Thursday, April 02, 2009

One Nerd's Dream To Make Western States Family Friendly

Our latest synchroblog tackles a simple question - what one recommendation do we have to improve the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run? It's a tough question, largely since this race already does so much for the runners and crew. But I do have one nerdy suggestion to make it easier on the families who wait patiently for their runners to get through the night - Twitter updates from volunteers on the trail.

I know what you're thinking. Are you crazy, Scott?!? Letting technology seep even further into an experience of nature like an unwelcome cancer? Heck, you don't even like Twitter!!!

It's true that technology has already infiltrated the ultrarunning experience, whether it be GPS, iPods, heart rate monitors, or cell phones. In general I'm not a fan of "over-nerding" the journey through the backcountry. In fact the best part of ultrarunning is being deep in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your shoes, some sunscreen, and an ever-empty water bottle, constantly guessing how far you have to the next aid station (or trail marking, for that matter). I enjoy my iPod from time to time, but more often find myself running the whole race with the iPod in my back pocket. Nature rules!

And it's also true that I'm not a big fan of Twitter. This new blogging service that allows you to send "tweets" (short blog updates of text from your phone) took all the things I loved about blogging (rich formats of pictures, video, long storytelling format, etc.) and stripped them out to make it simple for the most narcissistic among us to update strangers of our doings every 30 minutes. Are you kidding me? Let's face it, people. Unless you are Lance Armstrong, Bono, Barack Obama, a prisoner on death row with 24 hours to live, or one of the handful of people who literally has something outrageous going on every 30 minutes all the time, you will soon be reduced to the drivel of "had salmon at lunch today" that has turned Facebook into such a mind-numbing bore. None of us are that interesting, I'm thankful to say.

But like any good nerd, I do appreciate it when a technology meant for one thing can solve another need altogether. For the sake of friends and families, I think Twitter could have a place on the Western States trail.

If you're like me, your family "supports" your ultrarunning. My wife, Christi, is fabulous in that she appreciates how the sport brings me peace and fitness, she (and Sophie) is willing to juggle some activities so I can run for 4 hours on a Sunday, and she is proud of me no matter how (or if) I cross the finish line. Although she often tempts me with alternatives for running a 50-miler like going to the beach, she has never said "don't race". I don't think any of my friends or family has, and I love that about all of them.

But when I ask a friend or family member "are you going to come see me at Western States?", I get an understandably blank look as their head circles around the impossible logistics of trying to follow me on the trail with a two-year-old in tow, get to the right spot, and/or be at the finish line at 3am. Let's face it, ultrarunning is a tough spectator sport! But it's wrong to conclude that they don't want to be there and know how you are doing. They do. More so than a time split on a Web site can show. Enter Twitter.

If there was an @WesternStates Twitter account that anyone could follow, and a couple of helpful souls at the aid station willing to type in messages from runners to the public, you would have a live updated page that showed a new level of depth to the Western States experience. Not just "Scott made it to Foresthill an hour behind his goal" but "Scott is down 2 lbs, making up for it with Pringles, and smiling and singing Bob Marley songs". That would tell Christi and Sophie that I'm fine, just slow. It could also let people know what goes through your mind at mile 20, 50, 80, and beyond. I picture a few volunteers asking people "what's on your mind?" as they approach the aid station, and getting some crazy responses. Christi could check the Twitter account and search on my name/number every couple of hours to see what's up. We could also see what it's like to get an update from the front-runners, the mid-packers, and those pushing to make the cut-offs.

So that's my super-nerd recommendation. Set up a Twitter account for the day that allows for many short updates from runners. Could be an interesting view into the soul of the race!

Check out what the other synchrobloggers are recommending today:

Andy Jones-Wilkins Top Recommendation
Craig Thornley's Haggin Cup
Sean Meissner's Mandatory Buckles
Bryon Powell Talks Award Ceremonies

- SD


  1. For our adventure races, we've used Twitter accounts (aggregated into an RSS feed) to update our live race website ... for an example.

    Family and friends love it, and it drives a lot of viewers to our website. Could be a branding opportunity for WS...

  2. *LOL*
    There's a large thread on the ultraLIST about twittering the Barkley Marathons this weekend! But, I don't think that would be nearly as good as a WS twittering since there wouldn't be nearly as many updates for hours at a stretch.

  3. that's a great idea, Scott. ket and I hope to work a Saturday WS aid station, so I don't mind doing Tweets....

  4. I'm with Kate! I volunteer to Tweet!(Greg Soderlund, are you listening??)
    I think you're right about technology and its infiltration Scott, but also that it can do brilliant things for us if used wisely. I love this idea! My only question would be what kind of phone coverage and/or internet connections are available at these remote locations?
    Heck, if WS doesn't jump on this idea, I may volunteer to Twitter it from my own Blog. Now I just have to figure out what this Twitter thing is and how to do it...;-)

  5. I did this for a relay a couple of years ago (April 2007). It worked well to keep family members informed of progress, plus with a 9-member team it meant that team members could get some rest between legs and still stay aware of our progress.

  6. Nah, they should be anxious and scared when you are late, and not sleep at night while you're at it, and, you know, go "through" as you do if they really support (but can't come). If it's too easy, what fun is that? It's like running 50k vs a 100M:)

  7. I'm certainly with you about trail running being about getting away from the technological hairball our society has created for itself. But I think your Twitter idea for Western States (and perhaps other ultras) is a great one. It really is a chance for people to follow what is going on, even if they don't completely understand the sport. There is even a chance that someone may find their way to our sport through such a broadcast.

    Good luck at American River this weekend!

  8. Also, I think your synchroblogs are cool!

    And hope you stay cool Saturday- could be warm!

  9. Trail running is my way to get away from everything. I love it.

  10. Hey, I am sure Tim "Tweet" meyer would like the idea... ;-)

    Good luck at AR50 tomorrow!

  11. Love the idea. I've got friends and family who would appreciate it.

  12. i just live blogged my first half marathon, i think micro blogging has potential for live race reports, not just for the volunteers. *smile* hopefully one day i'll run an ultra! and by that point i hope to have a device for live blogging on the trail that is easy to type with, take photos and is sweat proof.

  13. crScott, couldn't agree with you more that, "Unless you are Lance Armstrong, Bono, Barack Obama, a prisoner on death row with 24 hours to live... [n]one of us are that interesting"

    WS rises to the level of Armstrong, Bono, and Barack Obama and thus is worth the tweets.

    Good luck on WS, I'll be voluteering for you there!

    Jose Suarez


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