You have to agree, ours is the oddest of sports. Last weekend we witnessed the 37th QC Times Bix 7 Road Race in Davenport, Iowa. Yesterday, the 14th TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K was run in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. And next weekend comes the 39th New Balance Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod. Though there are a number of top athletes like Burundi’s Diane Nukuri-Johnson who will run all three races, and others like B2B champions Micah Kogo of Kenya and Aheza Kiros of Ethiopia who will have run two, each event and its elite, professional field is distinct, discreet, never to be witnessed again, with none of them leading to anything beyond themselves.
The irony is that there is a de facto tour in place, just not a de jure one. What’s missing is a common thread, a linking element. It’s as if there were no PGA Tour, rather a series of independent events directed by local officials assembling fields signed for that one tournament alone, no tournament linked to another, no season, and no championship.
Therefore, watching these elegant racing machines cover ground at remarkable speed becomes nothing more than an academic exercise. It’s interesting, but it’s not visceral. Without a structure in place to generate a rooting interest we have removed passion from our sport, and relegated it to a minor niche like the small-time traveling carnival that used to fill weedy back lots in small towns each summer.
How can we expect people to follow such a sport, or make it appeal to a fan base through which we might inspire our increasingly unhealthy children when there are a myriad of other sports which do manage to collectively market and promote themselves?
For the past three decades – with very minor, insignificant exceptions – this has been the running model. So while the PGA Tour doesn’t have the exact same fields competing every week, they do have collective elegibility requirements and scoring systems in place to determine who can compete, then judge who is succeeding. What’s more, they stage an end-of-the-year Fedex Cup mini-tour to crown a champion. Road running, on the other hand, takes individual snapshots that never amount to a narrative.
And while it used to be that the elite race was the lead story in the local paper – though not a story in any other paper in the country – more and more the story lines in the write ups have turned toward the local feel-good story rather than the elite race.
In today’s Portland Maine Sunday Telegram, the front page cover photo is of a group of volunteers handing water to a pack of passing runners led by #23 Colman Hatton of Cape Elizabeth, Maine who finished in 19th place in 31:02. And the below-the-fold cover story is about Mike Noyes, a 58 year-old wheelchair competitor from Bangor, Maine whose goal was to finish in front of the “elite Kenyan” runners (any of whose names are evidently unknown).
Even on the Telegram’s sports page while the lead photo is of the lead pack several hundred yards into the race, the lead race story’s first five paragraphs are on Maine women’s division winner Sheri Piers of Falmouth, Maine and the tough weather conditions.
As our host family said over coffee, “Local people don’t know who the elite runners
are. There’s an interest because they are as good as they are, but there is no Tiger, no Phil whose names have recognition for you. There’s no story highlighting who the favorite was. It’s an event, but it’s not an identifiable contest. Is the favorite winning? Everything is about the event, not the race.”
The race story that did generate interest was the Maine women’s division featuring Sheri Piers (1st), Kristen Barry (3rd), and Erica Jesseman (2nd). Defending Maine champion Pat Tarpy wasn’t here, because he had a wedding to attend. Ben True, the most readily identifiable Maine runner, was over in London competing on the Diamond League track circuit not back home in the state’s biggest running event.
Less than it ever was
One of the fun runners in yesterday’s Beach to Beacon was 1983 Boston Marathon champion
Greg Meyer, who ran leisurely with long-time friend Tom Grilk, the Boston Marathon executive director. 30 years ago Meyer won the Cascade RunOff 15K in Portland, Oregon, the race which fundamentally challenged the amateur system which kept runners from receiving prize money for their efforts. Meyer’s victory in 1981 came with a check for $10,000.
Yesterday, Micah Kogo’s victory at the B2B also came with a cash prize of $10,000. But using the Consumer Price Index we find that $10,000 in 1981 has a value today of $24,000. Thus with the average annual wage in Kenya being $730 – with most of the population living on less than $1 per day – Kogo’s win represents over 13 years average earnings. On the other hand, the average annual wage in America is $47,000. You do the math.
All of the above is why we as a sport have to lead the public to know who these runners
are by elevating the value of, and creating a structure for their performances while linking them to a contributing American presence. Without such a system in place, we end up inviting a series of anonymous interchangeable runners who have no connection to the community through which they are speeding. It’s not fair to them, and it’s increasingly detrimental to the sport.
Does it need to forever remain this way?