Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Color Runs, Competitor Group, & Community

This blog post has been brewing in my head for some time now, and while I missed the initial zeitgeist of bloggers slamming Competitor Group (which puts on the Rock ‘N Roll series of races) after announcing that they would no longer pay appearance fees or travel expenses for elite runners, the new year and subsequent resolutions to get fit seems an apt time to pontificate on some of the issues in the running community. Additionally, with the Country Music Marathon (put on by Competitor Group) here in Nashville scheduled for April 26th, many people around me have started training for the half marathon, and I will inevitably start fielding the questions about if I’m running it from those who know I am a runner (the answer is no).

First of all, I am a bit of a running snob but probably not how you think. I literally grew up at community 5Ks. My mother served on the board of the White Rock Marathon in Dallas for years. I was surrounded by running and runners and the running community long before I ever became a runner, long before Color Runs and Glow Runs and bands along a marathon course. At the same time, I am also a firm believer that anyone who runs is a runner. A mile is a mile whether it’s a 5-minute mile or a 16-minute mile. A good race for me is one where I finish in the top 50%. Despite my pedigree, I apparently did not inherit the natural athletic talent my parents and my brother possess. And yet, friends and acquaintances become squirrelly around me about owning their identity as a runner. “Well, it’s not like I run marathons like you.” Who gives a damn? If you run, you’re a runner.

2013-09-28 09.34.21-1

There are numerous pros to for-profit events like the Rock ‘N Roll series, Women’s Running series, or Color Runs. They get people moving. For beginning runners who might be intimidated by a community race, it’s a low-anxiety introduction to running with others. As annoyed as I am every year with the Women’s Half Marathon and it’s pink color scheme and expensive entry fee, there is also something really powerful about running a half marathon with a bunch of other women. (I really am not going to run it this year, I swear.) There are people who wouldn’t do a 5K or a half marathon or a 15K without the incentive of a ginormous medal, getting pelted with colored dust, or having a chocolate fountain or champagne at the finish line. Unfortunately, I fear it is all too common for people to set a goal based on a for-profit event, complete the race, and then call it a day, rather than using it as a stepping stone to further self-improvement and healthy living.

2013-09-21 08.29.23

Many in the running community who blast events like color runs have never participated in one, but I have. A friend from Divinity School asked me to join him since his wife was going out of town. I was hesitant but agreed. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible, and the participants huddled under a bridge, avoiding the rain, until the start. We were scheduled for the 8:15 am wave but didn’t get underway until later, our first frustration. There were color stations about every kilometer, and we soon realized that even with holding our breath, we still were inhaling dyed cornstarch. Naturally, I had my Garmin to log my run, and the course ended up being nearly 3.5 miles. An inaccurate course, a late start, no timing system, and running through colored dust. We were also some of a handful of people who actually ran, most walked. Again, anything that isn’t sitting on the couch is great, but let’s not pretend these events are marketed for those who consider themselves runners.

A Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “The Slowest Generation” attributed America’s lack of competitiveness and drive to events like the Color Run, even going so far as to connect events like these with America’s waning profile in long-distance running. In my experience. color runs/glow runs/zombie runs, etc. are not even marketed to those who would be interested in competitive running. The two markets don’t overlap except in the case of someone like me or others who use event runs as an entry into racing. But to the author of the op-ed, event runs are what is wrong with America, this attitude of bucket list, everyone-gets-a-medal, slacker millennials, etc.

shelby bottoms 5k  15k 2013 - 369

Within the span of three weeks, I participated in Color Me Rad, ran the Women’s Running Series Half Marathon (put on by Competitor Group), and ran a local 15K put on by the Nashville Striders with my husband. By far, the most pleasant experience was the 15K. On an out-and-back course, we got to see the lead, Scott Wietecha, fly by us, and he acknowledged me when I cheered him on. After a difficult last couple of miles, several other runners we had leapfrogged with came up to us in the finish area to congratulate us, bemoan the heat and humidity, and make conversation. There were no medals, but there were a plethora of granola bars, samples of fruit tea from a local restaurant, and something that the previous two runs had lacked: a sense of community.

It does not take long to find criticisms of Competitor Group online. They bus stragglers to the finish line. They’ve run some very shoddy and poorly organized races at times (see: 2011 Las Vegas Marathon). They no longer support the sport of running based on yanking their support of elite athletes. The entry fees are expensive, and then they nickel-and-dime participants for athlete tracking, parking, preferred restroom facilities, etc. But in a capitalist system, they are running a business, so that’s their prerogative. The most I and anyone else who disagrees with their model can do is vote with our dollars and our lack of participation.

But despite the many criticisms, the one thing I find lacking in these types of events is one of the most difficult to express: community. They are missing a community of runners, a community of people who know what it’s like to push yourself, whether it’s to complete the race or to nail a personal record. A community of people who will rejoice with you when you succeed and empathize when you fail miserably. Because whether you run a 13-minute mile or a 5-minute mile, they’ve all been there. They’ve all experienced the highs and the lows – bonking, going out too fast, the disbelief and elation of those numbers on the clock when you’re heading down the final stretch, whether you’ve been running for a year or twenty. In addition to an accurate course and timing, there are endearing qualities to knowing the race director and someone’s little kid singing the National Anthem, qualities that help you know that yes, you belong here, no matter how fast or slow.