The Staten Island Runner

Return to Home Page | View list of Articles

December 2, 1999  

NYRROArs   by Glenn Ribotsky

An ongoing commentary on issues in the Staten Island and metropolitan road racing community, complied through the auspices of the New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation.


Those of you who are involved with running/road racing have probably noticed by now the trend towards shorter and shorter race distances. It has seemed, at least anecdotally, that most of the new events that have cropped up in the metropolitan New York area over the last decade or so have been set at distances of 5 miles or shorter (most often, 5 kilometers), and that, moreover, whenever an existing event changes in distance, it gets shorter, not longer. Nevertheless, I thought it possible that this was only my perception, or that it was merely a local phenomenon. (NYRROA’S usual purview, of course, is the metro New York racing scene). Therefore, I undertook a survey—far from scientific, and not exhaustive, I am sure, but as thorough as I could manage—to determine the lengths of road race events around the world and to see if these local observations are reflective of a larger trend. To this end, I not only perused the usual print sources (Runner’s World, Running Times, and the like), but also the emerging electronic sources (from Cool Running to the Running Network to the Ultimate Running Resource) as well as a number of sites belonging to road race event managers/technicians that include local and national race results.

And the conclusion . . . while I began to lose interest in a strict tabulation after looking over the first thousand or so events, my perception is that this is a worldwide trend, but particularly prevalent in the United States and Canada. I estimate that, on the North American continent (including the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands) some two-thirds of all currently existing races are contested at distances of five miles or shorter, with almost half coming in at 5 kilometers. The number of races at longer distances seems to have declined considerably over the last decade, with the biggest drop off coming in races between the half-marathon and marathon distance. 10-kilometer events have declined by roughly a quarter (a number of 10k events have been shortened, often to 5 miles or 5K); 10-milers have dropped off as well. Events at distances that maintain some popularity in Europe—particularly 12- and 15-kilometers—have become rare (those that are famous, as such as the Utica Boilermaker and the Jacksonville River Run, are among the few left; there are very few “little” races out there at these distances). Events at distances between the half and full marathon have become almost non-existent. The half and full marathon distances seem to be holding their own, while attendance at these events has been reported to be increasing, the absolute number of races at these distances seems to be roughly equivalent to a decade ago, with about as many dropped as added. (The health of marathons seems to be sustained now by those that attract large numbers of first-timers and/or charity runners who race for organizations such as Team-in-Training, and attendance at half-marathons seems to be sustained primarily by that population using them as training events.)

Now I am well aware of the arguments advanced for shorter race distances—shorter races are easier to administer; they don’t take as long to score; they require fewer volunteers (and a shorter time commitment from those who are there); they are more attractive to the increasingly older demographic of the sport (this column has often discussed the “aging” of the racing population, with 40-plus runners outnumbering those under that age at many events); they bring out those “weekend joggers” who would never think about running ten miles but figure they can ease through five kilometers (in other words, not the hard-core “serious” racers). All of these arguments have their merits, particularly those aimed at increasing participant numbers--a serious consideration these days when most races are fund-raisers for some cause or organization and must maximize revenues. Nevertheless, I would caution race organizers/directors from automatically believing that the solution to attendance woes is to cut down the event distance. There are some longer races that continue to draw consistent numbers (even if they do not add to them every year); these are usually characterized by administrative efficiency and attractive amenities for the participants (often the result of a committed sponsor who gives merchandise in lieu of or in addition to money). Runners, both hard core and “weekend joggers”, tend to be a discriminating audience—they are after all, almost always paying for the privilege of running--but they are also loyal; a well-run event will draw, and a poorly organized one, even if attractively short, may get some numbers initially, but won’t hold them. The looming problem may lie in the lack of opportunities for serious longer-distance racers to hone their skills. It’s very hard to train for marathons by using other marathons to practice pacing or surging or strategy, as the distance tends to break the body down far more than the now-almost-extinct 25- or 30-kilometer race will. I don’t see a slowing of the trend of short race proliferation anytime in the near future (the economic and demographic realities are inexorably against it), but I think those of us who are proponents of distance running need to encourage and support those hardy souls who try to put on longer-distance events whenever we can—we should attend them, volunteer for them, try to get them sponsorship, and work with them on new marketing strategies. (After all, those curious about the marathon distance might jump at the opportunity to get their feet wet at an event that’s not a marathon or a half, but isn’t a short run either—as long as it was well-presented and well-organized.)

Speaking of marathons, by now many of you are aware of the changes that have been announced in the procedures for local runners to gain entry into the New York City Marathon. Starting this year, if one is a New York Road Runners Club member in good standing (no dues arrears), and if one has run at least six fully scored NYRRC races during the calendar year, one will be guaranteed entry into the Marathon in the succeeding year. (If you have run six scored races in 1999, for example, and are an NYRRC member during that year, you will be guaranteed entry into the November 2000 Marathon, provided you keep your NYRRC membership up-to-date.) Special entry and application forms will be created by those in this category expressly for this purpose; no longer will they have to stand in line or submit to a lottery.

As you may have gleaned from the last column, we here at NYRROA are quite pleased at this turn of events; we feel justifiable pride in taking some credit for it, as we were one of the first groups to argue for it some years back, claiming that it presented a win-win situation for NYRRC (more Club memberships and race entries, as well as a public relations victory for a Club that has come under increasing fire for lack of attention paid to the desires of its membership). While the pace of change at the NYRRC regarding customer concerns has been glacial under the Allan Steinfeld administration, this certainly represents a step in the right direction, and one can only hope other such steps will follow it.

As usual, the first of December column represents the last one for the year before the hiatus of holiday vacation. We hope you all have a wonderful holiday season; this column will be back early in January of 2000 (assuming no major Y2K problems).

Glenn Ribotsky
Chair, New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation
84 Vogel Loop
Staten Island, NY 10314