Larry Barnum nails NMN dilemma: Niches or riches?

G’bye, Larry.

Larry Barnum, a world champion masters sprinter, had his own farewell piece in National Masters News. Writing under the heading “A Little Off Track,” Larry mused about the trend at NMN to focus on distance runners: “How do you keep NMN’s base of track and field athletes if you feature long distance road running too often or feature triathlons? Yet, to be successful, ya gotta focus on where the crowds are. And, of course, that’s running. Road and cross county.” So there it is — a confirmation that NMN is going to the roads. Some jumpers, throwers, sprinters and hurdlers might argue that NMN is going to the dogs, however.

But that’s the dilemma NMN publisher Randy Sturgeon faces in expanding his subscription base: Run with the devil and grow, or satisfy tiny niches and limp along?
Here’s Larry’s last column in NMN, on page 14 of the June issue of NMN:

Showing Up or Showing Off?
Balancing Competition and Participation

By Larry Barnum
A couple of weeks ago, I cheered my wife Carmel Papworth-Barnum to victory in a 5K race. Later, the newspaper had a story about the 5 and 10K charity races, who the charity helped, and a picture of who won the best costume. They made no mention of W40 Carmel’s repeat win, or M40 Jeff Mann, second over all and first masters in the 5K, and M50 Tim Minor, the first overall and first master in the 10K. No race results.
It got me thinking about participation and competition. Here were three local runners who’ve run successfully on the national and international stage but got no mention at home. No, there’s an attitude that it’s all about showing up and having fun. Being competitive is seen as a bad thing. Other runners think fast is fun. I’ve often said that getting a good time is a havin’ a good time. Or is it the other way around?
There’s a debate going on here where some complain the All-American road standards are way too easy and should at least parallel the track standards. (See story on M62 Doug Brown and M60 Jorge Rivera). That seems to make sense.
Others call that elitist.
Don Lein certainly has done a lot for Masters Long Distance Running but his research seems flawed. When Carmel ran, there was a small but serious pack of competitors but most of the other 4,000 entries were there to have a good time or possibly a painful time for a good cause. They weren’t competing. They were talking, shuffling, listening to their IPod, cell phone, walking their dog and pushing their stroller, while eating.
To clump them in as part of a study of All-American standards has inherent flaws. What criteria are used in determining a runner and who should and shouldn’t be counted? If you had matching running shoes? Got nervous? Went to the bathroom twice before the race? Had at least trained for it? Or just showed up?
There’s some irony in this debate. The people who complain that the standards are too hard, too elitist, still want to claim an easier All-American status. A lite-elite. Historically, All-American by definition is elite. Go back to the drawing board and come up with more competitive standards for All-American or change the name. Award of Merit. Age Group Standards. Competitive Standards. Whatever.
The Phiddipides Award, for showing up and getting an elitist sounding award, is an obvious alternative.
This weekend, I was at the Nevada state convention. Okay, truth be told, I’m an Obama delegate and I’m a little sensitive to the elite charge. Somehow, elite is also a bad thing.
In this issue, the publisher hints at that dilemma.
How does a publication attract larger numbers of runners and joggers and not intimidate them with impressive track results from national and international masters competitions? How do you keep NMN’s base of track and field athletes if you feature long distance road running too often or feature triathlons?
Yet, to be successful, ya gotta focus on where the crowds are. And, of course, that’s running. Road and cross county. So obviously, the publisher has to make decisions to focus on one group and try not to shortchange the others.
Track and field, by its very nature, is a little more exclusive. There’s not a lot of room out there for everyone. Lanes are limited. You can’t get 4,000 competing in one event at the same time. People seem to think that Masters USATF is more competitive, even elitist.
Serious. And that the Senior Games are more fun.
The number of entries supports this.
How do we as a sport balance this dilemma? In the masters exhibitions, Mark Cleary stresses the elite aspect of masters track. For the Mt. SAC Relays, he set up standards that eventually weren’t met, never changed them on the web page or NMN, and had empty lanes. In an apparent desire for more participation, he let others in or recruited them from his team without making public the new standards.
In the 800M, only one man and three women met the qualifying standards. Where there was space for 12 entries and 2 alternates in both the male and female races, we only had 4 runners in one heat and five in the other. What may have been a noble attempt turned out to be embarrassing.
At the start of the race, it didn’t seem elite, it looked like nobody cared, that there weren’t enough masters willing or able to fill the lanes. It turned out that there was competition but not much participation, and no easy way to remedy this.
At the other extreme, many local TV stations send out a reporter to focus on the least athletic looking competitor, the out of shape character who showed up at the last minute, in an attempt to encourage everyone to get off their barcaloungers and find out how easy it is to win medals at the nearby meet. The human-interest story.
Yet, one thing you realize in masters track, if you talk to anyone around you, is that so many athletes have wonderful, rich lives, incredible stories, and inspirational tales to tell if only given the chance.
No matter what, most of us are there for the camaraderie, to be with others who share our passion or interest. Timing is relevant, of course, as these same stories may lack interest to most of your competitors during their warm-up or pre-race preparations.
At the National Senior Games where they had 4,200 runners, some of the top masters competitors, world champions and record holders lined up against others who were only there for the camaraderie. Here participation came together with competition, yet the news photos generally focused on one of the oldest, but often not the best athlete, the numbers not the names, the quantity not the quality of the meet.
Now it’s nice to focus occasionally on these, yet also show those amazing 70- and 75-year olds. Penn Relays seems to do a better job of showcasing lots of good, older runners. (See Peter Taylor’s story on page 5)
Of course, the desire to have accurate records seems to fall in that elitist category. If you’ve set a record, it was not just about participating. You competed, did your best and surpassed others. That’s elite. Hey, way to go. Congratulations to you.
Many of us believe there should be a formalized way to get a record approved and a means of appeal if the record is denied. That there should be more current, quicker ways to get approval or be notified if denied and time to go back to get the necessary documentation.
Although those involved in the process have promised for the last few month that more information would be forthcoming, as of yet there’s nothing new. Unfortunately, nothing new is nothing new. And that’s not competition and certainly not participation.

Me again: Of course, this is a masters track and field site. We cater mainly to oval-runners, dashfolk and ladies and gents who land in a pit or throw from a ring.
(My reasoning is well-known: Distance runners have a gazillion Web sites, publications and message boards. Masters tracksters have barely nuthin.)
Even so, I pose the question:

Print Friendly

May 29, 2008

12 Responses

  1. KimW - May 29, 2008

    Disappointing. If I wanted to read about road runners there’s probably 20 other magazines I could buy. Ho hum.

  2. Mark Cleary - May 29, 2008

    Larry, I want to address you publically on this matter of the 800m races at Mt. Sac being an embarrassment. We had several Men pull out of this race due to injury and two were a no show.I think you understate the fact that athletes have some responsibility if they enter to show up. The Women’s field never got the entries-rather then not have the race, yes I recruited two of my team mates to help fill the field. It was either that or let the the two women who flew in from Montanna run in a 3 person race. I have had what I consider cheap shots delivered from both you and Ken Stone.I would appreciate you at least talking with me to get an understanding of the situation before you go stating assuptions without the facts because there are varying situations in regard to these races. The races in the case of Mt. Sac this year were still competitive and in the case of the Women’s race the two women that ran there posted the top two times run this year–so it was not quite what we would have hoped for,but I don’t think anyone who was there would have called the races an embarassment.

  3. Cornell - May 29, 2008

    This distance focus is nothing new. I gave up on NMN a decade ago. I remember just a few years ago that there was one line of coverage when we broke the 4×100 WR. The DMR WR a year earlier did gain a paragraph but they chose to speak only to the distance runner on the team. Runner’s World is probably a better bet.

  4. Peter Magill - May 29, 2008

    First off … Cornell, for the record, what I most remember about that DMR record is YOUR electrifying 400 meter leg! The starter turned to me (since I’d just finished my leg), shook his head in wonder as you blazed a 49 leg, and asked, “Are you really all over 40?!” I said, “Yeah,” and he shook his head again. I was just along for the ride on that record. You and David Olds brought it home.
    As for NMN’s emphasis on distance … Really? I stopped subscribing over a year ago, in large part because I thought the distance runners (especially West Coast distance runners) were under-reported. My cross-country club, Team Runners High, won 7 national team championships without ever making it higher than about page 12. When I won Carlsbad, that was buried deep. A few of my M45-49 records never even got mentioned. And the 4 x 1500 relay record that we Mighty Micros set didn’t even make NMN’s official list of relay records (the French team had credit long after we’d shattered their mark).
    My point? … I guess it’s that, not surprisingly, we all feel somewhat slighted – even when we’re not.
    For the record, I will point out one stat: in the United States, more than 20 million people over the age of 40 donned running shoes and headed out the door for a run last year. That’s a heckuva target audience. And one from which our sport, always teetering on the edge of economic oblivion, could really use an input of bodies – and funds.
    That doesn’t mean we should forget that Track & Field is mostly about non-distance runners.
    But it also suggests there might be some positive reward for recognizing that vast sea of over-40 distance plodders.
    Heck, I might even consider getting a subscription again! 😉

  5. Steve Chantry - May 29, 2008

    Very interesting reading. Let’s face it, Runner’s World is not what it used to be. It is a magazine that encourages the three day a week jogger who would like to complete (not race) a marathon or some other road distance. At least Running Times (for now) addresses the more competitive runner. But, I subscribe to them both and as Pete points out, the economic support is necessary so I do it. And except for the numerous local publications, there really aren’t many out there. I think that this expansion of focus could result in NMN becoming a main line periodical read by millions. Wouldn’t that generate interest, dollars, and big time support for our overall sport of Track and Field and Running? Of course, the magazine itself would have to grow so that adequate coverage could be provided for all of these aspects of T&F and running and that is the key. No one wants a publication to focus more attention on one aspect to the detriment of another. It will be a balancing act, but I am looking forward to the possibilities that it may engender for the sport.

  6. Michael Walker - May 29, 2008

    While I would prefer NMN to stay a track and field only magazine, I don’t see any harm adding coverage of long distance races. Perhaps we can learn to work together – invite the road runners to run a mile or 3K and maybe the road races could add a 100 yard dash for adults/,masters. A number of years ago, local road race had a 10K and a 50 yard dash and drew a good crowd for both events.

  7. peter taylor - May 29, 2008

    Very interesting. Numbers seem to be more important as the years go by, and one way we can “show our numbers” in masters track and field is by turning out for the big meets. The next big one is August 7-10 in Spokane, Washington, but I have seen little discussion of this meet.
    It would be wonderful if the Spokane nationals could draw 1400 or more competitors, but that looks like a long shot, as no outdoor masters championship that was located more than 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean has ever drawn more than 1400. Still, we need a good showing, as next year we go to Florida. In the modern era, three outdoors have drawn very poorly: Florida (Orlando) in 1999, Louisiana (Baton Rouge)in 2001, and Hawaii (Honolulu) in 2005. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
    Our outdoor nationals has to be a huge event, and a great turnout for the event plus a corresponding surge of publicity (Bob Weiner has done a great job in this regard) should work wonders. Still, I know of an event that will dwarf any turnout we get at Spokane — the 2009 Senior Olympics/Senior Games at Stanford University in California. The Seniors model has resulted in numbers that would be staggering from a masters perspective — do we need to go that route? We need numbers…numbers…numbers,and with numbers and great performances we can get more coverage, more readers, etc. (I hope).

  8. mellow johnny - May 29, 2008

    PT- it appears you are correct about Spokane, unfortunately. I posted on the forum inquiring as to who was all going to Spokane and got very few responses. Now, not everyone posts nor accesses this website but the numbers were staggering to me with how low they were.
    I hope it can somehow turn into a bigger event but unless they get a huge influx of people over the next two months, it looks like Spokane will follow suit for those meets away from the Pacific Ocean as you’ve mentioned.

  9. Mary Harada - May 30, 2008

    Time will tell if Randy’s move to broaden the readership of NMN by a greater appeal to road runners will work.
    Lets face it -masters track and field appeals to a fairly small subset of masters sports. Comparing the numbers at a National Master Track meet to that of the National Senior games is questionable – after all – the National Senior Games is a multi-event competition although the numbers who turn out for the track and field events is much greater than for the National Masters meets.
    But -I can hear the outrages now if some of the folks who turn up at the National Senior Games track and field meet turned up at the National Masters meets – the folks who walk the entire 800m and 1500 m “run” – not the track walk but the “run”. Or some of those who are allegedly “race walking” with bent knees or just strolling.
    As for low attendance in Spokane – for those of us who live too far away to drive – have you priced tickets to Spokane from the east coast recently?
    And I suspect the meet next summer in Clermont Florida may be a low attendance meet as well – for reasons of heat – lots of us remember Charlotte – and some may go to the NCCAWMA meet in Clermont the end of August this year and report back about how that went.
    Speaking of not well advertised – I have yet to see much of anything about the WMA Regional Meet in Florida – I expect US and Canadian attendance may be pretty slim. How many masters track and field participants know that it is being held. NACCWMA meets are notorious for poor advertising.
    As for subscribing to Runners World – please – enough already of 28 ways to increase your 10k time, 54 ways to lose weight while training for a marathon. I hope Randy does not end up doing that sort of thing to attract buyers for the soon to be slicked up National Masters News.

  10. peter chen - May 30, 2008

    For all the hand-wringing, I think masters T&F is doing just fine.
    I also compete in masters swimming from time to time. There are over 40,000 masters swimmers registered with USMS, which is probably 10x the number of us who are registered with USATF.
    USMS also typically holds its Nationals near large metro areas. The short course (25-yard pool) nationals earlier this month were in Austin TX. Central location, in a swimming-crazy state, on the campus where several of the country’s biggest Olympic swim stars (Ian Crocker, Aaron Piersol, etc.) train… and only ~ 1,800 entrants showed up!? That is not much more than masters track gets for its nationals which are so often held in such tiny out of the way locales as Orono, Decatur, Spokane, etc., none of which were legendary T&F hotbeds the last time I checked.
    Now if I could only get a ticket to the Oly Trials in Eugene for the 27th!

  11. Cornell Stephenson - May 31, 2008

    Peter, my comment was in no way a slight at you. I truly enjoyed running that race with you guys as we showed the college kids how to get it done. My point was simply that, in my opinion, most of the focus in NMN was on distance running and only a few select sprinters. By the way, I tried to reunite our DMR team for a picture to include in ‘THAT MASTERFUL SEASON’ but never heard back from David. Stay healthy and keep running well.

  12. Peter Magill - June 1, 2008

    Cornell – didn’t take it as a slight. Just wanted you to know that no matter what kind of coverage your races have gotten in the media, your relay mates hold you in the absolute highest esteem! Like I wrote earlier, your leg brought that DMR record home! And sorry David didn’t get back to you. He mentioned the photo to me, and Angel and I agreed to get together to do it … then didn’t hear about it again. Sorry that didn’t work out. And, finally, congrats on the book!

Leave a Reply