For those of us who reside in or near sunny South Florida, more than likely you know an extraordinary man by the name of Bob Becker. For those of you who are not familiar with Bob, you should consider yourself missing out and get to know him ASAP!
Bob is the race director for UltraSports LLC; Florida’s premiere ultra running event company. UltraSports LLC was founded in 2007 as a vehicle to create and direct the KEYS100–the introductory South Florida Ultramarathon event held each year in the Florida Keys. Successful fund-raising, primarily in support of the prostate cancer battle, has been an important part of the company’s efforts. The KEYS100, PALM100, Peanut Island 24, and the new EVERGLADES ULTRAS have been well received by the running community, and are the only individual ultramarathon events in South Florida recognized and sanctioned by USA Track & Field, the sport’s governing body.
As a loyal participant and/or volunteer at each of the aforementioned events, I can give a personal testimony to the caliber of events that Bob hosts. I would HIGHLY recommend ALL of his races to anyone and everyone interested in running an ultra marathon or participating in a relay event with a group of friends. (Not to mention, the tropical location, the view from the course and weather in South Florida isn’t so shabby either!)
What was your initial inspiration to begin UltraSports LLC?
I ran my first ultra in 2005 and was completely hooked by the sport. Realizing that there were no ultra marathons in South Florida, Ultra Sports LLC was the entity created to address that empty space.
What was your 1st race that you directed and how have you seen the race grow? How does this make you feel?
In 2007, Jared Knapp and I conceived the KEYS100. Jared, Frank McKinney, Ryan Ravinsky, Nattu Natraj and I decided to do a test run from Key Largo to Key West to see if a 100-miler across the Keys would be viable as a race venue. We decided that it could work, so in 2008 the inaugural KEYS100 was born with a total of 141 runners, including individual races of 100 miles and 50 miles, and a six runner 100 mile team relay option. This past May, in the race’s 5th year, there were 932 registered runners. We expect 1,100-1,200 in 2013. It is very satisfying to see so many runners enjoy the product of our original idea, to have many of them return year after year, and to enjoy the buy-in and terrific support of the “Key West Southernmost Runners” and volunteers who live throughout the Keys.
When you have an idea for a race, what is the first thing you do to begin executing it and making it come to life?
I continue to run ultras myself, and I want the races I produce to facilitate the same experience I want when choosing an event. So, the race needs to be exciting and challenging, but must also be something that non-elite runners can complete and enjoy within the allotted time. The venue has to be memorable, with beautiful, perhaps exotic scenery. The route has to be manageable—i.e., take into account the safety of runners and accessibility for volunteers & medical staff, and setting up aid stations. And, the responsible governmental entity(ies) and local community must be supportive, or at least open to considering the idea. But, the very first step is to run or drive the proposed route to get that intangible “feel” for how the concept will translate in the real world. At that point, you “know it when you see it”.
What is the most difficult/stressful portion of being a RD?
It’s a two-part answer: First is not knowing how many runners will show up—especially for a new event. Compared to most shorter distance races, the size of the field in an ultra marathon is usually quite small. Yet the amount of work, time and expense to produce one are not. So, reaching a base number of registered runners to cover those costs is a legitimate, and perpetual point of stress. The second is more generic and likely applies to any event director. You want your “customers” to have a great experience, and for that to happen the huge number of operational details need to fit in place, and be ready on time. Producing a race is all about problem solving, so the stress generally declines when the last runner has crossed the finish line and the last award has been presented.
What is the most rewarding part of being a RD?
There is nothing as rewarding as having runners tell you that they had a fantastic experience running your race, and are so glad they made the decision to compete. This cuts across all ability levels and all events. Knowing that you gave people what they came for and then some, is the greatest satisfaction I can ever have.
How in the world do you get all of that food to stock aid stations? Do you go grocery shopping alone?
Great question! Ultra Sports LLC is a little “Mom and Pop” shop. And guess who is generally both mom and pop? Most of the time I do the grocery shopping. For some races, my wife, Suzanne, is a big help with deciding what “real” food we will offer and cooking and otherwise preparing food. We certainly have some volunteer help as needed, too. Setting up, stocking and re-stocking aid stations, then closing them and retrieving gear and supplies is always a logistical challenge, generally with a number of people and vehicles involved. The game plan also depends upon the race. Putting an aid station together on a trail in the Everglades that is only accessible by an ATV is much tougher than doing so in a parking lot along Overseas Highway or A1A!!
What do you do with left-over food after the races?
Most of it is delivered to a homeless shelter in Fort Lauderdale or is donated to shelters in other areas.
Do you get any sleep the weekend of your races?
Not much! Again it depends on the race, but I’ll sleep for a few hours the night before and hopefully the days preceding. If it’s a two-day race like the KEYS100, I’ll try to catch a cat-nap after 2:00 or 3:00am on Saturday night. But, it’s important to be around the finish line as much as possible to meet and congratulate runners so I try to stay awake.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by questions from participants? (I know, I myself, am guilty of emailing you multiple times with questions)
No. Actually, I welcome runner questions because they often lead to observations or suggestions about something we can do better in the future. Also, I’ve learned not to get too frustrated with questions where the answers are clearly spelled out in the race websites. We work very hard to make the sites as complete and easy to use as possible, but not everyone reads them. Answering questions is just part of the process. Frankly, if people are asking, then they are interested. If the questions stop, I’d really have something to worry about!
Any additional “behind the scenes” info you want to share?
You have to love to do this stuff and appreciate the commitment you’re making, or choose another line of work. And if you want to earn any real money, get a real job! Ultramarathon race directing is, for me, very rewarding, because I’m working every day of the week at the sport I love, and producing races where I see my friends competing and enjoying themselves. For better or worse, I’m a die-hard entrepreneur. I really like creating something from scratch. I’m pretty good at the creative side of the enterprise, and continue to improve at the business and operational sides. It’s been five years, and financially, it’s still a slow work in progress! Ultras just don’t have the critical mass from entry fees alone to cover costs and provide reasonable ROI. Sponsorships are very important to the financial viability of races; they are also very difficult to get. There are so many races competing for sponsorships that finding a match is difficult. Credibility is important, too, so it just takes time and patience. Bottom line is that we small-race RDs must wear a lot of hats.
Now, for some insight on Bob’s involvement on the other side of Ultras; as a PARTICIPANT in the sport!
When and why did you first begin running? What made you do your first ultra and what race was it?
I ran the mile in high school (4:47 PR), then played sports my entire life. Running was to keep in shape only. It wasn’t until 2002, at age 57, that friends in Minneapolis invited me to join them at “Grandma’s” in Duluth to run our collective first marathon. Sounded like a party opportunity, so I bought running shoes, trained with “Friends in Training” in Fort Lauderdale and qualified for Boston, so I kept running and training with a group of friends. In 2004, one of them mentioned the Marathon des Sables, the 150-mile stage race in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. I had never heard of that race and didn’t even know what an “ultramarathon” was! I quickly found out as Jared Knapp and I decided to celebrate our birthdays the following April (2005) by racing “MdS”.
Please provide a brief outline of ultras in which you have participated.
Badwater 135, Oil Creek 100, Grand Tetons Races (100 and 50 milers), Rocky Raccoon (the 100–3 times), Javelina Jundred (100–twice), Spartathlon (twice), Tahoe Rim Trail 50, Croom Zoom. I’ve run the KEYS100 route 3 times and the PALM100 route. Marathon des Sables and Grand 2 Grand Ultras are both ultra marathon stage races.
Give a little background information regarding your completion of the Keys100 route for planning purposes.
I’ve run the route two to four weeks ahead of the race to have my “boots on the ground”, to check road and trail conditions, any construction that might impact runners, and in general to scope-out the route. Since I’m unable to run on race day, it has become a good excuse to just get out there and tackle the course. My intention has been to run it every year, but I’ve missed two of the first five for different reasons.
What is the most difficult race you have ever completed?
Badwater. Running 135 miles non-stop is difficult enough, but toss-in the intense heat in July in Death Valley and you have all the challenge you need! Badwater is the most difficult race I’ve completed, but also one of my most favorite. I return every year to crew for another runner, just to be part of the culture and action of the event and to visit with friends. The most difficult race I’ve ever raced—and did NOT complete—was Spartathlon, a race of 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in Greece. This race requires speed as well as endurance, with mandatory cut-offs at every one of roughly 75 aid stations along the route. Miss a cut-off and you’re DNF. There is no time to rest or tend to injuries. The first 80 kilometers (50 miles) must be completed in 9 ½ hours and the entire race in 36 hours. The course is on roads with plenty of hills and plenty of heat. Spartathlon is an incredible race that, unfortunately, I was unable to master.
What is the furthest distance you have run?
Furthest non-stop race distance was Badwater, at 135 miles. Grand 2 Grand, the seven-day self-supported stage race, was 167 miles.
What is your most memorable race?
I’ve enjoyed so many of these races and for many different reasons, so this is a tough call. But, the answer is probably Marathon des Sables. Not only was it my first ultra and, as such, a huge eye-opener to an entirely different world, but it was also a race where I fractured my right femur and was prevented by race doctors from continuing after the first 115 miles. Hip surgery and a year of recovery followed before I could return to my new sport. At the age of 60, it was one hell of a way to discover my new calling!
What has been your favorite race?
KEYS100, of course!! But aside from my own races, I’d have to vote for Badwater, with Grand 2 Grand a very close second place. Badwater is the race where I’ve met many people who have become good friends. Badwater has its own very special culture due to its particularly extreme nature, the beauty and diversity of the course (Death Valley to Mount Whitney) and the limited number of people who have completed it.
Are there any additional comments regarding ultras that you wish to provide?
The long-sleeve Smartwool shirt I wore at “Grand 2 Grand” was given to me by Jay Batchen at the 2007 Rocky Raccoon–my first 100 miler. I was extremely cold, and Jay literally gave me the shirt off his back. It remains my favorite piece of race clothing and I wouldn’t have left for “G2G” without it. That story is not so unusual, and is a very integral part of my affection for this sport. Nearly all the people who I’ve met running ultras reflect that kind of caring and consideration for others. We are a competitive lot to be sure and want to win, but we will also stop to aid another runner in distress, even if it means less than an optimal finish. We all know that in a race of 50 or 100 miles or more, that person in need could very well be ourselves. Running out of water or food, twisting an ankle or worse, feeling the impact of the weather all happen out there. It’s the people I met and observed at my first ultra and ever since that have kept me coming back. That’s why I run them, and why I work full-time at producing and directing them. These are the kind of folks I want to be around.
For more information and photographs about Bob’s recent experience at Grand 2 Grand last month, you can visit his blog to read his race report (click here) and view his album of photos from the race here!