Grand Slam of Ultrarunning Drama

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (GSU) has always been a fun sideshow to watch. A few dozen folks get into Western States, decide it’s their year to do it, then sign up for the other three hundos: Vermont, Leadville, and Wasatch, all taking place over the next few months.  It is, in my mind, the ultimate FKT.

grand slam
Image by Keith Knipling

For many of us, one hundred per summer is enough, but these guys and gals sacrifice their time, a whole bunch of cash (entries, travel, tons of food!), and certainly their bodies to complete these events.  If they complete it, they’re considered “slammers” for the rest of their lives.

This year is especially exciting because completing all four events are two wickedly fast guys: Ian Sharman and Nick Clark. Coincidentally, they’re both British ex pats living in the US, but their running styles couldn’t be more different.

Ian Sharman. Pic Eric Schranz/URP
Ian Sharman. Pic Eric Schranz/URP

Ian lives in San Francisco, excels in flatter hundreds and ran the fastest in 2011 with a blistering 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon (that’s a 7:38 mpm pace, folks), but can also throw down in the mountains.

Nick Clark lives in the Rockies and excels at mountainous events.  Though his wins are not as frequent as Ian’s, Clark is always mixing it up, pushing the leaders, and currently holds the record for fastest WS100/Hardrock combo (15:50 and 27:43, respectively. 3rd OA at each.)  Keep in mind that WS100 and Hardrock are a mere two weeks apart. Ouch!

 

This year, the world (OK, fine, some geeks in the niche sport of ultrarunning, including yours truly) are watching with excitement as these two battle it out for the crown. Currently, they’re minutes away from each other at each event, three so far. To this point, the standings are as follows:

Ian Nick
WS100 16:20 16:56 Nick + 36 min
VT100 15:57 15:53 Nick -4 min
LT100 16:30 17:06 Nick +36 min
Wasatch tbd tbd Tot: Nick +68 min

Registering for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning entails filling out a form and sending in an $80

Nick Clark. Pic Eric Schranz/URP
Nick Clark. Pic Eric Schranz/URP

registration fee that covers three things. First, the runner earns a trophy, should they complete all four events. Second, they earn a spot at Wasatch, bypassing the arduous lottery process, and third, they have their names recorded on the Grand Slam website as official “Slammers.”  Should the runner fail to complete all four events, the $80 fee is not returned.

So where’s all the drama?

Nick’s name is not listed on the official Grand Slam of Ultrarunning list because he did not register and pay for the “event.”

Call me naive, but I didn’t realize it was a trademarked term. I thought, like an FKT or a “WS/Hardrock double” type event, it was a friendly, old school, and unofficial competition that held bragging rights and a trophy. Nothing more.

Apparently I was wrong.

I spoke with Nick about this decision to not sign up and pay, and here’s his response, in full:

“As lovely as I am sure the Grand Slam trophy is, I felt no need to purchase one to commemorate my summer of racing. My wife banishes most all race hardware to dark and dusty places in our house, so spending $80 on a trophy that wouldn’t see the light of day seemed wasteful, especially given the already expensive nature of doing the Grand Slam.
As a former winner of Wasatch I was guaranteed a spot (not a comp, just a reserved spot should I register in time), so did not need the GS lottery bypass.
This was really the only benefit I felt I would derive from registering. After a very quick cost analysis, I just didn’t feel like I was getting $80 in value. Had there been a ‘no trophy’ option to cover the administrative costs of handling my registration and updating my times on Stan’s site, then I would have been pleased to pay it, but there isn’t so I didn’t. As an aside on that point, if Western States offered a reduced-entry no-buckle option for those who already have a buckle (or those who just don’t feel like they need one) then I’d be all over that too as I hear the cost of buckles adds significantly to the cost of (a very expensive) entry.
It is really nothing more and nothing less than that. I am not trying to make a point, ruffle any feathers or piss anybody off. Maybe some people consider that being cheap, and they’re entitled to that opinion, but I’d rather spend the money on school supplies for my children, soccer camp, music lessons, etc.”

In the last few days, the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (cohosted on Stan Jensen’s Run100s site) has posted a message–also on the Wastatch 100 site–deploring anyone from using the term “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning” unless they are official (paid) entrants and, in thinly-veiled language, threatening legal action to anyone who misuses the trademarked name.

I spoke with Stan about this to better understand his involvement in the issue and according to him, his only role is hosting the GSU site. He can’t speak for the committee.

The legal language (posted on the Wasatch page):

We also remind all who are observing or otherwise involved that the term “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning” is a trademark of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning entity, and only those who are official entrants and finishers of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning are entitled to use the term “GrandSlam of Ultrarunning” in whatever form (including in any form that might cause trademark confusion) in connection with their running endeavors.

This is some chilling language that introduces an invective into a sport that has otherwise been fairly immune from these issues.  If Nick ends up with a faster cumulative time and mentions it on his blog, are the Grand Slam people prepared to sue Nick for trademark infringement?  Will they sue me or iRunFar or any other website for writing about Ian and Nick’s summer endeavors?  For the record, Nick is “ghost slamming” (his term) this year, but is that close enough to the trademark (or the “confusion” aspect) that it would invite legal action?

Additionally–and I’m no attorney–but the message posted to Wasatch seems to indicate that unless you’ve finished the Slam, you’re not entitled to use the trademarked term.  What a strangely capricious threat to your average Joe slammer that he/she can’t mention they attempted the “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning” even if they paid their eighty bucks, but, for whatever reason, failed to complete all four events.

After all, included in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning application is this: “The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning award is recognition for those who complete four of the oldest 100 mile trail runs in the US. The “Slam” consists of finishing (the four events.)” Period.  And that’s how I’ve always understood it, too. No mention of application or administrative fees in that sentence.

To the statement by the GSU committee, Nick told me that

“…For me, the Grand Slam is a tough (and fun) challenge that has it’s roots planted firmly in the history of the sport, much like the tradition of no-entry-fee Fat Ass races (come run the fourth annual Chubby Cheeks 50k in December, beginning and ending at my house), long-ass training runs with your local community of runners, and FKTs on local routes. That is why I wanted to do the Slam. Not for a trophy or recognition, but to enjoy a summer of ultramarathoning in the old-school tradition, engage with the community and perhaps inspire a few people.”

 

At this point, Ian and Nick are so close that Wasatch is going to be watched more than ever. What if Nick makes up the 68 minute difference and comes out ahead? Will he get any recognition?

To this point, Ian has been fully supportive of Nick’s times and attempts at completing the Grand Slam. He mentions it in his blog post about Vermont here, and supports Nick in the comments on Michael Lebowitz’s piece here.

Nick told me that he’ll leave that up to the community to decide what to do should he complete all four. He told me that “at the end of the day, it’s just running. If some think I’m too cheap and don’t deserve to be recognized, or that somehow I am disrespecting the GS “institution,” then I am fine with that. It has been a fun summer running these races, even more so having Ian there to battle at each stop along the way, but at the end of the day I’d rather people not take it too seriously, enjoy it for what it is, and get on with their lives.”

I understand and appreciate trademarks and licensing and recognize that the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning committee (whoever they are) have a brand to protect. I do. In the past year, terms and phrases largely born on these pages have been co-opted on other sites, and yeah, it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, it’s my community and I’m not about to take up arms and threaten legal action over it.

So what to do now? Are we at a place in the growth of our sport that discussing an activity could land a blogger or athlete in legal hot water? Is the Grand Slam committee making a strong statement now because Nick Clark is a high-profile runner?  Who is the Grand Slam committee? How will you react if/when Nick completes Wasatch?  And at the end of the day, maybe using the term isn’t that big of a deal, but the precedent will be set and the feeling of the sport will certainly have changed.

I’ve been an outspoken proponent of having some sort of organized framework for the sport (for rules, testing, sponsors, etc), but if that is going to entail this sort of administrative brouhaha, I’d rather stick to where we were before.

Now go out and run.

I emailed Grand Slam of Ultrarunning committee member Steve Baugh to get his take on this issue, and the only response from him was one referring me to the Wasatch statement and his attorney.

 

 

 

 

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