WHY CAN’T WE COME TOGETHER?

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.

Maine Sunday Telegram Front Page

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?

END

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8 thoughts on “WHY CAN’T WE COME TOGETHER?

  1. One need look no further than the annual disconnect between Beach to Beacon and Falmouth.

    I think I have mentioned it before, but the best study anybody can do to find solutions to the frustrating state of our sport is to read up on the history of the development of tennis or golf into first-class pro sports…same history we have of independent race organizers, splintered sponsorship, journeyman/woman athletes, and so on. I am not a huge fan of tennis or golf, but the stuff I have read by Bud Collins on tennis is a real eye-opener (“My Life With the Pros”)…time and again when I read about the history of tennis, there is a near 100% parallel with where we have been the past three decades.

    Brendan Reilly
    Boulder Wave, Inc.
    Boulder, Colorado

  2. Toni: Interesting article from the Cincinnati paper about the upcoming induction of Jim Ryun into the Greater Cincinnati Running Hall of Fame. Ryun and the reporter have some interesting things to say about what Ryun’s famous mile run against Kip Keino in 1964. Just a few of Ryun’s quotes: When asked about whether ESPN had been around then, Ryun said: “Maybe they’d have made it bigger than it ALREADY WAS (caps are mine), but I was already getting a lot of attention. I was being asked to do interviews, and I really didn’t know what to say.” A paragraph written by the reporter: “Almost anybody who was above the age of eight in the US in the 1960s knows who Ryun was. He captivated not only the sporting public, but the PUBLIC AT LARGE WITH HIS RUNNING PROWESS” (again caps are mine) The reporter goes on to say that “…that a high school track start would be able to transcend sports today is unfathomable. But Ryun did it. ESPN.com named him the greatest high school athlete of all time, beating out LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Lew Alcindor.”

    Although both Ryun and the reporter admit that times have changed (and my question here is what can the sport do to take advantage of those changes and make them work for us, instead of using the change(s) as an excuse to say that we’ve fallen behind and will never get back in the race for recognition, respect and visibility that we’re losing against the myriad of other sports available to the general public for viewing ), perhaps we all should pay attention to this tale, learn from it and get our sport back on track (all puns intended) We’re already seeing new mile races springing up around the country and overseas. Races run on city streets, races that garner attention from the media and general public. Back in the 80s it wasn’t uncommon to hold elite 5K races on criterium-type courses, usually after the race for the non-elites. Why did we stop putting on these types of events? Why don’t we have more elite team competitions, pitting the best American runners against the best from Africa, Europe, Asia and Mexico? Just asking….

    (the article I refer to is on the Road Race Management site, http://www.rrm.com)

  3. Read your blog. Great points and so well written….I do manage to get previews of the elite races in the paper here but the half-life of interest in the elites is very brief. Pre- and post-race interviews with people who speak little or no English are just not useful to media unfamiliar with the running world. In advance of the race, I ask you and David Monti to talk about what makes these pro athletes so special and put them into perspective with the rank and file and some people pay attention because you guys speak so articulately on the subject…But the vast majority of my marathon media (more than 200 local TV hits in December) is about human interest.

    Gladys Burrill, who entered the Guinness Book of World Records at 92 as the oldest female to ever finish a marathon, has generated the most media worldwide the race has ever had. And it just keeps coming. Today SHAPE magazine (1.6 million circ.) called to do a story. I’ll take it and so will Jim. it’s great for us. Media just gravitate to what their market can identify with. If Glady had been a foreigner with little English we would never have reaped such a media bonanza for her feat.

    • A very telling story, indeed, Pat. It should be a wake-up call to the sport. But since there is no organization tasked with overseeing the best interest of the sport at large, the same lack of formatting of, and therefore interest in, the sport of road racing continues. The Gladys Burrill story, as good as it is, should be a sidebar, not the feature. But when the sport doesn’t offer a compelling sports story to the media, the media fills in with the fluff. Next thing you know a generation grows up thinking road racing at its highest level is boring when, in fact, it is simply staged and presented boringly.

  4. There is, it seems to me, a group of “…top people with passion and fortitude” who have come together: it happened 11 years ago in LA, the group is called Running USA. I can’t conceive of a more talented, forward-thinking and passionate group than these folks, many of whom have been working in the sport in one fashion or another for decades, while others are new, fresh faces with great ideas and the blessing of the energy of youth that will help them carry their vision(s) forward. Although the organization abandoned its earlier mission in favor of going in an entirely different direction (read: Toni’s recent excellent blogs and reader follow-ups over the past several months) I see no reason why those within RUSA (Toni and Annie among them) can’t steer the ship back to its original course. The impetus is there, the talent is there…no sense reinventing the wheel…lets work with what we’ve got.

  5. Toni,
    I’m fascinated with your second sterling proposal this week. How do you envision it coming together? Is there a working model out there in road or track racing? Interesting, I have always thought how sweet it would be if road running could afford a runner a decent living the way golf has always seemed to do. . . even if you are not in the upper-most echelon. Wouldn’t it be nice?
    Thanks for though provoking material.
    Jacqueline

    • From Nathan Healey A New Zealand athlete from the 70’s who responded when I posted this. Somewhere along the line middle distance running dropped the baton. There was no one who grabbed the bull by the horns and developed a world series along the lines Triathlon has. A portion of what would be our top distance runners are triat…hletes. I love the metaphor; Every moment we have the opportunity to start a fresh. There is enough wisdom, experience, passion and fortitude in the sport of running to make it happen. It is an exciting sport and there is nothing more exhilarating than seeing top flight athletes battle it out over a well organized and developed World Championship running series. From that frame of reference sponsors will show up and the money will flow. Ten million foot traffic show up to watch the Tour de France each year, with most getting such a fleeting glimpse that one observes the public are ingrained in the performance of high achievers and pay to see top flight athletes no matter how brief the experience. And always will
      because of the psychological benefits of what is possible which gives each member of the public hope on there own journeys in life at some level.The Tour de France has a 30 kilometer train of sponsors products before the start of each days stage. A coming together of top people with passion and fortitude and exploring the possibilities is perhaps a moment in history whose time has come?

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