I’m writing this on Tuesday night, and it’s late enough to expect that the thousands of runners who descended on Boston Common earlier in the evening for the annual JP Morgan Corporate Challenge have by now dispersed. Throngs of work colleagues sporting company-designed race t-shirts have gathered in restaurants and bars to socialize, tell stories, and relive the events before, during, and after the race.
In spite of the fact that my company had a team there and my club had 35 volunteers working the race, I stayed home. So it’s possible that even as I write this, everyone who was there is talking about what a wonderful, special event it was, and how they can’t wait to do it again next year. But I suspect that the race went off in much the same way that it always does, which is to say that it was another missed opportunity to be something really great.
Before I explain, let me say that I’ve had intermittent involvement with the Corporate Challenge dating back thirty years. I first ran in the race back in the 1980s when it was sponsored by Manufacturer’s Hanover. I’ve run in it many times since, although the last time was about 7-8 years ago. Since then, my only involvement has been to join the contingent of CSU volunteers who help out in and around the medical tent at the finish. I thought about volunteering this year, too, but skipped out in the end, deciding that after four days out-of-town, it would be better to stay home and catch up with other obligations.
My interest in actually running the race has waxed and waned along with my sense of loyalty to and identification with companies I’ve worked for. I first ran the race for Software Arts in the 1980’s, then ran for Interleaf in the 1990’s, and for VoiceSignal in the 2000’s. Although I’ve been with Nuance for seven years, I’ve never run for team Nuance.
(By the way, Nuance was one of two winners of the t-shirt contest last year, although runners didn’t fare quite as well, finishing 104th in the men’s team competition, averaging about 8:10 per mile.)
The bottom line is, the logistics of the race are highly annoying for anyone trying to actually compete. But for everyone else, it seems, the race is a fun chance to be out with co-workers and no one seems to mind the running/walking part, or the human traffic jam involved in having 12,000-people line up for a 3.5-mile race. In fact, this is what I want to talk about: how to take the best parts of the event as it’s currently organized and executed, and address the things that are impediments for competitive runners, to make the whole package an awesome experience for everyone.
1. The True Character of the Event
The true character of the Corporate Challenge is primarily an event about participation, not competition. Based on my experience with my own colleagues, I believe that most people who run do not consider themselves serious runners. They are there because it’s a fun thing to do with their co-workers.
I say, wonderful… embrace and celebrate that! But at the same time, recognize that friendly competition is not an impediment to team bonding, and do the little things that make the friendly competition more fun.
2. Seeding is Believing
In the old days, the Corporate Challenge had no automatic timing system and results were taken by hand. These days, automatic chip timing means complete results are available online, which is a wonderful thing. However, the mass start still leads to a huge advantage to those who start closer to the front.
So why not introduce a corral system and a staggered start? Since it takes about 10 minutes for the crowd to cross the starting line anyway, you could break the start into a half-dozen corrals starting two minutes apart. With chip timing, no matter where you start, your time is the taken from when you cross the starting mat to when you cross the finish mat. There is less congestion, so you spend less time walking at the start. And there’s less incentive for runners to seed themselves incorrectly, leading to better traffic flow on the course.
Entry into the corrals can be by estimated time (honor system), and chip timing ensures that no one is penalized for being honest. In fact, there’s probably an advantage to being at the front of a slower corral vs. being at the back or middle of a faster corral.
3. Letting the Racers Race
Finally, with the above changes in place, we can provide the “elite” runners with a better race experience. (By “elite” I mean anyone who can run 7:00 pace or faster — about 5% of the field.) Anyone who wants to can do a proper warm-up and enter their corral closer to race start time. And with less congestion, there’s less need for a stampede off the starting line.
And that’s it! The focus of the event can still be on bonding with co-workers, but faster runners are given a fighting chance to have a positive experience. As the faster runners get more excited about the event, they’ll be more motivated to encourage their company and their co-workers to participate.
With demand for participation at an all-time high, the race could expand to include regional events — billed as tune-ups. This would encourage even more participation, as well as a healthier approach to preparing for the big race. Personal and team improvement would come into play. Training programs would emerge. The whole thing would be a perfect mix of fitness, participation, and company team spirit.
What an awesome event it would be then!
In her note of thanks, Gail (our club president) left us volunteers with the charitable thought ‘I hope your shoes stayed clean’. That pretty much nails the event from my perspective. It encapsulates a general sense of the field and re-defines victory according to the tenor and constituency of the event.
I’ll leave that right there….