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

Fri, 22 Nov 2002 20:58:12 -0500

They Run Running


Twice this fall, once on each coast, I sat in on national conferences of race directors. The first was at the Portland Marathon in Oregon, the second the Road Race Management event in Florida.

I learned much from the discussions -- and can't use any of this because I direct no race. But in the ways all runners will, I'll benefit from what the directors learned there and take back to make their races better.

Meeting them let me say how much I admire and praise them for their work, and thank them for doing it. They, more directly than anyone, run running in this country.

In Fort Lauderdale I spoke before the naming of Race Director of the Year (Susan Harmeling of the Gasparilla Distance Classic and Hops Marathon). As often happens while standing before a captive audience, I reminisced -- this time about my short life as a director.

This event started in the first moment of a new year. I'd designed the course and now trusted a local police officer to know his own town as he drove alone in the lead car.

Police know the shortcuts, and he took one -- lopping two-tenths of a mile from the course. The first dozen runners followed him; everyone else went the right way.

The first dozen thought they'd finished one through 12; the next dozen claimed the same. Solution (arrived at near dawn): Call it two separate races, of 4.8 miles and 5.0, and give awards for each. Luckily these prizes weren't monetary.

That long night sent me into early race-directing retirement. This is a job best left to the pros. And they're never been more professional than now, even if the job rarely comes with a paycheck.

Phil Stewart and Jeff Darman asked me to speak in Florida about directors I've known. I know many of them well from spending race weekends in their company.

Spending this time with them would be instructive for any runner. You'd see that raceday doesn't start when you arrive and end when you leave. You'd be slower to complain about the few glitches and quicker to compliment all that went right.

I've seen directors go two nights without sleep. I've heard them take calls that finish-line tents have blown away... that porta-johns haven't arrived... that they need to find 4000 more cups at six o'clock on a Sunday morning... even that "the runner we took to the hospital didn't make it."

I could list dozens of the sport's benefactors, and mine. But I'll stop with a few of the best known and most memorable. They changed running by not recognizing the word "can't."

-- Jock Semple never directed the Boston Marathon. It only seemed that way because he was the race's loudest voice in the 1960s and '70s.

My first encounter with Jock wasn't pleasant. I'd stumbled into the elites' dressing room, and he shouted me out with, "Bums like you don't belong here."

Later that day in 1967 Jock made accidental history. By attempting to toss Kathrine Switzer from the race, in full view of reporters and photographers on the press bus, he struck a bigger blow for women's running rights than any other man.

What Jock started that day, Kathrine continued. She refused to accept that women can't run marathons. She later started her own series of races for Avon that helped win international support for the event, which in turn sent women's participation climbing toward equality.

-- Fred Lebow was an idea man, and many of his schemes sounded cockeyed on first hearing. For my first meeting with him I'd lost my voice, which didn't bother Fred because he wanted me to listen, not talk.

He told of his plans to turn the New York City Marathon, then a minor event run only in Central Park, into a bigtime race. "We can be bigger than Boston," he said.

Sure, I thought. Many races have said that; none has come close to succeeding.

How did he plan to do this? "By running through the entire city, all five boroughs," said Fred.

A race other than Boston can't take over a city, I thought. By fall of that same year, Fred's race had done just that. The citywide marathon was born.

-- Don Kardong, now a fellow writer of mine, came back from his near-medal-winning race at the 1976 Olympics with a certain visibility in his hometown. That wasn't as hard to gain in Spokane as, say, New York City.

Best-of-both-worlds races were popping up in various cities about that time. They drew some of the fastest runners in the world and masses of the slowest. Don wondered, Why not here?

It was one thing for a city like Atlanta to attract thousands of runners for Peachtree. Quite another for Spokane to do it from a population base of about 200,000.

If Don was told, "You can't do that here," he didn't listen. The Bloomsday race that he founded grew to 50,000-plus. It inspired directors in other small cities to think, If Spokane can...

-- Dr. Jack Scaff would write a book titled Your First Marathon (which I edited). But first had to come the research.

When he proposed an expanded Honolulu Marathon in the 1970s, skeptics said, "You can't get large numbers of people off the beaches and onto the roads." Jack said he could create his own field by training runners for the event.

This led him to found the Honolulu Marathon Clinic. It turned average Joe and Jane non-runners into marathoners within a year.

Thousands of them graduated from the Scaff program. It inspired the later work of Jeff Galloway and groups such as Team in Training.

Critics charge that Galloway and others have "dumbed down" the sport by slowing the times. I say they've broadened and changed running for the better.

Running keeps changing. The race directors who keep succeeding are those who detect, promote and adapt to the changes instead of fighting them.

As long as there are runners, they'll create a demand for races. The question that a director needs to answer -- then update constantly -- is: What type of race do they want?

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