Friday, September 16, 2011

Is Ragnar Relays stealing races?

Paul Vanderheiden thinks so. Mr. Vanderheiden claims Ragnar Relays is acting unethically by violating an unwritten code of ethics.
...there is an unwritten code of ethics between race directors that you don’t steal someone’s course, and you don’t piggy back on an established race’s date with a nearby, similar event.
Whether a race course is intellectual property and whether it is immoral to plan similar events near already established races are interesting questions. I understand planning a relay race is not a trivial task. However, every business makes decisions under uncertainty, faces barriers to entry, must navigate down learning curves, find returns to scale, etc. To the extent that new entrants learn from incumbents, costs can be minimized. Although I am not sympathetic to Mr. Vanderheiden’s views, I am not surprised he is frustrated: the history of business is filled with pleas by incumbents who find their competitors’ ethics questionable.

Putting ethics aside, will consumers (i.e. runners) be adversely affected by Ragnar Relays? I think the answer on the whole is unambiguously no. While some will not like what Martin Potter fears will be a “Wal-Mart” effect on running events, the average runner will most likely benefit from Ragnar Relays in the same way the average runner benefits from the rise of more corporate races. The popular Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons might be huge corporate events, but they certainly do a great job of motivating runners who would not otherwise run a 26.2 mile race.

Counterintuitively, Mr. Vanderheiden may even benefit from Ragnar Relays. If Ragnar Relays succeeds in growing the market for relay races, an entirely new generation of relay runners might emerge in much the same way the marathon has grown in popularity in recent decades. Consider the words of Mr. Vanderheiden’s governor in Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who in the 1980s owned a restaurant in Denver and actually advertised other nearby restaurants in his own restaurant: Our competitors are not other restaurants but TV sets.”


  1. It's an honor to be quoted and you raise some great points, Dave... when are you going to set up a team to run one of these Colorado relays, anyways? :)

  2. If you do decide to run the ass-pass, count me in.

  3. Dave,

    Unfortunately, you pulled a "Fox News" and only included part of my letter which skews my point. This was also in my letter:

    "It’s not about stifling competition. This year, Epic Relays started a new relay race in Colorado. They came up with their own unique course and scheduled it when it would not directly conflict with the other relay races in Colorado – just as the Wild West Relay and the Colorado Relay have coexisted for years. I have no problem with this form of competition. But Ragnar Relays has shown no such ethics."

    I have no doubt and never disputed that Ragnar Relays has grown the relay race market. I question their ethics of taking from others and calling it their own.

    You compare Ragnar to Competitor's Rock N Roll Marathon series. To the best of my knowledge, Competitor, when they have gone to a new market, has either purchased an exiting marathon, or created their own. They have not muscled their way in and scheduled their race right on top of an existing marathon.

    One thing you failed to point out was Ragnar schedule their relay right on top of three existing relay races. There will now be four relay races in Colorado within a five to six week time span, including three weekends in a row. No other market (and let's not kid ourselves, the market for these relays is just the Front Range of Colorado - Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado Springs), has this situation.

    Am I now concerned about the future of the Wild West Relay? Sure I am. I do not have the marketing muscle that Ragnar has. The Wild West Relay has not only provided a service to runners, but has also benefited the communities the relay goes through (over $135,000 over seven years) through our Volunteers With a Purpose, Inc. non-profit foundation.

    If the survival of the WWR was dependent on the quality of the organization and customer service, based on feedback received from runners who have participated in both a Ragnar or one of my relays (Wild West Relay or the Green Mountain Relay), the Wild West Relay would win hands down. But we both know that consumers do not always pick the better product.

    If Ragnar had not copied another race's route, and scheduled their Colorado race so as not to conflict with the existing races, I would not have uttered a peep.

    But Ragnar's actions, both in Colorado and California, show that this is about greed, and they are taking the easy way to grow their empire. There are 50 states in the U.S., they could easily have done their homework and designed a new race in a unique location. But that would have involve some legwork and some risk. Much easier to take another relay's route in an established market.

    I wonder what Ragnar's response would be if an individual downloaded their route maps and started coping their events?

    Paul Vanderheiden - Race Director

  4. Great response, Paul, 100% agree with you.

  5. You hit the nail on the head Paul. While Dave's argument helps us think critically about this scenario, I feel that the difference is in the charitable nature of the relay community.

  6. I'll do my part Dave. Sign us up, let's get our asses over the pass!

  7. "How do you think the running community would react if some deep pocket corporation swooped in and copied the marathon course of say Boston, New York, or Big Sur? The reaction would be swift and brutal." - Paul Vanderheiden

    I've run a bunch of different races using various parts of the Baystate Marathon course and everyone is usually pretty happy about being able to get some training in on a race they know they will use at some point in their career to qualify for Boston.

    When there is a great section of road for running there will be a lot of races there.

    As for scheduling a race for the same weekend as an existing race: that seems like a mistake to me rather than a jerky move. I've seen people get upset about a 30k and a half marathon that are typically on different weekends accidentally getting scheduled for the same day so I see the frustration but I can't believe it's intentional; both races suffer if they're on the same day, not just the older race.

  8. Many races (5k, 10k) use the same route. That is out of necessity in working with various cities and their guidelines for road races.

    I'm talking about 200-mile relay races. As a friend expressed to me today: "a road race is a science, a relay race is a work of art." That hit the nail on the head. I could sit down and design a marathon course every day, but a relay route takes an incredible amount of time and leg work (sitting on your butt in a car driving a couple thousand miles). Coming up with a VIABLE relay race - safe, scenic, and with runner exchanges in realistic locations - is as much luck as it is vision and effort.

    That have now done that to two relay races.

    They did change their date by one week from my historical date. Very likely a mistake, but they still scheduled their race right on top of three other similar races. It is very unlikely there is the market to support four races, and in this case, the deepest pocket will win.

    Paul - RD

  9. I'm thinking TMIRCE should host a 1/2 marathon the Sunday before the Boston Marathon. We'll run Wellesley to Boston. We'll make a fortune.

  10. Scott, I could be tempted for a TMIRCE CO Relay if it's the Wild West one!

  11. Honestly, It's true that many industries have this problem. Competing conventions often have scheduling conflicts, even years out! In fact the Mighty Boston Marathon Expo has to move to the Seaport World Trade convention center in 2012. Instead of it's usual spot at the conveniently located Hyne's convention center. The city planners work in conjunction with the conventioneers to try to plan accordingly. I'm certain it is a painstaking process. Especially since they go so many years out. Ultimately though in this case, another (smaller)convention beat out the marathon. Because there are rules in place and the first one on the books gets the spot, period, end of story. That's the case here anyhow.
    I would suggest lobbying local government to put restrictions in place to spread out commerce. For instance, scheduling restaurant week the same week a large food convention may not be wise, depending on your point of view. It should be thought about and discussed in some type of forum though.
    In the case of the relays, is it better, or worse to have the relays right on top of each other? What is better for the Race? The Environment? The City's/Town's involved? The Runners? The Race Course? The Race Directors? Could two races sharing a course over a period of time ultimately have less impact on the environment? Together working in tandem to positively impact the environment? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps scheduling two races too close together is silly for commerce AND and for the environment. What's REALLY better? Not just for ME? But for US? And Dave, I'll be waiting to here about our registration to the WWR! Paul, I hope you're well. keep after it. You have beautiful races. Andy and Martin, well, shutup.
    I love you guys! Go TMIRCE!

  12. This article was published in the Denver Post on September 27th:


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