Coach Mike Mead

Running Reform - July 2005

Some folks will not take this month’s column too kindly, but it needs to be addressed. The sport of running has made steady growth since I first took up the sport in 1972. I came in at the cusp of the “Running Boom” of the late 1970’s. While there appeared to be a decline in the sport some years ago, the trends indicate otherwise as participation is steadily climbing.

As a college coach, I find there are more running opportunities, particularly for women. Overall, there are more road races, marathons and ultra-competitions than ever before. But there lies the problem – too much!

If there was anything I learned in my college Economics classes, it was the “Law of Diminishing Returns.” Simply put, when one adds more to a fixed amount, at some point there will result in less return. I apply this to running.

“But Coach, you just stated that there are more runners today,” you may be saying. While there are more runners, the talent pool of runners is more diluted. Yes, there are faster men and women today, but I would think we should have more based on the total numbers participating.

Case in point, in 1986 I ran the Peachtree Road Race in 31:15 and finished around 95th place. In 2003 I would have finished 30th with that 31:15 time while last year I would have placed 36th overall. Don’t forget that back in 1986 the Peachtree ran about 20,000 folks compared to the 55,000 the past few years.

So what has happened to running in the last 25 years? Again, there are more people running these days. While preparing this column, I came across an article written by Dr. Kamal Jabbour in 1997 that stated participation in U.S. road races doubled from 4 million to 8 million entries between 1976 and 1996. Yet at the same time, the back-of-the-pack runners outpaced the growth of lead pack pacers.

While some may argue that the slower runners support the elite folks. It is true to a point, but prize money isn’t all that great when you compare them to the enormous salaries of other professionals like baseball, basketball, football and even golf. Major road races that offer prize money, on average, award the overall winner $15,000. In comparison, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Pat Burrell, according to Fox Sports, is ranked 100th in the Major Leagues this season in salary earned at $7,250,000 which breaks down to $44,753.08 per game over the course of a 162-game season. I’d speculate that the 100th ranked road racer doesn’t make in a year what Pat Burrell makes in a day.

Keep in mind I am comparing “apples to oranges” but the prize money has not gone up significantly. Most big races’ total purse has doubled to about $100,000 since 1988 while the medium salary for Major League Baseball climbed from $500,000 (Houston Astros) in 1988 to $5,833,334 (New York Yankees) this season, according to USA Today. So how can an elite runner survive? We’re not investing enough in our elite runners to advance the sport.

But why is running in it’s current state?

First, with more people running, many more are doing it for simple pleasure and exercise. That notion can frustrate those of us with a competitive nature. While more folks are running, it may not be their first love. In the last 20 years, additional sports have emerged – like soccer and lacrosse – which have taken some potentially elite runners away. Here in Georgia, the high school soccer season is in the spring affording athletes to run cross country in the fall and play soccer in the spring. But when they go off to college, some opt for soccer since it’s contested at the collegiate level in the fall.

There seems to be fewer folks sticking with their running after their high school or college days. Go to most road races under 150 finishers and you’ll see plenty of gaps in the younger age groups, particularly 20-24.

Second, there are too many road races being put on these days. Given any weekend and you can find about a dozen road races – particularly 5K’s – within a two-hour drive of Atlanta. When I began road racing in 1982, 5K races were not very common. You could find plenty of races above the 5K-distance, but today it’s hard to find a 4-mile road race like the long-running Decatur-DeKalb YMCA event (July 16) or the 8K-distance. There even seems to be fewer 10K races than there were 20 years ago.

The glut of road races has resulted in smaller fields and less competitive events. It used to be hard to win a 5K road race in the low 16’s, but today I’ve seen some races won in the mid-18’s. There is a misconception that putting on a road race is simple and generates a lot of money for those seeking to help a good cause or charity. It takes sponsorship and businesses and corporations are not as free with their money as they use to be. Running a road race has turned into running for a cause, which is great, but what about a few races for the sake of racing.

It’s time for a different approach to the competitive side of our sport. I do not have the answers. Those who have similar views can start by joining USA Track & Field (USATF) and get involved in the decision-making process. Our sport needs quality growth and you can help.