Monday, May 11, 2009

River Bank Spun?

I've been an avid runner for years and can't help but be enthusiastic about the annual Fifth Third River Bank Run in Grand Rapids.  My brutal schedule of teaching, consulting and PhD studies forced me to tone down my training and I only did the 10K this year, while my wife and various friends persisted in the flood-altered, hill enhanced 25 K course.

I had more time to think less about a runner's PR (personal record) and more about the PR, as in public relations, associated with the event this year.

There's no doubt race officials did a great job dealing with the flood issue and re-routed course, and communicating all aspects related to the last-minute changes. But while I respect race director Kristin Aidif and local running legend Greg Meyers, I was a little taken that some of their media comments before and after the race seemed, well, a little spun.

The rain. Look, rain happens. No one will blame you for it. But to hear them say runners (as if they talked to all of us) "wanted" the rain and said "bring it on"? Wrong.

The new 25K course with its additional hills and out-and-back feature. Yeah, it is a little exciting to see elite runners shooting past you on the double back. (I've never seen Kenyans during a run, but one year at the Chicago Marathon I finished neck and neck with a guy named Ken). But while race officials praised this feature, the majority of comments I heard from runners was that packing a record crowd of runners into one lane instead of the expected two made for crowded running and constant watching for elbows and potholes and not much glancing at runners coming the other way.

Saying the new course featured "rolling hills" is like a realtor calling a broom closet a "cozy apartment." Most runners, including some media celeb runners, spoke of the fear the new course induced. I don't think race officials spoke for everyone when they said the added hills were a fun challenge, not when runners I talked to said they "hated every minute of them."

A well, it's a race. Weather and situations happen. Hills, rain, and wind were not pleasant. It's ok, and honest, to say that. Maybe some runners loved the misery, but let's not project that comment on everyone. People won't blame the race officials for the weather; but they will be put off by words being put in their mouths.

A last thought, about branding. This event is so big now that it has a brand that seems distinct from its sponsor, the awkwardly named Fifth Third Bank. Most people think of it as the River Bank Run, on its own, and associate it with an annual spring event. It does not induce thoughts of checking and savings accounts, or money market CDs. Nevertheless, Aidif said in one interview they want to continue to deliver a good "product" to West Michigan. OK, I get the marketing mantra that everything is a product and every person is a customer. But can that metaphor rest along with my tired legs for once? It's an event, a run, a race. A product? Maybe you can discuss it that way internally, but I would bet on mile 12 most participants see themselves as runners, not consumers, engaged in an event, not buying a product.

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