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Budd Bailey’s Running column: Are there too many races on the calendar?

A recent article in Runner’s World magazine asked a provocative question, at least for runners: Are there too many races?

The answer in Western New York might depend on a particular person’s point of view. Runners here are sometimes spoiled about the number of races in a given week, while officials and administrators know that a busy race calendar can hurt participation levels and profits.

The subject certainly is worth a look as we start 2016, and after a review the Buffalo-area schedule could be considered crowded … but rarely overcrowded.

Let’s start the discussion with the numbers, supplied by Fritz Van Leaven in his annual year-end statistical report. He’s been keeping track of such matters since 2006, and 2015 was a record year for participation and area races. (That includes all of Western New York and a bit of Ontario and Pennsylvania.) A total of 128,440 ran in 2015 in 367 races. For comparison’s sake, 124,483 ran in 332 races in 2014.

A bit of division can take the numbers a step further. In 2015, the average race had 349 runners. That’s a drop of 25 from 2014’s figure of 374. What’s more, it’s down from the peak year of 2012, when the average was at 398.

Much of the growth in the number of races has come from nonprofit organizations that see a 5-kilometer run as a way to raise money: “Others have done it, why not us?”

“I still get calls from people saying, ‘I’m from a church, and we want to make money,’ ” race official John Grandits said. “I tell them to have a spaghetti dinner. It’s easier.”

When that advice is rejected and plans for a race are started, the first order of business is to pick a date. And soon the organizers sometimes realize there are six or seven other races for their chosen weekend. Such crowding only happens a few days a year, but it does make it difficult for the organizations involved.

“One race might have 300 runners and be able to pay their bills,” said Jim Nowicki, the race director of the Subaru 4-Mile Chase. “Then a start-up race comes along and gets 75 or 100 runners, but that comes out of the other race’s total. That’s been going on forever. A lot of races have gone by the wayside that way.”

“They kill each other,” Grandits said. “They say they can’t move it up a week, because it’s the anniversary of the church or the date of a bazaar. I would think it would be discouraging.”

All of those races do have an advantage for the active runner − plenty of choices on a nice Saturday morning in late spring or early fall.

“I don’t think there are too many,” said Mike Beato of Getzville, who ran 31 races in 2015. “I like having a wide variety of locations. When I decide on which race to run, I take a lot of things into consideration – distance, the course, what kind of food they have, if any of my friends are going. I like having the choice.”

The 5K races (3.1 miles) have become the norm in recent years, taking up about two-thirds of the race calendar. The distance increases the pool of potential participants; not everyone can run 5 miles or 10 kilometers.

“I think there’s not enough 10K or 5-milers. The 5Ks are oversaturated,” said Matt Roll of North Tonawanda, who has run more than 60 races in a year a few times.

If the race schedule was becoming overwhelming, there would be a couple of signs of strain. Runner’s World cited some major cities that simply can’t afford to provide services to all of the races within their boundaries. Denver did not accept applications for permits from new races last year.

Locally, Amherst caused a stir with its decision a couple of years ago to charge races for police overtime. A few other towns have added slight restrictions, but the concept hasn’t spread too far. Nowicki thinks that Buffalo has made a good decision to “invest” in such events.

“In Buffalo, we’re blessed,” he said. “Buffalo realizes the value of races. They are like other special events – art festivals, concerts and so on. Buffalo is a special event town. … I credit Buffalo for realizing that the festivals are one of our greatest assets.”

The other sign of overcrowding would be a price war for entry fees. That hasn’t happened. The typical charge for preregistering for a 5K event has gone up from $20 to $25 in the last three years or so. There are a few races that go even higher than that, which has led to a “No, thank you” from a portion of the running public. But the margin for financial error in such events is small, so price cuts might be a last resort.

“It seemed like an easy acceptance,” said Jim Smigelski of Lockport, who ran 35 races last year, about rising entry fees. “If there are several races on the same day, many people go back to the ones they know and like – regardless of cost.”

“Most race directors will say if they lower the price by $5, they’ll get killed because of overhead,” Grandits said. “They need insurance, food, and so on. They can’t get the money from a corporate sponsor easily. One time at John Beishline’s race directors’ meeting, a first-time director asked, ‘Where do I get the list of companies that will give me money?’ That got a big laugh, because there is no such list.”

The concept of fundraising walks, either as part of a run or as a separate event, has grown more popular in recent years. They increase the pool of possible participants greatly, which is attractive to organizers.

“I’ve noticed that the races that have walks turn their websites into fundraising sites,” Smigelski said. “That gives rise to more walkers than runners. It promotes walking without really saying it, even if it’s a blanket invitation to a 5K for a walk or run.”

Organizations promoting such events are more likely to bombard participants’ email addresses with requests for money, since walkers usually have a connection to the charity. That can be annoying to runners, who often sign up for other reasons. Walks also take a longer period of time, which means they probably will be held in large public areas like parks to avoid tying up streets and/or require additional time and effort from police, volunteers, etc.

Add it up, and there’s no clear sign that the supply of road races is well above demand locally. The sport remains very popular. The big races should continue to thrive, and the new events either will find a niche and thrive or fade away – just like any business.