Here’s what happened at the New Year’s Eve Rodeo Beach race:
The sun shone on the Marin Headlands. A big crowd of more than 400 runners turned out to do either the 8K, 20K, 30K or 50K. Some first-rate Bay Area trail runners—guys like Scott Dunlap, Victor Ballesteros and Rick Gaston—showed up to volunteer and support the event. The stand-in race directors, Tim Long and Tim Stahler, who were contracted by the nearly defunct Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR) to run it, started on time and worked the finish line smoothly. Friendly and fast-acting volunteers staffed the aid stations. Good vibes radiated on the trail.
I finished 1st in the women’s division in the 50K and 6th overall, in a time of 5:09, in spite of getting confused on the course during the first hour, backtracking, and adding almost a mile. I’d call it one of the best, most enjoyable trail races I attended all year.
Here’s what didn’t happen at Rodeo Beach, though on the drive to the start I mulled over the real possibility that these things might come to pass:
PCTR owner Sarah Spelt did not show up to explain what’s up with her and her company. PCTR’s recent race director, Michael Popov, did not show up either, so he and Tim Long did not exchange words or come to blows. The event was not canceled at the last minute, nor was it poorly attended due to runners boycotting it. No one gossiped loudly about all the characters caught up in the race management drama—at least, not that I heard.
In fact, everything about the event seemed blissfully functional and fun. The only drama involved a stolen aid station, which the race organizers gamely rebuilt and restocked, plus some markers seemed to be missing on one stretch of the course.
If you haven’t been following the Bay Area trail running scene, you might be wondering why the Rodeo Beach event had a lot of runners like me worried about what might or might not happen. As blogger and trail runner Mark Tanaka put it a few days ago, “Perhaps for our community, Rodeo Beach feels more Y2K-esque than 12/31/1999 ever did.”
The New Year’s Eve race followed a week of online wrangling unleashed after trail-running blogger Scott Dunlap courageously and capably wrote a story about the year’s baffling implosion of PCTR. As he summed up in “The Delicate Fate of Pacific Coast Trail Runs—Will It Survive?”, “To say that 2011 has been a tough year for PCTR would be an understatement of ultra proportions—cancelled races, a no-show for an event, tens of thousands of dollars in refunds in limbo, a rotating door of co-RDs [race directors], and more.”
Some background, which I’ll try to keep brief: Many of us remember the glory days of PCTR that cultivated friendships and grew the Bay Area trail running scene. Starting in 2000, the company thrived under Sarah Spelt and her then-husband Wendell Doman. Right after I ran the Rodeo Beach 50K in 2008, I wrote a profile of them and their company for Ultrarunning Magazine, which portrayed them as a happy, opposites-attract couple at the peak of professional success and personal fulfillment, with PCTR stronger than ever. Turns out I missed the real story. Sarah and Wendell divorced soon after, and Wendell began his own trail-race outfit, Coastal Trail Runs.
PCTR’s escalating troubles in 2011 involved the mysterious illness and reclusiveness of Sarah, who was extremely well liked and known for her ebullient personality. She had a complicated relationship and falling out with Michael Popov, whom she had hired to manage the events and bolster the company, but then he quit after PCTR’s eleventh-hour cancellation of the San Francisco One-Day Event in mid-September, citing “personal issues” with Sarah. That event cancellation left some runners extremely angry, since they had trained, paid and traveled to SF for it. Anyway … more race cancellations ensued. Then Sarah recruited Tim Long as the new full-time RD for PCTR and Tim Stahler to work on PCTR’s website. Then they had a falling out due to management issues, and “the Tims” spun off to start their own company, Inside Trail Racing (ITR), where they’re co-RDs and co-owners. (Read Scott’s post for additional details.)
[Update August 2012, an event that stunned the trail-running world: Michael Popov died during a solo long run in the extreme heat of Death Valley while Sarah Spelt waited to meet him. Read the Outside story and Chronicle story.]
Fast forward to the days following Christmas, when the comment thread on Scott’s blog post took on a Hydra-headed life of its own. The comments—nearly 200 at last count—grew increasingly nasty and personal, as people tried (to borrow the words of one commenter) to create a good guy/bad guy narrative by defending or lambasting PCTR while also questioning the integrity and intentions of the Tims. Early on the morning of Dec. 28, I logged on and saw several comments later deleted by Scott because they were slanderous, or deleted by the authors because they had second thoughts or remorse. Some of the most outrageous came from Michael Popov around midnight Dec. 27, including an unforgivable personal attack on Mark Gilligan, whom I know and like. I felt truly saddened by it all. My friend from the Eastern Sierra, Jeff Kozak, put it well when he wrote on Facebook recently, “About halfway through the comment thread on one of the Bay Area blogs, I needed to get up and find a barf bag.”
Also, I was confused about what to think about the Tims and their new company, Inside Trail Racing. Though we had never met in person, I took an instant liking to Tim Long after reading his blog–in particular, his report on surviving Hardrock–and I felt sorry for him that he relocated from Colorado to take the PCTR job, which in hindsight was akin to boarding a sinking ship. Their new company seemed like an exciting, fresh addition to the scene. Tim asked me via email last week to be on the ITR race team they’re forming, and I eagerly said yes because I welcome the camaraderie and motivation.
But then, when others on the comment thread began to question the propriety of what the Tims were doing with ITR, I couldn’t ignore their concerns. I hadn’t noticed, until others pointed it out, that ITR’s race calendar mirrored PCTR’s. Some people accused the Tims of sabotaging a comeback by PCTR, because now PCTR couldn’t secure the permits for the events since ITR had the permits for races on the same courses and on the same dates. (Keep in mind that the PCTR website is still up, advertising and collecting registration money for events that many say have little to no chance of happening.) Then, on the morning of Dec. 28, Tim L. posted a hot-headed reply to one of Popov’s remarks. (He later deleted the remark and apologized for it.)
Bottom line: I went to Rodeo Beach yesterday feeling like I had to get to know Tim L. in person and ask him some questions before I could really support their new company.
I introduced myself to both Tims at the start and then watched them do their jobs and interact with others at Rodeo Beach. It was hard not to conclude that they’re good guys who care about runners and know how to direct a race.
After the race, I asked Tim L. if we could talk about the PCTR controversy and his role in it. He was happy to talk but prefaced our conversation by saying he couldn’t share a lot of details, because lawyers for PCTR have asked him not to speak publicly about it. Here are excerpts from what he could say:
Why did you duplicate some of PCTR’s events for the new ITR event calendar?
Tim: “After working for PCTR for just under two months, what we [he and Tim S.] saw of the lack of management and ability to put on these events for the next year led us to look into the permitting for next year, just to make sure things were in place so we wouldn’t run into any problems if we were still working for PCTR. We found that none of the permits were in place, not one of them. Talking further with representatives of PCTR and their attorney, and finding out what kind of shape they’re in and the rebuilding they would have to do, we decided to split ways and start our own company. I moved here to take on race directorship and was basically left with nothing, so we started our own company. Those events wouldn’t exist if we didn’t absorb them.”
He anticipated that some will question why he and Tim S. didn’t get and pay for the permits for PCTR when they realized they weren’t in place. “The reason is that we had no financial resources available, and our emails, phone calls and texts had not received any response from our boss in nearly three weeks, so we had no direction. Our hands were completely bound.”
Then I asked him, What are your reactions to that rancorous comment thread on Scott’s blog? Do you regret any of it?
Tim: “Yeah. I think tempers flew out of control a bit. Good or bad, I’m used to saying things off the top of my head, which might not be the smartest thing in the world. It’s definitely regrettable, some of it—but getting threatened by people, both verbally and with the insinuation of physical violence, then your back’s against the wall. A lot of it hurts, and we can’t really talk openly about what’s really happened due to agreements between PCTR’s representation and us. We can’t really discuss what’s happened, but we can say that any event on our calendar we legally own. It’s our event, and there would be no races on those dates unless we owned them.”
Are you guys going to do things differently than PCTR … or stick to the same ol’ routes?
Tim: “We honestly love the feeling of PCTR races—the kind of picnic feeling with a race wrapped around it … and we want to keep that atmosphere around it and just refine some things, like better awards …. We’ve signed some pretty decent agreements for the year with some really great sponsors, and we want to showcase those sponsors with giveaways …. We see the value in this type of event—10K, half-marathon, 20K, 50K—and we’ll keep that as a base, with 10 or 12 races; but then the other 10 or 15 races we’re going to put on will all be newly designed courses: some point-to-points, 50-milers, a 100K in the works, and a 100-miler we’re planning, all brand new. We’re meeting with folks this week who’ll help us design courses, both in the North and in Southern California.”
He also pointed out that they’re surveying runners to solicit feedback. “Our intent is to be open, communicative, and to respond to people quickly…. We don’t want anyone to feel like his or her question or complaint is falling on deaf ears or just sitting in a vacuum with no response.”
We talked for quite some time, and I ended up impressed by both of the Tims and looking forward to participating in more of their events this year. I want to publicly thank them for putting on a great event at Rodeo Beach.
For what it’s worth, I really debated whether to write this commentary (and I ended up editing myself quite a bit). I hesitated because it feels like picking a scab, and because it could generate more misunderstanding and ill will. I really hope it doesn’t. But I felt I had to share some of my views to explain why I’m endorsing Inside Trail Racing, and why the Rodeo Beach event made me optimistic about how we as a growing community of trail runners can move on and get along.