Some of you may have seen already the plight of the Kep Ultra over in Western Australia recently when race director Rob Donkersloot was told just a few days before his race that “because of an administrative oversight” (read – cock-up), his approvals had not been granted – instead, with many runners coming in and already arrived from as far away as Europe, Rob went ahead with the Kep Ultra, but with his own liability on the line.
The removal of approvals meant that the race no longer had any form of insurance and Rob was out on the limb with a huge personal risk.
But how did this come about and why is it important? The short answer as to why this is important is because there’s a very real risk that races in Australia could go ‘underground’ as race directors battle the quagmire of red tape and obscene levels of Government just to put a race on.
As Rob politely puts it, “we have civil servants with zero understanding of what we’re trying to do and who are literally making things up as they go along.”
The problem is exacerbated however in Australia by the fact that we have numerous different States and Territories, all of whom approach things differently and with very differing attitudes. The fact is that race directors literally have to jump through hoops to put races on. I’ve had many a conversation with race directors whereby even at the eleventh hour prior to a race, a department has rung them up to stipulate yet another requirement.
So if you’re wondering why race fees in Australia tend to be relatively high, this article will go someway towards helping the average runner understand just how hard it can be to even get a race off the ground. The hours of form filling and leg work required by race directors goes beyond ridiculous at times. I jokingly said to one race director recently, “After the race is done, you’ll have probably earned around $3.57 an hour.” To which he replied, “If that.”
Andy Hewat, race organiser of the GOW100 and Bogong to Hotham adds, “It’s a big issue with no simple solution unfortunately. I have made public comment about this for a while now. I was quoted during the Kimberley Inquiry as saying there needs to be an Australian Standard for events to be measured against. The question is who writes those standards?”
The real problem in Australia is always going to be the multiple layers of bureaucracy and many different jurisdictions that all need to be satisfied. And each of those thinks they are more important than the other so that compounds the problem.
This was the issue Rob recently faced for the Kep Ultra, for an event which is held on a public walking track, he this year had to deal with SEVEN different departments, some of whom require approvals from the others in place before they would look at the application made to their department, “It was like a Fatass”, says Rob, “These guys make it up as they go along. One instrumentality had a new guy in charge who decreed we now had to have a traffic management plan, they didn’t require this for the previous five years, there was no change in regulation, but that one stroke of a pen cost $5,000 and 300 volunteer hours, with little if any safety benefit to our runners in my opinion.”
But all is not lost, there are a few hardy individuals making the case for consistent standards across races here in Australia and New Zealand, and a bid to have one point of contact with Government. And it’s this piece that is crucial as Rob says, “We need an all of Government approach to this. I am sick and tired of relying on multiple Government Departments, all approving the same documents, with the approvals mostly undertaken by people who haven’t the faintest idea of what’s involved with an ultra running event.”
Andy Hewat has started a framework, and there is a loose consensus that it should be driven by the industry and then signed off on by AURA once a satisfactory solution was reached. But in the mix too, there are now several international bodies who are self-governing their share of the industry and there is no uniform approach even between them. This was in part, some of the reason why we previously wrote an article on the whole industry body thing. Varying standards are an issue for our sport.
At the recent National Trail Running Conference in the Blue Mountains, Andy made a call for a rating system of races. The context for that is a system to identify to the runners what they could expect from an event. For example, we have a difficulty rating and a support rating. You have a category for the hardest to easiest based on terrain, elevation, weather exposure, etc. Then you rate according to how heavily marked the course is, how far apart the aid stations, how well provisioned they are, whether there is mandatory gear, commercial first aid, etc. So it could be a ‘Class 2B’ race for example and you know what to expect. While serving a different purpose, this rating system could be used to help the permit process if it had some validation.
A regulatory body could look at the rating and know what was expected, deciding then if that was appropriate. Taking this a step further would be that in providing the information along with the relevant Risk Management Plan, it should be sufficient to satisfy the requirements for a permit.
But that you would still need this to satisfy Parks, Fire, Police, local government, Roads, Ambulance, etc… The issue at hand is that we would need them all to agree on a template that would meet each of their requirements, which would then give race directors a uniform platform to work from. But then apply that across different states and there are more challenges. You can start to see just how many layers of complexity there are among different Departments and then apply that across different States. It’s a full-time job for someone.
As an industry, we need to take control of our races and produce a good self-regulatory system. That is not in question and there are very able bodies already trying to take steps. The issues arise however when governments try to regulate something they do not understand, and this is clearly happening in WA after the Kimberley fires.
Andy adds, “I am definitely suffering tighter regulation and there is no doubt that the threshold for canceling an event has been dramatically lowered. B2H this year is a prime example.”
So what needs to happen?
Time and money are hugely limiting factors here. It also needs the absolute support of industry bodies such as AURA, who I believe have agreed to set-up a committee – where that is at however, we’re not sure. There are a big mix of players and representation from all would be required to show Government authorities that we ‘have our shit together’ so to speak. We also need to integrate with Skyrunning and UTWT and the mainstream athletics bodies too.
It will take a lot of work and a lot of lobbying, but we ultimately need a runner ranking system and agreement on an approval template. This would be a drastic improvement, but might not save us from the inevitable Nanny State mentality that could strangle our races.
For now however, there is still a very real risk that ultras will go underground, which will do us more harm than good. We have a sport that is rising in popularity and numbers. But with it comes the risk that more people will go and run races without the proper checks and insurance liability in place.
We’ve already seen what can happen when race organisers haven’t got their shit together in the Kimberley four years ago. We don’t want another repeat of that, but likewise, we need to get a grip on a set of standards that everyone agrees to. Otherwise race organisers will have to deal with desk jockeys that have little understanding of our sport. Or quite simply, they’ll no longer put on races.
It’s a case of regulate or we’ll be regulated.
We’ve written this article because we wanted to raise awareness of this issue and highlight a very real example in Rob’s case with the Kep Ultra. If you’re someone who wants to help our sport and be involved in something like this, the it needs bodies that can help. Let us know.