Unfair Advantages in Trail Racing and Don’t Be a Douche

In elementary school, I had a teacher who gave the same response to every child who opened their mouth to complain. “Life’s not fair,” she would chirp with a grin, thrilled to be the first to inform us of this great life truth. The offending child would roll his eyes, and know his argument would fall on deaf ears. I can still hear that teacher’s voice in my head whenever I encounter complaints.

I heard her voice again when I read this month’s Trail Runner Symposium topic:

What constitutes an “unfair advantage” in a trail race, and what—if anything—should be done to even the playing field?

It’s not a topic I had previously considered, and frankly I was surprised at its origin. Associate Editor Yitka Winn wrote that the topic was “inspired by a recent letter to the editor we received complaining about the ‘unfair advantage’ of using a pacer in ultras.”

Huh?? Someone got their panties in a knot about pacers?

But when I started looking, I realized that “unfair advantages” were everywhere. Let’s explore this, shall we?

First, it’s important to consider that while there are advantages, not all advantages are unfair. For example, if one runner takes caffeine and another runner does not, the caffeinated runner may have an advantage. However, it’s not fair because: a) It is not against the race rules b) anyone can do it.

Here is a simple flow chart to determine whether or not an advantage is unfair:

Now here is where it gets tricky. Once you’ve determined that you have an unfair advantage on your hands, that does not necessarily mean that you have a good case.

Here is a simple flow chart to determine whether or not you should take your unfair advantage argument to the authorities.


Sidenote: You may want to consider that the closer you are to the back-of-the-pack, the douchier you sound when complaining about unfair advantages.

Here is a graph for reference:

UnfairAdvantageGraphSidenote 2: There are some cases where a runner will complain about the “unfair advantages” given to runners with disabilities. These may include things like hiking poles, pacers, guide dogs, or “bouncy” prosthetics. (Yes, this really happens.) If you complain about these perceived unfair “advantages,” you risk a higher likelihood of being placed in the special category of “Extreme Asshat.” Sightings are rare, but not as rare as you’d like.

The bottom line is that there will always be someone who has an advantage over you in a trail race, and if you’re the type of person who spends time trying to figure out which details are unfair, I fear you may be in for some needless mental agony and resentment.

The solution for me has been to compete with a past version of myself. I hope to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow I will push myself even further. That’s fair enough.

This post is part of the TrailRunner Blog Symposium.

blogsymposiumbuttonYou May Also Enjoy:

Social Media: Bane or Boon to Trail Running?

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Seeking Dispensers: A Call to Embrace a Wild Life


Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

10 responses

  1. Certainly this is essentially correct, and wonderfully mature as well.

    I will add, however, that the anti-pacing argument can be more nuanced than just pacing vs. anti-pacing. Pacing can be a fun night out on the trail with some buddies who talk you through the dark hours. Or, pacing can be two or three supporters carrying the runner’s gear, lighting the runner’s way, directing the runner at every step, blocking other runners’ access at aid stations, and basically push/pulling the runner to the finish line. This can be demoralizing for other runners, and generally makes a mockery of running a 100. However, as you say, life isn’t fair.

  2. Well said. I hate it when people at the front of the pack complain about takin a wrong turn and how, if the RD hadn’t somehow caused that mistake they would have won. When someone loudly complained about this unfairness when I was a checkpoint volunteer, all I could think was “suck it up Sunshine”.

  3. Great post. This post reminds me of all the “if the weather had been X I would have been able to beat Y” complaints I hear every race. If anyone thinks they’re running trail races for the glory they need to have their head checked. 99% of the trail races I’ve been to it’s “here’s your medal now get to food and out of the finishing area”. Trail races are all about you vs the trail and comradery with your fellow trail lovers. As I (quickly) approach my 40th birthday I’m competing against my mid-twenties self and kickin his ass, and that’s good enough for me.

  4. Best post ever!! Well actually incredibly on target as always Vanessa!!!!!! HUGS!!!!!!!!!!!! I just get such a kick out of you !!! Love your flow charts!! You rock girl!

  5. If I encounter a runner taking me over on the hills. He myi only have trained better than me – is that an unfair advantage? :P

  6. Such a good read!

    my old coach used to say:
    “If it is not against the rules then shut up and train harder”

    You turned his words into a piece of art for me and had me laughing too :)

  7. I am only a little embarrassed to say that I looked up “DFL” … urbandictionary.com did NOT disappoint.
    This was SO befitting and the DFL to Asshat correlation applies EVERYWHERE in life!

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