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April 6, 2022

How To Improve The USATF Half Marathon Championships

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USATF announced this week that the 2022 Half Marathon Championships will be held next month in Indianapolis on May 7th — I hope you didn’t have plans! This understandably upset the road community as five weeks notice isn’t enough time for a training block, let alone booking flights and hotels. Additionally, the following week will be the 25K Championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Currently, the USATF does not list it on the calendar, but the Amway River Bank Run’s website does — my research (I sent some text messages) corroborates this.

It seems like the simple solution would be to combine the two races and then have the athletes decide what championship they’re vying for 13 miles in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Children’s literature references aside, why do we need a 15K, 10 mile, 20K, Half Marathon, and 25K US Championship? They’re all basically the same distance, and by existing, they all dilute each of their fields.

The common argument is that it creates opportunities for athletes! That’s a very genial and well-intended point fans make to rationalize putting together weak fields. But there is no shortage of historic road races with great prize money in the United States — this isn’t the track. If you’re in god-tier shape and want to win a few thousand dollars, there is almost always a race-ready to fork it over.

This conundrum exists across the sport: Should we do what’s good for athletes today or for the athletes tomorrow?

In this case, we are handing out a few thousand dollars to a handful of people competing at a US Championship where 90% of the best runners in the country are absent. Those are some great paydays that are likely multiplied by contract bonuses and it’s a challenging argument to ever suggest that less money in athlete’s pockets is a good idea. However, in the current system, it’s too easy for the best athletes to avoid racing each other — those matchups need to happen if we want fans to care!

A well-placed USATF Half Marathon Championship ahead of the fall or spring marathons could attract much deeper fields, and therefore intrigue. Rather than waking up to learn of the results after it’s over, perhaps there could be a TV product so enticing it’s worth setting an alarm for! We know that Americans like to run our local Marathon Majors so schedule a flat fast race in September or March that’s positioned to be a tune-up before them.

If even a fraction of the resources and prize money is pooled to support one or two events, then it’d be possible to boost tenth place’s prize purse of $600 to a few thousand. And maybe the competition is so good and the win so meaningful that the additional eyeballs of those now tuning in to watch can justify bigger sponsorship deals.

As an idealist, I’m not ready to sell off parts of the company to cut our losses just yet. I still believe that there exists a way to restructure the sport to better cater to an enthusiastic audience, but it starts with eliminating some opportunities — that’s an investment in the future.

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