Get some folks together at a trailhead. Plot a rough course. Ride or run (or both) like hell. Argue about who won over beers.
That’s how most mountain-sports contests start out. Our need to know who’s fastest has spawned thousands of events every year, many now highly organized, sanctioned, permitted, insured, and entirely legal. And yet we’re still creating more—lots more. Recent years have seen a dramatic spike in the number of free and nearly free grassroots races of all types. Many adhere to land-use laws; others don’t. “This is the golden age of racing,” says Michael McCormack, founder of the Breck Epic, a four-year-old unsanctioned (but legal) backcountry mountain-bike race that rolls through Colorado’s White River National Forest. “There’s something for everyone.”
The proliferation of races is partly push-back against soaring entry fees at established events: a USA Track and Field–sanctioned 10K trail run now usually costs around $40, and the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race is $300. In contrast, events like the self-supported backcountry mountain-bike rides that make up the Southwest Endurance Series are free.
One indicator of how big the underground racing scene has gotten is the influx of marketing companies looking to catch some buzz for their brands. Since 2008, cycling-apparel maker Rapha has staged Rapha Gentlemen’s Races, invite-only contests that, like many unsanctioned events, skirt permitting requirements by claiming to be casual gatherings instead of organized ones. Last November, apparel-and-shoe brand Pearl Izumi launched a trail-running Facebook app called Unsanctioned Racing that enables users to create a course with Google Maps, invite friends, and earn swag like bibs and T-shirts.
The Pearl app points to the potentially transformative power of social media: send out a tweet and you can have a dozen racers at a start line within hours. With social fitness apps like Strava, you can rate your performance on local rides against competitors, even if you race at different times. Still, organizers of blatantly illegal events tend to shy away from any communications that could be used against them, preferring to alert trusted racers with old-fashioned phone calls.
So what’s the risk of staging your own rogue race? Getting sued by an injured participant or the participant’s family is serious enough that waivers are common even at informal events. Meanwhile, land-management agencies have widely differing rules for distinguishing casual group outings from organized ones. (This is why people who put on nonpermitted contests usually avoid the word race.) There are also regional differences in attitude. One adventure racer who has thrown events in national forests in Minnesota says he has encountered rangers who told him his course “looked cool.” It’s a different story in hot spots like California and Colorado, where officials have been known to ticket racers.
Says McCormack, “Any shade of thumbing your nose at their authority and they’ll shut you down.”