Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 17 Dec 1999 09:27:36 -0500

Middle Management

(from RC 290)

In my latest marathon I finished, as usual, almost squarely in midpack. Forty-nine percent of the field led me at Portland, and 51 percent trailed.

This seems the proper place to be for one born in the middle of the country at the middle of the century. If running in midpack means being average, mediocre, or worst of the best and best of the worst, then I fit those definitions. I prefer to think of it as being normal, typical or moderate in approach.

I had the chance in Portland to stand up for middle-of-the-roaders. This didn't happen during the marathon, where my anonymity was almost complete, but at the Race Directors Conference the day before.

Les Smith, the director of directors, asked me to sit on a panel talking about where running is headed in the next century. I admitted that my crystal ball is notoriously hazy.

I never could have predicted when taking a job with a magazine of 2000 circulation that within 30 years it would be 250 times larger... would never have believed that marathons would turn runners away... couldn't have guessed that women would be the majority in some race fields (Portland's, for one)... wouldn't have imagined doing 4-1/2-hour marathons and finishing in midpack.

To these race directors I said, "I don't know any better than you do what will happen in the next 10, 20 or more years. But here's what I HOPE will happen."

These wishes centered on the middle of the sport. This is ground occupied by vast numbers of runners, and I'd like to see our homeland upgraded. It can happen three ways.

1. RECOGNIZE the middle-class runners. They run less than needed and lack the talent to qualify as elite. But they train far more than needed for exercise.

They truly RACE their races instead of merely running in them. Racing isn't their job, but neither is the race just another run to finish.

They race to qualify for Boston, to win age-group awards, to beat their rivals and pals. Races tend to divide their attention between recruiting the elite and upping their total numbers by filling from the back. Middle-class runners deserve to be more than afterthoughts. They are the most loyal supporters of events.

2. PROVIDE more middle-distance races. Road racing has polarized. The best-attended events are 5-K's at one pole and marathons at the other.

Many short road distances, those taking less than an hour to finish, remain popular. But of the middle distances, those lasting one to three hours for most of us, only the half-marathon enjoys heavy traffic -- and this probably because of its misleading name.

Between 13 and 26 miles lies the black hole of racing where almost no activity occurs. We need more 15- and 20-milers, more 25- and 30-K's as way stations to fill this void.

3. SUPPORT the middle-sized events. Racing has become a numbers game. The bigger the event, the more successful it is judged to be and the happier its sponsors are to keep spending.

Shrinking races lose sponsor support along with their numbers, and often go out of business. The smallest events are left to operate as no-frills fun-runs, little known even in their own communities.

Mid-sized events deserve more support. They offer more quality than no-frills races and less crowding than megaraces. The race with a hundred or so runners per mile of length is a perfect place to come home to after running to extremes.


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