Sunday, July 10, 2005

Hey, race directors!

This morning I ran the 5k associated with the Seafair Marathon. I was thinking of doing the half, but some other people I know were doing the 5k so I signed on for that as well. It was a weak field, so I ended up finishing fairly high within it (although I won't have the official results until tomorrow), but my time for me was only so-so; adjusting for the two extra blocks they apparently added to the official certified course, I finished in about 24 minutes.

More on those two blocks: they evidently set up the start line in the wrong place. In the end I can see how the organizers might think that it doesn't much matter; a local 5k is a local 5k is a local 5k. But it's the principle of the thing. As a race organizer, why bother arranging for course certification and paying for chip timing if you're not going to do it right? Because not only was the start line screwy, there was also chip timing only at the finish of the race. Seriously, if you're cashing out for chip timing anyway, how much more can it possibly cost to do it right and to include the timing mat at the start of the race as well as at the finish?

I estimate that I've run about a hundred races of varying distances. Maybe I'm becoming a snob. Okay, definitely I'm becoming a snob (becoming?), but there are some bare minimum requirements that I try to make sure that races I meet before I sign up for them:

1. Officially certified course.
2. Chip timing, and get it right.
3. Online registration works smoothly.
4. Interesting, well organized route.
5. Reasonably convenient parking at or transit to race start/finish.
6. Appropriate water/fuel on course.

I've done a couple of races in the last year that I absolutely won't run again -- such as the Beat the Bridge that I ran a few months ago -- because it falls short of these marks in multiple categories. There are some other niceties that are great to have (charity tie in that doesn't require fundraising, interestingly small or large field, etc.), but their absence doesn't cause a deal breaker.

There are a couple of novelty races that don't meet all these criteria, such as Hood to Coast, that I've really enjoyed and for which I'd sacrifice a lot of these requirements in order to be able to run it again. But it has to be a really cool event that offers a distinctive and fun experience separate from the racing itself.

You may be wondering why this stuff matters. After all, I may be competitive in my bracket but I'm not in danger of winning too many races. Who cares? Why not just enjoy the run?

Because the thing is that I don't need to sign up for a race if what I'm looking for is to enjoy a run. I enjoy a run almost every day. When I sign up for a race, I'm looking to enjoy the run, but I'm looking for more than that. I'm looking to race. To compete. And even if my accomplishments are never going to earn me anything more than second-place finishes in small, local races, having the rest of the field out there with me, racing to hit personal bests, makes me a better, faster runner. I perform better because of their presence. And, competitive or not, it's important to have benchmarks against which one can measure oneself. So what if I'm not winning? I still want to know how fast I can run 5k, or 10k, or a marathon. I want to know because I want to see the results of the hard work that I invest in training. The details matter. If the details didn't matter, I'd go hit the trails on my own all the time instead of signing up for races. And I think that runners at the middle of the pack or even the very back of the pack feel this way too. The goal isn't to win, but it is to race. And you need something to race against. For those of us who aren't elite, which is almost everyone in every road race, what we're racing against isn't the other runners. It's a standard that we can rely on, measure our progress with respect to, and feel our improvement.


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