Friday, February 28, 2014

Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon, Ultra Fail

The Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon was an abysmal, embarassing failure for the city of El Paso, and they don't even know it.

I first ran in the El Paso Marathon in 2009, when I first moved to El Paso.  I only ran the Half Marathon; my first full would take me another 10 months to train for.  I remember the excitement, the anxiety of running in a big city race.  Since then I've competed in 4 (now 5) full marathons and multiple road races.  This last week was my first time running the El Paso Marathon (full, that is) and I have to admit that I was sincerely disappointed in the overall production of the race.

The weather was awesome, the water stations had enthusiastic volunteers, and I was running (sort of) with friends.  What could possibly have ruined the event for me?

Well, let's take a look at what I think truly makes a successful marathon.

There are four things you need to successfully pull off hosting a marathon.

1. Decent pre & post-race support.
2. Ample water stations with goodies.
3. People to sign up and run.
4. A route with a view.

The Michelob Ultra El Paso Marathon failed at all three of the above.

Let's start at the top and work our way down.

1. Decent pre & post-race support.

The Pre Race Support:

The first thing you receive on behalf of any race event, once you register, is the goodie bag (technically called your race packet, but that's not very exciting).  It's where the race sponsors toss their swag (free promotional materials) and is a great way to experience new products.

The best El Paso could offer this year was the promised t-sirt, mandatory race bib, and some pamphlets for a couple upcoming races.  Not exactly exciting.

Typically, at other races, there's a selection of snacks, energy chews/goos/gels/bars, coupons for sponsoring businesses, promotional products for athletic industries (think lip balm, deodorant, sunscreen, etc) and a huge collection of advertisements for upcoming events.  It's a promotional product placement dream come true.  I ran races where I didn't have to bring anything with me for before or after care.  In the race bag was enough sunscreen, wipes, and snacks to fuel me, bathe me and prepare me to run/ride.

Very disappointing, El Paso.

The Post Race Support:

For weeks/months the El Paso Marathon website and Facebook page advertised that their post race care would include chocolate milk, burritos, Michelob Ultra beer, water, and a special post-race brunch menu at The Garden (swanky club/restaurant located at the finish line).  Chocolate milk is a big favorite among many endurance racers for its carb to protein ratio in post race recovery.

And let's be honest, everybody loves burritos, especially me.

Well, cross the finish line when I did and you would have discovered the burritos were all gone, no chocolate milk, and The Garden serving alcohol but no food.  According to their staff, the kitchen was closed; maybe they had no clue what was meant by a "brunch menu."  All that was left to a few hundred hungry, depleted, dehydrated marathoners was crappy beer and a full bar.  Exactly what you need to create a real medical crisis in a hurry.

Another fail, El Paso.

2. Ample water stations with goodies.

Not too bad here, El Paso.  There were water stations every two miles for the first half, and then a station every mile thereafter.  But, there was only race sponsored energy gels at miles 10 and 20.

Because we don't eat any other time in the race?

Are you that cheap, El Paso?

The one saving grace, and the marathon directors can't take any credit for it, were the volunteers at the water points that put on quite a show in motivating us to keep moving.

Still, for a large, annual, metropolitan marathon, why can't we afford some more carbs on the route?  Might see some much happier marathoners crossing the finish line.

Mild fail, El Paso.

3. People to sign up and run.

Let's all do some math.

Yay!  Math!

Marathon participation averages a ~2% growth across the nation, annually.  (go to RunningUSA for more details and their annual report so you can criticize my inability to read stats correctly)

*The NYC ING Marathon was cancelled in 2012 for Hurricane Sandy, and would have contributed an average of 40,000 runners (and they were already sold out when cancelled) which would have been substantial growth from 2011 to 2012.
The El Paso Marathon data I have been able to collect goes back as far as 2008.

*No data was available for total participants (the 5K and Half Marathon were recorded separately).
The El Paso Marathon was cancelled in 2011 for inclement weather (Snow'pocalypse 2011!).
The El Paso Marathon has seen a 53% growth in total numbers since 2008, far outpacing the national average.  However, that growth has declined to less than 1% total in the last 2 years.  Suddenly, people seem less interested in the marathon and the El Paso Marathon is no longer keeping pace with the rest of the nation.

I wonder why?

One more number game.

El Paso population (according to a 2012 survey) is 672,538.

The entire population of the island of Maui, Hawaii, (according to the 2010 U.S. Census) is 144,000.

It's no secret that Charla and I just ran the Maui Oceanfront Marathon in January.  Just see my last few blog posts for details.  So, I'm using the beautiful but small island of Maui as my comparison.

With only 20% of the population of El Paso, similar weather on race day, and a healthy group of volunteers, the marathons could have offered similar experiences.  The biggest difference would be the type of scenery (which El Paso can offer when it tries) and the logistics of attending each.

Easily, El Paso has more hotels, cheaper and shorter flights, and more affordable local logistics (rental cars, restaurants, etc).  Therefore, logically, it should attract more racers.

There were 349 finishers in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon in 2014 compared to 373 in El Paso a month later.

Hmmm, I think that's fail number 3, El Paso.

4. A route with a view.

This year's marathon started at the top of Transmountain Road, one of the most epic starts ever.  I won't describe in detail what it did to my quads, but let's suffice to say that I still have trouble walking.  However, that's about where it ended.  We were kept off the major roads, and even spent several miles running alongside the city landfill before entering Fort Bliss.

How about a west side route through the river valley?  How about taking us up onto Alabama and maybe even crossing over Scenic Drive?  It's name is Scenic, and it's already blocked off on Sunday mornings for pedestrians.  The El Paso Marathon will never gain ground as a scenic or worthwhile marathon until the city accepts its responsibility in producing the marathon and giving the participants something to remember the city by.  But then, El Paso has always been accepting of its role as a second rate town.

Time to conclude this argument.

What's most disappointing about the whole experience is that the City of El Paso has so much potential to do so much more than it ever accomplishes.  One of the saddest moments came when race participants were forced to pay for parking to pick up their race packets and then again for parking on race day.  I keep asking myself why a metropolis of more than 600,000 couldn't foot the bill or why the race registration couldn't include free parking for the two mandatory events for participants.

It's the little things that add up to eventually kill you and the El Paso Marathon seems content to continue to let things grow into mediocrity and stagnation while the rest of the nation leaves them behind.

Thankfully, this will be the last time I will be running the El Paso Marathon.  Perhaps, if I ever have the misfortune to visit again, they will have learned from their lack of success and devised how to work together to put together a more marketable product to the hordes of endurance athletes looking for interesting and fun challenges.

Here's a hint.

Deliver what you promise and take care of your athletes before and after their event.

Make sure they want for nothing during the race so they can focus on what your city has to offer while they pass by the beautiful scenery and cheering spectators that should be on the route.

Recognize that you are much smaller than a big city marathon should be, and do whatever it takes to change that.

Give us something to look at other than garbage and desolate run down businesses.

When you start attracting more runners, you will make more money and realize how much this marathon should matter to the city.  Until then, no one will care.