When bigger is a bummer
Last fall, I was scratching my head after years away from competition, trying to find a road-running race where I would have decent room to run without literally getting tripped up. Sometimes race-event publicity and sign-up websites would proudly report the size of the event and how many participants finished the previous year’s race. Presumably they felt that this demonstration their race was a cool, super-duper “happening thing” would be a draw.
Most, however, did not mention the number, likely because they just didn’t think to do so, of course. I also wondered, though, if perhaps a few of the race directors or sponsors of these races might not want to broadcast how large their events had become for fear of appearing they had simply become too big, unwieldy, and crowded.
Because with too many entrants in a road race, logistics suffer unless the event is very well-managed: Insufficient, inconvenient, or distant parking. Delays picking up one’s registration packet and race number before the start. Lines at the toilets due to a lack of Port-A-Johns (and perhaps having to go find a tree quite some way off to pee behind). Faster runners getting stuck behind self-important but slower runners who have crowded their way to the front of the starting line where they don’t belong. And so forth.
Here’s the ironic thing. The races that come with the most troubles are exactly the ones that cost the most and are loaded down with the most crap: The useless participation medals just for finishing. The doughy, white-bread crowds pulled in by such trinkets. The unneeded water stations in short races like 5Ks. The gaudy carnival atmosphere with local radio personalities or other clowns polluting the soundscape with jangling, overamplified noise and pushing other foofaraw on everyone.
And why? Because the hobby joggers who are the ones attracted by larger “spectacles” — the ones who are the source of the problem — tend to be stereotypically overpaid yuppies and other white-collar professionals. (Sorry, gotta call this one like it is.) It is these people who are relatively price-insensitive and, along with the national charities milking them for their money, who are most responsible for the inflation of race entry fees that have doubled or tripled in cost. And all for a race event that gives you an experience that is worse — if you want to run a race that meets the needs of competitive runners, that is.
Gauging runnability by looking at previous race results
So I decided that the best way to find the type of race I wanted to run in was to start by looking at results sheets from the previous year’s edition of any given race. And preferably the last few years as well, to spot any direction in trend. If the total number of finishers was above a certain cutoff, then it could be eliminated as simply too big.
Then, as a hint about how seriously the core running community might take a given race, one could look at the caliber of times for the top finishers in each age group. Also, if a course map was available, a look at that would give an idea about how beautiful or otherwise appealing the racecourse might be: just as important a criterion for a satisfying and rewarding race experience as the other factors.
For some races it was easy to find results, others not. For example, it was surprising to me how often there was no link pointing to race results on the official race website. But after a while I learned where to look for results that weren’t linked, or how they might be tracked down on search engines, and was able to ferret them out in just about all cases.
Little room to run amidst the hordes
What I found was that for 5K races over about 300 to 400 participants, after the first 50 finishers, on average one finisher might be crossing the line every second or so. That is darn packed. So if you are not one of the top runners overall in a race of this size — which I was unlikely to be at my age, at least at my current fitness level just beginning a “comeback” — that means when you are trying to stretch out and run, you are doing so in a fairly dense crowd without much room to maneuver.
This is particularly so since ever-shifting bunching inevitably occurs (a uniformly even spread happens only randomly and occasionally), and in certain passages on a course there might not be room for more than two abreast. The latter situation typically comes into play on bike paths and sidewalks, which are frequent choices for race routes when not run on roads. Also, since the field of participants progressively fans out as a race unfolds, halfway through the race one can expect double the density that occurs at the finish as reflected in the final times.
So if one cared about running unimpeded and not getting tripped up by other participants, or having to slow down to avoid a collision, or temporarily slow down and then speed up to get around someone, in my view it was a worthwhile effort to find races with smaller fields.
Truly, if your prime interest was racing well, what was the attraction of a big race unless you were likely to win prize money or make headlines? The only answer could be that you get some kind of jolt out of “being there” at a mass event like a stoned-out rock concert, or even a Catholic mass. Sorry, Charlie, you can have that reefer or that wafer. Give me a more intimate, personal audience with my fellow mates any day.
Finding smaller races to run in
After the above analytical exercise looking at the effect of race size on spacing between competitors — and the resulting room to run (or not) — I began looking for events where the number of recent yearly finishers was no more than roughly 200 to 300. Since this reduced the number of races available on the weekends that my friends and I simultaneously had free, by chance the events we selected from the ones I had winnowed the pool down to turned out to be quite a bit smaller than that.
For the first couple of races that my two buddies and I went to together, the fields came in at approximately 60 and 90, respectively. The third one that I ran on my own as a time trial tallied around 180, closer to my target. So we ended up with plenty of room to run. And although as comebacking masters’ runners in our late 50s our performances put us mostly in the midst of younger hobby joggers 20, 30, or even 40 years our junior, the limited overall field sizes kept the worst of the negative impacts at bay and we enjoyed ourselves.
Because of the smaller number of entrants, I could also pick people out of the crowd more easily. I was able to make a humble start getting to meet a few of the regulars on the local road racing circuit who trained to compete seriously, and whom I would be racing with and against in the future as my fitness improved.
The downside was that since the races were filled mostly with hobby joggers, in the smaller races we had entered there were relatively few such serious runners to compete against, really. The issue was the younger hobby joggers near us in ability did not know how to race, starting out too fast and then fading as the race progressed. So they didn’t provide anyone to key off of when running the more even-paced race that we did as seasoned runners.
Racing with no one to race against
Midway through my third and final race of the fall — the one I had entered by myself to run as a time trial, which introduces Part 1 — I was still running solo, except for continuing to pass others who had gone out too fast, later fell apart, and could not provide worthy competition. These were mainly either young tween and teenage girls (perhaps still-green middle-school or high-school athletes), a contingent of hobby joggers, and one nine- or 10-year-old kid who did well for his age, considering his inexperience and erratic fast/slow pacing.
I had not yet encountered a single serious competitor at a level similar to my own that I could either lock onto or lock horns with. It was a bit of an odd situation: runners strung out both ahead and behind, but no one to team up with to help each other out, on the one hand, or to duke it out with, on the other.
Not counting the first few hundred yards of the course during the initial jockeying and sorting out, I would pass people periodically, but no one ever passed me. It was like being the only one on an “up” escalator while everyone else was going the other direction on the adjacent downward track filling up the basement with a bunch of spent stairs. Or like a janitor making his way up a hallway continually sweeping the debris of others aside.
One somewhat comical but also frustrating incident occurred surrounding the young kid: Not long after the two-mile mark I caught up with him, but it appeared that he might have plenty left and for a while as if he might still outrun me. For a short while we tussled back and forth, both enjoying it. (At least I think he did — I know I did.)
Perhaps in this little kid I had found a good competitor to test myself against! He appeared to have lots of energy, but hadn’t learned how to run at an even pace yet, because he would alternately begin to slow down and then markedly speed up — based on what, I am not sure.
Then we passed a course volunteer standing to the side of the bike path, who yelled out to him in encouragement, “Keep it up, there’s not much farther to go!” At which point the kid launched into a much faster surge, apparently thinking he was kicking for home. I felt sorry for him, because the young woman who yelled this to him, despite wanting to encourage a little kid, was a complete idiot and saying exactly the wrong thing in shouting that, when we still had close to three-quarters of a mile left. “Not much farther to go!” in a 5K race would suggest not much more than a few hundred yards, not three-quarters of a mile. Sheesh.
So now, not only do we have hobby joggers overpopulating races, the quality of race volunteers also seems to have slid considerably as well. Anyway, I decided to yell out myself to this kid who had now spurted 20 yards ahead of me: “Don’t go too fast yet, kid, we still have a way to go!”
Unfortunately, I could not afford to waste any more breath than that. It did not occur to me in my exertional state to have said something more helpfully specific, like, “Wait, there’s still three-quarters of a mile left!” and so I did not clarify further. He may have thought I was trying to trick him or something, so he kept sprinting for a bit but then petered out. Too bad, but I later found his name in the results, and realized that I had seen the name before in a few previous race results. If he runs a few more races, he will eventually learn.
All in all, though, the strategy of purposely picking smaller races turned out to be a decent compromise. Though next spring I may look at races with somewhat more participants in hopes of finding myself up against some competition to make things more interesting.
Has the second running boom of 1990 to 2013 run its course?
There are signs that the hobby jogging trend may be on the wane, or its ballooning effect on overcrowding in races anyway. According to a 2016 report on the website Running USA, after many years of growth in road-race participation, the trend appears to have topped and may now be slumping.
Following two decades-plus of growth in the number of participants who finished a running event — a 297% increase from 1990 to 2013, which the authors term the Second Running Boom — 2014 saw the first year of decline, with a slight dip of 1.4% from the previous year. A more noticeable decrease followed in 2015, however, when finishers dropped another 8.7% from 2014, for a cumulative decline of 10% from the peak year of 2013. (Update: The number of road-race finishers declined again in 2016, though only marginally, with a decrease of one percent from the previous year.)
Much of this decline has come at the expense of what Running USA terms “nontraditional race events,” i.e., color runs, mud runs, zombie runs, costumed runs, and so forth. For the most part, according to another Running USA article, from 2014 (update: this link may be broken), participation in nontraditional events is predominantly fueled by social-media motivations, such as taking selfies, getting comments and likes on Facebook, notching another event off one’s bucket list, etc. This of course indicates hobby jogging as the prime driver, as suggested by the statistic, for instance, that 60% of Color Run participants have never run a traditional 5K.
The hope in Running USA’s eyes, though, was that there might be a spillover effect from nontraditional events, and people initially attracted to Color Runs and Tough Mudders would become interested in regular road-racing. The idea was that perhaps nontraditional running events might even fuel a Third Running Boom.
While it’s too early to discern any long-term shift, of course, so far that doesn’t seem to have happened. Things are currently fizzling instead, and it may well be that social media is too much of a double-edged sword. Events that are fueled by what’s currently fashionable in social media may fall off in popularity just as quickly as they rise, as the fickle crowds primarily attracted to what’s “in” move on to whatever comes into vogue next.
Stats suggest the road-racing event market is now oversaturated
Another interesting tidbit to glean here is that despite the 10% decrease in road-race participants from 2013 to 2015, the number of running events in 2015 increased 8% over 2014. (Update: In 2016, the number of race events held essentially steady while, as noted above, those finishing a race decreased one percent — so the situation remains about the same.) This makes it obvious that the market for races has now become oversaturated, and helps explain the earlier observation in Part 1 that competitive runners now seem to be spread thinly over a crowded schedule of races, with lackluster times often winning the day.
It appears to me that too many races have gotten too big. Or, rather than catering to competitive runners, they are gaining participants specifically by trying to appeal more to the hobby jogger crowd these days. This has a tendency to alienate competitive runners who now may be more actively avoiding the largest or at least more carnival-like events.
Here is a case in point: The biggest race on our local calendar is a corporate-sponsored 10K held in conjunction with the annual city celebration-fest (which I mentioned briefly in Part 1). When I was competing in my mid-thirties in the early to mid-1990s, my 10K PR at that age would have placed well down in the field (although I never actually ran in this event). Available race results online don’t go back that far, but I was able to find results online back to the year 2000. In that year, about five or six years after I had last competed, the same 10K PR of mine would have gotten me 36th place in a field of 1,104.
Last year, in 2016, that same 10K time would have placed me 6th in a field of 887, or 5th in 2015 where the field was 1,020. That is how far the caliber of competition of races in larger fields has fallen through avoidance by better runners because of hobby joggers, at least in some measure.
To be fair, it’s highly likely there is a multifaceted phenomenon occurring here, with both the large proportion of hobby joggers in big races alienating and driving out some of the more serious runners, while the number of the latter has also simultaneously declined for additional reasons. Without extensive research, though, it would be hard to say exactly what degree of which applies.
The increasing cost of races, for example, which has outstripped inflation considerably, is one potential factor that could be putting pressure on serious runners to race more sparingly. Indirectly though, hobby joggers, who on average tend to be higher-income white-collar workers who aren’t as price-sensitive, are a driving force behind this change as well.
Out on the 5K course that crisp fall morning, I was now closing in on the last half-mile of the race. The effort of my first serious competition since coming back was making itself much more intensely felt by this stage. I could feel the fingers of fatigue reaching more deeply throughout my body, but was nonetheless able to ratchet up the pace another notch. Even pushing much closer to the “edge,” I knew at this point I would be able to maintain the effort to the end without running aground.
Going into a hairpin turn on the bike path next to the river before heading up a ramp to street level for the final leg of the course, I was forced to weave from one side of the path to the other to pass two more hobby joggers, one a young man in his twenties, the other a teenage boy. Both had seriously overestimated the pace they could hold to the finish, and were dying badly, especially once we began running up the steep grade from river level to the sidewalk above.
I blew by them, bored into the incline, and did not look back.
Finally, I was free, with clear running to the finish.