Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Two things in the world of road racing that suck right now

Those two things are 1) me, and 2) everything else.

I'll start with "everything else" to give myself a better chance of finishing the post without throwing my laptop out the window into the rain, which is predicted to last until sometime next May.

I planned to do a 15K on Sunday, October 7 in Denver as a fitness gauge. (I have to point out that labeling a race a "fitness gauge" is pointless, given that every race is technically such a thing, but then distance running itself is a pointless chore, absent unlikely emergencies). I had penciled this event into the calendar two weeks earlier, but chose not to register until Friday afternoon despite the inevitable final-week increase in the entry fee, because these days I can't be certain that I won't have become injured or quit running until the last possible minute.

When I registered, I failed to notice an advisory stating that there would be no event-morning bib pick-up. Maybe if I'd seen such a policy for an event shorter than a marathon, I would have noticed, but for whatever reason -- and I'd say a basic lack of proper cognitive function fits -- I didn't. When, however, I looked at the site to get directions to the start at 10 p.m. the following night, less than then hours before the 7:50 a.m. start, I saw that I had missed the Saturday "expo," and that I was apparently out of luck.

I poked around the event website to see if I had a useful alternative to sitting at home the next morning and complaining. In truth, I didn't really care that I would likely miss the event, which is a different problem, and one that seems to not be abating. I did, however, about having spent $82.48 -- $74 plus an $8.48 "convenience fee" that is convenient for no one besides the grifters who sweep it into their accounts -- on something I apparently wouldn't get to experience. I got hold of a nameless event official on Facebook, who deserves props for responding apace, and who told me I could get an "emergency bib" the next morning at the start. (He or she was also sweet enough to remind me that the notice about the event having no event-day pick-up was quite prominent on the website.)

I assume this "emergency bib" would have cost me even more money, but I never looked into it. As it was, I decided I was not going to bother, partly because the event was obviously one of the high-volume, low-yield joggerfests that every city now boasts along with a meth problem and corrupt cops, but mainly because my car window was stuck open (also not the fault of the event organizers) and I wasn't going to park the car anywhere in the ragged hellhole known as downtown Denver in an obviously vulnerable state.

I slept in, and didn't do the workout I dreamed up to replace the 15K. But I was supposed to receive a jacket with the entry, so I asked them about getting that. I expected that it would be ugly and cheap and something I could donate to the homeless without feeling like I was offering actual trash. I was in luck; I learned that for a mere $15 more, I could have not just the jacket, but the whole "goodie bag" sent to me, as long as I acted within two weeks!

While I cannot blame the event organizers for my last-minute bumbling, this is the kind of thing that almost certainly wouldn't have happened even a dozen years ago, when I was at the tail end of being able to call myself a racer. This 15K was part of a nationwide event series, and it's no secret that the people who operate these travesties of perambulation are in it for profit (which is fine) and nothing more (which is not). Hell, when the name of an insurance company is part of the title, they're pretty much bragging about a dearth of ethics, centering on a shameless plan to violate some unguarded anatomical orifice or another. This seems to sum up the level of expertise on hand in Denver on October 7:

I hope I don't have to announce to anyone reading this that biking to and from a road race is not something most people intent on a reasonably good performance would even consider. This would be true even if it didn't mean riding the bike into and out of a ragged hellhole, for example, downtown Denver.

This whole "sign up as many bodies as possible" phenomenon is owed mainly to the cohort of formerly sedentary people who decided en masse in the early to mid-1990s to abandon the couch and start shuffling, often nonchalantly and with little meaningful preparation, through long road events so they could get medals in exchange for sweating and perambulating. I used to make this observation somewhat whimsically, but medals clearly are the main reason a high fraction of entrants bother training for and lining up at organized, timed running events. Sure, gaining fitness as part of actually completing these events and a sense of meaningful achievement are driving factors, but based on people's social-media behavior alone, they are almost certainly secondary ones. The medal reifies the journey. You know the old saw about a tree not really falling in the forest if no one's there to hear it? In the running world, if no one hangs a cheap piece of tin around your neck for surviving covering 6 or 13 or 26 miles on foot, well, you never really did it and you weren't even in shape to do it. And as bad as this already was 10 to 15 years ago, now we have Instagram, so that everyone not only gets a medal for surviving covering 6 or 13 or 26 miles on foot, but gets to display it to as many people as possible.

This by itself isn't especially troubling. For a lot of people, finishing a marathon is a huge deal. Hell, I doubt I'll ever run that far again in my life. I certainly shouldn't, unless I want a good reason to look in the mirror afterward and murmur, "Why do you keep pretending this makes a goddamn shred of sense?" The problem is the specific wants and needs that these roving egos bring to the mix and the implications this has on running events thanks to the predators who now host the majority of large-scale events. And though I led off with the Hot Chocolate series, I am certain based on limited knowledge that it can't be nearly as much of a sick joke as that granddaddy of gleeful scams, the Rock 'n' Roll series operated by the Competitor Group.

Most of these over-bloated sweat-parades cost well upward of $100 to enter, with the main reward being packed in with thousands of people (many of them with little to no idea what they're in for, but that's for a different essay) For example, the entry fees for the full, half and 10K next month in Las Vegas are $190, $175 and $110 respectively. For those prices, you should be assured of a quality experience, which includes 13.1-mile (21.1-km) courses that are very close to, say, 13.1 miles (or 21.1 km) and accordingly for other distances.

In preparing for this diatribe, I noticed that handles the registration for these events. This is like someone from the Duvalier family processing orders for flowers for Idi Amin. I can scarcely imagine a more unholy business alliance that doesn't involve financial institutions, political organizations, or a literal crime syndicate. This company is notorious for getting the absolute basics wrong, over and over. I'm not sure what it is they get right. (Full disclosure: I've written over 40 articles for Competitor Running and Triathlete, although none in the past 2-1/2 years. I'm guessing the $10,000+ I earned for these is a direct result of the absurdities I've described here; no event company has any budget for editorial matters unless they're overcharging people for something, because no one wants to read the kind of crap people like me write about running anyway. So, my bad. And I should add that's no accident that at least three people I count as friends who once had good jobs with that outfit departed a while ago.)

Let me provide a short list of things that have gone wrong in Denver alone with the events (and have you noticed yet that not once have I called any of the timed parades put on by the Competitor Group "races"?) just in Denver, just in the past couple of years.

  • In 2017, the mile split in the Denver Rock 'n' Roll Half was misplaced by a good tenth of a mile, with the marker at about 1.1, according to several friends who ran it. As I recall, that made the whole thing long. And yes, I get that GPS is imperfect, especially in cities with tall buildings and multiply reflected satellite signals. But not to the extent people reported last October. And leave it to the pissbags in charge to actually leverage the imperfection of GPS to let themselves off the hook for any and all measurement errors.
  • Last weekend, the 10K that is part of the Denver series was comically off. Three of my teammates came in 1st, 2nd and 4th and their GPS data suggested that someone who guessed that her stride length was one meter, but was off by 5 or 10 percent, decided to measure the course by taking 10,000 steps and saying, "This is the finish line!" One guy had over 6.4, another had about 6.8.

The point isn't that such mistakes, if committed in the course of earnest preparation and infrequently. are cause for drumming those responsible out of the sport or public flogging. It's that these kinds of mistakes are absolutely, laughably preventable. And if you're going to charge someone an arm and a phallus to enter these things, you ought to have the basics in place: an accurately measured course with accurate splits and adequate fluids. That's all. Everything else is optional. If someone complains at the end of the race that the food selection is wanting, race officials should feel free say, "Dunkin' Donuts is that way, drone, but they don't serve pizza until at least 10 a.m.," which is never going to happen, and maybe shouldn't. Maybe.

(By the way, a brief interjection to serve as something of a counterpoint. You know what kind of races don't often get screwed up, as far as I know? Ultras. Yeah, they attract fewer entrants, but the people who stage ultras tend to be extremely rigorous managers. I've only finished one ultra and it barely counts as as an ultramarathon, but if you want a quality experience, other than the intense vomiting, blisters, and likelihood of a serious electrolyte imbalance, get yourself fit enough to cover 50 miles or more and explore that scene.)

This issue with screwed-up courses actually happens all the time in large events, and even in large bona fide races, such as the Reebok Women's 10K held earlier this month, formerly the Tufts 10K, formerly the Bonne Bell 10K, formerly nothing at all because women weren't encouraged to run that far least their breast ligaments snap. I'm not making that up, although it may not have been a widespread medical idea. Anyway, here's what happened in Boston:
If Sisson's time [30:39] seemed a bit fast, it was.  The second of two turnaround points on the course was moved "responding and cooperating with area public safety agencies," organizers said, making the USATF-certified course about 300 meters short. 
In fact, this measurement problem -- or in the case of the Reebok race, a set-up problem, or a phantom terrorist problem, or an "It was the city's fault, not ours" passing-the-buck problem -- seems to happen more often in mass events that seek to keep people from all over coming back year after year than it does in modestly sized races. And believe it or not, they do keep coming back.

Why? Well, it comes back to what the typical runner wants from a race now compared to, say, 25 years ago. As foreign as it seems to me, a lot of people really don't care if a race is mismeasured. Many entrants don't know what the word "split" means in a running context. Some of them don't even grok why anyone with a GPS watch would complain about a botched course at all, given that technology could tell them precisely how far they ran and therefore what their genuine pace was.

I probably don't need to go into detail about my fervent desire to see such people suddenly decide that traipsing around the neighborhood everyday for free rather than paying to take part in medal-seeking adventures. Their concerns and lack thereof dictate what the people putting on events will prioritize, and when the people putting on the events are greedheads to begin with, it will be a miracle every time chaos doesn't ensue. The blase' attitudes of armies of genial joggers has demolished the incentive for event organizers to provide quality events. When you know that perhaps 90 percent of the field is more concerned with the shirts, the food, what bands are stationed along the course, and the pictures of themselves trundling along with their windbreakers tied around their waists on the event site a few days later, you can pretty much get away with ignoring the fundamentals, or what were considered fundamentals until relatively recently.

Anyway I am now fairly certain that Competitor Group couldn't piss all over their own events more enthusiastically even if the people in charge loaded up on Lasix and Mountain Dew all day and night. And don't expect it to become anything but worse. Since June of 2017, the Competitor Group, and hence the Rock 'n' Roll event series, has been owned by a Chinese company called Dalian Wanda, headed by a billionaire named Wang Jianlin. Perhaps I shouldn't stereotype folks from a country with 1.4 billion people, but when a rich person from China buys something, it's basically a given that bad things will happen to everyone not near the top of the corporate ladder. The Chinese steal technology, sell cheap, shitty products on purpose, and basically demonstrate the business ethics of a pack of hyenas on angel dust who haven't eaten in a few days.

Competitor and Active were both terrible operations before they were gobbled up by Dalian Wanda. If there were a way to euthanize their races with the push of a button, I would do it and I would cheerfully give the finger to the thousands of shuffling drones who would howl in outrage because it would then be far harder to find "races" where you can rattle off a six-hour marathon while listening to Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber music at every kilometer.

In reality, no one who's not looking to win or place high needs to enter an event at all to gain the fitness benefits of covering a bunch of miles on foot. If you want to golf, you kind of need to find an actual golf course someone else has built and pay for the privilege of using it. In contrast, there's nothing stopping anyone from going out and endlessly circling the neighborhood streets -- other than the fact that (and stop me if you're read this somewhere else) no one's going to give you a gaudy T-shirt or a mass-produced medal for the achievement. And if someone takes your picture while you're be-bopping through your subdivision, it's probably for a private collection and lewd purposes.

Continuing with the golf-course comparison, imagine a company taking over municipal courses in every metro area, doubling the greens fees, and proceeding to get the yardage on various holes badly wrong, and putting flags in sand traps instead of on the greens, or not putting any water in the ball-washers (and yes, golf courses have ball-washers, or at least they did when I played, so don't go getting any rude ideas there, unless you want to, because imagine how funny it would be to see a...never mind.)

This surely presents as a slap in the face of hobbyjoggers, or fitness runners, or whatever one chooses to label them, disparagingly or otherwise. It is not meant as one. I've entered lots of races and given far less than my all and there is nothing strictly wrong with walking an entire marathon if that's your thing and you're willing to shell out the dough to be a part of the event. And if a medal means that much to you, well, hey, I have my weird foibles too. No, this post is a lamentation of what happens to something small and somewhat precious when it becomes inevitably diluted by the realities of basic macroeconomics. I don't so much wish people would choose to jog through their neighborhoods rather than funnel money into shitty event-production companies as I'd love for more people to put pressure on those companies to get things right.

As far as my own running is concerned, well, like the White House and its plan for dealing with opioid addiction and infrastructure, I'll briefly mention that I've mentioned it and plan to discuss it further at some point. There, glad that's out of the way!


  1. There is so much I love about this post. So great!

    1. Thanks. ;o) You might have liked the first draft even better. It had a lot more creative cursing and insults. But I use this blog mostly for writing practice, and in this case I wanted to see if I could make a point forcefully without going as far off the rails as my brain usually orders me to.

      It really is funny to imagine other citizen sports being as plagued by lazy or just plain shitty management as running events are thanks to the McRaces phenomenon. Imagine buying a ski pass just because you were told Lindsey Vonn would be there to sign autographs and discovering too late that only 15% of the trails had any snow on them and that most of the chairlifts were broken, and that you couldn't get a refund...but also that 95% of other "skiers" didn't care because they had excellent hot cocoa at the lodge and every guy there could now more forcefully spank it to Lindsey Vonn for having seen her in person.

      See? I'm incorrigible.