"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bandits, part 2

This is going to seem only tangential to the subject, but I think it's important to my arguments against banditry to come. If money is an issue for bandits, why are races so costly?

Size Matters

Ten years ago, I did a study of races and found that those with 500-1000 entrants were stable, those with fewer than 200-300 died out unless the race director was highly motivated to keep the race going and those with more than 2000-3000 grew into bloated behemoths with unusual problems. The small races failed after a year of bad weather or poor management (usually a mismeasured course after a road closure required last minute course changes).

There are now almost no races in the stable range, as the huge races have a destabilizing effect. Once marathons reach the largest field the roads will allow, they add a half-marathon or 10 mile, then a 5K or 10K. Now they're adding untimed dashes for children and races on other days - the Twin Cities Marathon holding a 1 Mile race months in advance. By drawing almost every local runner, there are no other races that weekend, nor the weeks before or after, even though they are held in the prime racing weather seasons. There could be a great race every weekend, if not for the super-sized races.


Running is a solitary sport, but man is a social animal. Competitive runners often train in packs like wolves and these packs meet only at races. Small races tend to draw only local runners and one sees the same faces every year - everyone in one extended family. In medium-sized races, there is a clubbishness; runners of the same age and ability, but from different areas, interact in small cliques and people who chanced to run together in the race meet together afterward.

In contrast, people in large races gather to be part of an anonymous crowd. They participate rather than compete, as it often takes minutes to reach the start line and one cannot say one is racing when runners cross the finish line six abreast. At these races, people generally head straight to their cars after the race, as it's impossible to find friends in the sea of faces. The anonymity of the crowd often leads to a mob mentality and boorish behavior unseen in smaller races - large crowds breed bandits.

Economy of Scale

Unlike what one would expect from economic theory, large races are more expensive to hold than small ones.

Large races need to be in the center of large metropolitan areas. Because they're big, they need to be on roads and because they're in a city, they need road closures and police. The first two years of the Twin Cities Marathon, the police security was donated by the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, but now they're paid volunteers, getting double time (it's Sunday) and one will notice a surprising number of high-ranking officers because of that fact. To cut down on the number of barriers and security personnel, races get held near rivers and lakes, where there are few cross-dtreets. Ever notice how races cluster around the Mississippi River and the Chain of Lakes? It's not because they're trying to be scenic! In contrast, small races in small towns still have free security; races are often held in conjunction with parades and festivals, where the roads were to be closed anyway.

The use of roads in cities require road-use permits and the use of parks require park-use permits. Most cities will not charge for events with fewer than 500 people held in parks. The City of Minneapolis Parks Department, after budget cuts, saw events as a source of funding. The cost per runner the first year of the Twin Cities Marathon was $0.50 and I believe it is now $40.00, because they believe they have a captive audience. I'd recommend the race director measure an alternate course held away from the parks and threaten to move it unless the race gets a discount.

Race Management

Ten years ago, I knew three race directors who would hire themselves out to anyone who wanted to start a race. Their fees ranged from $3-$5 per runner, less if the race was unsuccessful. They were not making a living by doing this, though most runners seem to think that most of the money in races goes to them. (The thinking is: everything is donated and run by volunteers, so what expenses could there be?)

When the Get In Gear started raising its prices, I questioned the race director (Jeff Winter) about the budget and he was very evasive. He quit the next year. Several years ago, when a friend (Paulette Dow, now Odenthal) was race director, I volunteered to help with the race organization and had access to everything except the budget; the fact that she was driving a Hummer whose use was donated to her for a month caused many to wonder how much money was involved.

I truly believe that the big races are being run efficiently and the entry fees are not much higher than they need to be. However, I also believe that race directors need to better inform entrants as to where their money is going, or every race is going to suffer. The Twin Cities Marathon has made a point of advertising how the permit costs have exploded, but the average runner is still thinking that only half their entry fee is being justified.


Insurance is not a huge expense for most races (it is for triathlons, which explains why they are more expensive than running races), but it is a good example of a hidden cost. From what I've been able to determine, insurance is meaningless in races; the few times that a race has been sued and lost, it has been because of negligence that would not be covered by insurance. To my knowledge, no insurance company has ever paid out a single penny on a claim against a race.

Interestingly, large races buy insurance against bad weather, to minimize their losses if there is a bad year. This makes sense, but is another expense not seen in small races.

Back to banditry

Some bandits run the large races without paying as a form of protest. They feel the races have become greedy and wasteful and they are not going to reward the races financially for bad management. They don't run other races because there are no other races to be run.

Some will point out that there are alternatives. For example, the Whistle Stop Marathon is the week after the Twin Cities Marathon, allows late entries and doesn't fill it's field. It is also far enough away that it requires an overnight stay at a hotel; one might as well say one could run in Paris. There actually are a few races in the Twin Cities the same weekend as the Twin Cities Marathon one could run - 5K's, which aren't exactly a marathon.

If the Twin Cities Marathon really wanted to get serious about bandits (and they're already fencing in the start like a prison and requiring ID checks like a border patrol), they'd support a competitor. Another marathon, no-frills, held in St. Cloud, Rochester or Eau Claire would be ideal; there are already certified courses in each of those cities. I'd even be willing to volunteer to help set it up. As things stand right now, such a race would not be financially feasible - unless the TCM helped subsidize it.

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