High road race fees are keeping families out of the run

Participants leave from the start line of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon Race in Raleigh on April 10, 2016. Over 7,500 runners registered for the event.
Participants leave from the start line of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon Race in Raleigh on April 10, 2016. Over 7,500 runners registered for the event. newsobserver.com

Used to be golf had the reputation as the most elitist sport in the United States. True, golf, often played at private country clubs by mostly white, college-educated people with disposable incomes, is not a poor person’s sport. But, truth-be-told, the sport of road racing, usually run along public streets by mostly white, college-educated people with disposable incomes, is close to overtaking golf as our nation’s most elitist sport.

Arguably, golf, which requires large swaths of land and acres of green grass, sand traps and water hazards on 18-hole courses, needs a significant staff of groundskeepers and maintenance workers and constant irrigation – all costly – for the game to be played. But, how does one explain why road racing will often cost runners more in entry fees than it would cost for a round of golf at a lovely Triangle course – followed by a meal at the Angus Barn?

My 14-year-old son, Michael, wanted to run the Feb. 4 Krispy Kreme Challenge, but I had to say, “no” to him because the $45 ($50 on race day) entry fee for a five-mile race that would have taken him about 45 minutes to run seemed grossly over-priced for its sports/entertainment value. But, that’s nothing. If Michael wants to run Raleigh’s Rock ‘n’ Roll 5K road race on April Fool’s Day, he would have to cough up $50.99 (donuts not included) for a race that he can run in less than 20 minutes. If you want to run the April 2 Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon ($99.99) or Marathon ($109.99) you will be laying out enough cash to take your whole family on a golf outing.

But, you better register soon, because the Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon’s website notes: “Future price increases TBD,” and “Price is subject to increase at any time without notice.” Say what?

True, a major part of the reason for the high prices is many road races have become fundraisers for various charitable causes – most race directors proudly point out on race websites the amount of money given to charity from race proceeds.

While I can’t say for sure how much money people are making off road races, I know that by setting the entry fees so high, road racing is no longer economically feasible for anyone who is poor, on a fixed income or has a big family (I have eight children, all of whom I raised as runners. It would be impossible for me to afford to run a road race with my wife and several of our children).

To use the city streets as a venue for an elitist public event also does not sit well with me. Why don’t the City of Raleigh and other county and town officials make sure road races that use local thoroughfares are affordable to the masses? Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street, Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street and Durham’s Main Street – all public roads – are not the same as private fairways.

Unfortunately, road race directors are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. By pricing their races out of reach to most residents, they are not building a love of the sport of running for anyone but rich white people. As the non-white demographic grows in the U.S., few people of color will be inclined to be part of a very expensive sport like road racing that has all the appearances of being segregated.

Road racing should be about running, not fundraising, and it is a sport that should be accessible to people from all walks of life.

The various running clubs in the Triangle, specifically The N.C. Roadrunners Club and the Carolina Godiva Track Club, do a great job of running their own events, over courses and running tracks that don’t require hiring police to close roads, at very reasonable entry fees (often $5), but running in a major road race on town and city streets is always a fun, social event enjoyed by most distance runners.

One of the problems with road racing is the high cost of hiring off-duty police to work the races to make sure roads are safe for runners. But, even the “Sole Mates” 5K and 10K off-road races, held Feb. 12 at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park over the park’s cross country course, still cost $25 for the 5K and $45 for the 10K ($30 and $50 for race-day registration). If you entered the 5K, a T-shirt, which is usually included in the registration cost, was an extra $20. A T-shirt was included in the 10K entry fee.

Unfortunately, road racing is becoming a business, and as such the economics of road racing has resulted in the sport being more about money than about the love of running and fitness. Here are a few suggestions to make road racing truly a sport of the people:

▪ In addition to making charitable donations from registration fees, race directors should make sure to set aside funds to give scholarships to runners who are poor. A sliding-scale entry fee, based on the honor system, would help here.

▪ Encourage runners of means to make additional donations as part of their registration fees to help supplement entry fees for low-income runners. Runners could also agree to “sponsor” a low-income runner by paying an extra fee at registration.

▪ Ask businesses to co-sponsor the race, which usually means the business is recognized on the race T-shirt, by making a donation to underwrite the cost of entry fees for the poor.

▪ Race directors should offer a “family” rate in which children could run free of charge when a parent registers for a race. More kids being introduced to running at an early age means more kids running as adults; it would be a wise investment in road racing’s future.

▪ Municipal parks and recreation departments should co-sponsor road races to help defray the costs by offering financial assistance to make road racing more affordable. Road racing also encourages better fitness, something that government entities should support.

▪ Train volunteers to help with traffic redirection at races so the cost of closing roads won’t be so high.

▪ Lastly, those who love road racing need to take a stand and oppose the elitism that is overtaking our sport. Demand that road races be affordable to everyone and refuse to be part of races that do not work for equality and diversity.

Patrick O’Neill is a lifelong runner and Catholic Worker. He is not able to afford road racing but wishes he could.