Amy Donaldson: Everyone should care that Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series will no longer support elite runners
I have never crossed a finish line first.
By the time I finish a marathon, the winners have had something to eat, probably enjoyed a massage, participated in the medal ceremony and left the finish area.
So why should someone like me care that a company that owns one of the country’s largest series of races will no longer support elite runners?
Because you don’t have to be a great runner to love the sport.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if a company won’t support the best athletes in a sport, it doesn’t really care about the sport.
Competitor Group owns and produces the Rock ‘n' Roll marathons and half-marathons. Even if you’ve never run a marathon, you’ve probably heard of the race series.
The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series is responsible for 83 endurance events in North America and 10 in the rest of the world, according to RunBlogRun, where I learned of CGI's decision this weekend. It hasn’t been announced to the public. Instead, several sports agents who represent elite runners let the media know about an email they received from CGI representatives Aug. 28 that said the company's financial support to elite runners, which amounts to travel expenses and public appearance fees, would end immediately. That means even fees that were promised for events less than a month away would not be paid.
The RunBlogRun article pointed out that some of the sport’s greatest athletes have battled in Rock 'n' Roll events.
“Remember, this is the series where 71 of the 300 plus qualifiers for the 2012 U.S. marathon team trials qualified,” the article said. “Elite stars such as Haile Gebrselassie (and) Paul Tergat both competed first, on the roads, in North America in CGI (then, Elite Racing events), with Gebrselassie setting world bests and a world record.”
I remember the first time I watched a marathon finish. It was the first Salt Lake Marathon and one of my best friends had convinced me to run the 5K with her. Shortly after we finished, someone said the marathon winners were just a few minutes away so we decided to stay. We found a place on the upper deck of the Gateway Mall and waited.
We cheered as the fastest men and women in the race sped down that brick street and across the finish line. The energy was something I had never felt, and I was moved to tears.
It doesn’t take an athlete to appreciate the fact that to run at that pace for hours is something special.
It was later that year that I watched Meb Keflezighi win the silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. It was the first time since 1976 that an American man had medaled in the marathon.
His pace — a little more than five minutes per mile — was astounding. I listened to what he’d put himself through to achieve that moment on that podium, and I was impressed.
I watched him run around that stadium with the American flag and I was in tears.
As I listened to his story, of how he questioned his sanity the first time he ran a marathon, I was inspired.
About a month later, I signed up for my first marathon, something I wasn’t sure I could do until I crossed that finish line at the Gateway Mall myself in April 2005. It took me a little more than five hours to run the same distance he’d covered in 2 hours, 11 minutes.
As I became more committed to the sport, I read about the best runners. I listened to their stories, adopted some of their training secrets and appreciated that they took the time to talk to runners who have no idea what it’s like to race.
The truth is that CGI built the RNR series on the backs of runners like Keflezighi. Having elite runners in town means a lot more media coverage.
That media coverage attracts recreational runners like me. And having thousands of people sign up for a race that they know they’ll never win is how a company like CGI makes millions.
CGI reportedly said in that email to sports agents that it planed to use the more than $400,000 that it spends on elite athletes to cater to the “back-of-the-pack” runners. Does that mean the end of $145 entry fees? Does that mean the races won’t run out of food and water for those of us who finish in four or five hours? Does that mean we won’t have to wait nearly 20 minutes after the gun goes off just to get across the start line?
Part of catering to us recreational runners is allowing us the opportunity to meet the athletes who inspire us. Running is a unique sport in that the business side is driven as much by those of us who just participate as it is by competitive athletes.
How many recreational basketball players get to compete on the same court as the NBA’s best? How many recreational tennis players get to play in the same tournament as the world’s best?
That is part of the magic of a marathon.
When I run a race, I line up at the same start line, cover the same course and cross the same finish line as the sport’s elite athletes. The reason the energy at a marathon is special is because we recreational runners are part of the same race where world records are set.
If CGI is really interested in investing in the back-of-the-pack, they should do more to put us in touch with and in the same room as the sport’s most elite athletes. I don’t want more bananas and bagels; I want to an hour with Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor.
It’s in listening to their stories that I’ve decided to change my own mind about what’s possible for me. It is in understanding their accomplishments that I’ve chosen different, more difficult paths for myself.
And it’s in witnessing their greatness that I feel more power in what I’m able to accomplish in my own much smaller universe.
I may not know what it feels like to break the tape, but I know what it’s like to drag myself miles and miles past what I thought was possible. I know what it’s like to feel like I can’t possibly take another step — and then take 1,000 more.
And maybe most importantly, I understand the symbiotic relationship between runners like Keflezighi and Kastor and joggers like myself. CGI’s refusal to support them means they are refusing to invest in the continued development of the sport that has enriched countless lives.
At the end of the day, runners, whether they’re competitive racers or weekend warriors, are part of a community that values commitment to the accomplishments of us all.
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