Saturday, April 28, 2018

On the other side: beware, I'm watching!

I started ultra running about the time Stan Jensen switched from ultra running to ultra volunteering. He is such a example of giving back to the community, so inspiring how he gives up his time and money to support our sport. So, by the other side in the title, I don't mean the dramatic expression of the end of life, but the need our sport to have people on each side, runners on one, and volunteers on the other. And the importance to play on both sides to make our sport sustainable.

Since I've run so many ultra races in the past 12 years, 152 so far, and counting, I'm in very serious debt. I've done some trail maintenance, even beyond some of the 100-mile requirements, and worked a few aid stations, including being the Captain at Western States' Last Chance, along with the Stevens Creek Striders, but that's still not a match to the number of hours I raced, thanks to the support and devotion of so many volunteers. Lately I took over the Chair role of our Pacific Association MUT (Mountain, Ultra, and Trail running) sub-committee. That has consumed a lot of my time, especially as we are going through some transition and change after a quarter of century and amid a transformation of the ultra running landscape, worldwide. I'm learning so much about all the work happening behind the scene to run such a large association, both nationally and regionally, not to mention dozens of championships every year. Besides, on the running side, I had to learn all the rules related to record setting for the distances I've been pursuing since I moved to the M50-54 age group. Last December, I spent hours studying them again to help Paulo ensure that his timed event, One Day in Auburn, was properly set for official records. So much learning that decided to turn the investment into an official certification, which I obtained mid February: I became a USATF Apprentice Official, with a major in LDR.

Running can be so simple, by essence, and kids do it so naturally, it's something you don't have to learn, we were... born to run (Christopher McDougall will appreciate this intended pun). But it can be so complicated as well when hundreds of rules and regulations are used to ensure fairness at all levels of competition. Rule books at the international level, or national for Colleges, rules for high school meets, and events from less than 100 meters to multi-day events.
This weekend, I helped at the Brutus Hamilton Challenge event at Cal (Berkeley). Thankfully, the event was so small that the stress wasn't too high, most of the relays only had 2 competing teams, way easier to manage than having 8 x 4 runners on the track at once! I mention the relays because that's surely the hardest thing to monitor and umpire when you know that you have to check no runner steps on the wrong line during an exchange of baton happening so fast, on the fly literally, and there are 30 meters to monitor, from the 10-meter acceleration zone to the 20-meter long transition zone. I'm always in awe watching umpires calling fouls in NBA basketball games, well, it was my  turn this time. Again, as much as everybody would have loved to see a full stadium this weekend, the small turnout took away a lot of the pressure.

Among other things, my mentor today, Jonathan Price, taught me how to properly mark the break line for the 800 meters and the mile. Price... less!
Respect to my fellow officials who are spending many days on the tracks to ensure these rules are properly applied and followed at events around the State, or the country. I still have such a busy life with all my current jobs, I can't commit as much but it was really a great learning experience and certainly welcomed the opportunity to give back to our sport, this way. I still need to spend quite a few hours on the other side, running, but it's good to be able to step over the line as often as I can, to make up some of the deficit and debt I owe. And I must say that it takes a lot of skills to check 8 super speedy runners, or rather sprinters, so close to each other, and check if they step on lines in curves, or pass their baton too early or too late in the exchange zone (my mentor, Jon, and I had one easy case today in the Men 4x100m), everything goes so fast and people in the bleachers may actually have a better vantage point. I wished we would have access to a video to check what just happened, this is quite a job to spot infractions! At least we don't have this problem in ultra running, it's way more casual and relaxed.

It was also quite an experience to officiate in the Edwards stadium, such a historical place for track & field; unfortunately, it may be scraped in favor of more dorms for the Cal students. It's certainly quite a piece of estate in such an urban and world-renowned academic area.
As officials, we are not allowed to take pictures of the competition, despite being in the front seat, literally (well, except we stand up for hours actually). Out of 2.5 hours of competition, and 25 races/heats, a couple of memorable highlights:
  1. The 400 meters hurdles Men had an Olympian from the UK, Seb Rodger, win easily. Seb also competed in the 200 meters.
  2. The mile Men was also quite impressive, with a first rabbit from Cal dropping at 500 meters, then a second one after the second lap, putting into orbit a third runner from Cal who finished in... 4:00.83! So close to breaking the legendary 4-minute barrier! Which was even more legendary today with the presence of Don Bowden in the bleachers who was the first American to break 4 minutes, 61 years ago! The mile race is actually named after him.
I wished I had the opportunity to meet Don but, again, umpires aren't here to socialize, eyes on the track (besides, I had to rush after the meet to a gala dinner at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the ultra life must go on...! ;-).

Next time there is a certification course/session in the area, I'll write a post to share my own experience with the process, in order to encourage more of my fellow runners to consider volunteering this way. It's fun and important to have this way to give back, I'm encouraging everyone to consider it!

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