Half-marathon runners' mixed reactions to pro-staged run

Near the Art Museum, members of the Dynasty Spirit Elite All Stars Cheerleading & Dance group from South Philadelphia rev up participants in the ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. Runners traversed a 13.1-mile loop around Philadelphia.
Near the Art Museum, members of the Dynasty Spirit Elite All Stars Cheerleading & Dance group from South Philadelphia rev up participants in the ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. Runners traversed a 13.1-mile loop around Philadelphia.
Posted: September 20, 2010

A rock song from the early 1990s played over the loudspeakers as the announcers bantered over the public-address system about a passing runner's legs.

And with that, the racers were off on a 13.1-mile loop around Philadelphia.

"These guys are serious runners. They even got run best tattooed across their foreheads," shticked one of the announcers.

The ING Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon was staged Sunday morning in Center City, with 18,700 runners registering for an event that only five years ago wouldn't have drawn half that number, organizers said.

Back then, it was the Philadelphia Distance Run, a name it carried for more than 30 years.

In 2005, the event was taken over by Competitor Group, a San Diego-based company that stages running events across the country.

The company's stated goal is to try to attract the people who don't normally run distance races, using as a draw: rock music; a fun, irreverent attitude; and hawkers selling energy bars and wireless MP3 players.

Jeff Clyman, a 53-year-old doctor, drove up from Maryland for the half marathon. He had run another rock 'n' roll race in Virginia Beach and liked the "excitement" the races created.

"This is the part I love," he said, lounging on the grass after completing the 13.1-mile race. "Sitting in front of the band, in the sun and loving it - all that energy you get after a long run."

But while the race's pop-culture-steeped image might be drawing new runners to distance racing, some longtime runners are turning away.

Scott Purcell of West Chester sat out Sunday's race, largely because the summer heat had thrown off his training regime. But, he said, many of his friends didn't sign up because of the $65 to $105 entry fee - about the same as the Philadelphia Marathon.

"It's very high," he said. "It was nice what it was before. They'll get a lot more people this way, I guess."

With running gaining popularity in the United States over the last decade, races are increasingly being staged as for-profit events, said Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America.

"Running for a very long time has been very much a community activity," she said. "These corporate entities are coming in and putting on these big events. In some areas, they have worked with the local groups, but in some places, they directly compete against the traditional races."

Malain McCormick, event manager for Competitor Group, said that while her company ran the events for-profit, it has partnered with charities to raise money from the races. And thousands of people were taking up distance running who otherwise might not have done so, she said.

"I really think it has a lot to do with the Rock 'n' Roll name," McCormick said. "We're pretty well known around the country for putting on great races."

The company flew in about 35 professional runners from around the world for the event, with top finishers completing the course in just over an hour.

Among those with more modest running times, there were mixed feelings on the race, with its new layout and rock bands playing along the racecourse.

Trina Lisko of Collingswood said that, as most races frowned on the use of headphones, the music was welcome.

"It feels like my iPod, some funk, some rock," she said. "The cheerleaders were good. One group was dressed up as Kiss."

Nick Tell, a 43-year-old restaurant owner from Broomall, said he found the music a "ridiculous" but increasingly common aspect of distance running.

He entered the race as part of his training program for the coming Philadelphia and Steamtown (Lackawanna County) Marathons. But he was annoyed when he was told he would have to go in person into Center City to pick up his racer's packet Friday, something he usually would have a friend in the city do.

He walked into the Convention Center and was struck, he said, by the sheer number of vendors waiting to give him a sales pitch.

"I understand it. They all paid money to be there, so they wanted people walking through," he said. "But it felt like a cattle call."


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876

or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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