County officials put the brakes this week on a race that its organizer calls “the world’s toughest single-day mountain bike event,” after federal officials — and the 2018 race’s medical director — raised concerns about participants’ safety.
Grand County Council members voted 7-0 on Tuesday, Dec. 4, against a motion that would have reconsidered a special events coordinating committee decision to reject the Kokopelli 140 race’s application for the 2019 year.
Council vice chair Curtis Wells, who made the motion that ultimately failed, said he appreciates the organizer’s interest in hosting the event in Grand County.
“(But) there’s enough of a concern from this committee that I wouldn’t feel very good as a board if we just completely disacknowledged that,” Wells said.
As a relatively new event, Wells said, organizers are going to experience some growing pains.
“But … some of those pains have been pretty severe financially enough to where I don’t see a problem with taking a year to let this thing cool off and give you an opportunity to — if you’re serious about hosting this event — take the time to come back with a 2020 application, make sure that you’ve tightened it up, and that there’s confidence from the committee,” he said.
The committee’s decision marked the first time in its history that it has rejected a permittee’s application, according to Grand County Council chair Mary McGann.
Committee members based their rejection on the grounds that the race posed a “significant danger” to public safety. In addition, they determined that race organizers failed to comply this year with their license or permit conditions — a characterization that Mapleton, Utah-based race organizer Mark Jensen rejected.
“We believe and our participants believe that our event is very well run,” Jensen told the council.
BLM WEIGHS IN ON APPLICATION
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the race’s permit to operate on surrounding public lands, said it supports the committee’s decision to reject the application from Kokopelli Racing, LLC.
In a letter to county officials, the BLM repeatedly uses the word “minimal” to describe the conditions that agency officials said they witnessed while they were monitoring the September 2018 event.
BLM staffers noted concerns about minimal signing, minimal medical support and minimal course marshals along the route, the letter says. Moreover, the BLM found that the permittee also failed to conduct the race in accordance with its approved operations plan, while failing to abide by stipulations of its permit.
The most recent operations plan envisioned that 500 people would race along the 144-mile route from downtown Fruita, Colorado, to the Sand Flats Recreation Area just east of Moab. But ultimately, just 67 participants joined last year’s event, according to Jensen.
Jensen said he contacted the BLM on multiple occasions to discuss modifications to the operations plan, based on the reduced number of participants at the 2018 event. But the agency’s point of contact never responded to his calls, he said in a memo to the council.
Communication with the county, he said, has been “the biggest thing lacking,” adding that he was not invited to the meeting where the special events committee rendered its decision.
Although the BLM informed the county that it has placed the event on “probationary status,” Jensen told the council that the agency had given him its permission to move forward with the 2019 race. It was only after he received that notification, he said, that he learned the county had denied next year’s application in advance.
“I believe that that was the result of not having enough information,” he said.
Jensen placed much of the blame for what he called “faulty information” on the race’s contracted medical director, with whom he is no longer on good terms.
“You are strictly going by what he said,” Jensen said.
The race is not a perfect organization, he said, citing its decision to hire its contracted medical director as a primary error it made this year.
“We did make some mistakes, and working with that organization was a mistake, and in the future, we would work with Grand County (Emergency Medical Services),” Jensen said.
But Grand County Council member Greg Halliday said that ultimate responsibility for the race rests with Jensen.
“Being the head of the organization, the buck stops with you,” he said.
Halliday said the observed lack of signs along the route — as well as the event’s failure to abide by conditions governing the placement of signs in 2017 — troubles him, considering how unforgiving the surrounding landscape can be.
“I have a hard time, ’cause I know just how dangerous the environment is in this area,” he said. “I hear on the radio (about other visitors) dropping dead while they’re out doing stuff that they’re not prepared to handle, and it just bothers me that (the 2017 race) was not up to standards, and then again in (2018), it was still not up to standards.”
ORGANIZER SAYS SAFETY IS TOP PRIORITY
Jensen said the Kokopelli 140 is “one of only a handful” of events worldwide that requires its participants to carry a GPS device that includes downloaded course routes, along with another device that sends out a honing beacon.
“Safety is a top priority for us,” he said.
Moving forward, Jensen said, he believes that any stipulations can be met before the event occurs.
Looking back on the 2018 race, however, contracted Kokopelli 140 medical director and Utah EMT Academy Program Director Alex Breton has a different takeaway.
Breton said there’s “no question” in his mind that Jensen “knew the participants would lack the support and medical assistance required” for the event.
“Mark put people in danger and abandoned them when they needed help,” Breton said in an email to county tourism and emergency management officials. “I would not have been part of this event if I knew the real story. I cut all ties with Mark Jensen immediately after the race.”
Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald, meanwhile, questioned race participants’ ability to use their devices to summon helicopters for emergency rescues, at considerable cost to the county and its taxpayers.
On three separate occasions during this year’s race, participants called for a helicopter to respond to incidents that were not actually emergency situations, according to county officials.
“It’s an expensive issue … when you have to divert helicopters out for any reason,” Fitzgerald said.
Jensen initially seemed to imply that the event is in good standing with the BLM. But Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon suggested that it would be wise for council members to hear from the special event committee.
“I don’t think you have the full story unless you read carefully every detail of what’s in the (council’s agenda) packet,” Dillon said.
Grand County Emergency Medical Services Captain McKay Vowles, who serves as a representative on the committee, said that he and his peers believe the event has the potential to become a “phenomenal” race.
Although questions arose following the first race in 2017, Vowles said he received a “really thorough” safety and medical plan for the 2018 event. But that plan, he said, ultimately clashed with the post-event report’s findings.
“We have huge concerns that over the 140 miles that what actually happened versus (what was) written down was (a) total, stark difference,” he said.
For instance, he said, the plan stated that organizers would hire eight medical professionals to staff the event. Yet the report found that the race ultimately brought on just five medical staffers, he said.
The operations plan also stated that each two-person medical crew would be given satellite communication devices. But those devices did not work, he said, and crew members could not reach out to anyone until they were in the range of cell phone service.
In the event that an evacuation had been necessary, the plan specified that event staffers would have access to all-terrain vehicles. But according to Vowles, those vehicles could not follow much of the single-track route along the Kokopelli Trail.
The post-event report includes several references to aid stations that were placed in the wrong locations, aid stations that “didn’t exist” and aid stations that weren’t properly manned.
Because some of those aid stations were in the wrong location, Vowles said, some race participants were “so dehydrated” and “so lethargic” that the contracted medical company had to perform “invasive medical procedures,” in violation of state law.
“No private company without a medical director — state medical licensed — within that responding area can perform an invasive procedure on a patient,” he said.
COUNCIL URGED TO CONSIDER ECONOMIC IMPACTS, BENEFITS
Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine, who also serves on the coordinating committee, noted that special events play an outsized role in the community’s tourism-based economy.
In this instance, he suggested, county officials should consider the community’s reputation as a special events powerhouse.
“That is very critical in terms of our long-term attractiveness for events and event participants, and I have a concern that poorly run events have the potential to tarnish that reputation, or perpetuate a reputation that will let anything go,” he said. “We haven’t denied any events in the past, but at some point, I think we do need to draw a line in the sand in terms of the minimum level of quality that we require in our events.”
County officials should also weigh the event’s impacts on the local economy, Levine said.
“Fruita is actually probably a bigger economic beneficiary of this particular event than Grand County is,” he said. “And so, in light of the potential impacts of the event that aren’t so positive, I don’t see the economic return on it to really justify taking on that risk.”
Officials cite concerns about safety at past Kokopelli 140 events
“Being the head of the organization, the buck stops with you.”