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Runner’s World

August 1978


Big-money races

The phrase does not sound foreign to runners who have recently entered the sport. To runners who were competing when Boston still had less than 1000 entries, however, the phrase raises the hairs on the nape of their necks.

Money and running said in the same breath in the company of long-time runners is considered a slip of etiquette comparable to wearing a tuxedo with the fly open.

Many traditionalists in the running community consider money a corrupting force. They feel that runners should run free, or at worst, that they should be able to run cheap. They are probably correct, at least for the traditionalists. Running should be a sport and a lifestyle unencumbered by the complexities money can and does bring with its buying power.

There are still wonderful idealists who hold marathons with entry fees less than three dollars. They also burn midnight oil turning out club newsletters. And organizing social and fund-raising events for their running club. They spend so much time giving so much to running that they sometimes find it almost impossible to fit in any running of their own.

When caught on a particularly blue day, they will admit that they sometimes, in the dark confines of their minds, wonder if it is all worth it. They wonder if anyone really cares about what they are doing. Apparently, very few people do, because when work is to be done, there are very few volunteers. And, when the work is done (by the same people who did it last time), few people who take advantage of the cheap running events stop by to thank the handful of workers who are so tired at that point that they are in need of replacement fluids when they didn’t even run themselves.

For some reason that is hard to understand, these poor, suffering, dedicated people bristle at the word money. Somehow, they have fashioned their lives in a strange, crooked way that allows them to love to hate what they have to put up with from a constantly-growing public. They love to suffer, it appears, because they are resisting the advantages that money can bring to at least their end of the sport.

Sponsors advertise in club newsletters. They make funds available for promoting races. They provide for the resources of their company to be applied to the race, whether it is in terms of manpower, the company’s prestige or money to give token payments to club members who were formerly volunteers.

They have contributed much to making at least the racing part of running grow so quickly in the last few years. A little local club putting on a marathon or a 15-kilometer race doesn’t even get a one-paragraph mention in the local paper, but when a company of note gets involved, the sports editor himself attends the event and there are three photos and lengthy coverage.

Large companies have the know-how and the resources to make even the seemingly most inauspicious race a real barnburner. It is conceivable, in fact, for a monied sponsor to make a running event into a classic in one year by getting good press, by making the participants feel they have taken part in a Great Event, and by doing a good follow-up job of picking up the loose ends that are sometimes forgotten as officials and promoters find exhaustion setting in after the event’s last entrant crosses the finish line and the final times is called.

Money can literally turn a disaster into a winner, a nothing race into one of the most talked-about events of the year.

It is understandable if the hard-core racer, who has put so many years into promoting races, into manning the trenches, is a little ticked off about the easy time the big-money sponsors have getting what he or she couldn’t get by laying down in front of a truck or by holding someone at gunpoint. But that isn’t really their major complaint. The complaint most frequently heard is something that should be inscribed on the side of a monolith: “Running’s changing.”

Running—and most certainly, racing—is changing. In fact, it’s already changed so much that it will never be the same again. Small races have become huge races, often as a spill-over from the major races becoming bigger. There seems to be an infectious effect so that as the big races increase in size, runners feel that every race should follow suit, and they are cooperative to making that happen. “Draw a line on the road and by the time you get up off your knees there’ll be 300 runners lined up waiting for the gun,” is the comment from race promoters in the sections of the country where running is (and always has been) big.

If it hasn’t started already, the practice of holding ’private’ races will begin soon. A runner friend will plan to hold a race and he’ll send out written invitations to those of us who know him and occasionally run with him. He will swear us all to secrecy as far as the date, time and location of his private race. Unfortunately, since runners often like to talk about running, word will leak out and the race planned for 20 will have 50.

(The paradox is, however, that occasionally there is a race scheduled that does not get enough entries and has to be cancelled. It happened a few months ago in the San Francisco area, and people still can’t believe it. No one knows what happened.)

Until the small, privates races become common, though, runners are going to be stuck with traffic jams around the site of the race, they are going to be waiting many months for results and they are going to get their toes stepped on at the start. Racing’s growth is a microcosm of running’s growth. There seems to way to escape it.

The beast has been fed and it has grown and it has begun moving about the countryside stirring up trouble, whether with malicious intent or through benign neglect. It has invaded every every editorial column in every club newsletter and regional running publication in the country and its merits and shortcomings will be discussed for years, and while the discussions continue, it will continue to grow, because that is how things in America that are ’in’ find themselves: They become adopted children or the victims of the people with money who know how to gain exposure while helping a cause along.

So, until some solutions come along, the best thing to do is to try and enjoy racing within the context of the masses. Races that cost big money to hold, do not have to be bad races because they are something that is relatively new.

There are obviously going to be snags, if for no other reason than the numbers involved are difficult to handle—even with big money to grease the wheels.

The races are turning into carnivals because the money and the numbers and the subsequent publicity has spawned businesses. People sell or advertise things at races. Wherever a crowd of thousands gathers, so gather the American entrepreneurs. Which isn’t meant to sound as though there is something wrong with that.

The races are becoming like one-day county fairs, like exotic bazaars, open markets. The crowds continue to generate crowds, because now it has gotten to the point where non-running people come by to see just what the hell’s going on here. They get caught up in the carnival atmosphere and become spectators, something that was unheard of in years past. Running never had spectators. Now almost every running event has some spectators who are not related to anyone in the race.

What is it coming to? I certainly don’t know. It is obvious, however, that racing will never be the way it was. It is easy to slough it off and say, “That’s progress.”

I some cases, it is. In other cases, big-money races are a step backwards: No one knows each other by name because there are just too many names.

The nature of the racer has changed and that’s what’s going to make it impossible to revert to racing as it was. The new racer does not know that racing is supposed to be a club function. He comes from a tennis background or he’s used to going to baseball games, where he pays his money and gets a court or a seat and the money takes care of paying for someone to do the work. In many cases he doesn’t even know he could volunteer to help put on the race. It is not that the new racer is uncaring or uncommitted. He’s just not educated to running.

Maybe the traditionalists should act upon that fact before the big-money interests complete negate the definition of volunteer. Or perhaps the clubs should work to attract their own big-money sponsors to they don’t have to be volunteers anymore. It would be nice, after all the years they’ve spent working their butts off to put on races, if they could finally arrange things so they could race in one themselves.