27 June 2012

For Profit

I’ve got a love-hate relationship going on. The battle has been raging in my head for months, even years, as I’ve contemplated this article. The battle is not resolved; in short, I cannot take a side and will leave my conclusion vague. It’s just not a black and white topic. Let’s consider for-profit road racing (or for-profit racing in general). Is it an answer to market demand, or a perversion of a relatively pure endeavor that simply lines someone’s pockets?

First, full disclosure: I’ve profited from a racing event. I was paid for my services as an announcer at last year’s local triathlon, and would have done same this year if not for a scheduling conflict. Second, in today’s hyper-charged political atmosphere it seems prudent to state the obvious; I’m in favor of capitalism, though I’d like to see it take a bit more ethical path at times. I’ve nothing against business or earning a fair wage for one’s work. Without that concept, we’d all be in trouble.

Let’s look at the typical local club or charity race. The proceeds land in the lap of a non-profit organization of some sort, be it the local running club, which presumably pours those funds back into its mission, or the charity, which we’ll presume is legitimate and worthy. Let’s be clear that even in the smallest races, someone makes a profit. The shirt vendor, the medal vendor, the port-o-john service firm, even the hired-in-announcers, they all provide something that is needed. The investment they made to be able to provide those services wasn’t free. It’s only fair they be compensated for services they render. And in larger non-profit races, paid staff are the norm, and with good reason. You can’t pull off the Boston Marathon by volunteering nights and weekends.

In short, there is a cost of doing business. Sponsors and donations help, but at the end of the day there are things you have to pay for, because you cannot convince the entire global supply chain to sponsor each leg of their path down to your event. So when we refer to a non-profit race, we’re not fooling ourselves into believing that we’ve got some lily white angelic enterprise devoid of accounting. But at the end of the day, what’s left over goes to what we define as the public good.

Now let’s look at the typically for-profit race. From a business standpoint, it’s entirely the same thing. Vendors must be brought in, services must be procured, expenses incurred. It’s really no different. Many of these races even elect to allot a portion of the proceeds to a charity, to give the impression of (or do real) public good. But at the end of the day, what’s left over goes to the benefit of an individual or individuals.

Is that wrong?

One can argue about motives and resulting services. There’s a for-profit race series that drags its carpeted bags into Worcester now, as they’ve done for a few years. This year they elected to expand their event, adding a full marathon and a 5K to their existing half marathon. Knowing the history of this particular promoter, I choose to stay far, far away. But multiple reports from the scene came rolling in, and the picture wasn’t pretty. Six port-a-johns for well over a thousand racers. Complete mayhem at the start. Lack of marshals on the course. Awards delayed, not as advertised, not posted, heck, results not even posted. More than one person whom I’d warned about this event, but had chosen to run it anyway, came back saying, “Well, you told me so.”

It’s easy to point at this and insinuate that the promoter was cutting costs to line his pockets more thickly, and perhaps he was. But that’s a shallow approach that, while it may or may not be true in this case, doesn’t stand the litmus test. There are non-profit races that are poorly executed as well, and which suffer from cost-cutting in order to raise more funds; the pocket lined more deeply in that case is a charity, but we still expect a good product. And there are for-profit races that are well run.

I like to think of a race as pure competition, but the reality is that for most it is not really a race but an event with little competition involved, and the staging of said event is, in the end, a service. (How shall we entertain ourselves this weekend? Shall we go to a concert, or to a road race?) The for-profit promoter is, after all, providing that service. Shouldn’t he or she get paid for that?

One can argue about marketing and value. I cringe at the ads I see in running publications, where running comes in a distant second, third or even fourth, in the priority of what is being billed. Party! Bands! Visit our theme park! Pay to embarrass yourself in our mud pit! Be a rock star! Best schwag! Did anyone remember the fact that it’s a race?

Here it’s pretty accurate to point at the for-profit industry as the pusher of these agendas. Are they sullying the sport? Maybe yes, maybe no. I can’t fathom why people would pay to be chased by zombies, whatever they are, but more amazing to me is that people actually pay to be the zombies. As Don Henley sang in The Last Resort, “…Jesus, people bought ‘em.” Are you more angry at the spammers and telemarketers, or the fact that there are enough people that actually respond to spur them on? Are you more annoyed at bizarrely marketed “races” or the fact that people will pay far too much for a half marathon that claims to be an “excellent value” on a glitzy website?

So whether a race is run by a non-profit or a profit organization, there’s a wide range in quality of execution and value for the dollar. There are gems and duds in both categories. The appeal of any race is a collection of all attributes, including the organizers’ attitude. Are they in this to stage a great event for runners, or are they in this because it’s a way to make money? Attitude comes through loud and clear to anyone who takes more than a passing glance at these events. But there’s no law on defining the right attitude, and many don’t look deeper than that passing glance.

But there is an ethical issue of for-profit ventures drawing lifeblood from non-profit resources. No race survives without the contribution of many, including both race volunteers and the general public which allows it to happen. I’ve yet to see any race, non-profit or profit, where every staffer is a paid employee. No, they’re volunteers, recruited to donate their time and efforts for “The Cause”. The Cause might be just that they want to help provide a race for the runners. The Cause might be that the for-profit race does donate to a charity they like. The Cause might just be because they enjoy the activity. But think about it: they’re working for free so that someone can walk away with profit in their pocket. There are words that describe such an employer-employee relationship, and wars have been fought over them. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it’s something to think about.

And then there is the issue of the general public’s willingness to allow these events to happen. Rare is the race held entirely off-road on private land. Most use public streets and therefore by definition disrupt public activities. The public allows this to happen on the expectation that this is a public event for public good. The public might take a dim view knowing that their inconvenience was caused by someone’s money-making enterprise.

I am reminded of two relevant tidbits. The first is the appearance in this area several years ago of drop boxes from a firm that collects and remarkets used books. The firm has an interesting business model: their service is the remarketing, and they “buy” the books by paying non-profit groups to host their drop boxes. So non-profits benefit, books are recycled, and people have a source for both disposal of and purchase of such books. All good. Except that they weren’t too clear at first about the fact that they’re a for-profit company. Make that less than totally transparent, and the drop boxes that use the word “donate” leave people feeling duped. Make that known, show the value in what you do, and all is well, though the word “donate” still seems a little misused.

The second is a political cartoon from the 1992 Presidential election, when Ross Perot made a go of it. Sadly, I can’t find an image of this classic doodle (apparently even Google can be foiled) but it showed a man walking away from a mailbox apparently having just mailed a political donation to Mr. Perot (this being the days before online fundraising), looking somewhat regretful, with the caption along the lines of how he just realized that he’d sent money to a billionaire.

And so it goes in the road racing world. What are you supporting? To whom are you sending your money? Where is it going? What is their motivation? What is the quality of the product you get in return?

As for me, I make exceptions, but make a solid effort to target club-run events. Support your sport, hang with the people who love running in and of itself without glitter and glitz, and you’ll save a heap of cash in the process.

As in the rest of life, caveat emptor.

13 June 2012

It Just Doesn't Matter

All the engineering, calculating, pondering, supposing is well and good, but at the end of the day it’s the time on the clock, and the rest just doesn’t matter. Tonight that proved true yet again, as yet again I find myself foiled on a goal.

It’s been nearly four years since I pegged my five kilometer personal best. That was on a course that I helped design, so I know it was accurate. Measuring it today with online satellite photo tracing pegs it within a hundredth of a mile of five clicks, the error being on the long (safe) side. Oh, and a minor detail, the last tenth of a mile is net downhill from the start, a bonus for nabbing a few extra seconds. Result: a personal best that’s stuck for a long time.

Make that a personal best that I have a vendetta to demolish. And I know I can do it. Four weeks ago at Bedford, I did it en-route to a twelve-K. Knocked at least ten seconds off that best mark, probably more depending on how you extrapolate, but since there was no official five-K split, nor was it even marked, it just doesn’t matter. Doesn’t count.

Tonight the opportunity availed to take another stab at it. Having passed on joining my Greater Boston brethren for the Newton 10K Grand Prix event this past Sunday due schedule commitments, I figured I’d come out of my post-Buffalo shell by popping into a local five-K that conveniently appeared only a small detour from my week’s business travel. Said local five-K advertised itself as flat, fast (assuming a train didn’t arrive and stop the whole thing mid-race as apparently happened last year), USATF certified, and last year’s results indicated the field would have plenty of fast guys to key off. As a bonus, it started with a lap and a half on the track, a perfect way to gauge early pace. Sounded to me like an excuse to take a stab at that circa-2008 five-K mark.

By now you’d think I’d know better than to expect to pop out of car after six hours of driving and run fast. Fatigued and winded on the warm-up, I fashioned in my head Excuse Number One. And I haven’t done any track work or really anything faster than tempo pace since Buffalo, and very little even at that clip, so to think a PR five-K was in order, well, I fashioned that in my head as Excuse Number Two. One of the guys I ran my warm-down with post-event laughed and reminded me that real distance runners always have plenty of excuses.

Excuses aside, it wasn’t a bad outing. Getting the body moving was far more of an effort than I’d hoped, and while that first lap clicked in ahead of needed pace, by the mile mark I’d settled down to ordinariness. There were enough fast guys, but none nearby to really inspire dropping it into the next gear, so I settled for holding on to a pleasingly consistent, though certainly not spectacular, pace for the remainder. True, the end result was twenty to thirty seconds behind the crushing PR I’d envisioned. But it was only six seconds off that 2008 downhill four-years-younger mark. And for winning the forties age group I walked off with a funky hand-made ceramic mug, hopefully not laced with lead-based glaze (I will inherently trust them). All in all, it was a decent, though not exceptional, evening.

Then it gets interesting, because I am at heart an engineer, and I cannot stop myself from fiddling, measuring, calculating, pondering, mashing and re-mashing until the numbers turn blue. Why bother, you might ask, if the course was USATF certified? Well, having been a race director, and having seen how the USATF measurement system works, where, for example, they prefer a bicycle measurement device, subject to the ability of the rider to go in a straight line, over a wheel, very easy to control and generally very accurate, I’m always curious. I saw how the USATF measurement stretched my local ten-K considerably over the wheel measurement I’d personally made with utter loving care.

Not being one to carry a wheel in my trunk (other than the one I’d slap on the car itself if needed), the only real weapon in this endeavor is the trusty online satellite photo measurement web sites, explicitly a no-no in the USATF book. But truth be told, they’re pretty accurate if you’re careful with your tracing – this is easy to test by tracing out your local track. And so I traced, and traced, and traced some more. And the result surprised me, because it came out not just a hair long, expected with the inaccuracies of the trace and the built-in margin of error in the USATF methodology, but quite a bit long. Even after double-checking and looking hard for discrepancies, well, gee, ain’t that a hoot. If that trace was right, adjusted, tonight would’ve been a big PR, on the order of fifteen seconds or so.

Next, I pulled up the USATF course certification map to verify what I’d measured matched what we ran. And here I found another surprise: the race director had started the race from a point notably further back than the hard-measured point on the map. Only a hundredth of a mile difference to be sure, but that one I could take to the bank as real. At my pace, that buys an adjustment of a whopping four seconds, which would still leave me short of that elusive PR, but would make it my quickest five-K since that long-ago day. Four seconds is four seconds, right?

And then we get to the quandary, the ethical questions, the ‘whaddayagonnadoaboudit?’ point. I have a longstanding policy of basing my personal race rankings on the most accurate measurement I can come up with. But typically I don’t adjust when it’s a certified course, unless I know there was some absolute discrepancy. So I’ll take the hundredth of a mile error in the starting line, and I’ll take the four seconds, and I’ll take the best-since-way-back-when, and plug that result into my ever-growing table of race results. But beyond that, all the pondering, positing, prognosticating, and prevaricating, well, it just doesn’t matter. The time on the clock is the time on the clock. No matter how I slice it, I can’t call this that PR I so heartily seek. Even if I think in my heart of hearts that it was real. It just doesn’t matter. The quest must go on.

But hey, the mug is really nice, and it was a fun time, plenty of nice folks to warm up, warm down, and chew the fat with, and there was free pizza afterward, so does it really matter?

04 June 2012

The Streak

Relative to what others have accomplished, what I’ve done is piddling at best. According to the website www.runeveryday.com, there’s a guy in California who’s run every day for nearly forty-four years, since 1968. Their criteria is a mere mile per day minimum, whereas mine is three, and I’ll bet he’s had far better weather on average, but really, who cares? It’s the fact that you get out and do something, anything at all, and reap the benefit. What he’s done is, and apparently continues to do, is truly remarkable. What I’ve done really isn’t, but it certainly has been good for me on the whole, and has given me a large smile to boot – both for the immediate effects as well as the memories.

While running the Buffalo Marathon two Sundays back, I hit the three-mile-per-day minimum and tied one of the few remaining records from my First Lap younger days, at least one of the few that isn’t tied directly to raw youthful speed. I’d equaled The Streak of my youth, three hundred and seventy five days straight, running at least three miles per day. The next morning, on a recovery jog through the flat streets of Horseheads, New York, accompanied by my niece, who can justly curse at me for nudging her into this running thing – to the extent that she’s now gearing up for her first full marathon this fall (the venerated Maine Corps one – nice choice!) – the record fell, Day Three Hundred and Seventy Six.

What I’ve done is to effectively sneer at the concept of aging. That’s really how I see it. Topping at age forty-nine what you busted your butt to achieve at age seventeen. And frankly, it’s tougher at age forty-nine. Not only does life get in the way a lot more, but the body needs a little more attention and maintenance. Mention “streak” and you’ll hear plenty of warnings about injuries, burn-out, and the like. These aren’t idle threats. The streak continues only at the convenience of the avoidance of major injuries, and the inevitable minor ones must be managed. I use the “VDO”, or Virtual Day Off, the easy three-mile jog, just enough to maintain but barely enough to break a sweat, liberally as needed. I use racing and odd adventures, like running distant locales, to avoid the burn-out.

Aside from that, the practical benefits of a streak are pretty obvious, starting with motivation to get out there every day, no matter what. Trust that there were more than a few days when it would have been really easy to stay in the warmth and comfort of indoors, or get that extra hour of sleep rather than rise to sneak in a quickie before going on the road for meetings.

But getting out every day, no matter what, forces you to a higher level of training consistency, a level I haven’t enjoyed since, well, since that first streak back in 1979-1980. Training consistency pays off in fitness level and race performance. In those days of yore, the consistency of streak training led me to my three best races of that era with times I’ll almost certainly never match at my ripe old age: a sub-sixteen-minute 5K, my best “mile” – more accurately that odd sixteen-hundred-meter distance we started running when they converted our track midway through high-school, and a 15K at close to five and a half minutes per mile. This time, it’s led to (modern-day, Second Lap) PRs at almost every distance from the mile to the marathon. You can’t argue with that.

This streak, like the last big one thirty-two years ago, started entirely by accident, not unlike almost any other streaking runner. A couple of days before finishing up last year’s “run every street in Marlborough” challenge, I just forgot to not run for a while. It took a few weeks to notice. When it stretched past two months and became the longest since that legendary streak of youth, I pulled out my log book from those days and recalled some amusing tidbits.

In my First Lap high school days, I was extremely lucky to have an extremely talented runner a mere four doors up the street, four years my senior but willing to hang out with a youngster. I don’t recall exactly how Cliff and I linked up, though it probably had to do with him dating the daughter of close friends from our church. Matters not, we did, and the result was many years of terrific runs and a friendship that, while left unattended for many years, was easily revived and lasts to this day.

Through the years we shared plenty of adventures that I don’t need my log to remember. The summer he worked second shift, a small gang of regulars would form a late-night coffee klatch in his driveway awaiting his arrival, and we’d head out around one in the morning. On our weekly twelve-milers, I’d hit the sheets around three in the morning, and joke that my mother never worried about me since she knew I was just out roaming the streets all night. And the trip to New York City for the New Year’s Eve midnight race in Central Park probably deserves a post all its own.

What I had forgotten, and was reminded of only when I perused those old pages, was that the streak started the first day I ever ran with him. Schoolboy meets mentor, schoolboy gets motivated, schoolboy transforms from middling schoolboy runner to something at least a notch or two higher. More importantly, schoolboy registers in his brain that this is something bigger than high school, and though he lets it lapse for twenty-some years, the spark is planted to re-ignite decades later.

A year into that streak I found myself getting itchy, feeling that the streak had run its course, done its job, and needed an excuse to end. The excuse was obvious, as Mentor Cliff’s wedding day approached, and as his lovely wife was of a family so connected to ours, it was a big enough event to give license for calling it a day. The log reads “Cliff and Margo forever” and I’m happy to say that thirty-two years later, they still are.

Cliff, when you read this, know it is my way of saying thanks for your help, motivation, and friendship through all those years, miles, and adventures. Breaking that streak record last week brought back a lot of great memories. Then, get over all the emotional crap, go pop in a few miles, and enjoy a cold one – wish I could join you for it.

Now, only forty-three years to go to catch that guy in California, assuming he actually quits sometime.

Trivia Note: The conversion to metric happened midway through my high school years, and I recall them digging up the steel rail to shrink our 440 yard cinder track down to 400 meters. Before the conversion, an annual event was the “Metric Meet”, an invitational where once a season we ran those exotic international distances. My log reminds me that after the conversion, we actually did the reverse, for old time’s sake, and ran an invitational “Anti-Metric Meet” with traditional length events. Seeing today’s movement to bring back the mile, I’d have to say we were unknowing visionaries.