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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Trickle Down Economics of Running

I’ll come right out and say that the following text is primarily comprised of my opinion. However, I consider these opinions to be based on reality due of my extensive personal knowledge in the world of running.

This week I was scrolling through Facebook, neglecting my research paper that is due in a few days, when I happened upon an article written by the Jeré Longman of the New York Times. The article was titled Sub-Elite Runners Chase Improvement. My interested was piqued, I read on. As my eyes meandered left to right absorbing the contents of the article, I decided that I had more to say with regards to this article. So here I am, writing to you.

The article describes a young man (I hope I can call him young, when he is two year older than me), Greg Cass, who in the world of running is considered sub-elite. Meaning that his 2:30.44 marathon PR, while certainly a superb time and one that far superior to the average New York City Marathon finishing time of 4:28:20 for men and 4:44:35 for women, it will not confer a spot for him at the next Olympic Trials Marathon. So he instead uses his discipline and commitment, traits he has in common with even the most elite runners, and sets his sights on improvement. Running faster for the sake of running faster is the name of his game.

The article goes on to address how Cass achieves his success despite holding a full time job as an investment banker, which I agree is no small feat. However, the article goes on to insinuate that professional runners only eat, sleep and train. Which I think is far from the truth for most runners who call themselves professional, but I will not dwell on this fact because it is detour from what I really would like to address. But I will say that I personally chose to join Team USA Minnesota because of the team’s balanced approach to running – they encourage development outside of running in order to be a whole person. With this encouragement I am pursing my running dreams, while at the same time developing strong roots for my future by getting experience as an assistant college coach, earning my masters degree in Leadership, and working a few hours a week at a pet hospital. I live a purpose-driven life, I selected avenues that will help me be successful, rather than just letting life happen to me. End soapbox….stepping down.

Now to get to the real point of what I wanted to address, the intersection between Cass’ world and mine.  Towards the end of the article he is quoted as saying that “’Living in New York, I could appreciate just how huge the event as. It’s an event where you can run with the elites. Even if you finish one hour or two or three behind them, it’s a fun thing to do. Actually witnessing it in New York made me realize how inspiring it could be”. A short paragraph later, Cass is quoted as saying “Seeing Geoffrey Mutai [the 2013 ING New York City Marathon winner] in line at the Porta Potty is your one brush with greatness. Some people would prefer a more glamorous place, but I’ll take what I can get”. Reading these lines brought about a recollection of a question that was asked of me at a press conference prior to the USA Marathon Championships hosted by the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. The question was this “In light of the recent announcement by Competitor Group to pull their elite athlete funding, what do you think of Twin Cities in Motion’s (TCM) pledge to not only continue to support elite athletes but actually to increase that support?” In the moment I replied that I thought that it represented forward thinking on the behalf of TCM, that I believe in the trickledown effect of that support, and that I am extremely thankful for it.

What do I mean by trickledown effect? I mean that by supporting the very top athletes, enabling them to pursue running in a more single minded fashion than would otherwise be possible, they will in turn inspire and give back to those at the sub-elite level, all the way down the chain to the tots who can be found scurrying along in the diaper dash. In the world of money, I know this thinking represents a logic that is highly debated, but in the world of sports I see clear indications of this being truth.
I look at it like this:

The running world can fit into your standard Bell curve, where the extremes are represented by elite runners on the left side of the curve and walkers are on the right. In the middle of the curve, at its peak is your average runner (represented by those running in the mid 4 hour marathon range), and along the curve up to the peak is where you find the sub-elites.

Now that we have looked at this simple curve, answer this one question for me. Why does the average person run in races?

At first the array of possible answers seems rather simple – 1) to see how fast they can cover a distance, 2) to support a cause, 3) for health. (This is not an exhaustive list, but you see the trend). These reasons are rather superficial. You can accomplish any of these three things without running in a race. Yet, people flock by the thousands to run in the ING New York City Marathon. Why?

Well thanks to that research paper that I am currently neglecting to write up my literature review on, I can answer that. Researchers have found that people participate in sports for the following reasons: escape, economic, eustress (aka good stress), self-esteem, group affiliation, entertainment, family and aesthetic reasons.

Greg Cass touches on these reasons in the article when he says he was “drawn to the New York City Marathon, as much for the spectacle as the distance. He was a sports fan, and he lived in a city with one of the world’s great races”.

Now imagine this same race without any of the elites. Gone is some of the spectacle, gone are the competitors whom Greg Cass is pacing out his race next to in the streets of New York, gone is his inspiration. Furthermore, gone too are possibly other sub-elite runners who have children that may compete in the children’s events. Also, gone is Cass’ wife’s inspiration to complete her first half-marathon. As you can see, this one missing link, the lack of elite runners has the potential for wide spread and disturbing consequences.

I have brought forward this discussion to point out what I see as misguided action by Competitor Group to cut elite athlete funding from its Rock ‘n Roll series races. I believe that this will lead to the slow erosion of their races into unconsciousness. Which perhaps to them is fine, but I also see it as a misguided action in this very moment. I understand that Competitor Group is a for-profit company. They are in the business of making money and in our capitalist society I am sure they are applauded for the amount of money they have made off of their races. But by cutting elite athletes from their races, they are not only hurting the running community by not “giving back to the community” as nearly every major corporation does, but they are also missing out on potential profits. The sub-elite runner that normally would have traveled around the country, their tourism dollars in hand, and paid for race entry may now consider a different race. A race where they will not be the lone wolf at the front of the race, alone with only his/her shadow for company. And sub-elite’s partner will not travel with him/her to compete in the same race or to be a spectator either. In short the small percent that Competitor has to spend to bring in professional athletes for their events is far outweighed by the benefits.

My argument is that professional athletes are important to the sport. They provide an outlet for every runner who is a fan of the sport to escape from daily reality, boost their self-esteem, be affiliated with a group, for entertainment, family activities and aesthetics. All of these reasons have been associated with why people watch professional sports.

Now I am not arguing that it is a one way street, the athletes themselves certainly have to help in the process, and there are a number of ways that this can be done. I think Meb Kefleighi is a great example of someone who gives a lot back to the community. Joan Benoit Samuelson is another fantastic example.  They raise our sport to even higher levels, and I for one hope to emulate their greatness.

So finally, my challenge to you is this: If you are a leader in your community that features one of Competitors races, ask yourself if Competitor really has the running community and your neighborhood in its best interest. If you are an athlete, ask yourself the same thing. If you say yes, than I hope you have a Rock ‘n’ Roll’n good time.  If you say no, than show it by choosing another race which supports the community you love.  

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