Race Organizers and Excess Short Term Greed

Before you hear my views about today’s topic, I’d like your anonymous answer to this simple question

Get real honey – it REALLY IS usually about the money!
When I first introduced my children to TV about 10 years ago on a family holiday to Goa it was to Cartoon Network. Along with that ‘entertainment appliance’ came some fartherly wisdom “These channels exist to make money by broadcasting advertisements of companies that want you to buy their products, and they keep you watching their ads by showing you cartoons in-between the ads”. The case for distance running race organizers is not dissimilar.

The larger running race organizers in India have demonstrated clearly over the last few years that their primary motive is to make money. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in making money. In fact, the prefix to my tag line “The refusal to think is evil” from Ayn Rand is “Money is the root of all good”. What troubles me, however, is the frequent inability of these race organizers to think and act beyond their short term greed. A focus, instead, on long term greed would allow race organizers to maintain dominant oligopolies within the growing recreational running racing industry.

Even helpful pacers are not left alone
Although I don’t register often for public races, I made an appearance recently at the most popular 10km race in India. In order to help more runners with their race performance I decided to be a 50 minute pace setter. This popular race had no pacers in previous editions. Perhaps it was because the organizers found out that I was going to dedicate my run to help others with their pace that they decided to organize official pacers themselves. That’s all fine, commendable, in fact. However, as we approached race day I faced direct and indirect harassment from them because I explained that I was not interested in being an official pacer for this specific race. Race organizers need to understand that when you or I pay money to register for their race, we have become their customers. This race organizer, in particular, does not even respond to suggestions of reimbursing race registration fees to pacers. Can you imagine a stewardess on a flight asking you “I know you have paid for this airline seat, but could you please serve the other passengers their dinner? Oh, and if you do, please don’t expect us to refund you your fare!” – that would be shocking, wouldn’t it?

Give, don’t just Take
What annoyed me about this race organizer’s attitude was that it was all about “take take take”. Never mind that they never offer a refund of the race registration fee to pacers, leave aside paying for my travel to the race city, it was their list of flimsy reasons for why I could not run with my own pacer flag that annoyed me. I heard later of respectable runners being manhandled by police at the instructions of the race organizer because the corporate 10km race at the same event had its route markings and barricades bungled up, and these runners were attempting to help put the wrong right. The same race organizer has in other cities not provided appropriate race route hydration, inadequate emergency first aid at the finish line, long queues for post race hydration, chaos at medal collection counters along with race registration fees that seem to go up faster each year than your average race completion speed!

Questions to ask yourself
It’s great that there are individuals or organizations in India that are taking a profit-driven or non-profit approach to improving public health in various ways. When their ways and means become blatantly about grabbing a larger piece of the pie instead of expanding the pie, you as a runner need to step back and ask:

as a paying customer, am I being provided the customer service I expect from a premium service provider?

Taking the airline analogy further, with respect to the distance running race industry, you could ask yourself:

  • Would I be happy to fly with an airline that doesn’t serve me food or drink at the appropriate time?
  • Would I be happy to fly with an airline that does not pay attention to safe landing procedures?
  • Would I be happy to fly with an airline that suddenly changes my travel date by 2 months?
  • Is it fair that another fare paying passenger who helps me get to my destination on time is hassled by the airline?
  • Should I be thinking twice when paying up for a service within an industry where there is no ombudsman or regulator to monitor process and performance and to penalize poor quality service?

When you run a public race that has an entry fee, you expect to be better off (in a non-monetary sense) by at least the amount of the fee that you pay. When you feel this is no longer happening, please do ask yourself if it is because of the excessive short-term greed of the race organizer.

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

24 thoughts on “Race Organizers and Excess Short Term Greed

  1. Ranga

    A coupe of comments:

    In my opinion, the poll question would have been more complete if you had added, “…for the kind of facilities they provide pre, during and post race” 🙂

    On the question of pacers, I always thought the race organisers are within their rights to either have or not have official pacers. I don’t know the logistics of the arrangement but to me it sounds logical that the official pacers should be taken care of (reimbursed for the time, money and effort). It might be difficult to justify/reimburse the expenses of an unofficial pacer though.

    Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to be an official pacer for a given race in order to be able to take advantage of the benefits that come with it .. instead of being an unofficial pacer and feel let down later? If a race organiser is unwilling to recognise and compensate even the official pacers then why agree at all to pace in that race – especially as an unofficial pacer?

    As a side note, it is an altogether different thing that one of the official pacers, in the race you mention, asked me (an ordinary runner who prefers to run at his own pace rather than being part of a pacing group) how much distance and time was covered at a certain point in the race!

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Ranga

      Thanks for your comments. In approximately the same order…

      a) One would hope that in assessing “cheap/appropriate/expensive” each person does their own adjustment relative to what they think they get back.
      b) Unofficial pacers are “unofficial” and do not expect anything back from the owners of the event. Their satisfaction (payback) is from the Thanks they get from those they help during the race.
      c) There’s no reason to feel let down as an unofficial pacer as expectations are minimal viz. “let me run my race as a paid customer and pace whichever customers wish to run with me”.
      d) The most common reason that one paces is to help other runners. When this is “unofficial” it is typically a coach pacing their students, a wife pacing her husband (or vice versa 😉 or simply one friend pacing another. All I was attempting was to enlarge the pie and pace as many unknown runners (similarly paid customers) who CHOSE FREELY to run with me.
      e) Pacers failing at their job is not uncommon in India – it’s nothing to be proud of!
      f) Almost the day after SCMM 2015, the ONLY page that was taken off the official website was that containing a list of all the pacers. This puzzled me and lead to me to investigate… which resulted in my blog (soon after SCMM 2015) where I reported that 29% of the OFFICIAL pacers failed to finish within their preset time!

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  2. BRIGGIE

    Very rightly said Once i had thought running was the most cheapest sport to remain healthy but the crook mind of many organisers have made it the most expensive n glorified sport .

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      It will be fair and lovely soon.
      The results of this poll (and others from previous articles) will be published soon.
      I do not publish them in real-time so as to avoid any additional bias.

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  3. Vikram

    very well written article…I did notice that you decided to be an “unofficial” pace-setter with Ajit a week before the race..and how the “official” pace setters were given their duties a day before..however didn’t know that you were harassed for this act..They should have in fact thanked you for this selfless act…Shocking behaviour indeed…I also notice that smaller runs (especially organized by runner groups) do a far better job in taking care of need of runners…We should indeed have a rating system for such events..

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Thank you Vikram for your observations. Do continue to speak the truth wherever you feel it would help. Rating system…. Hmmmm….now you are giving me ideas 😉

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  4. Krishna Prabhakar

    I do not mind organisers making profit out of Sponsors and Advertisers but it is criminal to make money out of runners or to exploit the runners , as they are the actors/performers in the event ; the cause of the event and not vice versa !

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  5. Hrishikesh

    I ran the Powai half in January and it was a nightmare. The course included going downhill from IIT Powai to the EEH and back. There wasn’t any water whatsoever on our way back until we entered Hiranandani. Traffic was not stopped while the ascend from EEH to Powai. There were no mile markers at all unless the last 2-3 km. it was more of a torture. I almost gave up running since then as I was totally disgusted with their attitude. I wrote them a feedback and didn’t get a reply.. Which means they were not bothered at all. It was a Rotary club organisation with no tie up with any local running club. I have decided to only run one half marathon in an year henceforth, which will be the SCMM thanks to this experience. Met you at this GOA HM and you will agree that the organisers had put their heart and soul in getting the event together.

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      The SCMM has never been my favourite race. For me, the main race of the year, my favourite, is the Goa River (Half) in Dec.

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  6. Sreenath

    Dear Puru,
    Nice article. Possibly knowing the reputation of you guys, the organizers were left protecting their own last-minute official pacers. BTW, hats off to your excellent strategy. As before, due to the organizers mix-up most of the gates opened at the same time and though I was at B hoping to join your group, all of the C to F guys got stacked up in between and the first couple of kilometers were almost a trot … Post flag off, I kept to a pace whenever I could spot you on u-turns and that helped me to a PB of 50:30 …I later came up and said hello to you and Ajit …
    Are you planning to pace the Goa HM or the Kaveri Trial HM ?
    Best wishes,
    Sreenath

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Sreenath
      Thank you for your observations and well done with your race performance.
      I plan to race in Goa in December… one of the few races of the year for me.
      Kaveri Trail HM pacing… hmmmm… sounds tempting!
      Hope to see you on a run again soon.
      Cheers!
      Puru

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  7. Amir Shandiwan

    Dear Puru ,
    Well expressed and well written Blog .
    As a runner i do agree with most of your pointers. When i register for a Run i have Pre and Post race expectation from the Organizer.

    This Sport has improved and has never been easy for any well conducted race .
    As a Race Director or Course Manager over the years i have seen and experienced the challenges the Organizers go through in getting things correct in all areas . Right from permission to wrapping up and reopening the roads is a big task. .Ever tried closing any main Road for few Hours ?? try it once , A 42 km Race organizers tried that few months back in Banglore and ended up in a mess , an article in wall street with a super Headline picture . I am glad the Runners are getting vocal about issues they face ,smart organizers will improve on the pointers to enhance the experience of their runners . This is good ..what is not good is threatening to stop the next International live Run at the Finish line, hold dharnas, threaten organizer of clip uploads ,park vehicles as you feel ,, not done ..Grievances can be raised in an organised and structured manner..
    what one should look for in a Good Race is
    a) Road Closer or Safety provided on Course b) Accurate measured and accredited Course c) Facilities ( Parking , refreshments , Toilets ,Markers , water, Energy Drinks , Signage , Medical Support ) d)Clear Finish line) Timing certificate , rest all is bonus .
    Cheers
    Amir Shandiwan

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Dear Amir

      Thank you for your comments.
      I hope others read them too and make informed judgments.
      A mature discussion on everything of even minor importance should always be encouraged.

      Regards

      Puru

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  8. Manav Gandhi

    Absolutely the short term greed of the organisers is clearly visible. Though in terms of number of people participating is going up, so called good for nothing goodie bags have also shrunk or disappeared, the overall cost per person should actually go down.

    But here it seems the organisers are just inflating the bubble and just waiting it to burst.

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  9. chiggle_wiggle

    Hey,

    I know your a serious runner and I too have paced with you at one of the race, but just a question. Why dont you ever wear a tshirt?

    A 50 year old topless man running… not such a good idea of flaunting your physique!

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  10. Arvind (A2)

    Hi Puru,
    Just read this article when i saw it posted on our event wall on FB. From a runner’s perspective and having participated in many races across the country i concur with what you have mentioned. As a customer when i pay to participate in an event i have expectations that need to be met. Just like any other service provided out there.

    As an event organiser and part of a for profit entity i find our jobs getting tougher. I sense that many runners don’t find anyone making money out of running acceptable. Why can’t we be compared to say the restaurant business. If i find a restaurant expensive, i don’t go there. What i don’t do is to go write on their facebook walls that they are extremely expensive and out there to loot me. Or even ask for a split of their grocery bills. But that’s exactly what happens with us.

    Let us take examples closer home, to the fitness industry – gym memberships, crossfit and yoga classes. We either choose to go there or no depending on affordability, accessibility, interest etc. But in running events it gets tricky – there is certain sense of entitlement that comes in. ‘I got goody bag at this event but didn’t get it at your event’ is a constant chagrin. Philosophically i am not even for a goody bag full of things that have nothing to do with running (mosquito repellant anybody?) but unfortunately expectations set elsewhere translates on to us. We are often forced to publicly declare why we charge as much as we do and not at a healthy discussion level where one wants to understand how events are run. I have friends who run yoga classes, gyms but i don’t hear them having to face these questions.

    As Runners for Life i believe we have helped build the community, conducted many runs purely to give opportunity for runners to meet and for a community to form back in 2006 when there wasn’t one to speak of. Now that there is a running market and umpteen running events of all ilk, sizes and price points, it is time for us to find our spot in the industry. Till now runners have voted with their feet and we have seen all our events grow year on year. This happening in spite of the slew of options out there is encouraging, but every few weeks there are people questioning our ethics and integrity on facebook.

    So do i have a question anywhere here? Not really. Just giving the view from the other side and maybe venting a bit. I am engineer by training who decided to do something different and make a difference but through a for profit organisation. It’s been 10 years and i am not rolling out my mercedes/beamer/honda from my mansion. I take my cycle from my rented accommodation and do what needs done in the running fraternity in a sustainable way for my company and I am very happy. 🙂

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Hi Arvind!

      Thank you for your comments. I am not in disagreement with any of the points you’ve made, none at all.

      With regards to the comparison with a yoga class or a gym, I’d say there are at least 2 key differences (from a game theory perspective):
      1) Unlike the yoga class or gym, a race event is a “one shot game”… you pay your money and then it’s just up to them to deliver. The following year’s race is almost like a new game (new promises to kill the old complaints). In a one shot game where you pay upfront you are at the mercy of the other side. It’s probably with frustration that most people air their views post-game! Perhaps those who see it as a multi-shot game put their money where their experience is and don’t enter that event again. In a yoga class, a multi-period game, you are promised only the one class (or a trial class), if you don’t like it, you can choose to not pay for the one next week. In a gym you can see exactly what you’ll get when you tour the gym, and if there are complaints the manager will fix the problem during the course of your paid membership. In addition, these are places one goes to for training. A running race event is time for delivering performance based on the many months of training, so the frustration levels are automatically higher.
      2) In a gym, one has a one-to-one relationship with the vendor. Each person pays their membership fee on different days of the year. There is no collective bargaining at all. With a race event, there’s a “perception of collective bargaining” and so customers attempt to boycott in a group. However, that does not work well because there is no easy way to unionize and boycott races in droves. There are also the newbie runners who are desperate to run a “famous race” who will continue to fill the coffers of the event organizer because for them, the chance to race at any cost is what matters. There are many, for instance, who will pay the entire Rs10,000 from their own pocket to run with a charity bib.

      It is not easy at all to conceptualize, plan and then execute a distance running event. Please let me not take that credit away from your events or that of even the ones that I have complained about. Acts of God, or acts of mob are not so easy to control. However, what I see repeatedly is the refusal to think through things in a systematic manner to reduce the probability of negative events. For instance, it’s a bit stupid for a race organizer to say “we didn’t expect 25,000 runners to be collecting medals, hence the pandemonium and stampede” when they sold the tickets to those 25,000 customers!

      In general, I’d say, the races organized by running groups achieve a higher satisfaction level. Those organized by pure profit seekers in the distance running trend achieve lower levels of satisfaction. If the latter gave up part of a single year’s profits to provide better quality, they might find that they expend fewer resources in alleviating reputation risk post-event and have only positive comments by customers on public forums.

      I look forward to running in one of your events one day soon.

      Regards

      Puru

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    1. purutheguru Post author

      Very witty!
      But, perhaps, if you just take the first ‘M’ and morph it a bit… it can look like an ‘A’
      😉

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  11. Pingback: Reporting on Pacing Failures at the SCMM 2016 | Puru The Guru

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