Scott Jurek
If you haven’t heard, Scott Jurek, an ultra running legend, just broke the record for the fastest supported completion of the Appalachian Trail.  (News Story) He accomplished this roughly 2000 mile feat in just over 46 days and 8 hours.  Absolutely unbelievable.

Baxter State Park
The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is Mt. Kathadin and it is in Baxter State Park in Maine.  Upon reaching the summit and completing his effort, Jurek was greeted by many people who wanted to celebrate with him and popped the cork on a bottle of champagne.  According to the park’s statement there were “three summons issued to Mr. Jurek by a Baxter Park Ranger for the drinking of alcoholic beverages in public places (BSP Rule 7 and Maine State General Law), for littering (BSP Rule 4.5) and for hiking with an oversize group (BSP Rule 2.2). In addition, media personnel were issued a summons for violation of a commercial media permit which prohibited filming within 500′ of Baxter Peak.”

Social Media
On July 16, Baxter State Park made an interesting post on their Facebook Page.  “Ultramarathoning in Baxter State Park–another perspective”  The post includes included photos from Jurek’s Facebook page.  It appears the author wanted to bring attention to the violations and discourage similar behavior.  The post also includes a number of negative statements–“Not much to be proud of there”–and makes numerous mention of the commercial nature of his run and the numerous sponsors.

As you can imagine, the internet has kind of blown up on this.  Numerous opinion pieces (Gear Junkie) have been written and a large number of comments have been made on those as well as directly to Baxter State Park’s Facebook page.  While there have been some supportive comments for the park, the vast majority of the comments I’ve read–and I’ve read a lot–have been very negative about the park’s decision to ticket, but more so it’s decision to post the commentary on Facebook.

Why it All Matters to Me
I am an ultrarunner.  I consider myself a wilderness advocate.  I manage social media for multiple organizations.  This whole story has captured my attention.

Jurek’s accomplishment absolutely amazes me, the mental and physical stamina required to pull this off boggles my mind.  The simple fact that his body didn’t break in some way during the month and a half is absolutely astonishing.  It was a supported run which means he had help from others in multiple ways along the route, but he took every step himself and even with the type of support he received this would be impossible for all but a handful of athletes.

By all accounts he ran the trail with grace, humility and a sense of wonder, hiking with people he came across, stopping to talk and encourage hikers and being joined by countless people along the route, all with respect for the trail and a Leave No Trace ethic.

Among my favorite stories was when he was joined by a friend who is blind near the end of the run.  From his Facebook page: “With 3 days to go, I received a voicemail from my blind friend Thomas Panek of @guidingeyes who I guided at @bostonmarathon. His final words were, “Close your eyes and think what it’s like not to be able to see while you do it.” It reminded me that even in the toughest of times, we are stronger than we think. Thomas surprised me on the AT near Bear Mountain, NY and I guided him for 2 miles to the rocky summit. He had been practicing running on the rocky trail for weeks so that we could run together. I was blown away with his ability to navigate the rocks and roots.”

But, I have questions about his role in this conflict. To make this event happen, the logistics and planning must have been mountainous.  One of the key pieces for planning an event like this are navigating the laws and permits of the various jurisdictions and land management agencies. Did Jurek do everything in his power to avoid the difficulties at the finish?  Professional film crews know about restrictions for filming on certain public lands.  It wasn’t completely clear if his film crew were among the ticketed.  Did they have or try and get the appropriate permits?  Was he in discussion with the park managers before the last day?  Could he have headed this off entirely?

Baxter State Park exists as a multi-use park that allows hiking, camping, motor vehicles and other activities.  Interestingly, it is also specifically exists for managing and harvesting timber.  It’s a large park by all standards and I’m sure these activities are spread out and I bet that different portions of the park have a very remote feel, but it is not wilderness. The park clearly takes it’s responsibility to protect and preserve portions of the park very seriously.  I get that and support the effort. Living near, recreating and working in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I understand the ethic land managers try to uphold and the numerous threats to the long-term health of the resource.  They have an incredibly tough job, balancing the laws that they are required to uphold and trying to encourage use in a society that seems more and more disconnected from nature and its benefits.

As a social media manager though, I would have never posted what they chose to post.  What did they hope to gain?  Did they carefully consider the tone of the post and all of it’s implications?  Was it just one person who had an axe to grind, or was this decision made intentionally by a group of people knowledgeable about social media and the possibility of negative backlash?

If you are responsible for a social media page, how would you have handled this?

As I see it, they had numerous options, but chose the worst possible.  If they chose to enter this firestorm willingly and intentionally to make a larger point then they have succeeded

Possible Actions:

  • Don’t post anything related to Jurek’s accomplishment or celebration–Deal with the citations as you would any other.
  • Celebrate with him and use it to build awareness of the park and the Appalachian Trail–This seems like such a positive possibility, but based on the content of the post, they don’t seem to want to do this.
  • Post a simple message–“While we applaud Jurek’s accomplishment, it’s important to remember that alcohol is not permitted in the park and group sizes need to remain 12 or fewer.”
  • Engage Jurek to do some education on behalf of the park.–He has not weighed in on this issue, but by all accounts he has a strong wilderness ethic and cares greatly about the environment.  He might be willing to work with the park if they chose to take a positive approach.
  • If they felt like they absolutely had to post this, edit for tone and content.–The number of sarcastic comments and numerous references to the commercial nature of the event, make it seem like the author has a personal problem with the commercialization of our society and uses this forum to vent.  I could not find that any portion of the violations that had to do with sponsors or Jurek receiving sponsorship support. (You could make the argument that his film crew being ticketed, if it was, was related to commercialization of the run.)  Leave that topic alone entirely.  Having followed this and many other sponsored athletic endeavors, Jurek’s run did not feel like the seemingly paid commercials some efforts are these days.

With the reach of social media and the expectation that all organizations and businesses have a presence, many people have to take on the role of social media manager, even with no background or training.  If you find yourself about to post something that is controversial or has the potential for backlash, remember this example and be sure you are intentional, purposeful and aware of what may happen when you hit the “Post” button.