Whatever happened to racing?

By Michael Drabenstott

mushroom cap

I never ran the Blue Eagle 5K race in Nazareth. Maybe you know a race like it. It drew a decent field and a lot of solid runners. There were 186 finishers in 2010. Thirty-four of them finished in less than 20 minutes; nine finished under 18 minutes. That’s a truckload of speed for a race of that size.

It was a fundraiser for the Nazareth High School track and cross country teams. The 3.1-mile race had been run 14 times through the quaint, tree-lined streets of Nazareth. More recently, it had been done in memory of town Police Chief Bruce Ruch, who passed away in 2007 of pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, the race didn’t survive to see its 15th running. It was cancelled a year or two ago due to lack of interest. Registration had dwindled. Very light preregistration numbers compelled organizers to bag the race. Because it was a fundraiser, it would be unthinkable to risk the possibility of not even covering costs.

In the following months, I started noticing other 5Ks that have appeared recently in the greater Lehigh Valley.

  • An assortment of color runs – which are not even timed races – where thousands of participants show up and get blasted with colored corn starch, finishing the event looking like a human Gobstopper.
  • The Haunt 5K Zombie Run at Dorney Park, where runners were strongly encouraged to dress as a zombie and grab flags from “humans” during the race for prizes.
  • And in what could be a sign of an impending apocalypse: The IronPigs Bacon 5K Challenge, where runners could opt to eat a half pound of bacon mid-race. (Forget water or Gatorade. The midway aid station featured pounds of greasy cured pork.)

michael drabenstottThat’s on top of the litany of Tough Mudders, Mud Runs, Spartan Runs, Warrior Dashes and 200-mile relays. Most of these races draw participants numbering in the thousands.

All of this got me thinking: what ever happened to racing?

You know, where you showed up, handed $20 or $25 to a smiling volunteer, pinned on a bib and ran a measured distance as hard and as fast as you could. It didn’t matter whether you aimed to finish your 5K in 17 minutes, 27 minutes or even 47 minutes. The goal was to feel satisfied that you had given your all – your very best every step of the way.

It wasn’t to finish with a face full of color, a handful of prizes or a belly full of bacon.

Today, it seems like many people are seeking a unique, extraordinary experience, perhaps even something resulting in a picture that finds its way to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

But isn’t the act of running a race – of pushing yourself to your limit, of going head-to-head with your competitors – a worthwhile experience in its own right? There were no selfies at the inaugural Blue Eagle 5K in Nazareth – just dozens of runners who wanted to see what they were made of.

Somewhere amid the corn starch, costumes and obstacles, the satisfaction of running a race for running’s sake has been compromised. A clock that gives us a finishing time has been replaced with a smart phone that gives us self-indulgent digital pictures and videos.

An equally disconcerting aspect of the newly popular races is that they’re often organized by for-profit entities. In a typical 5k with 200 runners, about half of all entry-fee revenue would benefit a non-for-profit or community group. Organizers would dedicate hours and hours of volunteer time to realize proceeds from the race and advance their mission.

On the contrary, a color run with 8,000 participants and a $40 entry fee generates $320,000 in revenue — and that’s before their VIP events, merchandise sales and sponsorships. Admittedly, many of these events partner with a handful of local or national charities and dedicate a portion of the revenues to good causes. Nonetheless, a significant percentage ends up in the pockets of the organizers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not totally opposed to some of these new races. They often provide a refreshing break from everyday training. They can deliver a new challenge that transcends running itself. And if they inspire people to get active and moving, that’s a good thing. Today’s color runner may be tomorrow’s half marathoner or 20-mile-a-week runner. It doesn’t matter where those first steps happen as long as they lead to a lifetime of fitness.

But far too often, the novelty of a new concept in racing overshadows the idea of a race itself – the battle of you against the course and you against the clock and you against the runner on your shoulder as you kick. There is nothing purer in all of sport than the act of racing other human beings to a finish line.

So as you’re planning your running calendar, make an effort to support local races that support local causes. Celebrate the very act of running and racing. We’ll be a stronger running community because of it.

And you won’t need to spend an hour removing colored corn starch from your ears.


Micheal Drabenstott has been running and racing since May 1999, when his wife entered him in a 5k hoping to shut him up. After a surprisingly good time in cross-trainers and cotton clothes, he’s never looked back. A resident of Allentown, Pa., he is the race director of the West End St. Patrick’s 5k in Allentown and volunteers on the race committees of the St. Luke’s Half Marathon and D&L Half Marathon. He is also chairman of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Michael is a RRCA level 1 certified coach.

2 Comments

  1. I think it’s a regional issue, whereas growth in the sport seems to be catching on in other parts of our country, some not very far away. Highly active running clubs seem to be bonding community interest. I believe we have a need for more of the competitive, communal team spirit here in the LV. It’s happening now, with our trail runners, yet our road runners are a little disinterested in groups, at least from what they were a decade ago. I hope it comes back around.

  2. Right on every count, and I can only guess that we, as a people, have gotten too lazy, too complacent, and/or too comfortable with a life free of real, physical challenges. The local races, the ones that actually benefit someone / something other than the organizers’ bottom line, were the cornerstone of running in this country for decades, and continue to be for racing. It truly is a shame that there are so few competitive runners, at least enough to keep the local, charity races going.

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