By Stephen Kersh
July 26, 2018
A few weekends ago, I won a race. Well, I thought I had won a race.
*QUEUE THE EFFECT WHERE WE TIME TRAVEL BACK TO JULY 15*
The race was a 50-kilometer ultramarathon at the Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado. I showed up to the race with only one other ultramarathon result under my hydration belt, but I was exceedingly confident I would snag another solid result from the weekend because I laugh in the face of empirical evidence pointing to my inexperience and lack of specific training.
This race offered a more traditional trail ultramarathon experience with its start line positioned at just about 10,000-feet above sea level and 6,000-ish feet of vertical gain throughout the 31 miles of racing. The course was a mixture of single track switchback trails and wider, more runnable service roads. My plan was to stick with the leaders through the initial six miles of climbing up the switchbacks and then play to my strengths on the smoother sections and try to blitz those miles.
Like an idiot, I followed my plan.
One thing I have yet to mention, which is critical to this story, is the race was two loops of the exact same course. During the first loop, I and another runner broke away from the pack while we ascended to the top of the mountain. As we started our nine mile descent back to the base of the mountain, those damn service roads made their appearance. Wide. Open. Smooth. They incited a Pavlovian response from a non-technical runner like myself. We cruised down the mountain at a fast clip, doing our best to follow the loop as laid out by the race direction.
I was letting the shirtless man in headphones pace me down the mountain and into our second loop. Like most times in life we listen to shirtless men in headphones, this proved to be a terrible mistake.
My shirtless comrade started the second loop with me but by the time we finished climbing, I was able to put some significant time on him and the rest of the field. I was now alone. Running alone in a trail ultramarathon is a bit crippling for a lot of reasons but none as much as the possibility of being eaten by a bear at any moment.
Being alone on this lap, I was paying much more attention to my surroundings. Which is why when I ran a certain section of downhill switchbacks that seemed new, it made me suddenly wary of my current location. This all vanished when, within a few short minutes, I had linked up to a trail I remembered from the first lap. I guess during the first loop, I just wasn’t paying close attention to this section.
Well, fast forward to the finish: I won the race by more than 10 minutes and had set a new course* record. Immediately, I had to let my friends on Strava know. I uploaded my run, posed for a picture with one of those Big Gulp-esque fake checks (a dream of mine, realized) for a soon-to-be-mailed $1,500 and then I drove back home to Flagstaff.
A few days later, as I’m sitting in a coffee shop probably boasting about my new found skill set to a stranger, I receive news I will be disqualified from the race.
I had taken a wrong turn on the first loop. My shirtless Sherpa guided us on an unsanctioned journey and we were being punished.
Strava has what I’ve come to learn is an incredibly annoying and mean feature called Flybys. It actively tracks and compares your run with another person who completed the same map. Well, if you look at this race’s Flyby, it’s actually pretty funny. On the first lap, I completely veer off course for about a half of a mile before magically connecting with the proper course marking.
I have no clue how we missed the turn, but we did. And no one would have known if I would have never trusted Strava. Strava owes me $1,500 because they created a terrible, fun-sucking application. Had I never uploaded my race, I would have $1,500 of dirty money full of guilt. But! I didn’t actually even know I cut the course, so would I have even felt guilty? I would have stumped a polygraph test. In my heart and with every fiber of my being, I was certain I wasn’t guilty of any crime. And yet, I was. Strava is my moral compass.
In the end, I put up no fight. I obviously didn’t go the right way on that first loop. I didn’t deserve to win or collect any winnings. Perhaps worth noting is that I ran the second loop faster than the first loop. So, really, I think my “shortcut” was a “longcut.” Look at me! I’m out here trying to make races harder and I’m getting punished. WOE IS ME. Oh, and I also don’t actually blame the shirtless Sherpa at all. We are both idiots for not paying better attention.
But next time, maybe I’ll just keep it to myself. Enjoy this photo of me, cheating.
*Course Record for the Stephen Kersh version of the 2018 Copper Mountain 49.5K
Former collegiate runner for University of Portland and Georgetown, currently a professional runner weighing sponsorship offers from no one. Enjoys using the internet to message Scott Olberding and Paul Snyder about bad story ideas. Does not assume he will work at Citius much longer due to the bad story ideas. He once gave a TED Talk titled "Twitter: How We Are All Just Shouting into a Vacuum" to his best friend and his girlfriend on the beaches of Connecticut.