Overcrowding in trail races

A field of 2,500-plus runners line up at the starting line of the 2012 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

A field of 2,500-plus runners line up at the starting line of the 2012 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

The Leadville 100, an iconic trail ultramarathon that has been held each year since 1983, took place this past weekend in Leadville, Colorado. Along with speedy sponsored runners such as Ian Sharman, Nick Clark, and Scott Jurek, the popular race drew a reported 1,000-plus participants. And in addition to tales of overcoming setbacks and come-from-behind triumphs, the 2013 Leadville 100 generated a number of complaints from runners, crew, pacers, and even volunteers that there wasn’t enough race infrastructure in place to handle such a large field.

In a comment to an article about race results on iRunFar.com, Vlad Henzl wrote: “While I would like to congratulate the winners and all those who finished, I wonder how the race organization was perceived by the regular runners. For me, it was a huge disappointment. Being a mid packer (who eventually DNF’ed following a solid finish in 2012) it seems really strange that aid station after aid station runs out of food, coke, GU, cups for soup or soup itself hours before cut off, and the distressed runners even at such special place as at Hopeless 2 are treated with nothing but cup of water and words of encouragement.
The runners being almost ran over by cars at Winfield is an evergreen, but the chaos at Fish Hatchery (now Outward Bound AS) makes it a good tie.
 I also do not understand why aid station tents were so much smaller than last year, while the race grew by about 200+ runners resulting in virtual stampede. There was also very little space to take a break, sit down and browse through your drop bag if you ever get one. Yes, it took even 5-10 minutes to get one, because people who promised to bring it were called to do something else and simply forgot about it …

I myself am involved in organization of one of major 50 miler in the Southwest, thus I believe I understand how easy it is to make mistakes or how easily some things can go wrong. I also would never guess to publicly question competence of other race organizers, yet the systematic pattern experienced by me and several other close friends is simply beyond belief, especially considering the rich and long history, prominence and “professional” management of such huge race as Leadville 100.
 I’d welcome a constructive debate whether my perspective was somehow misleading, or whether problems experienced by me and my friends were real and are considered as serious by others as well.”

The comment did prompt a small debate about just how self-sufficient runners should be in any given event, how much responsibility a race organization has to individual runners, whether the use of crew and pacers is appropriate in larger trail events, and what kind of environmental impacts a field of a thousand-plus runners and a similar number of volunteers, crew, and spectators can generate. It’s the kind of debate that’s likely to continue as trail races continue to grow, and as more corporate interests and sponsors become more directly involved in trail running.

Many trail runners who have been part of the community for years expect small, intimate events with space for spectators and crew members, and personal attention from race volunteers. But as more new participants enter the once-esoteric sport of ultrarunning, financial pressure is leveled toward the creation of more races, and higher participation numbers in well-established races. How individual race organizers handle these disparate demands varies widely, but growing pains are an inevitable side effect of growth.

With the Leadville 100 emerging as the largest 100-mile trail race in North America, comparisons are being drawn to European events such as Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which hosts a field of 2,500 runners each year. UTMB manages this large field with significant financial backing from corporate sponsors, solid support from local communities, and an army-sized volunteer force. The race also does not allow pacers, minimizes available drop bags, and limits crew access to aid stations where the infrastructure can support a large influx of vehicles. UTMB runners also must come prepared to cope with crowds — people lined eight-deep at aid station tables, and human traffic jams on the trails. Solitude is not a part of the UTMB experience and is hardly expected. However, a modicum of quiet and seclusion is still very much a part of the expectations surrounding many North American trail races.

So what is the solution to growing pains experienced by iconic trail races? Participation caps? Higher qualifying standards? Increasing race fees to support the bottom line while capping participation? Prohibition of pacers and crew? Incentives to run self-supported? By many accounts that emerged after this weekend, portions of the Leadville 100 were chaotic, especially for runners in the back half of the pack. While one can argue that the Leadville race series is a business that no one is obligated to support, it does stand to be reasoned that organizers failed to provide many services as advertised. And because of the Leadville 100’s iconic status and reputation, poor service could become the norm without financial consequences for years to come.

What solutions do you think would ease growing pains in the sport?

28 thoughts on “Overcrowding in trail races

  1. jenn
    August 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I think there’s growing pains and then there’s poor decisions. I’m generally sympathetic to growing pains – I’m not at all sympathetic to some classes of bad decisions. Under “growing pains” I might categorize vehicle issues – if Leadville is going to maintain both high numbers of entrants and crew access, it sounds as though a strict shuttle system might have to be put into place. If it’s true that aid stations were packed up and gone as soon as the cutoffs occurred and before the sweeps came through, that’s not a “growing pain” that’s a really bad decision. It also seems as though if they are going to maintain high numbers, they’re going to have to consider route planning, because hearing about collisions because of the out-and-back + terrain nature of the current route … really sucks.

    (Proviso: I wasn’t there, just have read comments at irunfar and a couple of blog posts.)

  2. Danni
    August 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I think if people are paying $300+ for a mega race like Leadville there’s an expectation of organization and that there will be food still for each runner regardless of pace. Western States draws a large crowd (large-ish?) and manages to be seamlessly organized. If Leadville can’t handle the numbers it shouldn’t accept the entries.

  3. August 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I don’t think a “solution” is needed. There are some events where they try to pack in as many runners as possible to make it economically viable such as most city road marathons and others where the runners experience is the key. You chose yourself what to do, no one forces you. I did the UTMB a few years back, never again, it’s like being a battery chicken while having poles jabbed in your eyes every minute.

    Some people like to pay for that, others don’t. Let them chose.

    Obviously some races are going to get more applicants than others based soley on prestige. I have written off any chance of ever running the Western States 100 but to meet this demand new races are popping up all over the place. Overcrowding gives a good hint to those who might be willing to put themselves on the line and organise a race themselves that there is demand for it.

  4. Ed
    August 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    I am not a fan of pacers my thought is if you are a runner and you have properly trained then there is no need for a pacer especially if you call yourself a pro. If the race does allow pacers I do not think the pacers should be allowed to use the aid stations they should be self contained or taken care of by the runners crew.

    1. Craig Kinard
      August 21, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      Well, trail race insurers may have something to say about a “no pacers” policy, especially in remote, precarious places. AC100 has plenty of those–I can imagine the insurance cost for that race would go through the roof if participants had to go those 100 miles without monitoring.

  5. CC
    August 19, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Leadville is now a business, not the trail run it used to be. The way the business is run will determine its future success.

  6. Lil Jimmy Norton
    August 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    It’s all about the money, maaaaaan

  7. Ramone
    August 19, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Maybe you’d all run faster if you knew the aid stations were running out. Frruuunnnkiiiis!

  8. August 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Cool run… cool scene. I paced this year and, despite everything I’m about to say, had a blast. I left convinced that the Leadville 100 is a legitimately hard ultra and I’ve gotta give props to everyone who finished.

    That said, this race is a mess. First of all, aid stations were a lot weirder than any I’ve encountered in the past. No problems at Fish Hatchery, but I parked down the street. They should never have mixed cars and runners like that — it was dumb. The scene at Twin Lakes was mostly mayhem… parking, while not hard, was not at all as expected. Where was the lot we were supposed to use? Shuttles? I ended up parking down the street and while that’s all good, it added to the chaos.

    Winfield, though, was a total disaster. With traffic backed up for several miles, getting there was nerve wracking. While there, the aid station seemed super disorganized. There was a total lack of supplies there for runners in the middle of the pack — no Ramen, no Coke, no real help to be had. As mentioned after the climb up Hope Pass on the return trip with my runner, Hopeless was also out of stuff. Of course, that’s more forgivable, given that they use llamas to get stuff up there.

    By the time we reached TW2 seconds ahead of the cutoff, they were out of everything. No gu… no real food… help was minimal: certainly no one helped us grab the aid bags ‘n’ whatnot, although the volunteers seemed very nice.

    From there ’till the time my runner got timed out at Fish Hatchery (mile 76), support was minimal. Half Pipe had soup but nothing else.

    Did they change the time out time for Fish Hatchery? It’s all good, of course, but I think it used to be 15 mins later. Although things were getting ugly, we still had seven hours to go 24 miles at 3:00 am.

    Awesome race… wonderful people… beautiful part of the country… fantastic energy from both the participants and the many, many spectators. The race officials just need to get their shit together. If they’re gonna have a race this big, they’re really going to have to go over to a shuttle system or something, fix those traffic problems or ban crew from most of the course.

    Ironman races are often 2000 people and and run relatively smoothly… which is to say, it is possible, but difficult if you don’t design the course with that in mind from the beginning.

  9. David Wilson
    August 19, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Lifetime Fitness is in it for profit and profit only. They don’t care about the town of Leadville, the surrounding mountains, or the participants. They only care about profit. I saw that when my wife did the Silver Rush mountain bike race in 2012. There is also a lot of ego involved; not by the top athletes, but by the race directors and sponsors (Herbalife???!!! get real…please). People were stepping on each other trying to get coins that would allow them to pay to enter the LT 100 bike race. Pitiful. There are so many other great 100 milers out there that are WAY harder, WAY more beautiful, and WAY sweeter singletrack. Oh….and WAY FREE! I was in Leadville this year the week before the bike race. I felt like I was surrounded by rich people who had been turned into bike tech weanies by some coach or Lifetime Fitness “personal trainer” who just started cycling a year ago, spouting off GPS/HR monitor stats, talking about which front chainring they were planning to run on their new 1×11 on their unscratched $12,000 bike while they stood next to their blinged out Excursions, Land Rovers, and Audi Quattros wearing Lifetime Fitness kits that I’m sure they paid for. The good thing was that the totally awesome singletrack of the surrounding Colorado Trail was almost completely deserted.

    The good thing is that both events are giving their respective industries a healthy financial boost. All those stressed out bankers and real estate brokers who were told by their doctor to start exercising and walked into a Lifetime Fitness and got sucked into the hoopla of Leadville are dumping millions into outdoor recreation. That’s a good thing. Hopefully they won’t get turned off from the sport due to a specific competitive event and they’ll look to the grassroots side and continue to dump money on new bikes, shoes, gps’s, and packs.

    1. August 20, 2013 at 5:47 am

      I think we were separated at birth. You summed up my feelings exactly.

    2. August 20, 2013 at 8:29 am


      You have just described endurance sports in the US- not just MTB and ultra but marathon, tri, 10K, adventure racing, etc. The stereotypes, yours being an accurate depiction, are those that stand out; the overwhelming majority of participants are not like that and have a much more organic relationship with the sport and the events.

      The participants will respond to what they are offered and will hopefully provide constructive feedback to the organization. The longevity of the event will be a direct function of the mix of the uniqueness of the event, the services provided, and the stature of the event in the sport. Leadville, currently, is unique and has a high stature. This will not likely change due to the history and it’s inclusion in the ‘grand slam’. I expect that the organization will respond to the issues that have developed as the event has grown, however, many may not like what might be required to overcome these issues. Such is why many runners no longer do the ‘big’ marathons as it is not worth the hassle of being among 10,000 runners. At the same time, other runners thrive on the energy of such large events. To each their own.

      1. HRH
        August 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

        Le Manchot: “Such is why many runners no longer do the ‘big’ marathons as it is not worth the hassle of being among 10,000 runners.”

        Sounds a bit like Yogi Berra on why he no longer ate at the restaurant Ruggeri’s: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  10. M-
    August 20, 2013 at 5:00 am

    There were way too many runners than an out and back trail 100 miler could realistically support. If you were close to the cut off at Hope 1, the chances of making Winfield was next to impossible. Why? Runners heading down had to step off the trail for a conga line of runners and pacers coming up to Hope 2. This is proper trail edict, but as mentioned, this part the single tract race can not support a 1,000 person field.

  11. August 20, 2013 at 5:00 am

    I just don’t do them. I hate crowds, and to pay money for some event that I can plan and do on my own seems silly and a waste of money (I’m not a runner, but a biker/hiker/backpacker). Why pay good money to ride a century route where I have to stand in line for everything from water to port-o-lets? I can ride a century any time I want. I just don’t get the people that do all these events…but hey…whatever floats your boat so to speak. We each have to figure out what works for us. I say vote with your money. If you do an event that is patheticly run, then don’t do it again. Simple.

  12. J
    August 20, 2013 at 5:19 am

    Historical ultras have a sense of tradition. Leadville 100 mile run no longer has tradition.

  13. August 20, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I disagree that it won’t hurt their bottom line eventually. Aid stations not providing what was advertised is really serious, and it sounds like this is more than just a “red vines versus gummy worms” situation. It doesn’t really matter what the race provides, but if runners can’t prepare, this threatens their ability to finish.

    A 100 miler isn’t a 5K; most people get one or two of these a year, and I think they will ultimately start choosing events that are better organized.

  14. August 20, 2013 at 8:28 am

    While the aide station is a critical piece of infrastructure, onother piece not talked about is the course itself. I have stopped running several races because the course could not support the number of runners the race grew to.

  15. August 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Get rid of pacers and support teams/crews. If you can’t run the race by yourself do something easier. American racers should get used to carrying their own equipment, emergency nutrition and hydration. It works everywhere else in the world. why not in the US?

    1. jenn
      August 20, 2013 at 2:52 pm

      In the case of Leadville, I would certainly support limiting crew size. I don’t support eliminating crews/pacers from current races (though I would love to see more races established that disallow them) – and Leadville explicitly allows muling in a nod to its mining past. I’ve seen too many folks who have gotten into ultrarunning (or at least trail running) when they paced a friend. Crewing gives spouses, kids, friends an opportunity to invest in something important to the runner, so that this crazy sport is something they do too. Those are Good Things.

      From everything I’ve read, ultras elsewhere are fantastic, but I don’t see any reason why we have to be a carbon copy.

      Also, the original commenter on irunfar that sparked this post has put up another one with several links to the Leadville Herald indicating that there are Leadville folks not thrilled with what’s going on, and some similar mumblings about the Forest Service. So regardless of what Lifetime wants, change may be forced to come.

    2. August 21, 2013 at 6:45 am

      Getting rid of pacers and crew won’t help if they just then increase the cap. If this organization really is “all about the money”, that’s exactly what they’d do.

  16. Amy
    August 21, 2013 at 7:19 am

    I was there crewing/pacing and it seemed like the issues were in the race infrastructure. There were little to no volunteers directing traffic. There was ONE volunteer directing traffic at Mayqueen Return during the overnight (who had just moved to Leadville the previous week). There were TWO at Outward Bound In during the height of the morning. I witnessed several volunteers simply stand around and then walk away and drive off rather than direct runners which way to go. Our crew ended up directing runners at outward bound for awhile and directing traffic at Mayqueen. Our runner had to use cups out of the trash on Hopes for soda and the aid stations got progressively picked over as we made our way through them on the return trip (he finished under 27 hours and was well ahead of all the cutoffs). As a race director myself, that speaks to a lack of planning, communication, and race infrastructure. Having car and runner cross-traffic is terrifying and dangerous to crews and runners, and just stupid. Not having enough volunteers in a race of this caliber is inexcusable. We’ve traveled to several 100s of varying capacities and never experienced anything like this. Western States seems to have a ratio of approximately 12 volunteers to each runner. Granted that race is about half the size of leadville, but I’d be surprised if leadville had even 3 volunteers per runner total. Watching the aid stations operate, it seemed like a lot of people really had no idea what they were doing or what they were a part of. It was the complete and total opposite of every other 100 I’ve crewed. But hilariously, somehow, there were magically enough people to help me sort through my trash at each aid station (compost, recycle, trash). From a crewing perspective, Leadville was completely FUBAR’ed this year. Lifetime needs to establish and solidify a solid race infrastructure that is obviously lacking. Every single crew we interacted with had the same feelings. From my perspective, there weren’t necessarily too many crews (there were plenty of runners without them at all) but it was a complete lack of volunteers to operate aid stations, direct traffic, and assist runners through the aid stations.

  17. August 21, 2013 at 8:27 am

    I had fun at leadville. If you don’t want a crowd don’t enter a race and go find a trail with your friends instead. I think the larger 100’s such as Western States should have separate weekends for Pro and amtuer runners. I also think having tougher qualifiers for 100’s would help thin the field especially at leadville since there were at least a few 100 runners who entered that had almost zero chance of finishing.

    People running 100 miles should not need to be pampered like babies by crew and pacers every 10 miles. THEY HAVE DROP BAGS DON”T YOU KNOW! I say get the pacers off the course and have only one crew access point. My only complaint about the race was having to dodge crew vehicles driving down the street on the way to the Fish hatchery.

  18. August 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I ran Leadville last year. I didn’t experience any of the challenges folks are complaining about this year (my family did have some tough traffic moments, of course). That may be because I had the right expectations going into the race, or maybe things were just better last year?

    A couple random thoughts:

    1. The traffic issues are real. They have to limit or ban crews, or start using mandatory buses. There’s no other solution. We all don’t need four people to help us eat and gear up.

    2. The Leadville series is a much-valued economic driver for the town. Leadville ain’t Aspen or Crested Butte. They rely on these events to fill restaurants and hotel rooms. Sure, the race series owner makes some money, but don’t forget about all the other local businesses that rely on us runners/riders and friends/families for big chunks of in-season revenue.

    3. Leadville is one of many 100-mile race options. It is what it is. If that’s not what you are looking for, try another race. I say that as someone that isn’t a fan of the course, but wants to run it again for some personal redemption.

    4. I think it’s tough for a for-profit race to expect to rely on volunteers, especially for things like traffic and parking control. I can imagine volunteering for roles where you’re engaging with and directly helping on-course runners, but directing traffic a mile from an aid station is tough duty. Perhaps Lifetime should consider some sort of compensation scheme to fill the hard-to-fill roles (per hour salary, race entries, etc…)

    1. August 22, 2013 at 7:11 am

      I have read with a rather heavy heart the comments posted. Re: Leadville 100. Oh what a very sad inditment on a race that once upon a time was run by two wonderful people (and ofcourse their helper’s), a race that was organised mainly by the local people, for the good intent of the local community.
      I was, on two occasions, so very fortunate to have been invited to crew, help prepare the course the day before and at the later stages of the course, pace, for this privledge, I flew over from England, mind you, that was in the days when 100 mile runners where (to say rather pointedly) a little strange, if not weird, but what amassing characters.
      If you want to run a hundred or fiffty mile challenge, then by all means do so, but do it because you WANT to, not because it’s a matter of “BEEN THERE, DONE THAT AND GOT THE T/SHIRT”.
      If you realy do need to run with other runners, chew the rag and have some fun, then I agree with Chrissie Ferguson, run the Arkansas Trail 100 Challenge, great out and back course, really wackey aid stations,(though filled with very warm hearted helpers).
      Other-wise, put on your running shoes, head out of the door and DO YOUR THING.
      I do hope you will not take offence at the comments of an old Englsh runner, but I have over many years, so enjoyed the whole of the running scene in your country, something I have never found in other parts of this great big world of running.
      Respectfully. The Ancient Brit.