Sunday, February 27, 2011

Taking a Stand Against Tyranny... in Fishers Indiana

After nearly 2 months off of the roads, I have been going, for all intents and purposes, batty.

My planned couple of weeks off to let my body heal hasn't gone as planned.

My heel still isn't 100%, which baffles me. Makes me think that it's not running related. But what then? I've hardly done anything more strenuous than Words with Friends for weeks.

Hence the baffling.

What's clear, though, is that if I don't get back on the roads, I will go insane.

So, yesterday, I jumped into a race (Tiger Trot 5K).

Yep, with one whole run in the last 55 days, a 3.2 mile run which all but hobbled me for 10 days, I declared myself ready to race.

Hey, I've done things way more stupid than this. Besides, it was only a 5K. Pfffft. I used to warmup with a 5K. Barefoot. Uphill. A hill littered with broken glass and angry scorpions. At night.

Sure it was cold. And yes, the streets were a little icy. But really, is there a more inspiring place to run than Fishers, IN?

Ok, there are 73 sextillion more inspiring places to run than Fishers, IN.

However, Fishers is where the race was. And the race benefitted the Fishers Track and Cross Country programs. I don't live in Fishers. In fact, my kids compete against Fishers, but I like to know that my race fee is going to a good cause.

Unfortunately, that assurance is getting harder to find.

Let me explain...

The 500 Festival* Mini-Marathon is a hugely successful event. It is well organized and a first class race. It is, by far, the biggest running event in the state. If you tell someone in Indiana that you are a runner, they assume you run the Mini. It is the de facto running event, and the only running event that most people around here know about.

"The Mini" owes a big part of its success to Mini Training Programs all over the city that teach runners how to prepare for a half-marathon, and provide guidance and group runs to make it all go smooth. They also owe a lot to the small, local races around Central Indiana that for many years provided a build-up to the Mini.

Thanks to this ecosystem that was built around the training programs and the local races, runners were able to train and race close to home, in the midst of and with support from their local running community. The training programs and races paved the way to the Mini, showing the not-so-hard-core runner that a half-marathon was doable, and could even be fun. Runners met other runners from their neighborhoods, found running buddies, and developed friendships that kept them running. And also kept coming back to the mini, year after year.

30,000+ runners and walkers each pay about $60 to participate in the Mini each year. That's roughly $1.8 million, before sponsorships. It's one of the top grossing races in the country.

The 500 Festival, apparently not satisfied with $1.8M, noticed people paying to participate in these other training programs and "build up" races, and decided that they wanted that money, too.

As part of the registration process for the Mini, you are encouraged to also sign up for the 500 Festival training events; a 5K, a 10K, and a 15K, all leading up to the big race. All 3 of these training events are big, thousands of runners. They are all downtown on essentially the same course. They all are devoid of local flare and personality. They are boring, soulless, and they benefit only the 500 Festival.

Oh, and on the 500 Festival website are "training schedules" that give people workout plans to prepare them for the race. Not surprisingly, these schedules include tune-up races which just happen to be the 500 Festival training events.

Most people who run the Mini don't know any better. They don't know what other races are available. They don't think about where their money is going and what other options there might be. The 500 Festival makes it easy for the runner, just like McDonalds. Just click here and here and we'll give you something and tell you it's awesome. And take your money.

Unfortunately, for way too many runners, "running" means being an anonymous participant in a big race downtown. A dot in a sea of movement through city streets. They've never experienced the camaraderie and solidarity of heading out with a horde of a couple hundred, recognizing friends, making new ones,  on a wintery race course winding through neighborhoods, with volunteers standing at each mile marker reading off splits, telling you you're looking good, and ending on the high school track, one lane of which is freshly shoveled clear by some grateful young sprinters and high-jumpers who are also on hand at the finish line to clap for every finisher.

Some of the good training programs survive, but the local races are dying off. These races, with budgets in the hundreds of dollars, raise thousands of dollars for local charities, school sports, and other good causes. They also are the backbone of their local running communities.

Know what would have been really great? If, instead of Walmarting the local running communities, the 500 Festival would partner with and publicize the local races, creating a wide-spread, varied training series. There could be races all over the city, every weekend, showcasing neighborhoods, and pumping money into so many worthwhile causes.

If the 500 Festival chose to use their immense marketing power to build stronger local running communities, they could expose the new runners to the diversity of running experiences all around the city and surrounding counties. It could make Indy one of the strongest running cities in the country. Almost overnight.

By running local, runners could develop the connections and the friendships that you just don't get in a mega-big race. And with their buddies for support, the runners would be much more likely to keep running after the Mini, turning from people who gut it through one half-marathon a year, into year-round, life-long runners.

I'm going to ask for a favor of you above-average-looking readers - before you run a 500 Festival training event, look around for another race first. When you find out someone is thinking of running one of these events, see if they'd like to run close to home. And maybe let them know that, having a training group will greatly improve their chances of having a great Mini.

But Doug, where do I find these other races?

Good question alert reader of above-average-intelligence. Here's a link to the the most up-to-date and comprehensive site for Central Indiana races that I know of: Indy Runners Race Calendar.

Cool, thanks. By the way, how'd your race go?

It went well, thanks. Ran faster than I thought I would. All systems held up. I didn't slip on the ice, and I even beat this guy:

Subway Man

I bet you won't see Subway Man at the 500 Festival training events.

Good running,

*Note: The 500 Festival is not directly associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, or the Izod IndyCar Series, all three of which I have great respect for, as well as an unnatural attraction to.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Man... Big John

I'm calling a TO from the running babble for a different kind of post. The usual nonsense/whining/preaching will be back soon enough. This, is personal.

If you live near Indianapolis, or you follow the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you know that the immortal Tom Carnegie passed away recently. You know because it was covered on every slice of news media. Rightly so.

Tom is a legend. His voice was as much a part of the The Speedway as the bricks, and it will echo in the rafters of the grandstands for ever.

Tom played to the crowd, and he did it well. We ate out of his hands during qualifying, and it isn't the same without "And... He's... on it!" "Gooooood morning, race fans!" was the start of the ritual every race morning, as I sat patiently in my seat, hours before the green flag dropped. 

On the IMS PA, Tom was the show.

But in my book, John Totten was the man.

John was the unassuming one. The guy who filled in the gaps. The guy who knew exactly what was going on, and told us about it, matter-of-factly, with the silky smooth, deep timber of a professional broadcaster.

Big John, with essential clipboard, pen, and pencil.

John is best known for his work on qualifying days. The old qualifying days, when we didn't have video screens in the infield and speeds didn't pop on boards a second after a car breaks the line.

After Tom told us that he was, indeed, on it, it was John who called the car around the track. "He's out of one, 18 inches from the south chute wall, into 2, left side rubber just kissing the white line, smooth as he drifts out 6 inches off the wall and comes down a couple feet as he settles in for the backstretch..."

They traded back and forth, seamlessly, without a director in their ears. John with the call, Tom with the facts and the cheerleading.

Tom got the crowd to cheer. John told the story. John painted the picture. John kept us on the edge of our seats.

It was more romantic, and for me, more exciting hearing it, as opposed to seeing it on the big screen. On the screen, most runs look the same. But John made every run unique. He could pick out the subtle differences between one driver's line, and another driver's. Or even differences between runs, laps, even corners, for a single driver.

John knew how to convey a driver riding on the edge, taking the car faster than the car wanted to go, and he did it without screaming, without hyperbole, without telling us "he's really trying hard".

John wasn't flashy. Not even close to flashy. The opposite of flashy. John was... a pro.

As much as he loved qualifications, John was at his best was during the week at "happy hour", that golden hour between 5:00p and 6:00p when the track was cool and the speeds would bounce.

The pit lane would come to life as every team looked for the limit, and hoped to make a headline.

It was crazy, chaotic, and it could be confusing, if John wasn't on the PA stand.

Here's a little game you can play next time you're at The Speedway during a busy practice. When lots of  cars are dashing out of the pits, ripping a couple laps, darting in for a quick change, and going back out again, pay close attention to the PA.

How often do you hear the car number, and then the driver's name, like "There goes car #37... Ryan Hunter-Reay", and how many times do you hear the name, and then the number, like "Here comes Ryan Hunter-Reay in car #37"

Would you even notice the difference? There is a difference. The difference is that announcers who do the number first, and then the name, are looking it up. They see the number, start to talk, look down at the sheet, say the name. Or at best, they're doing it in their head. Number... driver.

The pros know who's car it is immediately. Not by number, but by sight. And they tell you who it is. Immediately. And not just AJ, Mario, and Rick. Every car. Every time.

And the super-stars recognize if the helmet doesn't match the driver who is usually in the car, and they do it on the fly, and call it before the car is by them. "Here comes Fittipaldi trying out Al Jr's car."

Nothing got by John. He was sharp, alert, and he knew his shit. Cold. And everyone knew it. It was no coincidence that he was on that stand during happy hour. No one did it as well. No one dared try.

One more key fact about John Totten. He was my step-dad.

For 20 years he was a positive force in my life, and just when I really needed a positive force in my life. He taught me a thousand things. To be patient, accepting, kind, and warm. That the drivers aren't the only heros at the race track. And that accolades and cheers aren't important... a job very, very well done, really is reward enough.

I was an Indy 500 fan before I knew John. But John helped me to learn, appreciate, and love auto racing.  Some of my favorite race day memories happened after the race when John would take me to the garages. I got to see the crews and the owners and the drivers relaxed, when the month was over. The fans were gone. It was just racing family. And they all greeted John with a smile. Sometimes the smile came with a shrug when the day didn't go great. But they always were glad to see him.  

We watched countless other races together, races of all forms, on a crappy, 13'' TV in our kitchen in Lebanon. The sound was always up too loud, and John would smoke through the whole race. He wouldn't say much, and he never stood up and screamed at the drivers who were half a world away*. When he did comment, he was succinct, insightful, and on point. And I paid attention.

The last race I watched with John was Cleveland 1997 when Alex Zanardi sat on pole, dropped back to damn-near last after pitting while the pits were closed, and stormed back through the field to win. John was in the ICU at the time with a vent in his throat. He wasn't smoking that time, but he also wasn't talking.

Just watching the race was a big day for him. We watched the pre-race and the start, then he started to doze off after Zanardi's early pit mis-step. I told him not to worry, that he probably wouldn't miss very much if he took a quick snooze.

He woke up just before Zanardi passed de Ferran for the lead. He tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed to me "Looks like I missed something." Succinct, insightful, and on point. And a perfect example of the man's deadpan humor.

That afternoon we the last time I saw John conscious. He died a couple weeks later.

When I sat next to John on those early qualification days, just as I was getting to know him, I was fascinated by his stopwatches. He used 3-second sweep watches, perfectly encased in a black rubber "Autolite" case. Before digital stopwatches, the ones with "lap" features, you needed two watches to time consecutive laps. The 3-second sweep is accurate, and mesmerizing, and it oozes class and sophistication. Not the "I have one of these and you don't" sophistication. The "I know what the hell I'm doing" sophistication.

For hours on those weekends in May I studied how he held the watches, how he used them. During practice, I practiced myself, trying to stop one and start the other at precisely the same time. I learned to read them almost as fast as he could. To me, those watches were as unattainable as the microphone. One day, after he'd bowed to the times and started using a digital watch, he gave them to me. It was as if John Lennon had given me his white piano. They are among a handful of possessions I consider priceless.

Proper from for the use of 3-second sweeps

Those of us who listened to Tom and John on the PA while we were being infused with the smells and the grit and the sound and the thrilling danger and the glorious speed that became such a big part of us, were treated to the best of the best.

I would give anything to be able to unplug those big screens, and listen to Tom and John call a few qualification runs. I want to relive the drama of imagining where the car was after it disappeared around turn one until it emerged from four, and the suspense of the "time and speed report", drawn out, with the crowd holding their breath, or shushing each other, hanging on every syllable, scribbling the numbers.

Just a few more runs, to remind us all just how great it used to be.

And I wouldn't mind hanging out with the old man, either.

Good running,

*I can't say the same about myself.