The Magic of Yes (Trail Race Director Edition)

Written by Jenny Baker for the Winter 2019 issue of our Trail Times newsletter. Jenny was also our Trail Ambassador last month and is race director for ATRA member race Georgia Jewel.

“The smoke billowed against the clear night sky as the smell of tender beef roast slowly and magically crept into the finisher’s tent. What started as a “Hail Mary” idea had actually and incredibly worked! Kyle’s homemade, portable, electric smoker had legit cooked 50 pounds of meat for our runners. And not just any meat…this meat was seasoned with his special homemade herb mix and cooked all day with more love than any meat should really be given. It was a magical Christmas miracle…in September.”

Two months earlier, when I asked Kyle if he would be the finish line cook at the Georgia Jewel 100 Miler while his wife Emily ran, I envisioned our normal meat and veggie burgers. Nothing too hard, just something predictable and easy. But, Kyle quickly vetoed this menu, instead suggesting fresh smoked bar-b-que.

I read the message, took a deep breath and told him we didn’t have a smoker which I suspected, would push us back to the original burger idea. Nope. We didn’t go anywhere but forward as Kyle nonchalantly told me, “No problem, I can build one.”

My, “Okay, let’s do this,” response was sent with the highest of pucker factors that only got higher, when the week before, he hadn’t quiet finished it. But, come race day Kyle worked that thing like a Border Collie works a sheep herd and our 100-mile finishers were greeted with fresh smoked bar-b-que.

Saying “Yes,” had given our runners an extra ounce of goodness they otherwise wouldn’t have experienced.

There’s a powerful magic in trail running. It’s led many of us to paths we never dreamed we’d run or to adventures we never thought possible and it all lies in one word. “Yes.” The most powerful word in running is yes, and it leads to innovation that makes runners, races and communities better.

As a Race Director it’s my job to help runners believe they can say this magical word and it’s also my job to say it to the many people our race relies on…volunteers. Trail races are made by volunteers (they’re also tanked by them…ask me about that over a beer one day.) We rely on people who choose to be generous with their time, energy and resources. Add a magic, “Yes” to that altruism and you’ve got a recipe for the amazing. At the Jewel we’ve made a habit of saying “yes” as often as possible and it’s lead to the BEST ideas!

Three years ago we added a climb at the end of our race…ok, not a climb, this is more of a wall. The first year our buddies Michael Ryan and Jobie Williams sat alone, with a few beers, cheering people up the hill. The next year, they both decided that hill needed a name and it’s own special aid station and we said…“Yes!” Now, three years later, we have T-shirts made to commemorate the atmosphere that feels more like the Tour de France than a Georgia trail race, a unique Mt. Baker Spotify playlist and a Strava segment for that sweet little mound of dirt and rocks. (Even the idea of making T-shirts came from a long-time Jewel runner.) And as the cherry on the top (pun most definitely intended), our friend Kellye Tilford had the idea to capture people’s favorite pump up songs and as they climbed (backwards, forwards or on their hand and knees) she blared them from the top. Watching people dance up Mt. Baker is now one of the highlights of our race.

After running the Jewel in 2018, our friends Nicholas Carter and Nathan Fowler asked to run an aid station. The guys, along with their wives and a magical “yes,” captained a station… and decided to cook steak for the runners. Steak. Who the crap gets steak at an ultra race? Races who say yes to solid people and their inspired ideas! (After finishing one of our runners claimed he ate better on the racecourse than he did at home…which makes our hearts oh so happy!) The innovation the word “yes” leads to isn’t just fun and inspiring, it’s also necessary in offering an excellent race experience.

When we give our volunteers freedom to create it leads to fresh fruit smoothies like Leigh Saint, volunteer and Race Director of some of the greats, (Cruel Jewel, Merrill’s Mile, Bull Epic) made for our runners. Or it leads to Tim Hill and Brian Gajus (RD of Yamacraw and No Business 100) making the most delicious Nutella quesadillas (um, yes, I ate them…I was hungry and they were delicious.) We also stopped using gas guzzling generators at our aid stations and instead opted for solar lights after a friend encouraged us to consider alternative sources of energy! At the finish line, as the aid station captains brought back their gear, it was Kellye who suggested we have a dish washing station so that after we packed it all up, I wouldn’t have to clean it once we got home. (Instead, I could die on the couch for a few days…haha just kidding I’m a home-school Mom.)

“Yes,” can unleash a power that brings people together in ways that elevate entire cities. This year we worked with our friends at the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau to introduce our runners, crew and volunteers to the delightful and nostalgic downtown area. (For the life of the race all events had been kept on the out-skirts of the city.) After an inspired idea and generous invitation from the Bureau, we moved packet pick-up and our pre-race meeting to a fun downtown green space where the craft beer flowed to the tunes of a Bluegrass 80’s and 90’s cover band (um, who knew that amazingness existed?)

The business owners were all so thankful for everyone’s presence and engagement in the city. The magic of “yes” brought energy and investment to the community who share their beautiful trails with us. After 8 years of this race it finally felt like a beautiful symbiotic relationship spurred by the pursuit of innovation.

The magic of saying yes is…we get better. We become a better race, better people and a stronger community. When ALL voices are valued and heard a group flourishes. It requires asking, listening, learning and being willing to lay ego and even convenience aside. Saying yes isn’t always easy. It can require a change in policy, process or thinking and those things take energy many aren’t willing to offer. Sadly, when it isn’t given, things begin to diminish over time and fail to become better instead becoming stagnant and offering little to those impacted.

And for people whose very success relies on volunteers, the magic of saying yes isn’t just powerful, it’s necessary. Race directors can’t afford to monetarily pay all the people required to execute an excellent race. Nope. I promise. Race entries already make running inaccessible to some, and to pay employees would make it accessible to only a small elite group of people who have a high level of disposable income. We can’t keep moving towards being an inclusive community without the generosity of volunteers. If we need them to succeed, we must give them the worth they deserve, and worth is given through inclusion. Not inclusion merely defined as a “space,” rather inclusion defined as an invitation to contribute to the advancement and betterment of an endeavor. Being physically present is NOT the same as being included into the visioning, execution and decision making of an experience.

None of us want to sit at an aid station, a timing tent or a finish line and merely take up a space. We all want to feel valued and to contribute in meaningful ways; to feel like we offer worth and purpose. When we find the spaces where we can do this and those that offer the encouragement of others, resources by which to execute and the magic “yes”…we thrive…and so do those places. If I want volunteers to continue to be generous with their time, then I must authentically communicate how so very valued they are not just in word but also in deed.

The trail running community thrives with “yes,” as innovation drives positive growth. And growth is good, it means something is alive! When things stop growing they die and cease to be a helpful contributor of anything. Embracing “yes,” leads runners to sign-up for the race they fear, volunteers to meaningfully contribute and cities to invite runners into their spaces. Let’s keep valuing, listening and encouraging each other to use our talents and resources to make this amazing community of runners, and by natural overflow, the world, flourish!

It simply starts with one race, one volunteer and one person who sees the value in another and says, “yes!”