Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why listening to runners is crucial for race organizers

I started my birthday on a great note, running 5 miles in :53 with much-needed core work, excited that in just 72 days I will run my third marathon of the year and 10th overall. Then I returned home to a bombshell: New York City Marathon organizers are taking away the runners' crucial ability to check their own bag. Imagine!

For those who don't run endurance races, the No-Baggage Policy from the New York Road Runners might not seem like a big deal. It is a huge deal, however, as evidenced by the massive outpouring of outrage from NYCM entrants all day on social media, me included.

Click here to see the exact email blast that we all received. When I saw the subject line in my inbox, I was excited. "Announcing a New ING New York City Marathon Policy," it read. Entry fee skyrocketed beyond any marathon on Earth, well over $200 this time, so my immediate reaction was that the email was going to be about some privileged bonus we receive, having shelled out that kind of money.

Wow, what a disheartening email. My first reaction was devil's advocate. I am a big fan of NYRR, which helped change my life for the better. Just look at my previous post. I was a guest of NYRR head Mary Wittenberg a few years back for a thinktank luncheon, where I joined those who expressed ideas that could help the growth of NYRR and benefit runners. I have always liked that they consider our views.

This was a great aberration in that our views were not considered. That is the failure here. The email blast included an array of qualifying info at the bottom, as they braced for the fallout that happened.

First, the facts: A marathon is 26.2 miles. On November 4, it will be chilly in the Northeast as a best-case scenario. We could get a real cold blast. After many miles it gets into your bones. By the finish line, you are just waiting for that sanctuary that is your bag. Mine typically would contain Aleve (can't pop pain meds during a marathon because pain is important), sweatshirt or coat, KNIT CAP, warmup pants, Crocs, towel, inhaler, etc. Everyone is different and no one can know what I need in my bag.

You actually bring TWO bags with you to on the typical marathon morning. Besides the bag that you check, you bring a disposal bag, one that will contain items you take with you onto the course, plus sundry items including a banana, old gloves, handwarmers, whatever you don't need later. In my 2 previous NYC Marathons, the trucks awaited our bags at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and you dump your bag. Then you retrieve it after the race around Strawberry Fields on the West Side of Central Park and get out your much-needed belongings after enduring impossible circumstances.

Everyone can agree that the bag retrieval method in past NYC Marathons was horrific, because we were herded like cattle after the finish line for nearly a mile, cold and aching, and in my case injured. It was brutal and that had to be changed. NYRR did that. Unfortunately, they did it the wrong way.

I ran the Miami and Paris Marathons previously this year. I have not needed a bag check in Miami in my two times running that event, as it is warm and wonderful, with my wife easy to find at the finish. Paris was exemplary. Near the base of Arc de Triomphe, where we start, the bag check takes place in tents positioned on both sides of the wide, expansive Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I took this video as I walked to the bag dropoff tents before the race, when it was a cold wind on April 22. Look at the bag tents on each side:

See what I mean? You can see the arch just ahead of them. We were able to duck into those tents for wind cover before the start, and it was so easy to pick up your bag afterwards. TRES FACILE!

Central Park is FREAKING HUGE. There is no excuse in late August to make the mistake of removing bag check outright when you could have adjusted the finish line or done whatever it took to finish at a wide area, and I don't care if it's Citi Field instead of Central Park. Bag check is more important.

Mary's email provided these details, and some of my responses are in all-caps:

You can bring clothing and food with you to the start area in a clear plastic bag that you'll receive at the expo. The difference this year is that you will not be able to check this bag for transport to the finish. MAKING THE DISPOSAL BAG OFFICIAL, CHANGES NOTHING FOR THE AVERAGE RUNNER LIKE ME. • Thanks to a major new initiative with Goodwill Industries and UPS, you will be able to leave warm-up clothing at Fort Wadsworth to be donated to provide a positive benefit to the community. WE ALREADY HAVE A FAMOUS TRADITION OF LEAVING OUR RACE MORNING ATTIRE IN CLUMPS AT THE START, AND FOR YEARS THAT GEAR HAS BEEN LEFT BEHIND TO HELP THOSE IN NEED. THIS IS NOTHING NEW AND MEANS NOTHING TO ME OR OTHER PARTICIPANTS WHATSOEVER, OTHER THAN BEING BETTER ORGANIZED ON THAT END. • You can communicate with friends and family, free of charge, at new NYRR "Call Home" stations at the start and the finish. THERE WAS NO WIRELESS SIGNAL AT THE END OF THE NYC HALF AT SOUTH STREET SEAPORT SO I COULD NOT FIND MY WIFE FOR A LONG TIME, AND MANY OF US WORRY THIS WILL BE EVEN WORSE. MANY PEOPLE NEED OVERSEAS NUMBERS. SEE INFINITE OTHER COMPLAINTS ABOUT THIS ON FACEBOOK. Shortly after you cross the finish line, you'll receive a United Airlines and Foot Locker Heatsheet and Recovery Bag presented by Hospital for Special Surgery. THESE ARE STANDARD ISSUE AT MANY MARATHONS AND IN THE LAST NYC HALF. Then upon exiting the park, you'll receive a water-repellent (IF IT RAINS I WILL BE EVEN ANGRIER ABOUT THIS), hooded, and fleece-lined Marathon Finish Line Poncho. I APPRECIATE THAT THIS IS AN EXTRA EXPENSE, BUT NO TWO PEOPLE ARE ALIKE, MANY OF MY FRIENDS SAY THEIR "COAT" IS VITAL, AND IT'S JUST A TOP. • Shortly after you exit the park, you'll be able to reunite with your loved ones in our new and improved Family Reunion area. IF I CAN REACH LISA, AND I AM GUARANTEED TO GO INTO THIS MARATHON IN A WORRIED STATE. (AND SO ON...I AND OTHERS HAVE QUESTIONS FOR EVERY ANSWER BROUGHT UP BY THIS SUBJECT. I WILL HAVE TO MAKE MY WAY TO A CAR PARKED FAR AWAY AND THEN WE DRIVE NORTH TO SUBURBS. FAQs ARE USELESS BTW.)


The only logical option is for NYRR to listen to the widespread complaints and immediately revert or alter course. In the meantime, this is my only option of attack, since I have committed my entry fee (and by the way, I have paid a lot of entry fees to meet the 9+1 requirement for guaranteed 2013 entry): I will ask my wife to lug around my usual bag that I would normally check, and then I will ask her to be around Columbus Circle at an estimated time, where she will hand me my back and I will lug it to the finish line. Not ideal.

This never should have happened, and certainly runners like me should have been asked. I'm pretty mad about it, especially given the soaring cost. Lesson learned by NYRR on this one: always ask!

UPDATE 8/30/12: NYRR posted this on Facebook just now:

Dear Runners,

Many of you have shared your concerns about the new ING New York City Marathon baggage policy, which was designed to provide a better and safer post-finish experience.
We are listening and taking your feedback to heart.

We are working hard and talking with all involved parties to consider how we might address some of your concerns regarding baggage at the Marathon.

Thank you for your patience and we look forward to sharing more with you in the coming days.


George (La Lynx) said...

Great post, Mark! I would expect that there will be more congestion caused the by Call Home stations than was ever caused by the bag check. The simple fix would have been to change the way bags were collected and have the trucks in the Family Reunion Areas. Checking bags by bib number always guaranteed congestion, because the bibs are assigned by pace, so huge clumps of people were trying to get their bags from the same area at the same time. Having it randomized by last name will reduce the clumps and ease congestion. I'm sure every sweaty, cold runner will be happy to have a fleece-lined parka to absorb the sweat and hold it close to their skin, since it's also waterrepellant, so won't wick the moisture away. I'm sorry for everyone who is stuck in the position. I wonder if a lawyer will pick this up for a class-action lawsuit.

Brian T. O'Connor said...

This is the craziest idea I've ever heard of. What about health concerns? No poncho--whether its as plush and luxurious as they've told us--will help you much to prevent hypothermia if you still need to spend hours getting home in wet clothing. Additionally, what about runners who have no friends/family attending the race that can carry their clothes? There are millions of unanswered questions, and it doesn't seem as though answers will be forthcoming.

I felt I had no choice but to send Mary Wittenberg and Peter Ciaccia a letter regarding my concerns. The contents can be found here:

If you want to do the same, email them at and respectively. If they won't listen to us on Facebook or Twitter, we need to get in touch with them directly!

Mark said...

Well said as always. There were a handful of NYRR responses in the threads of hundreds of runner comments on Facebook during the day, and never a response that adequately addressed that complaint. Anyway, going to enjoy the rest of my birthday and have some Whopper cake.

Mark said...

Thanks, Brian. People also can email, which is where I emailed. I am an NYRR member since 12/1/06 and noted that.