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Bobby Wintle had heard whispers that he needed to reconsider the original name of his gravel race, the Land Run 100, for two and a half years before the moment that he realized he had make the change.
Last September, Yatika Fields, an Indigenous painter, muralist, and ultra-runner, posted a picture on Instagram depicting a scene from the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 and tagged it with the race’s handle @landrun100. Wintle saw the image and immediately thought, “I need to know what he has to say.”
Contacting Fields through Instagram wasn’t how Wintle wanted to have the conversation. Instead, he called Fields at home in Tulsa.
“I was terrified,” Wintle told VeloNews. “Here I am, a white guy, asking these questions: ‘Hey, I saw your post, I’m struggling with this. Is there a way to keep the name, bring light to the truth of what happened without changing it?'”
Wintle still clung to the notion that, because his intention in using the Land Run name was positive, that perhaps he could erase any negative connotation it had for someone else. In fact, his instinct to preserve his own perspective was so deep that he neglected to consider what he’d learned in college as a communications major, which was how to navigate the complicated intersection of perspective, perception, and reality.
The phone call with Yatika Fields shattered Wintle’s connection to the name.
“I’ll never forget what he said,” Wintle said. “‘As long as it’s called the Land Run 100, I will never be at the event.'”
Why Wintle chose ‘Land Run 100’
Wintle’s original decision to use the name ‘Land Run’ in his race’s name came from his background as a cyclist and a musician. A native of Kansas, who relocated to Oklahoma in 2011, Wintle describes himself as “obsessed with names and lyrics and how they move, and inspire, and anger me.” As he explored the gravel roads around his new home of Stillwater to train for the 2012 Dirty Kanza, Wintle was also searching for something — a word or a name — that might make him feel as deeply about the place as lyrics made him feel for song. He wanted to impart that feeling to the name of his race.
And, it was ‘Land Run’ that Wintle came back to again and again.
“Quite literally there were signs all over town that talk about it,” he said. “So it’s like, ‘Oh, this space we’re in was created by that event in time. And being on the dirt roads made me feel like what this space must have felt and looked like back then.’”
Wintle was unaware of the history behind those signs, that the Land Run of 1889 was one of a multitude of state-sponsored programs forcing Indigenous Americans off of their land at the behest of white colonizers. From when he gave the name to the race that launched in 2013 until very recently, Wintle says that his vision of what the name meant referred only to how he had interpreted the words.
“I thought, ‘It’s a space, it tells history, it makes me feel like I’m in the late 1800s when I’m on these roads, so that’s it, that’s the name,'” he said.
Several years ago Wintle was approached by two friends, Seth Wood and Ariel Ross, both of whom are English professors at Oklahoma State University. The two showed him historical documents detailing the events of the Land Run of 1889, and both urged Wintle to read them and understand that there was a problem with the name of his race. Wintle did not see the connection.
“I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ What does that mean?'” Wintle said.
That was two and a half years ago, and the articles sat unread until late last summer. Wood and Ross occasionally reminded Wintle of the problematic name whenever they rode together. Wintle recalled them saying, “Hey, this is something you should be paying attention to. You can fix it before it gets out of hand.” Guided by his own vision of the mission and purpose of his event, Wintle still couldn’t see the issue.
“In my heart, I kept coming back to the fact that ‘this is not my intention.’ But, for others, they hear those words together — Land. Run. — and it immediately means lost opportunity, land taken,” he said.
Last summer, Wintle and Wood took a road trip to New Mexico to pick a friend up after the Tour Divide. As it had so many times before, the Land Run 100 came up. This time, Wintle had done some of the reading and wondered out loud to Wood if there was a way to address the historical reference of the name without changing it. Wood said that Wintle had waited too long to do something like that and now risked creating a rift among the race’s devotees and everyone else who’d become invested in it, from sponsors to Stillwater.
Then, in September, Wintle saw Fields’ Instagram post, and everything changed.
How to change a name
With less than six months until the 2020 event, Wintle promised Fields that he would change the name.
“I had no idea what it would be or how I’d do it,” he said.
Wintle says that, initially, the process to rename his race was incredibly personal. He kept the decision close, choosing only to involve the other two members of his team, his wife Crystal and the race’s event manager, Sally Turner. “I didn’t even tell my parents,” he said.
Wintle wanted to pull a name from within his already well-established race. What was an asset they already had? He tried again to look within Oklahoma’s history but quickly discovered it was rife with more injustice. He didn’t want to pay tribute to something that wasn’t meaningful, or be tricked into another false sense of place. Wintle struggled to answer the questions, ‘Who are we, and where are we?’ without bumping into the unsavory parts of the area’s past.
Then, Wintle remembered the first photo he posted on the race’s new Instagram account in August of 2014, after he’d already hosted two editions of the Land Run 100. A grainy photo of his bike resting on its side in the middle of a gravely red road, Wintle had used the hashtag #midsouthgravel.
Some version of that name emerged as a clear frontrunner, and Wintle connected with a graphic designer in Oklahoma City to begin whittling down the details. Would it be the Mid South Classic? The Mid South 100? Or, what about another one of Wintle’s ubiquitous hashtags — Unlearn Pavement? Wintle says the process was agonizing.
“At the end of the day, it kept coming back to me — this is a name and a brand and a feel that we have to live with,” he said. “I don’t ever want to have to make this change again. This doesn’t have to be so difficult, but I cared so much that it was.”
Meanwhile, registration for the March 2020 event came and went — and sold out — in early December without a mention of what was going on behind the scenes. Wintle says he chose not to allude to it then because the race wasn’t changing, just the name. When he made the official announcement at the end of the month, he didn’t offer refunds or deferrals but allowed people to transfer their entry to someone else.
“About 30 people gave up their spot that day,” Wintle said.
Although Wintle had told himself and everyone else, from participants to sponsors to local businesses, that it was just a name, that nothing else would look different in 2020, it wasn’t actually true. In fact, that would signal a relapse to his previous myopia in believing that ‘Land Run’ only symbolized what he felt it did. In retrospect, changing the name was a technicality, albeit a financially and emotionally costly one. The willingness to embrace the discomfort, uncertainty, and fear around why he’d changed the name was what mattered.
‘If we want the future to be better’
Making people feel comfortable, welcomed, and stoked to be at The Mid South had always been Wintle’s priority, but the process of changing the name of his race, and inevitably its culture, made it even more so.
“I hate making people feel uncomfortable,” said Wintle, “and I’m sick of seeing the blame pushed. We’re all responsible, and that’s why the Land Run and The Mid South have evolved to this.”
Wintle believes that the organizers of the Dirty Kanza are in a similar position — they must not only change the name of a race, but also move forward in a way that takes into account what that name may have meant to some, no matter how uncomfortable that admission may be.
And, he says, while the strong demands being made of the organization are justified, they should also be issued with a measure of grace.
“Obviously they want to do this, they’ve made the call,” he said of race organizer Life Time. “We need to all understand that if we had 100,000 eyeballs on us while we had to make this decision, it would have been even harder. Let’s give them a moment to breathe and collect themselves and move forward in a way they’re proud of. In a way that represents Emporia and how they’ll move forward.”
The start of this year’s Mid South was cold, rainy, and downright depressing. News about the threat of the coronavirus had stopped over half of the field from coming, many of whom were already en route to Oklahoma. For the riders who did show up, hugs were canceled and the riding conditions were miserable. Yet Wintle didn’t let the lightning delay postpone the message he’d been wanting to get across since September.
“Change,” Wintle read from his notes, as riders shivered at the start line.” If we actually want things to be different. If we truly want change. If we want the future to be better, to be different, we must go through the difficult decisions to put change into motion.”