Open up your heart, open up our sport

A tale of two cities, and a tale of two races.

Back home in Montreal, we recently were saddened by the news that the Dix30 road race series was shutting down for the season. Good things about this series were that they recruited faster runners, and offered prize money. This kind of special treatment is what seems to be most lamented in the loss. Apparently they were undercut by MEC’s new cheap series, set on the same courses in the mall parking lot in Brossard. I have to say that the course was not a particularly strong point to these races. The fact that a similar event could be so easily set up and run more cheaply is interesting, however. The news lead to questioning whether we have too many events in Montreal and Quebec, and what must be done about it.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, a town with a population of 350,000 (Montreal has 10x that many people), I’m told there are endurance events of varying kinds nearly every weekend. Road races, trail races, triathlons, adventure races, you name it. None of them are folding for lack of participation. In fact, new events are being added, with great success.

One such event is The Q’s Victoria Run Series, put on by the “never not busy” Chris Kelsall. This series of track, road and cross country races that spreads throughout the year invites runners of all types to participate in some events that they might not normally get to try. Saturday night, in a beautiful example of the recreational and the elite coming together for similar purposes, a couple 3000m races, a 1500m and an 800m featured over 50 entires, ranging from men and women as old as 70, to kids as young as 13. Shortly after, elite sections of the 800m saw members of the Victoria Vikes fly around the track. 3 women ran under 2:10, 6 under 2:15 and 11 ran under 2:20! On the men’s side, there were 5 under 1:55. Not too shabby for a little twilight distance meet.

Kelsall’s goal with this series (supported by several sponsors, including the local radio station) is to make track races accessible to the general public. The faster, track-running crowd is always looking for ways to make the sport visible, accepted, embraced, by the masses. The old ladies who ran 17min for 3k and 4min for 800m sure seemed to appreciate the smooth moves of Kendra Pomfret and Thomas Riva. There was a crowd, and they were cheering! It may have something to do with the openness of the meet, and the opportunity to try out track on their own terms. It’s easy for a 4 hour marathoner to pooh-pooh a two-lap track race if they’ve never felt that burn. But once you’ve done it, you get it. Kelsall has created an environment where people are not afraid to try it, and once they do, they’re hooked!

There were no complaints either, that the field may have been watered down by the Oak Bay Half Marathon and 5k races taking place the following morning. Over 1000 people showed up for that one. Relative to population, that would be like a 10,000 person race in Montreal. But this wasn’t even the main event of the year. Jim Finlayson won easily in under 70min, on a familiar course through the tony neighbourhood of Oak Bay. On a cool down jog, Finlayson pointed out an immculately groomed rugby field and noted that it was only a short 20min warm-up from his house. He will often do marathon paced work on the loop around the park. It was raining, but of course runners are not deterred by this. “It was actually a nice day for a run,” he said.

Meanwhile, out at Shawinigan Lake, less than an hour’s drive from the city, a provincial level triathlon was going on, that also included in its festivities, the Western Canadian High School championships (yes, they have one of those).

Such is a typical weekend in Victoria. Yet, in Quebec, we have “too many” races. What is the real issue here? To return to a theme from yesterday’s blog, it may be culture. This area can sustain these events because of a variety of factors. Chris Kelsall makes the suggestion that the original British population brought with them a kind of “endurance sport ethos.” The old brits liked to get their stamina training in, you know. This lead to an acceptance of other endurance sports, such as cycling (which many athletes turn to when they can’t do their own particular thing due to injury or old age), and of course that leads to triathlon, and there’s rowing…They come for the climate and the culture permits them to stay. Now it’s engrained.

But what excuse is this for Quebec? Perhaps the original inhabitants of La Belle Province were busy with things like chopping wood and working the land, and didn’t have time for the frivolties of amateur athletics (leave that to Percival Molson and his ilk)? Is that so? I don’t know. But surely this can change. It has changed. There are many sporting men and women on our little island, and in the surrounding area.

I suspect the problem is that, because of the population that is 10x that of Victoria, there are many many more who are not athletes. Not for bad reasons: maybe they are dancers, or painters, or DJs. Maybe some of them are car-bound, overweight suburbanites, yes, and it is easy to feel morally superior to people who do not exercise, but I don’t think it solves the problem. We need to reach out to all these non-athletes, and help them understand the benefits of our thing. Like the Q’s Victoria Run Series offers an opportunity for recreational athletes to feel the burn of an elite, perhaps for events to survive in the Montreal area, organizers need to offer something to non-athletic types: a low-barrier to entry event to make them feel like part of the in-crowd. The key is openness.

You know what? That’s sort of what MEC is doing, and they are succeeding in opening up the sport. So instead of lamenting the cheapening of of our endurance events, maybe we should think about how opening up the box can benefit our needs in the long run.

There are many ways to Rome, and sometimes, in Quebec, we take the long, winding road, when there’s an express train sitting in the station. All it takes to get on that train sometimes is a shift in attitude. I find it maddening that when I go to events outside of Quebec, everything seems so easy. At home, someone always finds something to complain about. If we make our priority not protocols, but results, not bureaucracy, but expediency, perhaps we could wrangle a few more partners on our dance card.

On my run this morning, I stopped by the Oak Bay High School track. It’s a serviceable track. The giant oak tree right at the start finish line is very cool, though I can see how it might become annoying. Regardless, it gets the job done. The track is open to the public, and people use it. It reminds me a bit of Kent Park. A big difference though is a sign that explains how on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-8pm, the track is reserved for the youth development program. This may seem like an example not of openness, but of exclusivity, but seeing it that way misses the point. There is enough openness to the sport here that those running the development program were able to come to an agreement with the school and the city for exclusive use of the track at certain times. At Kent Park, we don’t even get to use the bathrooms sometimes. At Claude Robillard, it seemed as if the staff there worked to try to limit the use of the facilities as much as possible (I stopped going, so I don’t know if it has changed). Educating the public, i.e. non-runners on our sport will allow us to have the special status, the exclusivity that we crave.

Another example is officials. Track and field officials are gumpily similar everywhere, but it seems that elsewhere, the good meet directors have got a handle on them. They’ve taught them that the goal of a meet is not to run it accoring to the letter of the rule book, but to provide an opportunity for people to surpass themselves. If the public’s introduction to the sport are officials who are rude, strict, and incompetent, that public won’t come back. They’ll go play soccer.

I’ve come out here to learn how to create a culture of excellence in our sport back home. There are no easy answers, but a simple one is: be open. We could put on meets with less than half the officals and probably attract more people to the sport. If we stripped away a level or two of bureaucracy, we could have more events, and more good events, too. Instead of trying to promote the elite, show that our sport is for everyone. This won’t be harmful to the elite–it will help them. That’s the final point: the cream rises to the top. Cutting back on events won’t make things better. What will is having plenty of events, and letting people decide which ones they want to go to. That’s the reality anyway, and if we don’t make our events open and accessible, we have no chance of showcasing our best athletes, or building for them the support they need to get to the next level.