ROCK `N’ ROLL MARATHON HISTORY

Suja Rock `n` Roll San Diego

Suja Rock `n` Roll San Diego

San Diego, CA. — Who knew what lay ahead in the wild open spaces of the first Rock `n` Roll Marathon? Some even questioned the concept of rock bands strung along the marathon course in the first place. What does rock `n` roll have to do with San Diego much less with running a marathon?

Well, on June 21, 1998 the world got its answer.  With the snarl of a blistering guitar solo, the tight rhythm of a snare drum and millions of accompanying footfalls, the second wave running boom announced its arrival in a rollick of music, endorphins, and sweat.

Even before its first steps were run, there was the feel of a major marathon about it. Elite Racing founder Tim Murphy had conceived the idea while running the final lonely miles of the Heart of San Diego Marathon one year out along Friar’s Road to Qualcomm Stadium.  Wishing there were some kind of support along the road to help out, Murphy thought, wouldn’t it be great to have music to run to.

It took a long time for his idea to gestate, but the seed had been planted, and after a decade of developing his reputation as an innovator, Murphy saw his grand design come into full blossom in 1998.

No longer a simple feat of speed endurance, the marathon had been transformed into a 26-mile long block party through America’s Finest City.  Though there was a 35-minute start delay at Balboa Park due to some traffic issues out on the course, which led to a water-dousing through the first aid station, the high-spirited music rocking the sidelines caused an immediate sensation.

Afterwards the nearly 20,000 entrants from 30 countries and all 50 states passed the word, ‘You gotta try this one!” And that was before they got to the post-race concert that night featuring Huey Lewis and the News, Pat Benatar, and the Lovin’ Spoonful!

So, too, was year one’s field a group of intrepid explorers, 55% of which were women, the largest such percentage of any marathon to date, and pivot-point in the history of the sport.

Mike Long, the late Elite Racing athlete recruiter with Rock `n` Roll 1999 champs Tarus & Bogacheva

Mike Long, the late Elite Racing athlete recruiter with Rock `n` Roll 1999 champs Tarus & Bogacheva

The course, mostly around Mission Bay, still had a new-car smell. Nobody knew how fast it could be run until young Kenyan, Philip Tarus, busted a 2:10 opener for the men, with Russian women Nadezhda Ilyina and Irina Bogacheva battling just nine seconds apart at the finish for the women in 2:34. That told the athletes of the world, ‘This one is worth having a go,” especially after all the Suzuki prizes and prize money checks were handed out.

No marathon except New York’s five-borough extravaganza in 1976 had ever come on the calendar with such dramatic impact: The largest first-time marathon in history, the most ingenious show along the sidelines ever produced, $15 million raised for charity – the largest amount ever for a single-day sporting event — and to cap it off world-class performances by its champions. Thus was the foundation set for what has become a global phenomenon, the so-called second running boom. Continue reading

COMING AROUND AGAIN

GasparillaTampa, FL. — Certainly, I’ve been a critic over the years of the sport’s de-emphasis on competition in favor of fun-running and charity fund-raising, likening that trend to America’s de-emphasis on education in favor of grade-inflation and child buttering.  Jerry Seinfeld did a great bit Tuesday night on Jimmy Fallon’s second night as Tonight Show host on this topic, saying, “when we were young our parents didn’t give a damn about us.  They didn’t even know our names!”

But history isn’t linear, and pendulums have a habit of sweeping back in the other direction.  Thus, a quick survey of recent moves in the sport lead to a conclusion that competition is once again being noticed, even appreciated, and highlighted.

This weekend I am here in Tampa for the return of the Gasparilla Distance Classic to the ranks of pro racing. It’s the first time Gasparilla has invited a pro field to the streets of Tampa since 1997. And its a welcome return to what traditionally had been the best field of the year during the 1980s and `90s when Gasparilla was the first race of the year and everyone was anxious to get out of the cold and into Florida for a blistering 15K burnout. This year it will be a pro half-marathon with an American based field, which I will break down after talking with the athletes as they assemble. Continue reading

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. Adds American Development Program

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Inc. CEO Patrice Matamoros

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Inc. CEO Patrice Matamoros

In the past several years we have seen event organizers in several cities expand their portfolio of races in what can be seen as an ad hoc movement to bolster the sport’s shrinking profile on their city’s sporting landscape.  Even running’s national governing body, USATF, entered the arena with the scheduling of their first ever wholly-owned road race property, the .US National Road Racing Championships November 17 in Alexandria, Virginia.

That grassroots movement was offset and temporarily outshone this past Labor Day weekend when San Diego-based Competitor Group, Inc., owners of the mega Rock `n` Roll Series of marathons and half-marathons, quietly — and controversially — shifted much of its near $1 million elite athlete program to further focus on its participation model.  Today, catalyzed by the CGI decision, Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. CEO Patrice Matamoros announced an expansion of Pittsburgh’s elite athlete support for 2014 with the launch of The American Development Program. Continue reading

PITTSBURGH ORGANIZER EXPANDS ATHLETE SUPPORT IN RESPONSE TO CGI CONTRACTION

Oh, the brouhaha!  The Competitor Group’s decision to radically re-direct funds toward mass participation that had previously been earmarked for its elite athlete program, a story that quietly filtered out over Labor Day weekend on Larry Eder’s RunBlogRun.com, has since gained Spinal Tap volume over the ensuing two weeks.  Today, Letsrun.com published a blistering editorial excoriating CGI for its decision while encouraging its readers to boycott the CGI Rock `n` Roll events.

For its part, Competitor Group has aggressively defended its position, and offered no apologies for what CEO Scott Dickey sees as a purely market driven reconfiguration of CGi’s business model — though he is fully aware it was “a controversial decision, “and the timing was a big thing, I know.”

But amidst all the din that has arisen in the wake of this story, we have begun to hear constructive responses that go to the solutions rather than accusations, recriminations and rebuttals  (not that there’s anything wrong with those, as they can be very cathartic for both sides.)

New event coming to Pittsburgh

COMING NOV. 3rd

Today, Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc., a nonprofit organization that touts itself as “promoting the love of running”, announced the expansion of elite athlete support for its calendar of events to more than $150,000, with a plan in the works to expand even farther. Included in the current plan is the introduction of the EQT Pittsburgh 10 Miler, which will have a prize purse of $10,500 for its inaugural run November 3rd. Continue reading

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

Wanjiru v. Kebede, Chicago 2010

People watch foot races for the same reasons they watch other sports: to root for the home team, see how the drama plays out (especially if the stakes are high), and to be inspired by those who do it exceedingly well.  At times, like at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, it is especially riveting when both hearts and minds become entwined in the outcome.  Caring who wins matters.

But over the last generation we have witnessed what was once a robust gathering of eagles from all parts of the globe be winnowed to a very small aerie in East Africa.  In that sense, we don’t have to wait and see who is going to win a major marathon or road race anymore, or how; we know before the starter’s horn ever sounds what will happen.  And when all (or vast majority) of the winners from the same region express the same reluctance to fill the spotlight from a marketing or media standpoint — in order to overcome the public’s inability to differentiate one from the other while helping generate sponsor interest — we see the potential end-game, as with CGI’s elimination of their entire North American elite athlete budget, reportedly $1 million U.S.

Yet in the wake of that announcement, even as the chat rooms and social media have lit up with either support for or condemnation of CGI, the only two athletes who have spoken out on the issue publicly that I’ve seen have been Josh Cox and today Ryan Vail of the U.S.  Perhaps I have missed others, but not one word has emerged from any of the world’s greatest runners, or their representatives.  Nothing.  And yet the CGI decision affects them more than anyone.  Perhaps there is a fear of speaking out, but even in that light do we wonder why CGI makes this kind of call?! Continue reading

CONVERSATION WITH NYRR PRESIDENT MARY WITTENBERG

NYRR Pres. & CEO Mary Wittenberg

NYRR Pres. & CEO Mary Wittenberg

(Since 2005 Buffalo-born Mary Wittenberg has been president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, stagers of the ING New York City Marathon and dozens of other both world-class and local events in the five boroughs.  I spoke with Mary this morning about the Competitor Group’s recent decision to eliminate its elite athlete program at its U.S. races.)

WERE YOU SURPRISED BY COMPETITOR GROUP’S (CGI) DECISION?

Initially I was surprised by the immediacy of its impact, rather than say it would begin in the year ahead.  But in group dynamics sometimes you see one person say something that someone else takes as personal, but really it’s not about them at all.  So I think this move may have more to do with CGI than with the sport itself.  What would be a more concerning indicator is if we see World Marathon Majors or major not-for-profit events drop support for pro running.  Those are the real bellwethers of the sport.

But what is clear now, and not surprising, is that Elite Racing had a core passion for the sport in Tim (Murphy), Mike (Long) and Tracy (Sundlun).  But it’s likely that what the first group (Falconhead Capital) bought from Tim was the Rock `n` Roll series, not the whole of Elite Racing.  We’ve been fortunate to have CGI keep some semblance of the sport going for as long as they did.

IS PRIVATE EQUITY COMPATIBLE WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT?

Private equity has a piece of Major League Soccer.  They can play a role in building ventures, but ultimately they are hard-eyed business people.  And professional athletes need to have a return on investment (ROI). Continue reading

USATF ENTERS GAME AS CGI DEPARTS

Greed is Good?

Greed is Good?

News that the Competitor Group Inc. has slashed its North American elite athlete program to the bone has moved through the running industry like poop through a goose. Then late yesterday came word that the San Diego-based event management and media company has cancelled two of its 30 Rock `n` Roll events, one in St. Petersburg, Florida, the other in Pasadena, California, as both had underperformed in their second years of operation.

As was speculated, private equity is a close-to-the-bone business that, like a shark, can’t stop moving if it hopes to survive and prosper. Performance is king, but not in the same sense as in racing.  In that regard CGI is in a different line of work than other running event managers.  For them running is only the tool used in their real game, the money game, rather than an end in itself for the betterment of community and the sport. And that’s fine. For many people the RnR experience is all they are looking for.

But in all the rigmarole of the last few days, there has been angry talk on social media of boycotting CGI events, to punish them for dropping elite racing from their events. That kind of negative reaction seems counter-productive and unnecessary. People will make their own judgements independently.  And say what you will about private equity, tying CGI up with Oliver Stone’s “Greed is good” motto from his movie Wall Street is too facile. Continue reading