Friday, August 1, 2014

OPINION: Local Municipalities Missing The Big Picture

Maybe its really a simple matter of too few fire company volunteers, and concerns about Saturday morning road closures, but to this runner (and I know I'm not alone), recent actions taken by a number of local municipalities seem more like attacks on our healthy lifestyle. These local municipalities are missing the big picture. Runners are not a nuisance, but a boon with multiple tangible and intangible socioeconomic benefits that should be nurtured and regulated rather than arbitrarily restricted.

The Issue:

Nationally and internationally these are boom years for running, and locally we have also seen explosive growth. The number of races held in the Twin Tiers, Bradford County in particular, has increased at an annual rate of 25% or more for each of the last 4 years. And it should come as no surprise, research readily available online indicates that interest in running, a cost effect means of stress relief, always spikes during a down economy. Couple this with the daily media bombardment that says “America is too fat,” and you have the recipe for a running boom.

Meanwhile, some local municipalities have taken (or are in the process of taking) steps to restrict local organizations (almost exclusively charitable) from using area roads on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) mornings for races. The first municipality to take such measures was Towanda which restricted all races to just two pre-determined 5k routes (What if somebody wants to put on a longer or shorter race?). Sayre was next, when earlier this year they capped the number of races to be allowed during the remainder of 2014, and presumably future years. Interestingly, most races that start in Sayre, at some point venture into Athens (or vise versa), and Athens is the latest municipality to hop on the bandwagon by taking the issue under consideration at last month’s township meeting.

The reason for these actions given, most often? A lack of volunteer fire company personnel to close streets and direct traffic.

Why This Complaint is Bogus:

First: anybody who has ever run a local race will realize that, with the exception of a few of the area’s largest events, and at major intersections, local streets are typically left open to traffic.

Second: In the event that a closed course is necessary, firemen are not the only ones with the authority to close streets or direct traffic. Earlier this summer at the Race For Healing in Athens it was the Athens police who assisted runners in crossing Keystone Avenue. Furthermore, at most local events, volunteers provided by the race, can be found standing at turns and crossings along the course. They may not have the authority to hinder the movement of traffic, but their presence keeps runners on course, and encourages drivers will slow to a safe speed.

If police, firemen and volunteers crap out, there is always that most trustworthy of public servants: the ever sturdy Mr. Traffic Barrier. You know who I’m talking about. He’s about waist high, painted with orange stripes, looks like a sawhorse and says “road closed” on the side. The best thing about Mr. Traffic Barrier is that he works for free, doesn’t need bathroom breaks, and is impossible to miss.

Why Are Local Municipalities Really Giving Runners The Hustle:

Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a few theories.

First: It is my belief that those who do not run, or don’t have a runner in the family, misunderstand just how important running is to us. Running is just a hobby…said no one, ever. Running gets into your blood, literally. Running releases endorphins (a natural opioid ). Even if you just start running to “lose a few pounds,” you inevitably find yourself addicted, and before you know it you’ve gone from “hobby-jogger” to lifestyle runner. And indeed, running is a lifestyle. Runners plan their days around their runs. Running informs what and when we eat, how long we sleep, what we wear, who we included in our social circles. Running is not something we do. Its who we are.

Second: I suspect those who have not yet taken up the call to run harbor some resentment toward those who have. This is maybe not altogether surprising. When you run you talk about running - constantly, which is perhaps annoying to outsiders. If this is the case the problem is easily solved. Runners are the most inclusive, supportive folks around bar none. What are you waiting for, an invitation? THIS is your invitation. See you soon.

Why Local Municipalities Should Instead Regulate And Nurture Running:

I believe that restricting these local races is the wrong course of action. Our local municipalities should instead work to regulate and nurture the local running scene to help it reach its full potential and provide the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. Here is the why and how.

Why: Runners spend money. Spending supports local businesses. Local businesses create jobs. Put on the right races to spur tourism. Runners will travel from far and wide, to attend. “Runcations” are all the rage. Last year’s Sayre Turkey Trot was one of the biggest races in the entire Twin Tiers and attracted runners from more than a dozen states. If memory serves me, the Chief Wetonah Challenge at Mt Pisgah this past May attracted a runner from Maine and another from the Carolinas.

How: Approve race permits based on quality and uniqueness rather than a quota. Set a limit on 5k races, but suggest to would be race organizers that approval would be granted if they agreed to change their race distance in order to ensure more variety in the local running scene. Approve a 5 miler instead of a 5k. The area could also use a good 4 miler, 8k, 12k, 10 miler, half marathon or even ultra. After preliminary approval has been given (preferably a year in advance), require race organizers to check in each month with their progress to ensure that minimum quality standards are being upheld (race website, chip timing, advertising, etc…). By working together with local runners our area races will become larger. They will draw locals as well as tourists. Big races will fill local hotels and restaurants, necessitate the establishment of better local sporting goods stores, improve sales of locally grown produce and health food, and increase usage of local parks and trails. Everybody wins.

Why: Physical Health, Mental Health, Reduced Crime. Read the paper. This area has a growing drug problem. Part of the population is growing healthier, while the other part gets sicker.

How: Running makes you healthier, both physically and mentally. Its not a cure-all but I challenge you to find a study that doesn’t support the claim that in many cases running and athletics in general reduce feelings of depression, improve self esteem, improve academics, increase life span, and reduced crime or drug use. Less crime means less people in jail and less police on the street.

Perhaps encourage local schools to create “Running Club/Class” as elective in place of phys ed. This class would include regular running, reading running related texts, and viewing running related movies. Each semester the class as a whole would work to host a race for charity, in the process learning leadership skills, the ins and outs of local government, and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of increased self esteem, reduced depression/suicide and improved grades. This class would have the added benefit of greatly improving the performance of local track and cross country teams by identifying and nurturing new talent.


Alright, I’ve ranted long enough. Some local municipalities are cracking down on the running community. They are unfortunately losing out on all the benefits I’ve mentioned (and more). But its not too late to turn this ship around. All it takes is for one local town to get behind its runners, and put together an outline for the future of running in their community. Penn-York Valley Half Marathon? Central Bradford County Marathon? Towanda 10 Miler? The possibilities are endless. The municipalities that stop trying to put races out of business and instead make running part of THEIR BUSINESS will reap the greatest benefits from the local running boom. Our local not-for-profit running clubs are young, but growing fast. These groups do what little they can to nurture the local racing scene, but without the support of local government the runners and the race organizers may never be a cohesive community.


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