Entering the star system

Last week, I was featured on The Run Commuter website. I got my own article, which is definitively a true honor. I feel that I now belong to the club of the runners that got this exposure. It is also really funny because I just got injured one week before it was published.

runcommuter

And this week, the pacer page on the Pittsburgh marathon was just published. And of course, my ugly face is on it. Yay.

 

paceteam

It seems that all of that is finally getting real and I will have to run a half marathon in 1:45 in May while entertaining people around me. I tried to avoid everything running related since several weeks, including contact with the running community but it might be time to treat the several muscles injuries, tendinitis and remain of fractures that keep me away from running since several weeks now. Between a coming trip to Japan, another in France and a last one in Italy, I should find some time to train.

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Entering the star system

Pittsburgh Marathon 2015

The Pittsburgh Marathon is like a party in the local running community: everybody trained hard, is happy to be around their friends and have a good time. There is a lot of excitement and every year, new people start to train and complete their first marathon. For some, it will be also the last one but for others, this is the start of a longer journey. If you are a happy member of the Steel City Road Runners,you have access to facilities before (bathroom area, breakfast) and after (tent with post-race food) the race. I ran it last year, had a blast and, so, was planning to do it again.

I took the race as a nice training run around the city. A 20+ miles run every month to maintain the fitness level: even if you run every day, it is mostly short runs. This is why it is important to take the opportunity of long workouts. As I got a free bib for the race, I thought it was a good idea to take it easy and just enjoy the race.

Packet Pickup, expo and preparation

The packet pickup and expo is located in downtown in the convention center. The expo is huge with vendors all around and you can spend a lot of time around. The packet contains a marathon week-end guide, a calendar, some food and … your bib. I did not hang out so much at the expo – just wanted to get my packet and go on.

I was busy the week-end working on many projects. So, instead of resting on Saturday, I woke up at 0530am, work, go back and forth to Lowe’s. Instead going of sleeping early, I went to a party to hang out with friends, eating party food and drinking beers until 10pm. Then, it was time to get some rest for 4 hours before waking up and trying to be in corral B.

Race Day

A friend of mine gave me a ride in the morning, which is good since I was barely awake at that time. I did not remember where was the Steel City Road Runners starting area and tried to find it 15 minutes before the startt. This was quite challenging because all the downtown area was crowded. I finally found the area, dropped my bag and go to corral B. Staying in the corral is just painful and boring, that is why I stayed in the back of the corral, walking back and forth, not talking to anybody. This was totally fine: at that time, I just wanted to go, run and not chat to anybody. Just. Be. Alone.

The Race

The race starts at 0700am. The course go over many neighborhood: Strip District, North Side, West End, South Side, Oakland/Shadyside, Homewood, Highland Park and Bloomfield. The support from the local neighborhoods is great and the presence of music bands is more than appreciated. The worst neighborhood is  Oakland (nobody is there) and the most active is definitively Homewood with people singing and dancing on Michael Jackson and other funk/soul artists. Homewood literally shows you what community means. There is a general idea that this part of the city is a poor, unsafe area and it is common to see people scared to run there. For these people, you should go to Homewood, put your butt out of here and just see the support and the joy from the residents. You do not have such an experience in other neighborhood, especially not in what is “considered as the wealthy and secure ones”. Yes, Shadyside is boring (only Walnut Street is active), Point Breeze is just ok. Homewood is a blast. Without Homewood, the marathon would not be the same. Another active area is Bloomfield, there are beers stop and parties over the course. If you just want to have fun, this sounds like a great way to get some fun on the course.

When talking about Pittsburgh, many runners are concerned about the elevation profile with the common belief that Pittsburgh is a hilly city. In fact, this is not hilly at all: there is a single hill (about 150 ft) around mile 12 but is clearly not a big deal. Many other marathons have similar hills. If you are considering to run Pittsburgh, this is definitively not what should turn you off. The week after the marathon, I have talked with many other folks that told me the “big hill” was almost nothing compared to other races (look at Baltimore for example)

 

Marathon Map
Marathon Map

 

I was planning to run it under 3.5 hours and so, as I started in the back of the corral, had to pass a lot of runners. After a few miles, everything was ok and I was on a good pace (about 08 min/mile). I continued but, with a poor pre-race nutrition strategy, I did not feel thirsty until mile 18. Everything was ok then and did not take any gel, water, gatorade or other fluid. However, it was really warm and I then started to think it would be a good idea to start drinking. Unfortunately, my body did was not able to hold anything, which makes hard to maintain the pace. The pain was growing over the miles and even if people told me I looked strong, I was just going through a lot of pain, trying to make it under the 3.5 hours goal.

Unfortunately, it did not happened and completed the race under 3:32, about 2 minutes over the goal. Pretty happy with it, especially considering the conditions (really warm) and the poor preparation (4 to 5 hours of sleep every night since two weeks, bad nutrition strategy).

Post-Race

Once you finished, you get your finisher medal and there is food and water. The post-race party takes place in Point State Park where you can hang out with your friends and buy more food if you need to. For the Steel City Road Runners members, there is a tent with a full food buffet where you can also hang out with your fellow runners and congratulate each other. When arriving to the tent, I was dehydrated and not able to hold anything in my body. I tried to get some food but it made me more sick. When sitting, I got the feeling I was about to pass out. This was a good race, it was just time to rest. Fortunately, my partner in crime picked me up, took care of myself and was ready to celebrate this new personal best few hours later at Brew Gentlemen!

 

Elevation Profile
Elevation Profile

 

During the next days, the excitement around the race spread across the running clubs in Pittsburgh: race reports, photos, story about bad or great race, everybody starts to tell the story about the race they was hoping for, the one they would have run and the one that they actually run. There is also the usual marathonofoto rip off that offers to download your pictures for about $70 – who seriously pay such a price for race pictures? I still do not understand how they can make business. On the side, other (unofficial) photographers take pictures and share them on social media. The quality of their work is often better than what is offered by the official pictures – so, in case you want to get some pictures of you or your friends, you might want to just spend some time and research the person you want.

Let’s do it?

The Pittsburgh marathon is the best road race I have done so far: the support of the communities around is amazing and the course is challenging without being too difficult. The weather, even if it was slightly warm, is great for a marathon. The overall organization of the race is well done and whether you are a Pittsburgh or not, this is a great opportunity to discover the city. The Marathon office do a really great job and makes this event a premier running event. This is also why Pittsburgh was selected as one of the best nine marathon in the USA for 2014.

If you are not from Pittsburgh, I would advise to be careful about the weather. In May, the weather can be totally unpredictable: it can be very cold or give you a hard time with heat. During this 2015 edition, because of the weather, more people than usual were brought to the hospital and one 25 years old guy did a cardiac arrest and was still at the hospital few days after the race. Conditions is this event are unknown but as for all running events, consider adequate hydration and nutrition. Fortunately, the medical support over the course is very good and if you experience any problem, the staff will take care of you.

If you are also looking to do a PR, the pace team can help you to reach your goal. There are many pace team for the marathon and half-marathon for many different finishing times. While some folks like to run their own race, other like to have a reference and follow a pacer, especially when they worry about the elevation profile.

Highlights

  • Awesome course, reasonable elevation (if you are not convinced, look at the other marathon)
  • Pace team
  • Homewood, heck, YEAH!
  • The support (regular aid station, medical staff on duty)
  • The overall organization (everything goes smoothly and is well organized)
  • The medal!

Special Thanks

Thanks to all the Steel City Road Runners members and friends for their support and encouragement over the course. It has been very helpful and helped me to make it to the finish line. With an increased work load and other personal projects, I was less involved in the club during the last few weeks, but people was still there to help me, which is more than appreciated when you start to have a hard time. Last one, thank to my partner in crime for picking me up after the finish: I was sick, miserable, was barely able to walk – having somebody to take care of you makes a lot of difference.

Informations

Pittsburgh Marathon 2015

Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2”)

Two months ago, I stepped down from the SCRR ambassador position. This decision was motivated by many reasons detailed in the previous post. but the main one is that the new leadership team decided to forget the initial core values and turn the community into a product. But running a product requires good management.

mgmt

The post-race cookie run in 2013: let's get warm and stay together indoor!
The post-race cookie run in 2013: let’s get warm and stay together indoor!

The reaction to the initial post varied: some people started to ignore me completely, others were really supportive while others did not care at all. In the meantime, several things happened: the CEO from Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc. reached out to me and apologized in person for what happened, for the behavior of one of her employee (which obviously, shows that she really cares about this club – probably more than many of the members!), others asked me to join a club and others encouraged me to start my own group. Yep, a lot of things happened but my goal was clearly not to start something. I want to support the running community. Finally, after I left, people told me that actions have been taken to address the issues I reported. Seems that change was going on.

The discussion started a debate, so it was time to take actions and continue the marketing operation by:

  1. recruiting new customers (aka members): a lot of actions have been made to increase the number of customers. I am guessing the underlying goal was to get more money for the club. With an average membership price of $28 (see financial reports), they need to recruit a ton of new folks!
  2. applying band-aids and patches instead of addressing real issues: there are many examples but two come in mind
    1. the runs no longer started from the marathon office but from remote businesses (bakery, bar, etc.). The goal is probably to hide the fact that there is no solution for having bathroom and indoor room for runners. Interesting fact: the run of the day of the status report took place in a garage. To compare with last year (with less money and members), the meeting took place indoor in a warm room and runners had access to nice bathroom.
    2. the website is still a mess and the only change made was some edits here and there. But it cannot hide the fact that the website management system is outdated and editors do not have the appropriate skills to edit the website (for example, some pages contains 12MB of data so that a visit to the website can consume more than 10% of your data plan in case you have a limited wireless plan!).  Plus, some information are still outdated or just totally wrong (for example, SCRR is NOT a non-profit itself but a part of a non-profit) which makes you wonder if the editors really know what they are writing about. On top of that, the connectivity of the service provider is a mess and the website is not accessible through comcast or other universities. The highlight was on Black Friday when  the site was not accessible while the club offered a deal to renew the membership: probably a nightmare for a product manager! With a website and marketing costs of $10K (see the official financial report), this is not acceptable.
  3. getting more sales representative (also called coaches or ambassadors): the club reached out to get more people involved! It’s like a party, everybody is welcome to recruit more customers! Problem is the requirement to enter the club is as the efforts for managing them: none. The mission: get more members to get more … money! The ambassadors are supposed to suggest ideas to improve the club, but so far no idea suggested since 6 months has been implemented. Some will say change take time, I hope the members are expecting to train for the marathon in 2016. Unfortunately, there are great people in the team but none of them are very considered or valued as they should.

Change happened

On December, 13, a meeting was held to present the results of a satisfaction survey made on the members and present the financial report. Basically, this should show the satisfaction but also where the money goes. The satisfaction survey was sent by e-mail and also and two respondents will be chosen to win a $100 gift card for replying to the survey (yes, it seems that people needs motivation for trying to improve what they are supposed to love …). The results were presented in a garage during what is called the annual cookie run (which happened one year ago indoors … see pictures included!).

One thing that is good about numbers: you cannot fake them. If you do great, no matter what people is saying, they will show how well you are doing. The opposite is true as well. You can argue, discuss, nothing replace actions, proofs and numbers. Now, let’s discuss the numbers from the satisfaction survey and the financial report.

The Satisfaction Survey

The cookie run version 2014: please come in my garage in December!
The cookie run version 2014: you are welcome in a garage that looks like a food pantry during the cold weather December!

More than 300 persons replied to the survey (329 exactly), so, it seems to be representative of the club members. The survey shows that they are more females than males, so, it seems that SCRR is a good place if you want to find your partner or just try to date somebody (and I will not argue with that!). An interesting fact is that the club has members from several surrounding states (Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, etc.). One surprising fact is the target race: the more popular race is the half-marathon (more than 80% of the members plan to run one) while the marathon is the target for almost half of the members.

The surprise is the satisfaction index: 3 out of 5 are satisfied by the club. It clearly shows the failure of the last efforts made on the club. In addition, when replying to such survey, people are not very critical (I gave myself a 4 to this question) so a 3 is a dissatisfaction warning. After more than 6 months with the new leadership team, it shoes its inefficiency, lack of consideration for members concerns and failure to make SCRR a place runners appreciate.

Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!
Yeah, less than 60% of satisfaction! Champagne!

While asking to get the slides and discussing them on social media, some members tried to argue and highlight the good services provided by the club. I admire fair people and the willingness to be positive (at least, we need some!) and I would just ask two questions:

  1. “Would you buy a car if only 60% of its owner are satisfied with it?”
  2. “Would you eat in a restaurant where only 60% of actual customers recommend it?”

As SCRR is now branded as a product and not as a community, this is how people look at it. And as a brand, a rating of 3 out of 5 puts you in an outsider position. With such a rating, you cannot claim yourself a leader and give you the label of the “premier running club”. A rating of 3 out of 5 is a red flag that shows you have to work and change. And right now: stop discussing on social media between a small group of less than 100 happy fews and start to reach out to more than 1500 members – you need to change their minds. Self-satisfaction can be rewarding once primary objectives are met.

What is supposedly included with your membership
What is supposedly included with your membership

The financial report

lolcat-moneyThe finance is the most interesting part. Two main slides were presented: the one that presents what is included with your membership and another that details the costs breakdown for the club.

The report claimed that your $40 membership is worth $241 with:

  • $15 for a tech shirt – the real value of such apparel is around $5 (low estimate) to $10 (high estimate). Investigating the finance showed that the real cost is about $3 (see below).
  • $15 off the marathon entry – that is just a way for the marathon to promote their own event! This is just a coupon you could get in many other ways! It is an early bird discount that is also a way to attract people to get in!
  • $55 for the marathon week-end – dude, for that price, I cater a barbecue company, order hundred cases of champagne and celebrate with ribs and pulled pork! With more than 1380 members, and considering that only 25% of the cost is paid by SCRR, it means that the marathon week end costs $300K. It would be interesting to see the receipts …
  • $1 per training run, so $156 in total since the club proposes 156 training runs (logical, you will go to all of them, right?) I have no idea that a training run costs me anything, especially because SCRR stopped to provide any food and just give water. In addition, the club provides less than 156 runs (many runs are skipped because of holidays, upcoming races, etc. and others are just track training). Claiming this number is just a way to create a fake value: a training run does not cost anything.

The real joke (or ripoff, depending your perspective) is in the detailed costs breakdown that explained the costs and revenue for FY15. Let’s have a closer look:

  • $3.5K for social events: members pay for social events (for example, the Christmas party was $30 per person) so, why it costs $3.5K to the club and thus, to members that even do not participate? This is just not fair – why the membership from people in other states should be used to organize parties in Pittsburgh? Even if social events are useful and definitively fun, this should not be done at the expense of the money used to run the core activities.
  • $4.3K for training runs: the most insane cost since the cost of labors are already charged in another line. The club stopped to offer anything but water during training runs and thus, costs are limited to the cost of water and printing maps. Why almost $5K are charged for that reason? Do they finally print the maps on parchment paper and serve bourbon for hydration? Again, there is no detail and I cannot see any reason for that? Is water and cups so expensive?
  • Almost $10K for marketing and website: The website costs about $1K per year (according to the website provider costs) so it means that the marketing costs about $9K. Is there any marketing materials? There was some postcards here and there but nothing that is worth $9K. Considering the website quality (my grandma made better designs years ago) and the marketing activities, this is definitively a joke.
  • $11.7K for merchandise with 8K in merchandise revenue. It means that the merchandise costs associated with the memberships costs about 3.7K (so, less than $3 per t-shirt, which is good number to consider to evaluate how much the value of your membership) and that SCRR merchandise is selling pretty well!
  • 12K for the marathon week-end: dude, this ice cream and photo-booth stands cost a lot! Definitively, I am very curious to see the actual costs breakdown for the marathon week-end, especially because the finisher tent was (as far as I remember) sponsored. Also, this is interesting that the expense for the marathon week end is $12K whereas the club itself value it at $75K. Is the leadership team trying to over-value what is offered?
The SCRR Budget
The SCRR Budget

 

These reports (both survey and financial) show the lack of professionalism and management skills. I am critical? Probably. Hard and Rude? Probably but you are hard with who you love, you want the best of them! Let’s compare these numbers with other related organizations in the Pittsburgh area. Take the example of BikePGH and their annual report. This is clear, well detailed and do not try to hide any information. Is it difficult to have a clear transparency?

Is the Steel City Road Runners membership still worth it?

After that, you may wonder if getting a membership is worth it. I still recommend people to sign up! For $30, this is a very good deal, and the membership pays off quickly considering the free tech-shirt, the discounts for local races/stores and the access to the private area during the marathon. The membership is totally over-valued but still a good deal. For sure, you cannot really expect too much from the community side but if you consider the membership as a product, it pays off. If you are only looking for a community to establish connections and join a nice club of runners and meet new people, that can be an idea but you might also consider trying other options (other clubs, groups in your neighborhood, etc.)

Should I join Steel City Road Runners for training for a race?

It depends on what is your actual goal and how serious you are about running. If you are looking to train between a 5K and a marathon, Steel City is more than enough: all you need is to log more miles, establish connection with running buddies and learn your training routine (nutrition, bathrooms, etc.). The final decision is more driven by your ability in adapting your own training. My suggestion will be to go with Steel City: if you are planning to run a marathon, you have to learn how to train and there is no better way to do it by yourself (which, on the long run will pay off). On the other way, learning to run from scratch 26.2 miles can be intimidating and you might want to pay for a better support. Still, SCRR provides runs, the supported is not as good as it used to be but can be at least a start.

What’s next?

customer
Bad customer satisfaction: who is to blame?

The actual survey showed by numbers that the reboot of the club initiated months ago did not work. This is a fact and not a personal attack against anybody: many people are working very hard to improve things (by organizing social events, reaching out to members, providing coaching tips and advices, etc). Let’s face the numbers: members satisfaction is really bad and money is wasted. Calling this club the “premier running club” with such a rating is just inappropriate and/or inaccurate. The survey results may not match the efforts made but is a measure of the club benefits with the members expectation and SCRR does not seem to provide what the members want. The financial report also showed that with good management SCRR can be sustainable without the support of any other organization. Running an independent, non-profit group is totally feasible from a financial perspective.

How to improve satisfaction? There is no magic formula but before starting to think about how to improve, one might think about to remove what did not work. Get out people that failed in being respectful and transforming this club. Stop the wave the self-satisfaction on social media and face reality (i.e. satisfaction of club members not social media users). Work on the core values. That might be a first idea.

I wish a good luck to the leadership team, the coaches and ambassadors for trying to fix the issues and giving their time for working on this (especially after being this position for a while and experiencing the related frustration!). This post will probably hit a new statistics record and show who care or not about this topic with folks starting to totally ignore me and others supporting me (trust me, I appreciate both but not for the same reasons!). But as usual, people will protect their position, interest and benefits, come back to denial and continue things as they were. Until it starts over again.

On a personal side, looking back two months ago, I am glad I left the position because the benefits (mostly, a complimentary SCRR membership – about $30) are not worth the constraints and resources it requires (attending training runs 8 times a month in various locations, participating to private meeting at the marathon office). It gave me an opportunity to make many other things (focus on work, having a better – in terms of quality – training, finishing a 50 milers before the end of the year, starting new projects, etc.) and being part of other communities. I no longer believe in the values promoted by the leadership team but I want to be supportive for newcomers, help and be there to share the friendship and camaraderie. For that reason, I will be there in SCRR (probably less present over the next months) and around other running groups.

And as mentioned before, I will keep my SCRR membership (probably more with a customer perspective), will be happy to meet new folks, run with new buddies and participate in social activities … until the next change!

And to conclude, I hope you will enjoy this wonderful cartoon!

I wish all of you a merry Christmas, a happy new year, and hope to see you soon, “for the love of the run”!

hamster

Steel City Road Runners, two months after (aka “Stepping Down, part2”)