We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Whether you’re a dedicated runner, a sponsor of friends who run in charity events or a resident whose street gets blocked off for races, the local running boom is hard to miss. But the sport’s growing popularity is creating tensions between purists and casual runners. Race organizers try to accommodate everyone, while security and permitting make races more complex and expensive. With Turkey Trots and Jingle Bell Runs upon us, we explore the challenges facing the local running community.
- Mary Pilon Sports reporter, The New York Times
- Chris Farley Owner, Pacers running stores; Partner, Pacers Events
- Karen Kincer President, Montgomery County Road Runners Club
Washington Area Running Clubs
It’s often said that anyone can be a runner. With training and a well-fitting pair of shoes, just about every healthy person can accomplish a running goal. Whether you prefer to run alone or with friends, the Washington, D.C., region is home to many running clubs that act as a supportive social network. Some local clubs are free to join and often include training programs, regular group runs, discounts on running gear and more. Find a running in your neighborhood.
District of Columbia
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Well, maybe you've been training for your first 5K race or you've sponsored a friend who ran a marathon or you just watch your neighbors jog by from the comfort of your home. Whether you're a runner or a spectator, the local running boom is hard to miss. Long established running races are getting bigger, new races are sprouting up and training groups in every corner of the region are preparing for them all.
MR. MARC FISHERBut as running gains popularity that is sparking some tension between weekend warriors who are gunning for speed and casual runners who choose fun over fast. The challenge of organizing all these races has deepened in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, raising questions about how much security is enough when thousands of people come together to race through city streets. And as runners lace up for this season's Turkey Trots and Jingle Bell Runs, we're going to explore the economics and challenges facing the local running community.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd joining me in studio are Karen Kincer who is president of Montgomery County Road Runners Club and Chris Farley who owns the Pacers running stores in the district and Virginia. He's a partner of Pacers Events. And joining us by phone from New York is Mary Pilon who is a sports reporter for the New York Times. If you're a runner, tell us about the biggest change you've noticed in the local running scene. You can join the conversation at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Let us know about whether you've ever sponsored someone who's running in a race. Are you happy to be asked or tired of being asked?
MR. MARC FISHERWell, let's start with Chris Farley. Some people say that running is so popular here in the Washington area because it's the perfect sport for type A Washingtonians, goal-oriented people. How do you explain the growing popularity of the sport?
MR. CHRIS FARLEYWell, most of the growth has been -- for us at the stores and the events has been with women actually, so they are type A. And we've seen -- you know, I've owned the store for ten years, we've seen, you know, it become, you know, this guy who wants to run really fast and compete in a 5K to -- that was about, you know, half of our business in the past. Now it's about 60 percent women who want to go out and experience a race, experience -- have an experience in the store as well that is, you know, unique and inspiring. And not necessarily all about the fast time that you want to run on race day.
FISHERAnd, Karen Kincer, is that your experience? Are you seeing that kind of growth and is it primarily among women?
MS. KAREN KINCERI think that it is. We're seeing the growth among women, not just in our races which, you know, over the last few years I've seen them go to more like, you know, 53, 54 percent women in some cases. But we're also seeing it tremendously in our training programs. Women are coming out in drove to take part in training programs. And not just at the 5K, you know. or the 10K level. They're also coming out for our marathon programs. It's a tremendous growth that we're seeing among women in particular.
FISHERAnd, Mary Pilon, as you look at this same phenomenon across the nation, do you see the same kind of growth? And is it happening primarily among women?
MS. MARY PILONI'm not surprised by what they're saying about women at all. I mean, you have to remember too that women's distance running has a pretty interesting history. We didn't have a women's marathon at the Olympics until 1984. That is not that long ago. So the fact that there's some catch-up happening doesn't surprise me at all. And it's an incredible sport. And I think when you see a lot of these teams training together, that's where I'm seeing the growth among women. But it's across the board for what I'm seeing at least, and ages as well.
FISHERAnd Chris Farley, is there -- as you see this expansion of the sport and growing variety of runners, both serious and casual, is the sharing-the-road question becoming a more important one?
FARLEYIt is. And, you know, it -- for the most part everybody plays nice. You know, we put on the USA 12K championships in Alexandria. And, you know, we're shutting down roads. And you're shutting down roads almost every single weekend in every jurisdiction in Arlington, Alexandria, D.C., Montgomery County, all these places. And, you know, for the most part people are playing nice and embracing it. But at the same time, this weekend we put on this race in Old Town Alexandria, and there were some neighbors who were inconvenienced. And, you know, that's -- and we had a couple of unpleasant responses from -- what was ultimately a great experience for most, some unpleasant responses from people who lived in those areas.
FISHERAnd, Karen Kincer, is it just the occasional nasty remark or does it ever get worse than that?
KINCERNo, we don't see it getting too much worse than that. I think that we try to be very, very conscious to build good relationships with all of our, you know, municipalities and so forth. We are out there working with the neighborhoods, you know, trying to do everything that we can to accommodate them and so forth. We don't see it getting too nasty. We also try to be very good guests. We try to make sure that we're very, you know, environmentally safe. We pick up all of our trash. We leave the place cleaner than -- you know, any venue cleaner than we found it. And so I think those things go a long way to helping to share the road in a more peaceful manner.
FISHERAnd have you seen any change in either runners' concerns or neighborhood residents' concerns about security since the Boston bombing? Has that become more of a factor at all?
KINCERI think a little bit. I think particularly right after the bombings. We had Pikes Peak 10K one week after that happened -- or maybe it's actually six days. And, you know, that was definitely a concern at that time, you know. And we had the dogs out, you know, and doing their thing and all of that. But I think that people are committed to the sport and want to be out there. And they're not going to let anything like that stop them.
FISHERMary Pilon, are you seeing any changes in attitudes toward security as you look at races across the country?
PILONAbsolutely. New York, the security presence was dramatically ramped up this year. You saw a lot more officers, canine units. I saw helicopters at least once or twice. And I think people -- I think runners are kind of adjusting their expectations as well. I think -- I was in Philadelphia for their marathon on Sunday. All of the bags were, you know, clear plastic. You saw people giving themselves more time to get there ahead of time. When you think about the logistics of a marathon course, 26.2 miles, and the idea of having to secure that versus sealing off say an arena, which is not an easy feat either. But I think marathons -- I mean, they're essentially parades and they do pose really unique security challenges.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Let us know about how will you think casual joggers and serious runners are coexisting. And also let us know about the cost of running in races. Is that something that plays at all a role in your decision whether to do it. And Chris Farley, you wanted to say something.
FARLEYYeah, I mean, I definitely think cost, but I was going to go back to a point, Marc, about, you know, the security. And we put on the GW Parkway the same day that Karen had her Pikes Peak race, which was six days after the Boston Marathon. I think the jurisdictions are going to be much more comfortable working with just the Montgomery County Road Runners of the world or the Pacers Events of the world or the major organizations. You know, Mary referenced the New York Road Runners who put on the New York City Marathon.
FARLEYThese cops and these different jurisdictions are going to be only more -- they're going to be comfortable with those organizations who can -- you know, who will have the presence to be able to, you know, use the clear bags or secure the trash cans. The days of the mom and pop PTA group putting on the road race, we may see less and less of those moving forward because of those security reasons. And the infrastructure of those guys just isn't there to put on those type of races. So we may see some consolidation of some races out there because of security reasons.
FISHERAnd, Karen Kincer, as you addressed that point about the security imperative, Chris raised this really interesting question of whether that kind of mom and pop race is falling by the wayside as we see almost a sort of corporatization of big races. Is that happening a lot in this area?
KINCERWhat we're finding -- because we assist a lot of community groups and charitable groups with putting on road races. And so we're finding that they do have some additional questions. They need, you know, some more advice along these sorts of topics. But I agree completely with Chris that knowing that a group like Montgomery County Road Runners or Pacers is working with these small organizations, the mom and pops, the, you know, charity groups that have never done this, I think that that's comforting to the community, to the people that are issuing permits, all the authorities. And it can allow that -- these partnerships that we do can allow that sort of thing to keep going.
FISHERAnd you have in the Montgomery County Road Runners Club -- I mean, this is a nonprofit that sponsors races as do many in the area -- do you see yourself as sort of in competition with all these various charity runs and branded runs?
KINCERAre you referring to the mom and pop or are you referring to...
FISHERWell, I mean, there's such a plethora of options that people have now in all of these sponsored races and so on. Is it a very crowded marketplace and is there any downside to that?
KINCERIt's a crowded marketplace but I think that some of the options that are out there for people now are actually inviting people who would be hesitant to go out and run a traditional road race into the sport. I think that that's a good thing. Maybe they'll come out and they'll join one of our races someday or one of our training programs, after achieving that sort of comfort level.
FARLEYWe're for-profit at Pacers. And yeah, we see it as competition. Maybe it's a little bit different perspective. We do see it as competition and, you know, we want to put on a better experience than the color runs or the glow stick runs or, you know. And we certainly appreciate what they do, but we see them as a different level of completion than we see these guys, Karen, and these guys in Montgomery County who've been there forever. We're not sure how long these color runs or the glow stick runs or, you know, all these new-age runs are going to be. We don't know how long they're going to be around. It's a great entry point, but yeah, it's competition.
FISHERAnd those gimmicky kinds of color runs and fun runs, we have a tweet from a listener who says, "Are runners getting bigger and fatter? I see more runners recreationally and in races, but they seem to be getting bigger. Why is that and why is it not working?" So is that -- this phenomenon of the kind of gimmicky sort of runs?
FARLEYAbsolutely. Again, it's more about the experience for these guys. It's not necessarily about how fast you get from point A to point B, it's about your shirt being tie-dyed afterwards or you're enjoying a beverage or food after the race and experiencing it with a community of friends. It's more about the community now than it is about yourself.
FISHERThat phenomenon has gotten so extreme that last summer the Bowie Baysox minor league baseball team pushed back against this phenomenon by sponsoring a 1K jog around the infield. And anyone who could complete that onerous task would get a Bud Light for their troubles. So clearly…
FISHERThat's what's out there, yeah.
FISHERExactly. And, Mary Pilon, as you see that end of the marketplace, which is kind of more entertainment than anything else and then at the other extreme the tough mudder phenomenon, what's actually happening here? Is this the democratization of running? And what's happening at that sort of high end, the tough mudder phenomenon?
PILONYeah, I don't think anybody would dispute there's been a boom in registration and entries in the sports, whether that's a half marathon or full. One of the things that's happening at the elite levels is this year a competitor group organizes more than 80 high-profile events around the world. They're probably best known for their rock and roll series. They announced that they would no longer being paying appearance fees to elite athletes at their race. And they're one of the for-profit players in the business. And that's opened up this discussion about what is obligation to the elite level of the sport as its base is broadening? You know, this is an off-Olympic cycle. I think that some Olympians do very well and have pretty lucrative sponsorship deals. A lot of them don't.
PILONAnd one of the things about distance running, in particular, that's unique is not that it's easy to be a sprinter, but you only can do so many marathons a year if you're a top athlete. Then you factor in injuries, training, kind of what that lifestyle costs, so a lot of the lead athletes and the Olympians that I've talked to regarding the competitor group decision and otherwise what's going on in the sport, are kind of wondering, as more and more people sign up for these races -- and as much as they love the idea of seeing more people engaged in the sport -- how is that wealth generated from that -- whether that's sponsorship dollars, entrance fees, whatever it may be -- how is that being distributed? It's a really interesting time I think for the sport.
FISHERAnd we have an email from Eric, who says, "Montgomery County Roadrunners Club does a great job of catering to both serious racers and weekend warriors. Pacers also does a great job on its races, but the big conflict is between bikers and runners on the trail." And Rhonda, in Bethesda, wants to talk about that, as well. Rhonda, you're on the air.
RHONDAHi. Yeah, I just had a comment. It sounds exactly like your email. As the sport becomes more and more popular and I think there are more cyclists, as well, the runners are having less problems with vehicular traffic than we do with the competitive bicyclists out there. They just don't stop at stop signs or red lights or crosswalks. And it's an issue. It's a little bit scary out there.
FISHERIt is an issue and it is scary. Is there anything that can be done about it, Chris?
FARLEYWell, I don't know how it is for Mary up in New York, but the biking and the trail system here in the D.C./Montgomery County, Va. area is fantastic. So what can be done? You know, the bikers, I believe, since they're moving at such a higher pace or a higher rate, I think they need to be the ones to maybe slow down a little bit and be very conscious because there are more and more runners. You go on the trails that the Montgomery County Roadrunners run on, on a Saturday or Sunday, and I mean there are hundreds, thousands of people out there. So I think the bikers just have to be a little bit more conscious because they are in control and they are the ones who could do the most damage, to me, it's got to be more on the bikers.
FISHERChris Farley is the owner of Pacer's running stores in the District and Virginia. We're also talking with Mary Pilon of The New York Times and Karen Kincer, president of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club. And when we come back after a short break, we'll take more of your calls and also get into the question of charity runs and whether there is such a thing as charity run fatigue. That's after a short break on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about the running phenomenon, the racing boom in the Washington area and across the country with Mary Pilon of The New York Times, Chris Farley, the owner of Pacers running stores, and Karen Kincer of Montgomery County Road Runners Club. And, Karen Kincer, as a nonprofit organization that stages road races, you've seen the arrival of commercial race operators as well. What's the difference to a runner between a for-profit race and a nonprofit race?
KINCERWell, I think it depends. There doesn't have to be any difference to a runner. I think the most important thing for a runner is to make sure that a race is staged well. That they understand exactly what's happening with the race, that the logistics go well. I do think that in some cases, some of the for-profits -- if they're not local, that can make a big difference. I think the key to any race is to have local people involved in planning and executing it. We know the police, we know the permit guys, we know all these details. And someone coming in from out of town, they may not know how traffic patterns are. They may not realize that road is not as wide as they think and you can't shove 5,000 runners on it. I think that's the difference, is local participation.
FISHERAnd, Mary Pilon, as you look at the bigger races setting aside a block of spots for charities, which then give them to people who raise money for -- by asking their friends and colleagues to contribute and sponsor them, is there concern about charity run fatigue that may be setting in and how is that affecting these big races?
PILONRight. So we saw something really interesting with New York this year. Obviously the race was cancelled last year because of the hurricane. And so the New York Road Runners had to make some decisions about how many spots to carry over, what to let those folks who didn't run do. And just a few weeks before the race, which is a very popular event -- and it's obviously hugely international, so it draws runners from all over the world -- they had about 3,000 charity spots that remained open. And a lot of folks scratched their heads about that and were wondering whether that was a blip or whether there is kind of a fatigue issue going on.
PILONYou know, it's one thing to ask somebody or to choose to train to run 26.2 miles, but then you layer fundraising on top of that and it's a lot of time. And I think one of the things that's happening is people are doing that once or twice, but then it can be hard to ask your same network of friends or family to donate. I think that, especially this time of year, as people kind of think about their philanthropic gifts, they're wondering how much of my money is actually going to the charity. And people are thinking pretty critically about that. So I think these programs are coming under a little more scrutiny, than maybe they have in the past.
PILONAnd for some charities, they've been an anchor of their fundraising programs for quite some time. So definitely a moment to think about a lot of things.
FISHERAnd what is the answer to that question? How much of the money does go to the charities? Is it a substantial enough that you really are making a donation by sponsoring someone or is there a lot of operational costs that's built in there?
PILONIt really, really depends on which charity you're talking about. One of the things that I would ask any runner that is asking for a donation is, you know, why did you pick this charity? What drew you to this cause? And one of the things about these teams that's great is that for a lot of first-time runners, they provide a training group. They walk you through things about hydration and how to prevent injury. And they can be a good infrastructure for a first time person. But on more than one occasion I've also had readers who write and say, you know, can I just write you a check? Or can I just write a check to an organization that I’m more in favor of?
PILONSo it really depends, but I think those are totally fair questions for runners who are interested in doing these races to be asking, as well as potential donors.
FISHEROkay. Let's -- Bridgette, in Damascus, Md., wants to go back to a topic we addressed a little bit earlier in the hour. Bridgette, you're on the air. Bridgette?
FISHERYes. I'm sorry, go ahead.
BRIDGETTEYeah, so I just want to address a comment that that one caller or emailer made, in asking are these athletes getting bigger? And they were looking at color runs and other things like that. And I think that's a really unfair and kind of rude observation to make because number one, clearly, running is not making people fat. Okay. So you look at the whole society of Americans, we're all getting bigger as we go. I'm a sports nutritionist. So I think the whole thing is, again, what the panelists were saying earlier, it's really more of an issue of making races more available to people who didn't think that they could or would do them in the past. A typical 5K, a typical half marathon, a marathon, it seems pretty daunting to most people.
BRIDGETTEAnd I've done several marathons. I've done Iron Man races myself. And honestly, when I'm in the races I applaud those people who don't look like the typical racers, who look heavier, who look not out of their place because I think to myself, well, look at them, they overcame this barrier or not feeling like they weren't part of the race or they couldn't access this. You know what I mean?
BRIDGETTESo I think it's really unfair to pigeon-hole because what it comes down to, honestly -- and most people don’t know this, but working out is about 20 percent of the change you're going to see in your body, nutrition is the other 80 percent. So even if you're training for and you're doing these long-distance events, it's really more about what nutrition you're putting in your body as to where you're going to see most of the change. So you can have…
BRIDGETTE…somebody's who's incredibly fit and still be overweight.
FISHERGreat. Well, thank you, Bridgette. We also have an email from Joanne, in Ashburn, Va., on a similar topic. She says, I wouldn't call myself an alpha female. I started running regularly in March and signed up for the 10K for the parks. I was motivated to run because I knew I had to run over six miles. I lost 15 pounds, just saying." So clearly, people have different experiences there. Chris Farley?
FARLEYAnd I agree with Bridgette and the emailer here, too. I mean, it's not the fact that runners are getting bigger. It's the fact that there's more people in the sport who are participating. There's more participants. I'll give you an example. When I first opened my store 10 years ago, there was probably five running stores in the area. In the D.C. metro area there was maybe five to six stores. I have five stores myself, my competitor has nine. There's six over here. I mean there is just so much more participation in running that there's a need for more races, there's a need for more stores and there's more people. So it's more of a set of -- it's a better example of what the population is, rather than just that skinny runner who's going to do the 5K.
KINCERI think it's really something that we should be celebrating about the sport, quite honestly. You know we have training programs, and we'll have people running seven-minute pace and we'll have people running 12 or 13-minute paces. And they might look a little bit different, sure. But they're all out there and they're working to achieve a goal that they've set for themselves personally. They're working towards a healthier lifestyle. I think that that's something that we should be celebrating and not concentrating on what they're looking like.
FISHERLet's here from Limon, in Annapolis. Limon, you're on the air.
LIMONHey, Karen and Chris, everyone, good morning.
LIMONHey, I want to agree with Karen's point she just made and the point that Chris just made. The growth in the sport has come from people who are not athletic in particular. And if the sport is going to grow it's going to reach into more and more people who are overweight, as I was when I started off running. And so you're going to have more and more people for fitness and weight control reasons coming into the sport. Then the average pace is going to slow down and races are going to take longer to complete. I'm actually down in Annapolis helping out with the half marathon, 10K, coming up this weekend. So, you know, there's going to be a lot of people who are going to take a long time, maybe 14 minute pace, even 15 minute pace to complete these races.
LIMONAnd we should welcome that, as Karen says, that's our success story that we all can share in.
FISHERThank you, Limon. I noticed that Karen Kincer is wearing a shirt that says, running is cheaper than therapy. And, Mary Pilon, as you have looked at running as a fairly expensive sport, or at least one that attracts a higher income participants, what does that mean for the economics of the sponsors and the runners?
PILONWell, from a sponsor perspective, people like running a lot because it historically has been a pretty affluent demographic, but also it's a captive audience. I mean if you are a race sponsor, you can hang a banner above the finish line and people will see it. So you kind of have this interesting way of engaging with people. And one of the things I've been so interested in with running over the last -- I grew up in Eugene, Ore., which is this running mecca, and I've seen the sport change quite a bit over time. And there still are the people who throw on a grungy pair of shoes and an old t-shirt and do the race. And they run their own race and it's fantastic.
PILONAnd there's a lot of people who are spending a lot of money on their gear. And I've always asked people about why that is, like why did you spend, you know, however much money for clothing that you're going to sweat in? It seems a little counterintuitive in some ways. But I think it's a fundamentally different purchase for somebody. These aren't vice purchases. This isn't people buying cigarettes. These are virtuous purchases and people want -- I just recently read a story about neon running gear. I mean it is so I am trying to improve my health and I'm taking this very seriously and I am going to run a race. And there's kind of a declaration that you see with running-related gear. It's a different kind of purchase for people. It's a little more emotional, it's a little more sentimental, in addition to, you know, I want to make sure I have arch support and cars can see me.
PILONI think there's a lot going on here when people buy things. And they don't even realize it necessarily.
FISHEROkay. Well, we're going to have to leave it there. Mary Pilon is a sports reporter for The New York Times. Chris Farley is the owner of Pacers running stores in the District and Virginia. He's also a partner in Pacers Events. And Karen Kincer is president of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club. Thank you all for being here, really appreciate it.
FISHERI’m Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for being with us.
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