Legendary race director at the middle of controversy in ultra running community
“My team and I want the ultra community to be more diverse and inclusive, as would a lot of BIPOC ultra runners and a lot of white ultra runners,” Ben Chan says. “Unfortunately, it feels like we’re outnumbered by ultra runners, race directors, and elite athletes that don’t believe that the ultra community has a diversity and inclusion problem.”
Chan, who took up running in 2012 after donating one of his kidneys, has been at the centre of a controversial series of events that occurred on the social media accounts or behind the scenes at two virtual ultra events: The Great Race Across Tennessee and the Circumpolar Race Around the World (CRAW). Two events organized by one of the most revered and well-known figures in ultra running: Gary Cantrell, a.k.a. Lazarus Lake, of Barkley Marathons fame.
What happened has resulted in the issue being vaulted from the comments section on niche social media pages to the mainstream media. It has also resulted in Cantrell and his family enduring a steady stream of hate mail and threats. And it all started with a desire to maintain a running event free of politics that butted heads with a runner wanted to freely express himself.
In a Facebook group for the event, Chan, who last year competed at the six-stage TransRockies Run, was confronted with what he describes as racist comments after displaying a Black Lives Matter singlet he wore. Instead of policing the growing number of racist comments, Chan explained that his original post was removed.
“The admins told me my singlet was not the issue, but the nasty replies (which I never saw because I went to sleep after posting) were what caused them to remove my post,” Chan explains. “I felt that it was wrong to delete my post instead of dealing with the hatred, but I was sympathetic to Laz and the other admins who said that there were too many participants leaving nasty comments for them to control.”
In a subsequent post, the admins explain the desire to keep the races free from politics, though they had expressed support of the cause. Chan then registered for the CRAW, a year-long team event covering some 30,000 miles. He chose the name Black Lives Matter for his team.
“I participated in a thread on the CRAW community page where runners were posting their team names and logos,” Chan says. “Laz deleted my comment within minutes of me posting it and immediately emailed my entire team demanding that we either change our team name or leave his race.”
Chan pulled out of the race and used the refund to register for HBCU’s Outside’s #BlackToTheTrails5K. He said, he is running under the team name Runners United For Black Lives and has invited other runners and walkers to join us in this virtual race that supports “a nonprofit dedicated to getting more Black faces running trails, climbing mountains, and sitting at outdoor industry boardroom tables.”
While Chan and his team prep for another race, Cantrell and his family are still facing hundreds of hate-filled emails in addition to threats to him and his wife.
He explains what happened.
“First, we didn’t ban Black Lives Matter we banned political slogans because it just starts fights. I mean, if someone came and started a fight in your real race, what would you do? You would make them leave,” he explains, while on a walk in the Tennessee woods near his home.
“Certainly the response that I got confirms that it was a good decision. I've gotten hate mail, ugly threats. My wife's afraid someone is gonna burn down our house or kill us. I feel like as a race director, when negative things happen in a race, part of your job is to absorb so it doesn’t affect the other racers. And in this case, all of the vitriol and nastiness. It is an unfortunate part of my job that I absorbed and the runners aren’t exposed to it.”
Cantrell is a popular figure and has had a hand in organizing the most popular ultra-running events on the planet. He also expressed his own strongly held feelings against racism, to Chan and his team in an email. But, for Chan, it was an opportunity to confront these issues head-on that was missed.
“Laz, despite his well-meaning intentions, has positioned himself as a stumbling block for BIPOC runners’ inclusion in the ultra community,” he says. “Because Laz is a prominent, revered figure in the ultra running community, my team and other ultra runners worry that other race directors and ultra runners will emulate Laz and his devotion to order.”
Cantrell, however, disagrees that ultra running has a diversity issue, not to mention disagreeing that he has any kind of a platform.
“It’s a complicated topic because to a great extent, ultra running is a sport that is primarily for people who have leisure time and leisure money, not so much a matter of race,” he explains. “It’s economic status. I think that if we repair the underlying issues that we have as a country where there’s more justice and fairness that will cease to be a problem. Personally, my races, they've always been very diverse.”
In an article in Outside magazine, Cantrell explained that another CRAW team wanted to us Black Lives Matter as a team name, and it was also disallowed. But instead of leaving the race, they switched the name to Breanna [sic], George & Ahmaud. Cantrell said that he gave it the okay as it was not a political slogan and wasn’t as likely to get a political reaction.
Still, Chan is seizing the moment, and pushing for change on his own.
Since the incidents, his story has grown from social media chatter to the mainstream media where Outside magazine and other media sources picked it up.
It has become a micro example of a much larger issue where the term Black Lives Matter and its use means very different things to different people, even when it is being accepted by corporate America and sports organizations such as the National Basketball Association.
Asked what message he would want to send to Cantrell, Chan says:
“Laz, we haven’t written you off. This would be so much easier for us if we drew a line and declared everybody on our side good, and everybody on the other side bad. We haven’t done that, and won’t because it goes against our guiding principle of inclusion, which is one of the central tenets of Black Lives Matter,” he says. “Though you have made your decision, and we have made ours, we hope that the opportunity to continue this dialogue will remain open.”
Although Cantrell sees it differently, he doesn’t hold a personal grudge against Chan either.
“I have no problem with Ben,” he says. “You know, I’m not sure how I’m personally supposed to respond if somebody is threatening to burn down his house. Has he had threats on his wife? Does he get 100 emails a day telling him to go f--k himself? So, he’s been done wrong?”
Through his last virtual event the Great Race Across Tennessee, Lake recently donated $250,000 to food banks, and $30,000 to animal rescue groups. His Circumpolar Race Around the World is now underway.