Larry Barnum nails NMN dilemma: Niches or riches?
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: