Does it make sense that the best runners in the world are required to carry the same kit as the average Joes? Trail runs and ultra-marathons often have a mandatory kit list. The idea behind it is safety, ensuring you are carrying a sensible amount of water and the appropriate clothes if the temperature plummets or rises. You usually need a set amount of calories in case you find yourself miles from an aid station and “bonking”.
But there is a huge difference between the 19 or 20-hour finishing time of Francois D'haene at the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, for example, and the last person over the line in two days. As a professional runner, the former probably does not need to be told what to bring and has their diet dialled in so they are in a better position to know what calories they need than the organisers. D'haene is more likely to drop out than spend a second night in the mountains.
From a safety perspective, there is little sense to monitoring the kit bag of the best the same way as the slowest.
But, I believe the mandatory gear should be universal across the field because it plays into one of the best things about the trail running community. There are few other sports that have such a mix of experience on the start line.
Therefore, it would be hard to enforce a distinction between elites and non-elites and those in the grey area would suffer the most. There are lots of very talented trail runners who are not professional. Fifth place at the Ultra Trail Mont Fuji was Hongkonger Cheung Man-yee, who is a full-time doctor, not a full-time runner. Would she qualify for a lighter load or would she be languishing further down the field with a heavier pack because she is not a professional?
Perhaps elites could be defined by their ITRA score, an objective point system based on recent performances. But would it not become harder and harder to improve your ITRA score if to finish high and get a points boost, you have to carry more than those who already have an impressive score?
ITRA would lose its objectivity if there were two rules for two classes of runners, making it ripe for subjective speculation, and questions like: “How well would they have done if she’d had the elite pack?”.
What’s more, having a level playing field with such varied runners lends itself to great underdog stories. Imagine if the elites had a lighter pack at the Marathon des Sables when Tom Evans finished on the podium at his first ever ultramarathon. As a beginner, he would have been carrying more and we may have been robbed of a great sporting upset, when a pub bet turned into a professional running career.
In short, mandatory gear for all should be kept for the essence of the sport, where all are equal, to allow for the underdog story and to keep ITRA objective, even if the top runners do not need the weight for safety’s sake.