What is a Fat Ass Race? | July 18, 2012
I’m sure it’s fair to say that most ultrarunners appreciate or even cherish the relative low-key nature of our sport. Even the highest key event we have, the Western States 100, which has been hitting some unbelievable high notes over the past three years with the four way shoot out chronicled in the film “Unbreakable” in 2010, Killian Jornet being crowned our first international champion in 2011, and the unfathomable, jaw-dropping records set this year, has its low-key moments.
We all march through the same friendly, back-slapping, homey registration process on Friday afternoon. We all line up together Saturday morning at the start, just inches from the elite runners who top our sport. We all visit the same aid stations and get pretty much the same royal treatment. And best of all at the finish, we all get to share in the glory. Sure we may be trailing the top dogs across the line by up to fifteen hours—not exactly a photo finish—but every one of us ran against and conquered the same course and so we all get to feel like winners.
Fat Ass races are in the grand tradition of ultras being relaxed, low key, loosely organized, adventure runs rather than high pressure, competitive races. The concept of the “fat ass” race was the brainchild of Joe Oakes of the San Francisco Bay Area. Oakes had had to scramble in 1978 to find a Western States qualifier and ended up running solo as a seven-runner team in a relay that extended from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz along Highway 1, a road that hugs the Pacific Coast and offers some spectacular views of the ocean. The next year, Oakes reprised the race but called it the “Recover from the Holidays Fat Ass 50” and staged it as sort of an unofficial adventure run. Back then, opportunities for running in ultras were relatively few and far between and around the holidays the calendar was pretty blank, so this was Oakes’ way to give his ultra friends a chance to enjoy a really cool run and work off the consequences of a little holiday overeating, thus the “fat ass.”
The concept of putting on a race around the holidays with minimal organization and no frills caught on and in fact versions of fat ass races have sprung up worldwide. Many of these events hew to Oakes’ original guidelines for his race: “No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps.” But nowadays races of many stripes go by the name of “Fat Ass” and offer a wide range of support from minimal to what you would expect in an official, sanctioned race. For some fat ass races no times are recorded for the runners, while for others, the official results appear in this magazine. And modern day Fat Ass races can happen any time of the year. What seems to remain a common approach for all fat ass races, though, is that they give runners a chance at a challenging long run in a fun, friendly atmosphere without all the trappings of a highly organized event.
Putting a race in the middle of the normally slack holiday period is as good an idea now as it was forty years ago. It gives you something to focus on and work toward even as the mashed potatoes and gravy make their way around the table for the third time. But be aware that when you sign up for a fat ass race, you will be wise to do some homework.
First of all you will need to know what level of support to expect in the way of food and drink. If the course covers 50 kilometers, for example, and the only aid is going to be at the start/finish, you need to know how often you loop back to the start/finish or where water can be obtained out on the course. You might need to carry more water than you are used to and the same goes with anything you’ll need in the way of food, energy gels, sports drink powder, etc. Given the variations in fat ass races, you might be faced with anything from having to provide all your own needs to having as much or more support than you find in a typical standard race.
You will also need to know what the arrangements are for following the course. Will the course be thoroughly marked, partially marked or not marked at all? There might be a map or set of directions posted online that you are responsible for bringing along, or this could be a fat ass where the organizer assumes everyone is local and needs little instruction on the course. There might be a lot of information posted ahead of time or there might be very little. Be sure to talk to the organizer so you know ahead of time what to expect and can plan accordingly. It’s also nice insurance to come with a friend to a fat ass race so you’ll have a partner if anything should go wrong.
All races can go through adjustments from year to year with changes in dates, changes in the course, changes in where aid stations are located, or where the race starts and finishes. The loose organization of a fat ass race can heighten this tendency for an event to morph and evolve. So with each new year, you need to be aware that your fat ass event might change and the change might affect what you need to do to be prepared for the run.
One long standing event in the East Bay Area of San Francisco started out as an official run with permits, race numbers, liability statements…the whole smear. Then it became a just show up and run on this day at this time event with no numbers and no official start, but the course was well marked and there was one full aid station out on the course you visited twice and some killer homemade burritos provided at the half way point at the start/finish. But after a few years, the full aid station out on the course became a big trash bag stashed along the side of the trail with some food and water that usually ran out, and the burritos became a pizza you had to find in the back of a pickup truck or even shoved underneath the organizer’s car. The course hasn’t been marked in years, though there are some old directions online, and people show up and start pretty much whenever. My friend and I actually showed up and started a week late this year, since the race date didn’t work out for us, but we came prepared knowing we would be alone and it turned out to be was pretty much the same experience as always.
So here is my suggestion. Put a fat ass race on your calendar this year. It will fill up some down time in your training schedule and chances are it will be an adventure. It might also give you the feel for what it was like when ultras were a little more informal and the runners had to deal with being a little more self-sufficient.