The Philadelphia Distance Run technically died in 2010 when it was turned into a Rock 'n' Roll half marathon. But now any remains of what had been one of the greatest and fastest half marathons in the world have been burned away thanks to a business decision made by a private equity firm that just so happens to be in the race business.
Right before Labor Day Weekend, the Competitor Group, which operates 38 Rock 'n' Roll races, told elite runners that they would stop paying appearance fees and travel costs, effective immediately.
This decision means that, locally, elite runners who were promised a paycheck for running in the Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll half marathon on Sept. 15 just had that money taken off the table, less than three weeks before the event (though any travel arrangements already paid for will be reimbursed).
This is bad—like a publisher changing its mind about paying for a book after a writer has just wrapped up research. That's why, in publishing, we have advances. In professional running, those are appearance fees. They're supposed to support the work that goes into getting ready for an event, and Competitor just blindsided the professional running community.
"I don't think it's fair to the legacy of the people who built the event," said Tony DeSabato, who was one of the early organizers of the Philadelphia Distance Run. "I don't think it's fair to the elite community. I don't think it's fair to the recreational community."
The Philadelphia Distance Run was founded in 1978 and quickly became one of the most exciting, if not the most competitive half marathons on the racing circuit. Olympic medalists Lasse Viren, Rod Dixon and Michael Musyoki raced here. In 2005, Deena Kastor broke the American women's half marathon record that had stood for 20 years, right here on the streets of Philadelphia. And for amateurs, the event drew you in because you could run with the fastest runners in the world.
This was all done at a race tht was put on by a group of volunteers, including DeSabato. The race was then sold to Elite Racing in 2005—a group that held the same ideas about putting on races that both supported professional runners and allowed amateurs to run with them in the same race at the same time.
In 2007, Elite was bought by the Competitor Group, which started as a conglomerate of endurance sports-related companies, like Velo Press, which publishes books for athletes, and Competitor Magazine. The Competitor Group is now owned by Celara Capital, a private equity firm. CEO Scott Dickey describes them as "a media company as much as we're an event company."
According to Dickey, the end of elite appearance fees was a business decision.
"We've gotten to the point that we invest in the experience for all of our participants, and not just those at the front of the pack," said Dickey. "We've been paying appearance fees for athletes just to show up and use the races as a training mechanism. It's a disproportionate investment. We're putting those moneys back into the experience."
They will still pay winner's fees, and keep a handful of what he calls "partnerships" with runners at the very top of the sport.
"We're still going to have an elite field, but a more sized down elite field than we have had historically," he said.
I wouldn't have as big a problem with this decision if they changed the fee structure of races they grew themselves. But they bought a cluster of races under the umbrella of a company called Elite Racing, and, after years of tugging, has ripped out its spine.
"When you're in a sport like that, you do have an obligation to support the sport, and clearly [Competitor] doesn't think that they are in the sport. They think they're in fitness. Well, open a fitness club," said DeSabato.
I may not be fast, but when I race, I race. I don't want to wear a tutu, be shot in the face with colored corn starch, crawl through mud pits or ward off zombies. Those events have their purpose. They can be a fun thing to do with friends, a corporate team building exercise, or allow someone hesitant to try running the opportunity to dip his or her toe into the sport.
And that's fine—but these aren't road races. The Color Run isn't even timed. A 15,000 person fun run has replaced a race that supported and developed professional runners who went on to represent the U.S. in international racing—that's the problem here.
Dickey says that the decision has been in the making for a long time, but that doesn't ring true when appearance fees were wiped out less than three weeks before one of their marquee races. Or this was a decision made with absolutely zero consideration to professional runners who would be most affected. Then again, they appear to be on a cost cutting spree. Even though the Philadelphia event is on pace to sell out, this week Competitor announced they were canceling the St. Pete and Pasadena Rock'n' Roll half marathons because of low participation.
Running is a community sport, a mix of amateurs and professionals, and each side of the pack cares about the other. For an organization that has already created so much ill will by turning beloved, local races into expensive events that this week have been described to me as "Wal-Mart" and "McDonalds" like, cutting elite support is only going to deepen those scars, especially the place where the PDR used to be.