Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Running community a resilient bunch
By Darren Rovell
As the affected families come to grips with how the Boston Marathon bombing has changed their lives, and as Bostonians mourn the loss of innocence of one of their most beloved holidays, organizers of the country’s biggest marathons have started to assess how the events will affect their sport.
The early read from the sport's insiders? Marathons not only will survive, they will get stronger.
“The word endurance means resilience, to stand up and overcome the trauma on the body,” said Scott Dickey, CEO of the Competitor Group, the largest private marathon organizer in the United States. “They picked the wrong group. We’re tough and gritty.”
No one can blame Dickey for getting back to business. In December, The Competitor Group was purchased by private equity firm Calera Capital for $250 million. One of Calera’s offices is in Boston, and it is located less than four blocks from the bomb blast on Boylston Street.
In 2013, Dickey’s company will put on more than 30 events as part of its Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, with nine events outside the United States. That’s up from 11 U.S.-only events in 2009. The number of participants in its marathons and half-marathons grew 131 percent from 2009 to 2012, and the company had projected for the participant base to grow another 20 percent in 2013.
Don't expect the running community to deteriorate after the horrific incident in Boston. If anything, it will only get stronger.
And the events in Boston don’t mean that Dickey believes the red-hot growth in endurance running events during the past decade will recede.
“I think people understand that this wasn’t an attack on running; it was an attack on the American psyche,” Dickey said. “And the incredible thing about running is that it’s symbolic of the freedom we have. Now more than ever, I anticipate people are going to say, ‘You can’t take away my freedom.’ People who weren’t planning to run might decide to run now.”
Dickey’s company will host its St. Jude Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon on April 27. With 30,000 registered to run, it is one of the largest in the country. The next day, The Competitor Group will put on a marathon in Madrid. Dickey says his company is not getting many calls from people who want to back out.
Even those who aren't directly involved in the marathon business express optimism for the sport.
"This is a defiant, determined and stubborn bunch," said Lisa Masteralexis, who heads the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass. Masteralexis, who says she has been at the Boston Marathon finish line at least four times, says based on what she has seen on campus in the aftermath, there is no hesitance from the student running community. "They're saying, 'Let's run for peace' or 'Let's run to get our emotions out.' "
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But will a potential increase in insurance and security costs eliminate the smaller events? An official with one prominent sports insurer, who requested anonymity, said that it’s too early to determine whether there will be an increase in premiums, as there had been on race insurance in the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
If insurance and security costs go up, the New York Marathon will not increase fees to make it cost-prohibitive to run, said Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners, which puts on the race.
In 2012, though, the NYRR did wind up passing on the costs to runners to compensate for more police manpower needed to direct traffic in the city. Entry fees increased by $60.
“Our security costs go up every year,” Wittenberg said of the non-profit organization. “We work not to pass them on.”
Wittenberg, who was forced to cancel last year’s race because of Hurricane Sandy, wants to preserve the integrity of the marathon, but says she remains open to anything that will make it safer.
“Monday changed the game,” Wittenberg said. “We were always prepared for terrorism, but it had never struck our industry. Now it struck our sister event that is more like us than any event in the world. So we have to be open to whatever chances can keep people safe and secure for the 26.2 miles.”
Wittenberg noted that when the race was run in 2001 less than two months after Sept. 11, many runners canceled, and the number of participants in the race was the smallest in five years. U.S. airline passenger traffic dropped 7.3 percent in 2001 and 2002, and the airlines lost a reported $19.6 billion.
But like her colleague Dickey, Wittenberg doesn’t expect the phones to ring off the hook from people looking to cancel their race entry.
“I think this will be different,” Wittenberg said. “I think more people will want to be part of the running community.”
Note: The Competitor Group contributes editorial content to ESPN.com’s Endurance sports section.