In my one self-approved break this summer, I opted to volunteer for the Hardrock 100 again this year. The Hardrock 100 is a 100 mile footrace in the San Juan Mountains. Its lottery process for entry is notoriously difficult, potentially even more difficult than the race itself, which features 66,000 feet of elevation change over the course of 100 miles. I was selected to be the Communications Lead for Pole Creek aid station at mile 81. Pole Creek is one of the most remote aid stations on the course, there is no service, it requires a 5 mile pack in on top of an already intense off-road drive to the nearest trailhead. I wrote more about my experience volunteering for Hardrock last year, and functionally everything was the same, except the aid station was moved half a mile this year, to be easier to access nearby water for filtering.
There were several volunteers that had returned again this year, the aid station captain, her family, and another trail runner gunning to get a coveted Lottery spot this year. The race itself has been getting a lot of bad press lately, primarily critiques about the stark lack of women in the race (as someone that’s been there, it is that bad), a class action lawsuit filed against the race, and the recent critique from Sabrina Stanley, one of the past champions of the race. Fans of the Hardrock and long-term volunteers will insist that the race is a family, and the first year of the race, I was so bright eyed and bushy tailed over the chance to see the elites that I didn’t question any of it. After all, in 2021, Hardrock had done much more press to highlight the women’s field, and they had just announced their intentions to revise the lottery system to address the gender disparity.
This year, both as a volunteer and as a fan of the sport, I did not see much change in the race. On the volunteer side, they did not provide any HAM radio training for the communications side of the race, whereas last year there were several zoom information sessions before race day. When speaking with the communications head, she mentioned they weren’t even sure if we would get signal at Pole Creek’s new location. Perhaps I am being too anile, but for such an elite race, it doesn’t sit right with me that they didn’t do any logistical check that an aid’s station’s location was even feasible for comms. This doesn’t even get into my larger issues that Communications people are segregated from the rest of the volunteers, and are only introduced to the aid station captain (the person that’s in charge of everything and has volunteered for >7 years) if they request so. During the race weekend, I spoke with a past Pole Creek volunteer, who had worked the aid station for 13 years and knew the area well. I asked him what he had seen change in the race since he got involved, and he responded that he couldn’t think of anything outside of the online tracking. And therein lies the problem.
I often see that runners will say it diminishes the hard work of the volunteers to critique the race. That since it is so much effort to be a volunteer (it is, traveling to Silverton, finding a place to stay, packing into the aid station, the time commitment does add up), its not fair to criticize how the race is run because that somehow discredits the volunteer hours. I am here to tell you, even on the volunteer side, Hardrock can and should be doing better.
The core issue I see with Hardrock is the same with college model rocketry. College model rocket teams will be incredibly successful for a few years, when just the right combination of students are able to band together and build something amazing. And then, as older students graduate, the rocket team falls apart, as the things that made the rocket team special was the people themselves, and there was no intentional mentorship and forward knowledge sharing to preserve its success. This structure is glaringly apparent on the volunteer side, where volunteer knowledge is not evaluated, catalogued, and preserved.
I love volunteering for and watching races. The energy of the trail running community is infectious, and it is so incredibly cool to meet the other people that are pulled to this extremely niche community. But just because people are willingly volunteering, doesn’t mean that their kindness should be taken advantage of. It was only this year that Hardrock finally offered a local campsite for volunteers, in past years volunteers would have to find campsites or hotels on their own. As I said earlier, there was a stark lack of training to explain to new communications volunteers how the job works. Volunteering for Hardrock is not like volunteering for other races, it is an extreme high-altitude environment that can be dangerous for both the runners and the volunteers. And unlike the runners, the volunteers aren’t getting the bragging rights that they finally had the chance to run the race, the volunteers do not get anything until they help out for 5 years. I don’t expect to be getting paid or recognized for volunteering, but I do expect that the race directors are providing the information to keep the race the safest and smoothest for everyone involved. And from what I saw this particular year, I think there’s some room for improvement.
On lottery front and representation of women, you don’t need to be in Silverton to see how shit the gender ratio is at Hardrock. And I understand that some attempts are being made by portioning off some of the Lottery entrants to hit a threshold equal to the number of female lottery applicants. But the solution they propose is just a band-aid on a flesh wound. The lottery as it exists now does not work. The race has hit such a level of popularity that they need to make a fundamental choice whether or not to restructure the lottery to give entrants that have never ran the race before a more clear shot of getting into the race OR changing the race to invite only. Functionally the race is already almost all invite only. And as tragic as that is to people that have dreamed of running the race, that may be the inevitable direction of ultrarunning. The elites in the marathon have a separate section to race. It doesn’t diminish anyone else who has run a marathon, it just makes logistically more sense for all involved that the professionals have their own events to compete with one another. Not everyone gets to run the Olympics, but it doesn’t make you less of a runner. You can still appreciate the athleticism involved, and envy the opportunity. From what I see about the culture of Hardrock, it makes more sense to me that they switch the race to invite only, so they can continue to have the race exactly as they want it: unchanged.
To wrap up, volunteering at Hardrock this year was bittersweet. After spending just a few days in Silverton, it is easy to see why anyone would want to run the race. The views are stunning. But my experience as a volunteer interacting with the race up close has spoiled some of the charm of the race for me. It’s no longer possible for me to give the benefit of the doubt to the race directors about how Hardrock is run. They fundamentally do not want to change. The culture of the event is one of a family, that returns year after year after year to do the exact same thing they’ve always done. And because of that, I am skeptical the rightful critiques around the race will result in any systemic change. I am not sure if I will go back again next year, but I will always cherish the memories and the chance to be apart of the event.