The Empire Strikes Out

With New York City’s legendary marathon just a few weeks away, I thought it was high time Michael Samuels, an experienced marathoner addressed some of the more recent image and reputation issues of the New York Road Runners Club (all of which were self-inflicted.)

Today's guest post is by Michael Samuels, NYC native, PR veteran and self-proclaimed abuser of running shoes.

I have no actual data to back it up, but it’s a fair bet that a couple
of weeks ago nearly all of the 47,000-plus participants for this year’s
ING New York City Marathon gasped with understandable incredulity at the
email that they had just received from New York Road Runners. The email
coldly informed them of the organization’s decision to eliminate bag
check from the race.

BaggggJPG According to NYRR’s press release the decision was made with the intention “to provide our runners with the safest and best possible race-day experience.” Huh? I’ve been a competitive runner for over half my life and it never occurred to me that being forced to stand around in sweat-soaked clothing, exhausted in the frigid November air would be a positive race-day experience. I’m sure, if nothing else, it builds character but then again, so does completing a marathon! My safety never felt imperiled because of bag check either. You know what can be really harmful to one’s health? Hypothermia and pneumonia.

Instead of having access to a fresh change of clothes, money, a metrocard and a cellphone, participants would be given an orange and blue fleece-lined poncho and the opportunity to stand (and no doubt shiver) in line at one of the Call Home stations provided by the organizers. In the past, runners were shepherded toward the waiting UPS trucks lining the park. Wrapped up in a Mylar blanket with a shiny new finisher’s medal and a sense of accomplishment, runners would do a slow, but happy, shuffle to their belongings. Having run the New York City Marathon twice, the long walk to retrieve my bag was one of my favorite parts of the race. It gave all of us weary souls a chance to talk, laugh, compare aches and pains and congratulate one another on surviving a grueling day. So, without much, or possibly any, input from its membership, NYRR instituted a change in service at this iconic event after everyone had signed up and paid their money! If you bothered to read the fine print, refund is a topic that will definitely not be broached or considered despite the long and loud chorus of boos.

In spite of their assurances that they only had the interests of their members in mind, one can’t help but think that the only interest of concern was that of New York Road Runners. Many longtime members like me have watched, with a confused mixture of pride and dismay, as this organization evolved into the behemoth that it is now. I once saw NYRR as a collective of free-spirited running enthusiasts who promoted sportsmanship and camaraderie. Over the years, I have witnessed the mission change more toward the pursuit of fiscal rather than physical fitness. The organization has become  big, shiny, state-of-the-art and intimidating. Kind of like a  Death Star. Where I sometimes imagine President and CEO, Mary Wittenberg, black-caped and walking the halls Force-choking those subordinates whose lack of faith she found disturbing. Ok, maybe they’re not that bad just yet. But they have certainly plotted a course for  a galaxy far, far away from their original destination.

Running is big business; in 2011 sales for running shoes alone totaled $2.46 billion dollars. That’s up 6 percent from 2010. An increase of another 6 percent is expected in 2012. Running has defied the economic slump affecting most businesses, so I can’t really fault New York Road Runners for being proactive and going after their share of this bounty. I get it. I really do. I just wish it didn’t have to come at the expense of the runners who helped support  this organization when there was more lint than money in its wallet. Critics continue to grow more vocal in questioning NYRR’s sense of honor and commitment to the running community  as it continues to dress itself up as a non-profit when its behavior screams nothing less than corporation.

In my opinion, NYRR’s bag check policy is just one recent example in the trend of an organization or company forcing unpopular changes on the people that frequently and loyally use its products and services. Another example is the implementation of Facebook’s Timeline. In addition to the revised layout, the company went ahead and changed users’ default email to without their knowledge or consent. Months ago, Planned Parenthood made the head-scratching decision to stop funding breast cancer research. In spite of the fact that the many who supported the organization with their time, money or both did so because they either know or are themselves were cancer survivors.

It sometimes feels like the current zeitgeist in business these days is to view the consumer as this milquetoast who will not only tolerate getting sand kicked in their face, but can be coerced into paying for the privilege. In his 1961 essay entitled “Why Don’t We Complain?”, William F. Buckley lamented the decline of good ol’ American outrage. I think it has as much relevance today as when it was first published. Although, we have greater platforms to air our grievances, we often substitute real world action with online petitions and general kvetching via social media. But to be fair, the employment of such tactics sometimes do work, as evidenced by Planned Parenthood’s fundraising woes and NYRR issuing an embarrassed mea culpa and reinstating bag check for the marathon . This nation was founded by put upon people who had the courage to stand up and say, “Enough!” and promptly took their business elsewhere. Corporations and organizations, like spoiled children, need to hear "NO!" more often. For too long they’ve been under the misguided impression that they call the shots. That they can silence or simply ignore the objections of their customers when they decide to amend or eliminate popular policies or services. They continually fail to realize, much like the British long ago, that when Americans link arms and unite, they will huff and puff and, eventually, blow your house down.

2 thoughts on “The Empire Strikes Out

  1. Yep, and they had the same exact issue with the NYC Half Marathon. Local runners had a very, very tough time getting in. When people demanded to know what was up, it was revealed that the odds favored out-of-state and international runners. NYRR’s big solution to that was to offer guaranteed entry to anyone who completed 4 out of the 5 half marathons offered. At $65 a shot. Mo’ money! They also put the kabosh on the popular Bronx Half and made it a 10 miler. Most of their announcements seem to inevitably result in a facepalm.

  2. Incredible – considering… isn’t that a point to point race? Well how about last year, when again, most ‘locals’ didn’t get into the race (per usual) and they posted the explanation and breakdown of participants, purposely skewing it so they bring in tourist dollars. Like that was going to make it okay.
    I registered for the drawing one year, but after seeing that, I no longer wanted to waste the money they require to just get in to the drawing. Glad Chicago is my local marathon.