Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Opportunity meets Challenge - an open letter

I find myself in a very exciting but potentially very difficult situation and it’s complex. 

A little background first. I have been running long for 23 years. Many of my most memorable days have been on the trail and many of my closest friends, particularly my wife, I met through that love of the trails. 

Clearly as a competitor I have been a consumer, a taker, more than a giver but I did inherit a race in the UK and organize it for 5 years and I did setup the UK Ultra-running Championships for which I am proud to say we grew to over 1500 registered runners and pulled together a prize fund well over $10,000 in value each year. Our values in setting that up were to develop competitive standards but also to encourage all onto the trails – whether experienced or inexperienced. We specifically did not want to be elitist and we ensured that over 50% of the prizes did not just go to speedsters. Both of these have been pure volunteer efforts that took many hours of my time but for which I had a passion and which gave me satisfaction.

Now living in Santa Barbara, I realized it was time to hand over that series. From next month it will be in good safe hands with two friends back in the UK and so it seemed very timely that an opportunity should arise over here. I was approached about being involved in a developing run series and of course I was excited and interested. In fact it was something I was on the threshold of doing in the UK and has long been an ambition. I have run hundreds of events – good and bad – and have views about how an event might ideally be designed. Here was an opportunity to put those thoughts into practice.
Adopting the sustainability principle of triple bottom line I wanted an event to be primarily for the runners but to be sustainable and to harness the amazing potential for doing good – outreach, fundraising and activism – the sport with its dedicated participants can offer. We discussed and distilled that into the following ideas and principles: 

  1. Events should offer a bare-bones entry option as well as the full price version; they should be inclusive to people of all means and not everyone wants a t-shirt and a medal from every event
  2. Events must be permitted, insured and safe for the runners.
  3. The last person across the line is just as important as the first and everyone in between
  4. Whilst some will always want to race, the events should promote the experience and the love of movement through the terrain. These are journeys for all, races for some. We changed the naming from “race” to “run”
  5. The area where the event is held should benefit either from volunteer labor (trail work requirement) or a financial alternative to fund appropriate projects that preserve the area whilst making it accessible
  6. We should provide an opportunity for those with a great story and the ability to communicate it to inspire others from all walks of life – there is enormous potential for outreach in schools and youth projects
  7. We should encourage the motivation of those inspired to raise money for their cause and ours and provide them with support (a free entry)
  8. There is a win:win outcome where sponsor money can be channeled to local community groups who offer their time in support of the event
It seemed to me that the untapped potential of the Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez and Los Padres area coupled with beautiful Santa Barbara as a destination offered the perfect package and the person offering me a piece of the action had clearly been working for some time on the ideas, naming, logistics and permits to make this a reality.  

The challenge comes because some of these proposed events have happened before. They have not been a great success and there are more than a couple of people with very strong views about the organizer as a person, his actions and the events. That person is Robert Gilcrest and it is Robert who has asked me to be co-race director and partner.

I take people as I find them and I don’t believe in quitting. In Robert I find someone who is very open about his past addictions and who has made difficult choices in order to keep his family together. They are still together and back living in Santa Barbara. Robert has also freely admitted that he needs support in terms of planning and organization to keep him on track and round out his meticulous attention to certain details. Like most ultra-runners, myself included, he shares obsessive tendencies but is now channeling those into running rather than anything destructive.  I believe that whilst we are very different characters we have complementary skills and share the humility to know that we will always make mistakes but should try to listen, learn and improve. As long as that remains the case I would not give up on Robert or the events he conceived. 

I knew that communication and listening would be an especially important part of the first year or so – to clarify the facts and reality of what has happened in the past and make sure mistakes are not repeated. What I did not expect was that some would not give me the opportunity to explain my position before they rushed to judgement or that I would be effectively banished from the local running community. 

Yesterday I found myself removed from the local Santa Barbara Trail Runners group. I don’t know if this was an individual decision or one made collectively but I am saddened by it.  At the very least it cuts off a vital channel of communication – even if someone just wants to let me know that they never want to be involved I hope they would take the time to give a reason and that is learning for me. My hopes are to turn this thing around and to develop a set of events for which the local community can become proud. I don’t pretend that we are as significant but look at what the Leadville race series did for that community. It is a model I would aspire to.  

I thank you for reading this rather lengthy explanation and I urge you to contact me – I will make time and listen to anyone. Hoping that the spammers don’t pick this up I am on “runningmanuk” at gmail.com

I  will strive to be open and objective and to demonstrate through actions rather than words that we will develop and deliver events that are true to the principles I outlined earlier….and finally, sometimes the best way to sort out the really tough stuff is on a long run so let’s hit the trails!       


Nick said...

Mark, I have no idea what's been going but I wish you all the best with your new endeavours. I have a lot to thank you for in the Runfurther series you set up back here in the UK in 2006. It has given me 7 years of pleasure, physical exertion, self discovery and opened new horizons. I was so relieved to discover last Saturday that it will live on in new hands.

Mark Hartell said...

thanks Nick. Your commitment to the series has been huge and it is the visible support of people like you that have made it both successful and a worthwhile effort on our part.

If anything, I think we are passing it into better hands who will take it to the next level.

See you on the trails sometime!

Mac-Hine said...

Hmm, tough one, people are always protective of their patch and some types always assume the worst and act accordingly. No real advice to give, as clearly quite specific situation. A big cheesy smile always goes a long way though, so I'm sending you one now


Mac-Hine said...

p.s. just realised this has me down as Mac-Hine - it's Princess

Morgan said...

Hi Mark

I'm only just catching up with various blogs and have just read your last post.

I have a feeling I have read of issues with the Gilchrist connection; but also recall that Geoff Roes was very open-minded on some of the issues with an earlier event.

Having taken a couple of roles with the Bob Graham Club and latterly with the FRA, you learn that people are happy to have a pop at you, for all sorts of reasons, if they don't agree with your point of view or your actions. Fair enough. And both of these posts I have are subject to annual re-election; so ultimately I am subject to the control of members who can remove me from office if they don't like the way I do things, or help to do things.

It sounds like you believe in this project, and that is enough to make you commit time and energy to it. If you believe your partner is requiring of help, I say well done to you for offering to help keep the lines straight on a bunch of things that may not be his strong suit.

You may be wrong of course, and you may find yourself having to pull back at a later date; but that's life. And I have a lot of time for people who keep their situations under review and admit to a change of heart/plan when that's needed.

As to the reactions of others, it's tricky when people go off half-cocked, especially when you aren't asked for your take on a situation. But that is Clubs for you; if I didn't have to have one to support my FRA directorial role, I'm not sure I would bother these days.

I've learnt over the years not to let the knee-jerk reactions of others destroy or interfere with things I truly believed were right; and my gut instinct has been correct more often than not. So if you believe in this project and hold the view that to give it your support is in the best interests of the sport locally (or wherever) don't be deflected by those who want to pre-judge your own efforts and contribution to the wider purpose.

But stay flexible!

Happy New Year.


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