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The Pepper Martin Run—Will These Guys Ever Get It Right?

by Glenn Ribotsky

June 13, 2003 - The Pepper Martin Memorial Run—that delightful 5-mile Fourth of July road race run through the streets of West Brighton and produced by the Democratic Party-affiliated Brighton Kiwanis Club, has had its share of troubles over the years. Complaints have included lack of fluids on the course and at the finish, a frugality bordering on cheapness in
providing race amenities, and an annoying habit of trotting out local Democratic office hopefuls as runners wait for the race’s start or for the after-race awards ceremony. Deeper problems with the way the competition is administered—for example, claiming the course is certified by the governing body of road racing in the US (USA Track and Field) when it has not renewed that certification in years--and paid the required fee (this is necessary to have records acknowledged, if any are set)—and placing on the race literature and applications that there is a “final” registration day before the race but then allowing race day entries (another violation of national competitive rules), have caused the race to be one of
the few ever sanctioned and banned from recognition by USAT&F. You would think that at this point, with numerous complaints swirling around it and its participation rate almost halved in ten years, the race organizers would be more careful about how they administer the event and what they put on their application material. You would be wrong.

This year’s race application, while (finally, twelve years after the issue was first brought up) changed to indicate that “limited race day entries will be available” (now was that so hard to add, people?) still indicates “T.A.C. Certified Course”. (T.A.C. or The Athletics Congress, is the former name of USA Track and Field). But more disturbing—and perhaps legally actionable—is something at the end of the race waiver and release. In CAPTIAL LETTERS, of all

We here at The New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation (NYRROA), the runners’ advocacy organization that has
crossed swords with this race in the past, think the race is shooting itself in the foot. Such language raises troubling ethical and legal issues as to what grounds an entry might be rejected on. In our experience, there are only four supportable grounds for the rejection of a race entry:

--The race fills to capacity (a capacity which should be noted on all race literature and advertisements); in which case the entrant is entitled to a full refund.

--The entrant does not send in the appropriate entry fee, or does not fill in the appropriate data necessary on the entry form, or does not sign the waiver (and, since this may be due to oversight or accident, a good faith attempt should be made on the part of the race director or committee to contact such an entrant and inform him/her of this, with an opportunity to supply what is missing).

--Clear and documentable evidence of a violation of the rules of competition in a previous edition of the event—basically, some form of cheating to gain advantage in the final outcome.

--Clear and documentable evidence of violation of the rules of competition in other events (this need not just involve similar events; we would feel justified in banning an entrant, for example, from an ultramarathon if there is incontrovertible evidence of cheating in a 5-kilometer race).

In addition, one ground on which it would not be acceptable to reject an entry would be the judgment of the race directors that an individual did not possess the training or physique to adequately complete the event. While obvious distress would be grounds for removing someone FROM an event, it can’t be used to deny them a start--all race directors (myself
included) have had experience with severely overweight entrants who showed up just to walk all or part of a
race, or who even surprised by competing quite beyond what a cursory glance would assume they could. In any
case, this is why properly written race waivers ask entrants to attest they understand the risks associated with competing, and to attest they are physically capable of and trained for the event. It’s also why a properly organized race has access to some type of first response medical resources, if these are needed.

Such language only draws what we are sure would be unwanted attention of a negative, critical sort to the race, and it might make them, their organization, and their sponsors legally actionable. Our reasoning, supported by our research, was that while an event produced by a private organization held on entirely private grounds might have broad latitude in who could be accepted or rejected (think Augusta National/Masters Golf Tournament), an event held on public grounds—and the Pepper Martin Run uses the streets of West Brighton, by definition public property—has considerably less latitude. In fact, the argument could be made by someone looking to make an issue of it that a race, in using city, town, county,
or state grounds, must abide by all of the statutes of said municipalities, including non-discrimination rules. As one concerned runner put it (and I’m paraphrasing here), they can’t reject an entry for just ANY reason. Can you be rejected for nationality—what if you are from the Middle East right now? For gender? For sexual orientation? Because the committee doesn’t like the look of you on race day? Someone could have a legal field day with such claims, and why would any race want to get involved in that?

I have left various messages for the principal directors of the race—Brighton Kiwanis Club members Judge Michael Brennan and Michael McVey, but as of yet have received no response from them. What I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, are wondering, is why would a race, especially one that is ostensibly a fundraiser, want to turn down ANY entry (and race fee)?

The race has suffered declining numbers and prestige for some time now. This situation is certainly not going to help reverse that. Are the directors of the race just plain careless and slipshod? Or is there something more sinister behind this language? Should the press be asking the same questions? Should the local Democratic Party, which has been having its own reputational problems and with whom the Brighton Kiwanis Club and Pepper Martin principals enjoy a close relationship, also be asking?

At the very least, the race directors owe an explanation. At the most, they should strike this language from all their literature, and resolve to accept any entry with equanimity. 

--Glenn Ribotsky
Chair, New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation/NYRROA