To regulate, or not to regulate - that is the trail running question

SA team at IAU World Trail Championships 2011

From left to right: Jeannie Bomford, Katya Soggot, Bruce Arnett, Su Don-Wauchope, 
William Robinson, Iain Don-Wauchope

Now that the IAU World Trail Championships is long done and dusted, it’s time to digest, dissect and then encourage discussion as to how to from here for trail running in South Africa.

Most trail runners out there have heard mutterings about the event and its build-up (or lack thereof), but few know the details – and many, being the carefree trail runners they are, don’t really care either way.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are 1) you’re a trail runner, 2) you live in SA or have some link to or passion for running in SA. Whether 1, 2 or both, you’re a valuable spoke in the wheel of SA trail running, and you need to read on.

Without going into unnecessary detail, here’s some background:

-       on June 5, ASA announces that SA will be competing in the IAU Trail World Championships 2011 in Connemara, Ireland on July 9, and announces the team of 3 men and 3 women.
-       The trail community is taken by surprise by 1) the short notice; 2) the team selection (all the men in the team were ultra runners, but at least 2 of the 3 women selected had never run an ultra distance; and 3) why ASA is involved in a trail running event at all.

Less known, the facts:

-       Way back in Feb, the event was brought to the attention of ASA by one of SA’s top ultra runners. Any team participating in an IAU event needs to be represented by some sort of federation or governing body, and as trail running in SA is footloose and fancy-free, in order to send a team to the event, it would have to fall under ASA.
-       The months passed...    the event came closer...
-       Suddenly in May there was a flurry of emails from ASA to a small number of trail race organisers (mostly middle to long distance races, not ultras), requesting suggestions of team members to represent SA.
-       BAM! The SA ultra trail team is announced, all of FIVE weeks before the event.

The outcome:

With just five weeks to train, and don’t forget taper, for a 70km event, the six team members had limited time. All are as surprised by the announcement as everyone else in the trail running community, but of course are excited by the privilege of representing their country. They squeeze in a quick month’s worth of training, and off they jet to Ireland in early June.
As could be expected, the performance of the SA team was disappointing. This bears no reflection, it must be emphasised, on the runners themselves, for they are all superb athletes in their respective distances. Instead, it’s more a result of the reality that they were given insufficient time to prepare for the event. That’s hardly a fair deal, particularly as at least one of the athletes had never run further than 42km before, never mind raced an ultra.

The conclusion:

Big events, particularly international ones that involve national representation, require much time and planning – for organisers AND participants. Five weeks is simply selling SA trail running short.
Had team selection taken place several months in advance, as it should have, then
1)    more of SA’s ultra-distance trail runners would have been able to make themselves available for the event;
2)    team members would have had the appropriate time to prepare themselves for the race.

This rather unfortunate mess up has left many in the trail running community even more determined not to be governed by any form of association or federation, or body of any sort. After all, they say, (and I quote) “isn’t trail running about freedom, running free without limitations of rules and regulations, about not having to belong to a club, be licensed, be told what to wear, etc etc?" and "Isn’t the very essence of trail running a breath of fresh air from the regulation that is road running?" and then "Aren’t trail runners like wild animals, who don’t do authority and can’t stand cages?”

Perhaps, but without some form of governing body to represent us, SA trail runners can never qualify for opportunities like the World Trail Championships. Instead, we’ll all simply potter on, always loving our sport and the exhilaration it brings, but never stretching ourselves beyond that.

Personally I think SA trail running has reached a point of maturity where it needs to decide on its future. As the great bard surely would've said, "To regulate, or not to regulate, that is the question."

Do we need regulation? Do we want regulation?
My personal view is I don’t want it, but we might need it, if we’re to prevent poor organisation like that for the IAU event from happening again.

Perhaps regulation need not be a swear word, and maybe there’s a way of having a governing body that represents the trail running fraternity without subduing the vibrant energy we all love about our sport.

Let’s throw open the chat floor to discussion – let’s hear your thoughts and get the ball rolling on where-to-from-here for trail running in SA. 
Please comment with your thoughts and get the debate going.

Labels: , ,