UPDATE #2: Email To Race Organizers

On Friday, I blogged an email I had written to the organizers of a local half marathon, voicing some suggestions about how to improve the race, if not for the current year, perhaps at some time in the future. Shortly after posting to the blog, an administrator responded to my email soliciting some additional feedback, thanking me for providing my opinion, and promising to follow-up with me later, after she had had a chance to discuss things with the other staff.

Late in the day, my contact sent me the response from "Ampt Running's" USATF Course Logistics Director and Certifier. (Now there's a job title!) The response reads as follows:
Runners will not run in opposite directions and into each other, nor do outbound and inbound runners share the same lane. The overlap is as runners in all races approach the finish at different speeds. There are a number of options with pros and cons for each. We ran models on each start time to see who / where all overlaps occur. This only happens with the very fastest and slowest runners, and it is extremely minimal.
I am disappointed by this response. In my opinion, a race ought to give utmost deference to "the very fastest runners." After all, attracting a good field of very fast runners is the best way to attract runners at any other speed, too. It's not that I don't think slower runners matter, it's that the whole point of a race is to see who wins; thus, the winners are the ones who are supposed to be the focal point of the race. They're the ones whose times should be modeled, they're the ones for whom the course map and starting times should be tailored. They're the ones the race organizers ought to really care about.

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When I was young, road races were most typically community events sponsored by the city. The municipality would gather volunteers and put on a race, usually in conjunction with some city celebration, such as the "Strawberry Days 5K," which was a road race that commemorated the founding of a small city in Utah. After the road race, participants would disperse and move on to other parts of the "Strawberry Days" celebration, which included a professional rodeo, an art fair, a parade, and a fireworks show. Every local city had one of these celebrations. During the summertime, it was possible to find a city celebration anywhere within a 60-mile radius, and spend the weekend running a road race. Race organizers would arrange for door prizes and light refreshments at the finish line, medals for the overall and age-group winners, and... that was pretty much it.

There was generally no major "fitness expo" at the starting line, live bands would not typically perform, loudspeaker systems that blasted music were quite uncommon, there were no "live announcers" who would call runners' names as they crossed the finish line, racing chips were rare, race photography was nil...

In short, the "good-old days" were quite light on the fringe benefits that now come with road racing. They were local, small-town affairs that relied on community volunteers and a running community that didn't care much about anything other than just running a fun race. Consequently, the races that consistently drew the highest number of participants were those that offered the best swag. One day, I showed up to a race and discovered that they were feeding finishers bagels! I couldn't believe it! As time went on, we got more and more: cups of yogurt, bottles of Gatorade, tech t-shirts instead of cotton t-shirts, and so on.

Today, when you enter a road race, you usually get a shirt, plus a grab-bag of items. The last one I got had a shirt, a pair of socks, various samples of energy bars and sports drinks, some packets of laundry detergent (yes, really), and dozen or so coupons. That race also featured a lineup of bands performing at the finish line in a fancy outdoor amphitheater, a two-day fitness expo, microchip-based timing, race photography, finisher's medals, finisher's photos, huge ice buckets of bottled water, a post-race breakfast, and a team of sky-divers to start the race. All for sixty dollars.

It is worth considering what kind of organization is capable of putting together a race like that. Clearly, a small country town reliant on volunteers is not going to be able to pull all this off. To deliver this kind of race experience, you need incorporated staff. The Boston Athletic Association, for example, which produces the Boston Marathon every year, is a registered corporate non-profit organization. There is a similar corporation that produces the Cowtown Marathon here in Fort Worth. The truth is, planning a major road race is a full-time job. These aren't community events so much as international spectacles. If that's the kind of race you want to put on, you need real firepower to do it.

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I do not want to write a hit-piece on Ampt Running. They put on four successful local road races throughout the year, and from what I can tell, all four of these races feature all the accoutrements you'd expect from a big road racing event: chip timing, aid stations, race photography, prizes, food, swag, and the whole nine yards. That is commendable.

I will say this, however: I get extremely uncomfortable when I see a money-making, full-time enterprise that relies on volunteers to do what they do. It's a lot of work to put on a road race; it's a lot of work to run a company that puts on a road race; the idea that someone could make money, professionally, by leveraging the goodwill of unpaid volunteers is not how I, personally, would choose to make money

The matter is slightly different with the B.A.A. or the Cowtown Marathon organization. These started out as volunteer organizations whose primary purpose was to promote sports within a specific community. They only began retaining staff as the need arose, and only ever in support of community events that had the financial backing of the cities in which they were founded. This is home-grown, non-profit, community activity. These are not companies started by people who realized that they could put food on the table by putting on road races.

And to be clear, I have no objection with a company that puts on road races professionally. The only thing that makes it weird is when you ask people to volunteer their time so that you can earn your paycheck. Imagine I offered to sell you fast food hamburgers, earned a sweet profit on every hamburger I sold, and then come to find out the hamburgers were all made by community volunteers. There's nothing wrong with selling hamburgers, and there's nothing wrong with having a community burger-cookout. But when the community volunteers to make someone a nice profit, that strikes me as being bizarre.

On the other hand, a lot of people run these Ampt races. If Ampt didn't make a profit off the backs of volunteer labor, these races wouldn't exist. So which is the better scenario? 

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I love money as much as -- or more than -- the next person. Still, it seems inarguable to me that some kinds of activities are ill-suited to the profit motive. One example of this is art: When artists do not have to worry about selling the most paintings, they tend to create starkly creative and personal works that have the possibility of breaking creative ground and making human progress in art. When artists do whatever sells the most prints, we end up with the abstract art they sell at IKEA, which is literally designed and painted by robots. It becomes "a real art product" rather than a work of art. It's not designed to express anything an artist wanted to express, it's designed solely to sell. I argue that this is bad for art.

I also argue that this is bad for road racing. What better example of that than the act of designing your race such that the winners' experience is sacrificed for the sake of the middle of the pack?

Clearly, this is a decision designed to maximize the experience of the greatest number of runners. Not the number of greatest runners in the race, but the large, bloated majority of fun runners who will never stand a chance of winning a race. They're the ones who pay the checks, after all. They're the customers. If you're in the business of serving customers, it's perfectly rational to please the large area under the bell curve, rather than making a tailor-made experience for the fastest six runners in the right-hand tail of the distribution.

It makes commercial sense to operate a race this way, but it makes no sense in the context of sport. The frontrunners are the running elite; they're the key opinion leaders of the running world. They're the ones whose opinions matter, because they define what running is. Like art, if you want something that changes the way we think, you hire an artist and give her free reign to creative expression; so with running, if you want the funnest, most rewarding race possible, then you ought to design your races such that they're really fun for the very best runners. Whatever it is that the best runners enjoy, that's what the back of the pack will come to enjoy in time, because the back of the pack are followers.

In you want a quality running event, you should care what the fast runners think. You should care what their experiences are. You should not make course decisions based on the bell curve.

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I realize that this is kind of a bitchy post, but it's important to form the right context for fixing the problem. I would love to reform the running community, to remake it more in the image of what running can be, if only people knew where to start.

The reality is, I don't think that the problems with running can be boiled down to simple idiocy like "corporations ruined it" or "participation medals ruined it." I think this has been a slow, multi-dimensional evolution (devolution) and that if anyone thirty years ago had known what running would become, they would have put a stop to it before it went this far. 

But all those old guys are gone, and there's no one else to carry the flag. We take it as given that races must be run this way, and so we accept it. The very best runners focus on major events, don't waste their time on community events, and basically operate in a parallel universe. The frontrunning community is nothing like "the running community." 

Consequently, I dream of leading a change for the better. I dream of teaching kids how fun -- how incredibly awesome -- running can be. It can be so much more than a community fun run, or "an event for all ages and abilities." It can be more than an event tailored to the bell curve. And the beautiful thing about it is that if you create races that focus on the best of what could be, it's not just frontrunners who will benefit. The whole running community could be amazed at how much fun they've been missing out on all this time.

I really think it's possible to make this change, and I dream of making it. Only time will tell if I'll ever get off the ground with my ideas. 

Speaking of ideas, I'll post more about them later.

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