Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Running Economy

Yesterday, Baltimore-based Under Armour announced a partnership with the Tough Mudder "race" series for 2012, becoming its official clothing outfitter.  As part of the deal, they will become the title sponsor of the London and Maryland events in the series, and will design a new obstacle for the course.  Tough Mudder, and events like it, are big business right now, with seemingly every weekend warrior signing up, at an average cost of $90-155, for an event they just hope to finish.  Muddy Buddy, Viking Race, Spartan Race - they're all the same.  Complete a variety of obstacles over an inaccurately measured distance, get really dirty, brag to your friends. 

If you've done one of these races, or talked to anyone who has, you quickly realize the target demographic is drastically different from that of your normal road race.  I was on the sidelines at the recent Tough Mudder Tri State, held in Englishtown, NJ, where my sister was competing.  The event spanned two days, and a reported 10,000 people each day may have competed in what was billed as a 12 mile course.  The math is pretty simple: 10,000 x $130 = $1.3 million dollars on the take for the one day event, and that doesn't account for whatever the sponsors are kicking in.  Then I thought about the costs that were involved.  This event was held at Raceway Park in Englishtown, which has a lot of land.  Course design is probably a challenge, and building it must take some time, but they don't have to close any roads, and I noticed only one police officer helping direct traffic into the lot.  Oh, the parking lot - each car is charged $10 to park.  Thousands of cars. 

If you're a spectator, I forgot to add, you're expected to pay to watch.  $15 per person if you do it in advance, a staggering $40 at the gate.  For this you are given the honor of watching your family or friends get dirty.  Out of sheer principle, this one really bothered me.

The biggest cost they must have is their insurance policy.  One obstacle is running through a gauntlet of fire, so they have firefighters and professional pyros on hand to administer that one.  They also electrocute you towards the end, and some of the things you jump off of are fairly high up, so even just falling the wrong way can lead to an injury.

When you sign up, you're assigned a start time, and the whole day is a series of waves in 15 minute increments.  Some of the obstacles are tough, some just look annoying, but all are doable.  Their slogan, "probably the toughest event on the planet," is far from true.  Any event that 20,000 people on one weekend can "do" without any training is, by definition, not tough.  But, to give credit where credit is due, it's still a tiring event, as most competitors were out there for 2.5 or more hours.  And you still have to do some things like jump into a cold lake, which, in the middle of November, even with a warm day (it was over 70 degrees), is still enough to make me shiver. 

I'm not their target, so I understandably don't understand the allure of the event.  I can run 12 miles through a muddy forest and not pay anything for it, and get the same effect, but that's just me.  But at the cost of $150 for the entry fee, you're looking at the same cost as to do, say, the Boston Marathon.  And Boston surely has to be logistically more challenging to pull off.  If you were to do one of these Obstacle Course races, what would you expect for your entry fee?

Shifting gears to the world of road racing, we've seen some very poorly executed races recently, notably the Annapolis Half Marathon and the Hot Chocolate 5k/15k.  While both races were put on by experienced Race Directors, ultimately they still boiled down to first year races, and first year races inevitably have problems.  These issues have a smaller impact with a manageable field of entrants, but when you have enormous fields, these problems are magnified to the level we've now seen.  Again, it is my personal opinion, but I just don't understand the allure of a race that size for a 5k, at the National Harbor, and paying $45 for registration. 

I would say that things we all expect, or at least hope for, when we do a race include: accurate measurement of race distance, a good course, an event that is fun and safe for all, and feeling like we got what we paid for. 

As I scroll through the list of races members of our group have competed in this year, I am reminded of the number of inaccurately measured races, the complete clusters, and the races we swore we'd never do again.  Compared to even just 5 years ago, there are so many more random races now.  Everyone believes they can just hold a 5k and make money for their group, or for a cause.  Courses are often limited by a number of factors, but it seems that most races are pretty "budget" but capitalizing on competitors' willingness to pay.  I know how much it costs to put on a race in Patterson Park, or Druid Hill, and there is no reason that a 5k should cost $30 or more when they're not paying police or to close roads.  And how are courses not measured right when they're on these closed roads?

It seems like there are only two kinds of races right now: the very small 5k, and the way-too-big race.  Annapolis Half had 5,000 runners.  That's about the size of the Annapolis 10 Miler currently, and AH was in its first year.  For your $85 entry fee you received a pretty nice jacket, made in Pakistan, a little running hat and a nice medal at the end, and a pretty cool post-race party.  If you were one of our top three, you also came away with some change in your pocket.  The course was a little short, but besides that, most of the reviews were pretty positive.  Hot Chocolate, not so much. 

What is it about these races that are prompting so many to sign up?  And why are some of these races so incredibly small?  We have timed more than a handful of races now that thought they might get between 500 and 1000 people, only to have 150 or fewer show up on race day.  Some have been as small as 50 people.  RASAC puts on races in Bel Air/Harford County at a very low cost, and the area is booming with population growth, yet still only sees 20 people in some of their events.  What gives?

Meanwhile, we have races like the ones Jim tries to put on.  In an effort to keep some events downtown, like the Gobble Cobble race, the courses are kept mostly to the pedestrian paths around the Inner Harbor.  Do you know what the police charge for the closing of just one road for an hour?  $4500.  I realize the City is broke, but they are putting themselves in an even worse position.  By charging more, they hope to bring in more, but what they're really doing is forcing events to the County, where the fees are reasonable (or, non-existent).  Would you rather have $0, or $5?  Most of us would say $5. 

So it's no wonder the events have to head out of the City.  I suspect that Shamrock 5k in March benefits from the fact that the City puts on the St. Patrick's Parade that day and the roads are already closed, because there's no way CCR could charge only $30 at any point of registration for the race, even with 3,500 entrants, and make any money.

In most cases, Jim is able to cover costs for his races, and is always happy with that.  Sometimes he loses money.  To him, it's worth it to be able to put on fun events, particularly if he can keep any on City roads.  Most everyone else has abandoned for the more fiscally beneficial City Parks or the County. 

I cringe when I think about how much races cost, and, in a lot of cases, what you're getting for that entry fee seems to be less than years ago.  When I first started doing Columbia Triathlon in 2001, it cost $75, and I registered for the May race in February.  Now, it's $150, and sells out by October.  It's the same course.  You get the same things: same shirt, same water bottle, same blase post-race food.  I feel like it has far outpaced inflation.  Just a few years ago, Boston or New York were reasonable at $100-$150, now they are way higher, and the races sell out faster and faster. 

Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do to stop it.  We can't even hope to contain it.  47,000 people were fine with paying $200+ to run NYC.  100,000 were even fine with giving them $11 or whatever it is for the application fee just to be considered for the lottery.  So 100 of us not doing their race isn't ever going to make a difference.  Hot Chocolate will still go on.  Races that we feel may not deserve to continue, will, while some races that we'd like to see continue, will end.  MCVETS 5k/10k has got to be hanging on by a thread, and that's a great downtown race.  For my money, I'll keep doing the races I have come to trust.  I'll always complain about how much they cost, but I'd rather spend $150 and know what I'm getting, than $135 for a race that could be terrible.

The economy is allegedly so down, but racing is up.  I know races cost money to put on, but I think they need to be more responsible.  If you want to charge a premium, put on a premium event!

How has the rising cost of racing affected your decision to do particular races?  What are some of your thoughts on how we can counteract?  Is it better for us to hold more of our own races, like the RM Classic or Forget Towson 5000m, if we need to put on a 5k?  I've always felt fast is about the field, not the course, and since we know a lot of fast people, we can always put together a good race.  Sound off!


Andy said...

Read Here for Tough Mudder http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2010/10/26/tough-mudder-has-created-a-new-business-model-for-sports/

I did the Virginia one and it was alot of walking and waiting, 4.5 hours and I was bored. It was so challenging that a few competitors had to light up cigarettes to get them through.

Daniel said...

For better or worse, many races have become mass participation events. Some savy business people are certainly taking advantage of that movement with Tough Mudder.

It is disturbing that road races are lately put on for every single reason except for what they are called...racing.

Ram Racing clearly just wanted as many participants as possible. Other races advertise endlessly about fundraising and in both cases the race (and results) become secondary.

I think the competitive spirit has been somewhat drowned out by just finishing, overpriced race swag, overpriced race junk, and fund raising for a cause. I used to think it was ok, but it seems to be taking over.

Dart said...

Well said Ryan.

I did Tough Mudder in May 2010 when they were pretty unheard of. There was like a gazillion people and on the 7-mile course I had to wait for like 3 obstacles for as long as it took me to do the rest of the course. I was PO'd, and after a 19mile run the day before, the 7 mile tough mudder was tough enough for me to go run another 5 miles that day.

As per fees - that's one reason I'm not doing more races in the "off season". Add in travel costs and it's just ridiculous.

I applaud the BRRC for hosting free track events. Now that's class and awesome.

Well said Dan - maybe we need to have a race to benefit those who want to simply race...???

The old guys in my hometown running club said that back 30 or so years ago, the most common races were 10k's. Because, most people crazy enough to toe the line wanted to race, and not spend the time/money taking a stage coach to the race for only a 5k. But 5k's now a days are a lazy persons race - and an easy way to make cash. I mean, seriously, how hard is it to run 3-miles? Not. But races will rape you for $50 or more for the honor to be part of it. What a challenge. BS.

The Catoctin 50k in Frederick costs $25. Twenty-Five dollars. If that were a 5k, that'd be $2.50. I'd love to see charm shitty organize a race that cheap?

We should have more RM classics - a classic series.

Meg said...

Thank you for finally addressing this issue; it's bothered me for awhile. But sadly I think it's probably only going to get worse. Road races keep getting more and more popular, and race directors know that people will pay a ton of money for them, so they charge accordingly--because they can. They keep coming up with more trendy, expensive gimmicks to get people to sign up for a 5K--becuse they can. They're not going to stop unless people stop entering these things.

Every time someone proudly tells me that they've entered a Tough Mudder (or a Warrior Dash or a Muddy Balls or whatever) I have to suppress the urge to roll my eyes because I don't want to seem like an elitist a-hole. I mean, good for them, I guess. Slip on your VFFs and pay your money and go have a jolly good time, but I'm certainly not going to join you.

As far as race fees for standard road races are concerned, I've definitely become more selective in the past few years as fees have increased. I love to race, but I don't have $200 a month to spend on entry fees. I generally only will enter CCR races if there's a chance I can win some money back. And obviously I would much rather support one of Jim's races, regardless of cost.

I grew up in Harford County and trained with RASAC up until a few years ago when I moved to the city. Those guys have been putting on races for decades and they do it for the love of the sport, not for profit. There are a few premium races each year but they're generally only around $20and always very well organized. (example: the Bel Air Town Run.)Other than that, like you said, they have races almost every week for free or nearly free. So does the BRRC. No T-shirt, no chip, no bib. No fat drunk frat boys smoking cigarettes and bragging about being warriors. Just a race.

Ok, I'll get down off my soapbox now. Thanks again for posting this.

RM said...

The business of racing is apparently business, and that's fine - if you were able to charge $1000 for an entry to an Ironman and you knew that thousands of people were going to fight over the ability to get one of those entries, and you'd be assured of selling out, why wouldn't you?

But I think there's an obligation here to be reasonable. It seems to me that all the middle costs are rising because someone else has figured out that people will literally blindly pay these amounts.

For us, the only thing we can do is let our voices be heard, to the City, to Race Directors, to whomever - or start doing it ourselves.

As boring as it would be, I would honestly hold a 5k race every Sunday on a track somewhere and just let people run. What do they need? You don't need a medal or a t-shirt. Just go.

But I'm glad to hear and read these responses. Remember to keep supporting the local running organizations that do have events like this: BRRC, Howard County Striders, Falls Road Running, RASAC, Annapolis Striders - they all put on perfectly good events and are generally cost less.

Daniel said...

Definitely a +1 to Dart's comments about 10Ks. I hear everywhere that the 10K was the race distance back in the day.

I really wish it would make a comeback; it's so much more fun than 5ks.

cheese said...

ryan is spot on in that it comes down to us to try and do something about it, because we are the running community that has to put up with all this. i've noticed i pay more attention now to who is putting on a race and what my money is going towards. i guess it falls on us working with other running clubs to look for ways to bring things towards what we want to see.

whatever distance you prefer isn't going to eliminate the problem. people are flocking to races for the sake of being a finisher, and that's why these 5k's can keep popping up, and why the RNR series continues to grow even as prize money drops. doing these races has become cool and that's what's drawing the crowds. i'm happy to see growth in the sport in any way, but like you guys are saying, i'd be much happier seeing that growth come in the competitive aspect as well.

i'll also take this as an easy chance to plug track. if you go to a track meet to race, charm city isn't there overcharging you for a t-shirt, you're not going to find those weekend warriors. everyone at those meets is there solely to compete, either each other or drop fast times. not to mention you aren't questioning if the race distance is accurate. also, not to put down any charities, but i feel better knowing that i'm paying to support a school's athletics program (track, not sports) instead of letting another racing organization test how much they can charge before i surrender.

Paul Hannsen said...

this was quite a good commentary. The only thing i have(which most of you already know) is the good way to not do pverpriced roda races is to run in college races. They are all either 20 or 30 dollars(usually 20 i think) and have much deeper comp at the front and are more fun- at least in my view- although i like xc and track better than road anyway. also i barely race anymore heh.

Dustin said...

First, I apologize for my tardiness in replying, given my strong feelings on the subject. Several months ago, I expressed my desire to hold a meeting with our acquaintances from other clubs in the region, particularly HoCo Striders and GRC. I'd like to establish an informal race series throughout the year by hosting guerrilla track events, such as the RM Classic and the Forget Towson 5000, and by targeting credible, respectable and low-cost regional road races. In the past, I've often struggled to find competitive races on weekends when it was most convenient or advantageous for me to race. Thus, I was driven to run races like the Frederick Headless Horseman 5K, where I lost 30 seconds in the last 600 meters for going the wrong way (despite a surplus of volunteers, there was no one ready to direct me toward the finish because, as the race director explained, they didn't think anyone would run so fast.) After that experience with a miserably executed road race, certainly not my first, I swore off small scale 5Ks. Conversely, consider my experience at the Run Geek Run 8K this past September. Conrad, Ed, and I made the trip to DC in the hopes of cashing PRs. We were delighted to encounter some GRC folks at the start line. Not only was the race low cost and executed well, all of us benefited from having a fast, solid field, and at least three of us, including a GRC guy, walked away with a new PR.

I'd like to create more opportunities to run fast and compete without the cost and stresses of large events and the miserable circumstances and ineptitude at so many smaller races that appear to be geared toward "finishers". I propose that we coordinate with other interested clubs to establish an annual race series of various distances, ranging from 1500 to 10K, and including both road and track events. The races can be spread geographically throughout the region and evenly scheduled throughout the year, ensuring that there is always a competitive race and club event to look forward to. For most of us, an opportunity to compete against others is the only incentive/motivator we need to run fast, cash PRs, and capitalize on our hard-earned fitness. Let's make it happen in 2012.

In Solidarity,

- Dustin