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.