Paying to track myself run a race I was not actually running seems absurd, but it sums up the corporatization of organized endurance.
You might think spending $85 to $100 to join 20,000 on a 13.1-mile slog called the Rock-n-Roll Half Marathon is excessive. No, excessive - greedy, really - is when race organizers charge an additional $20 to pick up T-shirts and bibs for out-of-town runners, then try to justify the price by saying it would cost those entrants even more to get their belongings on race day.
Nursing an injury, I gave my registration to a colleague. To follow her and others' progress via text messages, I had to give Rock-n-Roll even more money. (Later, organizers hawked race photos for $74.95 or a laminated poster for $69.95.)
Griping about the gouging on Twitter, a fellow runner suggested I pop up to Bucks County and hunt down Pat McCloskey.
She heard he's staging races differently, refreshingly. He's found another way.
McCloskey drives a battered forest green Chevy Astro minivan with 200,000 miles, moving proof he's not profiting from the area's most low-key and nostalgic race series.
He ran Rock-n-Roll and doesn't want to criticize, but there's obviously a reason the half-marathon he's organizing today is dubbed "The Alternative."
"Rock-n-Roll is a mobile concert, it's Live 8 on the road," he notes. "Our slogan is 'Size Matters.' Here, you can get some quiet time."
Last year, McCloskey dared to debut the inaugural Bucks County Marathon on the same day as Philadelphia's famous race. He hoped to lure locals chafing at crowds. He drew 300 people delighted by both the 9 a.m. start time and the intimacy.
That race kicked off a grand experiment, the "Run Bucks" series (http://www.runbucks.com/). The six events can be tackled individually or as glorified group training. "If you can run six miles in July," he assures, "you can run a marathon by the end of November."
Each race follows the scenic towpath along the Delaware Canal State Park. Registration caps at 500, based on the narrow course and concerns about overcrowding a cherished historic site.
The course stretches from Washington's Crossing to New Hope. It's flat. And it's forgiving, since you're running on a soft, crushed, claylike stone, not concrete.
"I've done big-city races. This is a throwback, I call it the 'Old-School Marathon,' " explains George Calaba, the state park's assistant administrator who approved the event, then finished in an impressive 3:46.
Race fees are driven by fixed costs - certification, police, portable toilets. McCloskey aims to stay at about $75. Calaba confirms he neither overcharges nor oversells.
"We want to get people out to see a beautiful resource that is in their backyard but that they might not be aware of," Calaba explains. "You're not getting bells and whistles, but there's enough to keep you entertained and interested."
A running raccoon
McCloskey, a 47-year-old Northeast Philly native, has orbited the regional racing community since staging his first 5K as a service project when he attended St. Joe's Prep. He dropped out of Temple in the 1980s to compete as a triathlete.
The onetime professional Mascot ("SocceRoo" for the Kixx, "Mad Dog" for the Wings) may have smoked you once in a raccoon suit. He ran the Philadelphia Zoo's 1992 "A to Z 10K" dressed as a bear.
"I almost beat Pat Croce and Cecily Tynan," McCloskey laments. "I forgot how heavy the head was."
Once the last finisher crosses the line in November, he'll begin plotting an ultra version of his retro races: a 100K (62-mile) event covering the length of the park, from Bristol to Easton.
"It's not super lucrative," McCloskey admits, "but I try to put out a good product." When participants become friends, you have to focus on customer satisfaction. "For a lot of people, running a race is the biggest thing they'll ever accomplish."
Contact Monica Yant Kinney
at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.