move fast enough, a headtorch fails, or it simply gets colder than you were prepared for), then you're in real trouble without help. Although it may buy you a little time, your bivvy bag won't save your life indefinitely. Your chances are greatly increased if someone is either with you when it happens or comes across you very shortly afterwards.
2. Public opinion will probably not accept potential fatalities in the course of organised ultra events, no matter how infrequently.
3. Although most event entry conditions call for the signing of some form of disclaimer on the part of the competitor ("If I get into trouble it's entirely my own responsibility" or some such), this has virtually no impact at all on the likelihood of an accident occurring, and once it has occurred the organisation will inevitably come under scrutiny.
4. Event organisers have only three main mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the event is as safe as possible:
(i) To ensure that the competitors are competent and capable of the event
(ii) To encourage and constrain them to make sensible decisions on the day.
(iii) To have at hand a plan for awareness and evacuation if an accident or incident occurs.
and if they back off on one of these, they have to increase efforts on the others.
In thinking this through so far, I'm happy that in all the events that I have participated in to date, the organisers have done a pretty good job. There may be some dodgy events out there but I haven't come across one yet, although I do think it is in every comnpetitor's own interest to think about these things before they turn up at any particular start line. I am also clear that whether it is supported or unsupported, every race is different and needs its own specific hazard analysis and risk management plan. I think it is simplistic and possibly dangerous to say "this works for race X, so why not use it for race Y?" - that's the whole point, race Y is never exactly the same as race X. It's the details that make the system work, not the system itself. I'll finish off by giving some examples of what I mean.
The UTMB is an unsupported race. Although there is a qualification process, and you have to have done at least one long ultra to get in, it's clear that many entrants are not up to the course (I certainly wasn't, on more than one occasion!). The organisers accept this as a 40-45% drop out rate seems normal year on year. However the course is very easy to follow (a clear trail and fluorescent markers every 100 yards or so) and the sheer number of participants (2300) means that you are almost never out of sight of another runner. The road-accessible checkpoints are never far apart and supplemented by mountain huts in between. The whole show is manned by organisers whose day jobs are working in the mountains, supported by 1000+ volunteers. That sort of organisation gives you some cushion against most eventualities.
The Lakeland 100 is an unsupported race. Although the entry form insists on previous ultra experience, competence control is reinforced by strong warnings on entry and at regular intervals - the latest newsletter to competitors includes the following ".....................If you are not an experienced and competent navigator you are likely to fail...............If you have not completed several ultra events already you are likely to fail...............If any of the above apply to you, you could put your life in danger............." . The road-accessible checkpoints are never far apart, and are mostly based in permanent buildings. The toughest sections of the course, which also have the trickiest night-time navigation, are in the first 30 miles when runners will be fresher and closer together. The final 50 miles are accompanied simultaneously by the Lakeland 50 event which significantly increases the number of runners on the trail.
The West Highland Way is a supported event. Entry is individually controlled, each competitor's track record is checked, he may be interviewed and asked to complete a specific qualifying race before entry is confirmed. This helps to achieve a drop out rate of no more than 10% in most years. The checkpoints are a long way apart (7 checkpoints on the WHW, compared with 15 on the Lakeland 100 and 27 on the UTMB over (roughly) the same distance), but get closer together over the final 25 miles. The first night section is immediately after the start when runners are fresh and close together. If runners need to run through the second night, they are not allowed to leave a checkpoint unaccompanied if it is dark, or likely to get dark before the next checkpoint is reached. Back-up crews are charged with making sure their runner is in a fit state to carry on at any point, and to accompany him when necessary.
Clearly these observations do not cover the whole safety plan for each of these races, but they do illustrate how different courses are managed in different ways, and they certainly give me confidence that these guys have thought their races through pretty well.
I have concentrated only on the longer ultras in this safety part of the post. This is not accidental, anyone who has done both knows that a 100 mile race is not twice as hard as a 50 mile race, it's much, much harder than that, with some competitors effectively "running on empty" later in the event which increases the risk of misjudgements. I don't think you can use 50 mile races, with competitors fresher, closer together, and mostly in daylight, as a model for how to manange safety in the longer ones; it's a different game.
In the 2008 West Highland Way I left Kinlochleven with 14 miles to go to the finish at Fort William through the high and deserted Lairig Mor. I had already been on the go for about 21 hours, I was tired and having difficulty eating anything worthwhile. It was just getting dark. There was a strong wind, and it rained steadily and continuously to the finish. I was accompanied by my son, a strong and fit 28 year old, but we had our hoods tight closed against the weather and barely exchanged a word until nearly at Fort William. Use of a phone, even assuming a signal, would have been problematic. Apart from checking in with the marshal at Lundavra, huddled in his car, for the whole 14 miles of paddling through streams and puddles we saw only one other light in the far distance, maybe a couple of miles ahead, otherwise we were completely alone. I was about halfway down the field, at this point strung out over 12 hours or so. On that night, under those conditions, would I have set out alone with just a drop bag at Lundavra? Call me a wimp, but no thanks.
Well there it is. Too long I'm afraid, if you've made it to the end with me, and just my views as I said at the start. I think I'll stay alive during my ultra career, and I sincerely hope everyone else does. Back to running next time, I promise.
WHW Finish 2008, around 3.30am