Saturday, 24 May 2014

Hey, I won a race (and other observations)

So I won the Halifax bluenose half marathon and got a new PB of 1:09:44. This is not the fastest time in world, I know, but the race felt great, I knew lots of people on and off course, and surprised a few co-workers that didn't know I was racing (or that I did any road races period). I guess what got people talking was that I beat one of three visiting Kenyans. The other two set course records (2:36 and 2:27, respectively) but these were slow times compared to their personal bests because the course was hilly. Knowing that, plus runner-up Ewoi's half PB of 1:07 some years ago gave me added satisfaction that my sub 70 was not a fluke.

Me at the finish line
Why were Kenyans at the Bluenose race? It's an interesting story since BN does not give out prize money. Usually money is the only reason an elite runner comes to any non-hometown race. In this case Ethan Michaels brought the trio to Canada on his own dime, having travelled to Kenya on numerous occasions for, what I understand have been, running-themed vacations.

Whether Bluenose benefited from what amounted to Ethan's free advertising is an active discussion point (though obviously Ethan may have benefited form the attention too). The implications are tantalizing; here is a test whether or not adding competitive runners to the field really does enhance participation numbers. We won't know until next year since the news of the Kenyans joining really didn't grab headlines until three weeks before the race. This year's numbers were equal to last year, and most people had already committed beforehand given there was a registration price increase on May 1st.

It has always been the motto of Blue Nose to be inclusive and "fun" and not to emphasize attention on the front-end competition. Will runners get a "taste" of seeing what a bit of competition looks like and want to join themselves? Or maybe it won't matter. It depends how many closet-competitive personas remain out there, untapped.

For the fun of it, let's compare Bluenose participation numbers to two other events, the Tely 10 and the Ottawa race weekend:
Tely 10 miler, Ottawa Race weekend and Bluenose weekend (5k, 10k, half and full races
not including 1.5k kid's runs)
We can see the Bluenose since its 2004 inception has been growing steadily, and at a similar pace as Ottawa, in fact faster than the Tely over the same period. BN, Ottawa, and Tely even share the same recent downturn in numbers between 2012-2014. But there is a notable difference too: BN has experienced no 'sellout's for any of its race distances while Ottawa has capped its participation numbers for the 5,10, half and full marathon (and has sold out many years in a row). Hence Ottawa's downturn is self-imposed (the jump in 2014 participants was because they started the races in waves, hence could accommodate more runners). Meanwhile St. John's Tely 10, which did not sell out either, may have reached a saturation point considering the much smaller community versus Halifax (and already experienced considerable growth in the 1990s).

The 'official' explanation for less-than-expected BN turnout was due to a longer-than-usual winter (i.e. fewer people trained leading up to race). If so, the we might expect numbers next year to rebound or increase. If not, one may have to acknowledge other factors at play. Having seen many advertisements for the BN on billboards etc, it's not possible would-be runners are unaware of the race. Time will tell what these trends will be (I admit that's a borderline truism).

One clear trend is the expansion in half marathons. Running USA reports a recurring 12.5% annual growth in 21.1k participation in the United States. Canada is keeping pace with similar-sounding numbers; comparing half marathon stats in the same three races there is apparent growth in Ottawa and Tely (ok, Tely isn't quite a half at 10 miles, but still..), however less so with Bluenose. Bluenose's annual growth has been 5%, much less than the Tely's 10% or the 12% of Ottawa from 2004 to 2009 (i.e. before they imposed a cap on the total numbers).

Tely 10 miler, Ottawa, and Bluenose half-marathon-only races
Of course the elephant in the room is how long any of this growth can continue. Eventually numbers in all races in all disciplines will peak, and in some cases diminish. The question, really, is how will race organizers compete for attention in a near-saturated market? The two options I see among profitable races are

1) Advertise yourself as a "premiere", "high quality" or "fast"
2) Advertise yourself as the most "fun" race (or, by contrast, the "toughest")

The problem with choice #2 is it being completely subjective. But choice #1 is more objective in nature. This is why most races that can afford have added elite runner incentives like prize money and comp entries. Races that claim to be fast but with unimpressive course records will not be taken as seriously. If advertising as entertaining, you are holding yourself to the old adage that the customer is always right. It is a dangerous position to be in when coaxing people to run a mud race or marathon. Having chosen option 2 may partly explain why the Bluenose has 6-7 times as many runners in the half as full, which is abnormal considering the entry fees are nearly identical.

Bluenose picked the second, more subjective, option for advertising itself
There is also a hidden third option: to be the most entertaining race to watch. Advertising (read: profit) must reach past the boundaries of those in the race. Consider the NFL only makes a fraction of its profit from ticket sales, as do most pro sports. We all agree watching family and friends finish a road race is the most satisfying. However to reach an audience beyond one degree of separation from the event one is required to pick option #1. It is hard to imagine arguing otherwise. Could a TV/internet audience ever be build around 4+ hour finishers of a marathon? Only if a reality-show event surrounded them (such as in the documentary Spirit of the Marathon), or else by reading inspiring blog posts from participants, an unreliable avenue to pursue. Sports entertainment requires elite participation; the less familiar one is with the athlete the better they must perform.

Ask yourself, does this ad set itself up for debate? Of course not!
Would you say the Toronto Waterfront marathon picked the #1 or #2 advertising route? 
There are no magic solutions to keeping a popular race at its best. However, you ought to control what you can. In most cases that means advertising your race in non-arguable terms. Your course holds a world record? Can't argue with that. Your race course is supposed to be fun? Well, what if I had more fun going to the beach drinking a bottle of coke?


POST SCRIPT: Here are the total marathon-only results participants in the Blue Nose and Ottawa Race Weekend. As you can see, the numbers have been steadily climbing for Ottawa while Halifax has averaged just 290 runners over the past 10 years.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on your win and PB! I still cannot understand how someone can move that quickly to do a half in 1:09...amazing.