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“Generally, they don’t read the directions,” says John Storkamp, of his racers. According to this long-time race director, the job has its share of laughter and tears, similar to being a kindergarten teacher.
John is the director of a variety of trail races in Minnesota such as Zumbro, Afton, Superior Spring and Fall, and the Endless Summer Trail Series. These races range in distance and difficulty, but the same man is behind them all. And that man wants to live life on an escalating scale of difficulty, which may say something about his mental capacities.
I caught up with John after his 4th win at the Arrowhead 135 and before the spring race season got into full swing. I wanted to know what it was like for him to be both an ultrarunner and a race director. Is it the ideal life? Is this the runner’s version of Nirvana?
Seth: John, what one word comes to your mind when you think of the job of race director?
John: Ridiculous. It came right to my mind. It’s like hyper project management. As a small organization, there is no one to delegate to during the year. You have volunteers on race day, and periodically throughout the year, but you’re trying to manage everything all at once. You are doing such a diverse range of activities. You are everything from the janitor, to the CEO, to customer service, to human resources, to communication with runners, etc. We have a joke around here, “Look at all this work just so a few people can run around in the woods!”
S: That is very true, and a little sad. So many of us just want people to cheer us on while we do what we loved to do as kids! But how do you get started in this field? What would possess someone to go through all this work so others could have so much fun? And by “fun” I mean, “suffering.”
J: I got suckered into it. Nowadays there are actually people who think to themselves, “How do I become a race director?” But a while back that wasn’t the way it was. It was basically, really worn out and stressed out directors looking like vultures for the next sucker. And I am apparently a huge sucker because I kept taking race after race. Now when people recommend that I take another race I have an instant reaction. Almost like PTSD. I shudder.
S: I know there are so many good choices on this next one, but if you could cut out one aspect of the race preparation each year, what would it be?
J: Hmmm. If I could cut out one aspect I would get rid of all the runners. Really simplify it. The second thing, bins. Runners don’t think about it, but bins. People don’t understand that we run this from our house. Most people find it fascinating that the garage is full of bins, the basement is full of bins, our spare rooms are filled with bins. If there was something I could cut out it would be all these bins! Any race director will say the same. The bins are heavy. They are ungodly. A race director is a glorified moving job. You pack it up and move it out. Deploy it. Pack it all up. Clean it up.
S: So you can’t run in your own races because you are always having hernia surgeries.
J: Exactly. Believe me. I have had that. It wasn’t a full on hernia, but I had something pretty similar.
S: So if you could ditch the runners, you would. Fair enough. What is it that frustrates you the most about ultra runners when it comes to race time?
J: You look at all the demographic research on trail runners and they are some of the highest earning, smartest, most well-rounded people, with advance degrees, but for some reason they just cannot seem to read the text on the website. Generally, they can’t read the directions and instructions. As a race director, you basically make fun of all the runners whenever you are not running, but then the tables are flipped when you run and we completely lose our minds around race time. You go into this base instinct where you can’t read anymore, you can’t follow basic instructions. When you are not the participant everything looks ridiculous, but when it is your turn to race you do the same thing!
S: So they can read medical journals but can’t read the race directions. Ouch. Your comments sting a bit. I figure that they should know I have lost some mental faculty if I am signing up for a 100 miler. Merely attempting one of your races is considered questionable by the majority of people on this planet, but during the races I can imagine you see some memorable events. What is the craziest thing you’ve seen someone try to do at one of your races?
J: I think we can publish this… At Afton it gets so hot, so we have an ice company deliver an ungodly amount of ice so people can put ice in their hats, and sponges, and all that. At the finish line we have five gallon pails with sponges to use and throw away afterwards. So we have a lady who is just finishing Afton, and she comes across the finish line. We ran out of 5-gallon buckets, so we had a bin filled with ice water and sponges. This woman finished, and no one is watching her. Next thing we know she is in this bin of sponges like a bathtub. Soaking everything. So we get the woman out of there. The next thing we know another lady has finished and she has a cup in her hand and she had filled it up in that ice water sponge bucket that the lady was just soaking in. Before anyone could say anything she was already taking a sip of it. That one lives on in Afton trail running lore.
S: I will remember that – never, ever, drink anything that comes in a bin. Besides your astounding ability to choke back a gag reflex, you race directors are pretty talented people, and in many ways the corporate world can’t appreciate. What personality trait could be horrible in the corporate world but is essential as a race director?
J: You definitely have to be able to do the casual thing. People will show up to help before the race, and we are lifting bins in the heat, and I’m without a shirt. There is no formality. I look at myself and am like, “I’m in charge of these people? They’re looking to me for leadership?”
S: Besides the slave labor, being a race director has other perks, such as staying up for a couple days straight watching people come crawling in after 100+ miles. What are some of the horribly unhealthy choices you make during the chaos that surrounds the race event?
J: The diet gets completely jacked and you are looking for any kind of sugar to get you over that hump. Water gets swapped out for Red Bull, and then I eat my perfect mix of protein and sugar to fuel me over the last few hours—a bowl of chili with whole handfuls of sugar cookies crumbled on top.
S: I am sure the people coming in with specialty diets see you at the finish line and can’t even handle looking at you.
J: Yes, you’re standing next to someone telling you how great their low-carb, high-fat diet is for their running, and you get a glazed-over look in your eye as you’re eating sugar cookies by the dozen.
S: I appreciate what you put your body through so we can run these races! You do take a beating, and let’s be honest, help others put their bodies through misery. What runs through your mind as you stand on the finish line watching everyone stumble in?
J: It is the whole gamut of emotions. You see some crazy things, hilarious things and emotional things. For me it is the best part of the race. I like to delegate whatever I can so for the last hours of the race I can be there for the mid- to back-of-the-pack runners. I like to be right there on the finish line, seeing people achieve that goal. That is really meaningful. But you do get those ridiculous moments worked in between the emotional and memorable moments.
S: I would assume that this is one reason why you keep doing this year after year. What is another reason you keep directing races?
J: I would say I am so low-skilled and undereducated that I have no choice at this point. No one else will have me. But ultimately, it is because I love doing it. Being a runner myself for 25 years and still participating in events. You can become a little jaded so some of it isn’t as meaningful. Finishing races isn’t as meaningful as before. But I can stay connected to it as others finish. It is ultimately very gratifying. As people come out of their personal struggles, they have something driving them to do it. We joke around here that ultrarunners are just people who have issues with their fathers and are constantly trying to prove something to themselves. As soon as you start talking to people in depth enough, you find that to be true.
S: That is a good observation. All these people trying to do something beyond their ability and you are making it possible for them to push their limits. But in pushing our limits, we runners often push your buttons! So what piece of advice would you give to all those interacting with race directors this year?
J: At the finish line, don’t ask the race director “Has Joe finished?” It just about breaks me. I have no idea. There is more than one Joe and there is a lot going on. And I am trying to keep an eye on the health and wellness of more than a thousand people.
S: Do you have a lot of people trying to take selfies with you while you are eating your chili and sugar cookies?
J: Basically yes. There should be no photography of the race director or his wife on the second day. One thing we like to do a few days after the race is compare how big the bags were under our eyes.
S: You are making it possible for many people to live their lives on an escalating scale of difficulty. I guess I am not sure whether I should thank you or curse you. I do really appreciate your involvement in that and making it possible for people like us who can’t seem to read the fine print, or any print for that matter, in signing up for the race.
For more pieces on the lighter side of running, head over to sethgrotzke.com or follow on Twitter @AccidentalUltra.