Late last year, I was honored to be selected as one of the voters for Ultrarunning Magazine’s Ultrarunner of the Year. I felt as if I were invited into a special club, complete with a velvet rope (experience in the sport) and bouncer (Tropical John Medinger). I ultimately declined the invitation. It was the right thing to do, and I’ll go even further and say I think anyone who coaches elite ultramarathon runners should recuse themselves from voting for UROY. Here’s why.
Rule #1: Put the Athlete First
Great coach-athlete relationships are built on trust. For the elite ultramarathon runners I work with, they are at least partially putting their livelihood, career and performances in my hands. They trust I have their best interest at heart and that I have their back at all times. By casting an UROY ballot, I would put myself in a position to compromise that trust, and it is simply not worth it.
Additionally, what if not one, but two athletes I work with had a neck and neck year. The UROY process is already a complicated attempt to compare dozens of perfect apples, oranges and cantaloupes and rank the best pieces of fruit. Who do I vote for and why? Sure, my athletes are upstanding, rational people and I am sure I could justify the way my vote went. I could show them copious amounts of research I did to come up with a rock-solid and unbiased decision. But why would I remotely chance undermining a relationship?
Regardless of who I vote for and how I rank the runners, it’s just messy. Sure, It would be easy to say that as long as I vote and rank things fairly, that everyone will understand. But the UROY voting process is subjective at heart. For me, it is a lose-lose situation. Rank my athletes high, and I am biased. Rank them low or not at all, I’m not supporting them.
It would be a feather in my cap to be part of the panel, and I am grateful to Tropical John for asking me. There is a certain amount of prestige associated with being able to make a vote. It means you have been in ultrarunning for long enough to know enough to compare the apples, oranges and cantaloupes and make sense of it all. And while I am sure I could justify whatever ranking I ultimately came up with, I value my coach-athlete relationship more feathers in my cap.
Perceived or Real Voting Influence
I have had an athlete win Ultrarunner of the Year, Kaci Lickteig in 2016. That year happened to be a slam dunk for her. She won nearly all of the ultramarathons she entered, including the Western States 100. She also earned all but one of the #1 votes. I was not on the panel that year (nor have I ever been), but I have often thought, “What if I was, and what if the voting were close?” I would still have to manage all of the complications listed above, which from a coaching standpoint is almost impossible.
More tragically, my athlete’s UROY result would come into question simply by my, perceived or real, voting influence. That is not fair to the athlete. Regardless of who I vote for or how I came up with the vote, there would be some who would say I stacked the deck in my athlete’s favor, which is a sentiment the athlete would have to contend with in some way within the community.
There’s real money at stake
There was a time, not that long ago, when the UROY awards were meaningful to the runners and the community, but had little influence on a runner’s bank account, or anywhere else for that matter. In recent years more sponsorship money and attention have come into the sport, and now a UROY award has both a monetary value and a value outside of our small community. That is good. It’s good for the athletes, it’s good for Ultrarunning Magazine, and the sport as a whole.
Coaching an UROY winner looks good on a coaching resume and is good for a coach’s bottom line. That puts coaches who work with elite athletes in a position to participate in a vote that benefits us directly, which – in my view – creates a system rife with conflicts of interest.
With real dollars at stake, we should take steps to minimize self-dealing. Some steps have already been made to formalize UROY voting. Voters have been increasingly transparent about how they make their choices, and some have come up with ranking systems in an effort to make comparisons between very different performances more objective. All the panelists receive an initial information dump of performances to get a grasp of the year’s results. The panel is 40 members strong and Tropical John does all he can to include a diverse group which makes one voter’s influence only a small part of a big puzzle. These are all well thought out and effective ways to bring a method to the madness of ranking the apples, oranges and cantaloupes of the various race results.
To date, I believe the ultrarunning community and industry have been pretty good at acting in good conscience without a lot of formal rules. If other sports are an indication, that may be a challenge we have to face as more money flows into ultrarunning. I am sure other panelists have their own motivations for taking part. It is fun to banter and have civil dialogue about who has done what, and what the race results all mean. It is a badge of honor and from my own discussions with many of the panelists, they take it seriously and pour copious amounts of time constructing their ballots. For me, I will always put my athletes first, so I will take a pass.