Late last month I spent a Sunday morning in Central Park, combining a long training run with spectating the More Marathon and Half Marathon. This post won’t be a tirade about NYRR’s decision to cancel the full marathon and turn the half marathon into a fun run. There are already enough angry tirades about that. Actually, it won’t be a tirade at all. No, I think the word “lament” most appropriately applies in this case.
My personal history with the More event
I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the More Marathon event. I have a great deal of affection for the race, as it was the scene of my first and third marathons, the latter also being my “best” marathon not in terms of time but in terms of preparedness and running a good race. The first marathon, aside from being where I popped my marathon cherry, was notable for the galvanizing mid-race epiphany I had when Susan Loken blew by me, running about a 6:25 mile. “Hey,” I thought, “She’s running the full, which means she’s over 40. Why shouldn’t I eventually be able to run that fast too?”
I also love the idea of a marathon exclusively targeted for masters women. So few of us are fast enough to lead a marathon pack or break the tape in big races (or even some of the more competitive smaller ones). Or, even if we’re very fast, we’re nonetheless usually lost in a crowd of male runners in most races.
But the race has its definite shortcomings. The most obvious one is the inevitable chaos that ensues when you mix faster runners with slower runners and walkers on a multi-loop course. This problem is especially pronounced in Central Park, where only part of the road can be devoted to the race, making it even more crowded. I ran the 2008 with a GPS watch, which reported my distance as nearly 28 miles. I believe it, considering that I spent most of the race dodging around runners, or running wide around the crowds hugging the right curb; in some cases, I had to run outside of the course tape and cones entirely just to move forward.
The crowding is inevitable in any race in Central Park. But the problem in this race has become especially acute as the number of half marathon participants has swelled in recent years. In 2008, the 140-odd full marathoners were sharing the course with over 7,000 half marathoners. This year, the official registration count was around 9,600. It’s just not possible to run your best race (either in the full or the half) when you’re running through crowds of slower runners and walkers for several loops.
The event — which is really a half marathon event at this point, with a few marathoners thrown in — has many merits. It raises a ton of money for charity and encourages women of all abilities to participate in a demanding physical activity, whether that be walking or running 13.1 miles, or the full 26.2. The sheer number of out-of-towners also probably contributes quite a bit to the city’s coffers in terms of tourism dollars spent. So, I get it — NYRR makes a lot of money on half marathon registrations with little additional overhead to accommodate the growing numbers every year.
The More full — a race in decline
The More marathon, which debuted in 2004, started out well. Over 350 women ran the race, although no one broke three hours that first year. Then, in 2005, it clearly was on the radar of some faster masters elites; Susan Loken and Janet Robertz showed up and both ran well below 2:50. Although participation dropped off to around 250 runners, it got more competitive: the average finishing time also plummeted by about 15 minutes. A year later, participation dropped off by another 75 runners and the winning/average times stagnated.
2006 was the year during which the race locked into its current trajectory of decline, both in terms of participation numbers and quality of competition. In 2007, the number of runners was down to 143 and, aside from Susan Loken (who, with her three wins there and a course record, has become the competitive “face” of the More marathon) the faster runners were all gone. Finally, in 2008, the last year there was actually a timed race (this year being cancelled due to a heatwave), Loken ran the half as a tuneup for the Olympic marathon trials and again no one broke three hours.
In the meantime, participation numbers for the half ballooned and, in direct proportion, so did the scathing reviews of the More full marathon on sites like MarathonGuide.com. I won’t analyze the competitive pattern of the half because, quite frankly, it’s marketed as a non-competitive event. This has worked well for NYRR and half marathon participants alike. But at what cost to the full marathon?
Either make the More into a world class race or pull the plug
I believe the More marathon could be made into a uniquely great event if NYRR wanted to do so. Here’s how:
Separate the two races
The only reason I ran the More again in 2008 was because I was obsessed with cracking the top 10 after I cracked the top 20 in 2007. But now that I’ve made training and running just two races a year my priority, I’m not going to “waste” one of those efforts on a logistically nightmarish course like the More race’s. If NYRR wants to halt the decline of full marathon participation, as well as the terrible reviews, they should separate the full from the half. In 2008, it wasn’t just the runners who were overwhelmed by crazy race logistics. The race marshalls were too, as evidenced by a large number of women who were misdirected at a critical point late in the race and ran a short course and were disqualified as a result.
One strategy would be to hold both races on the same day, but that makes for a long day for volunteers. Instead, they would do well to run the races on separate days, which brings me to the next idea…
Make the half racers your cheering section for the full
Why not promote the event as the “More Marathon Weekend”? Hold the full a bit later on Saturday morning (and the half on Sunday) and allow race day packet pickup for the full race participants. Stage the expo somewhere nearby. Then encourage the half participants to come watch the full event before they head off to the expo. Imagine how different a race atmosphere you’d have if even a few thousand of your half race participants turned up to watch and cheer the full marathon runners. I for one would love to run in — or watch — such a race. NYRR and BAA learned the value of piggybacking the men’s and women’s Olympic marathon trials on the NYC and Boston marathons. Why not take the same approach with the More races?
Increase the prize purse for the full to attract great masters runners
Consider this: some of the world’s best female marathoners are fast approaching 40 (or they have even already passed it: more here and here). Also, the F40-44 and F45-49 age groups tend to be among the most competitive (this is an admittedly anecdotal statement, but apparently others have noticed the same pattern). There is an eager demographic, hungry for a great race like this.
Imagine if you could draw some of these faster runners who, once past their prize-winning (and appearance fee) primes, could nonetheless compete for a decent cash award in the More. Couldn’t some of the dollars made on half registrations be devoted to growing participation in the full by upping the prize incentives? In the process, you might even get some of the masters elites and sub-elites who ran in its early days to come back too. Dare I imagine the likes of Paula, Deena and Constantina running those big hills in a few years?
Institute a dedicated training/mentoring program
NYRR markets the More event as a “get out there and move, you can do it” event, which has worked well for them. It’s a fact that the half marathon is growing in popularity faster than the full, which is why you see so many combination events. But the unfortunate side effect of this growth in the half’s popularity is that the shorter event often eclipses the longer one. Up here in Westchester, they’ve done away with the full Westchester Marathon after just a few years for this very reason; why bother keeping volunteers and sponsors around for six plus hours for a hundred or so runners when the real money is in the thousands of half racers who are done in three hours?
What if NYRR marketed the two events differently? Namely, rebrand the half as an event for two distinct audiences: for the majority, it remains about community and fun, but for another group it’s a gateway to competitive running and perhaps “moving up” to the full race. I imagine that if you put a bunch of half participants out on the course to cheer on the full racers, the wheels might start to turn for some of them in terms of sparking a desire to try the full distance. For those women, have a table at the expo where they can explore a future full race with the support of training resources: a training group (virtual, local or both) dedicated to preparing for the More full event, connecting full participants with aspiring runners to offer support and advice, etc.
If it’s going to continue to wither, just pull the damned plug
I love the More Marathon not for what it is but for what it could be: Not just the world’s only full marathon exclusively for women over 40, but a race that attracts world-class talent and fosters talent growth among masters runners. I said at the start of this post that I wouldn’t be posting a diatribe about this year’s race. But I will say that there was something sad about this year. Despite the presence of Loken and Olympian Magda Lewy-Boulet, there was no real sense of excitement; the event had the distinct vibe of neglect and afterthought. (Although, to be fair, that may have been more a reflection of the last minute changes due to weather. It’s hard to know.)
Anyway, I say that if NYRR isn’t going to nurture the full marathon, it’s time to put it out of its misery.
Updated: It looks like the More full is no more.