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Susie Chan and Cat Simpson finishing RTTS

Is it about competition or the experience?

by Susie Chan
Friday 1st April 2016
In a recent ultra race, Arc of Attrition, four runners crossed the line together. Nothing unusual in that. However these runners were the top 4. In ultra running circles this annoyed some people. It was a race, they were not racing. Or was it that they had helped each other through a tough race and wanted to cross the line together?
There is no doubt about it the Arc of Attrition is a tough race. 100 miles in winter along rugged coastline of the South West along Cornwall's coastal paths. Winter means many hours of darkness and weather that can turn against you rapidly. Checkpoints are spaced 20 miles apart, which in tough conditions require a level of self sufficiency. The race asks that only experienced ultra runners should apply. You need to be a 100k finisher and have overnight running experience. This year 73 people retired from the race. A hardy 28 runners finished. 
Why did some people find joint finishing hard to swallow? It was universally accepted that the ability of the runners was not the issue, it was the joint podium that split opinion. This boiled down to the two essences of ultra running: sport versus the experience.

Ultra 1

"Sport is underwritten by a governing rule that all will do their best, otherwise it's a jolly up" one ultra fan commented. Many agreed with this sentiment. The race had live trackers enabling ultra race fans to follow the progress. When the finishers crossed the line together some said it ruined the spectator element. "One view is that racing is not who is better, it is who played it best on the day that should be a fun thing cheering on your favourite to win, then shake hands, hug and go for a drink post race and tell war stories"
Some tracking the race said it made for dull viewing to follow.  I for one have been hooked to trackers over big races. How would you feel if you had been tracking a race for 24 hours and saw joint winners? 
Those who run at the sharp end of ultras wondered why a battle did not commence for the podium positions. "I don't dream of being top 4, I dream of being number 1" 
However, races are not only about the podium. They are also about the challenge. Ultra marathons, especially one of this difficulty, for some just taking part is the goal. 

Ultra 4

"For a mid or back packer the achievement is a very personal one, not necessarily marked by beating someone close, but by achieving whatever goal they set out on. By the definition to try to win or go home, very few would be motivated to enter" mused one ultra runner.
In ultra running you get very strung out on the course. Apart from checkpoints, I've seen no one for hours out on longer races. It's lonely. Some people love this isolation, it's why they run. There is no denying being alone on the trails is a joy. There is also the unspoken bond that you have with your fellow runners. If you happen a cross another racer, the exchanged nods, the chat (if they are that way inclined) the checking in with each other.. It's a very shared experience without the need to articulate much. Sometimes you don't even need to say a word. It's comfort enough to know you are not alone in the experience. 
Conditions this year were pretty treacherous. Many 100 mile races allows pacers as company and also as an element of safety. Running a very long way addles your brain somewhat and slows reactions. There is no doubt for some, running with others offers a lot of benefits in terms of mental support and navigation. 
One runner who took part in the race said "I was in the race and I can tell you it's brutal. Maybe the guys wanted to look after each other during the night. We don't know… What I do know is that to run the course in those conditions in that time was superhuman”.
The Arc of Attrition website does not have an official results page, the one I have found has now given an overall winner with 3 in joint second. Looking at the results from 2015, there was a joint winner also, with a 19 out of 33 finishers that year opting to cross the line with another person. 
It's very common in ultra races to have people finish at the same time. Lots of people run in pairs or with friends. According to one ultra runner, "The North Face 100k back in 2010 there were joint winners who raced hard against each other for around 90km before deciding to finishing together was more important than the win. Made for a better story than a sprint finish in my opinion." 

ultra 3

Some races I run for fun with my friends. Then there are the races that I want to do well in; the ones I try to compete, to beat others out in the field.  This is mainly driven by a desire to beat a previous time of my own, to perform that little bit better and get the gratification from the improvement. In terms of rankings sometimes I do well, sometimes I don't. However the main driving force behind trying to compete isn't always where I finish. It's nice to get a good placing, but the most satisfaction has been walking away from the race knowing I did my best and tried my absolute hardest. Often those faster runs have hurt and the joy does not come until past the finish line, afterwards, reflecting on the achievement. I certainly would not think less of someone if I had run with them for miles and miles overnight, and nearing the finish line they went for it. Depending on how I felt I would either wave them goodbye and good luck, or try my hardest to keep up and pass them. 
Reflecting on this the happiest times I have had during races, these are very different. These are ones which make me smile when I think of them, these have been the races which have not always placed me well, races I've spent with friends. Running with them experiencing the extreme ups and down running can put you through. The laughing, the encouragement, the agony, the companionship in the rough times, the many hours of comfortable silence getting it done, the time spent afterwards sore, yet marvelling at the sheer ludicrous joy of ultra running. I've run my guts out trying to keep ahead of people in that last mile and I've crossed lots of finish lines hand in hand with fellow runners. It's hard to put one experience above another. I guess it really does depend on what you want out of the race. That's the best thing about racing, you can make it what you want. 
What do you think? Would you run ahead to claim first prize if you had spent a race with someone? Or would you cross the line with the people who you had seen the last many miles with?
Quotes taken from Facebook 

Susie Chan is at www.susie-chan.com/ and @Susie__Chan

About The Author

Susie Chan

Susie Chan is an endurance runner, who runs all sorts of races from 1 mile to 100 miles and beyond. Her favourite races are multistage ultras. Find her on Twitter @susie__chan Instagram @susie_chan_ or read about her races on her blog www.susie-chan.com

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