Steel City Road Runners is better than Ever (aka “Stepping Down – Last Part”)

Several months ago, after being involved as an ambassador of the Steel City Road Runners for few weeks, I left the ambassador groups and I authored a first blog post. The goal was to list the issues I noticed while being on board. After several weeks, several folks discussed their frustration which motivated me to write a follow-up. The reception to these articles showed how much people care about this group. The main reported issue was the organization of the leadership team and a focus on non-running activities whereas there were several emergencies to deal with.

No need to run in the cold, SCRR offers indoor training when it is freezing!
No need to run in the cold, SCRR offers indoor training when it is freezing!

But change happened. The organization of the leadership team has been reseted significantly and this is noticeable to see how much change there is. Let me list some of what has been introduced during the last two months, congratulations to the folks (such as Dave and Shannon – and all the others !) that are behind the scene:

  • Pacing team: there is pacers for Saturday and Sunday runs so that each runner can train according to their need. Also, if you want to take part of the community and become a pacer, the group welcomes participants, which can be a great idea if you want to pace a race.
  • Sunday Training runs: you cannot make your run on Saturday? Join on Sunday! SCRR is now offering Sunday runs as well so that you can log your long run on Sunday as well. Just a great idea if you have constraints on Saturday, have family business to take care of or any other reason. Just a convenient option.
  • Indoor Training: concerned about the ice when it is freezing and still want to run with your running buddies? the club has worked indoor running options with local gyms. Obviously, this is a very good option: running outside when freezing can be hazardous (and will not argue, especially after being injured because of it) and can jeopardize your racing schedule for the next days/weeks/months. The club provides a very cheap training options with cardio machines, which can also be a good option for cross-training.
  • Communication Improvements: most of the communication was done on facebook but many members do not use social media websites and felt isolated. Now, a weekly e-mail sent on Monday lists all the club events. Simple and very efficient, it does not discriminate anybody who is not on social media platforms.
  • Fall Marathon: the club has negotiated a discount for the club to go to the Baltimore marathon on October, 17. This should be a new invasion of Pittsburgh runners. Sounds like there is an effort to change the location of a fall marathon periodically so that people can explore different races around the Steel City!
  • RRCA coaching: SCRR is organizing an RRCA coach training in Pittsburgh and has initially announced it to the club so that interested members can save a spot! Such classes can be old out very quickly. Having a coaching class in our city is a real privilege: you do not have to flight, travel, everything is on site. This also strengthen the community: having more certified coaches within the members is a good opportunity to have qualified people when organizing events (such as running with kids, pacing, participating to a race as an organizer, etc.)

There are obviously other reasons and facts that show how much the club has improved during these past weeks but these are facts: a measure of how things improved over time. For sure, we can still argue that some stuff can be improved (some stupid geeks will complain about the website) but actual leadership team is focused on improving this running community and focusing on what people want to do: run. I am surprised how quickly things improved within the last few weeks and the changes that have been made.

This probably makes Steel City Road Runners the best running community in Pittsburgh (call it “premier running club” if you want!). For the $30 membership per year, no other club matches its benefits (mostly: 4 training runs per week, indoor training, pacers and Pittsburgh marathon week end, discount in local and online stores, t-shirt included with each membership). The value is just great and other clubs charge more and/or have less benefits (no pacer, only one or two training runs, no indoor trainings with cardio and weight machines when temperature are unsafe). These changes make me very proud to be part of this community and hope to be able to support it in the future as I wanted to do. If you are looking for a friendly running club in Pittsburgh, Steel City Road Runners is just what you need.

 

Steel City Road Runners is better than Ever (aka “Stepping Down – Last Part”)

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”)

Stepping down

Talking about the Steel City Road Runner club is not. After 18 months, being part of this group is one of the reason I loved this city so much. I will remember forever my first run with SCRR, my first discussion with Shannon about this club and the difficulty to understand each other because of my frenchy accent. This is also how I met Jon, the dude that inspires me to run ultra marathons (the guy ran several four 100 milers the same year). I was definitively hooked: running was part of a new lifestyle, not just a thing to stay healthy and in shape. It started to be my religion, my drug, my addiction and the Steel City Road Runners became the church when I got my regular fix. For that reason, I wanted to give back to the group, contribute and improve it. As the group was getting more popular, new leaders were required and volunteer positions were posted. I applied immediately: I wanted to give, be part of the magic of this group. I was nervous to be rejected: what if I do not qualify? What if I am too weak and not good enough to be part of this group? After a couple of weeks, the decision came on July, 31: I was selected as an Ambassador. I was then able to be part of the community and propose my own improvements! It was an opportunity: the club was growing and faced many challenges. I was then happy to be part of the team that will address these concerns.

However, after more than three months into the program, I am sad to say that it is probably better to step down. I will try to summarize why I stepped down, and what are the problems SCRR is facing now.

How it happens

Once I was selected, all Ambassadors had a meeting with the new group leader, a new employee from the marathon office that was now in charge of the club and coordinate all volunteers. The meeting was very confusing: we were not invited to introduce ourselves (our name was not even asked!) and we were required to provide idea but were not invited to present them.

The only objective that was discussed was to increase the number of members. Make SCRR bigger. Growing. Talking quantity. Not quality. I thought my objective was to represent the members and act for their best interest. So I tried to talk about their concerns and talk about what they reported:

  • no restroom: we were previously offered to use the marathon office bathrooms for our events. Unfortunately, as the club was growing, this created some issues related to having a big crowd in a small space. A member broke a window, others hang out after the run. We were no longer welcome and for a good reason. However, we still need to offer bathroom. I proposed several alternatives but they was always turned down.
  • pre- and post-run, no post-run nutrition: SCRR previously provided post-run nutrition and snacks. This was done by using $50 gift card from sponsors and buy chocolate milk and snacks at a grocery store. It was a good way to finish the run and refuel: people hang out a little longer, discuss and connect each other. Now, people are hungry and come back home right after the run (or get breakfast somewhere) soon rather than staying around. Was was a great way to connect with the rest of the group after a good workout. The club no longer provides that. The new club representative reported that is was “not a priority”.
  • membership perks: all the membership benefits were removed from the website. Looking at it, there was no longer a good reason to be part of SCRR. The webpage was not talking about the perks on the day of the marathon. Nothing about the runningwarehouse.com discount code (just 15% off with free shipping!). Nothing about having supported runs (of course, they no longer exist!).

After expressing these concerns, the meeting was over and it was promised that these concerns will be addressed in a timely manner. This was three months ago.

 

Feeling cold because you have to go to a portable toilet in the snow during our run? Not a problem, our sponsor offers a pair of socks! Lucky you!
Feeling cold because you have to go to a portable toilet in the snow during our run? Not a problem, our sponsor offers a pair of socks! Lucky you!

 

Follow-up

A second meeting took place on October, 13. The meeting started with a 5 minutes video totally meaningless about team building. The same type of video you watched to build self-confidence that you can manage a project or lead a team. None of the issues reported previously were addressed or even considered, the new club representative considered them as a “low priority” (words repeated several times). Regarding the concerns expressed previously by the members:

  • no restroom: it was ok to use the restroom again without evidence or document. As we need to prepare the marathon training program, it was critical to have a place we can rely on. After asking for more details, I was offered (in an e-mail signed by the new representative and the CEO of the marathon office) that as a volunteer, I was invited to repair the damages done by the club members. It showed all the consideration the office has for its volunteers and ambassadors and the plan to use them as a cheap labor.
  • pre- and post-run nutrition: it was reported by the new group leader that this was not a priority and that it did not matter. I was amazed that a new person in the group seem to know what the members wanted (in that case, why are we supposed to report members feedback and suggestions?). A coach told me that if people comes for that, it was better not to have them in the group. I was also surprised by such an aggressive behavior. So, I made my experiment to see how much it would cost to provide support. I organized a unsupported run with 18 people and provides post-run snacks and nutrition. It costs me roughly $15 and half of it left after the run. After working on number, it seems that offering post-run nutrition would cost between $2000 and $3000 per year. With an operating budget of $40k, it seems we could afford that. Instead, I was offered (still by the representative and CEO of the marathon office) to find local dairy provider and have a sponsor agreement to get post-run food. This showed the marathon office priority for the club.
  • membership perks: the only update was focused on non-running perks such as discount for food or cultural events. Even if a running group can grow as a social group, it must adhere to basic and core values. Providing support for runners must be and stay the first priority for such a club. By putting support as a low-priority and starting to highlight social perks clearly shows the new focus of the group.

At that point, it seems clear that the club was no longer focused on supporting its members but to forcethem to embrace a specific vision. Finally, the meeting agenda focused on other minor aspects. It then started to be clear that we were not used to provide feedback but just spread and good word and believe in the proposed propaganda.

 

Exclusive discount for SCRR members, forget the 15% at running warehouse we have since several years and that is better!
Exclusive discount for SCRR members: forget the 15% at running warehouse we have since several years and that is better! For information, the Fleet Feet discount is shown on the members perks while the Running Warehouse is hidden. Why?

 

Forget your Freedom of speech

One of the topic during the meeting was the social media policy. When joining the facebook group, SCRR members acknowledge to respect the group rules. The rules are basic: no defamatory message, personal attacks or arguments. But even sarcasm or humor is no longer appreciated. A fellow known runner once made fun of the marathon office on facebook and his post was deleted. Forget that the dude was one of the best (and probably biggest) advocate for the group (the dude is well known in the community and run probably more than 50+ across the country). Most of the folks I know found its words funny, especially because it was also a sarcastic way to report the issues the club was facing. However, it seems that the leadership team did not appreciate this type of humor and censored the post right away. This was a clear first warning: our words must be supportive for the club, do not discuss issues and be polished and clean.

On my side, I invited the members to a training run I organized on a Sunday and put a disclaimer to notify this was not a supported event (which, basically, is probably a good thing to avoid having any issue is somebody hurt himself on the run). I got an e-mail right away from the club representative inviting me to “Please consider “re-wording” your disclaimer, or not having one at all“. The representative also indicated that : “As an Ambassador for SCRR, you are part of our staff so I would ask you to remember that when you write something for the public to see.“. Problem is: I did not want to be part of her staff, just be supportive for my friends. There was a willingness to control my freedom of speech for just inviting somebody to an event. But also asked me to adhere to a polished language.  Something totally clean, tasteless, boring. Again, by joining a fun group, who the hell wants that? We want fun, we want to make fun of ourselves, we want to have great time! Screw the conventional language, the SCRR representative, I am not part of this group to speak as in a professional conference! I am here to have fun, to speak, to feel free.

In other word, fellow ambassador and Comrade, please comply with the party policy!

Solving problems SCRR style!
Solving problems, SCRR style!

 

Willing to help? No thank you

Another area I tried to help: the website. Let’s face it: the Steel City website is poorly designed, mostly because of its CMS, wildapricot. The system does a poor job for resizing pictures, layout text, etc. If you are not a webdesigner, it can produce a really bad content that is compliant with w3c standards and has a browser-dependent rendering. In addition, there were some features the members wanted: a database of our routes, a directory of the members that plan to attend to run, having a mobile-compliant website, etc. The user experience was just a disaster and loading pages was just terrible and took a lot of time (some pages require to download more than 3Mbytes, which can kill your data plan if you are using only a mobile access with a limit).

All these issues are normal for a club that does not have a focus on technology: the club leaders are probably not web-designers and have something else to do. Maintaining the club, coordinating volunteers and organizing events take already a lot of time! I offered to help. I designed a database system to record and search for maps to run around Pittsburgh. I also proposed several times to help to improve the website. As I did a lot of webdesign and work on many online software, I think I could help. As a previous developer of mobile applications, I was thinking to make an online app to synchronize runners agenda and automatically check-in at training runs. Of course, I offered that at no cost. The offer was always turned down and never had any follow-up.

 

You have some ideas? They are no longer yours

When going in the first meeting, the new club representative asked us to come with two new perks for the members. I came with two perks in mind:

  • trail running 101: introduce members to trail running. Schedule two trail runs per month during the months, provide support, pacing groups and have sweeper to make sure nobody is left behind or is injured without support. Each run will end with discussions between runners to exchange advice, tips and good area/trails to run in the area. In other words, build a trail running community within SCRR. I proposed this idea at no cost, I just needed an acknowledgment and the ability to put my training on the calendar. After the meeting, I asked how to implement the idea. I was told that it was not a priority and will be implemented with a coach from Greensburg (and was not aware of that). This is clearly not the way I wanted my idea to be implemented and after being notified, it appears that the idea was no longer mine but was taken over the leadership team.
  • a training race for the fall season: many of us come to the Run for Gold race. It is a cheap, friendly race on a scenic trail that is perfect when training for a race in the fall and see where you stand in your training schedule. Unfortunately, it is far from Pittsburgh (2 hours to drive which is not convenient in the morning), so, one idea was to make a race with a similar characteristics (under $30 for non-SCRR and $20 for SCRR members for something around 15 to 20 miles) around Pittsburgh. I wanted to make a french race, had sponsors, a plan for nice finisher medals (Eiffel tower medals anyone?), specific wine-stop (forget the water kiddo!) and a friendly and friendly post-race party (want to refuel on wine and cheese?). The idea was proposed and immediately turned down. Several folks in SCRR told me they will be willing to help me to implement the idea and I already had enough potential volunteers. Such a perk would come for free and would probably attract more than a pair of socks. But it seems this was not the opinion of the new leadership team.

thankyouambassador

Let me attract you with rewards

During the meeting, it was reported that ambassadors and coaches will be rewarded if they support the club during wellness events. The rewards? Gift cards, coupons, etc. That was a huge miscommunication mistake and a lack of appreciation of the reasons people join this program. Coaches and Ambassadors did not come to get a reward and do not care about having a $25 gift card to shop for groceries. They are here to be active, be supportive for their communities. Not to be a cheap labor at the service of a poorly managed organization. Why should we rewarded? We love working for this club!

Even if the general idea was to reward people, it was one of the biggest mistake because it shows the real consideration from the marathon office to the coaches and ambassadors. They assume to be a cheap labor and execute what we were instructed by the new club representative. We were not considered as ambassadors able to act, help the group and support the members by implementing new ideas. From that moment, it appears clear that our ideas will not be implemented and the club will not let us give us the freedom we wanted.

SCRR is working hard to attract new coaches and ambassadors
SCRR is working hard to attract new coaches and ambassadors

Let’s focus on our core values …

What is the current problem with SCRR? The club is just trying to focus on numbers and quantity. Adding members. Such a policy an usual trap and pitfall when an organization grows and loses its core values. So, what are SCRR core values: a club for runners by runners.

Nothing else.

But among the months, many benefits were lost:

  • members no longer have training programs (unfortunately, the club tried to use runcoach last year but this was mostly a disaster as the software has plenty of issues and was not accurate)
  • maps are not as attractive as other clubs (fleet feet propose maps with a specific theme each week, which gives a context for your run and introduces specific area of the city)
  • pre- and post-run support is no longer there (no post-run nutrition and bathroom as discussed before).

On the other hand, during the meetings, the focus has been to reach out to new potential members and present SCRR as an organization that promotes wellness, friendship. This can be great, but this should definitively not be the first priority and not be at the cost of our core values. Having 10% discount on a fitness class? Some might appreciate but the majority is here to have support for running.

Because at the end, all what our members want is to run.

Making a great club would not cost so much. With an operating budget of $40k, this is easy to make an organization that does not sacrifice the core benefits. Many tasks can be done almost at no cost: there are many volunteers that will be more than happy to help. Of course, it requires a good organization and this would be the role of the club coordinator and representative: trying to find synergies and synchronize collaborations, not to over-control every contribution and turn them down. A minimal budget would be $10k to cover the basics, the actual budget could then offer a lot of margin to provide additional perks (such as access to a private space with bathroom for the Pittsburgh marathon).

Starting to change things is not difficult and can be done quickly with a very simple plan such as the following:

    • reach out the members. now and find out what they want
    • publish the financial numbers, show how the memberships are used and stop any rumors about potential misuse
    • classify the recommendations of the members
    • implement the changes

Based on that, it is possible to decide what changes will make sense and implement something that is requested by the members, not the leadership team. Because after all, the leadership is here to serve the members. Not the opposite. Without the basic understanding of what the members want, this is going to fail because there will be no approval from the members.

 

training

 

… and define who we are

There has been discussion about what is the structure of SCRR: an independent non-profit? a company? something related to the marathon office? For now, this is clear that the club is tightly related to the marathon office. But the question of having a real, independent club has never been debated. Each situation has his pros and cons and the members would have to choose what structure is the most appropriate:

  1. if the club is related to the marathon office, we can have support from this bigger entity. This can be useful to connect with other organization related to running and overall, wellness activities in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, this also create some issues:
    1. be transparent about the budget. Rumors have circulated during the last weeks that the marathon office considers the club as its ATM. One solution would then to publish the accounts. This would also shows who is paid and how much they are paid. Some SCRR members are paid by the marathon office but knowing exactly the details would help the members to know how the organization works internally.
    2. identify duties for all members. It means that the club must have an organization chart with established duties. I requested such an organization chart for the current club. After one month, I have been given a PowerPoint chart with the name of the ambassadors/coaches without the name of anybody from the marathon office nor any assigned duty. In other words, they just tried to avoid to discuss that.
  2. if the club is independent, it needs to define its own structure (a non-profit for example). The leadership team could be selected by a yearly election or anything else that will bring more transparency than the actual organization. On the other hand, such a structure will bring other challenges:
    1. coordinate efforts. Need to have several people for each activity with potential backup. This will also need to coordinate all efforts. On the other hand, this can be done efficiently and cheaply with an appropriate management system (and there are software to manage that with mobile- and web-applications).
    2. secure funding across the years. Make sure we have enough to support the club activities. On the other hand, with a $40k operating budget, there would be already enough to cover the club needs.

No matter the structure, each option has pros and cons. So far, the choice has been to be associated with the marathon office. However, the relation with this organization and showing a proof of independence has not be demonstrated. On the other hand, this is important to show that the club is dedicated to support its members and nobody else. Having evidence (publishing organization charts and the yearly budget online to all members) would then address this aspect and then stop any rumors or criticism from the members or potential competitor.

 

scrrbenefits

And now what?

For sure, this article will initiate discussions, animated debate and potential minor changes. After stepping down, several persons asked me to reconsider my decision. I was also offered to have a discussion from the CEO of the Pittsburgh Marathon. Yes, with the same person that endorsed an e-mail that invited me to repair the broken glass of their building and never show any consideration for our efforts. I do not think that this is going to make a difference and this three months experiment was probably already enough.

There will probably be some quick actions/efforts to defuse the bomb and stop the debate. I would be not surprised to have a group e-mail or many facebook to explain that change is coming for the best and that what is reported in the current post wrong. Unfortunately, actual coaches and ambassadors have evidence to support each argument developed here, you can just ask for it: this is your club and there is nothing to hide. But beyond that, the best proof is just the facts: the new leadership team took over the SCRR leadership since three months. Since then, nothing happened. The changes that have been implemented are not related to running and the probation period is over. Is implementing quick changes take so much time, we should then be worried of what would happen when bigger changes are required.

On my side, I will still stay in SCRR as a member (assuming I am still on the members list). I want to keep running, support my family, the people that keep inspiring me along these years. I do what I love, love what I do. I do stuff because I believe this is the right thing to do, not because somebody told me this is the way to go. And this is not going to change.

scrrjesus

Stepping down

SCRR Ambassador Update

I’m back in Pittsburgh! After a couple of weeks away from my favorite city and visiting France and Spain for work, I am back here and already hit the trails early in the morning! This city has definitively fantastic and challenging trails, I missed them a lot these last days!

Paris At Night
Paris At Night

But I was also away from the Steel City Road Runners, one of the biggest (and my favorite) Pittsburgh running club! I missed this group a lot and I am glad to be back to participate to the Thursday and Saturday runs, I hope to see you there (check out the calendar of events)!

Also, as an SCRR Ambassador, I am committed to report members feedback to the organization committee. During the last weeks, a couple of folks reached out to me to give me what they like in the group and what are their concerns. As I have a meeting soon with the organization committee, do not hesitate to reach out to me to discuss your concerns and explain what you expect from the group. Discussing during the events this week can be great but you can also e-mail me or contact me through facebook or twitter. All feedback is appreciated and if people often report things to improve, positive feedback is more than useful because it helps to know what you like (and keep doing it)!

Hope to see you this week!

SCRR Ambassador Update

Steel City Road Runner Ambassador

It is now official, I am now part of the Steel City Road Runners Ambassadors! I am very proud to be part of this group and hope my contribution will be useful to this fantastic running community in Pittsburgh!

Thanks to this group for including me in the team!

A happy SCRR ambassador
A happy SCRR ambassador

 

Now, it’s time to log some miles to celebrate that!

Steel City Road Runner Ambassador

Race Report: Pittsburgh Marathon 2014

Writing a race report about the Pittsburgh Marathon is a difficult task because it is connected with so many facts about my life during the last month. Being fair and avoid any partial judgment will be hard but I promise I will try to do my best.

First of all, Pittsburgh is the city I felt in love with many years ago (in 2008 exactly) when I visited Carnegie-Mellon University as a PhD student. This is the city I wanted to live in and this dream came true more than a year ago. This city offered me a new life from many perspectives (social, work, etc.) and literally transformed my life. Also, this Pittsburgh marathon reminds me how stupid I was after loosing all the weight few years ago. After losing 150 pounds, I was so worried to become fat again that I exercised every day for 1 or 2 hours. This impacted my social life so that I ate almost nothing but salad and lean protein. I felt tired, irritated, exhausted and bored all the times but I kept my exercise/diet routine at no cost. With almost no friends, no social life: no matter what, the goal was to continue exercising. I was also into a weird behavior where I had to exercise for one additional hour if I ate some bad food (such as a scoop of ice cream) or drink something else than water (such as a beer). I was fit but alone. Last year, I did the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K and, even after running since more than 4 years, I was clearly not able to complete a marathon. I remembered watching the marathoners from my gym and thought the runners were crazy: they were pushing too hard and just not healthy to do such a stupid long-distance race.

But after a while, I met the Steel City Road Runner group, started running seriously and these guys that eventually become very good friends. Sure, I gained weight but stay fit, healthy (my heart rate is below 50, I think I still look ok) and (bonus) have a real social life. Also, in the meantime, I ran four marathons, several half and usually run more than 50 miles a week. Also, another important fact is that my partner in crime, a PA native, is also a runner and we enjoy traveling across the country while we participating to running events.

So, yes, talking about the Pittsburgh marathon is a difficult topic and I will try to do my best to make a report to tell you can expect. But this is clearly not a race, just a fantastic experience.

At a Glance

The Pittsburgh Marathon is organized over a week end. It includes several events:

  1. a 5K, a 1M kid run and a pet walk on Saturday.
  2. a half-marathon and a marathon (and a relay also) on Sunday.

As the marathon was on May, 4 this year, the force was with us (“May the force be with you!”). The short-distance events might seem on the expensive side ($50 for the 5K) but the price for the half- or full marathon (between $85 and $145 depending on when do you sign up) is reasonable considering the experience. If you want to do it, register only to avoid price increase but also the possibility for not having any bib (the race sold out quickly this year).

 

runner-with-vader

May the 4th be with you!

The festivities started on Tuesday with the expo – people can take their packets, hang out at the expo to shop of discuss with other runners, etc. Serious stuff starts on Saturday with the 5K, the kid run or the dog walk. Then, on Sunday, the half-marathon and the full marathon (with the possibility of the relay) start. The half-marathon and the full were sold out, which shows the popularity of the event. More than 50000 runners were part of the event.

Race Expo

The race expo was really big with many shops and other companies wanting to sell their stuff. Hoka had a dedicated stand with the new shoes and I resisted to the call of the Rapa Nui (a new model proposed by the brand). As a member of the Steel City Road Runner club, I volunteered at their booth. I arrived at the expo on Saturday at noon and my shift was from noon to 4pm. After my shift, I visited the other booths and resisted to the call of buying more and more running gear. I just took my packet, check my bib information and go for a noodle diner in downtown!

Jeff Galloway, the dude behind the run/walk method (and also one main coach for the Disney marathon) was just next to the Steel City Road Runner booth! Surprisingly, he is very accessible. As I was next to him for four hours, we discussed a lot of time. This seems weird to see him so accessible: anybody at the expo could come, discuss with him and have some information. Sure, he was there to sell his book but he did not mind to spend 20 minutes to discuss with somebody. This convinced me to buy two of his books (so, he is also a good sales representative !).

julien-galloway

Looking good at 70!

 

Race

Organization

The race was really well organized from the start to the end. Everything went smoothly, the signs were easy to spot, there was plenty of water stops, etc. In terms of water stops, many volunteers distributed Gatorade or Water. At some stops, you can get Powerbar gel or chunks of Powerbars.

There is a stop every two miles, so, you do not need to carry your own water or energy bars as long as you are ok with what is provided. Also, at the finish, there is plenty of water, bananas, bagels and other foods. Food was available even after five hours, so, if you are slow, you can still refuel after your race!

Another nice feature is the drop bag: all runners can drop a bag before starting the race and pick it up once finished. So, you can go ahead, bring some money or your cell-phone, put that in your drop bag and take it back when you are done! Packet drop-off and pick-up were not so crowded and accessible, which is not always the case in all events!

Packet

The packet contains the minimum: your bib, some gels, sunscreen and the drop-off bag. There is also a nice journal about the race. Nothing really fancy, just the minimum. But more than enough.

The course

The course goes over most Pittsburgh neighborhoods. You can find the course on my mapmyrun related activity and also on the official website. Overall, this is not very hilly and the organization crew did a good job for avoiding most hilly soits. In fact, Pittsburgh has two of the steepest streets in the US and so, it is possible to make the marathon a real fitness challenge! Instead, we have only one medium hill (before the half-marathon mark) that is not too difficult and just refresh you half way!

 

pittsburgh-bridgesPittsburgh Bridges by Shaun

In addition to the elevation profile is the view over the city. Pittsburgh is full of bridges and all runners (half- and full-marathon) cross four bridges, and probably the best ones! Runners go over Rachel Carson bridge, Andy Warhol bridge and Birmingham bridge. But the best thing is to cross the West End Bridge, one that has high traffic and not easy to run on while training. Running on these bridges give the experience to have a unique view over the city, which thrills you and give additional energy to continue your journey.

 

Timing

The race started at 7am. Four corrals separated runners at different paces. Obviously, the starting line was pretty well organized. I was in corral B and started to run at 0705am. The bib has a chip and the timing results are posted on xacte. Six different times were reported:

  • Starting time
  • 10K
  • Half-Marathon mark
  • 15.4miles mark
  • 20 mile
  • Finish time

runpix-example

A nice perk that comes with your registration is the runpix report. It shows you a graphical representation of the results: where was you when a friend finished, when the first dude in your age group crossed the finish, etc. Many would argue this is totally useless and they might be right but I still love having such a feature!

Also, the race is tracked by Race Joy, an app that provides the ability to track your friends over the route. Also, you can track several runners using text alerts: you register your cell phone for a runner and as soon as he crossed a particular point on the course, you receive a text message. This feature is particularly useful for people cheering: they can know when you are supposed to pas next to them! Some friends used this feature to find me on the race!

Finally, the race has a 6 hours cut-off time, so, you have to cross the finish before these 6 final hours! While I think everybody made it in that time frame, a dude finished just on time. In fact, he ran the whole thing in a fireman suit (see picture below).

firefighter-pittsburgh-marathonLast finisher: the fireman runner!

 

The Neighborhoods

The course go over most Pittsburgh neighborhood: Downtown, the Strip-District, North Side, West end, South Side, Oakland, Shadyside, Regent Square, Homewood, Highland Park, Friendship and Bloomfield. When running, signs show when you enter a new neighborhood. Also, the race book have the list of the neighborhood with a logo for each of them. During the race, I enjoyed most of them, pick a bottle of water in Bloomfield, take a cookie in Friendship but pass on the beer and booze stop in Bloomfield. I also appreciated seeing many folks I met these last months in the city: my former roommate Jon who ran 2 miles with me, many colleagues and their family, etc. Seeing people you like gives you a boost and additional energy to continue your race.

The organizers did a great job by cutting the course over these different neighborhood and excite its residents to cheer on the runners. Most of the neighborhoods were active: people dancing, cheering, encouraging you to continue to run! This is definitively something that improves the overall race experience! Having band playing music, seeing people giving water, cookies, beer, reading funny signs make these 26.2 miles pleasant and fun.

The best neighborhood was probably Homewood. While being not so popular, this was a fantastic with people playing soul and funk music, dancing and cheering at you. The worst one being Oakland: streets were empty, quiet and almost dead. This is unfortunate because many university (such as University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University) are within this neighborhood and could be something for this community. Hopefully, the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh (FAAP) made a great Cheerathon between Oakland and Shadyside and were probably the most innovative Cheerathon over the course!

 

 

Steel-City Road Runner Benefits

Being a member of the Steel City Road Runner club provides additional benefits during the race week-end! Among them: access to an indoor space before the race with breakfast and bathrooms, private bag check and access to a finish tent with food (including ice cream, chicken, salad, etc.), massage, photo booth, etc. Considering the membership is $40/year and provides many other perks (e.g. race and gear discount), this is definitively worth it!

Having access to the Benedum center before the race (it opened at 0530am!) was a big advantage. On the other hand, considering the size of group now (probably around 2000 runners) it would be appreciated to have bigger bathrooms and many guys waited in line. The breakfast was also a good idea, very simple and enough for a pre-race fuel.

At the finish, the tent was a blast: the massage, the food was just great! Having a large choice of food options (with lean protein) was appreciated, as well as the treats (such as the ice cream). This is really something that makes the overall experience better. Also, having our own bag check was appreciated: we then can just pick up the packet and enjoy the company of other runners.

scrr-group

The Steel City Road Runner – before the run

But beyond the basic benefits, this is just great to have a place to meet together, take pictures and just hang out. This is probably the biggest benefits among all: being able to stay together, connect and share the fun we had during these 26.2 miles.

 

Let me make my French …

As many folks already know, french people complain all the time even during the best moments. So, I feel I have to put a french touch to this report and detail what could be improved. If you feel offended, just “excuse my french”!

About the race itself, there is not so much room for improvement. Obviously, having done Asheville Marathon, Richmond and Disney, this one is probably the best I did and, among all the running events, among the best one. The race was wonderful, there is nothing to complain about the organization and there are many perks. To be picky, one thing that might be improved is cheerathon in Oakland: the area seems really dead when we passed it. The FAAP is the only nice spot in the area, and this is a good thing they are here! Another thing that could be improved is the content of the bag: having more toys, nutrition sample, coupons or race invitations. But obviously, these are small details and the event already do more than most other events.

From a Steel City Road Runner member, the club might offer more perks and benefits. While it already offer many advantages, there might have additional good ideas to consider:

  • Having a SCRR-dedicated photograph for free pictures in SCRR-designated areas. Taking a dedicated photograph to make pictures at areas where the group met and publish them for free. For example, having one photograph at the Benedum Center in the morning and after the race, within the tent. Providing free pictures on area covered by the official race photograph services might be unfair but, having such a service for the area dedicated to the group might be doable and not so expensive.
  • Official picture discount. About the picture, even if I am not a big picture fan, many folks love to get their picture during the race. However, the official photo service if really expensive (about $25 for a picture and $75 for all your pictures …). Having a SCRR-dedicated discount for buying pictures will be a nice perk and would probably get more folks to purchase them!
  • Bib switching/trading service. Having a service to switch the bib with other runners or defer the entry to the next year. Many folks registered early and get injured during the training season. Many try to transfer their bib but it can be difficult. Having a dedicated service that take care of it would be a wonderful perk. It would encourage people to sign up and training according to their schedule and constraints: if they do not feel ok to race, they can defer and if they feel really good, they might upgrade as well.

One more thing

This Pittsburgh marathon week-end was the opportunity to discover one more time how great running was, how much I enjoy and like this community. The unique experience I got over this week-end is something that originates from a long-term relationship with other runners within the Steel City Road Runner community. I am really thankful to these folks: in some sense, after traveling in many cities, relocating in different parts in Europe and America, they became a sort of adopting family. Again, I am really thankful to them and they change my life way more they might think.

For the same reason, there are also special thanks to two dudes. The first is Jonathan Kissel that initially organized the group activities and made it bigger, stronger. I was hooked by the training runs he organized over the last year with the different pacing groups. The second amazing dude is Dave Spell, another organizer that is now more involved in the organization of the group. As Jon, he is also a fantastic runner, and a great organizer that started new programs that get more people involved into running. Congratulations to these guys!

Also, this race was an opportunity to look back 18 months ago and think about what happened since I land in the Pittsburgh area. The course was an opportunity to see many folks I met over these months. Some are friends, some enemies and other frienemies. No matter what, they are or were part of these last months and made this time wonderful. Thank you again.

 

Notes

  • Some pictures are not from me and if this post violates any copyright, please contact me.
  • Fore info, a guy published his pictures from the Marathon for free. See http://www.hodnick.net
Race Report: Pittsburgh Marathon 2014