Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Delicate Fate of Pacific Coast Trail Runs - Will It Survive?

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” – Hamlet

It was Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR) who first introduced me to ultramarathons in 2001, helping me rediscover a passion for the outdoors with their unique trail events up and down the West Coast.  PCTR's fun and low-key “runs but not races” have been a big part of the California trail running community for over a decade (beautifully chronicled here by Sarah Lavender Smith for UltraRunning Magazine in March, 2009). Rarely a month goes by that I don’t recall the fateful day I met PCTR Race Director and co-founder Sarah Spelt managing an aid station for the Purisima Creek 50k near my house, and watched her help a runner finish vomiting, pull him up, and say, “you only have 5 miles to go…so get out of that chair and keep moving forward”. Wow! Runners and volunteers alike were friendly, tough, courageous…a group of passionate people creating adventure just for the hell of it. Like many, I was drawn in by the PCTR aura.

Lately, that aura has had to shine through some dark times. To say that 2011 has been a tough year for PCTR would be an understatement of ultra proportions – cancelled races, a no show for an event, tens of thousands of dollars in refunds in limbo, a rotating door of co-RD’s, and more - any one of these would be enough to set the tombstone on even the best event management company. But just when you count them out, PCTR comes back with dogged persistence.  As 2011 comes to a close, they face their toughest challenge yet, and all eyes are on the Rodeo Beach 50k on Dec 31st to see if the race will occur, and more importantly, if PCTR will survive.

I was lucky enough to be a regular participant in the Golden Age of PCTR, where they held 20+ races annually through 2000-2010, ranging from 10k’s to 24-Hour events, and even birthing the heralded Headlands Hundred. Those who ran knew exactly what to expect – a well-marked course, plenty of happy volunteers, lots of food, and a sense of humility that made even the craziest races (and racers) feel approachable. By 2008, nearly every race was selling out, with a solid mix of regular runners and first-timers motivated by the Dean Karnazes/Born To Run surge. The 10-20k distances seemed to be the cash cow, drawing hundreds each weekend, while the ultras were clearly a labor of love that Sarah and then-husband/PCTR co-founder Wendell Doman both shared with the community they helped build.

The Golden Age got its first shake up in mid-2010, when a “Dear Jane letter" from Wendell to Sarah split the personal relationship that was the genesis of PCTR. Some feared the worst in the face of a divorce among co-founders, but they continued to do an amazing job keeping everything going smoothly. Wendell soon after started Coastal Trail Runs with a roster of even more races that conveniently did not occur on the same weekends as PCTR events. Like the child of divorced parents who now gets two weekly allowances, the trail running community was getting a best case scenario from a challenging personal situation.

2011 started ambitiously for PCTR, with a new co-owner and Race Director Michael Popov, new logos and web site, and a plan to expand into a whole new series of races in the Lake Tahoe area. A newly minted PCTR Race Team was spotted everywhere, with runners like Ian Sharman making headlines with his American Record-setting 12:44 at the Rocky Raccoon 100 trail run. Races continued to sell out through the summer, many in record time, although the Lake Tahoe races had to be postponed due to long permit timelines. Still, they forged ahead, and for most of us, the Golden Age was as bright as ever.

Then in September, 2011, the "train came off the rails", so to speak.

On September 16th, less than 24 hours before the San Francisco One Day event at Crissy Field, an e-mail went out from Sarah saying the event would be cancelled due to a “personal emergency”. Some runners were aghast, having trained and flown out to be at the event, but most just offered their help and condolences. PCTR does races in rain or shine, so surely they wouldn’t cancel an event unless it was serious? The PCTR Facebook page lit up with concern, personal outreach, anger, and lots of questions.

The following Monday, Michael Popov announced on Facebook that he would no longer be associated with PCTR “due to personal issues and other numerous issues with the co-owner”. Like many, I was shocked, and began asking around with the PCTR runner/volunteer regulars about what might have happened. Many felt it was a shame that Michael had left, saying he had lifted up PCTR with his enthusiasm and attention to detail. Others were much more direct, implying that Michael’s involvement created a precarious financial situation for PCTR, and his personal style had driven regular volunteers away. Whatever it was, the cancellation of the San Francisco One Day, and now this, was evidence that something deeper was amiss.

Then, the unspeakable happened. When racers arrived at the Santa Cruz Mountains 10k/20k/50k the following weekend, PCTR was nowhere to be found. La Sportiva was there to demo their shoes, and a couple of volunteers were eagerly awaiting aid station supplies, so it was clear that no notification of a cancellation had gone out. After hours of waiting, runners disbanded and went right to the Facebook page to express their shock and outrage. Just when you thought a last minute cancellation was the worst cardinal sin of race directing, a no-show reset expectations at a whole new level.

Refund requests poured in by the hundreds, which unfortunately resulted in PCTR's credit card processing company freezing their account and making it impossible to issue refunds. The PCTR web site posted cancellations for the next two races (Montana de Oro and Redwood Park), exacerbating the refund/frozen account situation, but still processed entry fees for future events through PayPal. This confused many, and while some ultrarunners just rolled with it and asked for credits for future events, the short course masses were extremely vocal about their missing funds and took to the Internet. Runners like Oregon’s Casey Hennig blasted PCTR on Yelp, Facebook, and even filed a complaint to the Better Business Bureau, permanently damaging the PCTR brand. Runner Christine Jenior Gorby said on Facebook she was engaging her lawyer, which as we all know means that PCTR would have to be very careful about any public dialogue (ie, there will be little, if any). Another slighted runner, Greg Monaghan, continues to post to Facebook regularly to call PCTR “scam artists”, "criminals", calling Sarah “a thief”, and encourage runners to go to competitive events. Hell hath no fury like a runner feeling ripped off, and with a lack of frequent two-way communication, they let their voices be heard. It was hard to imagine how PCTR would survive.

Then, in mid-October, signs of life. In fact, it was more than signs, it was a comeback in the making. Sarah came out of silence to publicly comment on the frozen credit account scenario, promising refunds to all involved and replying to many personally. A new team was hired, run by Tim Long and Tim Stahler (“the Tims”), two individuals with a deep passion for running and hosting events. Tim Long had even relocated from Colorado, and as soon as he hit the ground, the races were back on. The Santa Monica Mountain event on Nov 20th happened, followed by the Woodside event on Dec 3rd, in an impressive display of last minute organization and high integrity communication about the race directing experience. I ran the 25k at Woodside, and it felt like the good ‘ole days were coming back, with ample course markings, food, and happy volunteers. A new PCTR Race Team was announced, and I joined up to help in the comeback story. Like an ultrarunner who refused to drop, PCTR was taking flight once again.

Then as fast as the comeback was on, it stumbled. On Dec 17th, the Tims posted a blog entry saying they would no longer be involved with PCTR, citing the inability to address the confusion and frustration around refunds and money owed. They did promise to host the Rodeo Beach event on Dec 31st, and assured everyone that food and supplies were ordered. After Rodeo Beach, the blog entry went on to say, the Tims would be creating races under a new event management group called Inside Trail Racing. Yup, that just happened.

A few days later, they updated their post saying they had been contacted by PCTR’s lawyer to stay away from the Rodeo Beach event. Lawyers are involved? Uh, oh. Suddenly, everything seems up the air.

Will the Rodeo Beach event take place on Dec 31st

Are refunds coming, or does involvement by lawyers signal signs of bankruptcy?  

Will PCTR survive?  

All eyes are on Dec 31st.

One thing for sure, you can't knock the players in this story for a lack of passion about their sport and community. While Sarah and the PCTR crew find their footing, Michael Popov went on to tackle 140+ mile adventures of his own, Wendell created Coastal Trail Runs, and the Tim's launched Inside Trail Racing. In the face of a DNF, they each found within themselves the strength to press on and flourish in their own way. Their persistence is admirable, and for what it's worth, the trail running community continues to reap the benefits.

There is a special place in my heart for PCTR, and I sincerely hope that they will persevere through these tough times.  I am ever the optimist, much in thanks to ultrarunning, and can easily picture racing a PCTR event in full PCTR Team gear soon, taking about how glad we are all that refund nonsense is over.  It would be yet another epic story of persistence and courage in the face of adversity that our sport creates with welcome regularity.

Keep moving forward, people. Try to be positive for those that are struggling through the race. The finish line is closer than you think.

Peace and courage...

- SD

[Ed. Update - On Christmas Day, PCTR and Inside Trails announced on Facebook that they reached a contract agreement for the Inside Trails team to manage the Rodeo Beach event on Dec 31st. This arrangement is only for this event. It's nice to see they worked something out. Also, I should note that Jeff Makoff, the legal counsel donating his time to PCTR to help them through their current challenges, offered the following official statement in an e-mail to me:

"The trail running community is aware of the difficulties PCTR has faced recently.  We appreciate the extraordinary patience of our loyal friends and followers.  PCTR has retained professionals to work through the immediate issues and help formulate a strategic plan for the future.  Among the urgent issues are the processing of all refunds for past cancelled races.  Please look on our Facebook page for real-time updates and further instructions for refunds.  This process is well-underway and we will keep you posted.  We wish everyone a great 2012 - and we sincerely apologize for the recent difficulties!" 

Jeff went on to mention how they are in sorting out who still needs refunds, and who has already received them through their credit card companies, and how best to process them efficiently. It sounds very positive to me.

I'm hoping to volunteer at Rodeo Beach on the 31st to lend my support. Hope you are all doing well, and I look forward to seeing you.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

C is for Chafing (Book Review)

Mark Remy, known to most of us as the hilarious blogger behind Runner's World's RW Daily, has recently released "C is for Chafing", a funny mock-children's book that captures the irony and inside jokes of the running community. I got a sneak preview copy, and immediately picked up a few more as stocking stuffers.

I love the tone of this book, and we had a good chuckle as we passed it around. Eric Cash does a tremendous job with the illustrations, whether it's Daddy in an ice bath, or a truck driver flipping you off as you "share the road". The first few lines pretty much set the tone:
A is for Against the Traffic, the safest way to run
B is for Blister...Ouch! That's no fun
C is for Chafing, inner thighs are burning
D is for DNF, his GI tract is churning!
Awesome. Still time to get it for X-mas...available here at CreateSpace (owned by Amazon)! Or contact him directly for a signed copy...

- SD

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thank you, Way Too Cool, for wanting me!

I nearly bottomed out on the lottery karma this month (0 for 3), but Way Too Cool came to the rescue this morning. Phew! I actually had a cry-in-my-beer blog post drafted called "Hmmm...time to find another sport?". I know I shouldn't anthropomorphize and assume causality in what is essentially a random process, but I can't help it...passion for this sport runs too deep!

Here's how it went in my head:

Hardrock, can I climb your epic peaks and kiss that rock? 

Nope. Because I know you don't really want to do this're just backfilling in case Western States doesn't come through for you.

Western States, oh love of mine, can I toe the line and be an active ambassador for your magical event?

You're kidding, right? We called you a THREE TIME LOSER and you still can't take a hint. In fact, nobody publicly calls you a loser as regularly as the Western States Endurance Run, yet you keep coming back. You're actually a SIX TIME LOSER, but in order to publicly call you that, we had to get rid of that pesky rule that actually allowed losers in. Get a grip, man. You have some serious dependency issues, and there are lots of other 100-milers out of them may be your true soul mate but you won't know until you move on.

And in case you are wondering, no, there isn't going to be a special belt buckle for ten time losers.

Miwok, my old friend, can I share your epic journey?

Sorry, pal. We're already full with people who are training for Hardrock and States.

Way Too Cool, please tell me I am worthy?

Of course! As long as you bring beer and cupcakes. ;-)

The wise person would point out that karma is likely just showing me the wonderful opportunity to volunteer/crew at these great events, camera in hand, and build an even deeper love for the sport. Ah, yes, I hear it now.

But as I am woefully finding out this winter, if I don't have a 100-miler on the agenda, my motivation to train drops significantly. So the design process begins...Massannutten? Rocky? Black Hills? Bighorn? UTMB? Oh, the places we will go!

- SD

Thursday, December 08, 2011

2011 Rock N' Roll Las Vegas Marathon Turns Into Nightmare

The 2011 Rock n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon, which quickly grew to over 44,000 participants, went from "night run" to "nightmare" this weekend according to this news report and the many Facebook comments. Thousands packed into the Mandalay Bay Hotel at the finish with nowhere to go, stuck for hours, passing out, vomiting, you name it. Now there is a survey posted trying to find the root cause for why thousands have ended up sick.
(Runners stuck in the Mandalay Bay)
For those who love to watch a good train wreck, be sure to check out the Facebook page that is updated every few minutes for the latest accusations. The CEO of Competitor Group, the race organizer, got married with his wife during the race and they both clocked a finish averaging 6:31 min/miles to win their age groups (no split times recorded, suspiciously). No money went to charity, aggravating many. No medical personnel at the finish. Online petitions to boycott the Rock n Roll series popping up. Those who got a finisher medal noted it has a picture of the Seattle Space Needle. Pretty crazy! And mind you, these complaints come in every couple of minutes FOUR DAYS after the event. Many also say they had a great time, clocked PR's, and had no issues, and at least nobody died (yet). But whoa...the haters are out in force on this one.

It gives me a whole new appreciation for the smooth execution of the NYC Marathon with its 47,000+ participants. One forgets how many things have to go right to have these big races run smoothly.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Turket Trots Post 14% Growth...So Do Waist Sizes

A survey of the top 20 Turkey Trots held on Thanksgiving last week shows a 14% boost in participation from last year, far exceeding the 1% growth of the previous year. On the day of the year that has more races than any other, some of these are now boasting starting lines over 15,000 runners. Isn't that great?

I have now run the Santa Barbara Thanksgiving 4-Miler for five years in row, doing my best to squeeze in under 24 minutes (and 1000 burned calories) and win a bottle of Martinelli's Sparkling Cider for the kids to drink at the family feast. This race reflects the growth of Turkey Trots, climbing from 300 runners in 2007 to over 700 this year, while retaining it's small town charm. I would like to believe I run it for health reasons, but honestly, I know the motivation is to feel less guilty about the second and third helpings of home cooking that I am so fortunate to indulge in each year.

Once I had done the race a few years in a row, however, my motivation changed. I see the same faces at this race each sunny Thanksgiving morning, and enjoy catching up with them and watching their kids grow. I find myself inspired by the consistency of 76-year-old ultrarunner Bill Dodson, who somehow manages to do this race with his family and still make it to the Quad Dipsea a few days later (and then the CIM marathon the next week, naturally). Or the evolution of the Allison family, whose daughters Kate and Sammie have grown up from spectators (who scarf the post-race donuts) to runners (who scarf the post-race donuts), and soon enough will leave me and their parents in the dust as their youthful jaunts become graceful strides. Brian Wyatt was the proud father of 5-year-old Cassidy taking on his first race, and 12-year-old Chaia who easily made an age group podium finish and still had enough juice to run back a few miles and join the family. This year also saw the subtle transformation of my friend Kik Armstrong, run/walking this year with that confident glow of humility only seen on those who just completed their first 50-miler.

Consistency, change, transformation...all captured in the time-lapse memory of an annual community event. It's a beautiful thing, really. No wonder they are becoming so popular!
(700 runners take over the streets of Goleta, CA)
(Sammie Allison, a spectator no more, with Dad trying to keep up)

(Moms Kik Armstrong and Jamie Allison enjoy watching the kids run ahead)

(Power assisted running)

(Sure, Honey, I'll watch the kids and dog while you cook...and still get in a workout!)

(Bill Dodson and I stand with the other age group winners)

(Sammie is all about the powdered that really the same kid that hung onto Mom in 2007?)

(Ultrarunner Brian Wyatt poses with the newest runner in the family, Cassidy, who crushed his first 4-miler)

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