The Staten Island Runner

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July 11, 2001 


As co-founder and former chairperson of the runners' advocacy organization the New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation (NYRROA), I must admit to be being surprised and a little bit gratified by Jack Minogue's July 7th Staten Island Advance column on the Pepper Martin Memorial Run. In it, he hinted that there might actually be room for adjustment and improvement in the way the race is conducted, in order to keep the race's entry numbers from continuing to falter. (The number of finishers in the race has declined now for eleven consecutive years.) We who have been critical of the way the Pepper Martin Run is handled have also been critical of Mr. Minogue on occasion; he is the chief organizer and statistician of the Staten Island Triple Crown Road Race Series, which includes Pepper as its final race (the first two are the Advance's own Memorial Day Run and the Al Ronaldson Memorial Run on Father's Day), and as such has had ample opportunity to try to advocate for a more runner-friendly Pepper Martin, an opportunity that he has not always taken advantage of. We at NYRROA have always felt that there was a muzzling effect on criticism of the race that might have come from any quarter at the Advance, due to the fact the Brighton Kiwanis Club provides no-cost event insurance to all three races in the Series, including the Advance Run, and the membership of that Kiwanis Club and the Pepper Martin Club overlap considerably. Nevertheless, if this column is evidence of both an emboldened courage and a sincere desire to make the race (and the whole Series) fairer and better, it can only be applauded.

I do, however, take issue that the criticism that has come from me, or from anybody else at NYRROA (or, indeed, from any of the local running clubs) has involved any "petty stuff" at all. Any criticisms we have leveled at Pepper Martin, or, for that matter, at any road race event, have been in the service of our mission, which is to ensure that events are as runner-friendly, and as fairly and efficiently administered, as possible. We are as quick to praise well-administered events as to berate poorly-administered ones, and are just as effusive. Our stridency with Pepper stems from it having been, perhaps singularly among races and events we have dealt with, the most reluctant to deal with issues we and others have raised, sometimes reacting with arrogance, or, more often, not even reacting at all. The issues have been of sufficient importance that they and the race have drawn attention and ire of both the Metropolitan Athletics Congress, the local affiliate of USA Track and Field, and of the Road Runners Club of America. The former organization has banned the race from being part of its Long Distance Grand Prix Series, which it was once a part of in the early 1990's, for refusal to adhere to USA Track and Field administrative, scoring, and results reporting standards. This includes the race continuing to list itself on its application as having a course certified by The Athletics Congress, which is USA Track and Field's previous incarnation, after that certification had expired. (Certification of a course must be periodically renewed, and there is a fee involved.) The race and its practices have come in for criticism in the RRCA's Footnotes magazine "Miss Road Manners" feature (which discusses race etiquette). The reluctance of the Pepper committee to deal with legitimate concerns regarding the conduct of the race has been a mystery, in light not only of the race's falling numbers but of the willingness of other races, including a number of Staten Island events, to listen to criticism, to discuss issues, and to implement improvements.

To be fair, there have been some reforms for the better by the Pepper Martin principals in the last decade; in response to a petition drafted by myself and signed by over 200 local runners, the Masters scoring standard for women, and for female teams, was changed from 35 years of age to 40, matching the men's and male teams standard. (Pepper was the only race our research could come up with that still did this rather sexist split; this practice is still extant at some track and field meets, but at no other road races.) Moreover, the race directors were persuaded to use Elite Racing Systems as their technical/scoring consultant, which was a considerable improvement over the previous consultant and which was also being used by the other races in the Series, allowing for much greater ease in the administration of the Triple Crown competition.

A number of other important issues have remained unresolved, however. Chief among these is the one that has drawn the RRCA's attention-the fact that the race's literature and application indicates a final registration date a number of days before the actual event, giving the implication that late and/or race day entries are not allowed. The race then takes late and race day entries anyway. This not only confuses potential racers, especially from outside of Staten Island, where the situation with the race is not well known-I myself have fielded numerous calls asking for clarification on this from metropolitan area runners who didn't understand whether they could sign up race day or not-but also raises fairness concerns. All races have applicants sign a waiver indemnifying them against possible actions in the event of injury or such. In turn, runners expect that for its part, the race will conduct itself in accordance with accepted standards and, perhaps more importantly, according to its own stated parameters. In the case of Pepper Martin, a runner who signs up by the date listed for final registration, in accordance with what is said on the application, has every right to complain if beaten for an award by someone who signs up after that, in ostensible violation of the race literature. This can, of course, be fixed simply with a slight alteration of the application wording which would clearly state the procedure to be followed. Either race day applicants would be allowed, and this would be spelled out on the forms, or they would not be, and that would be spelled out For many years, however, the Pepper Martin committee would not even return messages asking why the application language stood in contradistinction to its own practices, let alone join in a discussion of it. Again, it is a mystery as to why Pepper saw fit to continue this peculiar dichotomy of statement and practice (we no of no other race in North America that has done this).

Interestingly, this concern was supposed to be addressed this past autumn in a meeting held at the Advance about standardization of practices and administration of the Triple Crown races. This meeting was attended by Mr. Minogue, representatives from most of the Staten Island running clubs, and members of the race committees themselves. (No one from NYRROA was invited.) The presence of Pepper directors Mike McVey and Judge Michael Brennan was a surprise to many, given their history of unresponsiveness; it has been speculated that the latter, in particular, may have had a renewed interest in public relations following the bad publicity that had followed some "intemperate remarks" made from his bench during a criminal arraignment some months back.  As the summary of this meeting, written by Staten Island Athletic Club Vice-President Andy Burek indicates, this issue was brought up and the application language was supposed to be changed for this year. (The summary, as well as many of the NYRROA comments and position papers about Pepper Martin and Triple Crown race issues, can be accessed at the Staten Island Running Web site: Then the applications came out .. and it wasn't. The language was still the same as previous years--confusing and disingenuous. Mr. Burek's subsequently attempted to contact Mr. McVey, but his calls were not returned. When he finally got to speak with Judge Brennan on June 30th (only a few days before the race), he was told that the application language was a mistake and that it should have been changed. Well, maybe. But considering how long this issue has been around, and how extensively it was discussed at that meeting . . .it makes one wonder whether there was ever any intent here to follow through, or whether just plain incompetence was involved. Neither is very comforting to runners who train and strive to score in the race and in the Series.

While I agree with Mr. Minogue that how closely the July 4th race date comes to a weekend does influence the numbers that the race draws, it is far more likely that its continued reduction in numbers has a lot to do with such race administration issues. Runners tend not to be very vocal as a group, but they do vote with their feet and with their wallets. They are loyal to races that treat them fairly and well, and that keep them as the centerpiece of the action. For no matter what cause is espoused as the reason for the race-a community celebration, a charity, whatever-without the runners, there is no race.

A "race postmortem" meeting would be a wonderful idea-one is, I believe, already planned at the Advance concerning issues relevant to the entire Series-but only if the principals are willing to actually take some suggestions. I am quite ready to bring some that are "substantive", to use Mr. Minogue's word, as to how the race numbers can be increased. In fact, I have expressed a number of suggestions previously in NYRROA columns, but here's no need to wait for such a meeting to repeat them:

· Make sure that there are sufficient refreshments for the runners at the race. One of the biggest complaints of runners about Pepper Martin in recent years is that the amenities available to the runners, especially at the finish line on what is typically a hot and sultry day, are meager at best, with later finishers getting practically nothing. It's a hard, hot race under the best of conditions; there should be plenty of soda, fruit, water, and whatever else for all-spectators as well as runners. The race has billed itself as a family and community event, and there should be snacks and beverages for everyone present. The race is established enough, and politically connected enough, so that it shouldn't be a problem to find or raise enough funding for this. And if more is needed, or more sponsors are needed, we have ideas for that, too.

· Speaking of political connections, do the race a favor and do not use it as a forum and campaign stop for whatever local is running for whatever office that November. Little is more irritating to serious runners, or even recreational ones, than delaying the start of the race or interrupting the awards ceremony by trotting out the local pols. Maybe a quick photo op or starting line introduction, but that's it. When a big fuss is made over such people, especially if runners feel there's campaigning involved, they tune out in droves. They know that the emphasis is supposed to be on them, and rightly so. (And I say this as one who actually votes for these people most of the time, and who has criticized the Guy V.Molinari Semper Fi Run on the same grounds.)

· Make an effort to raise public awareness about the race outside Staten Island. The race draws some off-Island competition-in fact, some very good off-Island competition-but only from among runners who have Island friends, teammates, or other Island connections. It does not draw significantly from the other boroughs of New York, from Long Island, or from New Jersey, and while it may not ever get huge number of runners from these places, it can certainly attract more than it does now. Problem is, practically no one outside the Island knows the race exists. Current outreach efforts for the race beyond Staten Island based media are practically nonexistent. I've often felt this is not a situation that bothers a lot of people-witness the tone of articles about the race as to how "off-Islanders" may run away wit h the awards (or actually have). But if you want more runners to come, you can't have even a whiff of xenophobia. (There are races out here that do make an effort to publicize themselves off-Island; far many more in the wider running community know about the Marty Celic Run, or the Corrinne's Pride race, than about any of the Triple Crown events.) The first step would be simply to list the race on any number of the running-related web sites on the Internet, such as Cool Running (not just on the Staten Island Running web site). Moreover, it should also be listed with MetroSports magazine, and with the New York Road Runners Club. (The latter would list it in its annual calendar, which is distributed to over 30,000 area runners annually. Pepper Martin was only listed in that calendar once-the year it was part of that Grand Prix Series. That is a ridiculous oversight.)  All of this would be free, by the way. For a nominal fee, it could even be listed in national magazines such as Runners World or Running Times.

· Make a commitment to change that application language and to be fair in race registration, administration, and scoring procedures. The changes to be made here are not difficult to make in the least, and we've already discussed them. Make the commitment-and keep it.

· Finally, don't go into hermit mode when someone has a question or criticism about the race. Don't give runners the impression of haughtiness, or indifference. Don't think that just because the race is older and established, it can't be tweaked to make it better. Answer questions. Return phone calls, letters, and e-mails. It's part of the responsibility of race directors to attempt decent constituent  relations, just as it is for politicians (which, of course, some of the Pepper Martin principals also are). Invite comments. There's a lot of talent and intelligence out there. Give respect, and you'll get some.

The Pepper Martin race actually has a lot to recommend it; it is a distance not run that often any more; it has a challenging and unusual course, and it can be part of runners' celebration of a national holiday. But this, of course, is not enough-it's also got to be runner-friendly, pleasantly conducted, and fairly administered if it's to attract the numbers and the reputation to make it a must-stop on a runners' summer race schedule. The ball is in your courts (those of both Pepper Martin and the Advance's Triple Crown Series) now.

--Glenn Ribotsky/NYRROA