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

Monday, May 13, 2013

Creating a New Racing Community #1

When I started running, I saw the same faces at every race. There were about two dozen races that attracted a large number of serious competitors and far more that might have a ringer or two, but were mostly local events. With the running boom of 1978-1985, there were ever more races trying to get ever more entrants and that killed the sense of community among racers. First, there were so many races that the number of top runners got diluted between them. Second, the big races became HUGE races, where the 50-100 serious competitors were lost in the sea of 5000+; I remember finishing races and running straight to my car to beat the traffic of the thousands of runners behind me, instead of hanging around to chat with my competitors like I had only a few years earlier.

The increased number of entrants caused prices to skyrocket. First, there was a simple time factor; Grandma's Marathon used to shut off its clock after 4 1/2 hours - which was common - but catering to thousands of 6 hour marathoners meant paying police officers for more hours. Second, slower runners require more assistance; there had been 10 mile races without aid stations, which was possible only when there were 50 runners and none finished in over 75 minutes; they also wanted transportation between the start and finish. Third, slower runners were more demanding and choosier; top runners often say "what do I need another T-shirt for?" while those for whom a marathon was a once in a lifetime thing wanted a lot of swag and would decide against a race because another had better stuff to give out. Fourth, there were costs strictly based on size; for example, parks permits cost less for small groups (at one time, St. Paul charged nothing for events with fewer than 150 people). With increased costs, racers did fewer races, decreasing the odds of running against those they considered their competition.

When competitive runners stopped being able to race against each other on a regular basis, all that became important was finishing time; you might not be able to race against someone, but you could still compare your time in one race with theirs in another. This, however, meant that races had to be certified - and flat. Variety disappeared from races. Attempts were made to get the top local runners in the same races; the USATF MN and MDRA created championship races for several distances, team championships and so on, but this only attracted the very few who had a chance to win awards and the vast majority of competitive runners found they had ever fewer reasons to train and race hard.

Five years ago, I thought that there was a way out of this quagmire by running trail races and I became one of the founders of the UMTR and their series of trail races. Trail races seemed to have the same people at every event - here, at last, there appeared to be community! Unfortunately, the vast majority of these runners were not competitive; most were running ultramarathons and one cannot truly race several ultramarathons each year. All that mattered was finishing and enjoying oneself (nothing wrong with that in itself!) and, excepting a few who a chance at winning, these differed little from social training runs.

I've retired from racing. There just isn't anything in them for me anymore. I outlasted my sport by decades and have accepted my role as an "elder statesman," an old crank complaining that things aren't like they used to be.

The racing community could come back; you don't know what you missed. I'll try to explain how to do it in the next few posts.


wildknits said...

Just ran across my Team Steve singlet - if it ever warms up I plan on wearing it in your honor.

Our NMTC club races have grown incredibly in the past few years (when I first started showing up there were just a handful of women and rarely more then 30 or so runners) but still offer that sense of community. The point system encourages folks to not only run fast, but participate in as many of the races as possible. Friendly rivalries develop as the season progresses and we watch the standings change from week to week.

These races are no frills and were only $1. Now they are free (donations accepted).

That might be the secret to recreating a racing community.

Colin Gardner-Springer said...

I always enjoy your "old crank" posts, they bring to mind Grandpa Simpson. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

I agree with most of what you're saying, but don't share your pessimistic conclusions. Yes, the community has changed, but not just for the worse.

For instance 10 years ago we'd race and chat occasionally at trail races; today I can follow your training (and that of many others of a variety of levels) on DailyMile or other sites. I think this has made me a better runner.

mike_hinterberg said...

Thanks Steve, I really enjoy this perspective and learned about a few historical things I hadn't thought about. I also agree with Colin's point-of-view that maybe it's not entirely negative.
As you see fit, I'd be interested in comparisons between the first running boom and this one. And also, how you see the internet and social media (not just Blogs and Facebook, but also ultrasignup and athlinks results and "rankings") affecting things.