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July 22, 2008

Instant Recipe?

I’ve read enough fitness magazines over the years that almost nothing surprises me anymore. Whether related to running, triathlon, or ultras, most mag articles fall into predictable categories: training tips, weight loss advice, motivational incentives, race reports, “lifestyle” pieces, and so on. After a while, the themes and prose grow commonplace and repetitive.

But every now and then, I read something that causes me to sit up and say, whaaaat??

Such was the case when I read the Starting Lines column in the August 2008 issue of Triathlete. More specifically, it was the following line that almost made me choke on my drink:
If you want to start a profitable business with an instant recipe for success, consider starting a triathlon somewhere.

Maybe it’s not an outlandishly insulting notion at first glance, and perhaps in some parts of the country, that sentiment might even be true. However, it struck a chord with me, because my friend Mike and I had just written a pair of Monterey Herald articles about the enormous difficulty in putting on successful road races.

In the first column, we reminisced about all the races that had folded – 28 by our count - over the years we’ve lived in Monterey County. (I haven’t posted it here, but if you’re interested, contact me and I’ll e-mail it to you.) Then last week, we indulged in a little creative writing exercise to illustrate just why so many races have difficulty sustaining themselves for even a single year, let alone becoming profitable over the long term.

The scary part is, the costs and problems we identify are pretty accurate; we didn’t have to fabricate too much in order to convey the daunting challenge of hosting a race. The political angles were culled from experiences that both of us have had on race committees over the years.

And remember, these are just running races we’re talking about. With a triathlon, you can figure that the costs and red tape are not merely tripled, but increased by a factor of 10. So while it’s not usually my nature to call out a fellow writer, in this case I can’t help but think that the premise of getting rich by creating a hometown triathlon is patently ridiculous.

Anyway … our Herald article is below – and if we’re way off base, feel free to offer a rebuttal afterwards.


Running Life 7/19/08 "Let's Put On a Race"

A few columns ago we lamented the passing of several local races - 28 to be exact. So why is it so hard to maintain a road race, anyway?

For the answer, let’s eavesdrop on the town council of Pancake Flats, as they discuss putting on a local 5K. Maybe we’ll learn a bit about race economics and politics. The Mayor is presiding.

Ms. Mayor: “We'll schedule the 5K for the first Sunday in May in order to show off our city, bring in tourists, and get our families fit and healthy. Let’s try to get 300 people.”

Reverend Shepherd: “But Ms. Mayor, Sunday is the Lord’s day. We don’t want people staying away from Church.”

Ms. Mayor: “Can we do Saturday then, Rabbi Ginsburg?”

Rabbi: “Vell, I von’t run … but it vill be OK. Ve’ll suffer through it.”

Ms. Mayor: “I thought we’d start at the town square and run south on 2nd street and turn around and come back.”

Mrs. Halfpenny: “Then no one will see our businesses on the north side of town! Let’s start at Northside Mall and run to the Town Square instead.”

Ms. Mayor: “If we do that, we’ll need buses to take people back to the start area when the race is over. I’m sure the school district or the transit company will donate them for such a fine cause.”

Mrs. Skinner (Head of the School Board) and Mr. Wheeler (President of the transit company) both speak at the same time: “Hey - times are tough, budgets are restricted, gas is prohibitive, insurance is expensive, we have to pay overtime on Saturday, and you’ll need 8 buses and drivers and the minimum rental is 4 hours. The best we can do is - and this is a bargain - $6,500.”

Mr. Biggs (head of the Town Council): “While we’re talking about money, even though this is a city event, you need to pay the City’s event fee of $500 and the use fee for the Town Square of $500.”

Officer Badge (Chief of Police): “For all those road closures, we’ll need a dozen officers for overtime on Saturday to handle traffic control. That will be $2,000. And don’t forget you’ve got to close the freeway offramps at 2nd street, so you’ll need State Dept. of Transportation permits for $500.”

Mr. Clean (Chief of Sanitation): “Make sure we have enough porta-potties. They’re $50 each and $100 for the disabled ones. You can never have too many potties. I’ll provide 10 of each at the start and finish areas, and 3 at each aid station. There’s also a cleanup fee at the end. Total cost will be about $2,000.”

Ms. Mayor: “Why do we need disabled porta-potties at a race?”

Mr. Clean: “State law, for spectators, and you might have some wheelchair participants. And I almost forgot - we want a Green race don’t we? That costs another $750.”

Ms. Mayor: “Green race?! What makes our race Green?”

Mr. Clean: “We leave no environmental footprint. Just let me worry about that. That’s what you pay me for.”

Mr. Goodfella (union representative): “I’ll make you a deal - we’ll charge you rock bottom for setting up the tables and awards stands and everything you need at the finish line. I can get my guys for $3,000. Set up, take down. No worries.”

Ms. Mayor: “This is getting out of hand. Why can’t we just have some volunteers set up the tables?”

Mr. Goodfella: “It’s a Union town. That’s how you got elected, Ms. Mayor. No one sets up an event without Union workers.”

Ms. Mayor: “How about you Mrs. Brooks - you’re the Pancake Flats running club President. What do the runners want?”

Mrs. Brooks: “We expect the Pancake Flats 5K to have all the usual amenities of other races. The course needs to be USATF certified ($1,800) and sanctioned ($300). We want long sleeve technical-fabric shirts for all participants ($4,500), and finishers medals for everyone ($1100). Awards 5 deep in each 5 year age group for both men and women from under 15 to 85 and over ($3,000) are standard. We need large, highly visible mile markers ($1,000). Rock bands at each mile and at the finish area ($2,500) would be great. We also need chip timing and timing mats at each mile so we can see our splits on the Internet the next day. ($10,000). That’s about it.”

Ms. Mayor: “Is that ALL?”

Mrs. Brooks: “Well, that’s not counting food - coffee at the start, and a buffet at the finish. Not just the usual bananas, gatorade, and power bars – but maybe free beer, bratwurst, pancakes, or sandwiches. Great food gets you a lot more runners for sure. ($3,000)

Ms Mayor: “And I’d like to ask the City Attorney, Mr. Counsel, what do you think?”

Mr. Counsel: “We need race liability. I’d say about $1,000 for race day insurance. Don’t forget medical support and two ambulances and doctors on duty just in case anything happens ($3,000). And we need communication systems to make sure this all works ($2,500).

Ms. Mayor: “Wow. Is there anything I’ve forgotten?”

Mrs. Brooks: “We haven’t mentioned basic race expenses: advertising ($1,000), race bibs ($200), printing of race brochures and entry blanks ($1,500), creating and managing a race website ($1,500), start and finish banners and traffic control signage ($3,000). Most races collect money for charity as well, maybe $10,000 donated to some local causes.”

Ms. Mayor: “I’d like to ask Mr. Balance, our City Treasurer, based on our discussion today to compute what our race entry fee would be to break even.”

Mr. Balance: “Well, we have around $70,000 in expenses and I’m sure we’ve forgotten some so let’s round it to $75,000. We’re expecting 300 runners, so we’ll have to charge $250 for our 5K in order to break even.”

Mrs. Brooks: “That’s CRAZY. No runners will show up at that price. The city of Rolling Hills has a 5K that’s only $25.”

Ms. Mayor: “Yes - but for this one year, our Pancake Flats will have the BEST 5K EVER!”


Danielle in Iowa 7/23/08, 4:44 AM  

Haha, that was great! As a fundraiser for my school's cross-country ski club, we were thinking of doing a trail race at the place we ski in winter, but we gave up on that idea pretty fast once we started looking into it!

keith 7/23/08, 7:14 AM  


But it does make you appreciate the hard work that goes into actually putting on a good race. Not even a great race, a good race.

Makita 7/23/08, 7:33 AM  

That's great! Certainly does make you appreciate them...

stronger 7/23/08, 8:01 AM  

Where can I sign up?

21stCenturyMom 7/23/08, 8:39 AM  

Perfect. Our local 5K/10K was apparently tanked by PF Changs which doesn't even open until 11 on Sunday morning, a couple of hours after the race would be done.

Backofpack 7/23/08, 3:02 PM  

Sad, but true. It's kind of amazing how fast it all adds up.

mindy 7/23/08, 6:22 PM  

Says a lot for the "Fat Ass" ultra races! http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080125.wlfatass25/BNStory/lifeMain/home

Rainmaker 7/23/08, 8:13 PM  

Good writeup! Interesting to account for all the fees. Amazing how much extra junk gets tacked on.

Cliff 7/24/08, 10:46 AM  


I agree. It takes a lot of work and $$ to organize and deal with logistics to hold a race.

Who thinks starting a race is a quick way to make money, that's just wrong..

I would say the fastest way to make money is to sell some product and say it is specialize for Ironman and mark it up by 200%. :)

But that will be just wrong...

msimpson 7/24/08, 2:30 PM  

Loved the write-up! So true - our little wine country race tanked after the second year, when the race director was in the hospital having an appendectomy on race day. Loved the disabled port-a-john comment.

triguyjt 7/24/08, 7:04 PM  

yes..you nailed it.....

crazy isn't it....

just have everyone jump on their own treadmills and email in their times.......LOL

much cheaper.. good job on calling out the writer

Anne 7/27/08, 6:50 PM  

You have a point, but I think it might just be the greed factor among your public officials. My track club is a non-profit and rarely spends that kind of money to put on a race. But we also don't close down streets very often -- we use parks or share the road with early morning motorists. Also, even the for-profits get product for free (water, Gatorade, Gu, etc.) in exchange for a mention in the literature or on the T-shirt (which also can be bought on the cheap if in bulk). If there's a city logo on there, they've cut a deal too.

I have to agree with the magazine. The proliferation in events is partly because it's easy money for profit-driven organizers. Just look at the growth of the Ironman and Rock 'n' Roll franchises. Look at the spike in fees! And they even make the cities provide the staffing (a.k.a. volunteers). They wouldn't be in this business if there wasn't a lot of money to be had.

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