Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on NYRR and the Brooklyn Half

For those in the NYC running scene, the topic of NYRR often provokes endless debate.  There are many fans, and just as many detractors.  The most recent topic of conversation around here has been the Brooklyn Half Marathon.  For those of you that need context, NYRR has an annual series of half marathons - one in each borough of NYC.  These races have been well produced, reasonably priced (around $25 for adult NYRR members), few frills half marathons.  No medals, no tech shirts, water and gatorade affairs.  I have participated in the series for several years, and definitely enjoyed them.  Brooklyn has always been a popular race - and always sells out quickly.  This year, NYRR changed the course (to allow more time on the streets and less time in Prospect Park), dramatically increased capacity for participants (to 15,000 from 5,000 in years past), and also nearly doubled the price (to $45 from $25).  This, in combination with the NYRR MEMBER price for NYCM (currently $217) has prompted this blog post.

I'll start with a few positives:

  • NYRR has definitely been at the forefront of making running accessible to the people of NYC.  I started in their beginner running classes, as have many people that I know.
  • One of NYRR's core missions is to engage students in NYC schools to get them started in running, which is a cause that I support.
  • NYRR has been evolving as distance running (particularly marathoning) has increased in popularity.  NYRR puts on a large number of races, that are for the most part well organized, and reasonably priced.
  • The New York Marathon (and other races) have been increasing in popularity, and NYRR has been increasing the size of the marathon as much as is feasible.  I don't profess to know the first thing about race directing, but it's clear that a tremendous amount of effort goes into the planning and execution of the New York Marathon, and the field of participants has grown every year.
Now to the negatives:

  • There is definitely a feeling that New York Road Runners is turning their back on the local running community in NYC.  NYRR has taken on a more "global" mission, and there is definitely a perception that the local races are being used to fund prize pools that attract elite runners to races (such as the NYC Half, the Healthy Kidney 10k, the Mini 10k and the NYCM) which is causing race fees to rise.
  • The New York Marathon has eliminated the guaranteed entry for life that was previously awarded to people that have run 14 NYC Marathons.  To me this indicates that "local business" is less important to NYRR than attracting runners from around the country or the world.
  • Prices for races continue to rise.  Again, I can't speak to the cost of putting on races - but many have commented that the price increases are regular and seemingly excessive.  I have strong doubts whether I will use my guaranteed entry for the New York City Marathon, when I know that there are great alternatives out there (like Marine Corps,, or Philly to name a few) that cost less than half the price.
In my opinion - it seems that NYRR is turning into more of a "Global" running community and less of a "local" NYC focused organization.  I'll also say that's OK.  The fact is, for those that complain about NYRR incessantly, there are other alternatives.  NYCRuns is an up and coming organization, that has produced numerous successful, smaller events around NYC (The Brooklyn Marathon, The Yonkers Marathon/Half Marathon, this years first ever Verrazanno Half Marathon, to name a few).  They are in no way competing with NYRR, but they are offering an alternative for runners seeking a more "local" community in NYC.


The Holiday Marathons continue to put on events (maybe not in Van Cortlandt Park anymore, but we'll see what happens there) - they are a great no-frills, free alternative for folks that don't require a medal or a tech shirt.

To sum it up, I honestly believe that NYRR doesn't "need" local NYC runners business, especially not for their marquis events (NYC Half, NYC Marathon, etc).  There are plenty of runners that are vying for a limited number of spots.  I'm believe that the NYC Marathon would sell out even if no New York City runners participated.  Their mission seems has shifted focus from the local runners that have gotten the organization off the ground.  That said, there are alternatives available for anyone that chooses not to participate in NYRR events.

I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on the topic...

2 comments:

sarah said...

I got here from Tracy's blog. Nice discussion of the sides. I'm certainly no fan of the inflating prices of racing in CP, but the fact is, NYRR is no more a community organization than the NY Times is a local rag. Wittenberg & Co. obviously have far-reaching ambitions for NYRR, and are on the way to achieving them. As a result, NYRR members get to regularly run in races with elites and have access to some huge, extraordinary races. The trade off is, obviously, the personal touch. But it's obvious that that's the trade-off NYRR has decided to make, and it just strikes me as a waste of time to pine about the good old days of $15 race entry. They're gone. This is the new reality, like it or not.

And you're right about there being other options - a quick googling will reveal plenty of smaller races for the taking.

Anne said...

I like the discussion of both sides too. But to be clear: it is very, very hard to plan races of NYRR's caliber. The Holiday Marathons, which you cited in your article and whose director is a friend of mine, have run into problems with the Parks Department and other city agencies (you can read their frustrating tale here: http://www.theholidaymarathons.com/About) As a result, they are now sadly relegated to "unofficial events" which have no course markings, no water aid, etc.

The events that NYRR plans -- with adequate, frequent, plentiful water aid stations, street closures and police protection, not to mention occasional extras like finish line festivals, tech shirts, medals, etc. cannot be planned by small community running clubs. They require a huge staff (run by an experienced CEO), a huge budget, and tons of other things I don't know of.

The other big-city marathons -- Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, London, Berlin etc. -- have absolutely NO guaranteed entries except for elite/super-fast and charity runners. No bonuses for being an average year-round NYRR runner with 9+1. Is 9+1 a bit of a pain? Yes. Scheduling can be impossible even for a Manhattanite like me, much less than those from outer boroughs or out-of-staters. But it is sure better than no option at all.

I love the smaller, local races and am an ardent supporter of them. But smaller races are just that -- they cannot accommodate the large number of New Yorkers and non-NYers alike that NYRR events can.

As runners, we are lucky to have myriad choices to enjoy our sport. On the low-budget, low-fuss end, we can just put on a pair of shoes and go. On the high-budget end, we can jet-set around the globe and run in some of the biggest races in some of the most exotic locales in the world. Above all, we have a choice of so many things in between. As such, we should maybe do a little less finger-pointing at NYRR and a little more self-reflection on what matters most to us as runners and as people.

NYRR is indeed choosing to prioritize a more global role in running. We can choose to join them -- and put up with the higher fees, the tougher sign-up schedule, and the other inconveniences -- in exchange for the big-city glamour and perfect execution of their races. Or we can choose to forego the fancy stuff and run in our local parks and in the smaller races. But we can do better than rant and rave about the heartless, soulless organization that NYRR has become -- 100,000 children around the world who benefit from their charity programs, and the hundreds of thousands who enjoy their races each year, would disagree.