Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What Makes a Good Marathon?

On Monday after running a whopping 3 miles at a blistering 9:30 pace on the treadmill I walked over to the water cooler and got a drink. I noticed the newspaper sitting on the counter because there was a photo of runners. I picked up the paper and proceeded to read this article while I stretched. I was excited. I have often thought long and hard why Cleveland's marathon pales in the shadow of Ohio's other bigger marathons: Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati's Flying Pig.

As I read the article I became disappointed. Did this reporter ask one single competitive runner in Northeast Ohio what they thought? It's not hard to find us. For a front page article, this thing stinks. It's completely uninformative and does nothing to illuminate why Cleveland's marathon relatively stinks. So, let me (and you!) pick up the slack.

What makes a good marathon to me, you ask? Well, first I look for a well-timed event that fits into my training schedule. There aren't very many good spring marathons, especially later in the spring so I think Cleveland has that well covered.

The second thing I look at is an elevation and course chart. I am not opposed to a challenging course, by any stretch, but the course is a large factor in my decision making process. What Cleveland has done with it's course is to place miles 20-24 directly into a lakefront headwind. This is a huge turn-off to me. I don't do well with late race headwinds. Otherwise, the course isn't too hilly, but just hilly enough.

The third thing I look for in a marathon is buzz. Are people excited about the event? Will there be people cheering? Is the event welcoming to me? Will I have fun? Here's where I think Cleveland really falls short. Take a look at the Cleveland Marathon website. Does that look like a fun time to you? Can you sort through all that junky clutter and find what you're looking for? Does it appear welcoming and exciting? It strikes me as some death metal band's homepage. It's cluttered, confusing, scary, and unwelcoming. I don't go there and think, "whoa! That looks like a well-organized, fun race." I think, "who the hell designed this?!"

Additionally, the race does nothing to promote Cleveland's best athletes. For the size of this city, we have some damn good runners. We want to be welcomed and have a place to show off what a great running town Cleveland is. Sure, the race offers decent prize money but there is no other effort to get the good runners there. In fact, much of the race director's efforts are spent trying to get more walkers and the like to the event. The walkers and slower runners come when the dedicated competitive runners are excited about the event. Look at Chicago. It appeals to the slowest sloggers and the elitest elites. Why? Great course, great buzz, and lots of fun.

Also, the race director does not engage the greater non-running population. There are virtually no spectators beyond the first half. Get the city excited! Contact churches and schools ask for volunteer support. Imagine 20 elementary school classes or church groups lining miles 16-20 cheering and screaming and high fiving. Imagine cheerleading squads cheering and church choirs singing at mile markers and high school bands playing classic rock tunes. It's great for the race and runners and it's great for the congregations and schools trying to promote fitness and health. Those little kids on the sidelines today are your paying entrants tomorrow. Encourage tail-gating in front lawns along the course. Publicize, for heaven's sake. Get the newspapers involved. Make it fun.

I could go on, but that's a good start. What do you think makes a good marathon? If you're familiar with Cleveland's what do you think it needs to do to improve?


TrainingtoTri said...

I agree 100% and want to add that the Tshirts SUCK. They are poor quality and aren't even technical. Heck, you get a nice long sleeved brooks tech shirt for the half at akron. Give me an awesome goody bag and I am there.

JenC said...

While they say they want walkers and slower runners, they don't follow through. Last year, they not only removed the police support and moved the 6+ hour finishers onto the sidewalk, but also took down the directional signs!

Yet, I am still signed up again for the 5th year in a row doing one of the distances. It is just so conveniently located. But, I agree that it is a crap race. If they can't get fans, at least they should provide bands! It is the Rock marathon, right?

CJ said...

Great suggestions for the race.

Based on today's PD article, it sounds like the marathon and 10k courses are supposed to be faster this year, and they are doing more to play up Cleveland's rock history (I'm not sure they did much of anything before, other than marketing gimics and putting a giant guitar on the t-shirts one year).

As for reaching out to Cleveland runners, getting the city more involved, and having race shirts that don't suck....maybe (hopefully!) another year.

Hope to see you at the 10k!

Blaine Moore said...

I ran the Cleveland Marathon in 2004, the first year that they had the new course that stayed within city limits. I enjoyed it, but late headwinds don't really bother me too much. I also had a couple of friends that have photographic proof that they were at 19 different places on the course to cheer me on, and I remember 2 places at least that they didn't have pictures from.

The Salty One said...

training--the shirt is a very common complaint. I can't say I'm all that concerned about the goody bag, but I must admit I love my Columbus marathon tech shirts!

Jenc--that's outrageous! Didn't they advertise the course would stay open for 7 hours?! Good luck on Sunday!

CJ--thanks for the tip on the new articles! Good luck to you too on Sunday! I'll see you there, although I don't think I'll be entered in a race :(

Blaine--I'm a big nerd and checked the weather on your race day (4/24/04). You had a mild southerly wind and I believe the course at that time ran along the South Marginal which would be a bit more insulated from a westerly headwind anyway. It is very common for there to be a 20+ mph westerly headwind along the lake, particularly in the spring. It's possible the weather could be fine, it's just more likely there will be at least a moderate headwind in those late miles.

HPR said...

Hey Salty One, thanks for letting us know about your blog. We sure don’t want to pass up a chance to hear from our customers and answer questions you may have. First, about me, I own Highland Public Relations, the marketing firm that the PD story blamed for everything bad about the race’s promotions. Like you, I’m a marathoner… I’ve run Akron and Cleveland. And my firm has done the PR for Akron since its first race and Cleveland for 6 years. I know a little about running and about promoting races.

Regarding your blog and ensuing comments, we’ve heard much of that before and addressed it as best we can. It’s just that the answer isn’t always what you or we want it to be. For example, it is not easy to design a city course and get city approval to close roads for the race. They don’t always say yes to our requests. Our course is flat and fast, and it goes through some nice neighborhoods around Ohio City and some nice parks on the East side. Short of moving the race out of Cleveland, you can’t get much better than we have.

Sorry about the headwinds (though your 20-24 miles into a headwind is pretty much impossible on an east-west course). Personally, rain bothers me more. But no race can control the weather. It’s springtime in Cleveland, so let’s make the best of it.

Marathon buzz… that’s an interesting one. We will have around 10,000 runners this year. That’s almost double what it was 5 years ago… almost double what Akron gets. So, I’d say there’s a “buzz” among most local runners. Can that buzz generate cheering throngs? I doubt it. We do get cheering sections in the neighborhoods where people live. But, Cleveland is an urban race and not many people live in the city. And it’s Sunday morning. People are in church. Anyway, when did running become a spectator sport? Most spectators are going to be friends and family of runners. If every runner encourages their friends and family to come out to cheer, we could get 30-40,000 spectators. That wouldn’t be too bad. Still, as a runner, you know that your best supporters in any race are going to be the people running around you. Be thankful you have them, and thank anyone and every volunteer who is there to cheer you on.

As for the suggestion that we get local churches and schools involved and more bands… believe me, we’ve tried. We’ve contacted every church, every school, every booster club, every non-profit organization we can think of to get more runner support. A few participate, most decline. Like I said, running just isn’t a spectator sport. And as for the bands, rain that past few years has been a problem. We pay bands to play on the course. Some just don’t show up when the weather is bad. This year, with the involvement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we hope we’ve solved that problem.

As for getting the good runners from the greater Cleveland area, I think the best usually come and win. Some simply have other commitments, and some have their eyes on other races like Boston, and our race may not fit in their training schedule. We have the involvement of the local running gear stores (Second Sole, Vertical Runner) – which are the best links I know of to the top local runners. We also send out email newsletters to everyone who gives us their email address. I just don’t know what more we could do. If you have some suggestions, I’m all ears on this one…

Addressing other comments from some of your bloggers: New tech t-shirts for half-marathoners this year! Hopefully, all will be happier with these. And BTW, we were one of the first races in Ohio to give away tech t-shirts to marathoners. It is a matter of money. The PD story was pretty accurate when it said the runner entry fees don’t cover the cost of the race. Thank goodness for Rite Aid!

As for closing the course early, we are aware that’s been an issue. We have emphasized to our new security force that cones and directional signs are not to be removed until the 7 hour mark. But, we don’t have total control of that. Any Cleveland police officer has the right to make a safety decision and direct runners onto the sidewalk during the race. That’s happened in the past. If it happens again, it won’t be because anyone involved with the race said to do it.

Also look for all new directional signs and mile markers this year. They are color coded, and we drove the course to identify every turn for a sign. And read your Runner’s Agenda. There’s a map and a lot of race information in there, and the signs and new weather flags (a result of Chicago last year) are explained.

Last thoughts: we are painfully aware that a percentage of runners continue to think the race is “crap.” We’ve been trying very hard to change that image, and we’ve made many changes as a result of runner suggestions and complaints. Any time a suggestion has merit and it’s something we can fix, we are all over it. I even ran the marathon to see and hear first-hand what runners were experiencing. So, to you and all your bloggers – keep making suggestion. We are listening. And if you think you can help us make the race better, come and join our staff – chair a committee for the 2009 race. We can use all the volunteer help we can get.

Mindi said...

Sounds just like the Madison Marathon. Really.

This year, instead of giving out technical tees which contain synthetic materials, they are going "green" and giving out shirts made from bamboo. WTF?! If we are running a marathon, we are pretty serious about running and are going to opt for technical tees. If you are worried about "synthetic materials" in tech tees, do not give out a shirt and take $10 off the registration price. (Heh, thanks for setting up the forum for my rant).

I agree with the fact that no one can control weather. HOWEVER, I think it would behoove many a race director to think more about the timing of races. It has just been plain hotter in the summers - early and through later in the fall. Think about pushing the race a few weeks earlier if spring and a few weeks later in fall. I would prefer a chance of 30s than a chance of 80s any day.