Wed, Feb. 26

Commentary: Mickelsen Marathon shows running a sound investment

Shortly after the 10K finish of last weekend’s Brian Mickelsen Marathon, I ran into an acquaintance from Phoenix who said he bet I was glad I had come up to run this race.

He was under the impression that I lived in the Phoenix rat race as he frequently sees me at races there. When he learned that I live in the Verde Valley, he immediately asked, “Why don’t you guys do more races up here?” He was sold on the Mickelsen race, saying it was the most enjoyable course he had run in years.

There are few road-racing venues in Phoenix that can match the Mickelsen race in terms of scenic beauty and the physical toll of that long uphill stretch of running right at the mid-point of the race. Certainly, you won’t see any bald eagles while trekking along SRP canal banks. I saw two while running the Mickelsen 10K.

Most Phoenix races – with the exception of the trail races in the White Tank Mountain Wilderness – fall into the flat-and-fast category. Many follow canal routes or loop through city parks. Most all of them can best be defined as boring.

Despite all those strikes against them, road racing in Phoenix is a huge recreational endeavor for thousands of people, and it’s no doubt big money for the people who put on the events.

According to the Arizona edition of the web site, there will have been 247 road and trail racing events in Arizona – the great majority in Phoenix – by the time we turn the calendar page on April in two more weeks. Beginning in May and throughout the summer, those numbers level off to about 25 races per month, before picking up again in the fall, peaking in October with 103 races in that month alone.

Meanwhile, between Cottonwood, Sedona/VOC and Camp Verde, we average about a half-dozen races a year in the Verde Valley. We’re not just missing the mark for the recreational offering, but there is money to be made both in terms of the event itself and the tax dollars generated from Phoenix area runners looking for a change of venue from Tempe Kiwanis Park, North Phoenix’s Rose Mofford Park or Peoria’s Rio Vista Park.

It’s comical when you compare all the acrimony this community invests in the annual money pit otherwise known as Thunder Valley Rally as compared to the consistent revenue stream the Brian Mickelsen Marathon has become. In 2015-2016, TVR experienced a net loss of $144,864 on the Old Town motorcycle rally. Its saving grace is the hefty return it generates in sales tax revenue.

The Mickelsen Marathon, by comparison, does not ring up the sales tax dollars like TVR does, but as the city’s Accounting/Budget Manager Kirsten L. Lennon observed, “I would say that it does draw people here to run the race and that they most likely stay here for at least one night to be able to race in the morning. This year, for example, I talked to four men who came out from Virginia to run in the marathon and were staying in the area for a couple days.”

Unlike TVR, however, the Mickelsen race is not a financial risk to the city. It finishes in the black every year, typically averaging between $5,500 and $7,000 profit annually. More importantly, it is gaining in popularity, attracting 474 runners this year.

At the high end of what running events can mean to a community, the organizers of the Sedona Marathon report their 2016 event generated $3.1 million in direct spending from the 2,500 runners who participated.

All of which clearly shows that running, when properly promoted, is guaranteed money in the bank. Which begs the question of why we are so stingy with Verde Valley races? Why not turn that guaranteed revenue stream into a cash cow?

What the Verde Valley ideally needs is an age-and-gender points-based racing series similar to the Arizona Road Racers Summer Series or the Sunrise Series by Jeff Crane’s StartLine Racing. Such events award points based on your order of finish in each age and gender demographic in a series of races over a three- to four-month period. At the end of the series, awards are given to the overall male and female winners as well as each age division champion. It’s a fair measure of how you stand against people in your own age division over a series of races at different distances.

The burden for organizing such a series in the Verde Valley would not have to fall on one community. It could be a collective endeavor with Jerome, Clarkdale and Camp Verde, for example, each organizing one race in the series and Cottonwood and Sedona each taking on two events. Points would be earned based on runners’ five best performances in the seven races, with the season finale being a double-pointer to break up ties.

Stage all the races during the first four months of the year to beat the heat. Sell it to the Phoenix running market as an alternative to flat, fast, boring canal route races. Sell it to the Flagstaff market as a fair weather alternative to bundled-up winter running. Promote it properly on the key Arizona running web sites.

The runners will take care of the rest.

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