Staten Island Road Racing in 2001: Things that went right/things
that went wrong
by Glenn Ribotsky
January 11, 2002 - Okay, I'm aware that any review written for the past year will have the events of September 11th looming over it. The loss of many of our friends and road compatriots and the ways in which the rest of the running community chose to deal with these losses dominate our thoughts about 2001. Nevertheless, before September 11th , and even after, there were other happenings in local road racing that are well worth discussing, not only for their impact in 2001 but for their potential impact well beyond. Some of these seem to bode well for the sport's future, and some not, but all are noteworthy. Here then, in no particular rank order, are some things that went right with Staten Island road racing in the past year, and then some things that went wrong.
1. The introduction of the High Rock 10K Adventure Challenge. Okay, granted this was not a "road race" per se. It was not even a typical cross-country or trail race, inasmuch as it required 2-person team participation and was interspersed with intriguing challenge tasks. (The pasta carry was my personal favorite-the teams should just be thankful they weren't traversing bear country.) But as Staten Island's first ever example of the burgeoning international trend of multi-task/orienteering events, it was a wonderful change of pace from the all too typical 5k races that dominate the racing landscape. Moreover, event organizer Christopher Ballou proved himself a more than competent race administrator (something in short supply in these parts)-the event went off with few hitches and by all accounts a wonderful time was had by most. Apparently Mr. Ballou had the great good sense to call in experts in the field, specifically from the national adventure race organizations, in setting up his course and his format, and his diligence in advertising the race through as many channels as possible led to teams coming from all over the United States and not just from Staten Island or the nearby metropolitan area (again, something unusual for racing out here). I am already told the race will go on again in this year with some different challenge tasks. (Don't want last year's teams getting an advantage by practicing the old ones.) Here's hoping the race has a long Staten Island (if you'll excuse the pun) run.
2. The re-affirmation of the Al Ronaldson Run, which had been rumored to be on its last legs. As the middle race in the Triple Crown Series-and, in fact, the race whose introduction made the re-establishment of the series possible in the early 1990's-the Al Ronaldson run had been going through some tough times in recent years. Much of this can be traced to Gene Lopes having stepped down as race director after shepherding the race through its first several years; Gene was the final authority to answer questions and to adjudicate problems, and, similarly to Chris Ballou above, had the good sense to bring in experts (including NYRROA) to help with aspects of administration he was not completely at ease in handling. The race began to drop some in numbers as time went by, and the garnering of sponsorship started to become a greater problem, especially after major sponsor Sneaker Stadium closed its Staten Island store a few years ago. The remaining committee members were not as facile as Gene in dealing with this area, and brother Mike Ronaldson was reluctantly pressed into shouldering more of the organizational load. As the Ronaldson group also holds an annual golf tournament that garners far more money, things got to the point where the race was rumored to be holding its last presentation in 2001. We are happy to report that the race will go on again, with hopefully renewed vigor, in light of the events of September 11th. Sponsorship should be helped, even in tough economic times, by the reconstituting of the race as a non-profit corporation (a long-overdue step), donations to which will be tax-deductible. The race should also be smoother in its administration than in recent years, owing not only to the Triple Crown meeting (see below), but also to some additions to the committee staff.
3. The big meeting at the Staten Island Advance regarding streamlining the administration of the Triple Crown Series' races. (Subtitled: The Pepper Martin Committee finally comes to the negotiating table after stonewalling for a decade.) Though this meeting actually took place in October of 2000, it certainly ranks as a major development of 2001, concerning as it did the Triple Crown Series for that year, and, presumably, for coming years. Though meetings about the administration of the Triple Crown Series had been held before with representatives of the local clubs, this was the first time that representatives not only from the clubs but also representatives of all three races were under one roof. Kudos should go in particular to Staten Island Athletic Club Vice-President Andy Burek for delineating the problems to be addressed and potential solutions for them, and for putting this all into a written agenda. His efforts in detailing what was discussed at that meeting are even more praiseworthy; with that part of the public record (and readable right here at the sirunning.com archives), it will be very hard in the future for parties to claim that many of these issues-some of which had been floating around for a decade or more-were not addressed. (It is unfortunate that some procedures agreed upon were still not followed this year, as you'll later read, but that's why you get this stuff in writing.) The most surprising aspect was that the head honchos from the Pepper Martin race--far and away the most egregious violators of the spirit of fair event administration among the series races-showed up willing to talk; they had shown no interest in negotiations at all in previous years. (Perhaps the fact that their event's participation had fallen by more than a third over the 1990's moved them a bit. It is also known that the politically connected club, made up primarily of members of the Brighton, formerly Mid-island, Kiwanis Club and closely tied to Democratic politics here, received some pressure from the local Democratic establishment to foster better public relations.) While total consensus could not be reached on everything, the meeting seemed to achieve enough compromise to allow the Triple Crown to be a much more organized series in the future. (Now if only all the parties would live up to what they ostensibly agreed to-see below.)
4. The sudden capitulation of the New York Road Runners' Board of Directors in accepting term limits for itself. You may well ask how this eventuality at the NYRR counts as a significant development in Staten Island road racing. Well, the NYRR is the 800-pound gorilla of road racing in the metropolitan area, and what goes on there affects road racing throughout the boroughs (and indeed, throughout the country) in terms of race and club administration. A major ongoing criticism of NYRR was that its leadership after Fred Lebow had become lazy, bloated, and arrogant, and was in danger of losing its position as a pre-eminent road racing organization in the United States. (The NYRR's ongoing problems with its personnel, volunteers, and sponsors are too long to get into here, but can certainly be read about from such other sources as Runners' World and from previous pieces on this website.) In accordance with its structure, the NYRR's Board of Directors is supposed to oversee the club's administration, but it has been itself been plagued by ossification and clannishness. The membership of the Board changed only rarely, and then usually by expansion; the Board's practice of reviewing resumes and then itself deciding who could even stand for election to it ensured an apathy and cynicism among club members, and also ensured that incumbents never left, except through voluntary resignation (which happened about once every decade), and so the Board had little incentive to work for any sort of reform or improvement. I have written extensively on the conflict of interest inherent in having a board itself screen applicants to run for positions on that same board and have argued for universal open candidacy for NYRR members. This has not happened, but it may be coming one day, as a suddenly dissident (or maybe just tired) faction on the Board pushed through a binding resolution to limit the number of terms a Board member may serve in succession. Perhaps here, too, some Board members were becoming aware of the growing disgruntlement out in the provinces, and of the bad publicity accruing to NYRR following loss of title sponsors for the Fifth Avenue Mile and Women's Mini-Marathon. The NYRR had also gotten considerable negative press when wheelchair racers, feeling they were getting short shrift at and little accommodation by the NYC Marathon, threatened a lawsuit. In any case, the benefits of term limits go well beyond getting some new blood, and maybe some new ideas, into the Club. It should provide some new contacts for sponsorship and for media coverage, and also means the Club should be more cooperative with other local athletic organizations, in areas ranging from race scheduling to park utilization. It also means a Board less dependent on the goodwill of the administrative officers, and so more likely to be responsive to the requests of rank and filers on issues the administration would more likely ignore. In short, the Club may finally stop putting up a stone wall at its customer relations station. (There already seems to be something to this last part-the NYRR has always been reluctant to open its books to its members, as it is required to do under New York State non-profit corporation law, but members report that the club has eased the hoops that one used to have to jump through, in terms of scheduling and witnesses and the like, to get a look at the ledgers. It is known that a few of the Board members themselves were fed up with not being able to get that data.)
5. Louis Rodriguez running some 1400 miles from Staten Island to Miami to raise awareness for breast cancer research. It started on August 4th from Clove Lakes Park. It ended 38 days later in Miami. In between it involved several pairs of ruined running shoes, dogs, snakes, mud pits, bizarre searches for laundromats, the kindness (and weirdness) of strangers, and untold numbers of IHOP pancakes consumed. It was Louis Rodriguez averaging nearly 40 miles a day in the summer heat and thunderstorms, and though he had some help in putting in the mileage at the very beginning from the Staten Island running community and from supporting friend and cancer survivor Agnes Oquendo at points along the course, he did almost the entire run solo, surely the most inspiring placement of one foot in front of another over and over again to come out of this borough in a long time. Yes, there could have been more publicity for the effort-the American Cancer Society, which was supposed to put Louis and Agnes and their support staff in touch with local ACS offices and local media along the way, was not particularly organized or helpful, and that probably hurt donations, and yes, the timing of the finish was bad-Louis reached Miami on September 10th, and the celebration of the achievement was drowned in the events of the following day-but if the effort helped raise the awareness of even one person, as Louis put it, to get a screening or support someone with the disease or to make a donation for research that puts the cure that much closer, it was all worth it.
And now, for some not-so-good things.
1. The cancellation of Staten Island's two longest races-the New York Road Runners' Staten Island Half-Marathon and the Staten Island Athletic Club's Six-Hour Run. Given the plethora of short races on the Island, practically the only way a runner can compete at a distance over five miles (the distance snobs will tell you the real racing doesn't even begin until 20 kilometers) is to wait for these two fall races. This year, however, in the aftermath of the events of September 11th, they were both sadly canceled. While recognizing that in both cases the race directors are involved with the New York City Fire Department, and they certainly had other concerns at the time, the cancellation of these races should not go unquestioned-especially the half-marathon, which was scheduled for October 14th, more than a month after the tragedy, which presumably would have given the NYRR at least some time to make alternative arrangements. The ostensible reason for the cancellation of the race was that there would be insufficient police and other uniformed personnel available to perform marshaling/monitoring duties along the extended street course, which starts by the Ferry Terminal, loops Richmond Terrace, comes back along Bay Street and then proceeds to School Road and Father Capodano Boulevard before looping back along Father Capodano at Miller Field to finish on School Road, and this was in all probability true. The criticism here is that there is no evidence, from the Parks Department, from the Borough President's office, or from any of the local clubs, that alternative arrangements, such as a postponement (which is how the Corrine's Pride Run handled the situation), or a course restructuring to substantially reduce the real estate the race would traverse (as has happened to the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in the past), were given any serious consideration by the NYRR. (NYRR is reminded again that there are plenty of race technicians and consultants out here other than the half-marathon's race director who would have gladly worked on a plan to get the race done if only they had been solicited.) It would have been difficult, sure, maybe even impossible, but there was a little time, and a knee-jerk cancellation reaction was premature. The race would probably have become harder to travel to and from, with a subsequent reduction in entrants, but that would have been better than no race at all, especially since the race was the last event in the important Half-Marathon Grand Prix Series. Given the need for some semblance of normalcy and affirmation in the light of 9/11 through the continuation of events (a subject I have written about several times over the last few months), it would have been nice for an attempt to be made. Somewhat more of an attempt was made in the case of the Six-Hour Run before it was canceled-there was, in fact, disagreement between race directors Dave Caputo and Mike Tobin on whether it should continue on its scheduled date of 9/22, whether it should be postponed, or outright called, before the latter decision was reached. Again, though, there is some criticism warranted; the very facts that made the race easy to cancel on short notice-a tiny field, an enclosed course entirely within Clove Lakes Park, etc.-also probably would have made the race easier to continue. The race directors received offers from both Rich Innamorato of the Broadway Ultra Society and from myself at NYRROA to make the commitment to administer and score the time-intensive event, but we were ultimately not taken up on those offers. Considering the success the Six-Hour Run had in its inaugural showing in 2000 and the attention it has helped bring to the growing sport of ultrarunning, it was a shame the event could not have gone on. (Three of the top four finishers from 2000-Spencer Ellis, Tim McCauley, and Gail Marino-met at the park that day anyway and ran for some hours, and in Tim's case, for all six, in tribute to those who were lost 9/11 and to ultrarunning in general.) One hopes the race will return in 2002.
2. The retirement of Bobby Orazem as head of the Staten Island Athletic Club. Love him or despise him (and a lot of us were able to do both simultaneously), the Orazem era certainly represented a comeback in activism for a Staten Island's oldest and largest running club, which had gone through some moribund years in the eighties and early nineties. Bobby is presumably going off to continue work on both TRAC and his reformulation of scholastic track in the area. The succession process, though started early, was much more secretive than it should have been for such a venerable organization, and it seemed for a time as if no one wanted to take the position on (a situation with echoes of Mr. Orazem's own succession of Jeff Benjamin). Now that Ernie Beach has finally been confirmed as the new President, he's got some big shoes to fill and some problems still to address, such as how to fill the hole in the racing schedule left by the demise of the Twilight Mile. Then, too, SIAC has recently had a few defections to the Rockets, and there is the lingering perception that the club is run by and for the benefit of the white male masters runner (which, in fairness, does not seem as accurate as it might have some years back). Hopefully, with its replenished vigor, the SIAC can seamlessly transition from an one activist leader to another, tackle these problems, and flourish.
3. The deterioration of the Staten Island Advance's coverage of significant road race issues under new Sports Section Editor Carmine Angioli. Okay, granted that the Staten Island Advance has never been known for good copy editing or fact checking in its reporting of the road racing scene out here. (This has certainly contributed to this website--which has much better accuracy checking-being as successful as it's been.) In truth, it has never been known for that in any of its local sports coverage (or in its news, arts, or any other local coverage)-my high school/college/adult league contacts indicate that misspelled names, erroneous statistics, and picture misidentification are not limited to the running scene. One thing it had been able to do, though, under former Sports Editor Lou Bergonzi, was provide space in its pages (on Sundays, usually) for local writers not with the paper to publish letters or first person articles on issues that the Advance itself did not see as important or non-controversial enough to mention. (These also helped occasionally to correct some of the factual errors.) I was a sometimes contributor, as were Jeff Benjamin, Bobby Orazem, and others. Unfortunately, with the moving of Mr. Bergonzi over to the city desk early this past year (one wonders if that qualifies as a promotion), the availability of space is not what it used to be. New Sports Editor Carmine Angioli has presided over a considerable reduction in the amount of space devoted to pieces from readers. It is not known whether this is his decision alone or whether he has gotten pressure from those above him (and it is true that a reactive reader's piece is unlikely to be complimentary to the paper). But is has happened, and where it has seemingly hurt the most is in readers' inability to respond to arguments made in columns by the Advance's own sports columnists-the larger public should be able to be made aware that there are different points of view on Island sports issues than those of the Advance's writers. There is an interesting contrast here-the Advance has not diminished, and may even have expanded, the amount of space it gives to readers' letters/pieces on non-sports news items in its editorial section. It remains to be seen if the same consideration for outside opinion will come back to the sports pages.
4. The fact that, despite the aforementioned Triple Crown administrative meeting, some of the same old problems still plague its constituent races. Hey, didn't we just get finished talking abut this wonderful October 2000 meeting at the Advance at which many of the Triple Crown issues were discussed and a number of problems hammered out? Yup. Unfortunately, some of the same old problems cropped up again at the races in 2001 despite the meeting, almost as if it hadn't been held. Two major ones of note: after agreeing to a change in previous policy for the Memorial Day Run-starting in 2001, race day team declarations were to be allowed, as the data could be electronically inputted from race-day application forms without much fuss (Elite Racing Systems has been the scoring consultant for all three Triple Crown races for a few years now, and there is no trouble keeping an easily updatable database across all races), volunteers at the race-day registration table were still being instructed to cross out the team registration box on the application and not to accept race-day team declarations. (What, was no one at the race-day registration area told about this from the meeting?) And, the Pepper Martin application, in violation of both standard, ethical race practice and what had been agreed to at the meeting, continued to list a final application day the week before the race, implying that there was no race-day registration at all-which, of course, there is, and has been for many years. I had personally fought for a decade to get this misleading, unethical, and probably actionable language off the application, claiming the race literature should reflect the race practice (or the practice changed to reflect the language); it was agreed to be made consistent at the November meeting. It wasn't. Questioners were told it "was a mistake" and would be fixed next year. (Should we be confident?) Interestingly, the meeting participants left open a window for a post-Triple Crown meeting to be held to address any still lingering problems with the Series, but I am told Andy Burek has not received any response to his repeated inquiries to the Advance (specifically, Series coordinator Jack Minogue) or to the race directors to talk about or schedule such a meeting. A little editorializing seems appropriate here. Bluntly, if the people who put on these races cannot be counted on to live up to their own agreements-to take the care to see that they are carried out and to communicate policies and practices to their committees and staffs-they should be men (and they are almost entirely male) enough to resign from their positions and hand the reins of their races over to others. There is no shortage of qualified and competent road race administrators out here that could surely do a more careful and evenhanded job with these races than the current principals have. And, as I've said before, the local clubs out here have a responsibility to pressure said principals up to and including boycott of the races if they cannot be administered according to the agreed upon rules. We shall be waiting to see if this follow-up meeting is ever held, if lingering problems are fixed-or if the Triple Crown races continue to lose increasingly disgusted participants.
All in all, an interesting year in the sport on the Island. Can the triumphs of the past year be repeated, and built upon? Can lingering difficulties be eliminated? Can new ones be avoided? As always, we are interested in comments, suggestions. Feel free to e-mail, call, or use the Sirunning Forum.