By Darrin Eisman
It appears as though the Pikes Peak Marathon has reached a crossroads, and the battle it is now facing is reminiscent of the struggle that the Boston Marathon encountered more than a decade ago. The clash is over prize money and the treatment of elite athletes, and the battle lines have been drawn, pitting athletes concerned about the future against a race management that is content with the past.
Spearheading the elite athletes cause is Matt Carpenter, one of the worlds top mountain runners, and also one of the more outspoken. Carpenter got his start at Pikes Peak, and he now holds the course records for both the ascent and the marathon. He has a passion for the mountain and the race that bears its name, devoting most of his website (www.skyrunner.com) to promoting it.
This race has the best course in the world, a frustrated Carpenter explains. It deserves to be the best race in the world.
On the other side of the issue is Dave Zehrer, race director of the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, and president of the Triple Crown of Running. He stands firmly behind his position that the purpose of his organization is to promote physical fitness and encourage amateur athletic competition. As a registered nonprofit organization, the Triple Crown of Running is prohibited from offering prize money to athletes, Zehrer says.
Much like road racing in the 80s, mountain running is now embracing the concept of prize money, forcing the sports best to make a full-time commitment to training and racing if they wish to remain competitive. It also forces them to choose between events with a rich history and those that can offer a paycheck.
Prize money isnt the only issue in dispute, however. The Pikes Peak Board has been accused of taking an anti-elite attitude, which Zehrer vehemently denies.
The board has always been of the consensus that while it is great to have elite runners, the people are the focus of the race, he explains. Now there are a few who feel it is essential that money be awarded. That just doesnt track with 44 years of history.
I can almost categorically say, our policy on prize money will not change, he asserts.
This conflict reached a head in late June, when Barbara Remmers, winner of the 1999 Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire, asked to be allowed into the race. Entries for the Pikes Peak Ascent on August 21 had closed in early May, with the marathon reaching its cap only two weeks later.
While most running races make concessions for elite runners, Pikes Peak chose to deny her request, first allowing her in, then rescinding the offer a day later.
Zehrer denies that the is taking an anti-elite attitude; he simply feels that elites should follow the same rules as all other entrants. The exception is a policy stating that all former Pikes Peak winners have a standing invitation to compete and can register even on race morning. Zehrer does concede that, in the future, concessions may be made allowing leniency for elite runners, following guidelines that are fair and equitable, however.
For years, Pikes Peak was revered as one of the worlds top mountain races, and for four years in the mid-90s, it did offer cash bonuses for course-record performances. As a result, the marathon and ascent records were each lowered twice during that time.
The events Board of Directors chose to eliminate the cash awards in 1996, and former race heroes like Ricardo Mejia and Martin Rodriquez now race elsewhere so they can make a living.
Zehrer contends that the board is following the wishes of race founder Rudy Fahl, who wanted the race to remain an amateur competition following the rules of the now defunct AAU. Carpenter feels that the idea of amateur competition is out of date, and points to the work of Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine and other great runners who strove to turn running into a viable profession.
Essentially, this Pikes Peak debate is a reenactment of the Boston Marathons staunch opposition to professionalism and a concerted effort by race organizers to maintain a totally amateur race.
1985 was the last year that Boston was contested as an amateur race, and the results were far from stellar. Mens winner Geoff Smith ran the slowest winning time in nine years, while Lisa Larsen Weidebach took the womens crown in a pedestrian 2:34--with second place more than eight minutes back.
We were fortunate that Geoff Smith ran a relatively quick time in 1985, says Jack Fleming, media spokesperson for the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), adding that 1986 would have been disastrous if the event had maintained its purely amateur status.
Boston felt the pressure from other major spring marathons like London and Rotterdam, which offered significant prize money and attracted the best runners in the world. By resisting the pressure to award prize money to athletes, the venerable Patriots Day race saw its prestige beginning to drop. So in 1986, Boston offered one of the richest prize purses in the world. The result was a 2:07:51 course record by Australias Rob de Castella, and a womens winning time that was a full 10 minute faster than the previous year.
Like the Pikes Peak Marathon, the BAA is also a nonprofit organization, but Fleming says that offering prize money in no way affects their nonprofit status, and in fact, saved their race.
In 1999, both mens and womens Boston winners received $80,000 for their efforts.
The similarities between the Boston and Colorado races do not infer similar fates, Zehrer believes. In fact, he asserts that the ascent and marathon have never been stronger.
Over the past three years, we have closed registration two weeks earlier each year, Zehrer says, in reference to reaching the race capacity of 800 runners for the marathon and 1,800 for the ascent.
In response, Pikes Peak will be awarding as many as six places in the more popular age groups. People are the focus of the race. Sure, we can put some of that money into cash for the elites, but is that the direction we want to go?
For Carpenter, the answer is an emphatic yes. The Garden of the Gods 10 Miler died because prize money was pulled and the top runners left, he says. In the late 80s, The Garden of the Gods event had swelled to 2,000 runners, using a substantial cash purse to attract world-class talent to its challenging course.
By the mid-90s, the cash had left the race, and along with it, the elites. In 1999, less than 900 runners crossed the finish line at the Garden, with only four men running faster than a six-minutes-per-mile pace.
Citing the Garden of the Gods as an example, Carpenter points out that when the prize money goes, the elites disappear as well-and the size of the field drops in response.
The Pikes situation is kind of different but has the same end result. It is suffering because other races have added money so the top athletes are leaving to do them.