RAAM, UMCA, and the way to a not-so-wild west of ultra cycling

Jim Gourley

by Jim Gourley,

This is going to start with a problem, wade into some history, meander through some related subjects, and arrive at a solution.  Bear with me.

People got angry about RAAM’s decision to cut ties with several independent ultra cycling events in the U.S. last week.  Then I wrote a blog stating that they were angry for the wrong reasons.  Then people got really angry.  As Ultra Marathon Cycling Association President Doug Hoffman put it, “some people in the community are really passionate about this stuff, they don’t want to listen to each other, and they can’t talk to anyone without calling each other stupid.”  I feel his pain.

The disputes over the RAAM qualifier status decision and the cultural attitudes within the community stem from the same overarching problem: No one has a solid claim to legitimate authority in the ultra cycling world.  The real problem with this isn’t that someone “deserves” to be the sheriff.  It’s that you can’t make real progress without law and order.

A brief historical overview is necessary to understand this.  After speaking with Doug Hoffman and Rick Boethling over the weekend, I learned that the following events are the most relevant milestones in American ultra cycling history, at least with specific regard to RAAM.  It’s remarkable that Rick and Doug do not agree on a few details.  I’ve done my best to reconcile their accounts.

RAAM Newsletter

RAAM Newsletter

RAAM (originally the Great American Bike Race) was started in 1982 by John Marino.  Either shortly before or shortly afterward, Marino founded the UMCA as a governing body over the semi-sort-of new sport they’d created.  Marino was a primary authority in UMCA and the owner of RAAM for the next 18 years.  The UMCA existed primarily to keep and track records of ultra cycling achievements.  As other events grew up around the country, UMCA broadened its role to sanctioning and insurance– critical roles of a governing body in most (but not all) sports.  Throughout this time, everyone was more or less compelled to bow to UMCA’s authority because of its grip on RAAM by way of Marino.  RAAM was obviously the crown jewel of cycling events and the guys who created it had pioneered the method of organizing and executing a successful ultra endurance race.  In 2000, Marino sold RAAM to Jim Pitre and Lon Haldeman.  In 2007, they sold RAAM to a group of buyers which included UMCA.  From 2007-2008, UMCA had at least partial direct ownership of RAAM.  In 2009, RAAM was sold to the Boethlings.  As I’ve been told, there was some discord both about how the sale was conducted and how the relationship changed afterward.  Those details are outside the scope of this discussion.  The critical thing to understand is that the governing body no longer had control of the premier race.  Up to that point, ultra cycling had more or less been a state-controlled industry.  Between Marino, Pitre and Haldeman, there were strong bonds between race owners and governing body members.  They had critical stakes in both organizations.  Once the Boethlings got it, the business and the government split.  Since 2009, ultra cycling has had two authorities: the guys who own RAAM and the elected officials at UMCA.

UMCA began to lose some of its authority even before RAAM was sold.  As Doug Hoffman explained to me, UMCA got out of the sanctioning and insurance business as independent race directors found a way to insure themselves.  Though this represented a growth in ultra cycling’s economic success, it also gave race directors a certain sense of independence.  When everyone is independent of you, you cease to be a governing body because you’re not actually governing anything anymore.  This has led to problems for UMCA.  As Doug Hoffman told me:

“It’s been a long, slow transition for us.  You used to need to be a UMCA member to enter RAAM.  Only UMCA events qualified you for RAAM.  Now UMCA has to work to stay relevant.  We’re starting up programs to help race directors and grow the sport.  Last year we started World Championship events in the 200 and 500-mile distances.  We’ve created the race directors committee and given them a non-voting seat on the UMCA board.  And now we’ve put together the 500-mile series.”

The fact that none of this already existed after nearly 30 years demonstrates just how far behind the UMCA was in its development.  That Doug Hoffman has put much of this together in less than two years demonstrates that the organization has found some extraordinary leadership right when it needs it most.

Given what he’s done, and what he’s planning on doing (which is part of the solution, to be discussed at the end), UMCA is set to move forward in big ways, which could put it back on track to become an actual governing body again.  However, there are some hurdles, and understanding them illuminates the future problems for both UMCA and RAAM.

Let’s first talk about RAAM’s 6-12-24 Hour World Time Trial Championships.  I’ve been to this race twice.  As far as an ultra distance cycling time trial goes, it’s tough to beat.  The course is as flat as a pancake, at or below sea level, pretty well paved, and indeed brings in some of the best ultra cyclists from around the world.  But the UMCA doesn’t recognize it as an official World Championship.  “Unless I’m mistaken, a time trial occurs over a set distance, not a specific time period,” explains Hoffman.  “We recognize the race winner and accord the event points in our series, but we do not list winners as a world champion or offer one of our world champion jerseys.”  In response, Rick Boethling says that “We choose to look at what is more commonly found in long distance races, which is miles over a defined time.  The history of “not legitimate” world titles is long, [such as] the Single Speed World Championships in cycling.  Whatever Doug thinks is fine by us, the racers will decide what title is important and we are willing to take the racers’ votes.”

Both men have valid points.  This is extremely murky territory.  Again, Ironman seems to be the prototype of how you accomplish these sorts of things in the world of fringe endurance events.  Ironman is “not recognized” by the International Triathlon Union in the same sense that the 6-12-24’s (or RAAM, for that matter) are recognized by UMCA.  Indeed, ITU has its own pseudo-Ironman event that they have labeled the World Long Course Championships (it’s actually about a 70.3 distance).  So, without ITU recognition or approval, how did World Triathlon Corporation secure the authority to call themselves a world championship?  The same way all corporations settle their problems– in court.

So, that’s an option.

UMCA Newsletter

But UMCA has its own challenges with respect to authority declaring things a “world championship.”  The most immediate problem is the issuance of a rainbow jersey to winners of its championship races.  Technically, that’s a major no-no.  From the UCI’s extremely detailed handbook of rainbow-wear:

1.3.061 The design, including colours and layout, of each world champion’s jersey is the exclusive property of the UCI.  The jersey may not be reproduced without UCI authorisation.  The design may in no way be modified.

Hypothetically, that’s another potential lawsuit.  I think sending cease-and-desist letters to the UMCA is probably way down the UCI’s list of priorities right now.  They have their own legitimacy issues.  All of this leads to the most pertinent question: where exactly does an aspiring governing body go to get legitimacy in this world?  It appears that they actually have several options. It’s valuable to look at some examples.

Ironman went to USAT for sanctioning and insurance.  They run their own anti-doping program, more or less in partnership with WADA.

The International Association of Ultra Runners obtained an endorsement from the International Association of Athletics Federations.  The IAAF established itself in the 1800s, grew up in partnership with the IOC, and offered money to athletes.  It pays to be first in line and have cash on hand.

The International Ultradistance Triathlon Association actually went to UCI for its endorsement.  The funny thing about that is that’s where I’ve been told ITU went.  How one governing body can grant legitimacy to another is mysterious, but apparently acceptable.  Based on that, I asked Rick Boethling why RAAM doesn’t approach USA Cycling for some sort of endorsement.  It was his view that getting that approval would be prohibitively expensive.

Beyond having the most awesome acronym of any governing body in sports, the World Open Water Swimming Association is probably the most comprehensively organized federation in the ultra-endurance business.  They’ve got rules, manuals, procedures, officials, you name it.  They support thousands of events worldwide, and even help teams and clubs.  It’s notable that, while FINA does organize 15 10k and 25k swim races, they do not have a good safety record.  Suffice it to say that WOWSA has established its legitimacy through hard work.

There are federations and leagues for everything, and the histories of their schisms and controversies are a story that repeats itself over and over.  Parkour, tetherball, Medieval Martial Arts, the ABA vs. NBA, Japan and Latin America’s arguments that America’s “World Series” is a misnomer, why Major League Soccer succeeded where the North American Soccer League failed, Garry Kasparov’s failed attempt to create a new world chess federation.  The list goes on and on.  This might give some people a headache.  To me, it’s fascinating.  For the ultra cycling community, it’s a road map to the future.

This is the solution part.

At present, the UMCA performs only a few key functions and exercises little to no power over individual race directors.  This is good to the extent that it doesn’t have the potential to ruin things for everyone the way the UCI or NFL have with their recent scandals.  It’s bad because they can’t compel everyone to at least rally under a single banner.  Indeed, over the last week I’ve heard from different sources that not all race directors in the 500-mile series always get along with each other.  There needs to be a little more unification.  Doug Hoffman may have the plan to do that by way of the two functions UMCA does perform– keeping the record books and establishing races as world championships.

The UMCA’s major source of legitimacy is that they have kept and hold all the records.  If you want to get your name in the book, they’re the folks with the book and the ones who do the writing.  You can go win Fred and Rick’s 6-12-24 World Championship, but that’s not how UMCA is going to write history.  That’s their power.  They’re essentially going the same route as the Audax Club Parisien, which is the governing body of randonneuring.  That august body’s authority stems from their being the people who created the world’s most famous randonneuring event, Paris-Brest-Paris.  They still own it and they require people to qualify for it by fairly strict procedures.  All of these things compel people to listen to them.  It’s notable that Doug Hoffman is so inspired by the randonneuring format that it was behind his decision to not make the new 500-mile series a kind of championship.  Rather, he’s gone for the “participation is its own greatest reward” format, just like ACP.

Hoffman told me during our interview, and allowed me to publish, that UMCA is planning to expand its series of ultra cup and world championship races in 2015.  The current 200 and 500-mile world championships will rotate to new races that year, and the initial discussions are underway to make the Race Around Ireland the world super-duper distance championship (that’s not what it’s actually going to be called, but Hoffman hasn’t figured out what the name will be yet and I’m out of creativity).  The world super-dupers will rotate on the same basis as the 200 and 500-mile championships, and will require some qualification process.  There are a ton of races around the world that would fit in the lineup, to include the Race Across the West.  That Hoffman would consider RAW for the lineup shows that he’s a genuine bridge-builder.

With these races expanding in popularity and gaining prominence in the community, the UMCA has the opportunity to obtain more clout by virtue of its points system and how it builds the qualifying process for world champion titles.  Right now, Hoffman says that the 500-mile series is planned to work like a randonneuring format.  It’s more about participation than competition.  You get points for showing up and finishing, and there are no prizes awarded for finishing first at the most races.  The individual races will still award their prizes for winning, but there will not be an equivalent of the Stanley Cup that gets people’s names engraved on it.  If things go well and people start seriously going to enough of these events on a consistent basis, I think that would probably change.  For right now, it’s a good start to have the world championship events.  Ideally, the world championship status will in time gain enough importance to the ultra cycling community that UMCA could use the issue of that title to persuade race directors to cooperate as a more unified body.

The ultra cycling community has lagged behind every other major ultra-distance sport, and it has suffered the consequences. RAAM is still the queen of the ball, but the rest of the sport hasn’t grown or matured with it, and even RAAM doesn’t have the public attention it used to get during the Wide World of Sports days.  The Boethlings have made a tremendous financial and personal investment in the sport.  They have ideas about where RAAM should go and they’ve put their money where their mouths are.  They’ve also been successful, and that success has benefitted the community.  Doug Hoffman is also doing good work to turn things around.  As the Boethlings promote the sport and grow the business entities that will be necessary to serve an expanding customer base, Hoffman and the UMCA are trying to repair and upgrade the existing infrastructure.  The two entities have different approaches, but that doesn’t mean they’re competitors.  If Fred and Rick are would-be railroad tycoons in the wild west, Hoffman is the governor of a territory trying to convince the cattle ranchers to give up a little pasture land to let the tracks come through.  If the people in the sport want to gain full statehood, they’re going to have to support both parties.

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  1. Dan Fallon says:

    Thank you, Jim, for providing an exceptional description of history and encapsulation of current thinking and planning. Really very helpful.

    A major source of interest and concern for me has to do with doing all that is possible to eliminate unnecessary risk of vehicular accidents. Many notable past participants in RAAM have remarked about the increased density of traffic on the roads. My own association with RAAM has been placed on hold until even the most obvious safety concerns are genuinely fixed.

    You state: ” There are a ton of races around the world that would fit in the lineup, to include the Race Across the West. That Hoffman would consider RAW for the lineup shows that he’s a genuine bridge-builder.”

    I would extend to Doug Hoffman and the UMCA my concern regarding conspicuous existing route problems with RAW. Adoption of RAW in the lineup, without significant resolution to route safety concerns, is a mistake.

  2. Lee Kreider says:

    Well, I read the whole thing. Thanks for the exhaustive insight into the issues. (I almost said, “exhausting,” but you colorful analogies helped me avoid that.)

    Good job.

  3. Nice article. Well researched, positive, and informative.

  4. Mark Ehlers says:

    Thanks for that article, Jim. I entered the ultra-cycling world when The Great American Bike Race first began. Back in the ’80s, I held the first “RAW”, which was then “Race Across Wisconsin”. It was a UMCA sanctioned event, and it was my passion (after riding). I let go of that life for over 20 years, until in 2012 I set out to break Fred Boethling’s 10 year standing record across Wisconsin. It was a 30 year old dream restored and accomplished.

    It is good to be a part of this incredible breed of athletes again. And I look forward to seeing the sport grow each year, and to the possibility of bridges being rebuilt, in some manner or form. But I will always hold those early years close to my heart, when John Marino, Lon Handeman, John Howard, and Michael Shermer led us into a whole new world of adventure and personal dreams. Even if those dreams sometimes take 30 years to come true. :)

  5. Robert Baldino says:

    Interesting article. Will B watching with great interest what transpires over the next few years. I agree with Dan on his safety concerns on many of the ultra courses & I would hope that these concerns would become a top priority of both RAAM/RAW and the UMCA! CU all in Oceanside in July!!

  6. Jim,

    Best piece of writing since your RAAM journal. :-)


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