31 May 2014
It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… And no, I can’t fool you; while I consider myself reasonably well read, I have not read Dickens. But this past week, that theme wouldn’t leave me as I considered the racing news that recently drizzled in.
Often something exceptional – either good or bad – stands on its own and screams its exceptionality to the world, but when both exceptionally good and bad appear at the same time, the contrast can’t be ignored. And that’s what came about recently. News arrived about two races, either of which would have made me stand up and take note due to their noteworthy status, but they arrived within days of each other, and their noteworthiness ran in opposite directions. These two races made me re-examine the question of what constitutes a race in our beloved sport: When does a race cease to be a race and simply become a vehicle for some other agenda?
Consider what I’ll call Race L, a ten kilometer event aimed at both competitive runners (yes, there is prize money) and recreational runners (yes, there are shirts). Early bird registrants were welcomed at the whopping fee of ten bucks, a fee which rises by five bucks tonight to a mere fifteen, and hops up another five per month till the worst-case scenario of thirty bucks on race day.
Then consider what I’ll call Race A, is a five kilometer event aimed squarely at recreational runners (yes, besides shirts, there are medals for all finishers – in a five-K). Early registration thudded on the table at forty bucks. And it too went up tonight, though it’s not yet clear how much. Yikes.
First the punchline, then back to the details. I stood up and publicly said, to the effect, “What, are you kidding me?” and got more than one person good and mad at me for doing so. I don’t regret it. I’ll say it again. What, are you kidding me? Forty bucks – and rising – for a five-K?
I’ve railed in the past about for-profit event promoters and fad races (see this post, which though two years old, recently received a great reader comment!). Both of these genres aim to suck P.T. Barnum’s favorite audience to pay large amounts of money for overpriced or overproduced (or both) events teetering on, and often falling into, the category of entertainment. I usually fall back on the saving grace that at least the participants are being physically active rather than just going to the mall, but even that’s slipping away with events that boast that they won’t time you, and in exchange, you don’t really have to run. As if to taunt me, yet another appeared in my inbox this week, another variation on the color run thing – or in short, an opportunity to pay someone money in exchange for them throwing crap at you. Old P.T. was right, there’s one born every minute.
As disturbing as this trend is, that’s not my point tonight. My target is instead the charity gala ball run. My target is the attitude that runners constitute an ATM, a ready source for cash. My target is that far too many “race” events really aren’t held for the purpose of holding a race at all. Hypocrite Alert: I’ve helped out at charity gala ball runs. In and of themselves, they’re not evil. But ask yourself two simple questions: Would you go down to the town civic hall and shell out ten or fifteen bucks for a spaghetti supper to benefit XYZ cause? I’ll bet you would. Now, would you go to that same hall for a thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner for that same cause? Well, would you?
In the first case, it probably wouldn’t matter to you what the cause was, so long as it wasn’t the Society for the Advancement of Axe-Murderers. You’re getting a fair deal, you’ll probably see your friends and have a good time, and even if you could have boiled up that spaghetti at home for three bucks for the entire family, you’ll walk away happy. In the second case, if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.
Now, a thousand bucks a plate is a lot of coin, so that’s an easy call. But where’s your limit? Five hundred? One hundred? Fifty? Or start at the other end. Ten bucks for a plate of spaghetti is easy. What about fifteen? Thirty? Fifty? At what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?
Translate this to racing. Plenty of races benefit a charity – in fact, it’s fair to say most do (even big for-profits which do lip service to charity while pocketing the rest, but that’s a different topic). There’s nothing wrong with holding an event that delivers value to the participants and ending up with a pile of money which the organizing team uses to do good. That’s noble. But at what point does the price of admission shift you over from a feeling you’re getting value from the event while adding on a feel-good for helping the charity du jour, to knowing that you’re making a donation, and that the event is only secondary?
When is it a race that raises money? When does it become a donation that’s got a race pasted to the side to gather donors? When it crosses that limit, I’d suggest that if you’re passionate about the charity and you’ve got that kind of cash, you might do it. But if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably absent. And you might find yourself rather irritated if you’re pressured to ante up.
I’m repeating myself intentionally to make a point. Races like “Race A” have, in my view, crossed that line. Race A is a donation with a race tacked on the side. This is, in my view, a bad trend in our sport, and it’s not just Race A. In the last year, I’ve shunted aside multiple requests for my advisory services from groups who want to raise money and think that a race is the perfect vehicle.
Enough! We runners are not cash dispensers! We are runners first. We are willing to put out reasonable cash for a good race. And it’s not the absolute amount that makes the difference. We all go to inexpensive races and we all go to pricey ones as well. We expect a big city marathon to cost a lot because it does cost a lot to put it on. And to some extent, race bling can compensate for race price, if it is relevant and useful bling. Sorry guys, a medal for a five-K is useless.
To make it worse in the case of Race A, the heat is on. My local club, which selected this race for its race series (innocently enough before its absurd price was announced) is now applying that pressure. Show the flag. Ante up. Support the cause!
Enough again! I joined this club to run, not to be told what charities I should support. I don’t mind being asked, but I do mind being pressured. Further, I find it a really bad idea for my club to be promoting this bad trend in the sport. And finally, I absolutely mind being told that I shouldn’t raise my voice in protest. Sorry, you can’t force my acquiescence or my silence.
I have no objection to the charity in question. It’s a worthy cause. And if I decide to support it, I’ll write them a check (and get a tax deduction in the process, something I don’t get for an overpriced race). But I won’t support further turning the concept of a race into a cash machine.
Thankfully, I can vote with my wallet and my feet, and I have a choice. So let’s go back to Race L. In fact, before I hold this race up as a paragon of virtue, let me remove the mystique of anonymity from it: it is the Level Renner 10K, slated for this August. The irony here is that in a way, this could even be classed as a for-profit race. The guys putting it together publish Level Renner, an excellent online running magazine (yes, that’s the correct spelling, and no, I don’t know its origin). I don’t know if they actually succeed in making much money, but it’s clearly a business. Thus they further prove that what’s important is the motivation and the attitude of the people behind the event. Whereas many for-profits are out to maximize that profit, and events like Race A strongly resemble charity gala balls with runs tacked on the side, these guys are runners and simply want to put on a great race for runners. Period. Their web site says it better than I ever could:
The Level Renner Road Race 10k was born out of the desire to provide an excellent racing experience for competitive and recreational runners alike. For competitive runners, this race is first and foremost a competition and the LRRR 10k is determined to give its regional and elite athletes the best experience possible and the recognition that they deserve. This event will not be a carnival with the race as an afterthought. The race and the competition are the focal point. For recreational runners, our goal is to inspire and motivate you to give your best effort. We want to provide you with an outstanding racing experience. As such, The LVL10K is a USATF sanctioned event.
I love the part about it not being a carnival. They speak to me. And when I thought of writing this column, I spoke to them to get a little more insight into their thinking. Their message is simply refreshing:
In short, we want the road race to be about the race. How novel of us, right? I was at a race recently where they forgot to announce the winners. That is unacceptable. So, we decided to create a race that focuses on the runner. We want to provide an excellent racing experience without the price gouging. Last year if you registered in May, you got a shirt (and more) and a timed event on a wheel-measured course for $10, plus we had 75 raffle prizes in addition to the ~$1500 prize purse, and we gave out Top Finisher pint glasses to the top three in each age group. As you can imagine, we didn't really give a hoot about a financial structure. Making money was not the goal (how refreshing). Putting on a marquee event for runners by runners was.
It was the best of races, it was the worst of races… You can cast your vote for a donation with a race tacked on the side and spend forty bucks (and more, shortly) for a five K with a finisher medal (and a “Finish Time keepsake receipt” – sorry, I just couldn’t resist pointing that one out), or you can cast your vote for a real race targeted at providing the best experience for runners, fast and slow, for a reasonable price. I don’t even see that as a question.
Your choice matters. It sends a message and determines what you will see in the future. What do you want your sport to become? Think before you register.
16 May 2014
Somewhere around mile two, in the middle of the Clinton Tribute Five Miler last weekend, with the Hill From Hell looming just ahead, it occurred to me that I’d sort of lost my racing brain. How hard should I be pushing at that point? Really, I’d kind of forgotten that fine detail. That’s what happens when you take a big gap in your racing. That’s when it’s time to get back to the streets.
What I’ve disliked nearly as much as constantly sucking wind during my journey back from the injured reserve list has been being largely absent from the racing scene. I’ve raced here and there, on New Year’s, at Hyannis for the relay, and of course at Boston, but each of those was a pins-and-needles affair, hoping I’d be in solid enough condition by race day in order to avoid a train wreck. (Yes, I know, I hear you saying, “What, are you kidding me?” Remember, it’s all relative.)
Till very recently I haven’t felt the readiness to jump in when the opportunity arises. But a few days back a page seems to turn; my training condition seemed to brighten. Conveniently, that page turned just before a local race I’d already signed up for, thus providing a quick snapshot of whether that readiness was real. And the verdict was…? Well, not fabulous, but not too shabby, either.
The Tribute Five Miler is a curious race. While a decent set of real players usually show up, the event is largely a local affair, centered on the annual lauding of a couple of exemplary citizens selected each year for their service to the town. Scads of locals sporting team shirts come out to run in support of their favorite “tribute” (no Hunger Games cracks, now, they don’t kill them). The level of support is grand and speaks well for the community.
This isn’t unusual, of course. What’s curious is that these teeming teams, which like any of these local events include plenty for whom this is the biggest physical effort of the year, aren’t tackling the typical five kilometer jaunt around the local park. They’re tackling a five miler, already longer than your usual couch-to-race end-game, and further, one of the toughest five milers for many miles around. The Clinton course falls on the brutal side. Whether those once-a-year folks realize this is unknown; perhaps they might not be so gung-ho if they saw an easy five-K in a flat town for comparison. But they get out there, and they do it. Yet that’s not all: to make it more fun, this one starts uphill, relatively uncommon. I admit it’s a source of mirth watching the local youngsters bolt out with abandon, only to fall back wheezing before topping out a mere third of a mile in.
OK, so maybe they lack a bit in common sense and racing experience, but wheezing on topping out is what this one is all about. Put this course in perspective: I ran it only once before, two years back. That year I’d just run my best five-miler at the Freezer in January, and two months after Clinton, I’d top that with a new best at Carver. I was in top shape, but sandwiched between those two pleasantly flat speed-fests, the Clinton course stuffed me a full minute and a half slower. Sure, it was hot that day, but it was hot at Carver, too. The difference? Four significant hills.
Fast forward to this year. This year’s Freezer, my first race post-surgery, was one of the slowest five-milers in my logbook. While I expected progress since then, Clinton forces you to keep your goals modest – not to mention that it got rather toasty again this time. I’ll let you cheat and look at the last chapter and tell you I landed a half minute below my Freezer time. Now, if you can follow all this twisted logic, to me that was a two minute gain on the five-miler. (Huh? You scratch your head… well, it works like this: if Clinton was a minute and a half slower than the Freezer last time, and a half minute faster this time…Aha! …you say, now I get it!) In short, it was good enough for a Saturday’s work.
I’d toed up for only three races since last year’s Boston, and in none did I have to address the speed called for on this day. The Freezer was just a test drive. By the time Hyannis rolled around, I still hadn’t regained any speed, so a solid run for the team was enough to celebrate; time was secondary. Boston was about pacing and strategy, not speed. But this was a five-miler, to my mind a long sprint, where the game is pushing past the limits that your brain is setting to protect you, but which really just slow you down. There’s a huge mental component of knowing how hard to push. You only learn this by successively pushing, each time a little harder. Take time off, and you forget.
I had to learn it back. Back during the sharp dive leading to the one mile mark, I had to remind myself of how to race downhill. Let go. Fall forward. Use the hill. Don’t run protectively. Pushing up the second hill, I couldn’t decide if my legs were heavy because I should push them harder, or if perhaps because I was really stupid to run eight-hundreds, even if casually, two nights earlier. How hard was too hard…especially knowing that just ahead lay the Hill From Hell?
But you’re still not done. Another big climb, not as high as the Hill From Hell, but unlike that one, steady, no pitch variations, no respites for the very, very weary. And coming off that one, shredded, it’s time to sprint the last half mile home, the last two blocks of which are punishingly downhill.
I hate this course.
I love this course.
It’s brilliant, of course.
As it was, by the time Clinton’s signature feature arrived, all the passing that was to pass had passed. I wouldn’t see another runner ahead or behind, but obviously didn’t know that yet. Not that I would have slacked off one bit, but it might have been comforting.
Now, I just have to start doing this a lot more often so I can remember how this is all supposed to work.
Odd Bits, Part One, Fame? Checking in, I had the unique experience of being recognized by a reader whom I really only knew through online interactions. I love to tease myself about how few read my blather, but there really are perhaps a few more than a few, and I certainly appreciate you taking time out of your day to enjoy the fruits of my obsession.
Odd Bits, Part Two, DDY Conquers! Dearest Daughter the Younger, with the goal of her first Half Marathon on her mind, took on the famed Hill From Hell. It slowed her down but did not kill her, as she completed the course end-to-end, with no breaks. More on that Half Marathon Quest in later columns…
Odd Bits, Part Four, Green! This being a local race, I ran it in green with my local club, the Highland City Striders, rather than in GBTC red. Besides, the after-party is in an Irish establishment so it had to be a Green Day.
12 May 2014
To the Boston Athletic Association:
Weeks have passed since the Mother of All Boston Marathons, the Boston Marathon of Redemption, the Boston Marathon that wore out a good percentage of the televisions of America well before the starter’s gun with absurd levels of media coverage, some justified, some shameful in its hounding treatment of last year’s victims. The spotlight was on you, and you came through.
But thoughts have been brewing in my head since race day, and while it’s later than I’d planned, it’s time to get them on virtual paper, even if it means delaying what would have been my topic for this week’s column. Now in the hindsight of the event, there are things that need to be said.
First, let’s not let the problems obscure this, it was absolutely fabulous. You did a phenomenal job choreographing thirty-two thousand runners and a nearly unbelievable fifteen thousand volunteers. You enrolled as many volunteers as there were people in the town I grew up in, and they all knew where to go and what to do, and they all did it with aplomb and smiles on their faces. They are all saints, and your skills in logistics are truly amazing every year, but even more so this year. Bravo!
But let’s address the dark side of the equation: the security response to last year’s tragedy. Anyone reading this column regularly knows I have not been shy in my criticism of several aspects of this year’s security plan. Should, through the viral magic of the Internet, this missive actually arrive in your offices, I have no regrets if you go back a few weeks and read my first and second columns on the topic, as well as the “Last Dig” at the end of another pre-race column. I was harsh then, and I am sticking to my views now. Some of what you did for this race made perfect sense. But some of what you did made it harder for the runners to do what they came for. And worse, some of what you did put runners at risk. That which was wrong needs to be corrected.
Let’s be honest. You dodged a huge bullet because it was a beautiful sunny day, in fact a bit too beautiful, bordering on hot. Because the notorious New England weather cooperated, you got away with the bad stuff that I was most vocal about. While you should congratulate yourself not only on another brilliantly executed Boston Marathon, but also a safe Boston Marathon, please do not assume because it was safe that this year’s security plan should simply be replicated next year.
Because it wasn’t raining and had in fact been dry for several days prior, the Athlete’s Village wasn’t a mud pit, and starting the race in dry shoes wasn’t a problem. Considering how difficult it would have been to bring shoes and other gear to race in – and keep them dry till starting time – based on the rules you laid out and the clarifications – or lack thereof – that you provided on the phone (as detailed in my previous columns), you dodged that bullet.
Because it was a beautiful day, it was easy to guess by six AM what to wear when the gun went off hours later. Nobody minds donating old clothes before the race, but nobody wants to discard good stuff. Had the weather been iffy such that appropriate wear couldn’t be determined till race time, runners would’ve has to race in sub-optimal clothing or lose gear they’d rather have kept.
Both of those issues had the potential to impact runners’ performances. That’s bad news for a world-famous race comprised in a typical year of eighty percent qualified – read competitive – marathoners, probably the highest percentage of any major marathon in the world. That’s wrong. But never mind performance; let’s address safety – not against terrorism, but against the elements.
Because it was warm, you got away with the ridiculously unfair no baggage policy that applied only to those who boarded shuttles in Hopkinton. Why living in or staying in a hotel in a western suburb should disqualify a runner from a basic service available to others is beyond me. Your position that we were supposed to travel into Boston in the wee hours of the morning to drop a bag so we could take a bus back to where we live was, frankly, ludicrous. As a result, if we didn’t have a friend handy at the finish (and many didn’t), we were left with no dry clothing for after the race.
The “heat poncho” you handed out at the finish was a significant improvement over the usual Mylar sheet. But even that poncho wouldn’t have provided adequate shelter for dehydrated, depleted marathoners on a cold, windy, or worse, rainy day. Even with the temperature in the low sixties, I enjoyed the poncho while in the sunshine of Copley Square, but found myself shivering and cold once I stepped into the unavoidable shadows cast by the Boston skyline. Running a marathon will do that to you. But after all, it was a beautiful day, so it didn’t matter, right?
Had Marathon Monday fallen two days later, you’d have had thousands of dehydrated, depleted, and hypothermic finishers with no dry clothing. Putting a heat poncho – or anything – over soaked clothing won’t stop heat loss. I know, I’ve been there, several times. And it wasn’t just the luck of two days later. That weather held for over a week. It’s pretty common this time of year.
In short, by denying a large class of runners the service of transporting dry clothing, you put those runners at serious risk of hypothermia. That was a very wrong thing to do and has to be fixed.
I could reiterate my pre-race complaints about misdirected security, about how the runners should not be targeted as potential suspects, but you can return to my previous columns to read those thoughts if you haven’t already heard them thousands of times already. I should, however, point out that despite this suspicion of the runners, there was a mysterious lack of verification of those same runners. Reports of counterfeit bibs hit the media after the race (read here and here and just search on "Boston Marathon counterfeit bibs" for more), but rumors of such practices were known well beforehand. Simple measures such as policing popular websites and scanning chips before allowing runners to board shuttles would have increased security far more than preventing me from bringing dry shoes in a clear plastic bag.
So let’s take stock here. On the plus side, these things worked:
- Increasing police presence and surveillance was a no-brainer, clearly a smart thing to do.
- Implementing crowd control checkpoints and strongly suggesting limits on spectator bags, coupled with a stated policy that all bags can be searched, again made perfect sense. It was, after all, two spectator backpacks that started this mess last year.
- The security scan that runners went through as we boarded the shuttle buses was only a minor inconvenience and in general made sense.
But on the minus side, these things need to be fixed:
- Not allowing runners to bring the gear they need to race was wrong. The policy that a fanny pack was acceptable but a small bag was not was absurd. (I should mention that a friend was stopped at the shuttle security check because they were carrying – I’m not making this up – a tiny Dunkin’ Donuts bag with a single muffin in it.) Use limited size clear bags to make them searchable, set up an airport-style scanner perhaps, but you must allow reasonable running gear. (Muffins would be nice, too.)
- Not allowing ALL runners to check dry clothing to the finish was wrong, and poses a safety hazard. If you don’t want to bring back baggage buses at the Village, provide them at the Hopkinton shuttle stops. But don’t make us wander through next year’s finish chute in cold windy rain, shivering violently in our soaked togs under a mediocre poncho. (Worth noting, a friend who worked the Village in the morning reported that since everything not carried in the race was discarded, the Village ended up looking like a war zone. I know I left a bottle of sunscreen and other items hoping others would get use out of them, but knowing they’d all end up as trash, part of a tremendous eco-disaster. That is simply wasteful.)
- Not checking the veracity of bibs at the shuttles by scanning chips was an oversight which invalidated the no-bandit policy and significantly weakened overall security.
Yes, Boston 2014 was a huge success, and as I have said, you should be rightly proud. But please work to correct the problems for next year. Please don’t be seduced by the need for theatre security that is highly visible and to which you can point in the event of an incident to say you did all you could. Don’t blindly accept all requests from the law enforcement community without a full understanding on both sides of their impact on the most important component of the race, the runners. And don’t be fooled into believing that nothing happened solely because of the plan. We all know that a determined crazy could have still created mayhem.
I thank you for your consideration.
03 May 2014
After the story of the race is told, there are always ancillary tales to enjoy. So enjoy!
Dazed and Confused: Did I mention it was warm? (Of course I did!) It was a glorious day to watch a marathon, but a surprisingly tough day to run one. With the sun at full strength, the sixty-degree air temperature was considerably magnified. I sure felt it, but worse stories poured in of others’ difficulties, especially those in later waves enduring even more warmth.
But even in my wave it was tough. Rival bud Bad Dawg EJ, so immensely capable as to have smoked me last year with a white-hot two-forty-eight (at my age!), wrote how he literally stumbled through mile twenty-five in something close to twenty minutes. Clubmate Joe, who caught and passed me at seventeen, later succumbed, though in my numbed reality state I never realized that I passed him back. But best (or worst?) had to be Lloyd from Alaska, with whom I shared a mylar-blanket campsite at the Athlete’s Village, who trundled up alongside me somewhere around twenty-three on Beacon Street. Surprised – and pleased – to see and recognize him, I called out to him. No reply. Louder. Nothing. A third, a fourth, perhaps even a fifth time before I could pierce his catatonic stupor. I was getting seriously worried about him until he finally grunted back (which was about what I was capable of at that point), indication consciousness (merely running, late in a marathon, does not always qualify as such). Based on our conversations at the Village, I think he ran a personal best, but he certainly paid dearly for it.
The Price of Poor Training: I ran some numbers afterward, numbers I didn’t want to know beforehand so as not to further upset my tenuous mental state going in. By April 15th last year, I’d logged over nine hundred miles since the year began. This year, even with the later date of the race, only five-seventy-five, and that of wildly varying quality. Thus running fifteen minutes slower than last year was no surprise; indeed, it was a gift to get away with that.
My training weakness had nothing on clubmate Jon, though. Suffering from a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis, Jon racked up a mere one hundred and fifteen miles spread over only ten workouts, seven of which he tagged as “crushingly painful”. And turned a two-fifty-four. Granted, he’s a mere kid in my eyes at forty-three, and granted, he’s a sub-two-forty guy, but still! It was gutsy for him to even step on the line, let alone to gut out the run that he did.
Commiserating pre-race on our respective conditions, his was the quote of the year, when he wrote, “I think we would both regret it if we weren't in Hopkinton this year. I'm worried we might also live to regret the decision to go to Hopkinton this year.” So far, sore knees, but no regrets. Jon’s excellent recap of his race can be found at this link.
Closer to Home: Training partner Issam, starting three corrals behind me but far better prepared, ended up a minute and a half behind me when the dust settled. But sorting out the vagaries of starting time offsets, mid-race splits, and so on, left us quite convinced that he’d been within about a hundred feet of me at the mid-point, and not much further behind for the duration, but we never met up. Ships almost passing in the daylight…
GBTC clubmates Anthony and Eric made the biggest splash with a truly awesome photo that appeared on Sports Illustrated online, replicated with due credit here. Sadly, it didn’t make the print issue so far as I know.
Maybe it Wasn’t So Stupid, After All: Last week I wrote how my attack on the Boston course, though subdued compared to last year, was a bit reckless at the least, and rather foolish by most standards. But being the true OCD type, I later ran my usual post-marathon analysis, and found that it really wasn’t executed all that differently from usual.