No membership card was awarded when I became an ultra-runner three years ago. No permission was granted to join the club. The decision about whether I belonged was up to me. If my mind was strong enough to force my legs to push through fatigue and pain and continue to the finish line of my first 50K, then I was in. It really was that simple.
I was my own gatekeeper to the ultra-running club.
Or so I thought.
On Thursday I received an email invitation to sign up for an ultra race that will take place a year from now. The price – if I sign up immediately – is $110. Wait a week and it will cost me $140 if it isn’t sold out by then.
That’s ok. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. I made the same choice when I didn’t register for this year’s event last year. Life can be unpredictable, and there are other life events that require financial resources, too. No airline has agreed to give me free flights to visit my girlfriend while she’s finishing grad school. Electricity isn’t free. I enjoy meals. There are other expenses too, but love, warmth and nourishment are important priorities.
Apparently – in the eyes of some – my priorities are misplaced, at least if I want to continue being an ultra-runner. I was informed by the race invitation that “if you are one of the types of individuals that won’t take a chance this far in advance with $110 bucks because you are not sure what you will be doing a year from now and are concerned you might not be able to make it and don’t want to ‘waste’ the money, you really shouldn’t be participating in our ‘beloved sport’ in the first place.’”
So there IS a membership fee to be an ultra-runner? Why wasn’t I given the memo three years ago? And why wasn’t I given my membership card?!?!?
I understand some events, such as this particular one, are for-profit. As such, the race director is motivated at least in part by runners giving their money for the director’s livelihood. That’s his right, and it’s totally fine. What’s not OK is suggesting runners don’t belong in this sport specifically if they won’t give their money – and GIVE IT NOW!
It’s disrespectful to the sport and, more important, is disrespectful to the runners in our community who all are facing their own daily challenges and personal obligations while still making in a personal priority to run – whether it’s at this race or any other of the wonderful events available locally or nationwide.
To suggest that a father who knows he might be volunteer coaching his son’s youth soccer team next fall has no place in our sport if he won’t give his $110 now – hoping that a particular weekend next year might be free – is not selfish of that father.
To suggest that the mother of a young daughter is wrong for wanting to reallocate her $110 for K-State football tickets to take her daughter to a game – exposing her to the college atmosphere and planting the seed of higher education at an early age – is not selfish of the mother.
To suggest that someone doesn’t belong in our sport because there is a different race they’d like to run at the same time of year is not selfish of the runner.
All of them belong in our “beloved sport” as long as they choose to participate. In that same breath, those who choose not to run ultra distances but give so much of themselves serving runners at aid stations also belong in our sport.
Just as I am my own gatekeeper, they are their own gatekeepers. Nobody determines if we belong in this sport other than ourselves.
I was fortunate on Saturday to reach my ninth finish line at a trail ultra. It wasn’t my day, and some technical trails with shoe-sucking mud trashed my legs pretty nicely. But I got to run some new trails. Plus, I got beautiful weather, numerous frigid water crossings, cheerful and encouraging volunteers, and a few quality miles with friends. They also gave me a shirt, travel mug and gloves. All of this was for a bafflingly low price of $35.
Between my entry fee, hotel room, tank of gas, and laughter-filled hours at dinner with friends the night before, I spent a total of $150 for the weekend. I signed up eight weeks in advance.
Many folks will respond to the emailed race invitation and sign up instantly, and that’s just fine. If they want to, then they should. It’s their $110 (or $140), and they can do with it whatever they want. If they sign up, then they absolutely will be treated to a race that is extremely well organized, where all of the little details have been thought through, and where the volunteers are superb. They will get their money’s worth from a rugged trail that absorbs each step and bites back.
But there are other folks – like myself – who are going to hang onto our $110 for now and reallocate it to some of life’s other priorities. Mine went toward a plane ticket to Scotland where I look forward to running through the Scottish Highlands next month with my girlfriend and another good friend of ours. Other runners might be reallocating their $110 to buy a new coat for their kid this winter, or for Thanksgiving dinner, or their child’s gymnastics class, taking their kids to a Royals playoff game (since that only happens every 29 years) or medical bills from a running injury, or – gasp – registration for another bucket-list trail race.
Whatever the reasons, they’re all valid, and registering for a specific race is not mandatory to belong in our beloved sport. Going the distance is all that’s required, whether it’s at an official, organized race with an entry fee, or at a free fat-ass-style event organized among friends.
You belong in this sport no matter where you choose to run. You are your own gatekeeper. Don’t let anybody tell you different.